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What Future for Muslim Identity?

by Dr. Munawar Anees

Today, the Muslim world faces the most critical period of its history. It is a civilization standing at the crossroads, seemingly unable to carve a niche in the community of nations. The colossal tragedy that struck the United States on September 11, 2001, has once again put the House of Islam at the forefront of world affairs. And it can be decisively argued that a strategy for change in the Muslim world is one of the crying needs of the hour.

Though it would be erroneous to characterize the Muslim world as a monolith, it is fair to argue that not a single Muslim country today meets the criteria for modern political and social governance, religious liberty, economic evolution, gender equality, cultural prosperity, and human dignity. Muslims continue to live under dictators, autocrats, kings, and authoritarian rulers—in grossly oppressive conditions. Having lost the ability to face the outer world, which is motivated by concern for human rights, multiculturalism, and tolerance, the Muslim social fabric has seen little beyond sectarian strife, tribal wars, and suppression of women and minorities. Nearly one-fourth of the human population—1.2 billion people, living in fifty Muslim countries—face a grim and uncertain future. And those who habitually put the blame for their ills upon the colonial oppressors need only to be reminded of intra-Muslim carnage: witness the Muslim-on-Muslim violence that led to the division of Bangladesh from Pakistan, a country born in the name of Islam; the decade-long Iran-Iraq war; and the abject neglect of the Palestinian refugees by the wider Arab community, to name a few examples.

Historically, Islam absorbed and comprehended other cultures and gave them expression. The early Muslim civilization, heir to a rich and diverse intellectual stock—Roman, Greek, Indian, and Persian—accomplished a unique synthesis of ideas in all branches of knowledge. From the eighth to the thirteenth century, there were more religious, philosophical, medical, astronomical, historical, and geographical works written in Arabic than in any other language. And the religious code itself—that is, the Qur'an and the tradition of the Prophet—was a very liberal, forward-looking code of ethics.

So, in turning a critical eye to Islam, my focus would not be on the religious code. Rather, it would be on how to revive the culture of learning, how to revive the culture of tolerance, how to revive the culture of liberalism, which have remained at the core of Muslim civilization for centuries. We must ask: What are the factors that have gone into pushing that culture back into the Dark Ages, which is what we see today all over the Muslim world in this cultural impasse?

The Prophet of Islam, in his own city—in Medina, where he lived the later part of his life after he was forced to emigrate from Mecca—allowed Jews and Christians to coexist there. Did he subdue them? Did he force them to become Muslims? Did he kill them? He did not. This is the ideal. So we need to find out why this ossification has occurred in Muslim thought and behavior, which is now denying or altogether ignoring its own heritage—to its own detriment and to the detriment of the rest of the world. In the last few centuries, Muslim culture has grown inward instead of growing outward. There has been a rejection of anything “other.” It has become xenophobic, not in the racial sense but in the epistemological sense. It has an inward-looking attitude at the global, civilizational, and community levels. And this creates a literalism, which is equal to fundamentalism, that is the rejection of tolerance, the rejection of the other's opinion. This, to my mind, is a great hindrance to the peaceful coexistence of different ideals, different ideologies, and different religions, and it is a great obstacle to the Islamic world becoming a participant in global transformation. So I think this cultural impasse has to do with the current Islamic worldview, and we need a dynamic invocation that can play a pivotal role in breaking its grip on the Muslim mind and culture.

The formation of a democratically governed Muslim world must be driven by an imperative born out of a new Muslim recognition of their rights and responsibilities in a globalized world. For this mindset to emerge, Muslims must learn the magnanimity of critical self-analysis. While democratic freedom does not germinate out of the barrel of a gun, neither is it obtained by being oblivious to self-identity, to our own tradition. According to the teaching of the Prophet, one's cognizance of the Almighty is inseparable from the cognizance of the Muslim tradition of liberalism and tolerance. And the future of Muslim identity in the twenty-first century and beyond lies with that vital cognizance, not with confrontation.

Dr. Munawar Anees, a Pakistani-American writer and social critic, is founding editor of the International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies and Periodica Islamica, as well as author of numerous books, articles, and reviews. He is a special consultant to the John Templeton Foundation and is among UNESCO's select group of forty international scholars. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in February 2002.


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This article is from
Our Collective Intelligence Issue


May–July 2004