Masood N. Khan, MD

The title of this article will shock some people to indignation. Yet it is a bitter truth, even though according to a mullah-minded person this could be a blasphemous antithesis. Let me make it more palatable to this sanctimonious ears by a little elaboration. Islam was not to be a religion in the first place. As it is repeatedly made clear by the revealed verses in Quran, it is a system of creation, a ‘Deen’ as Quran calls it. To reduce it to mere religion was the greatest misconception and, the first big misstep taken towards decline perhaps early on in history. This changed the very course of moral and spiritual journey Islam maps out for human beings. Unfortunately there was no self-correction. On the contrary the religion they changed the Deen into, was left to digress, through frozen interpretations encapsulated into history called traditions, glorification of departed personalities as the idolized relics of the holy past and a hair-splitting system of superfluous rules and regulations called the Fiqh. With this qualifying explanation of the title and an overview of a more elaborate discussion to follow, I hope, a faint line of connection between religion and the decline of Muslims in perhaps discernible.

It is indeed a serious situation; perhaps lack of intellectual and moral courage always pushed it under the rug. There is no doubt religion plays a very important role in the conduct and behavior of the people, perhaps more so in Muslims who are brain-washed from childhood to relate to religion as a boy relates to his authoritative father, not to question, only to follow. Its impact is extraordinarily deep and therefore any error in its understanding, over time, is bound to produce cumulative widespread consequences. All the ingredients of decline given below are directly impacted by a misunderstood and misinterpreted religion and the way it is practiced by Muslims. As long as they insist on the ever-deviant understanding of religion, the process of decline will incrementally continue. To think otherwise, is a great self-deception; a long as critical thinking in the matters of religion is considered blasphemous, the chances of retarding the process of decline much less reverting it are zero.

Let us understand what we mean when we say ‘decline of Muslims’? I am sure, and not expectedly so , as a reflex we will start comparing condition of Muslims with the countries which are prosperous, technologically advanced, strong in democratic institutions, having good law and order, and abounding in internal peace. But these are just some of the good effects of any stable, responsible and transparent system of governance and hard working, disciplined people living under it. The lack of these effects is not decline in the true sense; they may be linked with decline perhaps only indirectly. The origin of decline takes place in something deeper, and more causative, and them gradually progresses. Decline therefore is a process that originates chronologically way above in the downward spiral; its definition cannot be premised with the mere absence of material well being. It starts when people have been. affected by certain characteristics both at the levels of cognition as well as conduct. Religion when misinterpreted, depleted of the very essence of its message and misapplied, has a major role to play in giving rise to such characteristics and consequently setting the direction.

To start with, let us focus on (A) a mindset, that upholds traditions to such a degree that is results in decreasing ability to think forward and think critically, as we see, is unfortunately extremely pervasive among Muslims. All the major religions have originated in antiquity. Naturally they were affected by the life as it existed at the time of their origin.. Many of the traditions associated with any religions, are therefore contextual to the needs and the demands of that time. It only makes sense that such traditions, not only need to be separated from the core message, but brought into the modern times as critically examined as to their impact on either keeping up the vitality of the message or adversely affecting it. The lifestyle of the people of that time, their culture and their thinking needs to be carefully understood and dealt with, in a manner that would enhance the efficacy of the message today, not decrease it. Such an approach will of course have prevented Muslims from indiscriminately and irresponsibly using the sayings of the great Prophet and doing a disservices to him. Muslims have insistently refused to see the importance of critical evaluation from early on. Their clinging to misunderstood traditions with a sense of sacredness and reverence has robbed them of the ability to think forward and has make them very regressive. Such a situation has taken their focus off the essence and dynamism of the message and denied them the benefits which were meant to revolutionize their lives to moral excellence. People who live in the past cannot, in any respect, progress towards the future. As we are able to easily access today, thanks to information technology and social media, programs, speeches, celebrations and discourses in religion conducted around the world, it is sad to see that by an estimate, more than 80% of the content is about glorifying the past and idolizing the personalities that are long departed from this world. Where is the message as it relates to the modern times? Imagine the immense negative effect on the thought and action of people with such an approach to religion.

