Human history is replete with descriptions of the rise, decline and fall of civilizations and empires. Islamic civilization is not unique in having witnessed its golden era and experienced the current period of decline. Although records of China’s history date back to 1500 B.C., the history of imperial China began in 221 B.C. when Qin Shi Huang unified China and assumed the title of “Emperor”. The period of the Tang dynasty (618-907 A.D.) is generally considered the golden period of the Chinese civilization with significant developments in technology, art and literature. The power of the Qing dynasty, the last dynasty to rule China, reached its zenith during the reign of Emperor Qianlong who ruled officially from 1711-1796 over more than one-third of the world population and the largest economy in the world. But the signs of decay of the Chinese civilization were already visible. Consequently, China had to suffer a series of setbacks and humiliations in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century when it came into contact with the scientifically and technologically advanced countries of the West and Japan which had strengthened itself through a well-considered program of modernization.
The Roman Empire as a successor to the 500-year old Roman Republic lasted from 27 B.C. to 1453 A.D. when the Eastern Roman Empire fell to the Ottomans. The Western Roman Empire had truly ceased to exist in 480 A.D. In its heyday, the Roman Empire covered 5 million sq. km. and held sway over almost 21% of the world population.
The power of the Iranian empire was at its zenith under Darius of the Achaemenid dynasty, who ruled from 521-486 B.C. The rule of the this reign was brought to an end in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great. The Iranian civilization, after an interregnum of several centuries marked by the rule of the Seleucids and the Parthians, saw a revival under the Sassanian dynasty which lasted from 208-637 A.D. The Iranian civilization underwent a radical transformation after the invasion of Islam in the seventh century A.D. The Iranians not only adopted Islam as their religion but also made valuable contributions to the growth of the Islamic civilization.
Islam as a revolutionary religion based on Tawheed or belief in one God with the message of human brotherhood and social egalitarianism spread rapidly beginning from 7thcentury A.D. both during the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and after his death in 632 A.D. Islam’s emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge led to the rapid development of sciences, mathematics, medicine, art, architecture and literature under the Muslim rule in various parts of the world from Central Asia to North Africa, and from Indonesia to Eastern Europe. Despite the destruction brought upon the Muslim world by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, Islamic civilization and Muslim empires maintained their supremacy till the 17th century when three great Muslim empires, that is, the Ottoman empire, the Safavid empire and the Mughal empire ruled large parts of the Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, present-day Turkey, Caucasus, Afghanistan, and what are now Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
By the beginning of the 18th century, however, signs of the decline of the Muslim empires and the Islamic civilization had started to appear.
The Muslims in general lost interest in the acquisition of knowledge. In contrast with the earlier golden era of the Islamic civilization when they made valuable contributions to the advancement of sciences and mathematics, the Muslims became the victims of intellectual stagnation and backwardness. Consequently, their economic condition worsened gradually and their military power declined. On the other hand, as a result of the rapid advancement of sciences, the industrial revolution and later the technological revolution, the European nations were pulling ahead at a very fast pace in the race for progress and development. These developments also enabled the Western nations to increase their military power rapidly allowing them to conquer and colonize far flung areas all over the world stretching from Australia and New Zealand to the Americas. The Muslims, mired in ignorance and backwardness, and suffering from economic, technological and military weakness, were in no position to face the Western onslaught. Faced with a resurgent West, their governments and kingdoms simply collapsed. Consequently, by the beginning of the 20th century, the West ruled, directly or indirectly, most of the Muslim world.
Currently, the Islamic civilization or the Muslims as a whole are in a state of crisis caused by the realization of their intellectual, scientific and technological backwardness, and by their economic, technological and military inferiority compared with the West. There have been three types of responses to the Western intellectual, scientific, technological and military progress and the challenges of modernity. The reactionary response sought refuge in outdated dogmas and decadent practices of the past, which could not possibly provide an effective cure to the ills afflicting the Islamic civilization. This response, which reflected an inadequate comprehension of the causes of the decline of the Islamic civilization, could only lead to the worsening of the disease of ignorance and lack of development instead of providing a cure for it. It was, thus, a recipe for continued stagnation and backwardness, both intellectual and material, of the Muslim world. Movements of Islamic extremism, which have engulfed many parts of the Muslim world, are a product of this reactionary approach to the challenges confronting the Islamic civilization.
On the other extreme wasa line of thought which confused Westernization with modernization and advocated a wholesale adoption of the beliefs and practices of the West in disregard of the fundamental beliefs and values of Islam. Obviously, the proponents of this approach, without saying so unequivocally, saw little merit or relevance in Islamic beliefs and values in providing answers to challenges of modernity.
They were the victims of what a well-known Iranian intellectual, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad, called “Westoxication” in his famous book Gharbzadegi published in 1962. To some extent, what Kemal Ataturk tried to do in Turkey was a reflection of this flawed approach which alienated the Turkish people from their cultural heritage and made them the victim of an identity crisis. It is only more recently that Turkey under the leadership of its dynamic President (and earlier Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in response to the innate desire of the Turkish people, has taken some corrective steps to bring Turkey’s internal policies within the mainstream of the Islamic civilization while maintaining the commitment to the goals of progress and modernization.
What the Islamic civilization or the Muslims as a whole need is a synthesis of the fundamental beliefs and values of Islamic with the answers to the demands and challenges of the modernization. This is not a one-time task which can be accomplished by some Islamic scholars in solitude. Instead, this would encompass a dynamic approach in which Muslim scholars, intellectuals and politicians, through constant public discussion and debate, would try to come to grips with the challenges that the modern world poses while remaining faithful to the basic teachings of Islam, especially the concept of Tawheed, human brotherhood, social egalitarianism, moderation, tolerance and enlightenment through the acquisition of knowledge. Iqbal was the advocate of such an approach as is clear from his poetry, his book, “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” and his emphasis on the concept of Ijtihad to provide a dynamic element in the Islamic thought so that it remains abreast with the latest advancements in knowledge.