Islamic Failure

Pervez Hoodbhoy , Feb 2002. Courtesy Prospect

If the world is to be spared what future historians might call the “century of terror,” we will have to chart a course between US imperial arrogance and Islamic religious fanaticism. Through these waters, we must steer by a distant star toward a democratic, humanistic and secular future. Otherwise, shipwreck is certain.

For nearly four months now, leaders of the Muslim community in the US, and even President Bush, have routinely asserted that Islam is a religion of peace that was hijacked by fanatics on 11th September.

These two assertions are simply untrue. First, Islam-like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or any other religion-is not about peace. Nor is it about war. Every religion is about absolute belief in its own superiority and the divine right to impose its version of truth upon others. In medieval times, the crusades and the jihads were soaked in blood. Today, there are Christian fundamentalists who attack abortion clinics in the US and kill doctors; Muslim fundamentalists who wage their sectarian wars against each other; Jewish settlers who, holding the Old Testament in one hand and Uzis in the other, burn olive orchards and drive Palestinians off their ancestral land; and Hindus in India, who demolish mosques and burn down churches.

The second assertion is even further off the mark. Even if Islam had, in some metaphorical sense, been hijacked, that event did not occur three months ago. It was well over seven centuries ago that Islam suffered a serious trauma, the effects of which refuse to go away.

Where do Muslims stand today? Note that I do not ask about Islam; Islam is an abstraction. Maulana Abdus Sattar Edhi, Pakistan’s pre-eminent social worker, and the Taleban’s Mohammad Omar are both followers of Islam, but the former is overdue for a Nobel Peace Prize, while the latter is an ignorant, psychotic fiend. The Palestinian writer, Edward Said, among others, has insistently pointed out that Islam holds very different meanings for different people. Within my own family, hugely different kinds of Islam are practised. The religion is as heterogeneous as those who believe and follow it. There is no “true Islam.”

Today, Muslims number one billion. Of the 48 countries with a full or near Muslim majority, none has yet evolved a stable, democratic political system. In fact, all Muslim countries are dominated by self-serving corrupt elites who cynically advance their personal interests and steal resources from their people. None of these countries has a viable educational system or a university of international stature.

Reason, too, has been waylaid. You will seldom see a Muslim name as you flip through scientific journals and, if you do, the chances are that this person lives in the west. There are a few exceptions: Pakistani Abdus Salam, together with Americans Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow, won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979. I got to know Salam reasonably well; we even wrote a book preface together. He was a remarkable man, terribly in love with his country and his religion. Yet he died deeply unhappy, scorned by Pakistan and declared a non-Muslim by an act of the Pakistani parliament in 1974. Today the Ahmadi sect, to which Salam belonged, is considered heretical and harshly persecuted. (My next-door neighbour, an Ahmadi physicist, was shot in the neck and heart and died in my car as I drove him to hospital seven years ago. His only fault was to have been born into the wrong sect.)

Although genuine scientific achievement is rare in the contemporary Muslim world, pseudo-science is in generous supply. A former chairman of my physics department in Islamabad has calculated the speed of heaven. He maintains it is receding from Earth at one centimetre per second less than the speed of light. His ingenious method relies upon a verse in the Islamic holy book, which says that worship on the night on which the book was revealed is worth a thousand nights of ordinary worship. He states that this amounts to a time-dilation factor of 1,000, which he puts into a formula of Einstein’s theory of special relativity.

A more public example: One of the two Pakistani nuclear engineers who was recently arrested on suspicion of passing nuclear secrets to the Taleban had earlier proposed to solve Pakistan’s energy problems by harnessing the power of genies. He relied on the Islamic belief that God created man from clay, and angels and genies from fire; so this high-placed engineer proposed to capture the genies and extract their energy.

Today’s sorry situation contrasts starkly with the Islam of yesterday. Between the 9th and 13th centuries- the golden age of Islam-the only people doing decent work in science, philosophy or medicine were Muslims. Muslims not only preserved ancient learning, they also made substantial innovations. The loss of this tradition has proved tragic for Muslim peoples.

Science flourished in the golden age of Islam because of a strong rationalist and liberal tradition, sustained by a group of Muslim thinkers known as the Mutazilites. But in the 12th century, Muslim orthodoxy reawakened, spearheaded by the Arab cleric, Imam Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali championed revelation over reason, predestination over free will. He damned mathematics as being against Islam, an intoxicant of the mind that weakened faith.

