OUR DECLINE its Causes and Remedies
Amir Shakib Arslan
Reviewed by Abdul Hai
Amir Shakib Arslan (1869-1946) appeared in a cloudy chapter of Islamic history. To many, it was the last chapter of a religion, a civilisation and most importantly an empire, namely the Ottoman Empire. However, Arslan represented a different view. He was a natural born politician, writer, poet, historian and known as Amir al-Bayān (“Prince of Eloquence”). As a pan-Islamist and supporter of the Ottoman Empire; he viewed the world through Islamic values and notably was the most vocal voice for the anti-colonialist movement. He was born to a Druze family but his commitment to the Druzism was shortened due to the influence of Jamal Uddin Al-Afgani (1838-1897) and Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905) and, in particular, to his later relationship with the leader of the Egyptian Movement, Rashid Rida (1865-1935). Due to the aforementioned influence and in his keen interest in knowing the true Islamic teaching, he openly viewed Islam through the Quran and the Sunnah. Arslan shared the same dawah as Rida, which was to established Islam through the Quran and Hadith, which had some elements of the anti-taqlid and anti-legal school and also a fine touch of pro-modernism.
OUR DECLINE: its Causes and Remedies is a reply to a letter by Muhammad Bistooni Umran, a student and an admirer of Shaykh Rashid Rida and the Al-Manar movement. The letter was addressed to Shaykh Rida with two main questions, namely: 1. What are the causes which led to the weakness and decline of the Muslims, in both religious and worldly affairs? 2. What are the reasons and causes for the progress of the Europeans, Americans and Japanese? Even though Umran had addressed the letter to Rida he had requested that those two questions be answered by Arslan. Umran wanted to appreciate Arslan’s progressive and yet traditional experience and, thus, Arslan became the target of his questions. The book is divided in to seven chapters elaborating on Umran’s two questions with some concluding discussions. Arslan in chapter one begins to identify and highlight the causes of the advancement of the early Muslims. His thesis in this chapter can be narrowed down to two main points.
The first point is that the early Muslims viewed the world through Islamic teachings and values, the Quran and the Prophetic traditions were the only legislative body. The religious doctrine was not only operative in the religious environment and personal space but permeated the public domain and controlled the very fabric of the socio-economic sphere, thus winning Allah’s support in both religious and worldly affair.
The second point is that the early Muslims understood Islam to be both a theological and legal framework of Muslim life and that Islam is a religion that demands action from his followers, as noted by Arslan (2004. pp, 6), “How can you expect that God will help a nation that shuns the field of action(s)”. It is the combination of those primary principles, Arslan notes, that enabled the early Muslims to be successful. The contemporary Muslims have divorced themselves from these principles, which have resulted in their deterioration.
Chapters two and three are probably the most important and provide direct answers to Umran’s questions. Chapter two begins with a comparison between modern Muslims and Europeans. Arslan asks, rhetorically, what the Muslim nations have sacrificed for their religion whilst Europeans spent trillions of pounds and countless men to defend their Christendom and their way of Life. This chapter creates a very powerful image of Muslims, for whom it is said the religion can only be seen as lip service and a cultural heritage. Muslims desire victory, Arslan notes, through the mere virtue of being a Muslim, with no zeal. Arslan also makes a comparison between factual figures of western ideologies and Islam in relation to wars and advancement. He states that unless Muslims take a more pro-active role in aiding their religion, help from Allah will never sail at their shore. Allah says, “If ye will aid (the cause of) Allah, He will aid you and plant your feet firmly”. Arslan assures the Muslims that wealth is at their disposable. Muslims are not poor but brain dead.
Comparison is also made between the existence of brotherhood among the Europeans and with that of Muslims. Muslims harvest the very seed of disunity unless, the chapter goes on to say, Muslims become one body as mentioned in the Quran and Hadith. Muslims will never raise their heads again and Europeans will be their unquestionable master.
Chapter three highlights the extent to which Muslims have forgotten and betrayed their religion. The main treason against the Muslims was committed by their fellow brethren, especially the so-called religious and political leaders. Riff Muslims, for example, became victims of such treason. Several religious and political leaders, Arslan notes “aspired to alliance with the French and the Spaniards carrying favour with them and hankered after honours and titles from them…” The chapter then narrates a list of treasons by different Muslims groups against their fellow brethren. This chapter rages with anger about religious and political leader such as Maqree, the minister of Morocco and Baghdadi, the Pasha of Fez and also Grand Mufti of Fez. All those man played a vital role in destroying Islam and its principles. It was Maqree who supported the Morocco Catholic journal to publish an anti-Islamic narrative of events. The chapter recollects events and narratives which contributed to the downfall of the Muslim such as ignorance and cowardliness. Arslan ends the chapter with the description of two extremes that contributed to the decline of the Muslims, namely the extreme conservatives and the fanatic modernists. The chapter is filled with quotations from the Quran and the Sunnah which Arslan uses in support of his decline argument.
