The Root Cause of Muslim Decline

By Spahic Omer

(Summary: This article discusses the rift between the political and religious intellectual leadership as the root cause of Muslim decline. The rift rendered the rulers weak and deluded, and the scholars incapacitated. Neither was able to maximise its potential, gradually depriving the Ummah of its vitality as well as productivity. The rift, ultimately, proved most responsible for Muslims’ susceptibility to the scourge of secularism.)

Islam is not a religion in the conventional sense of the word, i.e., a system of ambiguous faith and dry rituals.  Rather, it is a total way of life. It concerns not merely the world of spirit (metaphysics), but as well the world of matter (physics). Moreover, it is a system of law and morality, imbued with the revealed worldview and piety. 

Practicing Islam requires fulfilling the needs of this world and the hereafter, and the needs of the body and soul. It requires organisation and government, involving a leader with authority and political power. Islam and Islamic community cannot be complete, nor function completely, unless Islam was also a state. Just like every indispensable and wholesome undertaking, political action, too, is regarded as a form of worship and a way of serving God. Civilisation – that is to say, the ultimate wellbeing of mankind, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and the wellbeing of the natural world – is the supreme goal of Islam. 

It was because of this that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) while establishing the first Muslim community, established the first Islamic state and government as well. During his time, the seeds of Islamic civilisation were likewise planted and its first manifestations realised. Following the Prophet’s demise and the demise of his four rightly-guided successors or caliphs (al-khulafa’ al-rashidun) – who like their mentor exemplified the universality and dynamism of the Islamic message and were simultaneously inspiring leaders and devout scholars – things started to deteriorate. The caliphate was eventually turned into a form of cruel monarchy and the pure Islamic spirit was progressively mixed with other substances. In the wake of the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty – albeit with the reign of Mu’awiyah (d. 680) functioning as a transition from caliphate to monarchy – one could only hear, with infrequent and brief hiatuses, about squabbles, intrigues, infightings and outright bloody wars for rule and power.

Weak Leaders and Ineffective Governments 

Such an environment, quite often, produced weak leaders and ineffective governments. Scholarship and piety were seldom their forte. Most of the official systems and establishments were able to function and were sustained mainly due to the extraordinary spiritual and intellectual legacies generated by the Prophet’s golden generation, which even though inexhaustible, needed proper maintenance and timely upgrading. 

As a matter of fact, those systems and establishments were running on half-empty, arising from a fractional application of Islam’s greatness and totality. One can imagine, if all the glory and progress attained by the past Islamic governments were on account of their partial functioning Islamicity-wise, what glory and progress they might have achieved if they functioned properly and completely. Indeed, the cases of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (d. 720), Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (Saladin) (d. 1193), Mehmed al-Fatih (d. 1481), and some others, are hints at those possibilities. The history of Islamic civilisation, it stands to reason, can be viewed in the style of the glass being half-full (an optimistic attitude) or half-empty (a pessimistic attitude). The matter was as much about gains as about losses.

The situation led to a rupture in the relationship between the political and religious-cum-intellectual leadership. The obsession of the political leadership was absolute authority and rule, often supported by unscrupulous ways. To them, the compulsive ends were justifying the dishonest means. The true religious leadership, on the other hand, was only concerned about the spiritual, intellectual and moral wellbeing of society. As such, in the eyes of the former, the scholars and their actions were politically incorrect, and they could not be on the same wavelength as the rulers. 

The scholars’ incorrectness, however, under certain circumstances was perceived as a source of danger and even malice. That caused the relationships between the two realms to oscillate between indifference, contempt, manipulation, exploitation and ill-treatment. As a consequence, most giants of the Islamic spiritual and intellectual orthodoxy enjoyed unfavourable relations with the rulers. Some were ignored, others were beaten and imprisoned, and yet others were attempted to be bribed and induced to support governments with dubious integrity. In general, it was atypical that the relationships were normal and genuinely productive. Only Almighty God knows how much capacity and how many opportunities have been frittered away. 

Deluded Rulers and Debilitated Scholars

This way, the political leadership was divested of its true strength, support and direction. It was rendered handicapped and directionless. While the religious-cum-intellectual leadership was denied its true significance and real-world role of enlightening, inspiring and guiding society, including the members of government. However, in order to offset the predicament somehow, most rulers tended to resort to the second rate and even unprincipled and quasi scholars. 

Whereas a great many true scholars, greatly debilitated and disillusioned, were increasingly becoming detached from – and unconcerned with – the vicissitudes of everyday life. Unappreciated and “unneeded”, they felt ever more inclined to utopianism and academicism. To arrest the decline and save whatever still could be saved, formalism and rigidity were gradually becoming the preferences of those scholars.

Thus, instead of freedom and egalitarianism, despotism, harassment and suppression were the general ways; and instead of spiritual profundity and intellectual farsightedness and dynamism, religious stupor and intellectual lethargy were adopted as national standards.

