Has Islam ever been in the forefront of modernity? Only clarity in a question can lead to honesty in the answer. Muslim communities are still, largely, wandering through a haze, as they grapple with, on the one side, internal doctrinaires who have laced regressive thinking with the opium of romance, and on the other, an external pseudo-intellectual assault that stereotypes all Muslims into images of violence and gender oppression.
This external assault is framed along binaries heavy with prejudice, for instance: “Islam and the West”. The linkage is obviously biased and false. Islam is a faith. West is a geography. How do you compare the two — unless you have turned the terms into silent metaphors where West is a replacement of modernity and Islam implicitly equivalent to medievalism and the dark ages? The world is in the midst of a revolution of ideas that will make the 21st century into the golden age of individual freedom and collective achievement: But of what use will it be to us if the revolution sweeps through the streets outside our homes, but we remain trapped in the past because we refused to open doors?
Modern. Secular. State. Each term has been constantly redefined by human advance, and each advance has been momentous.
The unprecedented change in the nature of the state is the best example. The British empire was born in India and lies buried there. Neo-colonial successors across Africa and Asia are in poor health. This vacuum has been filled by the rise of nation states, a dramatic expression of popular will that sought boundaries on the strength of democratic virtues rather than armed power of the elites. We are in the age of the nation state.
Secularism is informed with the same spirit of harmonious co-existence but has adopted variables in different cultures at different times. The Holy Quran has defined it cogently: La qum deen o qum wail yadeen. No religion promotes war for the sake of war; war is valid only as self-defence. Our Indian philosophy believes in the co-existence of all faiths rather than the elimination of faith.
This, however, is the moment to address a pernicious and dangerous phenomenon that has arisen among some Muslim communities: The doctrine of faith supremacy, with its barbaric overtones of terrorist violence, ethnic cleansing and as a collateral disease, gender oppression. Long before the terrorists who spread havoc in the name of faith supremacy damage any imagined or manufactured enemy, they are grievously wounding the very essence of Islam, which is, as its name itself, a mission of peace. Islam is a brotherhood, not a nationhood; it is a humanitarian philosophy, not a tool of self-destructive fantasists.
Modernity is an attractive thought. But what precisely are its constituents? I would place freedom at the top of its priorities. Freedom is not just a political right; it is an individual and cultural right. It is the right to live without fear of suppression by the state or oppression by vested interests. Seventy years ago my country changed history; after 1947, the death of colonialism became a question of when, not why. In 1950, India offered the emerging world a greater gift: Our Constitution, infused with freedom as a living right. All rights come with obligations. Modernity is not simply the right to wear a bikini; it is the right to wear whatever you want. Mind you — what the woman wants; not what some regressive husband wants.
An equally important principle of modernity is the acquisition of knowledge. From its earliest days, Islam spread through regional battlefields, but its true consolidation came only when Muslim communities sought and reached the forefront of knowledge. Islam was and is a religion of the Book, but it is also a vigorous part of the universal civilisation of many books. Abbasid Baghdad had more books than Europe put together. The greatest library in the Muslim world, in Bukhara, was destroyed only in 1918.
Where did Muslim societies begin to fade, and Europe to revive? This happened when Muslim empires lost the future by being indifferent to printing. Printing offered a totally new world. It offered knowledge to the masses. For the first time, knowledge was on the way to being democratised. This was the true meaning of the printing miracle. Gutenberg’s press came only a few years after the fall of Constantinople, and the process was slow — but it changed the tides of history. The first press in Istanbul came only in the 18th century — nearly 300 years too late.
Today, our most urgent responsibility is democratisation of secular knowledge. If we fail in this, we fail our children. We snatch the 21st century out of their grasp.
The third pillar of modernity is gender equality. This is non-negotiable. Women must be in the vanguard of cultural advance and economic growth. Some regressive schools manipulate the law to suppress women. We have to stand up and fight them.