“The splendour of the learning of the West could not

dazzle me since my mind has been illuminated by

the wisdom of Madina and Najaf.”

–Iqbal, “Baal-e-Jibreel”

There cannot be two opinions about the need of the Islamic civilization for renaissance so that it can resume its journey towards intellectual and spiritual enlightenment and material progress. There is also little doubt that the Islamic world collectively is far behind the West in science and technology, and in economic and military power. There have been hardly any worthwhile contributions of the Muslims to the advancement of science and technology during the past four centuries whereas this advancement has been the primum mobile of the human progress in the modern era. This state of affairs is nothing less than shameful, especially against the background of the emphasis that the Holy Quran and Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him!) placed on acquiring knowledge. It was because of this emphasis that the Muslim scholars and scientists were able to make valuable contributions to the advancement of knowledge in the golden age of the Islamic civilization.

It was only when the Muslims collectively gave up the quest for knowledge and lost intellectual dynamism because of the abandonment of the principle of ijtihad and the adoption of the practice of taqlid that their decline started. Meanwhile, Western Europe embarked upon a journey of unparalleled progress, prosperity, and growth of economic and military power thanks mainly to its valuable contributions to the growth of human knowledge, particularly in sciences and technology. Consequently, by the end of the 19th century the Western countries were virtually ruling the world and large parts of the Muslim world, directly or indirectly, were under the Western subjugation.

It was inevitable that the virtual collapse of the Muslim states in the face of the powerful Western civilization would generate a severe reaction in the Islamic world. The hallmark of the Western civilization was its intellectual curiosity and quest for knowledge, its scientific and technological progress, its economic and military power, its representative institutions, its faith in the functioning of the free market, and its emphasis on the rule of law and the rights of the individual. The question that the Muslim scholars and leaders faced was how to deal with the Western political, military and cultural onslaught so as to revive the Islamic civilization and enable it to regain its past glory.

There were three types of responses in the Muslim world to the challenges posed by the West: total submission, rejection and reform. Some of the Muslim leaders thought that the mere adoption of Western culture in its totality would generate forces of modernization and progress in the Muslim countries. The basic assumption of this point of view was that the indigenous (Islamic) culture was incompatible with that goal. Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk belonged to this school of thought. However, the reforms introduced by Ataturk to westernize Turkey have resulted in a domestic cultural backlash. As democracy took roots in Turkey, its indigenous Islamic culture reasserted itself, forcing changes in its domestic and foreign policies under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and bringing them in line with the Islamic character of the Turkish people. Importantly, these changes, instead of slowing down Turkish progress, have accelerated it.

Thus, the Turkish experiment of treating Westernization as synonymous with modernization and forcing it on the Turkish people has not proved to be successful. Above all, it is questionable to assume that Islam, which puts so much emphasis on learning, rule of law, and the sanctity of private property, can act as an obstacle on the path to intellectual enlightenment and economic progress, provided it is interpreted correctly in the light of its true spirit and teachings. Even Samuel Huntington in his book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order” admits, “Modernization, in short, does not necessarily mean Westernization. Non-Western societies can modernize and have modernized without abandoning their own cultures and adopting wholesale Western values, institutions, and practices.” (p.78)

Some extremist elements in the Muslim world like the Taliban have reacted to the domination of the West and its excesses and injustices against the Muslims (e.g. the creation of Israel) by rejecting both modernization and Westernization. However, this retrogressive approach is a totally impractical and an unsatisfactory response to the challenge posed by the West. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reject modernization as the world is becoming overwhelmingly modern and increasingly interconnected. After all, the clock of human progress cannot be wound backwards. The reactionary approach of the rejectionists cannot cure the ills of the Islamic civilization. From the dialectical point of view, the rejectionists’ point of view is simply anti-thesis to the thesis of the Western civilization. The need of the hour is for a synthesis.

The synthesis can be provided by a reformist and progressive approach in which modernization will be fully embraced by the Islamic civilization but there will not be wholesale acceptance of the Western civilization. Instead, the Muslims, while remaining faithful to the essential principles and spirit of Islam, will adopt reforms in various fields to hasten the pace of modernity in the Islamic world. In so doing, they would have to learn from the experience of the West, avoiding its mistakes while taking advantage of its positive characteristics and features.

For instance, learning from the Western experience and keeping in view Islamic teachings, Muslims must place increased emphasis on education, especially on learning modern sciences and technology. In the modern knowledge-based world, the way to progress, prosperity and power simply lies through acquiring knowledge. We must encourage intellectual freedom and spirit of enquiry, and abandon old dogmas which have lost their relevance and validity in the modern world. In accordance with the Islamic principle of Ijtihad, we must develop new approaches and concepts for overcoming the challenges of the modern world. The practice of the principle of Ijtihad is an indispensable condition for intellectual dynamism in and material progress of the Islamic civilization in the modern competitive world.

In politics, we must promote democratic forms of government because in the modern world only those governments which enjoy the people’s mandate and support are able to function effectively and produce positive results. This would also be in line with the injunction of the Holy Quran which ordains consultations in dealing with public affairs. We must assign the highest priority to the rule of law and the provision of speedy justice without which one cannot even think of a modern civilized society. Nobody should be considered above the law and everybody should be equal before the law. In the economic field, we must allow the market forces maximum possible freedom while the government focuses on building up educational and health facilities, developing physical infrastructure, and the provision of a well-thought out regulatory and taxation framework aimed at enhancing productivity, efficiency, growth and social welfare.

The Islamic civilization needs reforms to usher it into the age of modernity. In so doing, we should learn from the positive features and achievements of the Western civilization. At the same time, we must avoid its mistakes and weaknesses. In other words, in our quest for modernization, we must not become a victim of “Westoxication” or Gharbzadegi as the famous Iranian scholar Jalal al-e-Ahmad recommended in 1962. The ideal course for the Islamic civilization would be the pursuit of modernization while remaining faithful to the essential principles and the true spirit of Islam as advised by Iqbal, the poet of the East, even earlier.