What Really Holds Muslims Back


Many people would like to let you know why they think Muslims are ‘behind’ or lacking in whatever field they choose to criticise that community for: you will find every shade of Orientalist, from those advocating a Muslim renaissance to the outright xenophobes who are content to blame Islam, the Quran or Muhammad (pbuh) for being hostile to everything from critical thinking to Capitalism (and of course for being against female empowerment). Causes are said to be everything from Ottoman scholars forbidding the use of the printing press as a ‘bad innovation’ to Al Ghazzali having allegedly stifled the rise of Islamic science (or at least natural philosophy) with his withering critique of ‘the incoherence of the philosophers’.

There are those more charitable voices who say that Islam was a good idea for those that followed it to start with but it failed to adapt to the times and therefore could not produce the apparent modern necessities of an Industrial Revolution and Democracy. These more forgiving neo-Orientalists, having no need to establish the superiority of ‘Western’ Civilizational models, then prescribe various remedies which involve incorporating the missing elements wholesale or with ‘adaptations’. They like to hold up countries like the UAE or sometimes Malaysia or even Turkey as examples of this kind of ‘syncreatism’. Nonetheless, they all agree that something went ‘wrong’. In fact, Bernard lewis, archdeacon of Orientalists (at least according to the man who coined that neologism, Edward W. Said) wrote a whole book about Islam called nothing other than ‘What Went Wrong’.

The academics are not alone: they are joined by a slew of popular writers, journalists, critics and politicians from entire spectrum, extreme Left to extreme Right who also want to opine as to what is wrong with Islam (meaning what is wrong with Muslims, but they are usually not allowed to say the latter so they just say ‘Islam’). Even female pop-stars are fond of complaining about the ‘dress code’ when they have to perform is some Muslim countries.

In short, a lot of people have an opinion. In fact, probably everyone has an opinion.

Including, of course, the Muslims.

Muslims groups also agree that something has gone ‘wrong’. In fact, there seems to be a consensus amongst Muslim and non-Muslim ‘thinkers’ that something has indeed ‘gone wrong’. The disagreement is about the cause. Whereas the Orientalists and neo-orientalists (and I use the phrase in the pejorative sense, not to denigrate the legitimate field of Oriental studies by people of any religion or persuasion) are fond of blaming the source texts, personalities and ideas of Islam, the Muslims are fond of blaming…well, the non-Muslims. Or ‘disunity’. But the disunity is itself usually blamed on non-Muslims so it often amounts to the same thing. Many of them also blame a lack of Islamic orthodoxy among Muslims and thus blame the Muslims via a kind of judgement from God, but again, this lack of Orthodoxy is frequently blamed on non-Muslims or people within the community who are not ‘proper’ Muslims (i.e. lapsed Muslims, ‘sell-out’ Muslims, secret non-Muslims or people who think they are Muslim but really are not).

The main criticisms by non-Muslims for the relative lack of ‘development’ (by which they mean military or at least financial-industrial success like the West, Japan or even China) in the Muslim world tend to fall into the following categories:

1) Muslims are unable to develop Western scientific/economic methods because they have a faith based outlook that is hostile to empiricism and the development of new technology. This is because they insist on following a defunct book and teaching which are hopelessly outdated.

2) The reason for the above is the failure of Islam to develop a ‘free thinking’ ethos; thus it stifles disagreement and inquiry, especially in matters of religion, which in Islam, appear to extend to everything including the political and economic spheres. This lack of demarcation is also found to be a cause of Muslim backwardness – they just never learnt to separate the religious from the profane and thus it held back technological, economic and social development. The social ills of the Muslim world are also blamed on this. They have too many children, they do not practice abortion or birth control and they do not allow women into the workforce. This is again because they follow the dictates of their primitive book/religion which has been superseded by modern or even Renaissance ideas such as humanism, The Free Market (for some of those who believe in this, the term needs capitalization for the same reason that ‘God’ is capitalised), gender equality and even Communism (depending on who you ask). This is a view shared by many and not only in the West. It is also sometimes applied to the Catholic Church and other groups as well as Muslims. Sometimes Christians join in and tell Muslims that they have always had to use their brains and incorporate Greek philosophy to understand their scripture, so they were ‘open’ from the start. Sometimes poor Imam Ghazzali gets the blame for shutting the door on ‘philosophy’ (despite the fact that he was himself an accomplished philosopher). Often Muslims of a certain leaning will join in to lament the fall from grace of the Mu’tazzila or ‘Rationalists’  over a millennium ago and wish for their resurgence.

3) The Quran is a ‘medieval’ remnant in modern societies, mysteriously followed by most Muslims (the spectre of Muslims not having ‘woken up’ as Enlightenment Europe did is invoked here). This line of argumentation is popular with both armchair, polemic and academic Islamophobes: any group that would believe in child marriage, sex slavery, chopping off limbs for theft, stoning someone for adultery, blowing up subways etc. is hopeless and more pertinently dangerous. Not only are the people dangerous, but even the ideas should be rooted out, as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens would have it. Basically, Islam is a dangerous and barbaric ideology from which irrationality, violence and misogyny flow naturally: it has survived only because of the relative lack of education and backwardness of the lands that espouse it. It is ideologically intolerable and more importantly, an existential threat.

4) Islam can be tolerated according to gentler voices, but it needs modifications to bring it in line with secular liberal values. Who is to carry out these modifications is left open but presumably it must be someone who is a secular liberal. This group thinks that Islam is indeed backward and perhaps even barbaric but as long as it can be ‘contained’ in the same way as Christianity was in Europe and domesticated, then it will wither away and die much like that other faith, or it will survive in a form which may even be beneficial, at least to those that feel a need for it.

5) Islam is perhaps a problem, but he main issue is the West’s attitude to the Muslim world, specifically foreign and economic policy, the IMF’s damaging influence or our attitude towards Israel and the support of dictatorial regimes in places such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This causes anger and humiliation amongst Muslims as it would in any victimised group and they become hostile, radicalised and violent. But the actual precipitating factor was the ‘West’. Proponents of this view, such as Noam Chomsky, do not really blame the religion itself but nor do they necessarily think it is a good thing. They are basically the opposite of the first group who blame ‘Muslims’ via Islam: they blame the outside forces such as the West for both the economic plight and the political situation in Muslim majority lands and even Muslim minds. They nonetheless would almost invariably agree that Muslims’ failure to adhere to secular liberal values and principles is a problem. They just think that the problem can be solved by being ‘nicer’ to Muslims.

