International Conference Of Islamic Scholars (ICIS) Islam And Civil Society: The Path To Transformation

The Ummah : Challenges of the new realities

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a very special privilege to be here today and I thank the organizers for the invitation to this platform, to join such eminent scholars and thinkers, representing some of the finest minds of our generation. I am able to take comfort in the fact that this is not just any Conference of Scholars but a Conference of Islamic Scholars. I take it therefore I am addressing my Muslim brothers in the spirit of brotherhood enjoined on us by our common religion. Seminars have become the all too common currency of today’s intellectual discourse. We are in danger of Conference fatigue. But a very unique bond differentiates our deliberations today, united as we are in Islam.

2. Appropriately assembled in the world’s largest Muslim country; we are a microcosm of the global Ummah to which we all owe our allegiance. It is a very timely opportunity because we desperately need to confront the Muslim Dilemma besetting us in this 21st Century. The Ummah is a giant conglomerate of countries with rich and diverse histories. The glue that binds them is Islam. But the prevailing impression of them today is that most are backward, mired in poverty and deprivation, weak, enfeebled and lacking in any form of cohesion or leadership.

3. Unfortunately it is Muslims in particular whom the world equates with the violent terrorism that holds the world to ransom and keeps us in perpetual fear. For this, however unfairly and indiscriminately, Islam itself is stigmatized.

4. This paper attempts to address the core challenge of restoring Muslim legitimacy – to give back pride and confidence to our peoples. To revitalise and renew the Ummah, it will take a social and economic transformation that will leapfrog centuries of developmental inertia. We will need our moral compass to guide us through the complex jungle that is the 3rd Millennium. If renewal is accepted as imperative it will be premised on an economic resurgence, but one able to combine both the global dynamics of the present age with the unchanging tenets of Islam, its eternal verities and the principles of Islamic justice. Even though political and social systems have changed to suit the contemporary world, nevertheless our Muslim identity and our Muslims spirit remain intact. These were forged long ago in the Golden Age of the 9th to the 13th Centuries when Islam led the world in science and learning. Today this remains our inspirational model. Whilst we may aim, for now, to revive and rejuvenate the present generation of Muslim countries, ultimately we may again aspire to restore the glory of Islam.

5. The precedent is there. Islam changed the nomadic feuding Arab tribes of the pre-Islamic period into a united, highly organized, sophisticated people. They built a great civilisation based on learning and knowledge that extended from Spain to China. They added new fields of scholarship like astronomy and algebra. Muslim physicians and scientists contributed much to the advancement of medicine. They developed the use of metals and the skills and tools of navigation. Great libraries were set up in Cordoba and, yes, in Baghdad. This prompts some pretty rueful thinking today. Islam was the catalyst that energized the Middle Eastern people to their unchallenged eminence in that bygone age. Here then is the classic case study for today’s Muslims to study and emulate. They showed us the way. We need to draw inspiration from this heritage to chart the future destiny of the Ummah.

6. Sadly however, the Islamic world after its centuries of distinction has gone into a long and steep decline. After the collapse of the Turkish Ottoman, Muslims became divided and weakened. Only the splendid architecture survived, monuments to our former glory. To know how far behind we have come, we need to analyse our history.

7. Why did we lose out? I come now to my main thesis – that we missed out on the Renaissance, the period of Enlightenment and above all we missed out on the Industrial Revolution. We lost thereby a crucial stage in the evolution of human civilization and one that is ongoing to this day where a nation’s prosperity and stage of development are linked to its level of industrialisation. The Industrial Revolution completely passed most of us by with disastrous consequences. It was Britain that started the new phenomenon but it was the fledgling America which was to exploit it to the full. We were pre-empted by the New World.

8. Man’s progress can be charted in clear phases. We were very much part of the first – the Agricultural Age. We irrigated our farms, built our roads, developed the appropriate science and technology needed for the infrastructure that would further develop an agrarian society. Let’s take our own part of the world. Asia is not only the world’s newest but the oldest region. South East Asia was a recognizable entity, even then, when the virtue of agriculture was first discovered through rice cultivation.

9. This part of the world was blessed, and still is, by a wealth of strategic natural resources, prized and coveted products like rubber, tin, minerals, oil, sugar and rice. These made us prey to domination and subjugation by outside powers. Ironically whilst our commodities were in great demand, we ourselves failed to capitalise on them fully which would have meant making the vital transition to the Industrial Revolution. Asia served only as the backyard of the newly industrialized countries of the West. – a supplier of raw materials, relegated to be hewers of wood and carriers of water for the colonial masters.

