The sources of my motivation to venture into the issue under discussion is not based on some sense of certified qualification or competence guaranteed by the claims to theological authority, such as flaunted by latter day puritan claimers. I am specifically referring to those elements amongst us who are turning Islam into some form of philistine spiritual practice. They are those who are everywhere haughtily arrogating to themselves the rights to speak for Islam and Muslims under all circumstances, under the most complex and brutal realities that are daily characterizing our world, a highfalutin situation that totally defies the knowledge and comprehension of such half-baked folks. No, I don’t also belong to such naïve categorization, nor accept being pigeonholed into ill-informed watertight compartmentalization of sectarian proclivities of postmodern Islam with its flirtations, knowledge obfuscation and, until recently, jihadi pretentions. At least with the benefit of hindsight garnered through the historical experiences of other sister faith systems, in particular the travails of Christianity in Europe, have provided us with the necessary lessons we need to grasp what is happening to us as a community of faith. The history of Christian Europe can serve as important guide on how not to tread similar futile trajectories by Muslims.
However, I will tell you my source of motivation now. I have just remembered to bring out to your notice now. You won’t believe this folks, I was asked an unexpected question by a lady scholar on a book project concerning the contribution of African Islam to Islamic civilization, in one of those highly cerebral seminars at SOAS, University of London. This was a couple of years back. The lady wanted me to assist her with some insights on the contribution of African Muslim scholars, thinkers and builders to the common pool of global Islam. At first, I became somewhat flabbergasted, confused and disoriented, not by lack of knowledge in the field (thousands of apologies to Syed Hassan Nasr and his notion of Islamic science), but by the sudden realization of the overwhelming dominance of the context in which the discussion is taking place. I humbly requested the lady to give me time to recollect my knowledge on the issue, because that was not a question that I expected someone to ask me after my contribution to a related issue that the seminar presenter raised. I am also cautious not to eagerly volunteer to her what I know because of the kind of environment in which she was conducting the research, and the sense of triumphalism in her, the ideology of orientalism exhibited by a western researcher over the conquered Islamic civilization of the orient. Western modernity, which has completely appropriated the established landmarks of other world civilizations before it, was at that moment everywhere throwing its jibes at whatever claims anybody would put up in order to make case for previous efforts at civilizational projects from antiquity to the point at which the modern West assumed the mantle of leadership in the world with all the attendant baggage such a venture entailed, especially by, a non-western individual would make.
In civilizational terms, despite Islam’s sterling scorecard in its mediatory role at those crucial junctures and intersections that gave us what is today known as western modernity or civilization, it managed to bequeath to humanity the best that we can offer for eons in our pre-western past, and in the endless match of human knowledge, reason and creativity in both the present and the future that was spearheaded by Muslim thinkers, scholars and scientists. Without doubt, the most important milestones showcasing the contribution of Muslims to modern civilization have since been silenced, degraded or eroded beyond recognition, deliberately by Muslims themselves and non-Muslims. This happened as Muslims become increasingly divorced from their cultural and civilizational responsibility to humanity. As Muslims manifested an inclination to philistinism, an act that is unfounded in Islamic scheme of things, other civilizational contenders seized the opportunity to help us undo the great legacies of Islamic civilization through the social systems they imposed on us, and in the corollary of globalizing agendas of successive dominant powers of the West. Does it surprise anyone? No! I also don’t think we are unaware of this aspect of our history. Over the centuries, Muslims have reduced their faith to hermetically sealed codes of dry rituals that have no role to play or bearing on humanity’s collective civilizational journey towards a desirable end. I am here not referring to the bizarre end hatched by the inhuman and mindless system of corporate capitalism that all shades of human species are experiencing today in their different locations, nations and cultures. That is talking of the undesirable civilizational matrix, with all its social, political, cultural and economic nuances, prognosticated by Francis Fukuyama in his end of history and the last man mantra, which is right now falling apart at the heart of it in the western metropolitan enclaves of London, Paris, New York and Toronto.
