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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 13 New Delhi March 14, 2020

Whither the Muslim Community?

How does a certain view of religion impact its standing in the world?

Sunday 15 March 2020

by M.A. Sofi

Barring a miniscule fraction of their entire population in the world, there is precious little to show for the highest level of scientific/mathematical competence in the contemporary Muslim world. This despite the surprising appearance on the scene of such great figures as the Physicist Nobel Laureate Abdus Salam from Pakistan or the Fields Medalist Maryam Mirzakhwani and Faridoon Shahidi from Iran, even as all of them achieved their scientific glory while carrying out their professional work in the universities and research centres in the West. There also are instances, albeit not many, of Muslim mathematicians having achieved a certain amount of excellence, coming chiefly from North Africa and some even from Soviet Russia. Again, as in the case of the above-mentioned figures, one feature common to them is the fact that after achieving reasonable success in their countries of origin, they immediately moved to the West for better opportunities which for the most part, has been the US, UK and France, the last one for those coming from North Africa.

Thanks to the Soviet system of the pre-perestrioka era, not many instances of Soviet scientists migrating to the West were in evidence prior to 1990 which marked an inflexion-point in the flight of hordes of Soviet scientists and mathematicians relocating themselves in the West, in particular in the US and also Israel, with the latter having been a preferred destination for the Jewish mathematicians emigrating from the erstwhile Soviet Union. Why, after all, has the contribution of Muslims to science and mathematics during the past 1000 years been so measly and dismal? Is it perhaps the case that the reasons for this poor display of scientific acumen among the Muslims have to be sought in the religion of Islam or in the way Islam is being looked at and practised by the Muslims in the contemporary world? In the lines that follow, an attempt has been made to put this issue into perspective and to argue that for the most part, that is indeed the case, though there surely are other factors that have contributed to the abysmally poor state of their standing in the world of today.

To begin, the dominant view as it finds resonance among large sections of the Muslim community all over the world is that the pursuit of education and knowledge are not of much consequence from an Islamic perspective! This approach draws from their strange under-standing of the Islamic weltanschauung where they tend to read an over-emphasis of the other worldliness while the ephemeralness of this world is posited as an article of faith. This is quite contrary to countless references in the Quran insisting upon the believers to reflect and ponder on life and the world us, on the mind-boggling diversity that is in witness for those who reflect and of the underlying unity that accompanies this diversity. The community seems to remain smug in the belief that religion has to be accorded a role that takes precedence over everything else, including the need to make a positive difference to the world in ways that would benefit the society and humanity at large. Coupled with the widespread sweep of islamophobia in the past couple of decades, this wishful reading of the Quranic text has exacted a price from the Muslim community that is humongous. No wonder that for the most part, Muslims are lagging behind other communities in terms of most of the development indices which are used as a measure of progress, prosperity and levels of achievement in different spheres of human activity. Not only that, its vulnerability to acts of violence, both verbal and physical, at the hands of the state and the society, has surely been a direct consequence of the disempowerment of the community on account of their poor track-record in education which largely derives from a lack of proper understanding of Islam. This disempowerment is manifested in many ways involving the isolation, ostracisation and persecution of Indian Muslims, especially over the past six years, leave alone those dehumanised and brutalised sections of the community who have the misfortune of belonging to and living in the god-forsaken land of Indian-controlled Kashmir.

A resounding manifestation of an inane, banal obsession with the word rather than the spirit of Islamic injunction is largely visible in our mosques and prayer rooms. Whether it is azaan or nimaz, our mosques reverberate with the shrill cacophony from the loudspeakers blaring hymns and reciting verses. These acts are not going to propitiate gods if they may cause the slightest discomfort and inconvenience to those who may be thinking, praying having difficulty sleeping in the midst of such a high level of noise pollution. This sham of religiosity is being pushed down the throat of all and sundry by those who think they have a monopoly over religion! It is time for the religious places to restore calm and tranquillity to a place where the ambiance is quintessentially spiritual. Apart from this deafening din blaring out from our mosques, the attendees are also regularly treated to a dose of sermons which, for the most part, are far less rooted in the Quranic injunctions than in the school of thought one has been taught as part of one’s training in a religious seminary.

