The history of the middle ages is a chronicle of Man’s lust for power and intellectual tyranny. It is a period characterized by the prominence of religious despotism. The central concept which fuelled the movements of intellectual regeneration and freedom of thought during the late mediaeval period was the desire to break free from this religious authoritarianism. However, the ‘advanced’ intellectual approach which the religious reform movements of Europe relied upon to escape from the shackles of religion was not without its own bias. The intense desire to fracture the stronghold of the Papacy and the Clergy led to the adoption of an aggressive, intellectual style of debate, which on occasions resulted in the sacrifice of life and property. The positions adopted by both sides were so extreme and uncompromising that any attempt at mutual understanding was almost impossible.
In contrast, the Muslim world during the middle ages displayed a degree of openness and religious tolerance which far exceeded that of the West. Excepting a few isolated examples it is impossible to find historical incidents in the Islamic world of religious prejudice and hatred which have been worthy of going down in the annals of religious bigotry. In fact it was this tolerance which inspired Christianity to renew its religious thought, particularly after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Thus the transmission of knowledge, originating from the centres of learning such as Cordoba and Baghdad, resulted in illuminating Europe during its ‘Dark Ages’.
However, both the movement for religious reform and the renaissance of science lost all sense of proportion, transgressing beyond the limits of sound reasoning. The dawn of the Sun of ‘freedom of thought’ not only exposed the bigotry and bias of religious thought and opinion, it also popularised the irrational ridiculing of the fundamental tenets of religious faith which went far beyond the legitimate critique of Papal exploitation and authority. In apportioning blame and responsibility against the religious tyranny, the intellectuals of the time did not distinguish between the beliefs of the individuals who were behind the oppression and the universal principles of religion. Instead the latter was subsumed under the former and was not subjected to an independent critique. Secular scholars of the time such as Bradlow identified numerous inconsistencies within the teachings of Christianity and gradually this influenced the undermining of faith in the truth of religion as a whole.
In the East, sects such as the Mutazilites and the followers of pure reason, influenced by the opinions of the Greek philosophers, sought to find a rational basis for diverting people away from Islam. However, the religion of Islam never came under the complete sway and domination of one particular group or school of thought. With the minor exceptions of a few historical movements, Islam has succeeded in retaining its cosmological world view intact. The situation in Europe however, was such that religious learning slipped out of the hands of the great masters and scholars and fell into the intellectual confines of the blind followers of these intellectual and spiritual pioneers. As a result of this we find that, by the end of the fifteenth century, religion in the West became almost entirely defensive and reactionary in its outlook. In the context of the battle for intellectual and political domination and freedom of choice, Christianity had to admit defeat. The fundamental reason for this was the intellectual stagnation, blind adherence to the outward form of customs and traditions, unfamiliarity with the changes and advancements in learning, and the failure to acknowledge the results of intellectual thought and enquiry of the time. The Church stubbornly refused at any cost to give up the influence it had for centuries exercised over the minds of the ordinary masses; nor was it willing to relinquish some share of this power. In the midst of a climate of a renaissance of scientific learning and radical shifts in intellectual thought, the movements which promoted a secular approach found it relatively easy, with a few minor exceptions, to oblige religion into humbling itself and assuming a diminished role within society.
The situation in the East was entirely different. The main distinguishing feature was the failure of a narrow-minded clerical elite in establishing a complete stronghold on religion. As a consequence, the secular backlash and resulting conflict had an almost negligible impact on religious thought in Islamic society and popular culture. The absence of a popular uprising against religion in the Islamic world was a result of several factors intrinsic to the religion of Islam. Firstly, the simplicity and appeal of its religious philosophy coupled with a message which was unambiguous and free from internal contradictions. Secondly, the fundamental infrastructure of Islam with its unrelenting emphasis on the welfare, success and happiness of all people was an extremely attractive world view. Thirdly, the intellectual and religious tolerance, within the context of a thriving culture and civilization which was constantly expanding its borders, had a convincing appeal in comparison to the harsh, ruthless and bigoted alternatives of the time. The centres of the Islamic world were characterized by sophisticated social and economic infrastructures, underpinned by justice and fairness: it was a society where even the rights of non-Muslims were safeguarded and protected under Islamic Law. Even in the darkest days of Islamic history, the rights guaranteed by Islam continued to be respected.
