How Islam Failed Muslims

By: Ohmyrus


Why is it that the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) and some idolater nations have overtaken the Muslim world?

President Perves Musharaf of Pakistan recently said that Muslims are the most illiterate, unhealthy, poorest of peoples in the world today. He is right and I might add, very few Muslim countries are democracies including his own.

Muslims at one time were the most powerful, richest and advanced people of the world. From them arose four great empires – the Ummayad Empire, the Abassid Empire the Mogul Empire and the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

Their decline can be traced to about 1700 when the west caught up with the Ottoman Empire, the last great Muslim empire.

A number of reasons were advanced for this decline and more recent failures by the Muslims themselves, including the invasion of the Mongols, the crusades, western imperialism and Israel, the perpetual whipping boy. An idea gaining ground in the Muslim world is that their low estate is due to Muslims turning away from God. The remedy is therefore to become more Islamic.

In my opinion, the most important reason for Muslim failure is Islam itself.
Islam is a complete way of life as Muslims are fond of saying. Islam tells you how to punish criminals, how many wives you can have and even which hand is assigned for toilet duty. No other religion is so detailed as to what you can or cannot do.

But the rules governing this complete way of life were developed for a 7th century medieval desert society. Some of these rules are no longer applicable for the 21st century.

Let me give you four reasons why Islam impedes progress. But first, let me say that I am not interested in making a value judgement on what is right or wrong. I believe that religious ideas can have an impact on economic growth and am only concerned in assessing the impact of Islam on the economy and society.

Imbedded in the Koran is the shariah law. This makes it difficult to separate mosque from state. A good Muslim desires to follow Mohammed’s teachings to the full and this means that he must desire to live in an Islamic state where the shariah law is enforced.

Thus in every Muslim country, there exists a group of people who desires to live in an Islamic state. Pakistan tried it when Zia Ul Haq was president. The economy was ruined in the attempt.

So far, there have been four other attempts at an Islamic state – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and lately Afghanistan under the Taliban. None of them successfully led their people to sustainable industrialization though oil money in Saudi Arabia and Iran hid their failures.

To make matters worse, out of the Muslims who desire an Islamic state, a minority is prepared to use violence to achieve it. Their reasoning goes something like this.

God’s law is higher than man’s law. Sounds reasonable, right? Democracy is man made. Therefore an Islamic state, which is ruled in accordance to God’s law, is superior to democracy. In fact, democracy is a form of idolatry where you put man above Allah.

This rejection of democracy not only hinders its establishment in many (fortunately not all) Muslim countries but some Muslims feel perfectly justified in using violence to create an Islamic state. They don’t see the need to let the ballot box decide since God is above any man made democracy.

This is due to the nature of Islam itself where its founder, Prophet Mohammed was also a military commander. Thus to a militant Muslim, Al-Qaeda’s attempt to violently create an Islamic state in SE Asia is only doing exactly what Prophet Mohammed did in his lifetime. His words of violence, perhaps uttered in the heat of war, are now forever recorded in the Koran and Hadiths as Holy Scripture. Let me give you a few examples.

Surah 8:39 (or thereabouts) says, “Make war on them until idolatry shall cease and God’s religion shall reign supreme.”

Surah 8:12 says, “God revealed his will to the angels, saying: “I shall be with you. Give courage to the believers. I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers!”

Surah 9:39 (or thereabouts) says, “If you do not go to war, He will punish you sternly, and will replace you by other men.”

If I am not mistaken, Osama bin Laden said this or something very similar in that famous training video that CNN and BBC kept playing many times after September 11.

While most Muslims are peaceful people who interpret the Koran in a non-violent manner, such verses create the potential for a minority to justify the use of violence for the establishment of an Islamic state. For centuries, Muslims have declared jihad (holy war) against the enemies of Islam.

If they die in a jihad, the reward is paradise filled with fruit trees and the loving company of numerous houris (heavenly virgins) with their “high bosoms”. It is somewhat similar to the ancient Viking belief in Valhalla where the brave warriors go to when they die in battle. None of the other major religions in practice today have this concept.

Even if such people are a small minority, their presence destabilizes countries and frightens away western or Japanese investors. Between India and Pakistan, which country do you think is more attractive to an American investor? I think there is no comparison. Why go to Pakistan where there are people wanting to kill you? Some of these militants think that the killing of an infidel American or Jew will win them passage to paradise.

The presence of violent men not only deters foreign investors but also make it impossible to have a functioning democracy.

The second way Islam failed Muslims is by suppressing its women. Women are considered inferior to man and in a hadith are described as mentally deficient. That is why one male witness is equal to two female witnesses in an Islamic court. Take a look at Surah 4:34 from the Holy Koran which approves of wife beating:

“Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart and beat them.”

What is the economic implication of this attitude towards women? Since they are thought of as inferior, there is discrimination in the workplace. Since there is discrimination against women in the work place, parents give a lower priority for their daughter’s education.

If you go the Middle East, you will find that men dominate the work place. Women are expected to be homemakers.

Averroes (1126 - 1198) believed that much of the poverty and distress of his time was due to the fact that women were “kept like domestic animals or house plants for purposes of gratification, instead of being allowed to take part in the production of material and intellectual wealth, and in the preservation of the same.”

Women who stay at home tend to have more children. They tend to see their children as their security in old age. That is why there is a high birth rate in most of the Islamic world. A high birth rate means poverty perpetuating itself, as there are fewer resources to educate everybody. That is why poor third world countries are advised to promote family planning.

Saudi Arabia’s per capita GDP has declined compared to 20 years ago mainly because its population has grown and its oil revenue has not. It has not succeeded in developing manufacturing export industries like the East Asians have.

