Whoever is not thankful for graces
runs the risk of losing them;
and whoever is thankful,
fetters them with their own cords.
(Ibn Ata’illah, Kitab al-Hikam)
‘Islam and the New Millennium’ – rather a grandiose subject for an essay, and one which, for Muslims, requires at least two caveats before we can even begin.
Firstly, the New Millennium – the Year 2000 – is not our millennium. Regrettably, most Muslim countries nowadays use the Christian calendar devised by Pope Gregory the Great, and not a few are planning celebrations of some kind. Many confused and secularised people in Muslim countries are already expressing a good deal of excitement: in Turkey, there is even a weekly magazine called Iki Bin’e Dogru(Straight to 2000). This semi-hysteria should be of little interest to us: as Muslims we have our own calendar. The year 2000 will in fact begin during the year 1420 of the Hijra. So why notice the occasion at all? Isn’t this just another example of annoying and irrelevant Western influence?
This point becomes still sharper when we remember that according to most modern scholars, Jesus (a.s.) was in fact born in the year 4 B.C. Thus 1996, not 2000, marked the second millennium of his advent. The celebrations in two years time will in fact mark an entirely meaningless date: a postmodern festival indeed.
The second, more imponderable reservation, concerns our ability to speak reliably about the future at all. In this paper I propose to speculate about the directions which Islam may take following the great and much-hyped anniversary. But the theological question is a sharp one: can we do this in a halal way? The future is in the ghayb, the Unseen; it is known only to Allah. And it may well be that the human race will not reach the year 2000 at all. Allah is quite capable of winding the whole show up before then. The hadith of Jibril describes how the angel came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) asking when the Day of Judgement would come, and he only replied, ‘The one questioned knows no more of it than the questioner.’ But as the Holy Qur’an puts it, ‘the very heavens are bursting with it.’ It may well be tomorrow.
Apocalyptic expectations are not new in Islamic history: they appeared, for instance, in connection with the Islamic millennium. Imam al-Suyuti, the greatest scholar of medieval Egypt, was concerned about the nervous expectations many Muslims had about the year 1000 of the hijra. Would it herald the end of the world, as many thought?
Imam al-Suyuti allayed these fears by examining all the hadith he could find about the lifetime of this Umma. He wrote a short book which he called al-Kashf an mujawazat hadhihi al-umma al-Alf (‘Proof that this Umma will survive the millenium’). He concluded that there was no evidence that the first millenium of Islam would end human history. But rather soberingly for our generation, he speculates that the hadiths at his disposal indicate that the signs which will usher in the return of Isa (a.s.), and the Antichrist (al-Masih al-Dajjal), are most likely to appear in the fifteenth Islamic century; in other words, our own.
But all these speculations were submissive to the Imam’s deep Islamic awareness that knowledge of the future is with Allah; and only Prophets can prophesy.
What I shall be doing in the pages that follow, then, is not forecast, but extrapolate. Allah ta’ala is capable of changing the course of history utterly, through some natural disaster, or a series of disastrous wars. He can even end history for good. If that happens in the next three years, then my forecasts will be worthless. All I am doing is, in a sense, to talk about the present, inasmuch as present trends, uninterrupted by catastrophe, seem set to continue in the coming few years and decades.
Why is it useful to reflect on these trends? Because I think we all recognise that the Muslims have responded badly and largely unsuccessfully to the challenges of the twentieth century; in fact, of the last three centuries. Faced with the triumph of the West, we have not been able to work out which changes are inevitable, and which can be resisted.
For instance, in the early nineteenth century the Ottoman empire lost a series of disastrous wars against Russia. The main reason was the superior discipline and equipment maintained by modern European armies. But the ulema, and the janissary troops, resisted any change. They believed that battles were won by faith, and that firearms and parade grounds diminished the virtue of futuwwa, the chivalric, almost Samurai-like code of the individual Muslim warrior. To shoot at an enemy from a distance rather than look him in the eye and fight with a sword was seen as a form of cowardice. Hence the Ottoman army continued to sustain defeat after defeat at the hands of its better-equipped Christian enemies.
Another case in point was the controversy over printing. Until the eighteenth century a majority of ulema believed that printing washaram. A text, particularly one dealing with religion, was something numinous and holy, to be created slowly and lovingly through the traditional calligraphic and bookbinding crafts. A ready availability of identical books, the scholars thought, would cheapen Islamic learning, and also make students lazy about committing ideas and texts to memory. Further, it was thought that the process of stamping and pressing pages was disrespectful to texts which might contain the name of the Source of all being.