In addition to the philosophy and outlook of Islam there was, however, another extremely vital and fundamental factor which diminished the necessity for mass protest and revolution. In fact, it ensured that Islamic society and culture would never be permeated by an extreme version of the basic instinct for ‘survival’, similar to that which occurred in Europe. This underlying element was the presence of the Quran. It was a text which was beyond the slightest taint of uncertainty, whose every word and letter was above any tampering, and whose intrinsic value as a source of absolute knowledge was never in doubt. Indeed, not even a single dot or letter had been subject to any alteration since the time of the original revelation up till the present day, a period spanning over fifteen centuries.
This characteristic of the Quran was of such an amazing, astonishing and miraculous nature that it set it apart from all other scriptures: it was a fact which the doyens and standard bearers of modern thought could not comprehend or explain away. In comparison to other inspired scriptures, the divine status and reputation of the Quran was evidently clear, and its standard of wisdom and insight was able to withstand any type of critique and scrutiny. When considered alongside the Quran, the scriptures of other faiths appear as though they are the products of individual effort, even though it is possible to glimpse a ray of the ‘mind’ of God the Almighty and Exalted in these writings. Despite this, the influence of human agency coupled with the distortions of key passages is discernible.
However, it must be acknowledged that although it is possible to discern the awareness of God’s injunctions within the corpus of the other inspired scriptures, it is difficult to perceive within their choice of language and style of exposition anything approximating to the level of the Divine. Furthermore, none of the prophets and sages, who may be regarded as the main mediating instruments of their scriptures, devised or put into place a system which would safeguard the contents of their message. For instance, even though the Torah and the New Testament acquired the rank of being the ‘Message of God,' they could not attain the level of being the exact ‘letter of God.' Because of this, scholars, disciples and religious authorities of later generations, motivated by selfish egoistic concerns and the desire to attain worldly honour and status, were afforded an opportunity to distort the meanings of scripture through verbal and semantic manipulations. Perhaps, this is why God refers to these scriptures as His ‘message’ and not as His ‘word’, and states in the Quran with absolute clarity that He no longer regards these distorted scriptures as worthy of being relied upon, and that if you desire an authoritative and verified account regarding His laws and universal principles, then turn to the Quran.
It may be argued that the difference between the Quran and other divinely inspired books is of such a magnitude that any attempt to equate it with them is unjustifiable. The broad-brush approach adopted by some contemporary critics of regarding all revealed scripture as one and the same, without any rational basis or authentic analysis, is utterly absurd and intellectually flawed. According to the accepted methodology of the intellectual and scientific community, there is no rational justification for the assumption that the text of the Quran is identical and comparable to the contents of other divine scriptures. On further reflection it is evident that not only is the Quran incomparable to other religious revelations, it is also impossible to find, within the entire literary effort past and present of humanity, a written text which equals the Quran both in significance and authenticity, and its insights on reality.
Despite their reliance on the latest paradigms, theories and techniques of textual criticism, it is these features of the Quran which compelled the pseudo-rationalist faction within the Muslim community to acknowledge that the text of the Quran was free from distortion. Instead, they began to assert that its true meanings had been misinterpreted. Nevertheless, it is a historical fact that the Quran has remained unchanged as regards its accuracy and authenticity, and has been totally free from any kind of distortion or misrepresentation. However, this has meant that in all times and ages it has had to encounter challenges of one kind or another.
Amidst the change and upheaval of history and in periods of progress and decline, the Quran has posed an open challenge to popular and common beliefs, to the conclusions of intellectual struggle and strife, to human curiosity, and to the boundaries of confusion, certainty and doubt. In particular, during times of intellectual advancement and the expansion of human understanding the Quran took a position contrary to that of the ‘latest’ intellectual revolution, without experiencing intellectual defeat or embarrassment. In fact, no period in human history has been able to declare or demonstrate any shortcomings in the facts of the Quran: even though at times the limitations of human knowledge and understanding have meant that humankind could not access the depth of meaning contained within the Quranic data.
Both the intellectual investigations and ‘scientific’ discoveries of the middle ages were inherently unreliable and far removed from certainty. For instance, we find that the learning and knowledge promoted and popularised during this era appear nowadays as nothing more than antiquated and obsolete myths. In fact the opinions and views that were presented regarding certain phenomena, in hindsight seem crude and uninformed. Although we must pay tribute to the intellectual curiosity reflected in the mediaeval scholars' research, it is not even remotely possible for us to accept and agree with their conclusions.
