First and foremost I have to thank the Chairman and the members of the A M A Azeez Commemoration Committee for being kind enough to grant me the privilege of addressing this distinguished gathering at this meeting held to remember Dr. A.M.A. Azeez.  The name of Dr. Azeez conjures in us the image of a great personality who served our community and the country well; a man who played several parts; from being a first rate public administrator holding some of the plum offices of his time to being an educationist.  This role he played after his retirement in 1948 from the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service.  His achievements in the area of education are still treated with awe and veneration.  His 13 year stint at Zahira College, where he moulded the lives of many is a decade which is remembered as an era of enlightenment at Zahira.  In between his service in the field of education, he also served the legislative arm of the State by being appointed as a senator in 1952, where he participated in the political development of the country until he was appointed to the Public Service Commission in 1963, an Institution then of great prestige chiefly on account of its independence, and if I may say so, far different, for the lack of the same independence, from its present counterpart.

There is an aspect of Dr. Azeez which many, like me, would have been unaware of.  In 1964 Dr. Azeez brought out a book called “The West Re-Appraised”.  I think there are several passages in the book which are worthy of being quoted at a meeting of this nature, not only to gain an insight into the mind of the person whom we are remembering but also pertinent to the subject under discussion.  But to me the book has a more important dimension.  Though the subject related to an appraisal or re-appraisal of the West, the author treats the subject by giving us concise and interesting pen sketches of distinguished personalities from Sri Lanka and the sub-continent, drawn not only from the Muslim Community but from the other communities as well, with the linkage being their approach to the influences of the West and their fervent nationalism.  Thus he writes about Anagarika Dharmapala, Dr. W.A. de Silva, Arumuga Navalar, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Mohamed Ali Jinnah, Sir Seyed Ahamed Khan, Arabi Pasha, Allama Iqbal and Siddi Lebbe.  What a diverse array of people and what fascinating study undertaken by a Muslim cutting across the cultural and religious divide.  Was it because of people like Dr. Azeez who sought out the good in people rather than highlighting the matters which divide us, that his generation was spared what we are going through on the ethnic front.

According to the author the cultural contact of the East with the West, made inevitable by Europe’s expansion into Asia, may be regarded as the most significant single item in the history of our own period.  He said, “The consequences of this contact, we yet cannot escape, the problems stemming from it we have not finally solved or settled.  In the circumstances, the kind of accommodation with the West we decide upon will largely determine the future of generation still unborn”.  How true.  According to him what is needed of us, belonging to the East, in the establishment of a satisfactory East-West relationship, is a critical and constructive approach towards Western Culture.  Such an approach as so well reflected in a statement of Mahatma Ghandhi.

“I do not want my house to be walled on all four sides, nor do I want my windows shut.  I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.  But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”.

Dr. Azeez concluded his preface by saying thus. “In the attempt to reconcile Eastern values with Western technology, the present generation will be immeasurably benefited by the experience of those leaders, belonging to the East, who had focused their attention on this very problem of East-West Relationship.  These leaders lived to labour for their communities as guiding lights when their services were most needed”.

