Paradox of Islamic Civilization
Posted Nov 20, 2005

Paradox of Islamic Civilization

By: Ishtiaq Ahmed

‘Man was born free, and is everywhere in chains,’ remarked the great French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). This is the most famous paradox in his philosophical enterprise constituted by the logic of paradoxes. In my opinion the most important paradox put forth by him is the paradox of civilization. He argues that human civilization made possible a higher stage of living, but it also laid the foundations for the enslavement of men. What he meant by that was, in the state of nature men lived spontaneous, natural, peaceful lives. But such life was boring and uneventful. On the other hand, when men learnt to produce more than their immediate needs, civilization emerged. But the new production techniques necessitated a division of labor, which in turn resulted in some people owning private property while others were driven into slavery or different types of bondage and subservience. Hence the paradox of civilization: that it made possible a higher stage of living but also divided men into those who rule and those whose work is exploited.

Rousseau’s prescription for resolving the paradox of civilization was not to go back to the state or nature, but to create a new type of civilization. He proposed a radical ‘Social Contract’ entered into freely by all men. It was to give all men the right to participate in the making of laws. Thus equal male citizenship was to be the basis of a higher civilization founded on direct democracy. Rousseau did not want to abolish private property, but was opposed to great differences in wealth and income.

Looking at the dismal situation of the contemporary Muslim world, one becomes acutely aware of a paradox attendant upon the Islamic civilization too. The paradox is that the revolution carried out by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his four pious successors helped initially Arabs and later others who became Muslims, to free themselves from petty tribal and clannish loyalties, establish a centralized polity based on exemplary conduct of the caliph, achieve all-round economic prosperity and high standards of spirituality. But in the present times that revolution has been misinterpreted by modernists as well as fundamentalists as the final point in human achievement and therefore to be revived in the present and future. So the paradox is that the pristine Islamic civilization freed Muslims from tribal culture, but currently they are in chains everywhere to cultural and structural fetters representing at best a medieval mind-set.

Let me elaborate this point. The pious caliphate lasted only 29 years. It was succeeded by hereditary rule and the later ‘caliphs’ from the decadent stages of the Abbasid dynasty were often scoundrels and debauches. Things came to a head when the Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258 and the Abbasid caliphate passed into the annals of history. Spanish Islam continued to prosper for a while but conflicts between the various Emirates in Spain dissipated Muslim power. They were expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century.

Thereafter, Muslim societies stagnated. Despotism became the order of the day. Development in jurisprudence was negligible as ijtihad (exercise of independent judgment in the interpretation of the Quran) was replaced by taqlid (submission to the authority of the preceding scholars). The economic base of such a society comprised revenues from land, trade and small-scale manufacture. Wealth from conquest dried out by the end of the 18th century. Such a society lacked dynamism, innovation and creativity.

On the other hand, the rival European powers freed themselves from the fetters of medievalism and with better military technology and an aggressive expansionist worldview embarked upon the conquest of the Muslim lands, which fell to them easily, one after the other.

After World War II the modern ruling elites in the new Muslim-majority states tried to modernize and develop by applying either the capitalist or socialist models, but such experiments did not meet with any great success. On the other hand, with increasing income from oil, the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia began to assert an alternative fundamentalist leadership in the Muslim world. The revolution of the Ayatollahs in Iran in 1979 established a rival center of fundamentalism. Both propagated a return to the social order of the past - the Saudis to that of the pious caliphate, the Iranians to the reign of Imam Ali.

Indeed, such ideas had always been part of the historical Muslim memory and from time to time gave birth to chiliastic movements. But harking to a pre-modern past in the late 20th and early 21st century means that the ‘reforms’ imposed by the fundamentalists leave Muslims in a much worse position than before. Thus Sudan under the influence of Hasan Turabi, the Taliban of Afghanistan and the MMA government in Pakistan’s NWFP have enforced changes that make Muslim societies archaic and reactionary.

The way out of this predicament is to establish a new Islamic civilization which carries forward the best spirit from the past, but discards dogmatic rules and regulations which are clearly not workable in the modern era. A radical social contract should be agreed between the citizens and the state whereby all the democratic and human rights reforms that other societies and civilizations have achieved in the last few centuries should be incorporated into a new constitution.

In conformity with the best traditions of the pious caliphate, the ruler (government) should be a servant of the people and not the other way round. He should rule only by consent, earn a salary that is reasonable, and commit himself to not making any private economic gain while in office. Liquidation of feudalism, parasitism and obscurantism should be given top priority and the state should help establish environment-friendly industries that pay fair wages to the workers.

In the religious sphere it would be advisable to educate the ulema (clerics) on modern lines so that they can develop a dynamic and progressive position on Islam. Most necessary in this connection would be a theology of emancipation from all cultural and structural modes of oppression, besides an interpretation of Islam as a message of love, international solidarity and social justice. Such an Islamic civilization will put Muslims back on the road to progress and make it a model for others to emulate.

The author is an associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books.

Originally published in the Daily Times, first published online on IViews at  Reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.