10. Despite the vast resource endowments they possess, many Muslim countries are still underachievers, falling even further behind in an increasingly competitive and sophisticated world. How did all this happen? One school of thought suggests they lost their lead in civilisation as a narrow religious conservatism gained ground, preoccupied with the next life not this one. Muslim societies became inward looking. Some religious scholars questioned the study of non-religious subjects requiring Muslims to be learned in religion only, as the sole qualification to earn merit in the afterlife, the “akhirat”. In the most extreme cases, having condemned and discarded the study of science, mathematics, engineering and other “worldly” subjects they rejected the products of this worldly knowledge. Electricity, the printing press, automobiles were regarded as “haram” and initially forbidden. By the time Muslims came to understand the importance of modern industry they had been left far behind. From now on the pressing concern was one of catch up.

11. The 20th Century introduced a different handicap. It spelt a particular disaster for the Islamic world caught in a cycle of political unrest and civil strife often instigated by outside powers. Muslims have no recourse but to take charge of their own destinies, not through politicising religion but by economic renewal and human development to bring us level with the present civilisation. While the Ummah advocates meaningful spiritual and intellectual advancement and strives to bring about political stability, our contention is that at the same time the importance of economic development cannot be ignored. This is the theme of the present paper. Economics and education will also be needed to drive the engines of growth we seek. Education especially is required to change the present mindset. Modernity, innovation and technology have to be absorbed in all their relentless advance. A receptive mentality on the part of Muslims is a prerequisite of managing change. The pace and scale of change are today more rapid, profound and far reaching than ever before in history.

12. The task in hand will have to be played out against a backdrop of the new realities of an increasingly borderless and globalising world.

13. What follows is an examination of the specific Muslim situation in the context of this globalising international economy, the challenges and the problems, and the prognosis for a way forward and for the desired catch up.

14. First the statistics. There are more than 1.2 billion Muslims on the planet dispersed world wide. The Islamic community of nations reflected in the membership of OIC represents 57 countries heterogeneous in terms of political systems, economic structures, and ethnicity. The economic performance of many OIC countries has been poor. Based on the World Development Report 2005 about 46% of OIC members can be classified as low income economies. Amongst low income economies world wide, about 43% are OIC members. In 2001, OIC countries constituted some 20% of the world’s population but generated only 5% of the world’s nominal GDP. Many still rely on agriculture or primary commodities as their source of wealth with low levels of industrialization and technological diffusion. Poverty is rampant. Per capita income is often abysmal. The picture is bleak. This may be obscured to a degree by a few high profile Muslim economies, the oil producers especially, but these are a handful. For many Muslim countries, the hidden social deficit is a low life expectancy, high infant mortality, low adult literacy.

15. Looking for a means to bring the backward amongst us into the 21st century globalisation may well provide us our opportunity, whilst the abundant natural resources with which we have been blessed provide the means. Making the most productive use of these mandates globalising our economies to achieve their true potential. At the individual country level some would find it very difficult to even attempt this. If we were to take the more remote areas it would be asking a traditional, simple, timeless village society to break into a world of sophisticated technology. Which would be almost tantamount to expecting them to accomplish overnight a miniature version of the Industrial Revolution they missed before.

16. However – individually we may be weak, but collectively we can be strong. The answer lies in coordinated effort, to build together a global Islamic presence that is a fully-paid up member of the world economy. This calls for a renewed impetus towards greater integration of our economic strategy – greater trade among Muslim countries, a pooling of skills and technology.

17. Because of the likely psychological barriers there will be a need to convince the more conservative that religion and economic progress are not mutually exclusive and there is nothing to stop us pursuing achievement in this life, in worldly terms. The Prophet (PBUH) showed the way – the route of trade and business. He was himself a merchant. The Quran advocates peace and plenty as part of Allah’s bounty to be shared by all. There is nothing in the Islamic code of life that says we must put off the fruits of our labours until the afterlife. To the contrary they are to be enjoyed here on earth. Economic wellbeing and the moral code go hand in hand. No one should be deprived of the basic necessities of life as promised by Allah. The present imbalance in society between the haves and the have-nots whereby the rich and powerful exploit the poor and the weak, runs counter to Islamic belief. Wealth should be better distributed – circulated to all parts of society as blood circulates to all parts of the body. The Malaysian policy of growth with distributive justice is a case in point. Our New Economic Policy, the NEP, a socio economic Programme was implemented in the context of an expanding economy so that no one in society would experience any sense of economic deprivation.