It has been rightly said that one of the most frequent conceptual mistakes made in discussing Islam and the West in the modern era is the identification of “the West” with “modernity.”  This mistake has a  significant impact on the way people view the processes of modernization in the Islamic world as well on the way people interpret the relationships between Islam and the West in the contemporary era.  Just to drive the point home, a person living on the 15th Century when Islam dominated the West would hardly be blamed if he thought the modern concepts of that age was Islam driven and if he concluded that Islam, rather than the then remote and comparatively crude society of European West, was destined to dominate the world in the following Centuries.  Again the West and modernity could never always be one, for one of the first casualties of the industrial revolution was the then Western civilization which had hitherto been built on the Roman and Greek traditions.  So what is modernity?  Ultimately it is linked largely to technological progress which brings to us the modern conveniences but this by no means exhausts the definition.  It also encompasses prevailing mores and the ethics of a particular age; and since the world is not yet, and cannot in my mind ever be, a global village having uniform thoughts and attitudes, the different communities and segments of the world will continue to have their own mores and ethics which may at times be contrary to each other.  As to which such thoughts and attitudes will have a greater attraction or greater prevalence will ultimately be decided not merely on their relative strengths but more on what could be called the “competing market place of ideas” which as it presently stands give an undoubted edge to the West through their virtual monopolization of this market.  As Maryiam Jameeleh said “Thus what is fashionably termed as ‘international culture’ or ‘modernism’ is simply one-way traffic from the West; Europe and America involved wholly in export and Asia and Africa only in import.  It lies in the nature of human history that nations and civilizations which are politically and economically more dynamic and virile, exert an irresistible attraction on weaker and less active societies and are thus able to dominate them without being influenced themselves.  Western propaganda for materialism over the mass-media has a universal appeal to the baser-self in man!  After all, it is no great achievement to make poor people discontent with their lot and yearn to become rich;  it is the easiest thing in the world to persuade the young that it is wealth and “fashion” – not virtue or piety which counts; no miracle is needed to make people who have suffered hardships and deprivations all their lives desire the comforts, conveniences, luxuries and amusements modern life has to offer.  It is an effortless task to incite children towards disrespect, insolence and contempt towards their parents and call this the “generation gap”.  No undue effort is required to convince women and young girls that they are now free to do anything they please and equal with men in all walks of life and label that as “Women’s Lib”.  Nor is there the slightest difficulty in persuading the young, where the urge to do mischief is already in their blood, to cast aside all “taboos” and “restraints”, be absolutely uninhibited in all their activities and live only for the pleasure, enjoyment, excitement and thrills of the moment.  It is the easiest thing in the world to persuade people, especially young people, to be materialistic, selfish, greedy and even delinquent when one has all the educational institutions, cinema, television, radio and the press at one’s command and disposal.”

The West has in the last few decades been facing a serious religious crisis.  Is religion really a fact of life?  It might have been in the past but does it remain so in the world of today when science has changed the whole course of life and when there is no place for anything save science and what science approves.

Many in the West think that Islam has become outmoded and exhausted all its usefulness.  They treat Islam in the same way Christianity was treated by them.  Europe as you know was a scene of conflict between religion and science and religion suffered for the reason that the Church had embraced dogmas which science was able to demonstrate as fallacious.  But the history of Islam is totally different.  There is no trace of any conflict between science and the religious beliefs of the Muslim scientists.  We have had great scientists – doctors, astronomers, mathematicians, physicists and chemists.  But unlike the fates of their Christian counterparts none of them suffered.  Another difference and more important was that our scientists did not enthrone science as the Supreme entity but made all their labours and endeavors in the name of and subservient to the Almighty.

Do the Muslims have a future in the modern world?  This is a question which the Western Orientalists of the likes of Albert Hourani and Rosenthal Pose; they are all in agreement that Islam has become a decadent force and that its adherents have failed to establish compatibility of religion and modern sciences.  Various modernists have elaborated the same theme and the view is generally accepted that unless the Muslims re-interpret their faith in the light of contemporary realities and evolve a syntheses between Islam and secularism, they are unlikely to survive if one forgets the rhetoric, it simply means that the future of the Muslims depends on their willingness and capacity to adopt the Western way of life.  Western scholars assume that the Muslims, being economically back ward, must be facing a great dilemma.  How to reconcile a lagging faith with the march of science.  These writers evaluate Muslim history in purely material terms.  So long as the Muslims were in Power, which is the hall mark of superiority and progress, they were regarded as dynamic.  The moment they lost political power Islam ceased to be of any consequence.

Fortunately not all in the West think in those lines.  Those who can rise above narrow parochial confines do truly appreciate the greatness and usefulness of the true religion of Islam in the modern context and are prepared to treat it separate from its wayward followers.

