Islam is no talisman; Muslims must improve their minds

Posted in Broader Middle East | 18-Nov-05 | Author: Mahathir bin Mohamad| Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

Mahathir bin Mohamad was prime minister of Malaysia from 1981-2003.

Children often play a game called Chinese whispers where they sit in a circle and one whispers something to his neighbor, who then passes it on to next child, and so on, around the circle. By the time the last child whispers the information to the first, it is totally different from what was originally said.

Something like that seems to have happened within Islam. The Prophet of Islam, Mohammad, brought one - and only one - religion. Yet today we have perhaps a thousand religions that all claim to be Islam.

Divided by their different interpretations, Muslims do not play the role they once did in the world; instead, they are weakened and victimized. The Shiite-Sunni schism is so deep that each side condemns followers of the other as apostates. The belief that the other's religion is not Islam, and its followers not Muslim, has underpinned internecine wars in which millions have died - and continue to die.

Even among the Sunnis and Shiites there are further divisions. The Sunnis have four imams and the Shiites have 12; their teachings all differ. Then there are other divisions, including the Druze, the Alawites and the Wahhabis.

We are also taught by our religious instructors that their teachings must not be questioned. Islam is a faith. It must be believed. Logic and reason play no part in it. But what is it that we must believe when each branch of Islam thinks the other one is wrong? The Koran, after all, is one book, not two or three, or a thousand.

According to the Koran, a Muslim is anyone who bears witness that "there is no God but God, and that Mohammad is his messenger." If no other qualification is added, then all those who subscribe to these precepts must be regarded as Muslims. But because we Muslims like to add qualifications that often derive from sources other than the Koran, our religion's unity has been broken.

But perhaps the greatest problem is the progressive isolation of Islamic scholarship - and much of Islamic life - from the rest of the modern world. We live in an age of science in which people can see around corners, hear and see things happening in outer space, and clone animals. And all of these seem to contradict our belief in the Koran.

This is so because those who interpret the Koran are learned only in religion, in its laws and practices, and thus are usually unable to understand today's scientific miracles. The fatwas that they issue appear unreasonable and cannot be accepted by those with scientific knowledge. One learned religious teacher, for example, refused to believe that a man had landed on the moon. Others assert that the world was created 2,000 years ago. The age of the universe and the fact that its size is measured in light years - all these are things that the purely religiously trained ulama cannot comprehend.

This failure is largely responsible for the sad plight of so many Muslims. Today's oppression, the killings and the humiliation of Muslims, occur because we are weak, unlike the Muslims of the past. We can feel victimized and criticize the oppressors, but to stop them we need to look at ourselves. We must change for our own good. We cannot ask our detractors to change just so that Muslims benefit.

So what do we need to do? In the past, Muslims were strong because they were learned. Mohammad's injunction was to read, but the Koran does not say what to read. Indeed, there was no "Muslim scholarship" at the time, so to read meant to read whatever was available. The early Muslims read the works of the great Greek scientists, mathematicians and philosophers. They also studied the works of the Persians, the Indians and the Chinese. The result was a flowering of science and mathematics. Muslim scholars added to the body of knowledge and developed new disciplines, such as astronomy, geography and new branches of mathematics. They introduced numerals, enabling simple and limitless calculations.

But around the 15th century, the learned in Islam began curbing scientific study. They began studying religion alone, insisting that only those who studied religion - particularly Islamic jurisprudence - gained merit in the afterlife. The result was intellectual regression at the very moment Europe began embracing scientific and mathematical knowledge.

And so, as Muslims were intellectually regressing, Europeans began their renaissance, developing improved ways of meeting their needs, including the manufacture of weapons that eventually allowed them to dominate the world.

By contrast, Muslims fatally weakened their ability to defend themselves by neglecting, even rejecting, the study of secular science and mathematics. This myopia remains a fundamental source of the oppression suffered by Muslims today. Many Muslims still condemn the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, because he tried to modernize his country. But would Turkey be Muslim today without Ataturk, whose clear-sightedness saved Islam in Turkey and saved Turkey for Islam?

Failure to understand and interpret the true and fundamental message of the Koran has brought only misfortune to Muslims. By limiting our reading to religious works and neglecting modern science, we destroyed Islamic civilization and lost our way in the world.

The Koran says that "God will not change our unfortunate situation unless we make the effort to change it." Many Muslims continue to ignore this and, instead, merely pray to God to save us, to bring back our lost glory. But the Koran is not a talisman to be hung around the neck for protection against evil. God helps those who improve their minds.

Mahathir bin Mohamad was prime minister of Malaysia from 1981-2003. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (