ISLAM: AN ENDLESS MARCH OF PROGRESS AND EXPANDING MODERNITY
(This is the first report on the interview conducted with Sheikh Abdurrahman on May 2nd, 2021. For its entire recording, see https://fb.watch/5eN6-jkkUu/)
By Toyin Falola
I did not intend for this to be my first report on the interview with Sheikh Abdurrahman Ahmad. It did not even occur to me. However, three incidents prompted this. The first was when I announced that Ms. Kaosarat Aina, a graduate of the University of Ibadan, would be on the cast. Within 24 hours, I received over 40 email messages, with 29 saying they would want to be like her, with a First-Class degree, the best result in the Faculty, and multiple admissions to Ph.D. programs. Wonderful! I was excited. Then came six who wrote that a Muslim could not have such a stellar result and that her resume was exaggerated. One even said her success was due to attending a Christian school! I was disturbed, but I calmly responded that all the information about Ms. Aina is true, very true, even understated by me.
After this came the second incident, critiquing a cast of interviewers as exceptional—one a pharmacist, a second a teacher, and a third the Vice-Chancellor of Fountain University. “They did not represent Islam,” someone sent me a text. I was shocked! Muslims are highly educated, far more literate than most others if Arabic and Ajami are treated as an index. And the third incident followed swiftly. Sheikh Ahmad was regarded with exemplary qualities: “He does not use violent words as Muslims do,” someone said. Am I in a dream? Praises of exceptionalism arrived in scores: he is sophisticated, knowledgeable, cosmopolitan, and the likes. These are values, as another person said, not associated with Islam. “Muslims,” he sent in a WhatsApp message, “abuse others, are never calm and use violent words.” Social media has become the ground to insult anyone you dislike, to abuse people older than your mother, to heap lies on others. You can even call your officemate a thief on social media and get away with it.
These stereotypes portray Muslims as anti-modern. I was alarmed! I chose not to defend the Sheikh and the cast that interviewed him but to talk about the context, the long intellectual journey that has framed Islam as anti-modern. In the Nigerian discourse of the Civil War in the 1960s and the ongoing ethnic tensions, the core narrative is that Muslims are setting the country back. This context has become necessary.
Ms. Kaosarat Aina, the brilliant Muslim student, is not preternatural. There are many more Kaosarats in Nigeria and elsewhere. Professor Amidu Sanni, the Vice-Chancellor, is not new in the history of Islam. There have been those before him, and others will follow. Sheikh Ahmad should not be framed in the demeaning context of exceptionalism, as if he is the only intelligent Imam in Nigeria. They all represent the face of Islam and its modernity.
Who framed Islam as anti-modernist? In what follows, I will use this interview opportunity with Sheikh Ahmad to open up a controversy. We need it!
From the very end of the 17th century to the beginning of the following century, the Islamic world, represented especially by the Ottoman Empire, considered itself equal in civilizational and philosophical capacity with the European world. The comparison was necessary partly because these two civilizations were in a heated competition to control the world in every conceivable way, one of which was their determination for imperialist expansion, using whatever could give them an edge above the other. While the Europeans built a civilization around their cultural and religious identity, the Islamic world also used its religious principles as the foundation of its civilization.
However, something happened that instantly transformed the European civilization, apparently beyond their Islamic counterpart, and that was their groundbreaking milestones in the technological front. By the 18th century, Europe was defined by a new accomplishment in the technological revolution, which stressed the values they placed on science, human reasoning, and creative ingenuity. By the time they gave this the right framework, the European countries had entered an Industrial Revolution that marked another historical epoch in their collective development. With the provision of intellectual contributions resident in scientific inquiry, the hitherto blurry lines of difference between Europe and the Islamic world have been widened, far beyond what they even could immediately challenge.
The differences between the two great civilizations have been a subject of unending debates. Here is a take anchored to a Western-derived ontology. As the analysis goes, Islam had experienced a relatively slower rise to prominence, predominantly because of the primordial Islamic culture and perception of scientific thinking. The crucible of Islamic culture had been founded on the assumption that critical thinking or scientific breakthrough could not be humanly encouraged, perhaps because the process of scientific thinking required the deconstruction of different cultural myths around which Islam built its civilization. With this reality, updating Islam with the modernity of the current period was philosophically difficult, as the argument goes, for it was naturally impossible to climb the step against which one had been psychologically programmed. And as the Western-derived narrative concludes, Islam suffered abandonment, slow developmental pace, and acute deterioration chiefly because of this rigidity of a system they practiced in Islam, and on the other side, Europe was making unprecedented progress that defined its magnificent transformation as the world progressed.
Interestingly, coming with technological revolution are some attendant economic benefits because, with improved technology occasioned by science knowledge, products naturally increased, which also promoted economic success or revolution. Triumphalism became injected into a non-neutral storyline: Europe became the hub for scientific breakthroughs, while Islam continued with its traditional development routine. Europe expanded in the political system and economic boundaries when Islam struggled to convince people other than the use of force. This narrative was to spur not just intellectual disagreements but concrete conflicts and wars. We still live with the consequences.
To counter the narratives, or to respond to them, or to pressure Islam to change, “progressives” had emerged for hundreds of years presenting alternative ideas while “traditionalists” continue to insist on justifications. Whether stated or not, an ideological template has been created: as humans progressed, especially with the aid of scientific discoveries, they realized that a world that is adamant about the intimidating impact of the torrential change would eventually be helplessly frustrated. Islamists factored in the contributions of science to make partial but notable changes in their political stand to become the demands of the time and prevent their religion from becoming a history prematurely. However, changing the religion’s philosophy means that very many injunctions in Islam would witness radical modifications. It would be revolutionized away from the traditional and “primitive” setting, as if Christianity is different, to accommodate the observed changes. This includes the paradigmatic shift from the rote learning of the Quran, its routinized memorization, which has forever been the traditional method, to the construction of a curriculum that will be skill-centered or an educational system where nearly all the courses offered in the European schools are adapted and taught, although in the Islamic way.
In whatever way possible, what is to be observed in the paradigm shift from this thinking of the Muslims of the period has ineluctably revolutionized the Islamic culture, including the religion. Starting from Egypt, for example, the administrative head incorporated scientific discoveries to reshape the country, and in no time, Egypt became a center of attraction to people around the world through the investment in scientific inquiry. It was this thinking that birthed modern industrialization and infrastructural revolutions resident in Dubai, for example. This means that the Islamic culture and world have opened their arms to the wonders of technology, which has changed the world’s perception of Islam and the expanding modernity.
Islamic education, which was hitherto centered on the memorization of the Quran, Islamic legal studies (predominantly founded on Shari’a), hadith (the sayings and teachings of the Prophet of Islam, Mohammad), devotional poetry and theology, inculcated some of the knowledge systems of Europeans only to be updated to suit the agenda of the Islamic world. In the African world, the signs of modernization were too notable for discarding. For example, in the academic community, the Europeans’ exclusive organization strategy led to the educational structures that redefined learning. Before the coming of the two civilizations, European and Arabic, the form of education available was non-formal. Whereas this was not changed by the Arabs even after they came to establish their educational system in different African countries, what they did was act on the (non-formal) system available and spread Islamic education and cultures. But this was immediately restructured at the emergence of Europeans on the continent. The first notable improvement was the organization of a formal education system where individuals can get an education, then become qualified in a particular field after spending a considerable amount of time with demonstrated competence in the school. In what is general among Islamic educational institutions today, Islam seemed to have incorporated the system.
How about certification? Islamic education in Africa has not always been defined by a marked system or methods of knowing an individual’s educational status. Once an individual is entrusted to the custody of an Islamic scholar, graduation depends on the instructor’s satisfaction, which in most cases is defined by different circumstances. An instructor could deny a student his/her graduation because there is no actual replacement of the student who would fulfill all the social and domestic responsibilities satisfied by the graduation-bound students. This also weakens the Islamic educational system, especially in Africa. Western education, however, is defined by a different system of engagement. A student has a stipulated time of educational experience, and the age usually determines the grade in which he/she would be enrolled. Upon completing their educational pursuit, the students are certified as graduates after passing an examination arranged by the school authority. With this development, Islam found itself in a keenly competitive environment where it must update its system or run out of relevance. Gradually and steadily, the education planners of Islam designed a curriculum system that would incorporate these developments to compete with others. In this way, the Western construction of their education system gave room for specialization in particular subjects instead of a mixture of knowledge systems seen in the Islamic educational culture. The planners must also correct this, which they did; otherwise, they would experience radical avoidance from a certain population segment.