As for the Muslim groups, a large number of individuals ranging from Abd Al Wahhab, Muhammad Ilyas, Rashid Rida, Taqiuddin An Nabbhani, Sayyid Qutb and even Osama Bin Laden (and far too many others, most of whom have inspired non-eponymous movements) have pondered the problem of Muslim ‘backwardness’ (or their preferred term ‘powerlessness’) and the need for ‘revival’ in the Muslim world. There are a great many groups such as Ikhwanis, Tablighis, Salafists, from the political to the violent, but the ideas are actually only a handful:

1) Non-Muslim powers, ranging from ‘the West’ to India and China, occupied Muslim lands by nefarious means, usually meaning ‘not in a fair fight’ (they are usually ambiguous about what constitutes a ‘fair’ fight) and this has led to the oppression and execution of the Muslim intellectuals over hundreds of years of colonialism. This combined with economic disadvantages as colonial powers such as Britain favoured non-Muslims who were more readily able to benefit from colonial policies (why non-Muslims should be more easily able to benefit from colonialism is left open or placed in the context of European hostility to Islam). This led to intellectual and politico-industrial stagnation and an asymmetric distribution of wealth and resources that persisted even after the colonial period. In fact, the colonial powers planted and continue to insert pliant leaders into the ‘Muslim world’ even in the post colonial period, which after all was very recently in the case of most countries. These leaders are just another means of ‘neo-colonialism’ and prevent Muslim ‘revival’.

Many groups, especially Salafists, imply that these leaders are secretly not really Muslim. Some go further and state that if they do not ‘rule by Islam’ they can be killed. Others go further still and say that those who support them can also be killed, for a kind of ‘treason’. This is the root idea behind many modern Salafist groups and their justification for both domestic and international violence against governments and individuals.

How the colonial powers were able to take over in the first place, or how are they allegedly still in charge is blamed on disunity as opposed to superior technological or economic/organisational abilities on the colonisers part.

2) Another group, especially prevalent in those areas that did not experience European colonialism, or conversely even benefited from it, such as Saudi Arabia, blame the decline on the alleged perfusion of heterodoxy amongst Muslims: they declined because they failed to follow Islam properly. If they had, this would not have happened. They echo Genghis Khan when he is reported to have said, ‘Had you not been so evil, God would not have sent me’. They feel that there are heresies, imports from other religions – ‘bidat’ or innovations – which have led to the formation of a less than pristine form of Islam. They question if the people practising these knowingly are even Muslim in the first place. They also see other enemies from within, for example, they feel the Shi’ites have previously and continue to undermine ‘Islam’. This group is not as interested in colonial explanations (unlike Hizb Ut Tahrir or The Muslim Brotherhood). Rather, their concern is purifying Islam and making it into the pristine form of their chosen ‘Salaf’ (after all, Shia and Mu’tazzila are from the Salaf also) or some of the people from first three generations after the Prophets (pbuh) time. Likewise, they are not very clear on the issue of acquisition of new technology or specialist knowledge: some of them say it is unnecessary as God will take care of this as long as we correct our faith (to that which they see fit). Others advocate a selective adoption of Western technology (but without Western ideals). The two sides have come to blows (and continue to do so, especially in Saudi Arabia).

3) The ‘Ijtihadists’: they are related to the above two groups, overlapping in many cases, and to varying extents blame the factors of ‘kuffar colonialism’ and lack of faith amongst Muslims. However, their primary issue is that ‘traditional Islam’ has failed by not continuing to assess and adapt to the demands of the age. They particularly blame Islamic scholars and institutions for not keeping pace and being too obscurantist or dogmatic. They are also rather annoyed at the traditional ‘schools’ of Islamic jurisprudence and often advocate novel interpretations or abrogations of the text for old problems based on their understanding. They are often led by charismatic people who set up a kind of ‘new madhab’ which has ‘new fatwas’.

This group is further divided into two: the first group, whose ‘new ijtihad’ serves the ends of ‘reviving Islam’ in Muslim countries and often provides very local solutions (for example, for the Middle East or Egypt) which the followers then try to generalise. The second group has ‘discovered’ that by new ijtihad, they can resolve issues where there is conflict with secular liberalism. Thus the first groups tailor their ‘fatwas’ to the Muslim majority countries and therefore on the face of it tend to be more orthodox. The second group tailor them to the anxieties of Muslims living in the West, especially America or the UK. This group tends to try and ‘find’ novel approaches that very often are the same as the prevailing western ideology, but in Islamic garb.

So for example, the first group may ‘discover’, in opposition to 1400 years of Islamic thought, that suicidal terrorism or killing the leader is allowed in Islam. The second group may discover that women can lead prayer after all. Despite their widely divergent views, they both believe that traditional Islam is defunct but we need to exercise a ‘new ijtihad’ and this will reveal the proper Islam that has been obscured by backward scholars and institutions.

4) This group could be called ‘modernists’ but modernity is not really their hallmark. For example, the ‘Quilliam Foundation’. They agree that Islam needs to be changed to fit in with Liberalism, and have no problem criticising the behaviour of Islamic personalities, up to and including the Prophet (pbuh) and the Quran. They basically agree that Islam is pre-modern and needs to change, but allow for this to happen and for themselves to be called Muslims. They would agree with may of the neo-Orientalist’s conclusions as to the reasons for the backwardness of Muslims. Why we should follow a revised version of what claims to be an infallible scripture is not addressed. Many of these individuals are former Salafists (such as Usama Hassan and Majid Nawaz) and bizarrely share with them the idea that traditional Islam has failed and needs reform: whereas the former would like the reform to be along Salafist lines, the latter would like it to be along secular/Liberal lines.

