As far as the sources of Islam (the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad) and the spirituality of Islam are concerned, Islam maintained its freshness and vitality through the philosophical challenges of the last century. Authentic Islam is here to stay and requires no change. This is the shared outlook held by the majority of Muslims throughout the world.
The reflection of Islam in society, on the other hand, requires development in the contemporary world. The consequence of the major world upheavals that I have mentioned earlier meant there is a 150-year gap in the development of Islamic law. Struggling to survive or to attain freedom, Muslims did not get a chance to adopt the social aspects of Islam to the needs of a new world. For Muslims, the transition from being European colonies to mature and developed states with strong civil institutions is still in progress.
There are three key problems the Muslim world has to overcome: lack of education, poverty, and social and political fragmentation. These are also the same internal factors that caused the decline of Islamic civilisation.
1. Social and Political Fragmentation. After losing their vision of representing and peacefully spreading Islam, no new vision was developed that could hold the Muslim world intact. The political ambitions of individuals and clans came to the foreground and caused political disintegration and loss of unity and political stability, preventing the ruling administrations from dealing with real problems. Political fragmentation brought with it nepotism in administrative appointments. There is further fragmentation within any given Muslim society between pro-secularist and religious segments.
2. Economy. With the discovery of the American continent, millennium old trade routes took a dramatic shift. The Muslim world was no longer on the direct trade routes. Muslims could not change fast enough to compete with the rising European competition and the advent of new manufacturing technology and the associated consumerism. The total GDP of the 57 Muslim countries is much less than the GDP of the United States.
3. Education. Perhaps the most serious mistake was that knowledge was split into religious knowledge and material knowledge. Scientific education was neglected while religious sciences were the only subject matters taught in madrasas (schools). Once the champions of knowledge and science, Muslims lost their original scientific advantage to European developments in science and its associated applied technology.
In short, Muslims were strong when they had a strong vision beyond the self, an emphasis on trade and economy and took knowledge as a whole. The decline started when these were reversed. The remedy is therefore a strong visionary leadership that unites people, a bias for competitive economic success and a fervent struggle against ignorance.
There are hopeful signs the decline has been reversed and there are important developments on all three fronts. For the first time in 80 years, religious Muslims have finally achieved political success in Turkey. In time, if the final remnants of the secular-religious rift ends, Turkey seems to provide a good political model for the rest of the Muslim world. The economic success of Malaysia, Dubai, Turkey and other Muslim states can be replicated in other Muslim countries. There are many religious movements that focus on contemporary and religious education in a unique blend. Schools built on contemporary models are spreading fast around the Muslim world.
Concurrently with these developments, Muslims are engaging in interfaith activities in Western countries. These engagements are removing centuries old misunderstandings, while people in the West are getting a chance to explore Islam as a spiritual religion and Muslims as devout humans just like them. Building bridges between religions and cultures will be key to world peace in the 21 st century.
When Muslim nations were strong they were the source of peace and stability in much of the known world. Until the arrival of Islam, people never lived in security, peace and harmony over an extremely large portion of the then known world. Islam has been responsible for the prosperity and peace for almost half of the world for more than a thousand years. Since the last great Muslim State, the Ottoman Empire, has lost its influence, the world has seen two world wars while the Balkans, Middle East and other places where it governed in peace for centuries, based on the tolerant principles of Islam, has never been the same again. Still much of the world’s unrest originates from a lack of true Muslim presence and influence in these regions.
I believe the Muslim world is coming out of its period of adolescence and will complete its transition in the first half of the 21 st century. It will then start to contribute positively to human civilisation in the second half of the 21