Islam Under Scrutiny by Ex-Muslims

LOST IN THE SACRED: Why the Muslim World Stood Still?

One of the mysteries in the study of Islam and the Arab world is why the Middle East is so far behind the rest of the world in terms of education, economic development, and social-political institutions. The colonial/imperialistic explanations for this backwardness don’t hold much water because many former colonies outside the Middle East have flourished. Dan Diner, in his LOST IN THE SACRED: Why the Muslim World Stood Still?,  offers some new insights which provide more plausible roots to Middle Eastern stagnation.

Knowledge and Development

Time Magazine's “Book of the Year” in 2002 was an obscure statistical report written by Arab researchers, titled Arab Human Development Report. The intent of the report was to turn an objective mirror on the Middle East which would, hopefully, shake the governments from their self-delusions and trigger fundamental change. While the AHDR report may not have started a revolution in that region, at least it is has changed the conversation from the accusations of external causes to the real, internal ones.

Here is what the AHDR report found:

  1. Not only are illiteracy rates about double those in the rest of the world, but “qualitative literacy” (reading to learn, as opposed to recitation) is poor to very poor.

  2. In 1996, for 300 million inhabitants in the twenty-two Arab countries (4.4 percent of world population), only 1,945 books were published, or 0.8% of the world’s production. In the 1970’s those countries combined translated only 20% as many books into Arabic as Greece (population 10 million) translated into Greek.

  3. Virtually no scientific research is carried out in the Middle East, with only 370 U.S. patent applications in the past 20 years, compared with 16,000 for South Korea (population 49 million).

  4. The “brain drain” in the Middle East is reflected by an exodus since 1976 of 23% of Arab engineers, 50% of Arab physicians, and 15% of Arab scientists.

  5. Five Arab states are ranked at the bottom of the “freedom index” for nations, and the Western concept of freedom is lost in the Arabic hurriyya which is merely the opposite of slavery.

The blessing of oil in the Middle East turns out be a curse. All the wealth spurting out of the ground does nothing to stimulate productivity. Learning, knowledge and creative abilities and skills have been depreciated by the oil wealth. Because every kind of product and every kind of expertise can be bought from abroad, there is no incentive to engage in gainful activity. Since economic wealth and political power are controlled by the state, people have little justification for asserting their civil rights.

Geopolitics and Religious Zeal

The Cold War masked the extent to which the Middle East lagged behind the West. Not only did the Soviet Union provide an alternate path to modernity, but the competition for influence in the Middle East was a bonanza for the governments there from both sides. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the competition ended, and so did much of the largesse. Struggling to explain their circumstances, Muslims embraced the views of observers like Sayyid Qutb and Abul-Ala Mawdudi, who argued that Muslims and their leaders needed to return to Islam’s holy age, the salafiya period of Muhammad and his righteous caliphs (622-661) of the 7th Century. Even Osama in Laden identified the watershed Islamic catastrophe, which happened eighty years ago when General Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, abolished the caliphate and imposed secular rule.

Text and Speech

There are two mutually exclusive spheres of communication – text and speech. The impact of the printing press on the spread of knowledge was dramatic. Ottoman power reached its apex with the capture of Constantinople in 1453, which, coincidentally, was also the year the printing press was invented. In the first 50 years of printing, 8 million books were printed representing far more than all the books copied by hand during the preceding 1,000 years. Not only was the introduction of the printing press delayed by 300 years in the Middle East, its use was actually banned by Ottoman sultan, Bayesid II, in 1485. Two factors contributed to this:

1) Islamic civilization is based on an orally transmitted culture. The Quran was handed down verbally through Gabriel and was not written down until long after Muhammad’s death. The ahadith—the verbal accounts of Muhammad’s statements and actions—have equal value with the Quran. Even today, the highest achievement of Muslim students is to memorize and recite the Quran.

2) While high Arabic script is the language of Allah, it is so complex and stilted that it is not routinely used by the Arabic-speaking world. All attempts to modernize it are seen as profaning the language of Allah. Only “correct” high Arabic can convey truth. Each region has evolved it own colloquial version of Arabic, so it is a myth that there is a shared language in the Middle East that bonds Arabs together. When students need to learn their subjects, they avoid the books in classical Arabic and resort to books written in European languages instead. One of the first things, Ataturk did to secularize Turkey and accelerate its modernization, was to abandon the Arabic script. In many countries, like Afghanistan, it is a crime to translate the Quran into local languages.


Trade vs. Mercantilism

By the end of 15th Century, the Ottoman Empire controlled all of the world’s major overland trade-routes. They were content to defend those routes and collect high taxes on the transit. The impetus for the discovery of the New World was to find ways around the Ottoman’s trade-route monopoly. European sea transport to the Far East not only reduced the transportation cost by a factor of 20, it was also much faster, allowing shipment of more perishable goods. Two-sided benefits of the new discoveries were precious metals for capital and raw materials for manufacturing. While the Ottomans were content with a share of a rather static pie, the European mercantile class were discovering ways to make the pie infinitely larger. With the lost of trade-route revenue, the Ottoman Empire has little to fall back on. Their over-regulation of the central state on prices and taxes actually interfered with capitalism and enterprise.

