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The Critical Role of Ideas and Values

Islam and Muslims today stand at a crossroads. They face unprecedented challenges and threats from within and without alike. Most of those challenges and threats evolved, or have been designed, in the eras of post-colonialism, globalization, westernization, liberalism and the information age.

Unlike the past challenges and threats, which were specific, definite and unambiguous, in terms of their origins, objectives and operational strategies, the present ones are often shrouded in obscurities, complexities and perfidies of the highest order.

So subtle and canning are they that they are often propagated and spread in the name of such appealing concepts and phenomena as progress, cultural development, democracy, freedom and education. They are further rendered so duplicitous and “flexible” that they could be easily endorsed and promoted through the infinite authoritative power and influence of governments, media and educational as well as religious institutions.

In other words, the challenges and threats have been transported to the realm of ideas, worldviews and values. Just as Muslims were mastering the art of dealing effectively with the predominantly physical rivalries and confrontations, the conflicts and their campaigns were moved to another far more sophisticated and deadly level. The goalposts never stopped moving.

At the same time, all the precautionary measures were duly undertaken in order to keep Muslims as the ummah (community) as long as possible away from coming to terms with what exactly is going on, and from becoming proficient in all the necessary fields and skills required for self-defense and for charting Muslims’ own cultural and civilizational destiny.

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As a result, study programs in schools, colleges and universities were designed accordingly, which were sustained by “appropriate” text books and “enlightened” teachers, lecturers and professors.

While old and traditional religious and educational institutions had to be re-evaluated, overhauled and constantly watched over, numerous new and at once eminent and standard-setting institutions had to be established, so as to lead the way.

To make things worse, in charge of the whole project were as much some foreign hands and minds as local Muslim private and governmental establishments and agencies.

This explains, for example, the chief reason for the existence of the American University in Cairo, Beirut and Dubai. Other westernized educational institutions, representing all levels of learning, have simply flooded the Muslim world, so much so that an article in a newspaper in Dubai titled “Islamic and Arab culture lost in UAE’s foreign schools” recently proclaimed that Western higher education has been packaged as a superior model, causing local sensibilities and knowledge to be marginalized and sometimes even lost.

“The core Arab value system, including religion and history, does not exist in course work at most foreign campuses”, it affirmed.

As an immediate corollary of all this, Muslims became lost and strangers in their own lands. They were separated from their own religion, history, values and culture.

Constantly pressurized by their misguided, inconsiderate and outright corrupt governments – who, one wonders, existed to help or deliberately hinder, yet crash, their own peoples – Muslims were torn between East and West, this or that superpower or alliance, this rapidly fading and that gradually emerging system and ideology. They lacked orientation, confidence, true leadership and vision. They lacked identity.

Indeed, the matter was a conflict between tradition and modernity, and between the past, present and future, albeit in the spheres of spirituality and epistemology, that is, in the spheres of ideas and values, more than anything else.

It was a conflict between Muslims and themselves, first and foremost.

Bereft of their religious and cultural norms, Muslims were rendered either ignorant or educated along the lines of the Western educational paradigms. Consequently, instead of knowing and appreciating their own history and culture, they learned about and appreciated other people’s histories and cultures, feeling proud of the circumstance.

Instead of glorifying their own civilization, honoring their own heroes, they venerated other people’s civilizational outputs, idolizing their own protagonists and champions – some of whom, ironically, plotted and facilitated some of the most painful episodes in Muslim history.

Knowing nothing, or very little, about Islam: its history, culture and values – yet, being eloquent about its supposed outdatedness and inappropriateness for the dynamic modern world, relegating it to an orb of deadening formalism, meaningless rituals, ceremonies and superstitions — and knowing much about, as well as practicing, other foreign life-systems, became an advocated and encouraged hallmark of a new pretentious Muslim model and identity.

For instance, to quote in intellectual circles, or just refer to, Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, Abraham Lincoln, Auguste Comte, Winston Churchill, Adam Smith, Shakespeare, Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., etc., became a source of pride and a sign of erudition.