It took a Hungarian convert to Islam, Ibrahim Muteferrika, to change all this. Muteferrika obtained the Ottoman Caliph’s permission to print secular and scientific books, and in 1720 he opened Islam’s first printing press in Istanbul. Muteferrika was a sincere convert, describing his background and religious beliefs in a book which he called Risale-yi Islamiyye. He was also very concerned with the technical and administrative backwardness of the Ottoman empire. Hence he wrote a book entitled Usul al-Hikam fi Nizam al-Umam, and published it himself in 1731. In this book he describes the governments and military systems prevailing in Europe, and told the Ottoman elite that independent Muslim states could only survive if they borrowed not only military technology, but also selectively from European styles of administration and scientific knowledge.
Ibrahim Muteferrika’s warnings about the rise of European civilisation were slowly heeded, and the Ottoman state set about the controversial business of modernizing itself, while attempting to preserve what was essential to its Islamic identity.
Muteferrika’s story reminds us that unless Muslims are conscious of the global trends of their age, they will continue to be losers. My own experience of Muslims has suggested that we are endlessly fascinated by short-term political issues, but are largely ignorant of the larger tendencies of which these issues are simply the passing manifestations.
This ignorance can sometimes be astonishing. How many leaders in the Islamic world are really familiar with the ideas which underpin modernity? I have met some leaders of activist factions, and have been consistently shocked by their lack of knowledge. How many can even name the principal intellectual systems of our time? Structuralism, post-modernism, realism, analytic philosophy, critical theory, and all the rest are closed books to them. Instead they burble on about the ‘International Zionist Masonic Conspiracy’, or ‘Baha’ism’, or the ‘New Crusader Invasion’, or similar phantasms. If we want to understand why so many Islamic movements fail, we should perhaps begin by acknowledging that their leaders simply do not have the intellectual grasp of the modern world which is the precondition for successfully overcoming the obstacles to Islamic governance. A Muslim activist who does not understand the ideologies of modernism can hardly hope to overcome them.
A no less lamentable ignorance prevails when it comes to non-ideological trends in the late twentieth century, and which are likely to prevail in the new millennium. And hence I make no apologies for discussing them in this paper. Like Ibrahim Mutefarrika three centuries ago, I am concerned to alert Muslims to the realities which are taking shape around them, and which are moulding a world in which their traditional discourse will have no application whatsoever. It is suicidal to assume that we will be insulated from these realities. Increasingly, we live in one world, thanks to a mono-culturising process which is accelerating all the time. There is a mosque in Belfast now, and there is also a branch of MacDonalds in Mecca. We may be confident in our faith and assumptions, but what of many of our young people? What happens to the young Muslim student at an American university? He learns about post-modernism and post-structuralism, and that these are the ideologies of profound influence in the modern West. He asks the Islamic activist leaders how to disprove them, and of course they cannot. So he grows confused, and his confidence in Islam as a timeless truth is shaken. Under such conditions, only the less intelligent will remain Muslim: a filtering process which is already painfully evident in some activist circles.
It is, therefore, an obligation, a farida, to understand the processes which are under way around us.
To summarise the leading trends of our age is beyond the ambitions of this short paper. I will focus, therefore, on just a few representative issues, not because I can deal with them fully, but simply to suggest the nature of the challenges for which the Umma should prepare over the next few decades. These three issues are: demography, religious change, and the environment.
Let me deal with the demographic issue first, because in a sense it is the most inexorable. Population trends are easily extrapolated, and the statistics are abundant for the past hundred years at least. Projections are reliable unless catastrophe supervenes: epidemics, for instance, or destructive wars. I will assume that neither of these things will assume sufficient proportions to affect the general picture.
Here are some figures taken from D. Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia, published by Oxford University Press in 1982. I will set them out in text rather than tabular form, in case the format does not survive Web downloading.
In 1900, 26.9% of the world’s population was Western Christian, while Islam accounted for 12.4%. In 1980 the figures were 30% and 16.5% respectively. The projection for 2000 is 29.9% and 19.2%. Percentages for other religions are fairly static, and since 1970 the total of atheists has, surprisingly perhaps, experienced a slow decline.