5) This group is a unique stand-out as it actually does not think there is a problem, other than Western misrepresentations of the Islamic world. They think that Saudi Arabia or Iran (depending on their preference) are good examples of social morality and public welfare that have been misrepresented. They will point out ‘facts’ such as Saudi Arabia’s low prevalence of rape or welfare programmes in the Gulf states as proof of problem free ‘Islamic’ systems. A strange corollary to this is the ‘Dawah’ movement in the West, which in general, when exemplified by UK groups such as Hizb Ut Tahrir and iERA, think that not only is there no problem with Islam but probably not with Muslim states either: the problem is in fact either western intervention which is preventing the flowering of a new and Islamic state of the ‘Khilafa’ in the case of the former or the fact that non-Muslims don’t know enough about Islam and that is why they are criticising it in the case of the latter. Hence, they have set out to ‘educate’ the West through debates and propaganda, explaining issues such as polygyny and apostasy to a Western audience (using a Wahhabi model). So there is in fact more of a perception problem than an actual problem. They would also agree that the ‘Muslim nations’ need to rule ‘by sharia’ (which is invariably a Taliban/Deoband/Salafist version).

So wherever you look Dear Reader, you will find a ‘reason’ for the problems that Muslims face. No matter if it is extremism or the underdevelopment of the road network in Indonesia, some form of explanation will be forthcoming. Whether you don’t know if you should vote or are having trouble finding a husband/wife, the above factions have an explanation.

But is it right? And as someone has already asked, who really speaks for Islam?

Well, none of them.

They are all…fantasists.

But instead of doing what everyone else does and presenting a theory about why I am right, it may be more productive to give a set of examples that most Muslims living in the West will recognise instantly. Whether they agree or not is a different story.

Rather than asking what holds the ‘Ummah’ or Muslims back, lets see what holds us back, as individuals, and then generalise that – since the Ummah is just a collection of individuals and their problems will simply be represented and magnified. Lets take the example of a young Muslim man growing up in the UK shall we?

The young man (lets say), if he were to show from an early age such a precocious talent for the arts that he may be a latter day Da Vinci, would nonetheless never have it come to any kind of fruition, for he would have been told by his mosque teachers and others that sculpture and painting are ‘haraam’ unless confined to the restrictive zone of geometrical patterns.  Thus a Muslim Rodin, were he to ever be born, would probably have no way to emerge, unless first divested of his Islam. But the prohibition is on sketchy grounds – the earliest hanafis disagreed about the pictures of living things for example.

The child’s’ Jewish neighbour however would have free reign, encouragement and support. But as a Muslim he has to deal with dissuasion (at best) and carrying around the guilt of engaging in ‘haraam’ while constantly being reminded that God will force him to breathe life into his works of art, and if he cannot do it, as he surely won’t, he will be cast into hell, with all of his idols. It’s not a promising start.

It is much the same if he shows great talent with the piano or violin. He won’t get even get a beginning – in fact if Cat Stevens, with all his fame and wealth can only get the puritan side of the story about music and Islam and has to give up being ‘the next John Lennon’ when he accepts Islam, what chance does our young musical prodigy have? What does it matter if the early Hanafi sources allowed music in the same way as they allowed literature: it was to be engaged in and the prohibited matters avoided only. Or will he ever be told about Imam Al Ghazzali (and his brothers) large volume on music, never translated? Does Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam even know to this day? How much influence and wealth did he lose from his twenty plus year retirement from music (and belated return)? How much more influence could he have had with the wider society? How many more people would have been curious about Islam through his Music and fame?

As for the child’s’ Jewish neighbour, he will be encouraged, lauded even, and his parents will show off his piano recitals. When the Muslim kid grows up he will be told by Salafists (and others) that there is a ‘Jewish conspiracy’ to control the media. He will wonder how exactly Muslims would have any influence in the media if film-making, painting and music are haraam. And he wonders if what the Muslims call a ‘conspiracy’ is just a surfeit of talent in the Jewish community, suppressed in his own.

Suitably dissuaded from the arts, he may look towards the humanities, but even here he will constantly wonder if he would not be better off pursuing an ‘Islamic education’ instead. He will perpetually be made to feel guilt about whether he is really studying ‘useful knowledge’ or if it is ‘for the sake of Allah’ as opposed to for his own ‘nafs’ or ego. The Jewish kid next door of course does not have to worry about this: he can study something just because he wants to.

The Muslim teenager is regaled with stories about how the second Caliph Umar (RA) burned whole libraries of books because they contained ‘nothing useful for the hereafter’ (but this never actually happened) and that only the knowledge which will benefit him in the hereafter is useful. If he comes across the hadith of The Prophet (pbuh) to seek knowledge even in China, he will be brusquely reminded by Salafists that it is fabricated (no one will tell him that there are innumerable ayats of the Quran and other hadith saying the exact same thing). He will also told, just for good measure that ‘knowledge’ here means only knowledge of Islam, namely recitation of Quran, how long your beard should be, how to avoid free mixing and not imitate the kuffar etc and not by any stretch of the imagination appreciation of literature, poetry, the reading of history or the classics, learning a language other than Arabic or studying ethnography, anthropology or a million other disciplines. If he does engage in them, he does so again with a sense of guilt (if he stays within Islam that is of course), always with the feeling that he is wasting his time, following his vain desires and engaging in ‘idle chatter’. Would it not really be better to seek ‘Islamic knowledge’? He will never be told about Al Farabi, Ibn Sina (and if he is, he will learn it from the non-Muslims and the moulanas will quickly label them ‘Greek philosophy loving kafirs and non-believers’, using Ibn Taymiyya as their proof, himself ironically a Greek philosophy loving heretic), Al Baruni, Al Haythami and all the other countless Islamic scholars who nonetheless mastered fields from musical appreciation to optics via mathematics and astronomy. If he does know of them, he will likely assume they were time wasters.

Similarly, he will not ascribe the Prophets’ appreciation of poetry to an artistic temperament, rather, if he hears about this at all, he will be confused by it.

Philosophy then of course is impossible for him, a forbidden and heretical pursuit, the language of Satan. Not only the Salafis, Deobandis and other visible sects of Islam but nearly all of the Islamic ‘authorities’ he comes across as an inquiring teenager will warn him off it and even Islamic Kalaam, telling him either that they are prohibited for him or even outright disbelief. He will never know that all of the great scholars of Ahlus Sunnah practised both freely.

