Note: Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadawi’s opinions below do not necessary reflect the opinions of the author or SuhaibWebb.com. To view Andrew Booso’s discussion and review of Shaykh Abdul Hasan’s positions, please be sure to visit the 4th part of the series: Part IV
Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi saw “almost all the Islamic countries, today, are in the grip of an acute intellectual crisis. Or, shall we say, an unrelenting battle of ideas and ideals is taking place throughout the Muslim world. It can aptly be described as a clash between the Islamic and the Western concepts of life, values and traditions.” Moreover, he argued that “the intellectual make-up, education and upbringing and personal and political interests of the ruling classes in Muslim countries require that Western ideals and forms of life should be pushed forward and the Muslim masses made to walk in the foot-steps of the West, changing or brushing aside, as the need be, whatever religious considerations, social attitudes and national customs and law and tradition came in the way or impeded their advance.”
He saw the influence of “the West” over the Muslim world, and he was fearful of its consequences, so much so that he characterised it as “the biggest and most vital problem before the Islamic world at the present time.” The danger was exacerbated by the fact of “the internal weaknesses of the Muslim countries coupled with the unrivalled ascendency of the Western Civilization and the irrefutable material and political superiority of the Western Powers.” Furthermore, whereas “Western Civilization” was seen as possessing “extensiveness, vitality and [an] all-conquering quality,” the “Eastern countries” were considered “hollow…both materially and spiritually” and suffering from “a crisis of faith and self-confidence.” In fact, “no nation [such as this] can aspire to maintain its individuality which lacks faith in itself and is plagued by inferiority complex and suffers from spiritual decay and degeneration.”
To prove his point about the fragility of the Muslim world in this regard, he used the example of the Gulf Arabs, often seen as the most conservative and thus protected people against such external influences:
“It did not take much time for Western Civilization to break through the fences the Arabs had erected around themselves and force its way triumphantly into the sacred land of Islam. The bazars and homes of Arabia were inundated with latest mechanical contraptions and the so-called luxury goods, the austerity, industriousness, chivalry and large-heartedness and all those other attributes of mind and character which had been the pride of the Arabs from the earliest days were erased out abruptly from their midst.
“The new contact between Arabia and the West was established through the routes of culture, civilization, politics and oil. It was done in a most hurried and haphazard manner…Beginning with outward forms, customs and usages, even the spiritual moorings of the Arabs have now begun to be threatened by the ever-increasing influence of Western Civilization.
“One by one, almost all the Muslim countries have come under the sway of modern Western Civilization. Their surrender has been brought about without much resistance for the simple reason that the Muslim ruling sections everywhere could not bring forth the mental robustness and perspicacity needed for the task…The educational system in the Islamic countries was out-dated and the blue-prints of its reconstruction had not been drawn with an eye on modern experience. Besides, the rejection of the teachings of Islam had created in these lands a state of affairs for which no justification could be found either in reason or in justice and which did not deserve to survive in any age, to speak nothing of the modern fast-changing one.”
In the context of criticising the educational system of the Muslims at this time, the Shaykh offered particular criticism at his own clerical class:
“As long as the Ulema (scholars) of the Islamic countries are devoid of the courage to discharge the religious obligation of speaking out the truth fearlessly in front of unjust and irresponsible rulers and allow selfish struggles for power and futile disputations and controversies over subsidiary and unimportant issues to eat up their time and energies and practical instances of religious training, piety, self-reliance and moral and spiritual strength and resoluteness remain extinct in their midst, and hostile movements and inimical ideologies are left free to invade the Muslim society, both openly and surreptitiously, and to work themselves out to the full – as long as this unnatural and woefully un-Islamic state of affairs is permitted to prevail in the Muslim countries, the World of Islam cannot hope release from its moral and political chaos and disorder. Revolutions are bound to take place in it, upheavals are sure to rock its foundations at regular intervals so long as the conditions there are so ugly and pathetic. The Muslim countries, today, are virtually sitting on the top of a volcano which is ready to erupt at any moment.
“The religious scepticism and waywardness of the modern-educated classes of the Muslim World is, to a certain extent, due also to the intellectual decadence and inertia that has taken hold of the Islamic educational and literary institutions and their representatives. On account of it, the Islamic sciences, in spite of their innate vitality and dynamism, have not been successful in giving a convincing proof of their richness and ability to offer guidance to the ever-evolving life, particularly during the modern days of ruthless competition and struggle. The syllabi of Islamic studies kept pace with life and went on developing with it in the earlier days when revolutionary upheavals were few and far between and almost of an identical nature. By and large, these convulsions were of a personal nature involving little more than a change of the ruler or the ruling dynasty. The formulators of the Islamic syllabi and other Muslim educationalists, till then, remained active and alert and through making suitable changes in the courses prescribed for study they furnished a steady proof of their social awareness and keenness of mind. When, however, with the dawn of the 18th century a new era opened in the history of mankind and revolutions assumed a much wider social significance as clashes between different ideologies and programmes of life, the Islamic educational system, including the syllabi, grew cumbrous and became fossilised. In the prescribing of subjects, in the choice of books and in the methods of instruction, the line chalked down by Mulla Nizamuddin in India, or the eighteenth century Deans of Al-Azhar in the Middle East, was religiously adhered to by all as something sacrosanct and inviolable. The principle of Ijtihad was, for all practical purposes, forgotten. It was not employed any more to re-examine the structure of Islamic Jurisprudence and to revise and enlarge it in light of the advancements made in human knowledge and from the point of view of the multitudinous problems thrown up by the new social and economic experiences. Though hedged around by a number of highly important and delicate conditions, Ijtihad constituted a permanent duty of Islamic theologists, and since it embodied the principle of movement in Islam it was the most valuable instrument for keeping pace with time. As an eminent Arab scholar, Mustafa Ahmad el-Zarqa, has remarked, “Though the ulema did not regard it as legally prohibited to open the door of Ijtihad, the key by which it could be opened had been lost long ago.””
Nevertheless, he saw the “greatest vacuum” of the Muslim world to be “leadership.” Such that “not one man is to be found anywhere – earnest, zealous and deep-hearted – who can face the challenge of Western Civilization with faith, courage and imagination and chalk out a new course of thought and action which may be free from the intellectual and cultural servility as well as extremism, and who without getting involved aimlessly in the superficial manifestations of the Western way of life.”
Yet for all these points of criticism, he wrote with hope:
“In spite of all their faults and shortcomings, the vital religious feeling, the readiness to suffer in the cause of God and the spirit of earnestness, fidelity and love that have become extinct among the materialistic nations of the West can still be seen in the Islamic countries. The Muslim peoples, their appalling ignorance and backwardness notwithstanding, are the raw material from which the finest models of humanity can be made. Their greatest asset is their faith and their simplicity, earnestness and enthusiasm…But, thanks to the all-pervading curse of Westernization, the Muslim masses are being robbed of their spiritual vitality and are developing a moral cancer against which nothing can avail.”