Caught in the grip of orthodoxy, Islam choked. No longer would Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars gather and work together in the royal courts. It was the end of tolerance, intellect and science in the Muslim world. The last great Muslim thinker, Abd-al Rahman Ibn Khaldun, belonged to the 14th century.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world moved on. The Renaissance brought an explosion of scientific inquiry in the west. This owed much to translations of Greek works carried out by Arabs and other Muslim contributions, but they were to matter little. Mercantile capitalism and technological progress drove western countries-in ways that were often brutal and at times genocidal-rapidly to colonise the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco. It soon became clear, at least to some of the Muslim elites, that they were paying a heavy price for not possessing the analytical tools of modern science and the social and political values of modern culture-the real source of power of their colonisers.

Despite widespread resistance from the orthodox, the logic of modernity found 19th-century Muslim adherents. Some seized on the modern idea of the nation state. But remember that not a single Muslim nationalist leader of the 20th century was a fundamentalist.

Muslim and Arab nationalism, part of a larger anti-colonial nationalist current across the third world, included the desire to control and use national resources for domestic benefit. The conflict with western greed was inevitable. The imperial interests of Britain, and later the US, came into conflict with independent nationalism. Anyone willing to collaborate was preferred, even the ultra-conservative Islamic regime of Saudi Arabia. In 1953, Mohammed Mosaddeq of Iran was overthrown in a CIA coup, replaced by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Britain targeted Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Indonesia’s Sukarno was replaced by Suharto, after a bloody coup that left hundreds of thousands dead.

Pressed from outside, corrupt and incompetent from within, secular Muslim governments proved unable to defend national interests or deliver social justice. They began to frustrate democracy to preserve their positions of power and privilege. These failures left a vacuum that Islamic religious movements grew to fill-in Iran, Pakistan and Sudan, to name a few.

This tide in the Muslim world combined with a ruthless pursuit of advantage by the US in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With Pakistan’s Moh-ammed Zia ul-Haq as America’s foremost ally, the CIA openly recruited holy warriors from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Algeria. Radical Islam went into overdrive as its superpower ally and mentor funnelled support to the mujahedin. Ronald Reagan f�ted them on the White House lawn.

The rest is familiar: after the Soviet Union collapsed, the US walked away from Afghanistan. The Taleban emerged; Osama bin Laden and his al Qaida made Afghanistan their base.

What should thoughtful people infer from this whole narrative? For Muslims, it is time to stop wallowing in self-pity: Muslims are not helpless victims of conspiracies hatched by an all-powerful, malicious west. The fact is that the decline of Islamic greatness took place long before the age of mercantile imperialism. The causes were essentially internal. Therefore Muslims must be introspective and ask what went wrong.

Muslims must recognise that their societies are far larger, more diverse and complex than the small homogeneous tribal society in Arabia, 1400 years ago, from which their religion springs. It is therefore time to renounce the idea that Islam can survive and prosper only in an Islamic state run according to sharia, or Islamic law. Muslims need a secular and democratic state that respects religious freedom and human dignity and is founded on the principle that power belongs to the people. This means confronting and rejecting the claim by orthodox Islamic scholars that, in an Islamic state, sovereignty belongs to the vice-regents of Allah, or Islamic jurists, not to the people.

People like bin Laden have no answer and can offer no alternative. To glorify their terrorism is a hideous mistake. The unremitting slaughter of Shiites, Christians and Ahmadis in their places of worship in Pakistan, and of other minorities in other Muslim countries, shows that terrorism is not about the revolt of the dispossessed, as it is often claimed.

The US, too, must confront some bitter truths. The messages of George Bush and Tony Blair fall flat, while those of bin Laden, whether he lives or dies, resonate strongly across the Muslim world. Bin Laden’s religious extremism turns off many Muslims, but they find his political message easy to relate to: the US must stop helping Israel in dispossessing the Palestinians and stop propping up corrupt and despotic regimes across the world just because they serve US interests.

Americans will also have to recognise the fact that their triumphalism and disdain for international law has created enemies everywhere, not just among Muslims. They must become less arrogant and more like the other peoples of the world.

Our collective survival lies in recognising that religion is not the solution; neither is nationalism. We have but one choice: the path of secular humanism, based upon the principles of logic and reason. This alone offers the hope of providing everybody on this globe with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


Filed under Pakistan

18 responses to “Islamic Failure

  1. Very interesting article with deep thought. I think every fanaticism (no matter their religion) is a failure.

    May be we should make a distinction between the country (which should embrace all group) and religion.

    I had post about: why the vote for nuances religious party go down.