No matter if he has the philosophical brain of Aristotle or Maimonides, he will never write a jot on the subject. He will never read the great philosophical works of the Muslim grandmasters, and in any case, even if he wanted to, he will never find them translated. His Jewish neighbour is of course, free to become a Levi-Strauss or a Karl Popper.

Having been dissuaded from the vast majority of intellectual and artistic pursuits, the young man, by now contemplating furthering his education at university, does nonetheless yet have one route open to him: the sciences. For are they not frequently used to confirm the truth of the Quran?

But of course, here he will find that the vast majority of the entrants into this field have no interest in religious matters and in any case, he will be once again dissuaded from the theoretical side of things as more ‘useless knowledge’ (perhaps of the kind that Umar burned). After all, what is the point of knowing the names and properties of the fundamental particles or Quantum Physics? It’s all wishy-washy nonsense. However, perhaps something more practical like engineering or medicine, something that can ‘benefit the ummah’. But the guilt is always there: is he studying for the sake of Allah? Will this really help the ‘ummah’? Is all this haraam free mixing worth it? Would he not be better off in a Deobandi or Brelwi seminary? Medina University perhaps?

When he is older, if he stays in science, he will see that the ‘Science and Islam’ arguments are the work of rank amateurs and even outright charlatans. Knowing the lack of pursuit and endeavour that the Muslims show in the sciences, it will not surprise him.

It is often said that if Bill Gates had been working in Japan instead of the US we would never have heard of him, because the rights to his intellectual output would have been held by his employer and thus he would have been just another faceless programmer (albeit a brilliant one). But what if Bill Gates was Muslim? Indeed, what then?

When the child becomes a man, he will hear, if faintly, all of the voices telling him what is ‘wrong with Islam’ and how Muslims have been held back. If he has learned his lesson, he will wonder if someone who engages in a field like the arts or sciences but always with a sense of guilt can ever achieve the same as the one who does so with a clear conscience. And he will see his Jewish friends (it is unlikely he has any though), with their role models in all spheres of life, from acting to cutting edge physics and he will wonder if it is this and not the alleged ‘Jewish conspiracy’ he was told about in the mosque which gives this community it’s alleged influence and power.

Quite apart from all of the fields of human activity that the young man thought were proscribed for him by his religion, but that he would most likely, as Cat Stevens did (after a lengthy interval), discover were in fact not so, he faces another problem: he is not quite sure if his religion is one of faith or blind following or that of independent reasoning. He is torn in different directions. He finds himself confused when outsiders challenge him as to how can he, for instance, allow adulterers to be stoned to death, apostates to be killed and such. He looks to Islamic personalities and speakers to give him the answers.

And it’s answers he gets, those and a good deal of intellectual gymnastics that go with them.

He will fall into one of two groups – justifying, say, the stoning, or refusing on some novel grounds. The latter feels a newly invented position and makes him feel like a heretic. The arguments proffered by the famous speakers for the former are of varying degrees of believability, but in any case, each one is a bit different and he has to wonder why it was left to these polemicists, often like Hamza Tzortzis, utterly lacking in secular qualifications or Islamic orthodoxy, to provide these answers and why they are not in the classical texts. He sees their atheist or Christian opponents shame them on this very point. In fact, he often feels how a Christian does hearing novel explanations for the Trinity from William Lane Craig, likewise wondering why God left the necessary clarifications to this man and not St Paul or St Anselm. Or better still, Jesus Christ.

Of course, what he does not realise is that the answers are there: but he will never learn of them, since the classical texts have been suppressed, mistranslated or ignored by the sectarian agendas of the puritans and literalists – and these heretics of the orthodox past are now the virtual entirety of those who speak for Islam. If he had, say, access to the works of Abu Hanifa, Malik and the Hanafi jurists, he would have found that they initially denied both the stoning of adulterers and the killing of apostates. Thus emboldened by the authoritative verdicts of the greatest and earliest Imams he could have held his head high in discussions and debates and would have had no need of the aforementioned Islamic intellectual pretenders (nor the verdicts or narrations of scholars old or new such as Imam Bukhari or Ibn Taymiyyah or Yusuf Al Qaradawi and countless others, who in the Islamic Big Picture, don’t really matter all that much).

But of course, he won’t hear of this.

The people answering the questions on his (and God’s) behalf about the stoning of adulterers or whatever are not interested in just defending Islam, but rather their personal ideological leaders, much in the way that Communists were not really about helping the proletariat but rather promoting Marx, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, materialism, economic centralisation etc: if they are Salafi, they will defend the opinion of Ibn Taymiyya and find innovation and licentiousness everywhere, if Deobandi, Gangohi and an insistence on making the Sunnah into Wajib, if Brelwi, Ahmed Ridha Khan…If any of these latter day idols made an Islamically illicit mistake (and they very frequently did), it becomes for these people and their naive audiences thereby mistake of Islam itself. And the classical, orthodox Islam which could inspire the young man with the confidence that people did indeed have it right, even at the start, cannot be allowed to interfere. So the ‘answer’ to the stoning of adulterers is not a ‘guess what I made up in my bedroom’ answer from Yasir Qadhi or Hamza Tzortzis; it is that the biggest and earliest group of Muslim jurists denied any such thing and regardless of any differences of opinion between the different schools then or today, you cannot stone someone to death when there is a disagreement as to whether it is even necessary. Non-Muslims and Muslims alike would be reassured, just as they would be about the lack of capital punishment for apostates and homosexuals exhibited in the Hanafi texts (though both groups are confidently and unapologetically reprobated). It is still the most widely practised school. However, it is not Islam that is being defended, but the opinion of the favourite latter-day scholars of the various speakers for Islam. In the case of the above-mentioned groups, most of them were frank heretics vis-a-vis Orthodox Islam.

