From Blind Following Into Enlightenment
Islam as it developed up to this point, is a highly ritualistic and legalistic institution where a Muslim is always asking a so-called religious scholar if he/she is allowed to do something or whether it is forbidden to do it. An anti-enjoyment of this life’s culture is dominant, believing that any enjoyment here on earth is questionable and true pleasure will be enjoyed only during the next life, where all that is forbidden here is allowed there. This fatalistic, self-defeating culture is causing over a billion Muslims to accept a life of deprivation as if the deprivation is their destiny, while the Qur’an calls for Muslims to fully enjoy this life in moderation.
When Muslims gather for the Friday prayer, the Imam usually reminds them in his sermon that this life is a test, it is not for us to enjoy because we will fully enjoy life in Heaven, while the others, those Christian Westerners, who are enjoying life to its fullest on earth, will end up in Hell.
So, Heaven is ours and Hell is theirs. This is the poison Muslims learn from an early age, through this stagnant interpretation of Islam.
This kind of religion that serves as shackles around the believers’ necks is the main reason for the present status quo. What Muslims need is a new set of ideals based on a fresh reading of the Qur’an and the Sunna (the actual example) of the Prophet (pbuh) where, they will find the Qur’an teaching believers that all the bounties on this earth and beyond, were created for them and they should use it wisely.
“Do you not see that God has made everything in heaven and on earth subject to you, and has abundantly showered you with His favors, [both] seen and unseen? Yet some people argue about God in ignorance without guidance or illuminating Scripture.” (Q 31:20)
There is a balance that the Qur’an, however, teaches. It says: “Seek the Hereafter with what God has given you, but do not neglect your share of this world. Do good as God has done good to you. Do not seek to cause corruption in the land, for God does not like those who spread corruption.” (28:77)
The Qur’an is teaching balance and equity, enjoy the bounties and share them with others. Do good and seek to benefit others. Those others are not necessarily Muslims, for the Qur’an teaches that respect is owed to every human being regardless of religion. Dignity and freedom are guaranteed to each person regardless of origin or whether they are a part of a majority or a minority. So Imams delivering the Friday sermons need to spread the love and respect of others rather than hatred. This culture of “we are better because we’re Muslims” is counterproductive. Let’s teach Muslims the best of manners as we learned them from our beloved Prophet, and leave the judgment to Allah. Muslims did not learn this arrogance from the Prophet, for he was humble and respectful of all others. We learned to be arrogant when we had an empire, for power corrupts and with power comes arrogance.
Instead of the dominant blind unquestioning obedience to religious dogma, Muslims need to start teaching critical thinking to their children. Indeed the Qur’an urges people to use their minds: will they not reflect? Will they not ponder? Will they not understand?
The Qur’an encourages thinking and contemplation, rather than blind obedience to so-called religious scholars who are resisting any change. But how can we change this culture and instead empower the people?
Simply put, through education. Our education systems in various Muslim-majority countries are antiquated regardless of the topic. The education systems that produced brilliant Muslim thinkers throughout history were based on comprehension, experimentation, and applied science that led to inventions. All these activities were carried out historically in an atmosphere of freedom, whether freedom of thought or expression. Indeed we need much more focus on science. Research, creativity, and critical thinking should become the new culture.
Yet, you can’t encourage critical thinking in an oppressive environment that does not permit freedom of expression. Real change requires innovative ideas. We need the freedom to have even wrong ideas and the freedom to discuss those wrong ideas without pressure. The freedom I’m talking about actually extends itself way beyond personal freedom. It also deals with being free from myths about what Islam is, the purpose of our existence on earth, and the role of others. Yet, it is indeed responsible freedom.
The road to modernity is long and the Muslim world still does not have the will to travel it. Importing fast food restaurants will not make you modern. Traveling in an airplane instead of a camel does not make you modern. Modernity is a number of values that Muslims need to adopt in order to formulate a new culture that will make them productive. You can’t buy or import modernity; it comes as a result of a cultural change. Muslims need a new culture based on a contemporary understanding of the Qur’an where one’s religious practice is personal, while the social values are communal and the state is civil, just like the society of Medina under the leadership of our beloved Prophet. Pluralism, education, research, development, and open markets: these were once Muslim values and they could be so again.