As a result, Saudi Arabia is actually getting poorer-though still rich. Thus, suppressing women not only deprive a nation of half its work force but also increase its birth rate and hence make them poor.

On the other hand, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, emancipated Turkish women. He banned polygamy, the veil and insisted that women be as well educated as the men. He gave them the vote and allowed them to be elected into parliament. Today, the most advanced Muslims are the Turks as a result of Ataturk’s reforms of which women’s emancipation was one.

The third teaching of Islam that impeded progress was the prohibition of usury – the lending of money for interest. This helped the west to overtake the Ottoman Turks because the west (initially also prohibited from lending for interest) developed banks earlier.

Banks encourages savings which are then pooled together to lend to businessmen. Savings can later be tapped to invest in joint stock companies and business ventures. Companies can be larger and more efficient with greater economies of scale. Savings and investments together with a debt market promote economic growth. London, Geneva, Amsterdam, Milan, Venice were great financial centers from the days of the Renaissance.

I believe the Muslims were late to develop the banking/finance industry because of the prohibitions against usury. Fortunately, today most Muslims ignore these ancient prohibitions. They borrow money from and deposit money into banks and use credit cards. For the pious, there are the Islamic banks. So this is no longer a problem. But the west had a head start in economic development.

Islamic banks are not supposed to charge interest, which is forbidden. But they are allowed to make profits. I am told that for the most part, there is nothing essentially different between Islamic banking and the conventional banking.

Very often, the “profits” they make is fixed and guaranteed. This means that profits are really “interest”. Theoretically, Islamic banks are supposed to share in the profits of the projects they lend to. If it is truly profits, they should earn more in good times and lose money in bad times.

This is difficult to arrange. If the project is promising, the customer does not want to share in the profits. They prefer to pay a fixed sum for the money advanced to them by the bank. If the project looks dicey, the bank wants to be safe and would ask for a fixed guaranteed return for its money.

All this goes to show that it is difficult to operate in the modern business world without usury. Islamic banking is thus an exercise in self-delusion.

The fourth reason is that Islam stifles Science. For Science to flourish, there must great tolerance for new ideas, which is sorely lacking in the Islamic world. Ideas (both scientific and philosophical) need to be freely debated so that good ideas are adopted and bad ones discarded. Islam is not the only religion to stifle Science. Just look at what happened to Galileo when he said that the earth revolves around the sun. But eventually rationality prevailed in Christendom.

This could happen in the west because there is a clear separation between Church and State. The separation was due to these famous words from Christ:

“Render unto Cesar the things that are Cesar’s. Render unto God the things that are God’s.”

The separation was not always perfect. But the principle ran like a golden thread since medieval times till the present. What it meant in practice is that the neither the medieval popes not the kings were as powerful as the Caliphs who possessed both temporal and spiritual power. For the Caliph any challenge to a religious doctrine also meant a challenge of the Caliph’s right to rule. Any challenge to the Caliph’s right to rule is also a challenge to God since the Caliph was by definition Prophet Mohammed’s successor.

To be sure, the Muslim world did produce many noted poets, philosophers and scientists – Al-Farabi, Al-Razi (a famous physician), Avicenna, Averroes etc. After the 7th century conquests of major part of the Byzantine empire and the Persian empire, the Arabs came into contact with more advanced civilizations – Christian, Zoroastrian and Hindu. They were eager to learn and acquire knowledge.

Books were translated into Arabic and the Caliphs were happy to employ non-Muslims, especially Peoples of the Book, to serve them. Greek science and philosophy were taught in schools and there was a fusion of Islamic ideas and Greek rationality. This inevitably led to a clash with the conservative religious scholars.

These scholars believed that all knowledge came from God’s revelation and philosophical and scientific inquiry will ultimately lead to unbelief. Those scientists and philosophers, while not rejecting (at least publicly) Islam believed that truth could also be derived from human reason. Human reason can be reconciled with God’s revelations.

The Mu’tazilites belonged to this rational school that had confidence in human reasoning. They initially enjoyed the protection of the caliphs and persecuted those who disagreed with them. But later they fell out of favour. A theologian, Al Ashari, who subordinated reason to revelation, dealt the rationalist Mu’tazilites a mortal wound.

About two centuries later, Al-Ghazali drove in the final nail thus ending the influence of Greek rationality in Islamic thinking. He wrote, “The source of their infidelity was their hearing terrible names such as Socrates and Hippocrates, Plato and Aristotle.”

He opposed the spirit of free inquiry saying that certain of the natural sciences were opposed to religion. He led Muslims back to an unquestioning literal interpretation of the Koran. The traditionalists had finally won. Science lost.

It should be noted that most of the scientists, poets and philosophers in Islam’s golden age (the time of the Abassid Caliphate) were Jews, Christians or Muslims who were suspected of apostasy or blasphemy. Many suffered harassment and even death. Thus if science did flourish during this golden age, it was in spite of Islam and not because of it.

In the Christian world, science managed to eventually triumph because the Pope was not as powerful as the Caliph thanks to the separation of Church and State. In Islam, where there is no separation of Mosque and State, the progressive forces of Greek rationality could not prevail and were ultimately stifled.

These are the many ways in which Islam impeded the progress of Muslims. However, there appears to be an idea sweeping the Muslim world that the path to greatness lies in greater Islamisation. By becoming more pious, they hope to win the favour of God and be restored to their former glories.

It is like a doctor prescribing smoking to cure lung cancer. To sum up, Islam stifles science, women and to a lesser degree in present times the banking industry. All these have a negative impact on economic growth. In addition, its doctrine of jihad and its propensity for violence makes it stony ground for democracy to flower. Let me leave you with a quote from Ataturk:

“The evils which had sapped the nation’s strength,” he declared, “had all been wrought in the name of religion.”

 Read other articles by Ohmyrus 






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