The fact that it was, and still is, impossible for anyone to change the words of the Quran, meant that many religious scholars resorted to personal interpretations when undertaking Quranic exegesis. Due to the intellectual shortcomings of some of these commentators, it appeared that certain definitive and conclusive verses of the Quran were open to criticism based on modern scientific research and discoveries. This view was also the result of the absence of true knowledge and insight into reality, and an age which did not accept anything beyond empirical science and physical matter: in the context of a popular Zeitgeist which did not recognize the limitations of both scientific instruments and the human intellect. It is worth bearing in mind that, despite these historically and culturally bound criticisms, the conclusive and definitive findings of science and intellectual enquiry as opposed to scientific opinions and theories, in fact confirmed and supported the claims of the Quran and acknowledged the presence of the Almighty. In contrast, the uncovering and deeper understanding of physical phenomena through scientific research and discovery began to reveal glaring inconsistencies between science and the sacred texts of other religious traditions. Faced with this, the followers of these faiths had no choice other than to declare total and blind adherence to their religions and thus expanded the rift between reason and revelation or science and religion.
The hasty and knee-jerk response of the intellectuals and ‘sages’ of the new scientific and secular thinking did not distinguish between various religions, lumping them all together under one critique. Thus European thinkers, and certain ‘sages’ of the East who blindly followed them, declared religion to be a ‘backward’ and regressive notion and tried their utmost to diminish its importance in human affairs. For instance, they proclaimed that all religion was incompatible with scientific reasoning and thought. This claim was and still is entirely baseless and without a shred of truth: it reflected the limited knowledge and ignorance of these ‘scholars’.
The view that all religious teachings were irreconcilable with science had some unfortunate consequences. For instance, a cursory reading of the Quranic text, followed by a superficial analysis, led to a novel, imitative and short-sighted attitude towards the Quran. As a result of this, religion was declared as outmoded, and its practices deemed to be incapable of practical implementation. Instead, the lifestyles of the modern age predicated on the pursuit of physical pleasures, and animalistic instincts were upheld and promoted. The tragedy was that these scholars and intellectuals regarded the reading and understanding of the Quran as a waste of time. Even those who did read the Quran did not ponder deeply on its wisdom and remained within the confines of its recitation and the appreciation of its rhythmic beauty, whilst some religious folk used the Quran primarily as a means to attain a livelihood. Moreover, there were those, who on the basis of their narrow-minded and sectarian interpretations reduced this great source of inspired wisdom and knowledge to fit within the dogmatic parameters of their particular school of thought.
Despite their limited capacity for balanced and rigorous intellectual thought, the teachers and dons of these religious schools attempted to raise the profile of their intellectual status and credentials by resorting to the use of inflated and hyperbolic titles and appellations. Furthermore, they proclaimed that their unenlightened and superficial interpretations were above any shortcomings or criticism. Not only did they drag the Quran down to the level and standard of their self-centred writings, they also succeeded in erecting such robust barriers and walls of intellectual prejudice and bigotry which diverted the Muslim Ummah from understanding the reality of the cosmos, miring them instead, in the rut of mundane and humdrum issues.
The adversaries and critics of religion, who were without doubt immensely more educated and intelligent than the teachers of the religious schools, fell into the trap of regarding the limited and unenlightened interpretations of these narrow-minded teachers as the ultimate benchmark and standard of the Quran. Based upon this they proclaimed that Islam as a religion was characterized by bigotry and extremism. It seemed that it was now the turn of Islam to bear the brunt of the secular critique, since Christianity and other major religions had already been reduced to the level of mere custom and tradition, with no significant role to play in civilized society. Communism and socialism had forced themselves into the minds of people in a similar fashion to the intellectual tyranny of the middle Ages, and this approach to life was purely restricted to the materialistic aspects of human existence, declaring that all the metaphysical and cosmic realities of the religion of Islam were no more than ancient fairy tales. Instead, they firmly believed that their philosophy of materialism was the ultimate truth, and pointed to the abject condition of the Muslims coupled with their limited contributions as evidence of their success and the truth of their arguments. However, since communism was at the same time undertaking an ideological battle with countries following the European model which promoted opposing values such as social independence, freedom of thought and free trade, it was inevitable that it would lose this battle because of its short-sightedness and limited materialistic approach to human life.
