What are the general causes that have led to the decline of Muslims, particularly Muslims in Java and the Malay Peninsula in all spheres of life, both religious and secular? Doesn’t honor belong to God, the Prophet and the believers (63:8)? These are God’s words that we read in the Qur’an. Where is the honor of believers today? While the believer remains humiliated and despised, and possesses nothing that entitles him to honor, apart from these words of God, how correct is it to seek that honor for himself? What are the causes of the great progress of the people in Europe, America and Japan? Can Muslims also progress like them if they imitate them in things that lead to progress, holding fast to their religion of Islam?”

About 100 years ago, this question was sent to the Egyptian magazine Al-Manar, and it represents leitmotif for this text. The content of this question is still relevant and can be applied in today’s context. Muslim societies have serious political, economic and other problems. Everyone is looking for reasons for decline, but it seems that there is no correct and complete answer. This question was answered by Emir Shakib Arslan, and it was printed in the form of a brochure under the title “Our Decline: Its Causes and Remedies”. We will refer to the content of this booklet later.


Towards the beginning of the 20th century, the Islamic world found itself in a desperate state. The Ottoman Empire was in the final stages of disintegration, and almost all the countries where Muslims lived were colonized. After the episode with the Crusades, the Muslim world in the Middle East found itself face to face with the “Franks” once again. However, unlike the Crusades, which had a fluctuating course of fortune, and ultimately resulted in a Muslim victory, this was not the case here. The areas where Muslims lived fell like a house of cards before a much superior enemy. That penetration dealt a heavy blow to the Muslims and left deep psychological traumas. According to Karić: “The successes of European countries in the colonial campaign to the East and the subjugation of Muslim countries shook the Muslims’ belief in their own superiority and strongly encouraged the need for self-examination.” Instead of a superiority complex, Muslims now began to feel an inferiority complex because they were defeated in front of military, cultural and civilizational achievements of the West. Therefore, it is not strange at all that the question that we stated in the very introduction comes from Southeast Asia.

Only after the WW2 there was decolonization process and shaping of one’s own destiny by the Muslim nations, although that thesis is also questionable. Anyway, we won’t dwell on it. We can state that the situation is much better today. Turkey achieves great results in the military industry and tourism, the Gulf countries export oil and gas and are also tourist and technology centers. Of course, the situation is not a fairy tale and several positive examples do not reflect the factual situation. Many Muslims struggle with poverty, lack of access to clean water, unemployment and poor healthcare. They also witness lack of freedom and human rights in their home countries. The migration of Muslims to the West, due to the listed reasons, largely changes the demographics, and also has implications for the understanding of Islam and its representativeness in this part of the world. If Europe does not return to its old habits and does not initiate new Bartholomew’s Day or Night of Broken Glass, it will be particularly interesting to follow the dynamics of the development of Muslim communities in the West.

It is important to note that even in times of rivalry, testing of strength and warfare, Europe was seen as a model to follow. The well-known reformer Muhammad Abduh allegedly said below after his stay in Europe for some time:

“I went to the West and saw Islam, but not Muslims; I returned to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.”

So he notices an important detail here; he sees in European societies the external manifestation of Islam, more precisely the social dimension that Islam advocates, such as work, order, discipline, learning, organization, fairness, etc. Back in Egypt, he sees the exact opposite; the external manifestation of Islam in the field of rituals with a very weak or no social dimension. We can observe that trend even today. Religion is more present than ever in public life, but our societies suffer from numerous social ills.

Karčić cites the example of Azmi Effendi, who was ambassador in Berlin from 1790-1792. He was amazed by the organization of the Prussian government, the military strength, the competence of the officials, and he proposed similar reforms to the Ottoman Empire. This would eventually be done with the implementation of the reforms known as the Nizami-Jedid (New Order) in the mid-19th century, but they were not welcomed with great enthusiasm by the masses. In Bosnia, as the westernmost province of the Ottoman Empire, which was underdeveloped and neglected in every sense, which is a characteristic of the border areas, these reforms were denoted as Nizami-Yezid (Yazid’s order) alluding to the Umayyad ruler Yazid, known for many misdeeds.

But let’s go back to our main question and the others that arise from it? What are the causes of the decline of Muslims? What is the impact of science as the main tool used to establish dominance and civilizational trends? Is there a gap between Islam and science? Is Islam a factor at all or do other factors affect scientific development and civilizational progress? Is it the fault of the ulama or the ordinary people? How is it that Muslims for whom the first words of the Holy Book were “Read” did not become torch bearers of positive changes and scientific and technical achievements? Where are our humanism and renaissance? Or in the words of Bernard Lewis, whose book deals with this topic: “What went wrong?”

First of all, it is important to note that this question cannot be viewed unilaterally, nor can a one-dimensional answer be given. Therefore, a holistic approach to this topic is needed. Thousands of books and articles have been written on this topic by experts, and I think that I cannot give a precise and definitive answer, but I can provide respected readers with a deeper insight into this issue.

Also, due to the absence of a holistic approach, each group will offer different answers that mostly fit their narrative. These answers are simple, and at first glance they seem to solve the Gordian knot, establish a diagnosis of the current state and offer a prescription for healing. The Salafis will say that the cause of decline is because we have abandoned the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the Shias that we have left the Prophet’s family in the lurch and that misfortune has followed us from the very beginning, the Mu’tazilis will say that we have not put reason on the same level as revelation, the modernists will blame Ghazali; more precisely the orthodoxy he established, Orientalists will find fault with Islam itself and its “fatalistic nature”, the glorification of the Hereafter over the world, etc.

Islam appeared in the 7th century in the periphery of Arabia, an area that was of no interest to either the Roman or Persian empires in the era of their fierce competition in the Middle East. Right before the death of the Prophet, the new religion will conquer the area of the Arabian Peninsula and spread in the zones of influence of Byzantium and Persia. There are numerous Qur’anic verses and hadiths attributed to the Prophet that emphasize the value of knowledge and its acquisition. However, we cannot speak of a scientific revolution at that time.

Prophet p.b.u.h lived in a distinctly polarized society dominated by asabiyyah (tribal bias), and which relied on trade in Yemen and Sham during the year. Also, the Prophet p.b.u.h was primarily the bringer of God’s revelation, and that call, according to the socio-economic circumstances that prevailed at that time, was his basic task. However, this does not mean that he was not open to new ideas outside the context of the revelation, which relate to everyday life.

The Battle of the Trench best illustrates this. Before the third skirmish with the Meccans, who now definitely started a final showdown with the small Muslim community, the Muslims dug a canal around Medina that prevented the penetration of the Quraysh army at the suggestion of Salman the Persian.

In that defensive battle, they suffered insignificant losses, and after some time the enemy retreated before this unusual and cunning strategy, which was completely unknown to them. In this example we see the openness of the early Muslim community in applying other people’s useful ideas for their own purposes; there was also initiative to redeem the prisoners of battle of Badr if they teach a few Muslims to read and write.

In the middle of the 7th century, Persia will fall under Muslim rule and the Roman Empire will be reduced to Asia Minor. Muslims, as outsiders from the periphery of Arabia, in just a few decades defeated 2 significantly superior opponents with a long tradition, which is still an enigma to this day, and is the subject of research by many historians. As a final result, the creation of Islamic culture and civilization occurred in these areas.

It is important to note here that we do not mean puritanically when we use the attribute Islamic. Just as the Hellenistic culture after Alexander’s penetration into Asia represented a mixture of Greek and Asian cultures, so the Islamic culture signifies the interaction and fusion with other cultures that were present in that area. According to some interpretations, it had an impact on the very postulates of faith and certain practices that are actually the subject of discussion on this blog.

The Umayyads relied mainly on the practices of Byzantium, while the Abbasids copied the Persian Empire. Consequently, as new players on the world stage with no prior experience, the Muslims largely took over the military-administrative apparatus, taxation, legislative and other practices of the two empires they conquered. This synergy would create fertile ground for what is historically referred to as the Golden Age of Islam which lasted from the mid-8th to the mid-13th century or according to some to the end of the 10th century.

