Monday, 5 December 2011

Islam’s modernization, ‘Arabization’ and contemporary challenges

The 'Arabization' of Islam is not a new concept. Tensions between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims have existed since Islam's earliest days. During the eigth century Umayyad Caliphate non-Arab Muslims (Mawali) were often seen as inferior to their Arab counterparts. 
World's Muslims by percentage of total population (source: Wikipedia)

The reasons for this view are complex. Politically, early Arabs who founded the Islamic Caliphate preferred not to share power with non-Arabs. Essentially, this was a mechanism to keep control of the empire's wealth.
Additionally, the Koran is in Arabic. Hence, Arab speakers had a distinct advantage in understanding and interpreting the Koran. This permitted Arab speakers to influence and control debates, political and spiritual.
It was not until recently that the Koran was made widely available in translation form. Conservative clerics argued that it was heresy to publish the Koran in any language other than Arabic. It was in order to counter such ideas that Turkey's Kemal Ataturk famously remarked, "The Arabic alphabet had not been revealed by [the angel] Gabriel."*

A copy of the first publication of a Turkish translation of the Koran (1935)
In the last few decades, frictions between Arab and non-Arab Muslims have increased as both groups vie for dominance amongst the faithful. Importantly, neither the Arab nor the non-Arab camp can point to unrivalled leadership.
Leadership of the Arab nations includes the obvious contenders: Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Non-Arab countries are more mixed in their outlook with 'domestic' Islam manifesting its own character. These 'local versions' of Islam make it harder to identify clear leaders. Nevertheless, Turkey star shines bright. Malaysia's economic progress notwithstanding, the country is too far removed from Islam's mainstream to be a serious leadership contender.
Pakistan has the potential to be a leadership contender. However, given Pakistan's weak socio-economic environment the country is out of the running, at least for the time being. Nonetheless, because of Pakistan's extensive interaction with Peninsula Arabs, the South Asian nation will play an important role in the strategic evolution of Islam's character.  
Then there is Persian Iran, the leader of Islam's Shia community. Iran plays a central role, either as a spoiler or enabler, within the wider Islamic world. It is estimated that between 10-20 percent of the world's Muslims are Shiite.
Not surprisingly, in a divided Islamic world, clerics, theologians and politicians cannot to agree on very much, leave alone Islam's role in a Muslim society. That Saudi clerics argue granting women the right to drive leads to sexual promiscuity, the Pakistan Air Force has female pilots flying fighter jets and some Turkish clerics argue Islam only requires three prayers daily (not the traditional  five) reveals the depth of the divide.
Islam's strengths and weaknesses rest on the religion's lack of unitary enforceable leadership. A noisy debate amongst Islam's culturally diverse members provides the best way to modernize Islam to face contemporary social challenges.
* Ataturk: An Intellectual Biography. M. Sukru Hanioglu. Princeton University Press. P. 217.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

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