After the fall of communism, it was only a matter of time before the secular culture of the West came face to face with Islam. The fact was that the military resources of Islam were few and its intellectual resources were even fewer. On the other hand, the widespread opportunities for ease, comfort and luxury available in a secular culture had quickly tempted people towards it. The values of religion were declared as enemies of freedom of thought and personal liberty. Faced with this relentless secular onslaught, Christianity had no choice but to compromise; in order to survive it had to learn to live at the mercy of a free and secular culture. In a very short time it accepted defeat, with the result that we find that religion in free secular societies merely exists as a personal and private inclination. What is more, it morally degraded itself to such a level that it felt obliged to give its approval and blessing to extremely reprehensible acts such as homosexuality.
The religion of God, known as Islam, holds no complaint or bitterness against others. Its lament is that it has been held hostage by the arrogance, ostentation and posturing of its adherents. Having abandoned and cast aside the higher aims and goals of life, the Muslim Ummah has been consumed by the scourge of sectarianism. The tyranny and dictatorship of partisan religious scholars (Mullahism) strived to extinguish the qualities of sincerity and thinking within the Muslim Ummah. The Muslims have been diverted from the fundamental goals of religion, and with the passing of each day, erect new schools and seminaries devoted to a particular interpretation of the faith. People of mediocre thinking exploit religion for personal power and glory, and even the most highly respected religious institutions of learning are fanning the flames of bigotry and sectarianism. The act of separating God from religion has encouraged within all the religious movements of modern times a cult of secrecy on the style of freemasonry, exclusivity centred around a figure head, and a personal perspective promoted as a universal truth.
The Muslim world has not transformed into a society without religion, but it has been infected with religious paralysis. It has become an arena in which ideologies from every corner of the globe are reflected and contested. This has resulted in the trivialization and belittling of religion. For instance, Muslim society displays a greater willingness to accept and adopt the beliefs of scientific and political theories in comparison to those of religion. In fact, it clearly communicates its desire to follow common and conventional styles of thinking instead of religion. Suffering from the twin curses of an illiterate population and extreme underdevelopment, the governments of Islamic countries show more interest in holding on to political power and promoting nationalism, instead of bettering their people through a deep understanding of religion.
A handful of individuals and ‘thinkers’ are driving the intellectual thought processes of the Muslim Ummah: the majority of whom are beguiled by Western ideals and concepts. They are devoid of personal identity and lack the capacity to conceive of an effective and alternative vision. Standing shoulder to shoulder, both the narrow-minded rulers and these ‘intellectuals’, having been educated in the lecture halls of Europe and having ‘tasted the freedom of western culture,’ are working relentlessly to create a secular society. What is happening in reality is that they are creating a new ‘church’ in opposition to the model of religion espoused by the shortsighted and poorly educated ‘scholars’ of Islam. This battle for the hearts and minds of Muslim society is conducted at all levels. In the name of personal freedom and liberty, mass media and modern communications technology is actively engaged in a struggle to popularise, at a grass roots level, the notion of a ‘free’ society. The biggest thorn in the side of this campaign is religion.
This clash of values is not merely in the East or the West, but is visible at all levels and within every Islamic country. Nevertheless, Islam stands tall, as though it awaits the coming of those who possess, like the first generation of Muslims, minds suffused with sincerity, purity and clarity, and who will raise high the banner of God’s love and create an Islamic society in harmony with human nature: an exemplary society the like of which has never been witnessed before either on terrestrial land or the starry firmament, in which the love and recognition of God would form the backbone of religion. It would be a society in which power would lie not with force and oppression, but with knowledge and understanding; wherein, as well as bettering the conditions of this physical, temporary and short spanned life on earth, preparations would also be made for the never-ending, everlasting life beyond the grave; where there would be no cause for stress, anxiety and emotional upheaval, other than the normal concerns of life and death; wherein the words ‘compassion’ and ‘blessing’ would attain their full meaning. The creation of such a society is not merely the dreams of a utopian paradise, without historical precedence. The culture and society of the Prophetic era and that of the rightly guided Khalifahs is a historical fact. However, it is a sad observation that this is the only historical realization of the vision of Islam, and one which has never been repeated in succeeding generations.
(Translated from Muqaddama-tul-Quran (pp....)
An English Edition of Muqaddama-tul-Quran by Prof.Ahmad Rafique Akhtar