Much of the history of Islam and the West has been one of conflict: fourteen centuries too often marked by mutual hostility.  That has given rise to an enduring tradition of fear and distrust, because as Prince Charles in an illuminating and fascinating talk at Oxford recently said, our two worlds have so often seen that past in contradictory ways.  To Western school children, the two hundred years of Crusades are traditionally seen as a series of heroic, chivalrous exploits in which the kings, knights, princes – and children – of Europe tried to wrest Jerusalem from the wicked Muslim infidel.  To Muslims, the Crusades were an episode of great cruelty  and terrible plunder, of Western infidel soldiers of fortune and horrific atrocities, perhaps exemplified best by the massacres committed by the Crusaders when, in 1099, they took back Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam.  For those in the West, 1492 speaks of human endeavour and new horizons, of Colombus and the discovery of the Americas. To Muslims, 1492 is a year of tragedy – the year Granada fell to Ferdinand and Isabella, signifying the end of eight centuries of Muslim civilization in Europe.  But even now, as he said, the attitude of the West to Islam suffers because the way the West understands, it has been hijacked by the extreme and the superficial.  To many in the West, Islam is seen in terms of the tragic civil war in Lebanon, the killings and bombings perpetrated by extremist groups in the Middle East, and by what is commonly referred to as ‘Islamic fundamentalism.’  Their judgement of Islam has been grossly distorted by taking the extremes to be the norm.  ‘That, is a serious mistake.  It is, Prince Charles said like judging the quality of life in Britain by the existence of murder and rape, child abuse and drug addiction.  The extremes exist, and they must be dealt with.  But when used as a basis to judge a society, they lead to distortion and unfairness.  For example, he said “people in this country frequently argue that the Sharia law of the Islamic world is cruel, barbaric and unjust.  Our newspapers, above all, love to peddle those unthinking prejudices.  The truth is, of course, different and always more complex.  My own understanding is that extremes, like the cutting off of hands, are rarely practiced.  The guiding principle and spirit of Islamic law, taken straight from the Qur’an, should be those of equity and compassion.  We need to study its actual application before we make judgements.  We must distinguish between systems of justice administered with integrity, and systems of justice as we may see them practiced which have been deformed for political reasons into something no longer Islamic”.

Another obvious Western prejudice is to judge the position of women in Islamic society by the extreme cases.  People have been reminded that Islamic countries like Turkey, Egypt and Syria gave women the vote as early as Europe did its women – and much earlier than in Switzerland!  In those countries women have long enjoyed equal pay, and the opportunity to play a full working role in their societies.  The rights of Muslim women to property and inheritance, to some protection if divorced, and to the conducting of business, were rights prescribed by the Qur’an twelve hundred years ago, which the Western woman got only relatively recently.  Benazir Bhutto and Begum Khaleda Zia became prime ministers in their own traditional societies when Britain had for the first time ever in its history selected a female prime minister.  Women are not automatically second-class citizens because they live in Islamic countries.

Another Western fear is the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.  But they have been asked to be careful of that emotive label.  ‘fundamentalism’, and distinguish, as Muslims do, between revivalists, who choose to take the practice of their religion most devoutly, and fanatics of extremists who use this devotion for political ends.  Among the many religious, social and political causes of what we might more accurately call the Islamic revival is a powerful feeling of disenchantment, of the realization that Western technology and material things are insufficient, and that a deeper meaning to life lies elsewhere in the essence of Islamic belief.  It has been pointed out that extremism is in some way the hallmark and essence of the Muslim, Extremism is no more the monopoly of Islam than it is the monopoly of the other religions, including Christianity.  The vast majority of Muslims, though personally pious, are moderate in their politics.  Theirs is the ‘religion of the middle way’.  The Prophet himself always disliked and feared extremism.  As has been said, perhaps the few of Islamic revivalism which coloured the 1980’s is now beginning to give way in the West to an understanding of the genuine spiritual forces behind this groundswel.  But the West has been advised that if they are to understand this important movement, they must learn to distinguish clearly between what the vast majority of Muslims believe and the terrible violence of a small minority among them which civilized people everywhere must condemn.

