Muslim Society: Reasons for Backwardness

In March 2003 my friend Umar Murad after reading my article “Modernism: Islam & the West”, circulated through internet in which I answered all the allegations of the West that we Muslims are against scientific investigation, do not believe in human equality, liberty, freedom and free thinking and that Muslim man treat woman as second class citizen and Muslims do not believe in fundamental human rights, and that Muslims do not value democratic tradition, Muslims are terrorist and blood thirsty, wanted to know my opinion on the on going war on Iraq. I answered Umar Murad after the end of US war on Iraq in the middle of April 2003.  I wrote to Umar Murad:

 “As regards the current situation in the West Asia, I can only tell you that we have to suffer as long as we are technologically backward. Much more sufferings are likely to come. I hope that one-day, the day may be far and I may not be alive, one of the Muslim countries (it may be Indonesia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt or Iraq – I am ignoring the temporary setback) will be equal to US, capable to face the challenge of the entire Christian West. I sincerely pray to Allah swt that at that future point of history no Bush or Blair (both representing the cult of Hitler) will not emerge among the Muslims who will do wrong and oppress humankind guided by racial chauvinism. My belief is that there can only be fight among the unequal. History is the testimony of this. So if the Muslim Ummah – the Muslim community - is determined to establish peace and harmony in the entire world than it must become strong, so strong that none can dare to challenge them. I am ignoring the fact that Muslims have deviated from the Siratul Mustakin – the straight path of Islam and are subservient to the West. My firm belief is that if Muslim Ummah really becomes powerful they will not hesitate to reveal their true faith and Iman. What we need today is to make our people conscious and make dawah and dawah – invite people towards Islam and its basic and fundamental teachings. We must not ignore and try to win the silent majority in the West who, I believe, are also against all types of injustices, wrongs and oppressions. Till that good day to come we have to suffer. But ultimate victory is for those who work for truth and justice, this is the Will of Allah.”

Now let us discuss the situation in the Muslim World.  Let us discuss the condition of the Muslims in Bangladesh and other parts of the world objectively. My belief is that our condition, the situation in the Muslim World as also in Bangladesh is NOT the result of the colonization. Our condition is the result of Taqlid- blind imitation of the past – as if we could do nothing better than what our earlier generations did or we cannot contribute to improve our situation. Taqlid is the major cause of intellectual stagnation that eventually brought about the technological, economic and military decline of the Muslim world. We left practicing Ijtihad- research and investigation and working for improving our expertise in science and technology and applying those. We are colonized because we left Ijtihad and we practiced Taqlid and NOT the other way round – that means we did not leave Ijtihad and practiced Taqlid because we were colonized. It now must be clear to all of us that Ijtihad is the prerequisite, an essential tool for the revival of Islam in the modern world. The quality of Ijtihad made by the later Fuqaha – the jurists – was inferior to that made during the golden era. This is not necessarily correct. We must therefore give up such idea.

Let us discuss about Ijma. We thought that Ijma – consensus- of the earlier generations is binding on us whereas such Ijmas were reached in the backdrop of their situation - time and space factors are indeed important. Even some Ijmas of the earlier time were wrong – for example- early Muslims scholars held the view that the world is flat – and until very recently Muslims scholars believed that the earth is the centre of the solar system.

In the name of avoiding Bidah – innovation- we created unnecessary complications – for example the celebration of the birth day. Celebrating birth day by itself is not a Bidah – what is important - what we do while observing these days. Is it a cocktail party or do we have illegal sex after such functions. If there is nothing essentially un-Islamic within the functions observed in the birth day, there is no reason to conclude that birth day celebration is Bidah.  We must shun identifying every innovation as Bidah for in that case we will lose creativity, become sterile and our society will not move. In this connection eminent Islamic scholar Prof. Dr. Yusuf Al Qaradawi, Dean of the Faculty of Shariah and Islamic Studies, University of Qatar pointed out: “It is wrong to think that Islam stands against anything new or invented classifying it under the name of Bidah. In fact, Bidah is what is invented in matters of a purely religious nature, such as creed and worship and their branches; while the changing matters of life such as norms, traditions, customs and administrative, social, cultural and political practices are not to be regarded at all as Bidah” [Priorities of the Islamic Movement in the Coming Phase. pp158-159.Awakening Publications. UK]. An innovation may be unacceptable from the Islamic point of view for some other reasons for example if it contains an element of Munkar – evil in it or leads to Munkar- evil.

