Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed

Despite the influence of the Islamic Golden Age in shaping our world, contemporary Muslim societies have struggled to innovate [Getty Images]
7 min read
16 June, 2021
Book Club: Nadeem M. Qureshi’s phenomenal new English translation of Shakib Arslan’s 1930 book Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed has brought a fascinating, and relevant, intellectual exchange available to the English-speaking world.

The rise of Islam and the speed of its expansion are remarkable historic phenomena. Starting in the middle of the seventh century and within a short period, a small number of ill-armed but driven and highly motivated men conquered half the globe and then ruled these lands with wisdom.

Enlightened civilisations flourished when most of Europe was in the dark. Science, mathematics, medicine, poetry, astronomy thrived.  This Islamic supremacy continued for centuries but then there was a rapid decline, which continues to the present day. While other civilisations have flourished, Islamic countries have been left behind.  

It is indisputable that the Muslims have fallen behind the West, very specifically in the realm of science, technology and industrial prowess

So why have Muslims lagged behind? Why have others prospered? What can Muslims do to regain their status? These are questions that have been on the minds of many Muslims for decades.

In fact, these are the questions that in 1928 an imam from Indonesia asked of a Lebanese Islamic scholar, Shakib Arsalan, who responded in a series of articles that were eventually published as a book in 1930. The book in Arabic was very well received and has been in print all these years. Nadeem M. Qureshi has now translated this popular and well-received work into English.

Arsalan’s analysis of the decline of Muslims is from a purely secular perspective. It is indisputable that the Muslims have fallen behind the West, very specifically in the realm of science, technology and industrial prowess. It is a gap that continues to widen by the day and a gap that Arsalan is addressing. He believes that religion should not influence human progress in science and technology. Progress is progress whether it comes at the hands of Muslims, Christians, Jews, or the people of any other religion.

In general, the decline of Islamic societies has been attributed to one of three causes. The first blames certain essential elements of Islamic texts as the cause of the decline. The second point fingers at Western colonialism and its exploitation of resources. The third is the belief that the lack of effective Islamic institutions lay at the root of the decline of Islamic civilisation. Arsalan rejects these three approaches to explain the decline of Islam. Like Cassius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he believes that “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

The message of the Quran that inspired those in the past has not changed. It is the way that people interpret these messages that have changed

Arsalan says that the message of the Quran that inspired those in the past has not changed. It is the way that people interpret these messages that have changed. Today, Arsalan argues, the former spirit of sacrifice and hard work is gone and that Muslims seek “glory without merit, harvest without sowing, victory without effort and help [from Allah] without the slightest reason for that help.”

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Stanley Gibbons, analysing the decline and fall of the Roman Empire laid the blame on Christianity. “As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion,” he wrote, “we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire.”

Unlike Gibbons, Arsalan does not blame the religion but the people who profess to follow it. Muslims had deviated from the straight path laid out for them. They followed the Quran in name alone, reading it without acting on it and yielding to “the cravings of their soul.” They forgot that following Islam means following in both name and action.

But all is not lost, contends Arsalan. It is possible for the Islamic world to rise again and catch up with other countries. They should not eschew but embrace scientific learning. They should shake from themselves the “grime of indolence” and learn to build their self-confidence and their self-belief. They should learn to give and to sacrifice, both of themselves and their treasures. They should build their future on optimism and hopefulness. And all this will be possible when they remain connected to Islam because, as the Quran says, Allah will be with those who strive for Him and do good.

If there is a message in Arsalan’s book for the Muslims of today, it is his insistence that when the Quran speaks of knowledge and the imperative to acquire it, it means all knowledge not just religious knowledge

Arsalan makes his arguments based on an impressive reading and insightful understanding of world history. He convincingly cites examples from all over the globe and is well versed not only in current developments but also in their historical context.

There is not much that one can find fault in the translation, but it would have been helpful had the translator in his introduction briefly set out the historical context of the book. Many non-Muslims, and indeed even many Muslims today, are not familiar with the historic rise of Islam from the deserts of Arabia, its subsequent journey to global domination, and from there its slow painful decline that continues to this day. It is the pain of this decline, which suffuses the book, that has been captured in this translation. 

What is also remarkable is how relevant the material is even almost a hundred years after Arsalan wrote it. It still imparts wisdom regarding some of the critical issues faced by Muslims today. For example, it is clear that Arsalan would have been disappointed with the spread of extreme Salafist ideology. He was a reformer and a moderniser, who wanted to move forward not backwards. His focus was on the political unity of Islamic nations and he wanted them to be able to compete with the West in science, technology and industrial prowess. His Druze background and upbringing inculcated in him what we would today call ‘liberal’ values. 

Arsalan’s message is not confined to the Muslims who live in Muslim majority countries. Today, millions of Muslims live in Europe and North America where they make up often a productive and peaceful minority. But, of late extremism has made its way to the minds of some of their young people. And as a result, the whole community has been stigmatised.  What are Muslims who live in the West to do?

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If there is a message in Arsalan’s book for the Muslims of today, it is his insistence that when the Quran speaks of knowledge and the imperative to acquire it, it means all knowledge, not just religious knowledge

It is said that the best translator is one who is invisible, slipping past like a ninja. While reading this book the translator never intrudes. To the uninitiated, it will seem that the book was originally written in English. Arsalan was noted for his eloquence and erudition and the elegance of the original is captured seamlessly, both in text and in subtext. Qureshi has very smoothly overcome the many literary and cultural challenges in translating a text written decades ago and directed at a very different audience.

The voice of Shakib Arsalan is as relevant today as it was when he penned his responses to the questions sent in by the imam from Indonesia. This translation has enabled Arsalan’s words to reach those who otherwise would not have been able to hear them.

S. Anzar Ahmad is an energy and finance industries executive based in Bahrain and Canada. He is a student of Islamic history. He has a BA degree from Princeton University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.