These figures are of considerable significance. Over the course of this century, the absolute proportion of Muslims in the world has jumped by a quite staggering amount. This has come about partly through conversion, but more significantly through natural increase. And the demographic bulge in the modern Muslim world means that this growth will continue. Here, for instance, is the forecast of Samuel Huntington in his new and resolutely Islamophobic book The Clash of Civilizations (pp.65-6):
“The percentage of Christians in the world peaked at about 30 percent in the 1980s, leveled off, is now declining, and will probably approximate about 25% of the world’s population by 2025. As a result of their extremely high rates of population growth, the proportion of Muslims in the world will continue to increase dramatically, amounting to 20 percent of the world’s population about the turn of the century, surpassing the number of Christians some years later, and probably accounting for about 30 percent of the world’s population by 2025.“
It is not hard to see why this is happening. America and Europe have increasingly aging populations. In fact, one of the greatest social arguments of the new millennium will concern the proper means of disposing of the elderly. Medical advances ensure an average lifetime in the high seventies. However active lifetimes have not grown so fast. At the turn of the century, a Westerner could expect to spend an average of the last two years of life as an invalid. Today, the figure is seven years. As Ivan Illich has shown, medicine prolongs life, but does not prolong mobility nearly as well. These ageing populations with their healthcare costs are an increasing socio-economic burden. The UK Department of Health recently announced that a new prescription drug for Alzheimer’s Disease is available on the National Health Service – but its cost means that it is only available to a selected minority of patients.
In the West’s population is top-heavy, that of Islam is the opposite. Today, more than half the population of Algeria, for example, is under the age of twenty, and the situation is comparable elsewhere. These young populations will reproduce, and perpetuate the percentage increase of Muslims well into the next millennium.
Hence, to take an example, in the Maghrib between 1965 and 1990, the population rose from 29.8 million to 59 million. During the same period, the number of Egyptians increased from 29.4 million to 52.4 million. In Central Asia, between 1970 and 1993, populations grew at annual rates of 2.9 percent in Tajikistan, 2.6 percent in Uzbekistan, 2.5 percent in Turkmenistan, and 1.9 percent in Kyrgyzia. In the 1970s, the demographic balance in the Soviet Union shifted drastically, with Muslims increasing by 24 percent while Russians increased by only 6.5 percent. Almost certainly this is one reason why the Russian empire collapsed: Moscow had to detach its Muslim areas before their numbers encouraged them to dominate the system. Even in Russia itself, Muslims (Tatars, Bashkirs, and Chuvash, as well as immigrants) are very visible, accounting for over 10 percent of the populations of both Moscow and St Petersburg.
This reminds us that the increase in the Muslim heartlands will have a significant impact in Muslim minority areas as well. In some countries, such as Tanzania and Macedonia, the Muslims will become a majority within twenty years. Largely through immigration, the Muslim population of the United States grew sixfold between 1972 and 1990. And even in countries where immigration has been suppressed, the growth continues. Last year, seven percent of babies born in European Union countries were Muslims. In Brussels, the figure was a staggering 57 percent. Islam is already the second religion of almost every European state – the only exceptions being those European countries such as Azerbaijan and Albania where it is the majority religion. If current trends continue, then an overall ten percent of European nationals will be Muslim by the year 2020.
What is the significance of this global change? Does it in fact entail anything at all? After all, there is a famous hadith narrated by Abu Daud on the authority of Thawban, which says that the day will come when the Muslims will be numerous, but will be like froth and flotsam (ghutha’) carried along by a flash-flood.
It is true that sheer weight of numbers counts for much less today than it did, say, a couple of hundred years ago, when military victories depended as much on numbers as on technology. Napoleon could say that ‘God is on the side of the larger battalions’ – but nowadays, when huge numbers of soldiers can be eliminated by push-button weapons, this is no longer the case; a fact demonstrated by Saddam Hussein’s hopeless and absurd defiance during the recent conflict over Gulf oil supplies.
The rapid increase in Muslim numbers does, however, have important entailments. But for this, the UN would not have chosen Cairo, the world’s largest Muslim city, as the site of its 1994 Population Conference. There is still some safety in numbers. But more significant than mere numbers is the psycho-dynamic of population profiles. Aging populations become introspective and flaccid. Young populations are more likely to be energetic, and encourage national political assertiveness.
The new millennium will dawn over a Muslim world with disproportionately young populations. Moreover, these populations will be increasingly urban. And such situations historically have always bred instability, turmoil, and reform. One explanation for the Protestant reformation in Europe is based on the preponderance of young people in urban sixteenth-century Germany, the result of new agricultural and political arrangements. The growth of fascism in Central Europe in the 1930s is also attributed in part to the growth in the number of young people. And in Islamic history, one thinks of the example of the Jelali rebellions in the sixteenth and seventh century: once the great Ottoman conquests had ceased, the young men who would have been occupied in the army found themselves at a loose end, and launched a variety of sectarian or social protest movements that devastated large areas of Anatolia.
