Problem of universal success in Muslim world and intellectual drift


 MAY 29, 2023 – DAILY SABAH

Illustration by Erhan Yalvaç.

Illustration by Erhan Yalvaç.

With no prominent Muslims featured in any global achievers lists – regardless of their fields of subjects – Muslim society and individuals have been pushed to the sidelines. As long as it is our destiny to be deprived of “world-renowned” figures, it is inevitable that we will continue to be the subject of “phobia.”

It is hard to write about the subjects and concepts that carry the traces of great tragedies! The problem is more or less obvious, there are no words to describe it and above all, there is a sense of despair regarding the solution. Such cases remind us of the idiom: “When there is no solution for a problem, it is no longer a problem but a destiny.”

It is also difficult to write about a great issue in a country that has not been affected by it in principle. When a problem emerges in one place but is discussed elsewhere, any nonchalant writer would lose their direction and fall into heroism.

Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon. Since the emergence of Islam, the attitude toward it has been sour. Actually, that is the nature of the religion, it gives people discomfort to some extent and encourages a kind of “antipathy,” something not specific to Islam. Muslims were also unfriendly to many groups and traditions.

Being human does not always necessitate embracing “the other” with love. “The other” is sometimes a rival and we imagine that they will take what is ours. Sometimes they’re an enemy and we suspect that they intend to harm us, and sometimes they mean nothing and we do not even care. In any case, “the other” becomes an object of phobia to the extent that he is threatening us.

New Muslims became an object of phobia for Arab society, which was fond of poetry and rhetoric, enjoying their time within their narrow aristocratic traditions. Any religion that maintains the idea that all human beings are equal and everyone must worship one God would be treated as a threat to aristocratic traditions.

Islam built a new world, settling down right in the middle of trade routes between India and the Mediterranean and becoming an object of phobia for Iranians and Egyptians, etc. When Iran was conquered, the elites were furious at the thought that “Arab shepherds” had invaded their lands. Meanwhile, for Christians, Islam was always a threat because its existence meant the rejection of Christianity as a religion. Most Muslims do not understand the underlying reasons behind this.

Undisciplined Bedouin movement

Islam was accused of disbelief by Christians since their religion was based on the embodiment of God, not on prophethood or the holy book. Muslims’ warm and sincere attitude toward Christians did not change their view. The closeness between these two groups was only achieved in the political and social arena but we never really encounter closeness between them in terms of religion. According to Christian theology, believing Jesus was just a prophet means disbelief equivalent to infidelity.

For this reason, even though Islam and Christianity were inclined to have a close relationship, Christianity always saw Islam as “destructive” and was frightened by it. Upon their first encounter, Christians regarded Islam as an undisciplined Bedouin movement against the true religion and this point of view has not changed in principle, however, its content has changed in European history. Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and numerous such works interpreted Islam as an enemy of the true religion and the European mind was fueled by this interpretation.

It is also important to distinguish the differences between current and historical events. Today, developed countries treat Islamic society as a burden and undeveloped people stuck in the Middle Ages. Such an assessment has some perks that can be seen as “an honor.” Above all, it is a blessing to rely on religion in many areas like strong faith in God, morality and basic human values.

However, Islam as a religion has nothing to do with oddities in Islamic societies, whether it is strange to Muslims themselves or other groups. We should take into account the habits rooted in tradition and prevent societies from developing, or human nature and such. Islam has strong bonds with varied cultures spreading across Africa to Asia and maintains their traces within the religion.

Today, issues arising from cultural domains cause some serious problems, especially in terms of human rights – at least in the rights that the religion upholds like the right to life, freedom of thought and safety of property. The objects of phobia should be identified, while the Islamic ones should be distinguished from ones rooted in tradition and social structures. In this respect, considering the cultural and geographical problems, it is unfair to direct all the reactions and criticisms against Muslim societies toward Islam.

Successful figures

A few years ago, we met with a group of college students for a workshop in Alanya, in the southern Turkish province of Antalya. The topic of discussion was the problems of understanding Islamic thought in the modern world. Given the theme of “the modern world,” it was inevitable that the discussion led to the problems of living in Europe. Everyone was talking about how hard it was to live under the heavy burden that history put on us and how it was like running while carrying a heavy load. Almost everyone believed that they were unsuccessful in their lives not because of their personal failures, but historical ones.