Private vs. Public

The Middle East is characterized by a superabundance of the sacred in all domains of life. The Quranic duty of all to encourage right conduct and to ban wrong-doing effectively blurs any distinction between the private sphere and public life. Punishment is very public as a way of warning to others. Whereas Islam regulates peoples’ lives down to the minutest detail, the Western way of life leaves it to the individual to find his own path.

Nomadic tribes in desert situations relied more on the power of the clan than on their own individual contribution. Muslims had Allah’s authorization to extract booty, tributes, taxes, and rents, which were the chief sources of income. What they could not appropriate through raiding, they taxed. Land taxes were generally about 25 percent of the value of the harvest, and it represented as much as 40 to 50 percent of the government’s revenue. So many people converted to Islam to avoid the infidel jizya tax, that Caliph Abdel Malik’s administrator, Ibn Yusuf Hajjaj, at the end of the 7th Century actually prohibited conversion to Islam. Later, under Caliph Harun ar-Rashid (end of 8th Century), jurists codified the concept that all land belonged to the Caliph, Allah’s trustee. Since one of the prerequisite for capital formation is ownership, these kinds of rules put a damper on free enterprise.

Another state intervention that slowed social and economic progress was the government control of time. Whereas the Christian/European culture adopted an abstract concept of time that ultimately coincided with a solar calendar, Islamic (and Jewish) time is bound to a lunar year which is not at all suited to fixing recurrent events. Furthermore, since Islamic prayer times were determined by the sun, there was little need for the precision of a clock to mark hours and minutes. The first mechanical clock was invented in Europe at the beginning of the 14th Century. It was not until the middle of the 19th Century that the first public clock ever in a Muslim country was installed on the grounds of the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.

Differing Concepts of History

The Western concept of history is linear, beginning thousands of years ago and progressing at a steady rate to the present. For Muslims, all human activity prior to the birth of Islam is irrelevant (jahiliyah), and the only measure of Islamic history consists of the dynastic succession of caliphs. These are seen as episodes or never-ending cycles. There is nothing in the eventful history of the Muslims that does not have some antecedent; everything is necessarily a repetition of the past. Islamic history revolves like a merry-go-round, and society is reaching out for the brass-ring. That brass-ring is the time of the “best community that ever existed among men”the period of Muhammad and the four righteous caliphs (622 to 661 AD). So the ideal world that Muslims are striving to realize actually lies in the past. Thus “history” is not something that can be interpreted or serve as a source of learning; it is only a measure of how near to, or far from, the brass-ring society is at any point of time. So it is not historya linear progression of time and eventsthat marks progress, but rather the degree to which people obey the Divine Law. Only when all activity of the society is governed by Shariah Law will the ever-fleeting historical time turn into an eternal, sacred time.

Law and Society

Divine Law is not an Islamic invention. The Jews operated under this concept for 2,500 years before Islam was established. But at the beginning of what is called the Common Era, the Jews were scattered in the Roman EmpireDiaspora. Because they lived as minorities wherever they settled, the Jews could not obey their religious laws exclusively, so they developed the concept of dina demalkhuta dina, ”the law of the land is the law.” Their religious laws applied to personal and temple activities, but they abided by civil law in all other matters. By contrast, Islam spread from Medina under the force of arms, so the corresponding Muslim concept is din va-daula, the unity of religion and rule. If territories of dar al-islam fell under the control of infidels, Muslims were expected to leave. In modern times, it wasn’t until the Ottoman defeat by the Russians in 1774 that Muslims ever ceded inhabited areas to infidels.

Today, with increased migration of Muslims into non-Muslim countries, the areas outside of dar al-islam are no longer seen as alien or hostile areas, but rather are seen as opportunities to propagate the faith, dar al-dawa. However, faced with the increasingly obvious conflict between the 7th-century Shariah Law and the 21st-century concepts of human rights and civil law, Muslims are struggling with ways to partition their legal systems between two kinds of sovereignty: the eternal sovereignty of Allah and the time-bound sovereignty of a representative organ of the people.

The author concludes,

“The experience of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim, predominately Western surroundings might instigate a transformation of Islamic knowledge and understanding more easily than in Muslim lands, where beyond religion proper the fabric of material life is evidently more impregnated with the sacred, decelerating social time. The Arab Human Development Report presents a rather bleak diagnosis of the state of the Arab world... The tide is turning toward a post-postcolonial interpretation that transcends the binary juxtaposition of modernity and modernity in reverse (the Muslim ideal). Such a comprehension of the world preserves the universal advantages of secularization, enlightenment, and modernity... Indeed, modernity is a continuously ongoing universal process of transformation, conversion, and changeand all humankind has its role in this endeavor. A different way above and beyond the requirements of modernity is still not visible.”


Dan Diner is a professor of modern history at the Hebrew University at Jerusalem and director of the Simon Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture at the University of Leipzig. The book was written in German in 2005, and republished in an English by Steven Rendall in 2008 by Princeton University Press.

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