Western writers who show an understanding of Islam point out that there is much ignorance about the debt their own culture and civilization owe to the Islamic world.  The mediaeval Islamic world, from Central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic, was a world where scholars and men of learning flourished.  But because those in the West have tended to see Islam as their, as an alien culture, society and system of belief, the West have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to their own history.  For example, the importance of 800 years of Islamic society and culture in Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries tend to get underestimated.  As has been said the “The contribution of Muslim Spain to the preservation of classical learning during the Dark Ages, and to the first flowerings of the Renaissance, has long been recognized.  But Islamic Spain was much more that a mere larder where Hellenistic knowledge was kept for later consumption by the emerging modern Western world. Not only did Muslim Spain gather and preserve the intellectual content of ancient Greek and Roman civilization, it also interpreted and expanded upon the civilization, and made a vital contributions of its own in so many fields of human endeavour – in science, astronomy, mathematics, algebra (itself an Arabic word), law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture, theology, music.  Averroes  and Avenzoor, like their counterparts Avicenna and Rhazes in the East, contributed  to the study and practice of medicine in ways from which Europe benefited for centuries afterwards.  Islam nurtured and preserved the quest for learning in the words of the tradition.  ‘the ink of the scholar is more sacred that the blood of the  martyr.’  Cordobain the 10th century was by far the most civilized city of Europe.  We know of lending libraries in Spain at the time King Alfred was ruling in this country.  It is said that the 400,000 volumes in its ruler’s library amounted to more books than all the libraries of the rest of Europe put together.  That was made possible because the Muslim world acquired from China the skill of making paper more than four hundred years before the rest of non-Muslim Europe.  Many of the traits on which modern Europe prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain”.

I do not have to apologise for quoting extensively from Prince Charles speech.  His view is that of the moderate who is still willing to understand and appreciate Islam notwithstanding the ways of some of its adherents.  He goes on to say “Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of academic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, alternative medicine, hospitals, all came from this Islamic civilization in Spain.  Mediaeval Islam was a religion of remarkable tolerance for its time, allowing Jews and Christians the right to practice their inherited belief and setting an example which was not, unfortunately, copied for many centuries in the West.  The surprise, is the extent to which Islam has been a part of Europe for so long, first in Spain, then in the Balkans, and the extent to which it has contributed so much towards the civilization which we all too often think of, wrongly, as entirely Western.  Islam is part of our past and present, in all fields of human endeavour.  It has helped to create modern Europe.  It is part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart.  More than this, Islam can teach us today a way of understanding and living in the world which Christianity itself is poorer for having lost.  At the heart of Islam is its preservation of an integral view of the Universe.  Islam – like Buddhism and Hinduism – refuses to separate man and nature, religion and science, mind and matter, and has preserved a metaphysical and unified view of ourselves and the world around us.  At the core of Christianity there still lies an integral view of the sanctity of the world, and a clear sense of the trusteeship and responsibility given to us for our natural surroundings.  A comprehensive philosophy of nature is no longer part of our everyday beliefs.  I cannot help feeling that, if we could now only rediscover that earlier, all-embracing approach to the world around us, to see and understand its deeper meaning, we could begin to get away from the increasing tendency in the West to live on the surface of our surroundings, where we study our world in order to manipulate and dominate it, turning harmony and beauty into disequilibrium and chaos.  It is a sad fact, I believe, that in so many ways the external world we have created in the last few hundred years has come to reflect our own divided and confused inner state.  Western civilisation has become increasingly acquisitive and exploitive in defiance of our environmental responsibilities.  This crucial sense of oneness and trusteeship of the vital sacramental and spiritual character of the world about us is surely something important we can relearn from Islam.  If the ways of thought in Islam and other religions can help us in that search, then there are things for us to learn in this system of belief which I suggest we ignore at our peril.  Ladies and gentlemen, we live today in one world, forged by instant communications, by television, by the exchange of information on a scale undreamed of by our grandparents.  The world economy functions as an inter-dependant entity.  Problems of society, the quality of life and the environment, are global in their causes and effects, and none of us any longer has the luxury of being able to solve them on our own.  The Islamic and Western worlds share problems common to us all; how we adapt to change in our societies, how we help young people who feel alienated from their parents or society’s values, how we deal with Aids, drugs and the disintegration of family.  Of course, these problems vary in nature and intensity between societies.  But the similarity of human experience is considerable.  The international trade in hard drugs is one example, the damage we are collectively doing to our environment is another.  We have to solve these threats to our communities and our lives together.”