Take the case of a highly educated American academic convert such as Jeffrey Lang. He learnt Arabic and struggled for years to understand the issues of hadith authenticity, abrogation in the Quran and allegations that Islam allows ‘wife beating’. Eventually he came up with his ‘own’ approach to controversial hadith (i.e. rejecting those ahad narrations that made no sense or were insulting to the Prophet or Sahabah, even if they were in ‘Sahih Bukhari’). However, this was exactly the same as the original Maturidi and Maliki mustalah (methodology) of hadith, the earliest and most authentic approach to dealing with narrations attributed to The Prophet (pbuh). But he could not get a hold of it. No one told him. He still does not know. Ditto with abrogation in the Quran – he concluded after years that it had been grossly overstated – but he only had before him the Salafist & heterodox answers of the people who claim to speak for Islam, such as the heretical comments of Haitham Haddad or others like him. But had he seen the books of the authentic scholars, he would have known, especailly having taught himself to read Arabic, that he had stumbled on the same conclusion as orthodox Islam.

Had all the speakers and writers (and now bloggers) he had come across not been too keen to explain to him that beating ones wife was only a ‘light’ beating, he would not have had to come to the conclusion that he needed to interpret the Arabic text in a different way. He would have found classical commentators such as Zamaskhari and Al Qushayri who agreed with him that of ‘beating’ there are other, perhaps more appropriate readings.  If he ever finds this information, he will be told that Zamakshari was a Mu’tazzila (and then it will take him years more to find out that most of the Quranic commentaries are by Mu’tazzila). And so on…but if a well known speaker and intellectual such as Lang has to spend years to get through the quagmire, then what hope for our young man?

The truth is he was never held back by Islam at all –  Islam always told him to go for it – whether he wanted to become a concert pianist, an actor, a theoretical physicist, a linguist or anything in between or all of them (as Ibn Sina and many other genuine Islamic scholars were). Islam always had the answers for the controversial questions from the very start, from the earliest and most reliable authorities, as opposed to dodgy Salafist publishing houses or Deobandi ‘Youtubers’.

What held him back was not Islam but rather Salafism, Deobandism, Ikhwanism, Hizbism and too many others to name, which try to take on the mantle of Islam for their own goals. But how was he to know, when the men who spoke for the religion wore the garb of these organisations and fed off the petro-dollars of their sponsors or the humiliations frustrations and ignorance of the Muslims?

Not only this, but their real source of power: make the Muslims unable to learn, excel and think for themselves. And then do their thinking for them. Badly.

Orwell always warned us that we would be brought low by that which we feared. Huxley, his fellow prophet of doom (and no friend of Islam) knew that we would be enslaved by that which we loved.

And such it is with the lovers of the groups above.


15 thoughts on “What Really Holds Muslims Back

  1. Pingback: What Really Holds Muslims Back « Blogging theology

  2. Assalamu ‘aleikum brother. Your articles are always hard hitting and interesting.

    You make some interesting arguments that I agree with (if I have understood them correctly): Something which really needs revival in the spirits of the Muslims; when there is difference of opinion when it comes to matters of fiqh, as there always has been, when there is a real and valid difference between qualified jurists, no matter how some try to make it seem as if there is not, then there is no room for going around harassing others for such views and actions. I believe, perhaps music is a good example of this as well as non-three dimensional pictures, but if one necessarily, not that it is going to end the differences in fiqh (practical) matters anyway, wants to convince others that ones followed opinion is the correct one, then it should not be done in the way of battling the other but rather only presenting the evidence for ones own view.

    A revival of a realistic view of hadith where we can accept that non-mutawatir narrations, although they are authentic in isnad do not reach a degree of epistemological certainty, and ones religion, or a large part of what one holds to be core belief can not relying be upon isolated narrations. However rejecting isolated narrations based on clashing with principles (of faith) or fiqh laid down in mutawatir texts or clearly understood from such texts is really not something new. But it should always be left to scholars with enough knowledge to argue on such basis, less one rejects authentic hadiths based on a misunderstanding of their real meaning, significance and context, and one should of course respect other sunni fiqh schools that do, generally, rely more upon single hadiths in different matters of fiqh, like the Shaf’is and the Hanbalis. The last thing we want again is the kind of partisan spirit that has existed at times within different schools against others, which non-madhhabi people, wannabe mujtahids , always bring up to throw in the face of madhhab followers.

    A realization that different people have different talents and to utilize this for the common Islamic goal. Within the specific knowledge related to the religion that may mean for example to realize that some people have been gifted with an immense intellect and analytical capacity, beside having good knowledge of texts and a firm grasp of the Arabic language . Such people would probably be suitable as theologians and jurists. Some people have a great memory, beside, being intelligent such people would probably be suitable as hadith scholars. The important thing is to realize that all need to be interconnected and benefit from each-other. There is not one group of knowledge carriers that hold everything themselves. Ibn al-Jawzi, although I do not agree with all of his positions, makes this point strongly in Talbis Iblis; the hadith scholars think they are the sole carriers of knowledge and do not think they need to learn from jurists, the jurists do not think they will benefit from hadith scholars, the linguists think they are the sole carriers of knowledge, etc. Rather they should all intermingle and benefit as much as possible from each other, as was done in different very productive eras. An important point though is that knowledge carriers should be intelligent, it is absolutely necessary. I know that this point is harsh and perhaps very insulting, but a reality today is that many people who pose as theologians and jurists of Islam are simply dumb. They should have chosen a different occupation for the sake of the religion, themselves and others.

    Another important point from classical Islam that would be immensely beneficial if we would internalize it on an individual level is the ethos (I can not remember which scholar said it) that if something which is said or done carries 99 different meanings of disbelief but one meaning which constitutes faith, then we should interpret it according to the meaning of faith.

    I believe you are right that one can find answers to many questions that are ignored today within the corpus of the traditional Islamic literature, but that much is neglected.

    This which is supposed to be a comment, and not some kind of lecture, could go on and on, but as I said it is not supposed to be some lecture. Furthermore I believe a good Islamic environment should encourage engagement in different sciences and exploring and learning about the world.

    I have a few question marks and contentions. I did not want to bring them up here, but I’m afraid that someone else who is less fond of this site and has an agenda might use it, so I thought it would be best to comment first, to show that we do, gently criticize each other. I hope you will not mind brother.

    First of all I think that just do is to be given to everyone. Imam al-Bukhari (rh) deserves the utmost praise, and may Allah give him the highest level in paradise, for compiling the most sound hadith compilation in Sunni Islam. When I say that I believe, like many of our scholars did before that it is the soundest hadith collection, my remarks concerning hadith and a realistic approach to them should be kept in mind, so I am not misunderstood. The other major collectors of hadith also deserve praise and may Allah reward them paradise for their efforts.