18. The theological compatibility of religion and commerce is an accepted proposition worldwide. We hear a lot, for instance, of the Protestant work ethic. Other races such as the Jews, the Quakers, the Parsees and the Jains have become noted for their business acumen. In Malaysia too, we had our own brand of the work ethic, only we Looked East and emulated the Japanese. The latter taught us something else. Their commercial and management success was unique in being achieved without sacrifice of their cultural identity. To this we can also aspire, retaining our Islamic values whatever the context and demands of business.

19. Among the Abrahamaic religions, Islam is the least hostile to commerce. After all Muslim countries produced many of the great seafarers and the traders of the past and thus today ours are very open, hospitable economies. The Straits that separate out two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, was historically a great sea-lane for the spice trade and remains one of the busiest thoroughfares in the modern world, the route for much of the oil traffic and the gateway between East and West. It was traders who first brought Islam to our shores, through peaceful commerce not conquest. Islam means “Peace”.

20. The problem with development and the desire for catch up is that rising aspirations may then outstrip performance. But there are Muslim countries of respectable standing in the modern economic order, which furnish a demonstration effect.

21. Today Malaysia and Indonesia, as role models of development, demonstrate above all else that economic development, modernisation and technology are not incompatible with Islam. They prove the value of opening up the contemporary economy to the world. Traditionally Malaysia has enjoyed significant trade and investment relations with the US, Japan, UK, Singapore and now China. Similar relations with other countries both Islamic and non Islamic are becoming significant, as the world globalises.

22. We seek a quality progression. An important aspect of economic development in the Muslim credo is economic well being. One of the basic concerns of the Islamic way of life is human welfare. Economic prosperity requires most of all that we ensure the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and medicine are met, and essential services like water and electricity are provided. A first priority is to help the poor climb out of the pit of poverty.

23. Our political system is derived from not only the western concept of democracy but also the guidance of the Prophet (PBUH) who introduced the system of syura, a system of administration and style of governing based on consultation. The practice recognizes the rule of law, prizes transparency and accountability – by which the highest expression is accountability to God and to the Ummah.


24. If we follow the great tradition set during the heyday of Islamic civilization, we will seek a performance culture based on learning, scholarship and a thirst for knowledge. Except that today this can be greatly facilitated by modern multimedia and communications. There is no need for widespread intellectual bankruptcy in this Information Age, with its emerging ethos of openness and transparency, and knowledge being accessible at the touch of a button.

25. One of our greatest assets is our human resources – our human capital – young, eager, thirsty for knowledge, skilled and trainable. Over 50% of our people are under 25 years of age – with a refreshing new Generation X approach to modern life. To realise the tremendous potential in these assets the key instrument is education. The changing scenario of science and technology requires a response. The first step is to empower our people. If we go back to the origins of Islamic decline we find that a liberal education was the main casualty. Some scholars of the time mistakenly equated learning with a narrowly defined and exclusive concept of religious knowledge. As the frontiers and scope of science expanded – sometimes astronomically, so the frontiers of knowledge expanded in tandem. Ironically the Muslim view of what is learning and scholarship shrank, dimming our vision and sapping our entrepreneurial vigour. The Islamic way of life cannot be compartmentalised into spiritual and material.

26. The perennial debate will be between religious and secular education. We are still having to contend with a throw back to the doctrinaire approach. In this part of the world, we have had Islamic private education for more than 100 years from prestigious institutions to dilapidated huts where religious fervour often makes up for the lack of facilities. When Islamic religious schools are being exploited for political agendas, they may provide a breeding ground for the birth of militant and extremist behaviour. Education programmes – secular or religious, public or private – should be focused on quality. In this era of information and communications technology, curricula must be formulated to fulfil the demands of the times. Religious education must not deprive its learners of relevant knowledge. Oftentimes, doctrinaire religious schools fail to furnish their pupils with pertinent and applicable knowledge resulting in school-leavers finding themselves extraneous in the marketplace. Frustrated, they blame the world for not appreciating their qualities. Unfulfilled, they become easy recruits into extremism. No one needs to be denied their religious instruction which can be accommodated separately for Muslim students in the secular system. Just as religious schools must accommodate contemporary knowledge.

27. The Muslim world must allocate greater priority and resources to its educational needs as the major drivers of economic growth in this era of knowledge, technology and innovation. It is people who steer knowledge-based economies. The transformation of commodity-based economies into knowledge-based economies requires the commitment of governments and all other stakeholders to place relevant education and up-to-date skills training at the apex of national development agendas.