The Islamic revival over the past few years has faithfully reflected this trend. One of the first Muslim countries to reach a peak proportion of youth was Iran, in the late 1970s (around 22% of the population), and the revolution occurred in 1979. In other countries the peak was reached rather later: in Algeria this proportion was reached in 1989, just when the FIS was winning its greatest support.
Following the millennium, this youth bulge will continue in many Muslim societies. The number of people in their early twenties will increase in Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and several other countries. As compared to 1990, in the year 2010 entrants to the jobs market will increase by about 50% in most Arab lands. The unemployment problem, already acute, will become intolerable.
This rapid growth is likely to render some states difficult to govern. The bunker regimes in Cairo and Algiers are already confronting rebellions which have clear demographic as well as moral and religious dimensions. So the first probable image we have of the next millenium is: in the West, aging and static populations, with stable, introspective political cultures; and in the Islamic world, a population explosion, and established regimes everywhere under siege by radicals.
The next consideration has to be: will the bunker regimes survive? This is harder to comment upon, although many political scientists with an interest in the Islamic world have tried. Before the modern period, peasant revolts stood a good chance of success, because manpower could carry the day against the ruler’s army. Today, however, advances in technology have made it possible for military regimes to survive indefinitely in the face of massive popular discontent. Spend enough money, and you can defeat even the most ingenious infiltrator or the most populous revolt. This technology is becoming cheaper, and is often supplied on a subsidised basis to the West’s favoured clients in the Third World. Similarly, techniques of interrogation and torture are becoming far more refined, and have proved an effective weapon against underground movements in a variety of places.
Let me give you an example. Last year’s Amnesty International report explains that in January 1995, the US government licenced the export to Saudi Arabia of a range of security equipment including the so-called ‘taser’ guns. ‘These guns shoot darts into a victim over a distance of up to five metres before a 40-50,000 volt shock is administered. These weapons are prohibited in many countries, including the UK.
Another example, also documented by Amnesty, is the export in 1990 of a complete torture chamber by a UK company, which was installed in the police special branch headquarters in Dubai. This is known in the Emirates as the ‘House of Fun’. The Amnesty report describes it as ‘a specially constructed cell fitted with a terrifyingly loud sound system, a white-noise generator and synchronized strobe lights designed to pulse at a frequency that would cause severe distress.’
These are just two examples of the increasing sophistication of torture equipment now being supplied to the bunker regimes. One could add to this list the improving techniques of telecommunications surveillance.
But what about the Internet? Isn’t the Internet the ultimate freedom machine, allowing the pervasion of all types of dissent, from anywhere in the world, to anywhere in the world?
At the moment the Internet is only available in a few Muslim countries. Already there are indications that monitoring of the phone lines which carry the signals is in progress. The centralizing nature of the Internet is in fact tailormade for intrusive regimes. A fairly straightforward programme on a mainframe computer logged on to the telephone net can inform the security forces instantaneously if a forbidden site is being accessed. Once that is established, investigation and arrest are a matter of course.
I believe that as technology improves, including ever more massive surveillance systems, it seems quite likely that the regimes will be able to suppress any amount of dissent, on one condition – that it does not spread to the armed forces. The Shah fell because his army turned against him, not because of the protests on the streets. But in Algeria the revolution has been suppressed, largely because the radicals think they can overwhelm a modern state without support from the armed forces.
The societies governed in this way are now experiencing severe traumas and cultural distortions. They are sometimes called ‘pressure-cooker cultures’. The consequences for the human soul of being subjected to this kind of pressure are quite alarming, and already in the Muslim world we see manifestations of extreme behaviour which only a decade ago would have been unthinkable.
This is not the context for providing full details of the problem of ‘extremism’, or what traditional Islam would call ghuluww. But it is clearly a growing feature of our religious landscape, and I will have to deal with it in passing. In early Islam the movement known as Kharijism fought against the khalifa Ali for the sake of a utopian and purist vision of Muslim society. Today, tragically, the Khawarij are with us once more. I have in mind incidents such as the 1994 shooting in Omdurman, when Wahhabi activists opened fire on Friday worshippers in the Ansar al-Sunna mosque, killing fourteen. Ironically, the mosque was itself Salafi, but followed a form of Wahhabism that the activists did not consider sufficiently extreme.
In Algeria, too, throat-slittings and massacres of villagers, and fighting between rival groups, have transformed large areas of the country into a smoking ruin.
We sometimes like to dismiss these movements as marginal irrelevancies. However, the signs are that until the conditions which have bred them are removed, they will continue to grow. The mainstream Islamic movements are seen to have failed to achieve power, and desperate young people are turning to more radical alternatives. It is fairly clear that a growing polarisation of Muslim society, and of the Muslim conscience, will be a hallmark of the coming century.
What is the defining symptom of Kharijism? In a word, takfir. That is, declaring other Muslims to be beyond the pale, and hence worthy of death. This tendency was attacked vigorously by the ulema of high classical Islam. For instance, Imam al-Ghazali, in his book Faysal al-Tafriqa bayn al-Islam wa’l-Zandaqa explained that it is extremely difficult to declare anyone outside Islam for as long as they say La ilaha illa’Llah, Muhammadun rasulu’Llah. And today, Sunni schoolchildren in many countries still memorise creeds such as the Jawharat al-Tawhid of Imam al-Laqqani, which include lines like:
idh ja’izun ghufranu ghayri’l-kufri
fa-la nukaffir mu’minan bi’l-wizri
since forgiving what is not unbelief is possible,
as we do not declare an unbeliever any believer on account of a sin.wa-man yamut wa-lam yatub min dhanbihi
fa-amruhu mufawwadun li-rabbihi
Whoever dies and has not repented of his sin,
his matter is turned over to his Lord.
The legitimation of differences in fiqh was rooted in the understanding of ijtihad. And differences in spiritualities were justified by the Sufis in terms of the idea that al-turuq ila’Llah bi’adadi anfas al-khala’iq (‘there are as many paths to God as there are human breaths’). As Ibn al-Banna’, the great Sufi poet of Saragossa expressed it, ibaraatuna shatta wa-husnuka wahidun, wa-kullun ila dhak al-jamali yushiru(‘our expressions differ, but Your beauty is one, and all are pointing towards that Beauty’).
Diversity has always been a characteristic of Islamic cultures. It was only medieval Christian cultures which strove to suppress it. However, there is a growing tendency nowadays among Muslims to favour totalitarian forms of Islam. ‘Everyone who disagrees with me is a sinner, cries the young activist, ‘and is going to hell’.
This mentality recalls the Kharijite takfir, but to understand why it is growing in the modern umma, we have to understand not just the formal history, but the psychohistory of our situation. Religious movements are the expression not just of doctrines and scriptures, but also of the hopes and fears of human collectivities. In times of confidence, theologies tend to be broad and eirenic. But when the community of believers feels itself threatened, exclusivism is the frequent result. And never has the Umma felt more threatened than today.
Even in the UK, the takfir phenomenon is growing steadily. There are factions in our inner cities which believe that they are the only ones going to Heaven. 99% of people who call themselves Muslims are, in this distasteful insult to Allah’s moral coherence, not Muslims at all.
We can understand this psychic state more easily when we recognise that it exists universally. Not just in Islam, but in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, there is a conspicuous tendency towards factional excluvisism. In Christianity, one has to look no further than the Branch Davidians of David Koresh, 89 of whom died when their ranch in Texas was stormed by US troops three years ago. The Davidians believed that they were the sole true Christians – everyone else would burn in Hell.
In Japan, even the usually peaceful religion of Buddhism has been re-formed by this tendency. In early 1995, the Aum Shinrikyo sect released Sarin nerve gas onto the Tokyo underground system, killing eleven people and sending 5,500 to hospital. Their guru, Shoko Asahara, had for ten years been preaching the need to overthrow the corrupt order in Japan, and transform the country into the true Shambala. As he said, ‘Our sphere shall extend throughout the nation, and foster the development of thousands of right-believing people.’ In his book From Destruction to Emptiness he explains that only those who believe in authentic, pristine Buddism as taught by Aum can expect to survive the corruption and destruction of the world. Non-Aum Buddhists are not true Buddhists at all.
On the basis of this kind of takfir, he and his 12,000 followers bought a factory complex on the slopes of Mount Fuji, where they successfully manufactured nerve gas and the botulism virus. The sinners of Japan’s un-Buddhist culture would be the first to suffer, they thought, but they also laid extensive plans for terrorist actions in North America. It is claimed that had the sect been allowed to operate for another six months, tens of thousands of people might have died from the sect’s attacks in the United States, which was seen as the great non-Buddhist source of evil darkening the world.
