Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Allah, Malaysia, Copts, printing presses and the war within

Let's be brave and acknowledge that the Islamic world requires some serious introspection and reform. Muslims can blame the Zionists, the US, the CIA, or even aliens from outer space but the problems are largely internal.

Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror receives the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinopole, Gennadius II Scholarius (1454 - 1464) after the fall of the city to the Ottomans in 1453

Egyptian Coptic Christians can't hold a Christmas mass in peace. Malaysia, once a beacon of tolerance, is venting frustration over the use of specific Arabic words (in a Malay speaking country) by non-Muslims.
Yemen has graduated from the periphery of the 'war on terror' to full membership. Africa, already a participant through the Somali contingent, has increased its voice as Nigeria and Mali join Somalia, Algeria and Morocco as 'Jihadi' incubators.
The less said about Pakistan the better.
The Islamic world lost its way several centuries ago. While Europe was busy laying the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Islam was decaying.

One of the many military insignias used by the military of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Turks were symbolically halted in their westward push with the failure of the 1683 siege of Vienna. The British won their first major victory against Muslim ruled India in 1757. The British victory at the Battle of Plassey gave the East India Company a foothold in Bengal.
During the same period, Western scientists invented the steam engine, the printing press and several other key processes. It took several centuries for the Islamic world to accept these products.
Islam's 'enlightened clergy' tenaciously resisted change. Change was seen as a threat to Islam, especially when the ideas originated from non-Muslim countries.
Take the printing press. The printing press was widely used in Europe by the 1700s.
Printing machines remained largely absent from the Ottoman Empire pursuant to a 1485 decree by Sultan Beyazit II. The reason: religious scholars claimed it was sacrilegious to print the Arabic word by machine. (It should be noted that Christian and Jewish subjects of the Ottoman Empire legally operated printing presses in non-Arabic languages at Saloniki, Bursa, Belgrade and Smyrna.)
In Mogul ruled India, the Jesuits established the first printing press in Goa in 1550. When Napoleon entered Cairo in 1798 the city still had no printing press. (Maybe Islam's prestigious Al-Azhar University, located in Cairo, did not produce any knowledge worth publishing at the time?)
In 1720, Islam's first printing press was established in Istanbul. Ironically, it was founded by a Hungarian convert to Islam (Ibrahim Muteferrika). Muteferrika convinced the reigning Ottoman Sultan to overturn the earlier ban. The press was used primarily for scientific and secular material.
Islam's tortured route to recognize the printing press as a positive influence underscores why much of Islam remains mired in ignorance and poverty. To this day, Islam's clergy battles modernity with varied intensity.
The Information Age, including mass media and the internet revolution, has brought the collision into sharper focus.

Islamic scholars deliberated for several centuries on the legality of printing Islamic holy literature by machine. Calligraphy artists might have been the only beneficiaries of the delayed approval!

The village mullah cannot stop 'alien' ideas from entering the homes of the faithful. Yet, the mullah is using every trick in the book to stall progress. At the extreme, brute force to impose Taliban like regimes on defenceless populations is witnessed.
The Islamic world suffers from a vacuum of genuine religious scholars. There is little meaningful debate filtering through to the bulk of Muslim society. The chattering classes, including bloggers like myself, effect limited change. Until the broader Muslim society is educated with a more accurate interpretation of Islam the problems will linger.
Osama Bin Laden and the tragic events of 9/11 awoke a slumbering Islamic civilization. Currently, the Islamic world finds itself in the throes of a severe identity crisis. Unfortunately, the crisis is not being played out through printing presses. It is being settled with guns and intimidation on the streets of Muslim cities.
The prevailing darkness must not discourage brave souls from reordering the priorities of the Islamic world. For the believer there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I believe in God; I just don't trust anyone who works for Him.


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