However, to quote, or just refer to, the Holy Quran, Prophet Muhammad, companions, or any of the prominent Muslim figures in various scientific fields – to whom, in fact, the West owes an enormous debt, so much so that it is widely believed that Islam, Islamic learning and Islamic civilization transformed the West and its own civilization – became a source of embarrassment and a sign of backwardness as well as ignorance.

Similarly, speaking English, French, Italian, or any other leading foreign language, was dreamed of and meticulously pursued. It brought about confidence and produced high self-esteem.

Arabic, and other Muslim languages, were increasingly viewed as old-fashioned, out of date and anti-progress. They had to be modernized as quickly and as profoundly as possible in order to enable them to cope with the demands of the modern world and the demands of the new Muslim national aspirations and visions.

That is how the conversion of Arabic writing systems in various Muslim languages across the world to the Roman (Latin) script came to pass, rendering in the process millions of Muslims virtually illiterate, and further alienating them from the language of their Islam, Quran and Islamic traditions.

As a consequence, many of today’s Muslims, instead of reading the Quran naturally and spontaneously, and seriously exploring its meanings and practical implications, spend approximately the first half of their lives just to master the Arabic alphabet.

The other half they spend trying to gain knowledge of the rules governing pronunciation during recitation of the Quran (tajwid), having neither time nor interest to delve into the Quran’s heavenly treasures and try to apply them in everyday life.

In addition, major cities in the US, England, France, Italy, etc., became cultural and intellectual pilgrimage sites. They were a source of guidance and inspiration. They were a beacon of hope. Being associated with such places, their cultures and brands, provided a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment for both young and old, men and women.

Everything that existed there was deemed superior and first class, while everything back home was deemed low-grade and mediocre, often completely inept and useless. And thus, the myth of the “developed” versus “developing” countries, and the “First World” and “Second World” versus the “Third World” countries, was significantly augmented and was given another unprecedented dimension.

Accordingly, there are Muslim countries – or communities — where almost everyone is Muslim on paper, but in reality, a great many people are proponents of the ideologies of materialism and modernity (in the sense of questioning, attacking or rejecting tradition, including certain religious values). Everyone speaks and writes about Islam, but in reality, most people live, consciously or otherwise, foreign sets of ideas and values.

A few Christian missionaries are often regarded as a threat, but an all-out invasion of materialism, modernity, liberalism and consumerism, and their innumerable local and foreign agents and bodies, are not only allowed in and to take hold, but are also openly supported and facilitated. In actual fact, they are often adopted, even though unofficially, as formal doctrines. They are given every opportunity to expand and thrive.

Approving and building Hindu or Buddhist temples, as well as Christian churches, regularly become an issue – all in the name of protecting Islam and the rights of Muslims – but building in every neighborhood massive malls or shopping centers, which in effect function as de facto temples, or sanctuaries, of materialism, modernity, liberalism and consumerism — in their capacities as complex worldviews and ideologies — is not perceived as an issue at all.

Honestly, a sincere Muslim should feel more comfortable with Christian churches and Jewish synagogues than the “temples” (malls, art galleries, entertainment centers, etc.) of materialism, modernity, liberalism and consumerism.

While the former promotes the teachings and principles that are in a way close to Islam and the Muslim consciousness under the auspices of the Quranic notion of People of the Book, the latter, on the other hand, generally embodies such universally detrimental vices as greed, extravagance, selfishness, self-centeredness, corruption, unhealthy competition, injustice, merciless exploitation of people and nature, etc.

It’s no wonder Islam declared an out-and-out war against such malpractices, regularly identifying them with certain aspects of kufr (unbelief) and even shirk (associating other gods with Almighty Allah). Those “secular temples” are planned and designed so as to shape people’s desires. They “shape” their souls, too, by forming a conception of the good life, in antithesis to God’s conception. And sure enough, what we love, desire and long for shapes who we become.

To be continued…

About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].