    You said that most Quranic commentators where Mu’tazilites, but beside al-Zamakhsari, al-qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar and a al-Tha’labi (I think) (not Tha’aalabi who was sunni) who were Mu’tazilites? Al-Zamakhsaris tafsir has survived and has been continued to be studied by scholars due to his vast and intricate knowledge of the Arabic language.
    To my knowledge most surviving commentaries where written by Ash’aris and Maturidis

    I disagree with an attitude which says that anything which a Mu’tazilite says about anything is incorrect should be ignored because he is a Mu’tazilite, but being a Sunni inevitably means differing with Mu’tazilites on some core issues regardless of whether one is an Ash’ari or Maturidi (between which the main differences are really mostly terminological) , or Hanbali mufawwid (not Hanbali mujassim).

    Then there is the issue of Ibn Sina. Yes he was a great sceintis, doctor and yes he was a distinguished philosopher, but I have some serious question marks about his doctrine. Did not al-Ghazali and other sunni scholars like al-Subki criticize him severely. The key question for me is whether what was said about him rejecting bodily resurrection is true or were such views incorrectly ascribed to him by someone. I’ll leave it as a question, because being wrong on such an issue is way beyond dangerous, but one can put it this way. If someone rejects bodily resurrection then can he be an Islamic scholar. I do not believe so. It is indeed a core belief.

    • Salaams, Thank you so much for your wonderful comment, it was most useful! In fact you put things better than me:

      ”A revival of a realistic view of hadith where we can accept that non-mutawatir narrations, although they are authentic in isnad do not reach a degree of epistemological certainty, and ones religion, or a large part of what one holds to be core belief can not relying be upon isolated narrations. However rejecting isolated narrations based on clashing with principles (of faith) or fiqh laid down in mutawatir texts or clearly understood from such texts is really not something new.”

      Truly excellent!

      Just to address some of your concerns: I can see that the comment about Mailk and adultery is causing confusion: the main position of the Maliki school is that stoning is needed for the adulterer – what I meant by the sentence that the young man should have access to the works of these scholars is that there was a robust debate between the Mailikis and the Hanafis on this issue, not that Malikis (all) agreed with the Hanafis. I do not know the statement of imam Mailik himself on this, but they brought their proof and the Hanafis had their view. The point is, in the context of respect between madhabs, how can the Malikis stone someone when Abu Hanifa’s senior students disagree? For that matter how can anyone? Respecting madhabs is not lip service: it is not, for example, killing people when your opponent disagrees.

      Ibn Sina is very misunderstood, and as for Imam Al Ghazzali making takfir of him, it was over a highly nuanced controversy (which hardly any Muslim today understands or studies – theoretical physicists are arguing about it to this day, namely what come first: matter or time?). None of the people critiquing Imam Ibn Sina have read his books, they are all aping Ibn Taymiyya etc, nor are the vast majority of them capable of even understanding his works. Safe to say imam Al Ghazzali was A’shari and Ibn Sina was Maturidi, so we cannot just look at what the opponents said about him as there are nuances between the two groups. Also, he did not deny the resurrection, he said that it would be in a non-physical form or that the pleasures of heaven are metaphorical as we cannot understand post-human existence. That said, he did not say that the body will not be raised up, rather questioned if this body would continue into paradise etc. It is not as simple as people make it out to be. The expert in Ibn Sina is Majid Fakhry or Syed Hossein Nasr (and Mcginnis), and they are they guys to ask.

      As for the Hanafis and adultery, it is in numerous sources and the reasoning is that of the abrogation of the Mosaic law by Surah Noor and the incidents of stoning being before it’s revelation. Also, we have a problem killing someone based on ahad narrations. It is not all of the Hanafis, but many important ones and senior students. I will write more about this in detail Insha’Allah. There is no statement by Abu Hanifa saying we should stone adulterers anyway.

      You also made an excellent point about the madhabs, but sometimes we have to state the truth: we cannot sacrifice the useful opinion of the Hanafis (say, about apostasy), which is most beneficial and inspiring to Muslims and non-Muslims today, just to save the feelings of the other schools: also, that would mean not talking about issues where we had a unique ruling, same leeway goes to the other schools, Hanbalis are free to bring up any cool fatwas they think they have!

      I deliberately mentioned Imam Bukhari because it has to be stated: are we in the same position as the Christians, namely that the religion was not laid down until Bukhari came or did we know what to believe and how to pray before him? Also, there is a big confusion nowadays: Malik and Abu Hanifa are much above Bukhari in rank and even in Hadith (and so is Imam Ahmad, one of Imam Bukharis teachers and to whom he presented his Sahih’s initial draft).

      We love and respect Imam Bukhari, he is amazing in the sciences of hadith. He is though, in modern terms, a historian. We do not have his madhab or his aqeeda – most likely he was A’shari and followed someone else. There are two realities: Islam is Islam even without Imam Bukhari etc or we should have re-written everything when Bukhari was written and set up a new madhab or changed all of the madhaihib after his book.

      Most people today believe that Imam Bukhari is the same as say, Shafi or Ibrahim Nakahi, or even greater. imam Bukhari would have been disgusted at such a notion. The foundations of aqeeda and fiqh were set up before his book and the necessary narrations were there anyway: he did a fantastic job collecting and cataloguing them. But that is all.

      Bukhari is rightly venerated because he wrote the source textbook for hadith studies – not aqeeda and not fiqh: these existed priorly. His importance is exaggerated of course by Ahle hadith and literalists and those who take ahad as certain knowledge. His work meant that students of Islam had a source book – but even his effort was not sufficient and we have the other collections; and all the ‘Sahih’ hadith are not in Bukhari and Muslim, just the ones that meet their criteria, there are many others that meet the five conditions of the Shafis outside the two collections, thus the six books (of which Muwatta is strangely not one). Thus also, some scholars, to this day, do not hold Bukhari to be the best collection but rather the Muwaatta of Imam Malik. There is no ijma on this nor has there ever been, Malikis have often disagreed as did many Hanafis and even Shafis like Darulqutni (see Ibn Hajars’ responsa to him)

      The largest number of Quran commentaries is by Mu’tazzila and Shia. They just don’t tell you that. It makes sense: Mu’tazzila reject ahad without any conditions, so there proof is always Quran and Muttawatir so they are more concerned with that (or logical or scientific reasoning).

