In her book The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah (2006), Karen Armstrong asserts that religion is a factor that cannot be ignored in public discourse. This assertion is particularly true in the so-called “Islamic World”.
If we take the “Islamic World” to mean countries with a majority Muslim population (let us not get into the “Islamic State” debate), what is evidently clear is that these nations are generally behind the rest of the world in terms of economic, social and intellectual development.
As Richard Dawkins correctly stated, albeit in his rather cruel manner, Trinity College in Cambridge has more Nobel laureates than all the Muslims in the world. To be fair to the pugilistic poster boy of Atheism, he did add that Muslims did wonderful things in the Middle Ages.
Dawkins was clearly trying to point out that religion was a hindrance to progress and development. Yet his concession that Muslims did “wonderful things” in the Middle Ages undermines his own theory. For surely religion, and in this particular instance, Islam, had a massive role to play in Middle Ages Muslim society, just as it does, as Armstrong claims, in today’s society.
What then is the difference between these two periods in time?
I would suggest that it is not religion which hinders progress but one’s attitude to religion. Any ideology whether completely secular or religious can be a stumbling block to human growth and development. Take the example of Mao’s China. His version of communism made no allowance for religion whatsoever, yet his policies practically drove the world’s most populace nation into a period of social barbarity (the Cultural Revolution) and economic backwardness (the ill-fated attempt at creating a steel industry by having the people melt their cooking utensils).
This is in no way an attack on Communism, or some small-minded defense of religion, merely a submission that it is how one uses and enforces ideology, whatever it may be, that could either raise society, or drive it into the ground.
Yet it cannot be denied that religion has such strong emotional resonance that it can be more easily used to manipulate society compared to more secular ideologies. If I was to claim in a World Trade Organization meeting that I am a socialist and that I reject capitalism; this will in no way raise the same reaction than if I was to stand up during Friday prayers and say that I reject Islam.
It becomes even more vital therefore that there be an underlying respect to intellectualism in society; especially societies that make claims towards religiosity. Anything less would lead to a society governed by reactionaries, bigots and tyrants. Perhaps it is this respect for intellectual thought and discourse which created the “Islamic Golden Age”, just as the converse rejection of intellectualism is what colours the Islamic World today.
We cannot ignore religion, yet we must reconcile the need for spiritual fulfillment with the kind of societal intellectual openness and freedom to allow for a forward momentum in the development of all peoples. Towards this end, this book is a very important publication indeed. It’s challenging of the sort of anti-intellectualism and anti-democratic practices found all too often in the Muslim World in what is obviously (at least to me) nothing more than the cynical and tawdry use of faith as a manner to maintain power; timely and necessary.
This preface, and I believe, this book, is not some clarion call for a great planet wide but instead a hope for a world where no one is held back by superstition, exclusivity, bigotry and cruelty at the expense of inventiveness, inclusivity, humanism and compassion.
Dr Azmi Sharom is an academic at the Faculty of Law,
University of Malaya.