With all the negative media associated with Islam these days, it can be quite disparaging for the average Muslim. Every time we see another Muslim rapist, suicide-bomber, corrupt politician or backwards adherent using Islam to justify his or her deplorable actions, we almost want to scream from the rooftops: “These people do not represent Islam!” Feeling disheartened about the state of the ummah (Muslim community), many of us lose hope in the general Muslim condition. The inevitable impulse is to become negative and turn inward.
But what if I told you that is not the case? What if I told you the global ummah is actually on the cusp of a worldwide Islamic renaissance? What if I told you that despite all the upheaval, and the myriad challenges, most Muslim countries are actually gaining influence in the international political arena? What if I told you, that among all the negative hype, there exists a concurrent Islamic movement—a movement based on education and empowerment—that is slowly but surely transforming Muslim practice and will have immense influence on the global socio-political landscape in the generations to come?
Some people will immediately critique what I’m asserting here based on the idea that there is no ummah. There is no central authority, no unity, and certainly no consolidated vision. How can we possibly overlook the differences between Muslim practice in California or Canada as compared to Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Indonesia? The reality on the ground for each of these groups is vastly diverse, not only between different regions but also within them. My response is that despite these differences, the Muslims of each of these communities, whether they practice Islam or not, still follow a deeply Islamic social script—a script with far more similarities than differences—and that has profound consequences on their socio-political affairs.
So what evidence do we have that the Muslim world is on the incline? The first and foremost sign is the emphasis on and acquisition of education within the Muslim world as compared to the developing world at large. The Muslim world is defined as those countries with a Muslim majority population, and with the unfortunate exception of Afghanistan and some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, educational access among Muslims has dramatically improved all over the world. Muslims are also more likely to pursue tertiary education than most other groups.
The other significant factor here is the Muslim diaspora. Whether you are in the United States, Canada, Australia or most of Europe, the Muslim diaspora has come to represent a very rich, very informed and highly influential group that is often ignored in conversations about the Muslim world. The most interesting thing about this diaspora for the purposes of this discussion is that not only are many of them highly educated, a rapidly growing number of them are actively seeking Islamic knowledge. So we are not just talking about the pursuit of ‘secular’ or mainstream education but also the increasing grassroots momentum of traditional Islamic knowledge. This has all the ingredients to foster a resurgence of Islamic philosophy. As an extension of this, an increasing number of the most highly-educated Muslim women in the West are choosing to home-school their children. This seems to be born of recognition of the centrality of education to character and nation-building as well as a concentrated community effort to synthesize secular and Islamic education. This development is also indicated by the growing number of Islamic schools being established in the West—with a few of them even starting to outperform mainstream schools. These trends are only in their infancy but if they continue, the effects will be quite substantial.
As any historian will attest, the rise of education and philosophy are directly linked to the rise of civilization. However, there is a new factor at play in the current scenario that historians have not really had the opportunity to study in great detail. That is the intensification of communication made possible by modern technology, or in other words, the growth of social media. The effects of social media on the distribution of information, as well as the development of a globalized Muslim identity, are already quite profound. Of course, Internet access and literacy are definitely not universal and many Muslims are obviously being left out of the discussion, but what is slowly happening among those who do enjoy such access is an intense negotiation including scholars, regional stakeholders and average Muslim participants. This is ultimately (and quite unintentionally) leading to some level of consensus-building that predictably defies borders, in essence defining a modern Islamic worldview and the contours of Muslim behaviour for a large (and influential) subset of contemporary adherents. To cite just two examples, one of the most fundamentally powerful and obvious political developments born out of social media was the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2012, but a far less discussed development has been the colossal role of social media in defining an emerging Islamic feminism. So the potential implications of what we are talking about here cannot be overstated. And in the coming decades, social media will only grow in influence among the worldwide Muslim population, particularly among its youth.
The third point is the changing nature of global politics. In the coming era, Western countries will have relatively less power than they have had for most of the last century. China, Russia, India and the Muslim world will have substantially more influence. As a natural result, Western liberal-democracy, despite its many strengths and contributions, will no longer be the dominant global ideology. Western ideals are not going to collapse, obviously, nor should they. But there will definitely be greater room for new, competing ideologies and these will slowly work themselves into mainstream consciousness. Many countries have just now reached a comfortable level of economic viability and stability; many more are about to. This opens up a stage where citizens start exploring their pre-colonial history, essentially reconstructing their identities and redefining their politics in the process. This is why—in a development that absolutely baffles many Western observers—many Muslim countries are democratically electing so-called “Islamist” governments. In Western scholarly circles, Islam is often regarded as antithetical to democracy but obviously, most Muslims would disagree. So what we are seeing now is with the increasing democratization of the Muslim world, that there is simultaneously an increasing Islamization. And though this phenomenon is riddled with violence, corruption, and other setbacks, it is slowly but surely empowering people, strengthening the ideas of an Islamic identity and worldview and in the process, augmenting the reality of Muslim political power. When we couple this with the sheer growth of Muslim demographics in the next few decades, we are talking about a potential political powerhouse with Islamic ideals at the core.
There is obviously a lot of work to be done; and many, many challenges on the road to an Islamic renaissance. But the ground work has already being laid. And the blueprint for change need not be universal. So do not give up on your fellow Muslims and do not lose hope. Concentrate your energies on the inward as well as the outward. Educate yourself and your loved ones, engage with others and support the work of legitimate Islamic organizations and parties. Choose a cause that is important to you and be of service. Strategize, build bridges and emphasize justice. And above all, be patient and put your trust in Allah, exalted is He.
“Surely, Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” (Qur’an 13:11)