Message From the President... Lighting a Candle
Gaza is in the dark, hospitals are working on temporary generators, patients are dying for lack of basic care, sewage and water treatment plants are not functioning, bread and other basic foods are in shortage, and while the occupation threatens more "collective" punishment, the Arabs of the region are lazily watching, and the rest of the world does not care. Lebanon, too, is on the verge of civil war. Iraq is in the middle of what is casually called "sectarian strife." Iran appears to be the next target of Neocon ambitions, and 80% of the world's refugees are Muslims. Could it get worse?
By any measure, it is a difficult time for Muslims in most of the world, particularly for Muslim children and youth. It is painful and demoralizing to watch the news coming from Gaza, the West Bank, Iraq, and other areas of the Muslim world. It's frustrating that the mainstream press is filtering out the bad news from Gaza, leaving most Americans in the dark about how their tax dollars continue to support an oppressive occupation.
Seventy percent of the population of much of the Muslim world is under the age of 20. Job opportunities are sparse or demeaning. The creation of new jobs is at a crawl and the development of local industries is hindered. There is rampant corruption, self-serving leadership, outdated education, poor infrastructure, lack of political reform or basic respect of human rights. Some countries are engaged in (or on the verge of) sectarian strife that threatens to make a terrible situation even worse.
All of this news conjures up a compelling question: What happened to the glorious past of Muslims, a past that we constantly brag of? What happened to a time in which "civilization" in the world referred only to "Islamic civilization" which was the envy of all the earth?
We know from our history that the Abbasid Caliph al-Mamoun established a mighty and unprecedented educational initiative called "the House of Wisdom," the purpose of which was to translate into Arabic hundreds (if not thousands of books) about a wide variety of topics from different languages. The translators were paid in gold according to the weight of the book they translated.
This brilliant initiative was credited with the preservation of Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, and Syriac heritages in the areas of Philosophy, Medicine, Mathematics, Agriculture, Literature, Astronomy, Natural Sciences, and much more. This ancient knowledge would have been lost forever had it not been for Muslim scholarship. Aside from this initiative, Muslims did far more than translate. Muslim scientists, philosophers, and physicians made their own advances in different fields of knowledge, created original ideas, made tremendous discoveries and progress in these fields, especially Geography, Astronomy, Earth Sciences, Physics, Medicine, Pharmacology, and Mathematics.
The Muslim world was the center of knowledge, learning, creativity, and innovation for ten centuries. The Muslims built the first public Universities, Hospitals, and Research Centers, and endowed them so that future generations could derive benefit from them.
Now, let us move forward to the present time. The 2002 Arab Human Development Report commented on the severe shortage of new writing. Compared to one thousand years ago during the glorious time of the Caliph Mamoun when translations of books and knowledge into Arabic from different languages peaked, there are now very few books being translated into Arabic. In an average year, Spain translates more books into Spanish than the whole 24 Arabic speaking countries combined translate into Arabic. What has led to this sorry state? The lack of three crucial elements required for intellectual and cultural advancement: freedom, knowledge, and an adequate status for women.
The report sharply criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq and charged that the prosecution of the "war on terrorism" has actually curtailed freedoms in the Arab world, instead of providing political relief and popular voice, saying the Iraqi people have "emerged from the grip of a despotic regime" only to "fall under a foreign occupation that increased human suffering." The report states, "By 21st century standards, Arab countries have not met the people's aspirations for development, security and liberation. Indeed, there is a near-complete consensus that there is a serious failing in the Arab world, and that this is located specifically in the political sphere."
"There is a rational and understandable thirst among Arabs to be rid of despots and to enjoy democratic governance," the report further stated. It cited a survey of political attitudes in Algeria, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and Morocco that revealed mounting concern over government corruption, poverty, and the absence of independent courts capable of delivering justice to all.
The difference between the shining past and the gloomy present is enormous by all standards. What has led to that decline? That is the question for us to answer if we need to cure the illness and bring change to our current conditions. Is it the natural aging process of the civilization? Is it the internal fighting and divisions within the Islamic body? Is it the relentless attacks from enemies or those who seek resources? Is it the departure of the Ummah from its religion and values? Is it the closure of the door of Ijtihad (new legal judgments) or reasoning? Is it the rigidity and shortage of scholars, the corruption and oppression of political leaders, or the apathy and ignorance of the populace? Or is it all of the above?
These questions must be on the collective mind of the Muslim world, especially its scholars, intellectuals, and political theorists. We must not be afraid to answer them, no matter where the truth may be. How can we change our outdated paradigms without changing our core values and losing our spiritual purpose and composure? How can we move forward while building on and preserving our heritage? How can we manage our present crisis without losing our identity? How can we balance modernity with tradition?
These are not easy issues to tackle, we need to mobilize all of our resources to address them. Unless we face them one by one, we will continue to live in one crisis after another, we will continue to curse the darkness instead of lighting a candle.
Dr. M. Zaher Sahloul