It is important to note the close parallels between Aum Shinryo-kyo and the modern takfir groups in the Middle East. The diagnosis is the same: the pure religion has been ignored or distorted by an elite, and the process has been masterminded by Americans. Hence the need to retreat and disown society – the idea of Takfir wa’l-Hijra that informed Shukri Mustafa’s group in late 1970s Egypt. In secretive inner circles, the saved elect gather to plan military-style actions against the system. They are indifferent to the sufferings of civilians – for they are apostates and deserve death anyway. Such attacks will prefigure, in some rather vague and optimistic fashion, the coming to power of the true believers, and the suppression of all other interpretations of religion.
This idea of takfir wa’l-hijra is thus, in structural terms, a global phenomenon. Its members are usually educated, almost always having science rather than arts backgrounds. Technology is not disowned, but sedulously cultivated. Bomb-making becomes a disciplined form of worship.
I believe that this tendency, which has been fostered rather than eliminated by the repressiveness of the regimes, will grow in relative significance as we traverse the end of the century. It will continue to besmirch the name of Islam, by shooting tourists, or blowing up minor targets in pinprick attacks that strengthen rather than weaken the regimes. It will divide the Islamic movement, perhaps fatally. And it will provide the regimes with an excuse further to repress and marginalise religion in society.
The threat of neo-Khariji heresy is thus a real one. It will exist, however, against the backdrop of an even more worrying transformation. It is time now to look at the last of our three themes: the apparently disconnected subject of the degradation of the natural environment, one of the great neglected Islamic issues of our time – arguably even the most important of all.
There are a whole cluster of questions here. Clearly, as we leave the second millennium, the planet is in abjectly poor physical shape as compared to the year 1000. Materialism, enabled by Reformation notions of the world as fallen, and by protestant capitalistic ethics, has presided over the gang rape of Mother Earth. Everywhere the face of the planet is scarred. Megatons of tons of toxic waste are now circulating in the oceans, or hovering in the stratosphere. Hormone and plastics pollution has resulted in a 50% drop in male fertility in the UK. Every day, another 12 important species become extinct. Every form of life apart from our own, and perhaps domestic animals, has been decimated by the holocaust of modernity. The BSE disaster is a hint of what may be in store: Government analysts have confirmed that as many as 30,000 British people may contract Creuzfeld-Jakob disease as a result of eating contaminated beef. As technology advances, similar scientific blunders may well wipe out large sections of the human race.
But the most urgent and undeniable environmental issue which we carry with us into the new millennium is that of global warming. For a hundred years we have been pumping greenhouse gases into the skies, and are now beginning to realise that a price has to be paid. We need to focus close attention on this issue, not least because it will affect the Islamic countries far more radically than the West. Worryingly few people in the Muslim world seem interested in the question; and it is hence urgently necessary that we remind ourselves of the seriousness of the situation.
For years government scientists mocked the idea of global warming. But the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 revealed to an anxious world that the scientific facts were now so clear as to brook no argument. The world is heating up. The industrial gases in the atmosphere are turning our planet into a greenhouse, reflecting heat back in rather than allowing it to be dissipated into space.
Here in England, global warming is noticed even by the ordinary citizen. Temperature records go back over three hundred years, but the 10 hottest years have all occurred since 1945, and three of the five hottest (1989, 1990 and 1995), have been in the past decade. Water supply is equally erratic. January of 1997 was the driest for 200 years. Storms at sea have become so bad that the North Sea oil industry is now laying pipelines because the seas are too rough for tankers.
What are the exact figures? Surprisingly, they seem tiny. The rise in average temperature between 1990 and 2050 will be 1.5 degrees Centigrade, which appears negligible. But the temperature rise which 4000 years ago ended the last ice age was only 2 degrees Centigrade. Research has proved that the polar ice caps are already beginning to melt, which is why the sea level is now creeping up by five millimetres a year. In places like the North Norfolk coast the EU is spending millions of pounds on new concrete defences to keep the sea out. How long even the most elaborate defences can be maintained is not clear.
However, for the West, the bad news is mixed with good. Rising temperatures would probably be welcomed by most people. It will, in thirty years, be possible to grow oranges in some parts of southern England. Already, the types of seeds bought by farmers reflect the awareness that summers are warmer, and winters are dryer. But no great catastrophe seems to threaten.
What is the situation, however, in the Muslim world? At the Rio summit, many Islamic countries showed themselves indifferent in the issue. In fact, the countries which campaigned most strongly against environmental controls were often Muslim: the Gulf states, Brunei, Kazakhstan and others. The reason was that their economies depend on oil. Cut back emissions on Western roads, or switch electricity generating to sustainable sources like tidal or wind power, and those countries lose out.
