9: Is the Islamic mind in a crisis?

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Q. 9: Do you agree with the now prevalent assumption that the Muslim mind is in a crisis? If that is so, how extensive is this phenomenon, and what are its manifestations? How can we overcome this crisis?'

Interview with "Current Islamic Issues"
1: The major stages in the intellectual progress
3: The main features Jawdat's project
4: Two sources of knowledge
5: Are you advocating the discarding of jihad
6: The basic tenets of Iqbal's project
7: The challenge of globalization
8: Patriarchal-glorification-and-infallibility
9: Is the Islamic mind in a crisis?
10: The present Arabic cultural scene
11: Muhammad Arkoun's attitude
12: Interpretation of the holy texts
*Download the full Interview


A. 9: There can be no doubt about the crisis in comprehension and consciousness in the Muslim World. It is so glaring that anyone can see it. It was first perceived by the others when they spoke of the Ottoman Empire as 'the sick man of Europe', but it often happens that the afflicted are the last to awake to their affliction.

We know that somebody is sick when we notice his pale color, his unsteady hand, his lack of energy: all such symptoms are true of the Muslim World. Indeed, even the least educated will speak vehemently, or write mournful poems, about this ummah, Muslim nation. Who can fail to notice how Muslims ruin their own life? How Muslims receive ill treatment at the hand of Muslims? How Muslims can join hands with confirmed enemies against their brethren? Worse, we call all that acts of devotion that bring us closer to God. Is not our condition similar to that of the unbelievers described in this verse of the Qur'an: "The unbelievers spend their wealth to hinder men from the path of God, and so will they continue to spend; but in the end they will have only regret and sighs; at length they will be overcome;" (8:36)

So that is the easy part of the question. The interesting part is of course the latter part: How can we deal with this crisis?

As in other questions, there is often overlap in answers. I find that some of the previous questions are relevant here. Let me remind you of your question number four about the two sources of knowledge: the Qur'an and world history. Yes, Abdul-Jabbar; you express very truly my stance concerning history, as an instructor: yes, it is in fact the sole instructor who is all patience despite the inattention of most humans. It is like the computer, which never loses its temper, but never fails to give the person in error the feedback: Wrong answer – try again! No matter how often the user repeats his mistake, the computer is never furious, but never forgiving a mistake.

History is what builds up understanding. We have so little understanding because we do have no sense of history. I sometimes say that a person who does not know history is not trustworthy as a thinker about human affairs. The Qur'an itself says that history will be its witness. It says that in verses like: 'So see what was the end of those who made mischief,' (7:103) 'Then see what was the end of those who indulged in sin and crime' (7:84) 'But see what was the end of those who did wrong,' (10:39). In the same way as one needs a witness in the law court to prove his case, the Qur'an refers to history to be its witness: "Soon will We show them Our Signs in the furthest regions of the earth, and in their won souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth;" (41:53) I also quoted Muhammad Iqbal when he said that history was a source of knowledge.

When you ask: How can we get over the crisis which we undergo? The answer is that we get over it by viewing those who went through crises like ours or worse than ours, and how they got out of them. The West went through a long series of wars, local, regional, and international; its nations did each other a lot of mischief, and caused each other great suffering. The Christians who read in their Bible: Love your enemy, inflicted on each other all kinds of scourge. But they succeeded in going beyond those crises; so how did they succeed? In this there is a lesson for him who has ears and eyes and a heart.

We can learn the lesson of Europe – by finding the way to integrating and concerting our interests, without any party losing anything; with all sides winning; in a scientific and peaceful way; unless we do that, saving time and pain – we shall have to learn the lesson after we have had a surfeit of torture and loss. History will teach each one of us, and will not fail to have its lesson driven home, but it is by means of suffering that history teaches. "Such is the penalty of thy Lord when he penalizes communities in the midst of their wrong: grievous, indeed, and severe is His penalty;" (11:102). So let us be attentive to what is happening in Europe. It is something new and unprecedented in the history of the world. Let me mention again that when something has happened once, it can happen again; it can be a law and a scientific truth: people can adopt it and use it to account.

We need to probe the European event in all its details, from beginning to end. It is taking place under our very nose, so why cannot we see and hear? Does it not concern us how people succeed when we cannot? Let us think of Germany, which stands to lose much in the short run; let us think how the borders are being opened, how the monetary union has become a fact. No messenger has descended from heaven to teach them all this, nor do they wait for the clergy to tell them what to do: it is all the work of science, the lessons of history; sociologists and statisticians have their say, and what they say is respected and applied. It is not so with us, where science is despised and physical power is glorified. What Europe is realizing is more momentous than the detonation of the atomic bomb, although the atomic bomb did have its indirect share in what happened. We should be smarter and not wait until the atomic bomb forces us to learn their lesson.

I think, Mr. al-Rifa'ee that I can sympathize with the darkness and bewilderment that you must feel; but did you think that you will find light and contentment by addressing me? Knowing history is really a source of light: history grants gratis the experience that others had paid for! By appealing to history with open eyes and ears, you get the thing ready-made. Jalal Nouri, a Turkish social writer from the late Ottoman period once wrote: "Once we learn the ABC of knowledge, no mountains and no rivers will detain our progress; our lost rights will return to our children and grand children with interest." Well, let this be our solace in these dark days, when we have to pay dearly [for the purchase of weapons,] but our money evaporates into air, and money is the solid base of our life; and we see the orphans and widows in pitiful tears, and the zealous young men butting at a solid wall [by resorting to violence,] as they see the grown-ups putting their heads into the sand.

I do not say I have solved any problems, nor that I have arrived at any conclusions. All I have done is to raise questions and look right and left, to see if it is possible to get out of the crisis. And so the answer is yes, there is a way out. God did hint that man will get over mischief and the spilling of blood (ref. to the Qur'an, 2:30); and no one should say it is far off; how fast it will come will indeed surprise us.