      • Salam Alaykum,

        What you have mentioned about Muslims having to expand their boundaries of knowledge is good, but I want one clarification:

        Shouldn’t the Muslims first learn the proper ‘Usool’ of Islam before setting out to learn science, philosophy, or whatever of the humanities they want?

        Maybe I am seeing something else, but what I see is that lots of people with Muslim-sounding names are just parroting what the non-Muslim ‘academicians’ of their given field are saying, whether in biology, history, etc., and such people are just following the same line of thinking that the non-Muslims have set out. Ok, they do not ape Ibn Taymiyyah, but what is the use for a person to ape the methods of Schatt and Goldhizer in his ‘Islamic research’?

        About the Jewish ‘race’, their concept of what is takes to be a Jew is far different than what it takes to be a Muslim; no one who is born a Muslim is guaranteed to die a Muslim by virtue of his ancestry, while for the Jew that is a given. And their achievements have a lot to do with the ‘Jewish Enlightenment’ (which was very similar to the Euro-Christian variety), and this is why so many of their brightest minds died basically as agnostics or atheist ‘Jews’.

        Anyway, what I was saying is that yes, the Muslims should do science and the arts, but not simply following the script and methodology of the non-Muslims cannot do; many times, there is no such thing as a ‘neutral, value-free hypothesis’ even in the different fields; sometimes not even in the more ‘objective’ sciences.

        So if the non-Muslims have asked questions and moved ahead, why can’t the Muslims ask questions and move ahead, but based on the proper understanding of Islamic epistemology?

        Maybe you can help explain this issue.

        Wa Salaam.

    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting, I really appreciate it.

      Excellent points brother, and you are right, in a perfect world, we would learn Islamic aqeeda, which is even more important that usool, or kind of the same thing perhaps, before tackling the secular sciences.

      However, it is not that easy: we cannot all wait to become scholars before studying physics or philosophy nor does Islam require us to do this. I struggled for years to get the truth about Islam and aqaid issues and I only found a few reliable sources and people, and that was after a lot of effort and confusion. If I suspended my secular learning during that time I was learning about Islam, I would be in deep trouble now.

      We have to accept that with the profusion of heterodoxy and emotionalism in the Muslim community and the lack of any centralisation, as well as groups such as Deobandis, Brelwis and others essentially acting as personality cults, it is going to be very hard to ‘sort out’ the Muslims before they can go on and study the secular subjects. Sad, but I think you may agree, true.

      The world will not wait for us to do this and to make things worse, there is a faster rate of technological progression and profusion of information than perhaps at any other time in known history.

      Further, lets be honest, even if we get our Islam straight, there is no ‘Islamic science’ for us to learn: if we want to learn these subjects we have to learn from the non-Muslims. Most of the physicists appear to be atheists – if we want to learn physics we have to get it from them. In secular sciences there is hardly ever and ‘Islamic’ alternative. Look at the pathetic quality of scientific argumentation by many dawah guys.

      Maybe we can take comfort in the saying ‘Learn from your enemy until you can overcome him’.

      So everything you said is true IN PRINCIPLE, but can it be applied in practice and can people put their lives on hold while someone works it out? It is, like me telling you that you should find a good, pious sister to marry and go through the parents etc. Unless there is a good system in place for you to do this you will be waiting around forever. meanwhile everyone else will go and take all the eligible girls. They won’t wait for you just because you are trying to do it the ‘right way’. If the right way is not there then we have to make the best of what we have got.

      As for the Jewish brothers: it is a fact that their achievements are immense, regardless of whether if many of them are atheists. Anyway, if we are honest, we cannot yet judge in comparison to Muslims they have been in the West longer, they have been amongst non-Jews longer than we have been amongst non-Muslims. What if in fifty years large numbers of Muslims are leaving the religion in the West? Allah forbid, but it seems it is already happening on a big scale: excellent article by a great author here: http://mohamedghilan.com/2013/01/02/alienation-of-islam-rise-of-atheism/).

      Many early communities of Muslims in the West left almost no trace (for example, Yemini sailor in Liverpool and slave communities, although they had many huffaz and scholars amongst them – Sylviane A Diouf wrote a brilliant book called ‘Servants of Allah’ about Islam amongst the slaves in North and South America. But after a while, hardly any trace of Islam remained)

      The fact is that the Jewish community, despite being around 2% of the US population accounts for around 40% of Nobel Prize winners in the Sciences and Economics is astonishing. There is a very interesting book coming out by a very intelligent and fair author on the subject of Jewish excellence, it is an interesting topic:


      It is not to be hopeless, just so that we can be aware of the truth so that we do not repeat the mistakes of others!

      But the fact is, Muslims just cannot compete. Some of the reasons are beyond our control, such as poverty, corruption etc but I am saying let us do something about what IS in our control, such as the intellectual chains that have been put on our minds in the name of religion: we fear to become artists, we fear becoming musicians and many other things. We often have a sense of guilt: this means we have a handicap compared to many others.

      Let’s make sure these barriers we placed for ourselves and the alleged ‘problems’ with our religion that the West points out (like stoning of adulterers) are real and if they are, no problem, let us defend them. But let us take stoning: if earliest Hanafis did not practice it, why are Deobandis and Brelwis ans Salafis making a big deal of it today? Are they more knowledgeable than the Imams of the Hanafis? How come the Ottomans did not feel the need to stone anyone?

      How come we had to wait until these sects came along to get the ‘real’ Islam? So Samarqandis and all the Ottomans were just rubbish Muslims?

      Is the main message of Islam stoning adulterers? How much time does Quran spend talking about this (actually, none, not even one ayat) Why is everyone, including Muslims, focusing on these issues? In fact ask someone, even so-called scholars ‘what is Islam? they will reply ‘Kalima, Salaat, Fasting…’. Is it really? Who is this ‘Allah’ in the Kalima? Often, no good answer. People who don’t fast and pray may still get into heaven – so can these things be the ‘essence’? Pillars hold up the building – they are not the building itself, as Gai Eaton reminded us.

