January 23, 2003 Special Dispatch No. 460

Malaysian Prime Minister on the Need for the Muslim World to Pursue Knowledge to Catch Up with the West

January 23, 2003
Special Dispatch No. 460

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad recently addressed an international forum on Islam in Kuala Lumpur titled, "The State of the Muslim World Today:Knowledge as a Tool for Muslim Empowerment."In his speech,[1] the prime minister discussed the need for the Muslim world to pursue a campaign of knowledge acquisition so that it may compete with the West. The following are excerpts from his speech:

"The Status of the Muslim World is at the Lowest Ebb"

"I don't think that it would be wrong to say that the status of the Muslim world is at the lowest ebb, and is probably continuing to decline."

"Ever since the Turkish Muslim Empire fell before the onslaught of the European nations, not only was the Muslim world broken up into small and ineffective nation/states, it has never been able to put up a recovery, much less to re-establish itself on the world stage."

"In fact, for many of the peoples of the Turkish Empire, their cooperation with the Europeans in order to free themselves from Turkish rule only resulted in a change of colonial masters from Turkish to British and French.It was only after a long time and with great difficulty that they managed to extricate themselves from European colonial rule."

"Even when they are richly endowed they have not been able to make any real progress in terms of their influence in international affairs.Not a single Muslim country is to be found among the developed nations of the world."

"When the Industrial Revolution took place, the Muslim world was relatively undivided.But Muslims as a whole were either unaware of the revolution or rejected it.For a long [time], the outcome of the Industrial Revolution —whether in terms of material gains or systems —[was] rejected by Muslims."

"Not only did we miss the Industrial Revolution, but we also missed the developments that followed which we also looked upon with suspicion.But Muslims, during the days of Islamic glory, did seek knowledge.And so there were great Muslim physicians, scientists, mathematicians, astronomers and geographers, etc. during the ascendancy of the Muslim empires and civilizations.In fact, the great empires and civilizations were partly the results of the endeavors of these scholars, these seekers of knowledge."

"Later on, knowledge was merely interpreted as religious knowledge and the study of other kinds of knowledge was regarded as either sinful or as lacking in merit, as not contributing to the afterlife.And so the pursuit of knowledge other than the religious one was neglected."

"Muslim Students Hardly Ever Achieve Excellence"

"The result is that Muslim students hardly ever achieve excellence in the sciences, etc., including [in] the field of research, so necessary in order to compete with the rest of the non-Muslim world.Later in life these graduates are not able to contribute to the recovery of the past glory of the Muslims.Worse still, they are not even motivated to do so."

"One of the important fundamental teachings of Islam is the need of being equipped with weapons and defense capabilities in order to instill fear in the enemy and to defend the Ummah.This teaching is obviously neglected, for the race of just 13 million people in the whole world can defeat the forces of 1.3 billion Muslims.In fact, just about anyone can oppress any Muslim country and there is nothing the Muslim countries can do beyond crying and appealing for justice."

"The Muslim World of Today is Hopelessly Weak and Backward"

"Because of all these and many more (shortcomings), the Muslim world of today is hopelessly weak and backward.Can knowledge empower the Muslims politically?Of course it can."

"But one has to remember that there is no single cause responsible for anything that takes place in the world.Lack of knowledge alone is not the cause (of our backwardness) and acquiring knowledge alone will not empower the Muslims. Certainly knowledge (acquired) that is not applied will not benefit the Muslims not a bit."

"Together with the acquisition of knowledge, a change in attitude is also a must—a change of our mindset and value system that always holds us back whenever we seek to empower ourselves."

"The majority of the Muslims of today do not believe in worldly well-being, including worldly security.They also do not believe that Muslims can ever be as advanced as the developed countries."

"I spoke about our attitude towards the Industrial Revolution.Our suspicion of the products of the Industrial Revolution is the result of our wrong interpretations of the teachings of Islam."

"Thus when we are enjoined to seek knowledge, we defined it as knowledge about religion only.When we are asked to defend ourselves, we stress instead the weapons of the armies of the Prophet (peace be on him), considering riding skills and the use of bows and arrows as important and not the capacity to defend."

"Even when Islam enjoins upon us to be just, we ignore justice but uphold the procedures only.Clearly our teachings do not emphasize the real priority in Islam.We are taught to uphold the forms rather than the substance of the religion we believe in."

"Before we can pursue knowledge we have to understand the teachings of Islam regarding the reasons and need to acquire knowledge.Frequently we are told that we must not seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge.But we must know that at some stage the knowledge we acquire may be useful to us.Why study the structure of an atom when it does not promise anything that can be useful to us?But we know now that our failure to study the structure and forces contained in the atom has made us vulnerable to total destruction by the nuclear devices developed through the knowledge of the elements and basic structure of materials and their properties."