28. In the category of well being we should place gender equality. The stereotyped view that Islam universally oppresses women can be dispelled. It is categorically in contradiction of the Quran. The Quran places great emphasis on human dignity and freedom, therefore it is inconceivable to believe that Islam would advocate and tolerate discrimination based on ethnicity, colour and gender. From ancient times, Islam has affirmed the equality and rights of women which modern nations have only recently conceded out of social pressure. The Quran has also dedicated the Surah Al- Nisa (An-Nisa) specifically to women :- their roles and rights. Likewise, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in his last sermon emphasised the equality of women when he counselled, “Treat your women well and be kind to them for they are your partners and committed helpers.” I would translate this to mean that men are not above women, neither are women above men. Rather we are equal in standing, working in partnership together using our different God-given talents and abilities to complement each other for the glory of Allah. Treating women as second class citizens only suppresses fifty percent of our human resources and stunts the development of our countries.

29. Furthermore, when speaking about the status of women in Islam, in the eyes of Allah, the Creator of mankind and the universe, neither gender, position, intelligence, strength or beauty matter – only taqwa[1].

30. Islam today needs to be demonstrated intellectually as well as ritually to regain the Muslim ground. We cannot by-pass the route the West followed in the basic sciences and technology. In our case it will take a quantum leap to catch up. Taking the example of Malaysia’s Hadhari or civilisational Islam, the national religion strives for a more contemporary orientation. We need to embrace modernity.

31. But we find some Muslim countries lagging behind in the emerging E world of internet usage and computer literacy. Our tech savvy young often put us to shame but there are not yet enough of them. We need to invest more on education but to invest wisely in terms of quality and relevance. Japan has 1,200 universities, 120 in or around Tokyo. Yet there are only 550 universities in 55 Muslim countries. [2]

32. In a recent survey by the Times Educational Supplement[3], ranking the best universities in global terms, American institutions occupied most of the top 10 places. In this part of the world, Beijing (17) and Singapore (18) came out best. Muslim countries were way behind.

33. The fall out is predictable. We often suffer a brain drain of our best talent. The young are impatient – will not stay if there are no opportunities for their capabilities – or no access to new skills.

34. This has a much wider connotation, economic development is about the development of man himself. In the Muslim context we instil skill and integrity. Skill is a product of education and knowledge leading to the development of entrepreneurs and innovation, the focus of the development effort. Integrity is what underpins and inspires whatever capability level we reach, in terms of high moral standards. In our sense this means Islamic tenets of integrity and justice. The eternal verities.


35. Economic development, human and intellectual growth, empowerment individually and nationally, political and social stability are not achieved overnight. The Prophet (PBUH) with the guidance of Allah took 23 years to fully establish a mature system of government in Medina. Malaysia’s NEP was a 20 year policy introduced in 1970 but still with us in modified form. Now we have Vision 2020 a 30-year policy to guide us towards achieving the status of a fully developed society. In all, Malaysia set aside 50 years to achieve social and economic transformation.

36. But the process may now be accelerated. The centre of gravity in the world’s economic development is shifting inexorably from West to East. James Hayes in 1910 said,

“The Mediterranean is the Sea of the Past

The Atlantic is the Sea of the Present

But the Pacific will be the Sea of the Future”

37. The countries that face each other across the Pacific especially the Asia Pacific countries will become the Club of the Future with S E Asia an important Muslim enclave. Our countries must grasp the nettle – to accomplish the necessary change and adopt a strategy of development for a globalised world.

38. This predicates a belief in the future and in the infinite possibilities of technology. Muslims whose lives are predicated on belief in God are best prepared for the essential element of faith that will be required. I’d like to end with a story.

39. In 1870 in Indiana the Methodists were holding a Conference (You see they had them in those days too and this one like ours was related to a religion). The Bishop presided. A scientist got up and predicted that one day men would fly through the air like birds. The Bishop was outraged. This was heresy. In the bible, flight was reserved for the angels. He stormed out.

40. The good Bishop whose name was Wright went home to his two small sons, Orville and Wilbur.

41. We too must look to our younger generation who are not afraid of technology, in fact are excited by it to bring us to the next phase in human civilisation which will supersede the Industrial Revolution and bring human kind to greater heights. This time the Muslim Ummah will share fully in the coming transformation.

42. It will require faith of the kind the good Bishop lacked but which the young Orville and Wilbur Wright possessed, and the spirit of adventure to go with it.

43. The one attribute in an increasingly Godless world, which Muslims have, is their enduring faith and their moral compass.


  1. Taqwa’s meaning is fear, clinging to obedience to Allah and abandoning disobedience to Him. It is the sum of all good.
  2. Dr Mohd Ghazali bin Mohd Nor, head of the Islamic Development Bank Jeddah
  3. The Times World University Rankings, November 5th 2004
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