For our part we the Muslims whilst graining inspiration from our glorious past and without banking solely on it, should make every endeavour to practice our true benign Islamic teachings, to cleanse the faith from corrupted and deviant accretions, to save it from the self proclaimed saviours such as the rabid extremist and purveyors of terrorism who have exposed our religion to the legitimate criticism of not only of the West but of the whole world.

As to our future things are clear: greater advances in technology and communications; a more interdependent and integrated world, increased knowledge due to new discoveries and inventions; more political and economic players wanting a share in shaping world agendas; greater competition among ideological, cultural, ethnic and religious strains; and, for Muslims, the intellectual shift from the Middle Eastern heartland of Islam to other places, such as the United States and Southeast Asia, is bound to accelerate with English, not Arabic, assuming the role as the lingua franca of the Muslim world.  What do all of the above trends means to Muslims?  Of the many challenges they can expect to face in the coming century, one would be on the economic front; how to upgrade their knowledge and skills, that, while making them relevant to the new age while keeping them in line with the Islamic conception of knowledge.  The next would be the socio-cultural aspects; how to deal with westernization and its attendant values of secularism, nationalism and capitalism and sill maintain our Islamic identity.  The third would  be political; domestically, what type of leadership should Muslims have, internationally, how the Islamic leadership can exercise leverage on the world community.

The underpinning for all these is the need for knowledge.  This factor of knowledge (ilm) is not new.  From time immemorial, there has been one valuable constant in human civilization; the better equipped and the more knowledgeable will prosper over others – as was true of the earlier Chinese, Hindu, Greek, Persian and Egyptian civilizations.  That was also the situation with pre-Islamic Arab  civilization, for the region was so backward and pitiful that the superpowers of the time, Byzantium and Persia, simply ignored it as unworthy and undeserving of their attention.  Contrast that with the superiority that Arabs once Islamized and knowledgeable, attained over others and became the envy of many peoples.

Thus Muslims have been ordered to seek knowledge and to upgrade their skills so that they are relevant to the requirements of their age.  It is no exaggeration to say that we need more scientists, engineers, business entrepreneurs (particularly with a global outlook), networking among Muslim scholars and experts, consultants, and other expertise.  The pursuit of knowledge and the upgrading of competence has no boundaries and must not be confined to Muslim lands, for the Prophet advised Muslims to go even to China, then a major center of learning and civilization.  They are also well aware that there are many Qur’anic statements about the difference between those with knowledge and those without it (Qur’an 39:9) and how the knowledgeable are higher than others in the eyes of God (Qur’an 58:11).  The Prophet also said that knowledge is like a lost treasure that Muslims must find and regain, and that the Ulama (men of knowledge) are like a bright constellation of stars on a dark night.

This principle aside, there is another critical aspect of knowledge worthy of Muslim thought: Knowledge is related to belief (Iman).  There is a Qur’anic supplication commonly recited by Muslim after prayers: “O Allah, I seek from Thee knowledge and intellect and gather me in the company of the pious” (26:83)

I hope in the time you have been kind enough to share with me I have been able to say something useful.  As I close my speech, I wish to state to this audience that participation for me has been one of immense pleasure and privilege.  These feelings have been heightened by the fact that Dr. Azeez and my late father were good friends.  Having grown up in the same era and who worked together in common endeavours.  Thank you.  Assalamu Alaikum

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