Society consists of individuals and when we find civil societies that were once upon a time vigorously their own and indeed with obvious superiority amongst other organised social bodies, and are then left behind while others progress far beyond even the imagination, leave alone the knowledge of their former supervisors, then indeed, unless we want to commit suicide, it is necessary to look deeper and to ask questions and find answers….

Alas, at the critical time in the Muslim East more and more thought and concentration was given to further study of the classical discoveries of the past. The “Allama” theory of knowledge in which the past was given complete wisdom and the future was to follow rather than go forward, put a stop to what was most important for political, economic and indeed cultural life.

Both East and West are agreed that the Grecco-Arab period produced some of the greatest intellectual giants of the human race. But while we were satisfied to look at the world through the eyes of our giants, the West insisted on more and more pygmies sitting one over the other on the top of the giants’ shoulders till their accumulated height was infinitely greater than that of the original giant on which they had built their foundations.

Is the Muslim world at last going to turn its thought and culture to what is fundamental teaching of the Holy Qur’an? It is for the public of Pakistan and indeed for the Muslim world to adjust its cultural foundations of knowledge to the study and ultimate victory over the forces of nature ever at our disposal through science.

When an individual’s health deteriorates, when a strong healthy body begins to lose its various powers, all physicians worthy of their salt search for its cause by careful diagnosis. Only then when this process of analysis has brought to light the underlying causes and not the symptoms can real cure be found and when the diagnosis has been successful the cure is facile and usually rapid.

Society consists of individuals and when we find civil societies that were once upon a time vigorously their own and indeed with obvious superiority amongst other organised social bodies, and are then left behind while others progress far beyond even the imagination, leave alone the knowledge of their former supervisors, then indeed, unless we want to commit suicide, it is necessary to look deeper and to ask questions and find answers.

[T]he societies that have remained stationary have had one thing in common namely, what we call Islamic culture and those that have gone forward have drawn their force from other intellectual sources.

All the greater is the necessity for our search because the societies that have remained stationary have had one thing in common namely, what we call Islamic culture and those that have gone forward have drawn their force from other intellectual sources. Yet this world phenomenon is of comparatively recent date. Only 250 years ago towards the end of the 17th century, all European travellers and indeed general opinion as well as the remains of architecture prove beyond question that the Islamic world was superior to the Western in civilisation and the amenities of life,

European travellers’ records leave no doubt that cities such as Isfahan, Istanbul, Cairo and Delhi were healthier with far better sanitary arrangements, cleaner with better quality water, light, law and order than their contemporary rivals in Europe. If we can judge a nation by its personal cleanliness, then the Muslim world was far ahead according to all contemporary evidence specially from European sources.

In medicine and armaments, two totally different but necessary indications of national power and vigour, the Muslim world had nothing to learn from either the non-Muslim East or West. Yet today, 250 years later, how different! Can we really compare the atomic power of America and Russia with our few survived Muslim free countries? Even, in spite of the birth of Pakistan, independent Indonesia, when we turn to the Muslim world we find either colonialism as in Africa or vast industrial economic and military weakness compared even with Europe or Japan, leave alone America.

What has brought about between say the year 1650 and 1950, this immense reversal of positions? When I had the honour of presiding at the Muslim Educational Conference early in 1903 at Delhi [or perhaps 1902 in Delhi or 1904 in Bombay?], I referred to some of what I then described as the causes of the downfall. But the greatest and by tar the most important, indeed the mother of all the other causes direct or indirect, is the intellectual and spiritual revolution that took place in the West soon after the Renaissance but which unfortunately for us we misunderstood at the time and have suffered from it ever since. This revolution led to immense power over the force of nature. The control of nuclear energy today is the latest example of that which the West gained and which we failed to realise. Until soon after the Renaissance both East and West looked for their philosophy of nature, for their explanation of phenomena to what I may call the classic [sic] interpretation of the facts of the Universe.

This classical interpretation had various minor sources, some of them from China and India; but the principal [sic] and indeed its foundation was mainly Greek modified by Arab thought. This natural philosophy was the foundation of both Eastern and Western nations and technology plus their means of production were based on the same until some 400 years ago, then the West under the influence of certain men of genius such as Leonardo da Vinci and Bacon, and a good many others, began to question the truth of the Grecco-Arabian explanations and finally broke away with classical traditions and turned directly to nature. Observation of natural phenomena and questionings by experiment became the foundations and the guiding stars of the mind and thought of the West.