In recent history, as Muslims attempt to come to terms with the forces of modernity, as they double down their understanding of more ferocious civilizational forces that swept them to the margins of world history, another round of obscurantism is threatening to close their chances at history making, perhaps once and for all. Almost as if by consensus, Muslims have now decided to stick their heads further into the sand. We seek answers to our predicament by slapping ourselves with a version of our creed that is only accelerating our decline from the world stage due mainly to the negative slant of such notion of Islamic on anything culture, or anything that demands civilizational framing from us. As it is, Muslims are increasingly ignoring the fact that there cannot be any appreciable development or progress of the human faculties without culture. Culture is indeed the sine qua non of civilization, any type of civilization for that matter, including spiritually based ones. Therefore, it is only the immersion of individuals into the authentic forms and values of a given culture that can effectively guarantee its sense of humanity, its culture, its arts, its learning, its philosophy, its ethos, and, above all, its beauty in the eyes of the world. In other words, without culture, there cannot be humanity; and without humanity there cannot be refinement (civilization) or perfection (the best human qualities one can possibly attain). There also cannot be the ability to appreciate our differentiation or even the beauty of our identity markers as particular set of human beings or as Muslims, or even as whatever we are, and as anything that our humanity could possibly shape us to become, including our inclinations and tendentiousness.
Whatever the case, out of the unique justice of the only Creator of the known universe, it is easy to observe the equitable distribution of potentials and abilities amongst all members of the human race, despite your color and creed. God does not say you are special because of your membership of this or that race, this community or that community, this faith or that faith, no. One can only be special through the kind of conscious or unconscious choices one is able to make. Moreover, it is our will to act or even our tenacity to excel through the creation of an enabling environment with which to harness our capacities that differentiate us in our complex diversities from environment to environment, society to society, culture to culture, individual to individual. In short, in those things which have more and more accentuated our distinctions, one from another as members of the human race. Despite the certainties of faith we exhibit, it would be grossly fatal a mistake to ignore our common humanity, our responsibility to one another as members of the human race. Our shared humanity demands nothing less from us no matter what we think we are in the great human kaleidoscope. We ignore that fact at our own peril.
But what is the station of Muslims today in the potpourri of contemporary civilizational grid? To answer this question, we simply need to critically and dispassionately examine our state of affairs. Slowly but surely, over the ages, Muslims have boxed themselves into a nexus of perpetual decline and decay. What is wrong with us? Is it our understanding of Islam that is wrong or our perception of reality? Or is it our interpretation of a faith system that is full of symbolic representations? What is it exactly? Whatever is the problem, we have nobody to blame but ourselves for the mess that we have plunged our faith system through our collective follies. More often than not, it is due to our own unbridled bifurcation of the faith with wrong prioritization of values, obscurantism, ignorance and total absence of historical consciousness. All these factors have conspired to land us into the difficult situation we have found ourselves in today. Many Muslim scholars of the day are turning into victims of paranoia because of their inability to reflect coherently over the actual causes of our stupor. They then usually proceed from there to feed a cross-section of their followers with their ill-conceived understanding of what went wrong with us as a community of faithful. Consequently, we have ended with all forms of weird approaches to unraveling our collective problems. The outcome of which could be seen in the birth of extreme groups, and more extremist inspired ideologies within the house of Islam itself.
In case we don’t know, Islam has entered into a phase of civilizational inertia, a form of inverted medievalism after scoring a number of feats during its golden age, a state of irrelevance on a global scale, with the massive ossification of the humane mission and vision of our faith. All this, as far as I am concerned, comes about largely out of our own negligence of our place in history. How else do we explain the acute atrophy of our values, culture, enlightenment and sense of humanity? We have nobody to point finger at but ourselves, even if our woes were made possible with the aid of the enemies of our faith. If we have not created the opportunity for anybody to play games with our faith, the situation would have been different for us. With all sense of humility, as Muslims we would not be able to address our misfortune in this world until and unless we go back to the drawing board to retrace our footsteps from where we initially erred.
Mr Liman is professor of Comparative Literature and Popular Culture at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria