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Our Decline and Its Causes

By:
Amīr Shakīb Arslān
Document type:
Articles and Essays

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Our Decline and Its Causes

Amīr Shakīb Arslān

Commentary

A member of a leading Lebanese Druze family, he studied at the American school in Shwayfat, then at al-Hikmah school in Beirut. In 1889 a trip to Egypt brought him into contact with ‘Abduh and his circle. He was elected to the Ottoman parliament in 1913, but after the First World War he spent much of his time in Europe. He was a link between Middle Eastern and North African Islam, and a proponent of Arab causes at the League of Nations. He published a periodical La Nation Arabe. His writings emphasize the Islamic nature of Arab Nationalism.

Here, in an essay that appeared in 1930 at the height of British and French imperialism in the Middle East, Arslan writes that if Islam was the cause of the glory of the Arabs, then their losing touch with the basic message of this faith is the reason for their “deplorably unsatisfactory” condition in the twentieth century. He writes somewhat elliptically that the Muslims had lost touch with their faith by “shun[ning] the field of action.” But blind imitation of “hackneyed conventions” is also to blame.

It may be said without exaggeration about the Muslims that their condition, spiritual as well as material, is deplorably unsatisfactory. With very few exceptions, in all countries where Muslims and non-Muslims live side by side, the Muslims lag far behind in almost everything. . . .

It cannot, however, be gainsaid that throughout the Islamic world, there has been a great stir, a powerful convulsion and an awakening in matters spiritual and temporal which is indeed phenomenal. The Europeans are carefully observing these revolutionary manifestations and are studying their directions and tendencies. That some of them are indeed apprehensive and suspicious of this awakening and stir is vouched for by the articles and books they have published. But it can easily be seen that this forward movement of the Muslims has not advanced so far as to enable them to come anywhere near the nations of Europe, America, or Japan.

This, then, is the general condition of the modern Muslims. What are the causes that led to the general degradation of Muslims? Was it not the Muslims who were credited with leadership in the East as well as in the West, for about eight or nine centuries, and acquired name and fame all over the world? Let us, therefore, first of all examine the factors that contributed to their greatness and advancement, before investigating the causes that led to their decline and fall.

The causes of the advancement of the Muslims were, briefly, those originating in Islam, which made its advent in the Arabian Peninsula. Its birth gathered together and consolidated the scattered races and tribes of Arabia, brought them out of barbarism into civilization, replaced their hardheadedness with mutual love and sympathy, eradicated idolatry and restored the worship of the one God. . . . Renovated and inspired by this dynamic force they made themselves masters of half the world in the short span of half a century. But for the internecine strife which lifted its head once again among them, towards the close of ‘Uthmān's Caliphate and during the Caliphate of ‘Alī,1 ‘Uthman and ‘Alī: the third and fourth Caliphs or leaders of the Muslim community after the death of Muhammad. [Ed.] no power on earth could have prevented them from conquering the whole world. . . .

As we scrutinize the matter minutely, it will be found that the greater part of the inspiring force that accounted for their victories and achievements has disappeared, although vestiges of it are visible here and there like the fading lines on a tattooed hand. Were it only for the bearing of the designation of “Muslims” without ever performing the duties of a Muslim, that God had promised the reward of greatness, glory and honor for the Believers, we could have, with justice, asked, “Where is the honor for the Muslims?” as according to the Qur'ānic verse, “Honor belongs to God and to His Apostle and to the Believers.”

And it was due from Us To aid those who believed (Qur'ān 30:47)

Do these words of God mean that they are only to proclaim themselves Muslims but never need encounter the tribulations of life in the field of action? If it be so, one cannot but wonder at the decline and degradation of the Muslims. But the Qur'ānic verses do not mean this; nor does God break His promises; and the Qur'ān has remained the same as it then was. Not a syllable has been changed in its text. The change has occurred in the Muslims themselves:

Verily, never will God change the condition of a people until they change it themselves (Qur'ān 13:11)

How can you expect that God will help a nation that shuns the field of action, and that He will shower upon them the magnificent rewards once bestowed on their glorious and heroic ancestors, although they have none of the valour, vitality and stout-heartedness of the latter? . . . How absurd it would be for the present-day Muslims to desire that they should get for the five per cent work they do, the same reward as their illustrious forbears who performed their one hundred per cent work. . . .

Today that zeal of our ancestors, their fervor and their ennobling devotion to their faith, has disappeared from among the Muslims. This spirit is found transfused in the enemies of Islam, though they received no such inspiration from the scriptures of their religions. . . .

Can anyone point out a single Muslim nation of modern times which has sacrificed men and money as unstintingly and unhesitatingly for their country and their nation as these Christian nations of Europe have done for theirs (during World War I). . . .

If, therefore, the Islamic nations, following in the footsteps of their illustrious ancestors, act as they have been commanded, or at least, like the Europeans, sacrifice their persons and properties for defending their honor and heritage and for resisting aggressors, they will certainly be entitled to the same blessings as others have enjoyed by dint of their sufferings and sacrifices, and will find themselves in safety and security by the grace of God.

But without sufferings and sacrifices, without the spirit of self-abnegation and readiness to court death, without spending their wealth and properties, without the burning zeal for pursuing the right path prescribed by God, the Muslims instead hope to defend their dignity, honor and independence, by merely praying to God for help! . . .

But Islam is, on the contrary, not confined to prayer, fasting, medi-tation or supplication. Is God to accept the prayers of those who, while they are capable of positive work and sacrifices in person and material, choose to live a negative life of idleness and apathy to action? . . .