Hence, a vicious cycle, or a downward spiral, was created. It was a no-win situation. The conceptual and operational inadequacies of the rulers, and the relative practical futility of the scholars, were generating more needs to the body of the Islamic community (ummah) and were creating more gaps in the configuration of Islamic civilisation. But to respond to those conditions, the rulers mobilised their association with designated “scholars” and tried to tap into the glaringly flawed visions and programs of theirs, further alienating the authentic scholars from themselves and from the pressing needs of society. 

Similarly, the authentic scholars intensified their calls for improving the present by merely following, yet imitating, and preserving the past, in that the future was increasingly looking uncertain and out of their “right” hands, lending thereby little credence to the activities of governments. Unquestionably, both sides were digging holes for themselves and were sinking deeper in them. A complex chain of detrimental results kept reinforcing itself through a feedback loop. Those who suffered most, though, were ordinary people. 

It goes without saying that such by no means were milieus conducive to democracy, freedom, righteousness, intellectual keenness and creativity. Indeed, the rift between the political and intellectual leadership was the root cause of everything negative in the history of Islamic civilisation. All other causes, regardless, were its upshots. In the main, the rulers and scholars, and the relations between them, are most responsible for all good and bad fortunes that may befall the Islamic community. Accordingly, the Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said in a weak (da’if) hadith that whenever two groups from his ummah: the rulers and scholars, are upright, upright are all other people; and whenever they are corrupt, corrupt are all other people.

Some Consequences of the Rift

For example, it was only because of the bane of the rift between the rulers and true scholars that various forms of pseudo-Sufism were able to establish themselves, thrive and survive. The rulers did not – could not – care, and did not mind supporting the Sufis in their capacity as “men of faith” and “scholars” for the sake of shoring up their questionable agendas. The true scholars were too “distant” to serve as antidotes and preventers. Their voices were like fading echoes in the distance.

This furthermore explains the proliferation of the funerary architecture, or the architecture of death, as soon as the rift was cemented and has become the order of the day. Through it, members of the political leadership were hypocritically honoured and celebrated, and members of Sufi communities and their leaderships were inappropriately memorialised and venerated. The circle extended and encompassed the other heroes and “saints” from the existing and past religious, intellectual and political spheres. It was an attempt – as it were – to reconstruct the existing and reinvent the past Islamic civilisational consciousness and orientation.

Diverse aspects of political and religious sectarianism were likewise given new impetus under the circumstances. They were actively promoted and exploited. The political leadership was ready to stop at nothing to stay in power, while the religious intellectual leadership was also ready to go to great lengths but solely to safeguard as much as possible its status as guardians of society and to keep discharging as faithfully as possible the trust which it has been entrusted with. Insofar as the political leadership got it wrong concerning both goals and means, the religious intellectual leadership erred only in terms of certain methods and strategies. Needless to say that even that was unintentional and at times was carried out under duress.

Apart from myriads of tombs, mausoleums, funerary and Sufi complexes that dot most of the landscapes of the historical centres of Islamic culture and civilisation, as many monumental and memorial mosques and other iconic institutional buildings constructed by and in the name of certain political leaders, feature prominently in the same cultural and civilisational centres. Whenever in those centres, one cannot help developing a sense of architectural awe with respect to sheer quantity, “quality” and form. Most of that was affected, somehow or other, by the estrangement between the rulers and scholars. The rulers were desperate for legitimacy and acceptance. 

Today when people still hold that those “masterpieces” stand for the exclusive face of Islamic art and architecture, it is not only that they are wrong, but also that they display some symptoms of an estrangement between the two in a contemporary context. Without a doubt, art and architecture were often related to power and large interests: political and financial. They were the plaything of the rich and powerful. The result was the birth of elitist and extravagant artistic and architectural styles.

The rift between the political and religious intellectual leadership was also the reason why the Islamic community hopelessly swayed from one extremity to another in a number of major community- and civilisation-building processes, involving scientific development, defence, political, economic and intellectual reforms, religious purification and revival, and the prospect of confronting and triumphing over some ground-breaking external challenges. This bears upon especially the later times when the rift became widest and its fallouts most conspicuous, and when external challenges grew in stature and aggression. When they were needed most, neither the political nor the religious intellectual leadership came to rescue. Neither was ready, nor capable, to stand up and be counted.  

Finally, according to AbdulHamid AbuSulayman, “the rift between the Ummah’s political and religious intellectual leadership represented the beginning of the decline of Muslim power, of the rent in the fabric of Muslim society, and of the crisis in Islamic thought and institutions. All of these factors contributed to throwing the door open to corruption and decline. Gradually Islam was no longer able to maintain its vitality. As a result, only the remnants of its spiritual teachings have survived over the centuries. The rest of its glorious civilisation has perished. The rift between the religious intellectual and the political leadership was the underlying cause of all the maladies that would later beset the Ummah. This bitter rift led to the removal of the intellectual leadership from all practical and social responsibility within the Ummah. This, in turn, became the most important reason for the paralysis of the Muslim mind, which literally retreated into the confines of the mosque.”***

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