The Muslim world is obviously in a mess. Political instability, unbridled corruption, lack of economic development, widespread intolerance and violence, and lack of freedom, liberty and human rights are some of the traits that characterise Muslim societies most glaringly. All indications suggest that things will get only worse over coming decades.
Among many factors that differentiate Muslim societies from other progressive and more peaceful ones are its missing freethinkers - namely critics and reformers - who are able to criticise the troublesome aspects of its societal core, its religious foundations.
Other societies - Jewish, Christian, Hindu and so on - have had problems in the past; however, those societies allowed the emergence of progressive freethinking scholars, philosophers and reformers. They exercised variable measures of liberty to criticise and to point fingers at the underlying reasons, including the religious ones, of the many ills of their societies.
Jewish societies produced brilliant minds like Benedict de Spinoza, Carl Marx and Albert Einstein among others; Christianity produced great thinkers like Rene Descartes, Emmanuel Kant, David Hume, John S Mill, Bertrand Russell and many more. Some of these thinkers, Spinoza for example, attracted ire from religious authorities and faced excommunication. Nonetheless, their ideas and views were not choked out; instead, they were disseminated with some measure of ease; security to their life was not threatened. The resilience, the power, of their progressive and reformative social, political and philosophical ideas eventually triumphed. As a result, those societies reformed, secularised, progressed and prospered.
But Muslims societies, the core of which is most intimately integrated with its religious ideals, have never really allowed the emergence of their own breed of freethinkers and progressive reformers, particularly in the past eight centuries.
One must not negate the fact that the Islamic world once excelled the rest in the so-called Golden Age of Islam (800-1200CE). This was, however, possible only because the Islamic world fell in wrong hands soon after its founding by Prophet Mohammed (d. 632). The Arab imperialist Umayyad rulers (661-750) were mostly anti-Mohammed and anti-Islam, except when it served their purpose. For example, they exploited the Islamic doctrine of Jihad at its best for their imperialism expansion, while they tried their best to prevent the conversion of non-Muslim subjects to Islam, so that they could extract more taxes from them.
During Umayyad rule, all kinds of often-progressive but theologically heretical ideas (i.e., rationalist Mutazilism) prospered unchecked in Muslim societies. Next, the Abbasid rulers, (750-1250), who rejected the Arab ways and adopted the Persian civilisation, further propped up the flourishing of this often-heretical intellectual tradition. The Persians already had a great tradition in intellectual exercise prior to Islam’s birth. The Abbasids promoted science and philosophy even if it meant theological compromise. Caliph Al-Mamun (813-833), for example, even persecuted the orthodox; all his officials had to agree that the Koran was not divine but created by Prophet Mohammed. His policies continued during the subsequent rule of al-Mutassim (d. 842) and Al-Wathik (d. 847). Al-Wathik, embarrassingly for Muslims, became dubbed as the “Commander of the Unbeliever”.
This deviation from true Islam set the emergence of the Islamic Golden Age in motion, albeit on the wings of heresy and theological compromise of all sorts. We see the greatest-ever Muslim scientist and thinker, Al-Razi (d. 945), calling Prophet Mohammed a charlatan, a fraudulent trickster; responding to Allah’s challenge of creating a book like the Koran, he called it an assorted mixture of “absurd and inconsistent fables”. The writings of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and Hippocrates - he asserted - contained much greater wisdom and brought greater service to humanity than the Holy Scriptures, which brought more harm than good.
This was all to change soon. Islamic orthodoxy was gaining strength; it triumphed in Islamic societies by the spadework of legendary Islamic theologian Imam Ghazzali (d. 1111). He called Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina - his predecessor and the brilliant 11th-century philosophers and scientists of Muslim world - apostates, which demands death. Luckily for the latter, they had already left the world.
Rational and progressive thoughts became increasingly suppressed. Religious orthodoxy, obscurantism and intolerance entered the body of Islamic societies. The Golden Age of Islam was dead. (My just-released book, Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery, discusses in Chapter IV the circumstances that made the so-called Golden Age in the Muslim world a reality).
Progressive thoughts and ideas have been choked out in Muslim societies with the instruments of intimidation and violence ever since. When colonial powers briefly imposed some measure of tolerance in Islamic countries, a few Muslim intellectuals of note emerged. After the colonial powers withdrew, the Islamic world has marched towards orthodoxy and intolerance, particularly after the oil-boom in the 1970s. Its progressive freethinkers, the generators of new ideas and creativity and propellers of civilisation, are dealt with intolerance and brutality by authorities as well as by mobs.
As long as intolerance of dissenting ideas remain in force, the Islamic world will unlikely emerge from its current malaise and lack of material progress. It is unlikely to change any time soon. There is, however, a glimmer of hope. Kicked out of their home countries, some Muslim dissidents - harboured by the liberal West - are showing their intellectual prowess. Muslim apostates like Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have written best-selling books. Most of all, they, for the first time, are pointing fingers at the debilitating nature of the Islamic theology, which must undergo modernisation as have other creeds.