Alas, at the critical time in the Muslim East more and more thought and concentration was given to further study of the classical discoveries of the past. The “Allama” theory of knowledge in which the past was given complete wisdom and the future was to follow rather than go forward, put a stop to what was most important for political, economic and indeed cultural life.

Both East and West are agreed that the Grecco-Arab period produced some of the greatest intellectual giants of the human race. But while we were satisfied to look at the world through the eyes of our giants, the West insisted on more and more pygmies sitting one over the other on the top of the giants’ shoulders till their accumulated height was infinitely greater than that of the original giant on which they had built their foundations.

Islam is fundamentally a natural religion. All its dogmas and doctrines of whatever sect or school, are ultimately based on the regularity and order of natural phenomena, on the natural inclination of human beings for survival and reproduction, while the religion of the West, Christianity, is based on a miraculous event and faith in miracles, that is to say, a break in that very regularity to which the Holy Qur’an refers on a thousand occasions.

What has been the result? All through the 13th and 19th centuries right up to the middle of the 20th century, we find Europe and America constantly getting greater and greater power over nature and thus their ability to conquer and indeed, when necessary, to crush those who had turned their back on the possibility of progress and it is all the more extraordinary that this should have happened to the Muslim world, Islam is fundamentally a natural religion. All its dogmas and doctrines of whatever sect or school, are ultimately based on the regularity and order of natural phenomena, on the natural inclination of human beings for survival and reproduction, while the religion of the West, Christianity, is based on a miraculous event and faith in miracles, that is to say, a break in that very regularity to which the Holy Qur’an refers on a thousand occasions.

Today perhaps we are farthest away from control over nature while the West from America to Russia increases its great and overwhelming power of natural forces. Towards the end of the 19th century two men of genius among Indian Muslims, with one of whom I had just the honour of being acquainted, but the other was my intimate friend and collaborator during the early years of the century, Sir Syed Ahmed and Mohsin-ul-Mulk, were the first to realise that it was this command over nature and its forces that gave power and strength to human beings and that if we searched for power and strength, for uplift, it could only come if we also acquired by the same methods those very powers that led to more and more improved means of production and its obvious result — greater and greater mastery over the forces at our disposal.

Our Holy Qur’an so often refers to the fact that we are surrounded by so many God-given gifts which we should understand and profit from. Alas, we Muslims, who should have been the first to realise it, have become the last. Sir Syed and Mohsin-ul-Mulk were abused for they were misunderstood. Today the Muslim world is almost at the last stage, almost at the last hour between a final collapse and revival. The birth of Pakistan is undoubtedly the result of that very revolt of Sir Syed and Mohsin-ul-Mulk. The birth of Indonesia, the phoenix-like revival of Turkey, can all give us hope. But the essential weakness is every­ where in the Muslim world. Production per head of population is still far behind not only the West but even parts of the East.

Is the Muslim world at last going to turn its thought and culture to what is the fundamental teaching of the Holy Qur’an and the meaning of all Muslim sectarian interpretations of our Holy Book namely, knowledge gained by the observation and questionings of the world which Allah Almighty has given to us and in which we live and move and have our being? Is that blessing to remain in the hands of others to be further developed? Incredible new powers are attained while we remain humble followers and in truth condemned even to lose our individuality. It is for the public of Pakistan and indeed of the Muslim world, to adjust its cultural foundation of knowledge to the study and ultimate victory over the forces of nature ever at our disposal through science and thus once more as in the first thousand years of Muslim history, we will be in the vanguard of mankind.

His Highness the Aga Khan III

SOURCES

  • Text (secondary source with date of 3 February 1954): Aga Khan III: Selected Speeches and Writings of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Edited by K.K. Aziz., Kegan Paul International, 1997, Vol II, pp.1297

    [Text verified and/or corrected from this source by NanoWisdoms]

  • Dawn, Karachi, 4 February 1954. “Special Supplement to Commemorate
    the Platinum Jubilee of H.H. the Aga Khan.”
  • Text (secondary source): Message to the World of Islam, Karachi 1977, pp 52 (click here)
  • Text (secondary source): Africa Ismaili, 16 May 1969

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