Chapter four discusses in detail the question of national identity. All nations, groups and tribes are engaged in defending their national identity and Europeans are not an exception. The chapter is an open field of examples, most of them being from Europe, such as the struggle of the Irish against the English and the daily fight of the ‘Britons of France’ to remain British. He mentions Switzerland, Germany and Russia, all fighting and struggling against forces to remain and uphold their social, cultural and moral values. Those national folktales become a source of inspiration, unity and strength and most importantly a source of reference. However, the chapter ends with the dazzling question about Muslims being confused about their identity. Although Muslims are to be a nation of divine identity (i.e. Islam) but contemporary history has proven that Muslims, “who do not seem to understand their values…” the Quran, Sunnah, religious traditions and civilisation, cultural and Arabic language, Islam to them becomes a source of backwardness. The chapter ends with a discussion of the dangers that secularism and other ideologies have upon the Muslim mind.
Secularists’ philosophy has surly contributed towards the downfall of the Muslim Ummah. However, there is another philosophy which, according to Arslan, also should be responsible for the Ummah’s downfall as this philosophy of ultra-conservative in Islam is the theme of the fifth chapter. Arslan discusses with examples how the ultra-conservative approach to Islam had created a non-progressive movement and closed the door to all sciences. Islam had divorced all its relation with this world and the hereafter becomes the only source of life for these ultra –conservative Muslims. Arslan notes Islam is a realistic religion where the world (dunya) has its role which is supported by a number of scriptural texts. The Quran is full of verses where men are required to commit to actions which will benefit them in this world and the next; the Quran is primarily anti-idleness. Arslan quotes over 26 verses to support his claim. Allah has given us the intelligence to be creative and benefit the Ummahwith it. Our intelligence has role and functions and it should not be cut off or abandoned. The ultra–conservative approach to Islam becomes a source and tool for the enemies of Islam. As Arslan notes the enemies were able to cogently argue the case that Islam was a religion that is primarily against development and civilisation, an idea which is refuted by the Quranic élan and historical reality.
The greatness of Islamic civilisation is questioned by the west and its followers in the Muslim world. Chapter six is a window to the falsehood of such a claim. Arslan in this chapter highlights that Islamic civilisation enjoyed the fruits [successes] as long as the social and private laws of Islam were upheld. Therefore, Islam cannot be blamed for the Muslim downfall; he notes “the backwardness of Muslims in modern time is not due to their religion, but to their ignorance of the teaching of their religion and neglect of its principle…” This chapter provides a response to those who are critical of Islamic civilisation. Here Arslan brings Islamic civilisation to life arguing for its contributions in all areas of science and development. He argues that fair-minded western leaders and thinkers such as Napoleon have accepted this narrative. The chapter goes on to contrast Islam’s contribution to development and civilisation with that of Christianity. According to Arslan the former was productive while the latter was destructive. The chapter ends with highlighting the fact that the Quran has enjoyed upon the Muslims to gain knowledge of both this world and the hereafter. If the Muslim nations ought to show determination like other nations, then to achieve power and glories will not be impossible.
Chapter seven moves on to the issue of Islam and nationalism. The fashion among Arslan’s contemporaries was that the Arab people identify themselves with the blueprint of nationalist values, while the religious values were side-lined or neglected. According to this perspective Nationalism was the way forward as faithfulness to religious values kept society backward. Arslan attempts to challenge this understanding. He highlights that religion must play a role in our development and our unification as an Ummah. The Islamic principles, which are based on the teachings of Quran and Sunnah, must be adhered to; if these two core principles are removed from the socio-economic life of a Muslim, then atheism will creep in. A useful part of this chapter points out that although the Europeans like to think that they have developed in a way separate from their religious dogma, this is false historically, as almost all of their centres of learning have a religious background.
The present day Muslims have lost all confidence in themselves and their faith, the chapter notes, and they have lost the battle before it had started. The chapter gives a number of examples, such as the fact that the Muslims have no desire for independent thought, and they have become the blueprint of the western theory and western ideology. The chapter provides many examples to show how the Ummah has lost all hope of any ambitions and development; he mentions as an example the famous railway project commissioned by Sultan Abdul Hamid II to connect Sham to Hijaz. To promote this project Arslan wrote a poem and the response was that “most of those westernised Muslims launched sharp attacks against me it is as if I have committed an act of apostasy by supporting [this] project”. Another example is the establishment of the Bank of Egypt. The chapter intends to only highlight the chaos and the confusion the Muslims nations were experiencing, due to accepting the western narrative of belonging and thus nationalism became the religion to be followed. The chapter ends with the mention of a certain Muhammad Talaat Basha who “…understood that nothing is beyond the capacity of Muslims…”, thus giving hope to the dying nations.
The book is concluded by mentioning that the greatest principle which will bring about change in the Muslims world is sacrifice. Until Muslims learn to sacrifice they will never succeed in this world or the hereafter. Imitating the western nations will only enslave the Muslims. No nation has ever succeeded without sacrifice. Muslim must take their inspiration from the Quran and Sunnah, which is the source of all success. Our decline and downfall is due to us neglecting our religious values. The author ends his book by mentioning the saying of Allah “and those who strive in Our cause, we will certainly guide them to our paths: for verily Allah is with those who do right” (al-ankabut 28:69)