Muslims preserved the treasure of antiquity from oblivion by translating it into Arabic and Persian, and made their own contribution to its interpretation. Later it was translated into Latin, and it played a crucial role during humanism and the Renaissance in Europe; we can freely say that it is questionable how these processes would have unfolded if Muslims had not been mediators. In 825, the Abbasid caliph Ma’mun had the House of Wisdom built as an intellectual center for philosophers, scholars, doctors, astronomers and other experts. Again, this institution was also a copy of the Academy of Gondishapur, which existed in late antiquity as the intellectual center of the Persian Empire.

To be clear, the golden age of Islam was also full of civil wars, persecution and cursing of dissidents, and we do not to glorify it at all, but we can say that a huge cultural and civilizational progress was achieved. So what was the secret of progress?

As many researchers claim, the secret was openness to the other and the different. Knowledge is seen as a universal heritage of humanity. Muslims had enough self-confidence, and instead of closing in on their image of the world, they chose to interact with the outside world and improve it. Simply put, Muslims did not push a communist worldview that says the world begins with them and that everything that came before has no value.

For example, the Arabic numbers that we use on a daily basis are actually Indian numbers that the Arabs modified and introduced to the world. One of the most famous mathematicians of the Middle Ages, Fibonacci, brought them to Europe, and thus they came into widespread use. This example is especially important today when science has reached exponential development compared to the Middle Ages and as we see reductionist views of the world by Muslims. The project of Islamization of knowledge, which began in the eighties of the last century, also contributed to this, so we got Islamic economics, Islamic medicine, etc. Cynics will say that we are just waiting for Islamic natural sciences.

The period from the 11th to the 13th century led to the fragmentation of the Muslim societies due to the Crusades, but even in that difficult period there was civilizational exchange between the East and the West. The devastation of Baghdad and the destruction of the House of Wisdom in 1258 by the Mongols is considered the official end of the Golden Age of Islam, although signs of decadence appeared earlier as we have indicated. In addition to the Crusades and the invasion of the Mongols as external factors, there is a tendency to seek fault in internal factors that led to decadence.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is often mentioned in this context, especially in Western academic circles. He is seen as the main cause of the decadence of the Islamic world. As a famous scholar, his work left a wide impact on the Muslim masses. However, his “sins” are following: he denied causality between events, thus preventing the development of natural sciences among Muslims; and then fostered an alliance between the official government and the ulama that is still present in many Muslim-majority countries.

Harari notes that all the predispositions were for a scientific revolution to take place in the Islamic world. According to him, Islamic cities were centers of multiculturalism; they were a liberal paradise compared to Western Europe where religious wars and intolerance of the other raged. In his Sapiens, he analyzes in detail why Europeans managed to make a great leap forward compared to others. It is important to note here that it was not only Islamic civilization that experienced decline. This dominance of the West since the 18th century is called the Great Divergence in literature.

Primarily, the principle of ignoramus (lat. we do not know) was adopted, where the Western man admitted his shortcomings and limitations in understanding the world. Then he devoted himself to acquiring knowledge through the study of natural phenomena and their definition through mathematical formulas. In the end, the acquired knowledge was harnessed and used to gain power and develop new technologies. Simply said, Bacon’s saying “Knowledge is power” has been put into practice.

Material and other resources were no longer seen as a zero-sum game – where one person’s gain in a certain amount necessarily means another person’s loss in the same amount as it was in feudalism. The institution of credit for business purposes was developed, and behind it stood firm faith and hope for a better future. With the discovery of new sea routes, the Mediterranean Sea lost its importance. Also, the emergence of limited liability companies mitigated the risk taken by an individual in a business venture. Columbus’ begging in European courts for an expedition can be compared today to the pitches that startup founders present to investors. They can offer an idea and work, while the investor offers money, and also firmly believes in the idea, or rather the benefit it will bring him in the future.

On the other hand, none of this happened with Muslims and there are different interpretations of researchers on this topic. Prof. Kuran concludes: “The Middle East has lagged behind the West because it was late in adopting the key institutions of the modern economy.” It includes the laws, regulations and organizational forms that have enabled economic activities that are now taken for granted.”

We can safely say that it is not only about the adoption of institutions, but also ordinary innovations that make everyday life much easier. It took three centuries to introduce the printing press to Ottoman Empire. Conservative ulema, as well as a strong union of scribes, prevented the arrival of this machine until 1729. So, for almost 3 centuries this invention, which significantly influenced literacy and the spread of knowledge, was inaccessible to Muslims.