To complicate the above problem, (B) the traditions believed in are marred by out of context, improperly understood and fabricated abuse of sayings of the Prophet, and mostly fake stories of the past. It is like a building that has been erected with a weak infrastructure because the material used in it is adulterated. Early on in Islamic history, tremendous attention and effort was directed in compiling magnificent collections of Hadith that let to formulation of Islamic jurisprudence. The process that consumed centuries resulted of course in voluminous material to dictate a believer in minutest of the dos and don’ts. It is as if the building that was constructed weak was also decorated exhaustively to the minutest detail. Today after years of consistent decline, the legitimate question is whether Muslims, in this long journey lost on the way somewhere, the very essence of the message. What good was this huge decorated building if it had long ceased to be habitable and was unable to give peace, tranquility, warmth and comfort of a home. The shift in focus from the core and the essence to the quantity and redundance and for the matter from Quran to Hadith (which became more important and gained wide currency among Muslims) led to the greatest deprivation, digression and degeneration of mind. This situation, essentially had following but not the only, highly detrimental effects that paved the way towards decline.

  1. No real effort was made by common people to understand the message’s meaning in its essence and purpose through referring to , and reflecting on Qur’an. The result was that it took away the ability to assess, evaluate and prioritize the issues and put them in proper perspective so that to live a righteous life. Quran draws attention to a balance created by God which needs to be maintained in all realms of existence including human intellect and action (Q: 55: V 7-9) The loss of this balance was indeed at the root cause of all such ills as rigidity, narrow-mindedness, hate, bigotry, exclusivity, xenophobia and religious fascism etc.
  2. The real spirit of the message was discarded in favor of a rigid, regimental and ritualistic understanding of Deen based upon traditions and ahadith many of them improperly understood and applied. The measure of righteousness was erroneously considered to be his/her ability to be as conservative and strict as possible. Extremism was considered a virtue even though it translated into dangerous and harmful behavioral traits, while flexibility and moderation a weakness of faith.
  3. The abuse of Hadith with no understanding if its ‘context relevance and authenticity’ coupled with internalization of mostly unfounded and made-up stories of the past divided Muslims into various hostile sects that took away the unity of purpose and collective realization of the very meaning in life as given by the divine message. This was indeed the loss of true unity, not the differences of ethnicities, languages, cultures and geographical divisions.

Thirdly, an imprisoned Deen, confined in rigid traditionalism and regimentalist approach was bound to promote (C) a paranoid apprehension of science and a knee-jerk rejection of anything new and modern; the glaring examples are many; from rejection of written communication in the beginning, and subsequently printing, then camera, loud-speaker and many others. The story, especially of printing, was painfully interesting. For decades it was rejected in the name of religion. In Ottoman Turkey, the seat of Muslim civilization, printing was allowed only for the minority communities while any printing in Arabic language, even of any translated book was considered blasphemous as Arabic was the language of the Quran. In recent times, we have witnessed similar Jargonish jurisprudence debate about the permissibility of loud-speaker whit it was first introduced. For decades and even now photography by cameras and making videos is considered ‘haram’ by many mullahs. Paranoid apprehensions of medical advances, new modalities of treatment based upon scientific research, vaccinations and new approaches to mental illnesses are still common. Contraception and other methods of family planning have failed to get religious sanction. While Europe was inventing and freely using new technologies in various fields, busy in research and investigation, dissemination of knowledge and eradication of diseases, Muslims were engaged in stupid discussions and debates about the permissibility of anything new because of exaggerated fears of moral degradation they will bring. Whereas Quran has invited people to think, ponder and reflect and the Prophet has encouraged Muslims to seek knowledge, the restricted mind of a misunderstood religion was quick to define knowledge as meaning only the religious knowledge. Many of the so called scholars have expressly admitted to such suffocated understanding of what knowledge is. To escalate the damage  further, they have also freely indoctrinated common people that religious knowledge is superior to worldly or secular knowledge. How sad!!