Islam and its Challenges in the Modern World
Islam today is facing challenges from within and from the wider world. The critical problems are the fundamental tensions within Islam. The attitudes and criticisms common in the outside world can be ignored as misguided or hostile, but the tensions within Islam throughout the world must be confronted. In a simple geographical sense, Islam has to come to grips with its changing centres. The religious centres define the heartland: Saudi Arabia maintains its guardianship of the shrines at Mecca and Medina, and the conduct of the hajj, against the claims of Shii Iran, the Shii tradition, and other sects disillusioned with Saudi Arabia's credentials within the ummah. Saudi Arabia enjoys much of its strength to repudiate other claims because it remains the economic centre of the ummah. It takes a combination of the incomes of Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Yemen even to come close to Saudi Arabia's oil wealth. However, this wealth is based on finite resources, and in the years to come the economic centre will shift to those parts of the Muslim world with sustainable resources and reproductive assets. West Asian financial investments recognise this long-term problem, but they remain overwhelmingly located in the Western and non-Muslim economies. The intellectual centre of Islam is Al-Azhar in Cairo. The ideas and attitudes taught here are spread throughout the ummah, particularly through the population centres of Islam: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Malaysia. The relative power of the different centres is shifting. Over time the claims on and against the heartland from and by the peripheral Muslim communities will exacerbate the tensions already present. The conservative centre will be under greater pressure from the more vigorous, prolific and liberal Muslim societies on the periphery. Despite the ideals promoting an equitable and productive material life, the overwhelming majority of Muslims experience living standards which are hardly enviable by any standard. This frequently appears to be a greater paradox in the wealthy oil-producing Muslim countries. Where justice and brotherhood are recommended by the ideals, in such countries we see the conspicuous consumption of the very rich, the purchase of very expensive military technology and armaments, and we see the exploitation of 'guest workers': fellow Muslims from Palestine, Pakistan, the Philippines, among others. The plight of these groups was obvious during and after the Gulf War in 1990-1991. Unemployment of masses of people; rapid urbanisation; unbalanced development - all need to be addressed quickly by the ummah, if the ummah is to become the social force of international Islam. The wide imbalances in the distribution of incomes and wealth between Muslim societies are obvious, but since effective redistribution is not happening within most Muslim societies it is unlikely to occur to any major degree between different Muslim societies. Development investment in Muslim countries is slow simply because investors are put off by the more extremist agitations and the perceptions in the West about Islamic legal proscriptions of such financial mechanisms as interest. Muslim investors appear quite happy to send their money into the non-Muslim economies, where greater profits are available and the political and social circumstances are much more settled. In other cases, where people are trying to help their communities they often encounter problems from unlikely sources. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh has been lending small sums of money, mostly to rural women so that they can engage in small enterprises, but also to collective groups. The sums are small and the interest is fixed, with the principal being repaid first and the interest calculated on the diminishing principal. Twenty per cent interest per year still seems high, but it is tiny when compared with the twenty per cent per month or ten per...
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