In fact Islam believes in pluralism and we must encourage local culture if it does not contradict the essential teachings of Islam such as Tawhid – Unity of the Creator. This is very important. The attire used by the Muslims in various parts of the world is different and if we look at the garments used by the Muslims of Hejaj – what is now known as Saudi Arabia and the garments used by the Muslims of Abyssinia – what is now known as Ethiopia - during the life of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) we find that these were different. 

Saudi Arabia does not allow women to drive car but this has nothing to do with Islam. The Saudi women uses veil – they cover their face, but other scholars of Islam view that such veiling or the covering of the face destroys women’s personality – even some think that veiling is harmful because it impairs women’s vision. Some Saudi women use gloves despite hot weather. This has nothing to do with Islam but a local culture. We must therefore make distinction between essential Islamic element and local culture while encouraging local culture.

In Bangladesh we mostly don’t allow our women folk to attend prayer in the mosque as if it is a men’s club. This is a local culture and has nothing to do with Islam. The Fiqh Council of North America, a sister organization of Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) in its legal ruling opined that women can be inside the mosque for prayer or any other purpose without separating them from men with a curtain, partition or wall [Asra Q Nomani. Going where I belong. Washington Post. 28 December 2003]. In Medinah, during the time of Prophet Muhammad and for some years thereafter, women prayed in the main hall of Masjid Annawawi – the Prophet’s mosque –without any partition between them and the men and entering the mosque through the front door and not the rear door and praying in the balcony. It is for this reason that the Government of Saudi Arabia in its official degree says that partitions or separate rooms are not required in the mosque for men and women [ibid] even though the practice is different there with the exception of BaitAllah – the Holy Kaaba. Some scholars are of opinion that barring women from the main prayer space is not Islamic. They more aptly reflect age of ignorance or Jahiliyah in pre-Islamic Arabia [ibid]. In Bangladesh when men and women go out together it is man who prays while the woman does not. Women pray after returning home. This is our local culture.

Women are segregated from men into water tight compartments in some Muslim societies. This is a local custom and has nothing to do with Islam. Prof. Dr. Yusuf Al Qaradawi quoting Bukhari and Muslim opined that woman can receive male guests of the husband and serve food in the presence of husband if she is permitted by the husband as long she is properly dressed. In such a situation both male and female will naturally see them. [Prof. Dr. Yusuf Al Qaradawi. The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam. pp 168-169. American Trust Publications. Indianapolis. USA]. Dr. Hassan al Turabi, the ideologue of the Islamic Movement in Sudan, holds the view that Islam does not call for segregation between men and women. A woman may therefore receive the family guests, serve and entertain them [Dr. Hasan Turabi. Women in Islam & Muslim Society. p23. Milestones Publishers, UK. 1993]. But we discourage such practice in Bangladesh. Imam Malik in his Muwatta- written towards the end of second Hijra century- sees no problem with men and women sitting together as long as women are accompanied by male relatives – father, uncle and husband [Jeffery Lang. Even Angles Ask. p 115.amana publications. Maryland. USA].

Some Ulama – the religious scholars – in Bangladesh oppose clapping to welcome a guest and to express admiration on a speech delivered or for some cultural performances like hamd and nat – singing in the praise of Allah and His Prophet. According to mufti Sheikh Atiyyah Saqr, former Head of the Al Azhar Fatwa Committee, there is no bar in clapping. He said: “Clapping of hands is a custom or social norm of showing respect and admiration, and in this sense there is nothing wrong in it from the Shariah’s viewpoint” [www. fatwa / English].

It is most vital that instead of stereotyping Islam we change our attitude and vision if we are really committed to keep Islam a dynamic and vibrant religion and make great stride and advancement in the days ahead.

25th December 2003