Time of Change
by Muhammad Asad
This article is from Muhammad Asad’s book “This Law of Ours” which is a collection of his essays he wrote in the 1940’s and 50’s.
We are now living in extraordinary times, marked by a world-wide violent transformation and confusion - ethical, political, social and economic - a confusion engendered by two world wars and the subsequent breakdown of centuries - old social, ethical and economic forms. The whole world is in turmoil - and we Muslims, too, cannot, even if we wanted, continue to live as we have hitherto been living, complacently secure in the illusion that the pattern of life accepted as valid in past times must forever remain valid; for that complacency, that security of convictions or illusions has been shattered by what has happened to us in the last few centuries.
At a time like this, we must begin to take stock of our cultural holdings. It is not enough to say, “We are Muslims and have an ideology of our own”: we must also be in a position to show that our ideology is vital enough to withstand the pressure of the changing times, and to decide in what way the fact of our being Muslims will affect the course of our lives: in other words, we must find out whether Islam can offer us precise directives for the formation of our society, and whether its inspiration is strong enough in us to translate these directives into practice.
In order to reach such a decision, we must begin to think anew about Islam, about what it really signifies, what its real laws are ; for we have stopped thinking about these matters for a good many centuries and have merely relied on what previous generations of Muslims thought about Islam. In consequence, our current theology (kalam) and canonical jurisprudence (fiqh) now resemble nothing so much as a vast old-clothes shop where ancient thought-garments, almost unrecognizable as to their original purport, are mechanically bought and sold, patched up and re-sold, and where the buyer’s only delight consists in praising the old tailors’ skill…
We cannot go on like this at a time when the Muslim world is in the throes of a crisis which may make or unmake Islam’s validity as a practical proposition for many centuries to come. Never was there a more urgent need for heart-searching and brain-searching. One does not require particularly sharp eyes to see that, set as we are in the midst of a rapidly changing world, our society, too, is subject to the same inexorable law of change. Whether we like it or not, a change there will be: it is, indeed, already being enacted before our very eyes. The Muslim world is in transition - a fact that is as obvious as it is pregnant with tremendous possibilities for better or worse. For better or worse: since we must not forget that “change” is but another word for “movement”: and, within a social organism, movement can be creative as well as destructive. But whereas there is no power on earth which could now keep our society from changing, we are still free to determine the direction which this change should take: it is still up to us to decide whether we shall build our future on the real values of Islam - or entirely drift away from Islam and become passive camp-followers of other civilizations.
There is no other alternative. Nothing could be more stupid than to try to persuade ourselves that, if we but wanted, we could cling to yesterday’s notions and conventions in their entirety. Those who do so - and there are, unfortunately, many of them - are playing the game of the proverbial ostrich that buries its head in the sand in order to escape the necessity of making a decision. A dangerous game this, in addition to being unspeakably silly: for, like that famous bird, our friends - however well-intentioned - are depriving themselves of every opportunity to meet the oncoming challenge of the times: in this case, a challenge to the eternal validity of Islam as a culture-producing force. Their minds seem to work on the supposition that our recent past was “Islamic”; and that, therefore, everything that implies a departure from the conventions of our yesterday - both with regard to our social customs and our approach to problems of law - goes against Islam; and that, on the other hand, everything would be in perfect order if we could but preserve the social forms and the scheme of thought in which our grandfathers live. To put it differently, our ostriches assume that Islam and the conventions of Muslim society are one and the same thing (which, of course, is utter nonsense); and that the survival of Islam depends on the maintenance of the very conditions which nowadays make it impossible for Muslims to live in accordance with the true tenets of Islam (which, obviously, is vary bad logic). But however absurd these assumptions may be, they nevertheless provide the basis on which the minds of many Muslims nowadays operate; and their unwillingness to concede the necessity of any change drives countless other Muslims to a helpless imitation of the Occident, either in its Capitalist or in its Marxist manifestations, or, alternatively, to an equally blind, self defeating belief in the imminence of a quasi-Mahdist “Islamic revival”.
These pages, therefore, are addressed to people who know that there is no survival value in playing the ostrich. They are addressed, in particular, to those of the Muslims who realize the desperate crisis of Islamic communal life and civilization; who, therefore, wish to think for themselves and refuse to be fed on mare catchwords and illusions; who regard self-deception as one of the most serious of sins; who have the courage to face the facts as they are, and not as they would like them to be; who, in short, desire not only to “serve” Islam but to live it.
To such people I am offering this contribution to a revival of Muslim thought. If some of my readers think that my criticism is unduly harsh and, on occasion, irreverent, let them remember that the wind that comes before dawn is often harsh, and on occasion even ill-pleasing. But it is just such a win that we need - a fresh wind that would blow away the cobwebs of our decadence, a wind that would blow us back to the Two Sources of Islam, the Quran and the Prophet’s Sunnah, from which the life of our ummah started and to which it must return if it is not to disappear into thin air.
Let us be honest with ourselves and admit that we have strayed far away, indeed, from the ideology provided by the Quran and the Sunnah. Ours is the old, old story of the rich man’s son who has squandered his splendid patrimony and now wallows in the gutter. Centuries of intellectual lethargy, of dumb adherence to formulas, of the meanest internecine wranglings, of laziness, superstition and social corruption have dimmed almost beyond recognition the glorious promise held out by our beginnings. Centuries ago we ceased to exercise our wits in the search for knowledge, although our religion had enjoined it upon us as a sacred duty; we talked of Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, of Al-Battani and Ibn Hayyan - and went complacently to sleep over their achievements. we talked about the wondrous social programme of Islam, about the equity and naturalness of its tenets - and all while we flew at each others’ throats, exploited one another or, alternatively, submitted in squalid contentment to every kind of exploitation at the hands of unscrupulous rulers. We always pretend to believe that the Qur’an is a sure guidance in all matters affecting man’s life - and nevertheless we grew accustomed to regard it as mere edifying literature, good enough to be recited in prayers and on ceremonial occasions and, wrapped in a silken ghilaf, to embellish the uppermost shelves in our rooms, but not good enough to be followed in practice. We claimed that Islam is a religion of reason (which, in fact, it is) - and none the less we meekly agreed to, and sometimes even welcomed, suppression of reason by anyone who just happened to be in power: for most of our ‘ulama’ were telling us that in matters of religion independent thought is heresy, and that only he can be a true Muslim who blindly repeats the formulas evolved in olden days (and evolved by scholars who were human, and therefore liable to err), like a parrot which has learnt its lesson once and for all.
And the result of these failings - the list of which could be extended indefinitely?
There are many hundreds of millions of Muslims in the world today - but among all these millions there is not a single community that really lives according to the tenets of Islam; not a single community that could show, as an example to the world, how Islam solves the social and economic problems which nowadays worry mankind so much; not a single community that could produce, in the realms of science, arts or industry, anything better than any Western community; or that could, culturally and politically, at least compete on equal terms with any Western community of comparable size. All the blustering talk of our past glories, all our assertions as to what Islam stands for, cannot change the fact of our present humiliation.
These are facts - some of the facts - and there is no denying them.