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Agenda for Muslims

Quantum note

By Dr Muzaffar Iqbal

The writer is a freelance columnist.

It is now generally recognised that Muslims are currently facing the greatest challenge in their entire history. These challenges have many facets -- from political instability to sordid violence and from economic and cultural colonisation to the destruction of social and cultural norms. These challenges have emerged out of a long historical process and they need to be understood within that context. Thus, the first task for Muslim intellectuals is to understand what went wrong. How have Muslims arrived at this historical juncture? What happened to the apparently strong and resourceful empires which existed at the dawn of the eighteenth century? Why were Muslims not able to resist subjugation? What made it possible for European powers to conquer almost the entire Muslim world in a relatively short period?

These questions have many dimensions. Take, for instance, the question of the balance of power in the world at the dawn of the eighteenth century. At that time, Aurangzeb (1658-1707) had seven more years to live and, after a long and protracted process, he had successfully subdued revolts against the central authority. But during the course of that same century, India saw an unprecedented expansion of British control. This rise of the British power in India, which is sometimes attributed to their better weapons, has much more to do with the gradual decline of the local institutions and internal disputes than better weapons -- a fact that has been brought to light with considerable clarity in general histories -- but what remains enigmatic is the absence of any successful effort at restructuring of the military and economic institutions to meet the new challenges. What were the social, political, economic and intellectual factors which prevented this? After all, it was the century in which men like Shah Wali Allah (1703-1762) lived and taught, but their presence and influence was insufficient to give birth to a new force that could restrict the expansion of foreign control and power. Why? Likewise, similar questions remain unanswered about the Ottoman and the Safavid empires.

Of course, these and similar questions have been asked before, and numerous partial answers exist, but these questions have never been answered in a definitive manner, and there is a need for a thorough and detailed investigation of the source material in order to uncover various facets of this fatal decline and eventual disappearance of the independent political entities that existed in the Muslim world prior to its colonisation.

This is not merely an academic exercise; it is an essential undertaking for two reasons: (i) without a clear, detailed and exhaustive understanding of the processes which contributed to the decline and eventual dissolution of the Ottoman, Safavid, and the Indian Timuri Empires, the contemporary Muslim world will not be able to understand the fault lines of its historical restructuring; and (ii) such an inquiry is of utmost important for a renaissance of the institutions which nourish civilisations. It is obvious that no one else is going to undertake this task for the benefit of Muslims; it is a matter of their survival and only they are responsible and in need of such an undertaking. This is not to say that non-Muslims cannot be involved in this project; quite the contrary. The participation of non-Muslims in this project would, in fact, enhance the reflection in many ways, but what is being said is simple: no European or North American university or research institution has an existential need for such an undertaking.

The fact that, almost half a century after the end of the direct rule over the colonies and the emergence of fifty-seven Muslim states, such an essential project has not been undertaken merely points to the lack of appreciation of its essential qualities. But the past must not dictate the future. There is no reason why a team of scholars cannot be gathered to devote focused attention to this undertaking.

A related task is to understand the exact nature of the colonisation of the Muslim world and its relationship to the current situation. Colonisation was accompanied by an almost total transformation of the institutional structure of the Islamic civilization. From education to state bureaucracy and from the military to the judiciary, it was a large-scale reordering of the constituting building blocks of the Muslim world. What were the factors that made it possible for the colonisers to destroy the old institutions and implant their own? Why were they successful in eliminating or marginalising institutions that had emerged over centuries? Understanding this process is of utmost importance for the survival of the Muslim world as well as for its renaissance because, in a particular sense, the departing colonising powers seem to have left behind a mechanism of their own survival all over the Muslim world through implanted institutions still functioning today. Even new institutions that have come into existence in the so-called post-independence period have generally been molded on the pattern of the implanted institutions, and in most cases, these clones only differ from their parents in name. This cloning is most apparent in education and in institutions dealing with scientific research.

A third aspect of understanding the present challenges pertains to the studies focused on the resistance against colonisation. It is a well-known fact that the colonisation of the Muslim world was not accomplished without political, military and intellectual resistance at various levels, but we do not have a definitive overall picture of the intricacies of this resistance nor any substantial understanding of the causes of its failure. This area of Muslim history not only remains poorly understood; in textbooks used even in the Muslim countries, this resistance is often seen from the perspective of the colonisers. Thus in Pakistan, a country established with the clear and fully expressed purpose of the establishment of an Islamic polity, the heroic but ill-fated uprising against the British in 1857 is usually called Ghadar (mutiny or rebellion against a lawful authority), instead of a fight for freedom.

At first sight, research into the details of resistance against the colonisation of various parts of the Muslim world may also seem to be a purely "academic" exercise. Such an attitude fails because such studies are helpful not only for understanding the extent of success and failure of those resistances against colonization at that historical juncture but also in providing material for charting a path forward in our own times.




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