Now the question arises of the responsibility of Islamic scholars; to what extent they contributed to the stagnation. First of all, the primary task of Islamic scholars is the study and interpretation of religious doctrines. Of course, this does not mean that they do not have the right to express their opinion on socio-political topics, economy, natural phenomenon, etc.

However, numerous examples from history show us that their opinion can sometimes have disastrous consequences for the progress of society and the adoption of useful practices. Just as the Church for centuries held a monopoly not only over truth about Hereafter, so the religious establishment inhibited positive processes among Muslims. As policy makers, out of self-interest or simply because they did not understand the context in which they found themselves, the ulama have often been a barrier to progress. We mentioned an example of acceptance of printing press earlier. We also have the case of the observatory behind which stood the Ottoman polymath Taqi al-Din. His building was demolished to the ground based on a fatwa from 1580.

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the head of the Prussian army during his stay in Istanbul in the 19th century wrote the following sentence in his diary because of the negative influence of the ulama in suppressing infectious diseases:

“Das Pest wird bestehen, so lange es Ulema gibt.” The plague will persist as long as ulama exist.

Unlike Westerners, who tried in every way to learn something and innovate, and use it for their own benefit, Muslims were passive. The 2 examples mentioned in the literature, which show the shock and reticence of Muslims towards useful innovations, are especially endearing. Busbecq was an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the middle of the 16th century. During the journey to Istanbul, his Turkish guides often made mistakes by misjudging the time of dawn and leaving early in the morning. False alarms about packing and leaving disturbed his sleep. It was only when he told them that he had a watch he could rely on and that there was no need for them to awake him, they left him alone after they witnessed he wasn’t being late.

To accustom Muslims to autopsies and dissecting bodies, French scientists in Ali’s Egypt conducted these experiments in secret. To make them interested in the topic, they firstly took a non-Muslim dog (as paradoxical as it sounds), and performed an autopsy on it. Step by step, the Muslims got used to it and freed themselves from prejudices. Later, they moved on to human bodies and gained an insight into anatomy. Also, at the same time, they were both amazed and delighted by the chemical experiments that French scientists performed, and the encyclopedias that contained almost all the knowledge of the known world (from pictures and descriptions of various animals, realism in art, and even chapters on their religion, Islam).

Murad Hofmann, a famous German convert who moved a few years ago stated that God revealed himself to people in two books; the book of Revelation-the Qur’an, and the book of Nature. Muslims devoted themselves to the first, while neglecting the second. During the Golden Age of Islam, Muslims tried to understand the world around them, they wrote and translated books, medical manuals (remember the Qanun by Avicena, which was indispensable in the West for a long time), but after the 13th century, a sudden change occurred. Narrow understanding of religion and socio-political circumstances have influenced that Muslims are not at all interested in the world in which they live.

This phenomenon was also noticed by our famous Grand Mufti of Bosnian Muslims Čaušević in the early 20th century. Because of his enlightened views, he was often targeted by opponents, and he was accused of trying to install a “Kemalist” madhhab in Bosnia. In one place he says:

“It was a great folly to think that others would wait and watch for us or that time would turn according to our wishes. Now the awls and needles are different, the hammers and vignettes have changed. Schools and the way of education have changed, and whoever does not navigate these innovations is lost. The world is moving forward, so if we don’t align ourselves with the spirit of the times, we will be run over. In the past, we dozed off a lot, we need to get over that. While we asked for help from tombs, from dead people, while we looked (waited) for the caliphs and the caliphate to preserve our faith, others set out to extract more practical means. They turned mountains, entered the bowels of the earth, extracted ores, exploited forests and acquired wealth. Many again raised and established everything needed to preserve their community. And here was fulfilled the eternal truth that “the more knowledgeable and the more ignorant cannot be equal”. We study the Qur’an, we listen to the Qur’an, but what the Qur’an asks of us in terms of work and effort, others do.”

Finally, what things need to change in our perception in order to achieve material and scientific progress in this world?

