Muslims at the height of their civilization were one of the major contributors of arts and sciences. People like Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi were first to recover and translate the Greek philosophy and introduced this wisdom in Spain and Europe. Avicenna and other Muslim intellectual’s treatises on philosophy, medicine and other sciences were part of western curricula. There was no fragmentation of disciplines and nor was a distinction between worldly and spiritual. Science flourished with and in light of religion. [for reference, see comments below]
In contrast, when there were internal conflicts among Muslim dynasties, where they fall into prey of politics and orthodoxy, the decline was inevitable. There wasn’t any more the pluralistic mindset of Fatimids and no intellectual honesty like the one which was nurtured in Al-Azhar mosque which later flourished into university. Such dogma had roots in misinterpretation of Islamic ethics. Ethics which should have served as a bridge between faith and society1 but forsaking the use of intellect for ethical considerations, its roots became so feeble that it lost practically. Therefore, there was no desire left to improve upon (to imagine, discover and enlighten); there was only a quest to cling upon the past.
The historical accounts of our heritage can serve for us as windows of interpretation to regain the rightful place of Umma on world map. The major inspirations can be: healthy civil society partnerships, intellectual honesty, pluralism and compassion for service, to list a few.
It is known fact that intelligentsia is only developed when there is security and economic development. Democracies in developing countries have not been successful in past; therefore it is civil society initiatives which might create difference. One such web of institutions is Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN). AKDN’s mandate with the ethics of inclusiveness, poverty alleviation, and self-reliance are those benchmarks which NGOs can adopt for bridging the gap between wealthy and marginalized, giving them ample opportunity to progress. Muslim nations also need to administer their wealth for the common good.
Civil society will need leadership which will be capable of taking up the challenges and solving them with their knowledge grounded well in ethics. For this we not only need to have a vision of years ahead but invest time, wealth and energy for developing a knowledge society. During the days of Fatimids, there was an intellectual honesty among Muslims under the leadership of Imam. They were not hesitant for exchange of knowledge about different disciplines with Christians and Jews and were well equipped for addressing the needs of their time.
Today students need the same understanding of the fields of knowledge most required in their regions; moreover a deep understanding of diverse cultures and values is essential. Moreover, we need both encouragement and material support. Muslim individuals who are at respectable positions can give their expertise towards educating the institutions.2
These tasks cannot be complete without respect for pluralism. The diversity that Muslim cultures entail have strength of assorted skills and the synergy it can provide both intellectually and spiritually can be awe-inspiring. Being Muslim should not mean to impose your belief on others nor can you demand the rest of the world to follow your rules. The axiom holds true for intra-Muslim community in regards to sectarianism.3 We should resort back to our tradition of leading by action, where world got inspired from our dealings and knowledge.
Thus today when Muslims are being termed as terrorists, we need to reflect urgently about the image we want to project towards the world and preparing ourselves to be the best role-models. Prophet Muhammad’s life, compassion of Islamic ethics and creative expressions can be stepping stone for such change. Moreover, dilemmas concerning past should be seen as inspiration for future but in no sense a literal and blind imitation.
1- Keynote Address by Aga Khan IV at the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference on ‘Leadership & Diversity’ on May 19, 2004 (p. 3) Source: IIS
2- An address by Aga Khan IV at Le Meridien Grosvenor House Hotel, London, United Kingdom, October 19, 2003. (p. 3) Source: http://www.iis.ac.uk/view_article.asp?ContentID=101318.
3- There is no evil in sects, if they live and let live; each to it’s own and pure intentions for and by all.