The Muslim world suffers from disunity, poverty and bad governance. Political fragmentation runs deep across what the classical scholars called dar al-Islam, the land of peace. Civil wars, sectarian and tribal conflicts, occupations and military interventions and failed states and weak governments squander the natural and human resources of Muslim countries. What is more alarming than political division and disunity, however, is the mental and spiritual fragmentation that engulfs the Muslim world today.
Muslim empires, states and emirates have had their share of political differences and power rivalries. But the social imagination that united Muslim communities from the Balkans and Africa to the Middle East and Southeast Asia has always remained strong. Sharing the same intellectual and spiritual outlook was the greatest strength of the ummah. What united the Muslim world mentally and spiritually transcended political, ethnic and sectarian differences. The Muslim world needs to recover this spirit today.
The intellectual outlook and social imagination of traditional Muslim societies was rooted in divine unity, justice and virtue. It was also based on divine love and love for each other because God is infinitely merciful and forgiving. Human beings have to love God, the natural world and other human beings as part of their faith. The world has been given to human beings as a ‘trust’ (amanah) and one is expected to take care of it. This worldview also advocated the contingency and transitoriness of the world. The “world” in which we live does not stand on its own; it is not a self-sufficient substance. It exists to serve a purpose and that is to allow finite human beings to establish faith, justice and virtue in this world. Only our good deeds can measure our humanity.
This particular view of the world and its meaning for human beings penetrated all human action in the Muslim world. From a simple peasant and shoemaker to great architects, scholars, traders and statesmen, everybody breathed the intellectual and spiritual air of a transcendent reality that went beyond the trials and tribulations of this world. Armies, wars and empires came and went but the moral fabric of the Muslim communities persevered.
It is not a coincidence that the Muslim world produced some of its greatest works of science, art and scholarship during and after the two major assaults on its lands, i.e., the Crusades and the Mongol invasions. The Crusaders took Jerusalem in 1099 and bloodied the holy land in a way never seen before. The Mongols destroyed everything that came their way and finally decimated the once-mighty Abbasid Empire in 1258 with the streets of Baghdad running red for days. Intra-Muslim political fighting continued almost unabated in the 12th and 13th centuries and after. But none of this prevented the emergence and flourishing of a long list of Muslim luminaries in every field of intellectual and spiritual sciences. Imam Ghazali, Fahr al-Din al-Razi, al-Suyuti, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Bajjah, Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, Ibn al-Arabi, Suhrawardi, al-Biruni, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Ibn Khaldun and many others built a universal civilization despite the political and military turbulences that surrounded them.
Large-scale political conflicts and military confrontations did have a cost on the lives of ordinary people as well as scholarly and artistic communities. But this was never an excuse to justify intellectual laziness and moral conformism. To the contrary, the intellectual and spiritual leaders of the Ummah turned crises into opportunities to be more creative, more resilient and more responsible. They did not wait for political and military crises to be resolved to produce their works. To the contrary, it is the resilience and continuity of their enduring works that helped mitigate political conflicts in the long run.
It is true that Muslim philosophers, scholars and artists have had their own particular points of view and healthy differences and disputes. But they shared an intellectual outlook and social imagination that sustained a scholarly and artistic tradition for centuries. They operated in a conceptual environment that maintained the principle of “unity-in-diversity” (wahdah fi’l-kathrah). They held that unity is not uniformity and diversity is not chaos.
The unity and integrity of this intellectual and spiritual outlook has been lost in the Muslim world today. The Muslim intelligentsia is neither deeply rooted in its own tradition nor feels comfortable with the new worldview of secular modernity. It is torn between a glorious past, a conflict-ridden present and an uncertain future. Paradoxically and also tragically, national, cultural and sectarian identities color our perspectives and responses today in world of globalization and growing interdependency. The result is a mental and spiritual fragmentation that comes at a high price: it deepens existing differences and divisions, creates further alienation, and leads to endless conflicts.
The Muslim world has to recover from this state of impoverishment and rebuild its intellectual and moral habitat. While being firmly anchored in its own tradition and roots, it has to approach the world with the perspective of an open horizon. The political disunity will only be overcome when a common grammar will be regained to make sense of the world in which we live.