An encounter with such a sermon was experienced during a recent Friday congregation where the devotees were being exhorted, and rightly so, to remain steadfast in prayer and never ever to give up on performing sala’t (prayer) on time. Further, ‘on the day of judgement’, the preacher roared, ‘man shall be held accountable for his laxity in offering prayers, never mind that he may not have done enough to give away out of his earnings towards charity with the intention of helping the needy and the poor’. In other words, ‘Allah shall punish man for his indifference towards sala’t, even as he shall get away with other lesser offences like miserliness that Allah shall forgive as a minor transgression! This is so because, in their worldview, transgression equates with the failure to be seen as a practicing Muslim in terms of how they look, dress up or pray, or do not pray in the manner in which they have been ordained to. And for major transgressions, Allah shall punish them in the hereafter, even as some part of the punishment shall be reserved for them in this life through such divine interventions as natural disasters like earthquakes, floods and famine and such life threatening diseases as cancer, AIDS and now the widespread coronavirus!

In the light of these hard facts, there is a strong case for the Muslim community to look within and to set its priorities right. And that pertains to what has been its complete capitulation to organised religiosity which is designed to close the mind to openness and free thinking, unencumbered by the fear of courting controversy with the institution of religion. Come to think of it, an almost complete absence of excellence in education in general, and in science in particular, of the Muslim community has to be pinned down precisely to this fatal obsession with dogma and doctrine. The exercise of rationality in matters involving especially religion and of an understanding of its role in the contemporary world is being rubbished as of no importance. It’s time that the community woke up to the lesson that religion and religiosity are supposed to remain the personal preserve of an individual and that its message should not be allowed to be lost upon those who espouse or practice it with blind faith. It is precisely this blind faith in the religious belief system that takes its toll upon the intellect which loses its power to be used to think critically in the true spirit of science which privileges doubt and ambiguity over certitude in order to get to the bottom of the truth. Indeed, it’s in the midst of a culture of openness and free thinking that the conditions are fostered for scientific temper and fearless quest of truth and enquiry.

While invoking the scriptures which are no doubt replete with such references, they conveniently choose to ignore the larger message that is sought to be conveyed in these injunctions. This is essentially the edification of the mind and the soul, leading to piety that entails mercy, compassion, truth and justice. In other words, as opposed to the regressive view of the divine injunctions as espoused by the modern day religious preachers, transgression is to be under-stood in terms of letting ibadat fail to foster piety in the individual. Thus, in order to reconcile the religious injunction that “they shall grieve who are not steadfast in prayer” with the divine punishment that shall be inflicted upon them in this life - and the hereafter- the subliminal context of being virtuous or of steadfastness in prayer shall have to be sought elsewhere. And that has to do with the manner in which man conducts day to day activities involving their manifold interactions with the family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, and not the least with the environment in which one is living. This is so because the natural disasters like the onset of a major flood or an earthquake which no doubt comes as a ‘collective calamity’ to those living in a certain geographical location is essentially the result of man’s own actions: his limitless greed, his wanton exploitation of the natural resources involving, for instance, unimaginative urbanisation leading to unregulated quarrying or digging of land, wastage of precious natural resources like water, food etc. or of encroachment of what are actually eco-fragile spots and locations. These surely are labelled as great sins according to Islam.

The bottomline is that these half-baked, ill-informed religious preachers — who, in any case, are not limited to the religion of Islam— represent the true models of zeitgeist involving contemporary education system which is designed to mass produce qualified degree holders without the growth of the intellect and critical thought. The society would turn up much healthier in the absence of this self-serving, over-indulged class of parasites who have no use for the intellect and human conscience. As if that is not scary enough, the situation has been made that much more pathetic by this cabal of ‘educated’, West-maniac soulless super-rich front rowers in the mosques who are advancing an antediluvian worldview of Islam as advocated by these uninformed, uninitiated Mullas and thus rob the community of the true spirit and soul as enshrined in the Book. Their resort to an easy post-retirement life is unmistakably marked by visible religiosity, rather than by a conscious and deep learning of the essence of Quran involving spirituality and piety of the soul and the mind. The need is, therefore, to cede space to a culture of ques-tioning and curiosity in matters not excluding religion and the religious practice.

M.A. Sofi belongs to the Department of Mathematics, Central University of Kashmir, Ganderbal.

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