"We Must Also Banish the Idea that the Only Knowledge that We Need to Acquire is that of Islam"

"We must also banish the idea that the only knowledge that we need to acquire is that of Islam.Neglect of other areas of knowledge has led us to our lack of industrial capacity, our capacity to invent and produce weapons to defend ourselves..."

"There is no need to feel guilty when we study the other subjects.We should indeed consider that it is important 'Ibadah, an Islamic injunction that is no less meritorious than the study of religion.Indeed our ability to study religion depends on our capacity to defend ourselves."

"It is only if we succeed in changing our mindset... regarding the acquisition of non-religious knowledge that we can seriously pursue knowledge to a level that has been achieved in the countries of our detractors.And when that is achieved and followed by the application of the knowledge... it can be a tool for empowerment."

"We Must Not Allow Ourselves to be Again Sidetracked by Skewed Interpretations of Islam"

"The correct interpretation of what is enjoined by Islam with regard to the acquisition of knowledge is, therefore, crucial.We must not allow ourselves to be again sidetracked by skewed interpretations of Islam, which have led us to miss the Industrial Revolution, to reject electricity and mechanical products, and to reduce our capacity to defend our faith and ourselves."

"Islam is not just a religion for the 7th century of the Christian era.It is a religion for all times.With time things change.Fourteen centuries after the advent of Islam we cannot expect to live in the same environment and under the same conditions as we found in the 7th century C.E.Islam has [a] provision for this change, if only we interpret Islam properly.Islam is not a rigid religion.There are many provisions in Islam to take care of all situations..."

"Islam is not the religion that obstructs our progress, it is wrong and rigid interpretations of our making that hinder our progress."

"It is Our Narrow Interpretation of Islam That Has Resulted in the Backwardness of Muslims in Many Fields of Knowledge"

"Similarly in education, in the search for knowledge, Islam is not to be blamed but it is our own narrow interpretation of Islam that has resulted in the backwardness of Muslims in many fields of knowledge crucial to their own well-being."

"Of course knowledge can be a tool to empower us politically. But pure knowledge will get us nowhere unless we learn to apply that knowledge to our own advantage and for the betterment of our life.If knowledge is to be for our empowerment, then it must contribute to our economic, social, and security needs…"

"The Discovery of New Frontiers of Knowledge Must Not be Left to Others"

"The discovery of new frontiers of knowledge must not be left to others.In the past, the knowledge pioneered by Muslims was acquired by the Europeans, which enabled them to power their industrial development."

"To this day, the areas of knowledge pioneered by Muslims, such as Algorithm developed by Al-Khwarizmi, is being used in the design of the electronic circuits and microchips.It is the Algorithm that makes IT hardware and software possible."

"But Muslims themselves have not used the knowledge pioneered by their ancestors.In many cases, unfortunately, we don't even learn them."

"While we can learn to apply such knowledge, there is no reason why we cannot pioneer new knowledge and its applications."

"If we are able to do this, then once again we can gain an edge over the others as we once did when Muslims pioneered and dominated many areas of knowledge.Muslim migrants to other countries are pioneering new areas of knowledge simply because their own countries provide them with no facilities or opportunities."

"Clearly when we reach the stage of being pioneers, knowledge will literally mean power.But even before that, the mastery of knowledge will enable us to compete on equal footing with others."

"We could certainly be empowered and we would be able to lift ourselves up and out of the very inferior position that we are in today.Indeed the pursuit of knowledge and following the acquisition of skills to apply the knowledge will take a considerable period of time.We have to remember that knowledge is not static.Today the speed of discovery and development of new knowledge is exponential."

It May Take a Decade or a Century to Catch Up with the West

"It will take time to acquire knowledge.We have to accept the need to be patient.It may take a decade or even a century.Remember when we were at the peak during the great days of our Islamic civilization, it took the Europeans several hundred years to catch up.But catch up they did, and then they surpassed us completely."

"We will have to accept the need to struggle for a considerable length of time.But, fortunately, knowledge is much less hidden now than it was before.Most of the knowledge is well documented and easily available.Modern technology makes all knowledge, except [some] which [is] concerned with defense applications, easily accessible."

"The next problem is the vastness of the field.We have to divide our manpower within the country and among the countries in order to be able to cover the knowledge in all fields.If we are prepared to overcome all the problems which can hamper our acquisition of knowledge, and be patient enough then, Allah willing, knowledge can empower us.There is no quick fix.One particular group of people waited 2,000 years.We will not have to wait that long if we understand the need for knowledge and we learn the lessons of history.It is easy to agree that knowledge is a tool for our political empowerment.But mere agreement is not going to lead us anywhere.We really do not need more seminars and conferences, which will end up with obvious conclusions..."

[1] Saudi Gazette, "The Message," December 20, 2002.

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