If the foreign intruders in Muslim countries are enraged at those Muslims who refuse to betray their own brethren in pursuance of foreign behests, it is because most Muslims offer help to these foreigners betraying their own brethren and enthusiastically assist them with advice against their own nation and faithfully cooperate with these foreigners from greed and perfidy. But for the assistance obtained by the foreigners through the treachery of one section of the Muslims and the zeal with which the latter rendered them help against their own countrymen and brethren, these foreigners would have neither usurped their sovereignty and established their rule over them nor acted in such a manner as to contravene and supercede their religious laws and undermine the foundations of those social codes and conventions which are the offsprings of those laws, nor would they have dragged down the Muslims into the valley of the shadow of death and laid them to a disgraceful death. . . .

These Muslims would hardly deserve any recompense from God even if they had not engaged in conspiracies against their own religion, or placed themselves at the beck and call of the covetous foreigners for undermining their own nation, or lent their shoulders to be used as a ladder for the foreigner to climb on to power and wealth. They believe they have performed their religious duty when they have said their prayers, uttered the formulas, chanted a few verses, sung their hymns and spent their time in supplications. This is all Islam means to them. If this were all that was needed to be a Muslim and to be victorious in this world as well as in the next, then the Qur'ān would never have been so full of counsels, commands, and inspiring words calling upon the Muslims to serve Islam with their minds, bodies, and material wealth, to make the greatest sacrifices, to be steadfast in honesty and patience, to work for the benefit of their fellow believers, to maintain justice and equity and to acquire all noble qualities. . . .

There are people who ask why degradation has overtaken the Muslims and why they are not able to keep pace with others. Anyone who realizes how they differ from others in the degree of awakening, devotion, and sense of duty and self-respect, will easily find the answer to these questions. . . .

Another important cause of the decline of Muslims is the blind obstinacy with which they insist upon the maintenance of hackneyed conventions. Serious are the dangers to a nation from men who condemn everything old as absurd and worthless, without giving thought to their intrinsic value, simply because they are “old”; no less serious are the dangers that arise from the conservative school, which insists that no change can be permissible in anything. . . . Thus these sophisticated “ultra-moderns” and the conservative conventionalists are ruining Islam between themselves. . . .

The best examples in this matter are the Europeans. Study them as closely as we may; we shall not find even a single nation among them that desires to lose its identity in another. The English would remain but English. The French want to remain French, etc. . . . To the extent the European civilization is sufficient for the Europeans, to the same extent is Japanese civilization sufficient for the Japanese. In other words, the civilizations of both are confined within the bounds of their nationalities, languages, customs, religions, their conceptions of freedom, ethical peculiarities, modes of thought, etc. . . .

Every nation adheres rigorously to its religion and clings steadfastly to its religious heritage, traditions, and national characteristics and peculiarities. They never speak of these things with contempt or ridicule. The Muslims alone seem not to understand their value. If anyone tells them that they should hold fast to the Qur'ān, their faith, their religious traditions, and their natural characteristics, or that they should not abandon the Arabic language, or that they should preserve their oriental mode of life and conduct and etiquette, they would yell like lunatics: “Down with your traditionalism . . . in these civilized days how can you progress like others with your outworn traditions and customs of the Middle Ages?” . . .

As for the conservative Muslims . . . they have made the Muslims helpless victims of poverty and indigence by reducing Islam to a religion of mere other-worldly preoccupations. . . . It is these conservatives who declared war on natural science, mathematics, and all creative arts, condemned them as the practices of infidels and thereby deprived Muslims of the fruits of science. . . .

The quintessence of Islamic teaching is that man should make proper use of his intellect which God has given him as a guiding light to help him think for himself, and that having done everything in his power, he should resign himself to the Will of God, for the happy fructification of his labor. . . .

Islam is by its very nature and genius a revolt against all degenerate tradition. It dug the grave for the abominable and debased traditions and usages of old and cut off all relationship with what was false and untrue. How can it then be called a religion of static inaction and conservatism. . . .

In order that Muslims may awake, arise and ascend the highest pinnacle of advancement and progress, like any other modern nation, it is their sacred duty to embark on a jihād2 jihād: “to strive, struggle” to realize God's Will. The term applies to moral (spiritual perfection), intellectual (the reasoning or interpretation of ijtihād), and military (holy war) efforts or struggles. [Ed.] by sacrificing their life and wealth in consonance with the oft repeated commandments of the Qur'an. It is this kind of jihād that is known in modern parlance as “sacrifice.” No nation has achieved victory but by sacrifice. . . .

If Muslims will resolve and strive, taking their inspiration from the Qur'ān, they can attain the rank of the Europeans, the Americans and the Japanese in learning and science and making progress. Yet withal they can preserve their own faith, just as others have done. Nay more, if we derive our inspiration from the Qur'ān, we would be better qualified for progress than others.

Bibliography references:

From Our Decline and Its Causes: A Diagnosis of the Symptoms of the Downfall of Muslims, trans. M.A. Shakoor (Lahore, 1944; reprint ed., 1968), pp. 1–4, 6–8, 10–13, 15, 29, 39–40, 44–45, 48, 68–71, 73–75, 83–86, 96–97, 99, 132, 134.

Notes:

1. ‘Uthman and ‘Alī: the third and fourth Caliphs or leaders of the Muslim community after the death of Muhammad. [Ed.]

2. jihād: “to strive, struggle” to realize God's Will. The term applies to moral (spiritual perfection), intellectual (the reasoning or interpretation of ijtihād), and military (holy war) efforts or struggles. [Ed.]

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