From all these gradual modifications, Islamic culture made spaces for modernization by building universities in the 20th century and increasing the integration of ideas that have a Western beginning, and in the process, restricting Islamic culture and traditions to family spaces where its influence would be ascertained, yet it would not affect the political calculations and economic plans for advancement. Although the Ottoman Empire had demonstrated its capacity to incorporate Western ideas for hybridization in the preceding century, it was not until the 20th century that the changes became more visible. At the educational front, the scientific revolution was important for the transformation of Islam, and they updated to accommodate the changes. On the legal front, too, Shari’a law was confined to families for domestic relevance. Islam, which had been a fervent critic of dramatic productions, began to invest more into it. Newspapers and similar engagements associated with print culture began to secure a place among many Islamic worlds, which immediately brought about their economic transformation. Since they are making these ideological concessions, they needed to gravitate more towards the European cultures that align with Islamic politics. All the new social ideologies identified with the Europeans were fast receiving evaluation among the Muslim communities, which was done differently in several Muslim countries.
There was immediate legal pronouncement against polygamy in India, while in some countries like Azerbaijan, there was the instant enfranchisement of the womenfolk in the second decade of the 20th century. This is directly related to the granting of freedom for female driving in Saudi Arabia, just in 2017. It, therefore, means that the Islamic world cannot but bow to the pressure of modernization, which is sweeping the world in amazing ways. Girl-child education became central in the yearnings of many people in the Islamic world. The reason for all these developments is rooted in the understanding that any civilization that needlessly refuses to update its perception about some general issues that especially border on human freedom can be shut out or ostracized from the other world. Apart from this, many Islamic countries have massive economic profits to make when they place their hands on these various development programs. For example, Dubai, a Muslim country, became a center for tourism and one of the most preferred destinations for business activities in the contemporary world because they shifted away from being religiously conservative. The benefits available to people on the occasion that they give modernization a proper place in their political system are enough to compel them to change their older mindsets.
The reformation of Islamic ideas and cultures did not come without corresponding challenges, especially from those who considered their religion too absolute to be modified. Criticisms were emerging from every quarter. After observing some Islamists who have witnessed the transformative capacity of science and technology in the European world, they created a society whose duty was the reinvigoration of the religion through its reformation. They believe that the Quran and the religion are not immune to various interpretations, contrary to all the assumptions of its critics. They argue that scientific revolution is not incompatible with the religion’s ideological convictions and that Islam is permissive of such development as long as it would aid the circulation of the religion to more people. Considering that with the help of the internet, access to people and civilizations is increased, the people have no reason to continuously reject scientific innovation when they understand that it could promote their ideas and philosophies. Also, with the internet, the creation of social groups where individuals of the same ideological convictions meet and exchange ideas is possible. Therefore, it lacks evaluative prowess if the people refuse to integrate modern technology into their religious identity. Quite all the Islamic countries today have an imposing online presence, which is used to coordinate many of their political and economic activities.
Before World War I, several Muslim countries had found common ground with European models of modernization, even when some of them disagreed with their core values. In Pakistan, some Muslim leaders accepted the proposition to modernize the Islamic culture by hybridizing their ideas with the Europeans. These individuals took the forefront of the struggle and established European-induced systems of advancement. A similar development has also spread to Turkey in almost the same period. There have been inclinations to emulate those activities of modernization found in Europe, and the best way to attract this was to engage their systems and adapt their technological inventions. Turkey began from the reconstruction of its educational system by redesigning its curriculum and changing its outlook. Turkey, a Muslim country, had before depended on the Arabic language and systems as the foundation for its educational structures and programs, but this would only last for a while. At the discovery that their counterparts in Europe are doing comparatively better than them, their decision to change and reinvigorate their general knowledge systems started from modifying their educational system so that the school would be the ground for the creation of technological wonders as done in other climes. Some would argue that they carefully distanced themselves from the Arabic language by employing Latin as the language for transcribing their Turkish scripts.