There is still inadequate awareness in Muslim circles of the great climatic calamity that is looming in the next millennium. But just consider some precursors of the catastrophe that have already come about. In the Sahel countries of Africa – Chad, Mali and Niger, which have over 90% Muslim populations, rainfall is declining by ten percent every decade. The huge Sahara Desert is becoming ever huger, as it overwhelms marginal pasture and arable land on its southern fringes. The disastrous drought which recently afflicted the Sudan ended with catastrophic floods.
Any climatic map will show that agriculture in many Muslim countries is a marginal business. In Algeria, a further 15% decline in rainfall will eliminate most of the remaining farmland, sending further waves of migrants into the cities. A similar situation prevails in Morocco, where the worst drought in living memory ended only in 1995. The Yemen has suffered from the change in monsoon patterns in the Indian Ocean – another consequence of global warming. In Bangladesh the problem is not a shortage of water – it is too much of it. Floods are now normal every three or four years, largely because of deforestation in the Himalayas which limits soil retention of water.
Dr Norman Myers of Oxford University predicts that by 2050 ‘the rise in sea level and changes in agriculture will create 150m refugees. This includes 15m from Bangladesh, and 14m from Egypt.’
However, this figure does not include migrants generated by secondary consequences of climatic change. These huge waves of humanity will destabilise governments and produce wars. The modern nation-state does not facilitate migration: Bangladeshis before 1948 could move to other parts of India, but with Partition, they are stuck within their own borders. Epidemics, also, are likely to be widespread. Some island nations, such as the Maldives or the Comoros, will disappear completely beneath the waves, and their populations will have to be accommodated elsewhere.
Again, I repeat that these forecasts are not doomsday scenarios. Those are much worse. I merely cite the predictions of mainstream science, as set forth in European Union and UK Department of the Environment reports. It is true that measures are beginning to be taken to limit greenhouse gas emission. But even if no more gases were to be released into the skies at all, temperatures would continue to rise for at least a hundred years, because of the gases already circulating in the atmosphere.
Let me close with some reflections on the above three themes.
Are these developments on balance cause for optimism, or for disquiet? Well, we know that the Blessed Prophet (s) liked optimism. He also taught tawakkul – reliance upon Allah’s good providence. However, he also taught that tying up our camels is a form of relying on Allah. So how should Muslims consider their options over the next few decades?
There are a number of issues here. Perhaps the most important is the cultivation of an informed leadership. I mentioned earlier that most Muslim leaders cannot provide the intellectual guidance needed to help intelligent young people deal with the challenges of today. Ask the average Muslim activist how to prove a post-modernist wrong, and he will not be able to help you very much. Our heads are buried in the ground. However, it is not only intellectual trends which we ignore. The environment, too, is an impending catastrophe which has not grabbed our attention at all. Perhaps our activists will still be choking out their rival rhetoric on the correct way to hold the hands during the Prayer, while they breath in the last mouthful of oxygen available in their countries. They seem wholly oblivious to the problem.
All this has to change. In my travels in the Islamic world, I found tremendous enthusiasm for Islam among young people, and a no less tremendous disappointment with the leadership. The traditional ulema have the courtesy and moderation which we need, but lack a certain dynamism; the radical faction leaders have fallen into the egotistic trap of exclusivism and takfir; while the mainstream revivalist leaders, frankly, are often irrelevant. Both ponderous and slightly insecure, trapped by an ‘ideological’ vision of Islam, they do not understand the complexity of today’s world – and our brighter young people see this soon enough.
Institutions, therefore, urgently need to be established, to train young men and women both in traditional Shari’a disciplines, and in the cultural and intellectual language of today’s world. Something like this has been done in the past: one thinks of the Nizamiyya madrasa in Baghdad where Ghazali taught, which encouraged knowledge not only of fiqh, but of philosophical theology in the Greek tradition. We need a new Ghazali today: a moderate, spiritually minded genius who can understand secular thought and refute it, not merely rant and rave about it.
The creation of a relevant leadership is thus the first priority. The second has to be the evolution of styles of da’wa that can operate despite the frankly improbable task of toppling the bunker regimes. The FIS declared war on the Algerian state, and has achieved nothing apart from turning much of the country into a battleground. Unless the military can be suborned, there is no chance of victory in such situations. Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and the rest are similar cases.
An alternative da’wa strategy already exists in a sense. In many of these countries, particularly in Egypt, the mainstream Ikhwan Muslimin operate a largescale welfare system, which serves to remind the masses of the superior ethical status of indigenous Islamic values. That model deserves to be expanded. But there is another option, which does not compete with it, but augments it. That is the model of da’wa activity to the West.