      Essence and importance of Islam is being ignored by non-Muslims and Muslims also. Easy life for Satan I say!

  3. “beating ones wife was only a ‘light’ beating” – I may have misunderstood, but are you implying ‘light’ beatings are justified within your moral context? Sorry if I sound accusing; I enjoyed the piece and found it to be relatable on various planes. However, I am a Muslim woman struggling with misogynistic undertones in Islamic text, and resultantly with my faith.

    • Hi, many thanks for your kind comment.

      However, I don’t think you read it properly – I said that the response that it was a ‘light beating’ was inadequate and a better response would be that classical commentators of the Quran such as Al Qushayri and Zamakshiri provided convincing arguments that it did not mean beating at all. Even modern day scholars such as Hisham Kabbani have written about this, as have talented non-scholars such as Jeffrey Lang: both present convincing linguistic arguments that ‘beating’ is not meant, light or otherwise.

      I will e-mail you Kabbanis useful book ‘The Prohibition of Domestic Violence In Islam’

      Now, as for the issue of ‘misogynistic undertones’ in Islam, there are none. Possibly you are finding them because you are looking for them and have been led to assume they are there: you managed to find wife-beating in my article when I wrote against it. When we go looking for something, like violence or misogyny in Islam, we often ‘find’ it. Whether it is actually there is another point. I don’t blame you in the slightest: everyone today is told that Islam hates women and many men and scholars serve as proof of this. Ditto with violence. But we have to dig deeper – the truth in any time or society or even religion is only with a few, a small minority – the Quran says this as well. At the time of Muhammad (pbuh) people could find many misguided priestly cadres, sophists and charlatans, but only one genuine Prophet.

      So it is possible for men or women to become radicalised by feminist theory or societal misogyny respectfully and then challenge Islam on that basis: this however is not critical thinking but epistemic bias, whichever side uses it. If one tries to reconcile Islam with misogyny, as many men do, one will fail and make a caricature of the religion. Likewise, if one tried to reconcile Islam with western feminist critique, (which is little more than blame of men and misandry, the authors having learnt their lesson too well from male oppression and seeking to replicate it) one will also fail.

      Let’s talk about and express the problematic and misogynistic texts in Islam, of course you (and we) deserve answers, lets see if we can work through them together or with others who can comment. I completely understand that most of the people who speak for Islam are often very poor at answering these issues – but that no more establishes the virtue of Islam as a religion than Tony Blair represents the virtues of Democracy or England.

      I also understand that people are sometimes wary of bringing up their questions about the role of women in Islam: but they should not be: if any system, including Islam, does not make sense, then there is no need to believe in it, since it would imply that we are to believe in things that do not make sense. In which case, why be Muslim in the first place?

      Also, it is important to remember that what we mean when we say ‘Islamic sources’ is of two types: certain and speculative. The certain ones are only Quran and the very few muttawatir (mass narrated) hadith. If one’s doubts are from the speculative sources, then that is not a big deal – they may not have happened or be accurate but they should be investigated. Just because a hadith is Bukhari and ‘Sahih’ does not make it a fact of the religion of Islam. As Ibn Hajar reminds us – a hadith being ‘Sahih’ makes it only 50:50 whether the actually Prophet said it.

      But we have to know what is ‘misogyny’ first; IMHO it is most certainly not opposing Western feminist critique, which is an intellectual vacuum akin to Salafism and the male oppression it counters. Personally, I always found the ‘beating’ thing in the Quran to be troubling, but was reassured when I saw that alternative, plausible and classical interpretations were there. Yet the harshest interpretation amounted to ‘wife spanking’ (slapping the backside) in any case. People will find it troubling, and I understand. But perhaps if these same people would stop and consider that men might likewise not take great reassurance from the fact that they were ‘allowed’ by some scholars to hit their wife across the bottom or whatever when the price of this was their having to be a bulletproof vest for their wife: in that they were required to sacrifice their life for their wife (or women in general) and had the unenviable monopoly over all military activity and asymmetric financial responsibilities. Men oppress women because they refuse to see things from their side. Women must not return the favour.

      It is not all men’s way in Islam and nor is it all men’s way in modern society.

      • One should have one’s fundamentals totally ‘down-pat’ as they say, otherwise a billion and one doubts will come to the person from every single imaginable and unimaginable angle.

        If it is not ‘misiogyny’ it will be something else – and there are many things for those who are looking at Islam in that sense. Concerning this, it really is saddening that the abstract concept of ‘equality between men and women in every single ruling’ would be made the absolute barometer for testing everything else, while from a purely rational viewpoint, such ‘equality’ is unwarranted.

      • I know I may sounded harsh in the previous response, but I have to say that this matter of not knowing and then keeping the fundamentals of Islam front-and-center whenever we make a foray into any matter is something that has affected most of us Muslims at one time or the other, including myself.

        Insha Allah we can always look for the explanations that are good within the bounds of Islamic scholarship and hile keeping the ‘big picture’ in mind.

  4. The ottomans were using the printing press since sultan Bayazid II around year 1448,and the jews actually were the first people who asked permission from the state to use the printing press.At that time,18 books were printed.Ottomans NEVER went against the printing press.You can not find a single official state document forbidding the printing press.ottomans were always open to new findings,science and technology hence were labeled by others as innovators.I hope you correct your false information in this otherwise an excellent article.

    • There is no false information to correct: It was merely related that ‘it is said that…’, simply what people claim, same with Al Ghazzali being accused, not that it is the case. Just what Muslims and Islamophobes claim. Look at the context!

      Having said that, there were many scholars in Ottoman times giving nonsense and even anti – Ottoman fatwas and saying stuff like that smoking is haraam, even promoting Ibn Taymiyyah and anti Hanafi views. Ahmad al Ahqisari is an example.

      Even if you look at 19th century Ottomans, they were seemingly well behind in printing. It was not banned but adoption may have well been slowed by weird fatwas

      Tolerance of Ottomans to different ideas and groups had a downside. Today Wahhabis and non – Muslims are infiltrating and destroying Turkey in the same way.

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