In order to bring a new perspective, I read a part of the biography of Austrian author Stefan Zweig. In his works about 19th-century Vienna, Zweig made an important observation: “It is generally accepted that getting rich is the only and typical goal of the Jew. Nothing could be further from the truth. Riches are to him merely a stepping stone, a means to the true end, and in no sense the real goal. The real determination of the Jew is to rise to a higher cultural plane in the intellectual world. Even the wealthiest man will prefer to give his daughter in marriage to the poorest intellectual than to a merchant.” Then he continued with what Jewish people achieved through this intellectual elevation in their societies.

Looking at his observations, there are a few points that could guide the Muslim world. One of the most critical problems of Muslim societies is that they lack exemplary universal success. Whatever the field or the subject may be, having no name in the list of “universal successes” makes it hard for Muslim societies to keep up with the century. This is the case in almost all fields: science, art, business, music, etc. As long as it is our destiny to not have influential figures with great success, we will continue to be the object of phobia.

It is unnecessary to talk about the reasons or at least it would be a waste of time to talk about the external obstacles. Analyzing the experiences in Europe, we can reach some data to figure out the reasons. When Muslims from different parts of the Islamic world went to any developed country, they did not set their hopes on this new place, rather they dreamt of returning to their homeland one day. That is why they made investments in their cities or villages, instead of their future or children’s education. This kind of choice narrowed down their realm of existence, keeping them on the periphery.

Muslims should follow the path Zweig pointed out before: An intellectual elevation and investment in science, art and thought which will eventually bring out successful figures. Unless the Muslim world achieves this, it will never become an esteemed community and each of its members will suffer the consequences to varied degrees.

Separation and minds drifting

Any unresolved problem becomes a characteristic that will end up destroying the structures. One of the long-lasting problems of the Muslim world is the lack of problem-solving skills. Whatever the problem is, it cannot be solved. We waste a lot of time talking about it and we continue to discuss the same problem with the same state of mind for decades. It is also the case for the discussions about the rising hate toward Muslims. As the problem stays unresolved, it is put on the pile of other problems and the problem gets deeper, the situation worse.

When Muslim societies recognized their failures, they started to experience separation intellectually. Many intellectuals blamed the traditions and partially the religion for these failures. Even though this was a dominant approach that had many powerful followers in the Muslim world, it did not solve any of the problems.

Some of the intellectuals maintained the idea that the divergence from true Islam was the reason for the failures. But they also failed to explain why and they could not shed light on how true Islam would lead us to success. We witnessed harsh criticisms directed toward Muslims, starting with Muhammad Iqbal and Mehmet Akif. It could be reasonable to find people “unsuccessful” but blaming them for being “bad Muslims” was a dead end: “They were neither successful nor good Muslims.” That was the common opinion of Muslim intellectuals about their community.

Later intellectuals supported this argument. Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, Nurettin Topçu, Sayyid Qutb and Ali Shariati, etc. all agreed on this while having different motives. Many intellectuals had another justification for acknowledging the criticisms of the modern world. The difference between them was that: Intellectuals wanted to clear Islam from the problems that modernism tried to lay on the religion and faith by blaming Muslims for those problems. Their ideal Muslim was so out of reach that they fancied to find the good Muslims “over the sky” and they idealized this perfect Muslim in order to glorify Islam.

This approach has got more powerful in the face of Islamophobia. Today, Islamophobia causes internal conflicts and deepening separations that pose serious problems in the Islamic world. Now more than ever, new generations are having a hard time carrying the burden of history and Muslim societies are under a great deal of pressure of public opinion. Holding it together under the guidance of reason and knowledge is necessary. Muslims are losing their confidence in their history and their respect for people.

Young intellectuals do not look at Islamic thought, its concepts and the worldview it presents with hope. So, Islamophobia is no longer a problem specific to the Muslims living in developed countries but it has turned into a means of oppression that separates Muslim intellectuals and drifts their minds. This is the principal problem we should be focusing on.


Academic at the Department of Sufism, Faculty of Theology, Istanbul University


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