The first is that we need to fix our attitude towards life. Dunya is one of our stations, so we should behave more responsibly. Muslims are consumers of various technologies and content, but they rarely innovate and produce. Moreover, most of the technological achievements that greatly facilitate and save our lives were not developed by Muslims. Of course, it is difficult to change overnight, but a lot of facts indicate that in the future there will be a Great Convergence and catching up of the West by the civilizations that lost this battle in the 18th century.

Muslims must change habits and redefine values in life. In the official discourse, poverty and modesty are presented as the ultimate virtues; learning is seen as a waste of time, while wealth is viewed with some suspicion and envy. A new Tesla or Ford can hardly emerge from such an environment. Someone’s success in the Muslim environment today is more of an excess than the result of planned work and strategic management by parents, schools and the state. Consequently, younger generations should be taught to have high goals and standards in their lives, and they must hear such messages as often as possible in their family, school and pulpit. We know the case of prophet Sulaiman whose famous prayer reads: “Give me power that no one has ever had, nor will have before me.” God did not punish him for that wish, moreover, He granted it.

In the second place, we have the advice of the Prophet, peace be upon him, that when we do some work to complete/bring it to perfection. Basically, all positive habits such as discipline, diligence, organization have been lost somewhere, and they are a prerequisite for any progress.

Calvinists adopted the principle “Ora et labora” – Pray and work. Work and enjoyment of its fruits were seen as a deed pleasing to God. This motivated Weber to publish the famous work “Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism” in 1905, where he claims that it was the positive attitude towards material things from the religious aspect that led to the strengthening of capitalism and the accumulation of wealth. Because of this attitude towards work and wealth, the industrial revolution was best applied in England and Holland as protestant countries.

Ten years ago Acemoglu and Robinson published the book “Why Nations Fail” which totally changed the way of understanding this problem. According to them, the main prerequisite for progress is institutions that must be inclusive and not serve only one specific group and their narrow interests. Political freedom, the inviolable right to private ownership and disposal of property, the autonomy of universities, the right to a fair trial, the establishment of equal rules for everyone in the market, etc., create an environment that strengthens economic, cultural and any other progress.

Religion, or the Protestant ethic in Weber’s example, can play a positive role in motivating the individual, but there are also Catholic and atheist states that have ensured the inclusiveness of institutions, and are flourishing today. The majority of Muslims today live in countries with extractive institutions, and Muslims migrate en masse to the West in search of a better life. Several Muslims who received the Nobel Prize in the field of natural sciences spent most of their research work abroad. In their home countries, they did not have enough resources for development, and in them there was also a great danger for the freedom and property of the individual due to the extractive nature of the institutions. To summarize, scientific and any other progress does not depend so much on the intelligence and supremacy of a nation or race, but on the environment in which one lives and works.

Therefore, Muslims must adopt a cosmopolitan worldview, and express a positive attitude toward policies, practices, and innovations that are beneficial regardless of the origin. Only an open attitude towards knowledge as a common heritage of humanity can influence Muslims to contribute to the creation of a better world.

Shakib Arslan stayed in Bosnia in 1932, and then he stated that he met the most advanced Muslims in the world. Our ancestors sarcastically replied that if we are the most advanced, what is the situation in the rest of the Islamic world.

In one part of his answer to the question in the introduction he says:

“Muslims rejected and abandoned everything, or most of what the Qur’an commanded them (in that direction), and they believed that they would deserve God’s help just by being Muslims, by believing in One God and thinking that it is only for them that’s enough without them fighting with life and property. If God would help someone without any work, he would surely help his prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and would not make it necessary to wage war, to fight and to submit to natural laws for the achievement of the goal.”

Simply put, Shakib Arslan is telling Muslims that they must get rid of the messianic complex if they want to move forward. God has set natural laws that are the same for everyone, so there is no shortcut to success. The principles and rules are the same for everyone. Knowledge is universal, and Muslims must participate in its creation and sharing. There are no chosen nations and individuals, the results depend on the level of sacrifice that is required to achieve the goal.


#Abduh, #decline, #Ghazali, #golden age of Islam, #Harari, #House of Wisdom, #Middle East, #Muslims, #progress, #Sapiens, #science, #Shakib Arslan
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