How Islam Failed Muslims
Why is it that the People of the Book
(Christians and Jews) and some idolater nations have overtaken the
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
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
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 Some of these rules are no longer
applicable for the 21st century.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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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.”