  2. Anwar

    Enjoyed reading the post – Muslim world it appears has higher entropy than the rest of the world. The trajectory is irreversible unless some surgery is done to eliminate the multiple tumors..

  3. Monkey

    Spot on.

    Somebody make our stupid government read this!

  4. yasserlatifhamdani

    Excellent article by Prof Hoodbhoy. I read this many years ago.

    I think it is ahead of its time. The future lies with secular humanism. However this is not that future yet. Therefore…. state secularism – i.e. state’s impartiality towards matters of the faith is the urgent need of the present… for secular humanists and religious people alike.

  5. farooq

    Muslims have collectively lost the ability to do soul searching , the practice of heaping it on the West is the usual mantra. PH is right the decline started long long ago, modern age is just the culmination of this process.

  6. Gorki

    This is a brilliant piece of analysis by Pervez Hoodbhoy that very few people can think and even fewer can present so clearly.
    I am thankful to YLH for bringing this article to every one’s attention.

    It is also important to note that Islam seemingly came out of nowhere yet within a century it had spread from the Atlantic coast to the borders of India. It’s miraculous and near instant success lay in a large part to the fact that in the primitive society 1400 years ago it provided a revolutionary idea that it was possible to build a humane society based on an institution that emphasized equality and fairness.
    That it further gave a complete set of rules and regulations, principals of jurisprudence further strengthened its appeal in a world where all of the above building blocks of society were either missing or nearly non-existent.

    In other words the religion of Islam provided institutional structures; both public and private, where there were none before.
    This institutionalization of rules and laws became an irrepressible tool that tightly knit societies that were early adopters and provided them with an advantage over all others.

    Further it was this institutional structure as much as the zeal of the faithful that led to its remarkable success and spread. For a while it appeared it was destined to spread through the entire Asia-Europe land mass as the hard pressed medieval Europeans cowered and barely clung to the extreme western edge of Europe.

    And then the tide changed. Slowly at first, and then it reversed over the next few hundred years as the Europeans themselves underwent a renaissance, thanks in part to ideas imported from the Islamic societies themselves.

    While the scientific discoveries helped the West to colonize the world; it was also the fact that the West was by then, able to develop enduring social structures and institutions based on laws, rules and regulations that allowed the people to slowly gain a self assurance to question, and then reform their own oldest and ultimate institution; their religion.

    Thus it was no accident that the Reformation followed the signing of the Magna Carta only after a gap of 302 years.

    The above narrative highlights the fact that a society can develop the self confidence to open its faith to questioning only after the faith based institutions have been supplemented by secure and more secular once based on reason and logic.
    Absent these, and the society continues to clings ever so tightly to the oldest but unchanging institution; their religion and the structure provided by it.

    It is therefore not surprising that the appeal of religion and the Taliban resonates so well with a large section of the Pakistani society.
    What other institutions were they given to look up to?
    Let us see.
    The much abused constitution.
    The Supreme Court, which is remembered more for its abuse and its infamous doctrine of necessity.
    The kleptocracy of national leadership that grovels alternatively before the US and the home grown generals.

    Pakistan; we must admit, has no institutions. It is this failure that is the biggest reason for the success of Taliban so far.
    Pakistan needs not a national party run by a 19 year old student and his much maligned father but a truely visionary and democratic leadership that can start to build strong, fair and enduring institutions, one brick at a time.

    Over time, then its people will develop confidence and then a secular society will emerge as a natural progression. It can not be the other way around.

    It is for this reason, that the current leadership; should be made to yield the reins of power to a more capable and confidence inspiring group of men and women to run the party and the country as a first step.

    It is for this reason that the truly nationalistic elite; such as the people who run this forum and write on this forum should give acall and gird themselves for a long generational battle.
    Now is the time when their country needs them the most.
    In the immortal words of Faiz:

    “Yahi zabar ka aur Yahi hai Ikhetiar ka mausam…..”

    YLH and company; I hope you guys are listening.

  7. Bloody Civilian


    Excellent analysis.

    Indeed, the ‘decaying’ trends started, even 1000 years ago, in support of the authoritarian state which did not like where the ideas of equality and relative empowerment were going to ultimately lead. The ta’ziri school developed and was quickly taken under its wing by the rulers who preferred a return to the strictly heirarchical society of before with everyone’s role – more or less strictly – codified. Great effort was made to instill the idea that to question is t rebel. To think is to be above one’s station. Rationality is apostasy. The movement was largely but not totally successful. And, yes, a greater political and historical analysis would reveal other important factors (e.g. the Tatars at one stage, colonialism at another). But the basic analysis is what you have said, with everything else intertwined in to it.

