Thu, Nov 10, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Islam's forsaken renaissance

Infighting and a narrow-minded focus on studying religion have weakened Islamic society

By Mahathir Mohamad


Children often play a game where they sit in a circle. One whispers something to his neighbor, who then whispers that information to the 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, Muhammad, 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 Shia/Sunni schism is so deep that each side condemns followers of the other as apostates, kafir. 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 Shias there are further divisions. The Sunnis have four imams and the Shias have 12; their teachings all differ. Then there are other divisions, including the Druze, the Alawites and the Wahabis.

We are also taught by our ulamas (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 [Allah] but Allah, and that Muhammad is his Rasul [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 things 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 (legal opinions on Islamic law) 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 its size measured in light years -- these are things that the purely religiously trained ulamas cannot comprehend.

This failure is largely responsible for the sad plight of so many Muslims. Today's oppression, the killings and the humiliations of Muslims, occurs 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, so that Muslims benefit.

So what do we need to do? In the past, Muslims were strong because they were learned. Muhammad'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.

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