In West Africa, most countries where Islamic culture remains popular inevitably accept the diplomatic quest to modify the religion’s position to everyday activities. In Nigeria, for example, especially among the Hausa people, the translation of the Hausa language became common because of the forces of modernization. Since the countries where Islamic culture was firmly established were also modifying their stand, especially with relation to establishing an Islamic world that is equally inclined technologically, they were influenced to consider their ground. This trend continued right into the 21st century, and the activities of the Islamic countries revealed that they had opened their arms to modern dictates. It seems Turkey continues to occupy the forefront of this struggle. As recently as 2008, the Department of Religious Affairs embarked on a mission that sparked controversy, especially in the conservative Islamic nations. They made a conscious move to reinterpret the Hadith, that is, all the words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammad, which had before then been the basis for constructing their legal system. Although the move was criticized by many, the Turkish government, however, states that some cultural traditions of the Prophet Muhammad era are not always in tandem with the reality of the current global climate and must be modified to accommodate the change happening around the world. Their dissociation from the old system does not mean abandonment; it was seen principally as a reformation of the system.
From the happenings in Nigeria, one can see that the adopted method for adapting the European educational model was the creation of a learning method that was principally inspired by Western pedagogy. Schools were created, and their curriculum showcased that they have expanded their educational coverage and become more secular in approach. This is why there are hybrid Islamic schools, especially in these environments where the Islamic culture was dominant. These schools now shift from the epistemological framework of Islam, which emphasizes only the knowledge of Islam, to accommodate a more secular approach of European education to knowledge, which talks about the knowledge systems that are unrelated to religion. The creation of mathematics, history, geography, physics, chemistry, accounting, and many other disciplines comes from the understanding that human knowledge systems are independent of religious beliefs. They are mostly called Islamiyah schools in Nigeria, for example, and are addressed by different names in some other places. These schools offer courses that incorporate Western educational structures and epistemology to their own. Universities are created to prove this adaptation. Al-Hikmah University in Nigeria, Usmanu Danfodiyo Fodio University, Fountain University, Jamia Ahmadiyya, and others are the modern-day universities in the country.
Fountain University, headed by Professor Sanni, has made numerous additions to education by redefining its academic engagements and epistemological framework. It has shown the capacity of Islamic religion to open arms to the forces of modernization so that their intention to advance religiously and move forward in their technological ambitions can both be achieved simultaneously. Being a school that was formed based on expanding the religious solidarity and coverage of Islam, it has not failed to raise morally upright individuals who continue to break boundaries in the knowledge of Islam. However, it is the fact that making the epistemological framework to be both secular and religious has helped the university create courses like accounting, adult education, biochemistry, chemistry, economics, computer science, history, physics, and language courses like Yoruba. The integration of these courses has mandated the University to improve its curriculum design and meet the modern discoveries brought to the classroom setting. By creating a philosophy course, for example, the school has shown its ability to accommodate new thinking, even if it would challenge traditional views about the same topics. This development is influencing the magical turnaround of events in the Islamic culture and religion.
The reality of the contemporary world reiterates that the acquisition of theoretical information in school cannot guarantee one’s socio-economic liberation. This was one of the bases for improving the Western epistemological framework that led to discovering science and technology as a viable alternative for self-dependence. All these are carefully considered by Islamic-oriented educational establishments, especially those that consider accommodating the Western-type of education, and it motivated them to create academic fields that are in tune with the happenings of the world. As seen in the available courses at Fountain University, for example, there is the conscious decision to take students through courses that could enhance independence and economic sustainability in the contemporary world. Education that is centered only on religious inclination cannot ensure this. These are the underlying reasons for the pursuance of an agenda where the students in these Islamic educational systems or settings are permanently attuned to the dictates of modernity, science and technology and continue the path of endlessly renewing the world through the lessons of Islam.