    Democary is the only answer. We have to start with rule of law. Fight against a theocracy a thousand times worse than (indeed a perversion of) ta’zirism being imposed on us.

  8. bonobashi


    This is an uncomfortable thought. It is not a community, or a religious bloc as a whole that undertakes to search its collective soul. That is always an individual’s duty and mission, to search his or her soul (with respect to the religiously inclined, I personally would like to substitute the word conscience for soul). An eminent thought-leader, priestly or philosophical or evangelical or prophetic, can lead a community to do so – as individuals – by showing an example and publishing it abroad, gently or urgently, as personality guides the act. It is still for individuals to perform the duty. I respectfully submit for your consideration that it was never the office for ‘Christians’, or for ‘Muslims’, or for ‘Hindus’ or any other religious observance to undertake collective soul searching, beyond the pretensions of the priestly classes, and you are being too hard on yourself, if you are yourself a Muslim, in stating this. There are enough proofs that Muslims have individually searched their ‘souls’, and have concluded that changes are needed, and merely are unable to channel this through an appropriate institutionally acceptable universal medium. In some religious schools of thought, what those last words mean would lead to apostasy if spelt out any more clearly, and you have to accept some very general wording for this reason. It is possible, however, that there are sufficient numbers of reform-minded Muslims to bring about significant, drastic change in civil life, if not in canonical. Let us hope that this holds true of all religious followings in general, and that the gates of ijtihad open for all.”

  9. Thank God – (metaphorically of course ) for Pervez Hoodbhoy. He lights up our lives in a darkening world. His is the waft of freshness that momentarily relieves our stale stifling air and makes us breathe freely for a while. His exquisitely measured, reasoned argument beckons us firmly back to sanity. His words of truth, wisdom and just plain common sense make the spirit soar. As long as there are people like Hoodbhoy there is hope for the rest of us. I have a large collection of Hoodbhoy articles in my hard disk. In moments of depression I read up one to lift the gloom, especially the one he wrote on God for the Templeton Foundation. This one though is the jewel in the crown. As usual he put his finger right on it. Let’s not mince our words. The problem is with Islam as much as it is with its fundamentalist followers. It is so with all religions and all their fanatical adherents especially the ones that bypassed the reformation process which gave rise to modern culture and civilisation. You merely have to study history to see where Muslims went wrong. The suppression of Mutazalite thought and the crushing of Mutazzalite intellectuals spelt the end of enlightenment in Islam and its replacement with rampant obscurantism. But most present day Muslims don’t see that. They don’t read real history – only the cooked up accounts of semi-literate ‘saleh’story-tellers, priests or regime stooges protecting their vested interests . The bundle of lies that goes for most Islamic literature is meant to keep — and has kept –Muslims ignorant. Wherever they are in a nation-state they remain incapable of solving their problems, even identifying any. They used to carry their holy books in one hand and a sword in the other. Now the holy books have been dropped. It’s the suicide bomb in one hand and a begging bowl in the other. The failing state of Pakistan is a case in point – the modern by-product of an ancient unresolved problem. Over 60 years have passed but Pakistanis are still not sure as to which of their many identities takes precedence and claims their instinctive loyalty – Islam or the land of their birth. Time has all but run out for them to make a choice. The land has lost. They say Pakistan is dying.. though I see it as being on an American life support system. The moment they come up with a replacement formula, they’ll drop Pakistan they way they dropped Afghanistan a couple of decades ago. Until then they’ll keep Pakistan stuffed and sat-up erect like the effigies of Stalin and Mao. Then Pakistanis will really come to know the opportunity they frittered away – in the name of Islam. It was made, as the Mullahs say, in the name of Islam. Its fitting then that it should die for it also.

  10. yasserlatifhamdani


    Thanks for the compliment and I certainly concur with Hoodbhoy’s pov in entirety …

    However I didn’t suggest this… Shaheryar Ali did. I merely put it up on the main page.

  11. Aliarqam

    Thought Provoking piece….
    Peoples of Pakistan did not support the Mullahs…
    Not Even in a single election….(Except the miraculous 2002,when all happened with MMA,when US envoy met CEC)
    Let Democracy continues….these elements will disappear….

  12. azhar aslam

    Hate to be a party pooper, but I simply cannot praise this because its Pervez Hoodbouy.

    While the main thrust of his article is right, he is simply wrong instating that

    ‘ First, Islam-like Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or any other religion-is not about peace. Nor is it about war. Every religion is about absolute belief in its own superiority and the divine right to impose its version of truth upon others.’