New Muslims like myself are grateful to Allah for the ni’ma of Islam – but we cannot say that we are grateful to the Umma. Islam is in its theology and its historical practice a missionary faith – one of the great missionary faiths, along with Christianity and Buddhism. And yet while Christianity and Buddhism are today brilliantly organised for conversion, Islam has no such operation, at least to my knowledge.Ballighu anni wa-law aya (‘Convey my message, even though a single verse’) is a Prophetic commandment that binds us all. It is a fard ayn, and a fard kifaya – and we are disobeying it on both counts.
Ten years ago a book appeared in France called D’Une foi l’autre, les conversions a l’Islam en Occident. The authors, both career journalists, carried out extensive interviews with new Muslims in Europe and America. Their conclusions are clear. Almost all educated converts to Islam come in through the door of Islamic spirituality. In the middle ages, the Sufi tariqas were the only effective engine of Islamisation in Muslim minority areas like Central Asia, India, black Africa and Java; and that pattern is maintained today.
Why should this be the case? Well, any new Muslim can tell you the answer. Westerners are in the first instance seeking not a moral path, or a political ideology, or a sense of special identity – these being the three commodities on offer among the established Islamic movements. They lack one thing, and they know it – the spiritual life. Thus, handing the average educated Westerner a book by Sayyid Qutb, for instance, or Mawdudi, is likely to have no effect, and may even provoke a revulsion. But hand him or her a collection of Islamic spiritual poetry, and the reaction will be immediately more positive. It is an extraordinary fact that the best-selling religious poet in modern America is our very own Jalal al-Din Rumi. Despite the immeasurably different time and place of his origin, he outsells every Christian religious poet.
Those who puzzle over the da’wa issue in the West generally refuse to take this on board. All too often they follow limited, ideological versions of Islam that are relevant only to their own cultural situation, and have no relevance to the problems of educated modern Westerners. We need to overcome this. We need to capitalise on the modern Western love of Islamic spirituality – and also of Islamic art and crafts. By doing so, we can reap a rich harvest, in sha’ Allah. If the West is like a fortress, then we can approach it from its strongest place, by provoking it politically and militarily, as the absurd Saddam Hussein did; in which case we will bring yet more humiliation and destruction upon our people. Or we can find those areas of its defences which have become tumbledown and weak. Those are, essentially, areas of spirituality and aesthetics. Millions of young Westerners are dissatisfied both with the materialism of their world, and with the doctrines of Christianity, and are seeking refuge in New Age groups and cults. Those people should be natural recruits for Islam – and yet we ignore them.
Similarly, and for the same constituency, we need to emphasise Islam’s vibrant theological response to the problem of conservation. The Qur’an is the richest of all the world’s scriptures in its emphasis on the beauty of nature as a theophany – a mazhar – of the Divine names.
As a Western Muslim, who understands what moves and influences Westerners, I feel that by stressing these two issues, Islam is well-placed not merely to flourish, but to dominate the religious scene of the next century. Only Allah truly knows the future. But it seems to me that we are at a crossroads, of which the millennium is a useful, if accidental symbol. It will either be the watershed which marks the final collapse of Islam as an intellectually and spiritually rich tradition at ease with itself, as increasingly it presides over an overpopulated and undernourished zone of chaos. Or it will take stock, abandon the dead end of meaningless extremism, and begin to play its natural world role as a moral and spiritual exemplar.
As we look around ourselves today at the chaos and disintegration of the Umma, we may ask whether such a possibility is credible. But we are living through times when the future is genuinely negotiable in an almost unprecedented way. Ideologies which formerly obstructed or persecuted Islam, like extreme Christianity, nationalism and Communism, are withering. Ernest Gellner, the Cambridge anthropologist has described Islam as ‘the last religion’ – the last in the sense of truly believing its scriptural narratives to be normative.
If we have the confidence to believe that what we have inherited or chosen is indeed absolute truth, then optimism would seem quite reasonable. And I am optimistic. If Islam and the Muslims can keep their nerve, and not follow the secularising course mapped out for them by their rivals, or travel the blind alley of extremism, then they will indeed dominate the world, as once they did. And, we may I think quite reasonably hope, they will once again affirm without the ambiguity of worldly failure, the timeless and challenging words, wa kalimatuLlahi hiya al-ulya – ‘and the word of God is supreme’.
This essay is based on a lecture given at the Belfast Central Mosque in March 1997.