By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal
For some unknown reason, it was only after landing in Jakarata that I felt the “adrenaline rush”, although the main event of my trip was held in Kuala Lumpur, where some 300 people had gathered in the auditorium of the Mahsa University College for the second Abdullah Yusuf Ali Lecture, for which I had chosen the theme, “Between Believers and Disbelievers: Qur’an in the Contemporary World”. The lecture was jointly organized by the Islamic Book Trust and Yayasn Pendidikan Islam in honor of a man whose translation of the Holy Qur’an has helped millions of human beings since 1938, when it was first published by a Lahore publisher. The inaugural lecture of the series was delivered by M. A. Sherif in December 2008. Sherif is the author of Searching for Solace, the only book-length biography of Abduallah Yusuf Ali who was found sitting on the steps of a house in Westminster on a harsh winter day of 1953. On that Wednesday, December 9, the confused old man was taken by the police to Westminster Hospital. The next day, he was discharged from the hospital and taken to a London County Council home for the elderly situated on Dovehouse Street, Chelsea. The next day, he suffered a heart attack, was rushed to St Stephen's Hospital in Fulham where he died three hours later.
There were no relatives to claim the body and arrange his funeral. However, the deceased was known to the Pakistan High Commission and as soon as the Coroner for the County of London had completed the inquest, an Islamic burial was arranged in the Muslim section of Brookwood cemetery, Surrey, where his grave is not visited by many people today.
When he died at the age of 81, his translation of the Glorious Qur’an was hardly known outside a small circle. Today, it is virtually found everywhere in the world. Thus I felt honored to be in Kuala Lumpur to deliver the second Abdullah Yusuf Ali lecture named after a man whose life reflected, within its macro-cosmic details, some of the fundamental dilemmas of those Muslims who were born in the nineteenth century—a century of deluge, which witnessed the colonization of almost the entire Muslim world—as well as those who lived in the first half of the twentieth century, torn between the dictates of their faith and loyalties to their colonial rulers.
For those Muslims, the world was divided into two neat compartments: there was the dead past with its dim glow which failed to evoke any sense of glamour or glory, especially in comparison to the power of the King-Emperor—whose glamorous portraits adorned the high offices of the Empire not too long ago—and whose dominion, by 1922, consisted of almost one-quarter of the world’s population, covering 34 million square km, which is almost a quarter of the Earth’s total land area—an Empire ‘over which the sun never set,’ as they used to say. If they were not the loyal subjects of the British Emperor, Muslims then likely lived in the vast realm of a French colonial empire which extended over 13 million square kilometers at its height, covering some 8.7% of the total land of Earth, and about 5% of the world population. Of course, there were Muslims who lived outside the territories occupied by the British, French, Dutch, or Russian colonizing powers, but even the 18 million Muslims who lived in the declining Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) or the far fewer number who lived in the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925) of Iran during the period under consideration, felt the force of European influence and power more intimately than the force and influence of their own historical past.
For all practical purposes, their own historical past was dead, not because they had ceased to be Muslim—although forced or coerced abandonment of faith was surely the most humiliating part of the colonial experience of millions of Muslims, especially those under Soviet rule in Central Asia—but because Muslims who lived in occupied lands drew little psychological, emotional, or intellectual inspiration from their own glorious tradition in any meaningful way. It was a time when the imperial European presumption that both Islam and Muslims had become a “spent force” was written large on the wall for everyone to see.
Before the lecture, I sat with Tun Abdullah Badawi, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, who was the guest of honor, and we discussed the state of the Muslim world in general terms. Tun Abdullah comes from a family of scholars and I had met him before on a previous visit to Malaysia, which he seemed to remember. There was no pomp a la Pakistan; everything was simple, authentic, and filled with that typical Malaysian humility which keeps everything within human proportions.
In my lecture, I addressed the situation of the Qur’an in the contemporary world with respect to those who believe in its Divine origins as well those who do not. I mentioned that the verdict passed against Islam and Muslims at the time of colonization was based on brute military force, but it also emerged in the wake of a rich crop of ascending European “isms”, which fueled the European domination of the world in many ways. The most important of these new “isms” was secular humanism, that reduced everything to the human plane and rejected all supra-human realms as superstitious dogma; religion was the most important casualty of this new philosophy which based itself exclusively on human reason, from which it extracted a new ethical system based purely based on human considerations.It strove to make the here-and-now the pinnacle of all human activity. Human life was to be lived to the utmost limits in fulfillment of a self-constructed meaning and purpose, which had no consideration for the Hereafter and which was based on a total forgetfulness of the sacred origin of all things including human life itself. This new philosophy was fully supported by an ascending science in whose theories people had more faith than they had in God and whose “fruits” everyone could see in the form of newly laid railway tracks, new modes of communication, and numerous other existing and emergent technological innovations which were changing the way life was lived over the world.
(To be continued)
Muzaffar Iqbal is the founder-president of Center for Islam and Science (www.cis-ca.org), Canada, and editor of
Islam & Science, a semi-annual journal of Islamic perspectives on science and civilization. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry (University of Saskatchewan, Canada, 1983), and then left the field of experimental science to fully devote himself to study Islam, its spiritual, intellectual and scientific traditions.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, he has lived in Canada since 1979. He has held academic and research positions at University of Saskatchewan (1979-1984), University of Wisconsin-Madison (1984-85), and McGill University (1986). During 1990-1999, he pursued his research and study on various aspects of Islam in Pakistan, where he also worked as Director, Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) between 1991-96 and as Director, Pakistan Academy of Sciences (1998-99).
During 1999-2001, Dr. Iqbal was Program Director (Muslim World) for the Science-Religion Course Program of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), Berkeley, USA.
Dr. Iqbal has published books and papers on the relationship between Islam and science, Islam and the West, the contemporary situation of Muslims, and the history of Islamic science.
His publications include Islam and Science, God, Life and the Cosmos: Christian and Islamic Perspectives , Science and Islam, Dawn in Madinah: A Pilgrim’s Passage , The Making of Islamic Science (IBT, 2009) and a few more titles.
He is the General Editor of the forthcoming seven-volume Integrated Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, the first English language reference work on the Qur’an based on fourteen centuries of Muslim reflection and scholarship. He is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.