December 05, 2006
For those of you who have about 100 minutes to spare, this is a very enlightening documentary about Muslim Spain.
I have often wondered why we as Muslims have lagged so far behind when our predecessors were the pioneers of modernity and civilization. There is little innovation today in the Muslim world; at best, we copy the West, but unfortunately we tend to take the worst of it while leaving the good.
During my travels in South Asia, I heard many people lament about how things were becoming too "westernized". I generally take exception to hearing this sort of talk, as it undermines all the good in the West. I can walk outside at night and feel safe here. I can go to a store, and not expect to get swindled. I can breathe the air and drink the water without feeling sick. I can freely go to a doctor if necessary, and expect professional, courteous treatment. These are basic expectations that I've come to take for granted in Canada, but they are also expectations that should theoretically stem from Islamic living. Unfortunately, that's not the case.
The problem is not that Muslim countries are becoming Westernized. The problem is that Muslim countries are taking the bad from the West while leaving the good. We'll adopt the crude language and skimpy dresses, but ignore the orderly lineups and clean washrooms. We'll bring the booze, lottery tickets, and racy magazines into our stores, but we'll ignore all that Western nonsense about recycling. After all, throwing things on the street is much easier, and we don't want to imitate the kufaar.
Tobacco companies are starting to lose their battle in the North American market, but they're finding great adoption in Pakistan and Bangladesh. While smoking is becoming increasingly inconvenient in most major cities in Canada, it is becoming more and more common, almost encouraged, in much of the Muslim world. Even here, I know more Muslims who smoke than non-Muslims, the justification being "it's not haraam, brother. Allah said not to make what is halaal to be haraam." Personally, I do believe it's definitely haraam, but I won't get started on that because this sort of reasoning annoys me considerably.
Muslim Spain was the envy of the world; it set the precedent upon which the European renaissance was largely initiated. It was built upon a foundation that sought the best of two cultures. The basis remained Islam, but the Spanish Muslims were not afraid to learn the arts and sciences of others. Much of the classical philosophy we study today only reached us because the earlier Muslims preserved the texts in Arabic. This philosophy preceded Islam, but there remained some value in these texts that was worth preserving. This was not a compromise on their own values or beliefs, but a reflection of the curiosity and discovery encouraged by Islam.
It would have been easy for the Sahabah to brush off the suggestion of Salman al-Farsi radhiyallaho'anh to build a trench around Madinah. After all, Salman was coming from a society of fire-worshippers who were not guided by Allah or the Prophet. But in spite of this, the Prophet sallalaho'alayhi wa salam saw value in the idea, which ultimately lead to the successful defence of the city. This wasn't imitation of the kufaar; this was a case of taking the good from another society and adopting it.
Where have we gone wrong? It's not that Muslims are uneducated. When I first started at the University of Ottawa, I was surprised to see that half of my professors were Muslim, and the dean of the faculty was a Muslim woman wearing hijab. Nearly all the teaching assistants were Muslim, as were most of the graduate students. Most of them were Egyptian, but there was a good number of Lebanese, Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi Muslims amongst them as well. There were some exceptionally brilliant people among them who were the pride of the faculty.
Among the graduate students was my Egyptian roommate of two years. While he was also very intelligent, living with him gave me a peek into what really goes on in the minds of these Muslim students. I lived with him during the course of his Masters degree, and I knew he hated every minute of it. He would come home frustrated and angry, but never gave up. His perseverance astonished me. During this time, he went through a messy engagement that lasted over a year before breaking, but he kept his dedication high and his grades strong, something I failed to do during a somewhat similar ordeal. While he clearly lacked interest in his studies, he did extremely well. All the while, he would lament about how he would rather have been a cook instead, though the fool he used to serve me at breakfast made me glad he took up engineering instead.
Eventually, I moved away to live closer to the university, and he left the city as well after successfully completing his masters degree. Several months later, he called me up regarding some outstanding bills, but not before we caught up with one another.
"So what have you been up to lately?", I asked.
"I'm just doing my PhD right now, should be done in a year or two," he replied. I was astonished! A PhD? The poor guy hated every minute of his masters', I couldn't imagine him going through yet another several years in earning the PhD. I asked him to explain.
"Well, I'm planning on visiting Egypt soon," he said. "And I would feel shy to go back there with just a masters' degree." Just a masters' degree. I started realizing that many of these people were getting degrees only for the sake of degrees. I recalled one night where he had taken me to visit one of his friends who was working at a local pizza place. This friend was working there to cover the costs of his own PhD. He had already completed two masters' degrees in Engineering, and was well on his way to completing his PhD. And he was working in a pizza place. With two masters' degrees. I asked him what he wanted to do after he completed his studies, and he casually said "I'm doing what I want to do."
It's unfortunate that I've rarely seen any of these students venture outside academia; they generally become professors, or leave the discipline entirely. They could accomplish so much with their talents and education, but their education often goes to waste because it is sought for the wrong reasons. After living with that roommate for as long as I did, I discovered one frustrating trait of upper-Egyptian culture: higher education is not something that is considered exemplary or honourable; rather, the lack of higher education is something that is considered shameful.
Really, all that education is serving little more than to pad up their biodata (and according to my roommate, that's really the main goal). There's an incredible talent pool sitting there in the Muslim world, but not one single Muslim engineering firm has demonstrated much innovation in the last 50 years or so outside of the oil industry. Yet, there are PhD graduates in Computer and Electrical engineering making pizzas (and serving as prime ministers in inefficient governments.) All the while, we drive European and Japanese cars, talk on Finnish cell phones, and use American software.
I have often thought of Germany as a viable example for the Arab and Muslim world to follow. This is a country that has been decimated twice in the last hundred years, but has built itself up only on the strength of it's own people. It is not a land replete with natural resources, nor is it one with significant trade routes. Yet it is full of dedicated workers who can look beyond their past to harvest a better future. And it's been working.
There are opportunities out there to be explored, and a talent pool with the knowledge to make the most of these opportunities. Andalus was the envy of Europe, as much for it's advanced civilization as it's religion. Today, we are barely hanging onto our religion, and have hardly any civilization to be proud of. Progress starts by beginning with the fundamentals, and regaining that sense of discovery that the early Muslims brought forth. It doesn't happen in spite of Islam, it happens because of it.