    Islam is not. It does not believe about its superiority simply because it claims that all religions are from God and it is merely the continuation. In addition it clearly does not want to impose itself. These matters are so clear that anyone interested in contending this should better go and do some reading first before, they argue with me.

    Houdbouy himself supports my contention and denies his own thesis by saying the following:

    ‘Within my own family, hugely different kinds of Islam are practiced. The religion is as heterogeneous as those who believe and follow it. There is no “true Islam.”

    Truth is that Humanism is about pluralism not secularism. Islam is plural and secularized. It is important to remember that secularization is not the same as secularism.

    And before someone wants to argue about this, can they look and see how many ‘ secularists / atheist fundamentalists actually argue for the ‘the divine right to impose its version of truth upon others.’

    And I suspect that includes the writer.

    Another minor correction:

    ‘But in the 12th century, Muslim orthodoxy reawakened, spearheaded by the Arab cleric, Imam Al-Ghazali.’

    Ghazali was neither an Arab nor a cleric. While he certainly was probably the most influential person in drive of ‘the relegation of reason’ to the dungeons in Muslim world, it was not solely due to his writings but how orthodoxy used these for their self serving purpose.

    Ghazlai influenced Aquinas and Descartes and hence the renaissance itself.

  13. Bloody Civilian

    “Islam is plural and secularized”

    So it, like secularization, ultimately, whether slowly or quickly, leads to secularism? Or, at least, would prefer that to be the trajectory?

    “It does not believe about its superiority simply because it claims that all religions are from God and it is merely the continuation”

    Continuation in both directions? Both before and after Islam? Including religions not from or of one god? And those from or of no god at all?

    “it clearly does not want to impose itself. These matters are so clear…”

    Reminds me of my High School teacher ‘stating’ it to us that ‘clearly’ is clearly not an argument, but a statement hoping to be one.

    The apparent contradiction between

    “Every religion is about absolute belief in its own superiority and the divine right to impose its version of truth upon others.”


    “There is no “true Islam.”[or religion]”

    is well spotted.

    “I simply cannot praise this because its Pervez Hoodbouy”

    Now why would any one make a statement like that before starting an argument?

  14. Azhar Aslam has packaged the usual bundle of lies and half truths that Islamists from time immemorial have used to obscure truth. His whole being isn’t worth of the discarded nails of Hoodbhoy’s left foot. When I have time I will compose a befittin g reply to his fulmination.

  15. Aliarqam

    Well Commented Azhar….

  16. An excellent piece of work by pervez.Kuddos to Pak Tea House.

  17. Bloody Civilian

    “is well spotted.” = The commentor draws the wrong conclusions from this though. All Hoodhbhoy is trying to say by it is that any body has the right to say what ‘true Islam’ is. Short of declaring themselves a prophet. Indeed, even such a claim would not take away their right to claim ‘true Islam’. Also, anybody is free to claim a humanist, pluralistic even secular ‘true Islam’. But, having correctly conceded this lack of legitimate or unitary authority, Hoodhbhoy correctly asserts that the for the overwhelming majority “religion is about absolute belief in its own superiority and the divine right to impose its version of truth upon others.” whether in the nicest, kindest way or attitudes and manners less humble or wholesome.

  18. Hindustan Times

    Cleanliness is next only to godliness. Or so the saying goes. And this is what does Lord Jagannath of Varanasi in for 15 days every year. So often is he bathed by the faithful that he catches a cold and cough that have to be treated. So who will medicate the ultimate doctor of souls?

    Well, in the Hindu pantheon, there are no holy cows. The gods are all too ‘human’ with the frailties and foibles that we mortals have. Ganesha is quite the gourmet, even gourmand on occasion. His love for laddoos is shared by many of us. He wears his excess baggage with panache, while the rest of us sweat it out in the gym. Krishna’s ability to reel in the beauties has long been the envy of many who would gladly trade places with him. Not too many can resist the idea of playing the flute and eating calorie-laden butter while the more humble among us work our fingers to the bone for a living. For those who like a drop or two, Shiva would be the role model. That is the beauty of Hinduism, its gods and goddesses are just like us, they fall on their faces every now and again, but pick themselves up and carry on.

    They reflect all the human emotions: anger, envy, lust, happiness. The stories of their lives are colourful, they have no rigid tenets by which we should live and certainly no strictures which curb the human spirit. And we certainly don’t have one size that fits all. We have a god for every occasion so we’re quite spoilt for choice. Thank God for that.