There have been many attempts to answer the question of the century: why have our Arab societies remained underdeveloped while other societies advanced?
I believe the answer is finally in reach after all the experiences we’ve gone through and our long history, especially modern history. The mixing of religion and politics is an arbitrary mix that has led a whole generation into a maze and it still cannot find its way out. It may be possible to forgive the so-called Nahda (Arab Awakening) generation, many of whose figures mixed religion and politics, and got a few things right and many things wrong.
Among others, we can list the well-known Egyptian religious scholar Muhammad Abduh, as well as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, whose teachings were retained selectively by some people. Al-Afghani emerged during the age of sociology in Western terms. When some western intellectuals called sociology “the new religion,” al-Afghani wrote his famous book, Refutation of the Materialists, which discarded sociology’s importance in understanding the development of societies based on absurd, traditional sayings, perhaps to flatter the masses.
At the time, and in the times that followed it, those demanding partial reform could be seen as avoiding pure rational thinking to accommodate the ignorant majority. This is what the school of Arab Tawfiqiyyin did at the turn of the 20th century, to avoid shocking the masses that had been sinking in the sea of ignorance and guide them step by step toward enlightenment. This justification is no longer valid now that Arab societies have seen such a huge quantity (notice I did not say quality) of education, engagement with different cultures, and huge technological advances. Hence, it is not only bizarre, but also unjustified, that those who call themselves religious scholars continue to be involved in politics, society, astronomy, and even medical matters.
Surely, this discussion did not come out of thin air. Examples abound, and the latest is one that returns every year: should a Muslim send greetings to Christians, or is that haram? As usual, a heated debate was sparked, and a so-called shaykh volunteered his final judgment: those who send greetings to Christians are sinners. So, too, are those who put up a Christmas tree. Then, another so-called cleric chimed in on another topic: wearing clothing bearing the cross sign. His take: not permissible at all, unless the cross is insulted, as in, placed on the shoes. I would not be surprised if he also added: “or on underwear.”
The battle raged on until the Sheikh of al-Azhar, who is normally way too busy to be dragged into such trivial debates, had to give a statement saying it is acceptable to send Christmas greetings to Christians. In the meantime, a picture was making the rounds on social media that showed crowds amassed in front of a fence, with the following comment: “It is not acceptable to send greetings to the infidels on their holidays, but it is acceptable to seek refuge in their countries!” I found this ironic picture to be the best illustration of the blatant contradiction that plagues our societies.
What is even more spiteful and deceitful, is when a cleric is involved in politics. Take, for instance, what the son of Hassan Irloo, Iran’s Ambassador to the Houthis and commander of the Sanaa militias, said of his father: “My father’s service in Sanaa was a prelude to the appearance of the Mahdi.” This reminds us of the appearance of the “Mahdi” Juhayman al-Otaybi in 1979, who seized the Grand Mosque on the first day of the year 1400 AH.
At the heart of all this ignorance surrounding us lies the root problem: the mixing of religion and politics. A few centuries back, Europe suffered some dark decades because of this mixture and only managed to leave these dark times behind after a long, arduous path of awareness and several bloody wars. Are we doomed to repeat the same mistake, or does this age and time not allow us the “luxury” of wasting more time without listening to the voice of reason?
Some political groups in the Arab world are currently headed by clerics, such as in Lebanon and Iraq, or by bearded men, such as Political Islam movements. Both, in their quest for worldly gains, lead the simple people into the mazes of poverty and suffering, all in the name of God! In the societies that have any kind of elections, candidates usually race to get the blessing of the “clerics”, begging to get their support as they work their way into the world of political lies and immorality.
The worst of all is they all know they are lying to each other. The Sheikh of al-Azhar said those who issued such fatwas (sending greetings is haram) do not know anything about their religion! As such, their other fatwas are also lacking in the spirit of religion. They are, in fact, mere patrons of ignorance, the same ignorance that reached them through poor educational programs that relied on passing on fatwas pronounced in dark ages for societies that were mostly ignorant.
What to do with these patrons of ignorance that plague our societies and insult our minds as we bid farewell to yet another year?
The truth is, at some point –and maybe even now– some Arab authorities stood in fear before this monster they created, or realized their shortcomings in terms of educational and informative programs, pondering how to tackle the same ignorance they had previously encouraged, only to find battles erupting right in front of them like ticking bombs, with no idea where to start: with the incursions of regional powers seeking to attack them, or with the entry into the modern age, or with the deterrence of internal forces eating away at their social fabric and producing terrorism?
The hesitance in tackling these issues will lead us to a dark age in which nations will be destroyed and development will go down the drain as patrons of ignorance are left to command our societies.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Lebanese news outlet Annahar al-Arabi.