M. Umer Chapra works at the Islamic Research and Training Institute of the Islamic Development Bank. His book, Muslim civilization: the causes of decline and the need for reform deals with the downfall of the Muslim nations throughout history.
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The book encompasses the multitude of aspects of the phenomenon, including economic, social, educational, scientific, and cultural. The book has a very broad chronological scope, viewing the Muslim civilization in its entirety rather than focusing on a single historical period. However, it does not adhere to chronological order. Instead, it is divided thematically into three distinctive parts. The first, comprised of the first two chapters, describes the rise of the Muslim civilization. The second, encompassing chapters three through six, details its decline and its various aspects. They are economic, which, according to the author, occurred because of the authorities’ unwise policies and unfair taxation (Umer Chapra 2008, p. 89); educational and scientific, which is attributed to the decline in financial support, the subsequent inability of the private sector to sustain the education and the unacceptable views forced on the public by rationalists (Umer Chapra 2008, p. 99); and social, which is caused by straying from the absolute moral law contained in Qur’an, but is arguably universal (Umer Chapra 2008, p. 137). The third part laid out entirely in the final chapter, describes the proposed solution – the political reform that will, in turn, lead to positive changes in other fields, triggering the cultural and spiritual development inhibited by the current state of events (Umer Chapra 2008, p. 171).
Umer Chapra clearly emphasizes the theological and philosophical side of the problem, stating that the central reason for the decline is the abandonment or distortion of moral and social principles laid out in the Qur’an (Umer Chapra 2008, p. xx).
The methodological part of the book is finely crafted, with reliable sources for all the presented data. The Qur’an is used not as a religious item, but rather as a set of guidelines which, if properly addressed, can potentially avert future crises like that described in the book. The author even emphasizes the negative consequences of using the Qur’an as a literal set of instructions (Umer Chapra 2008, p. 160) and provides examples of positive outcomes of adherence to its philosophy (Umer Chapra 2008, p. 38). The author also makes some strong points to support his claims, like drawing convincing parallels between democracy and Khilafah (Umer Chapra 2008, p. 56).
However, some of his other conclusions are of questionable validity and a somewhat utopian nature, like the suggestion to radically change taxation without proposing a valid method to do so (Umer Chapra 2008, p. 89). The final chapter is speculative, theorizing on the possible outcome of suggested changes rather than providing hard data or a conclusive summary. Besides, the reliance on a religious text in the discussion of a scientific matter can serve as a warning of potential bias, especially when backed with an emotionally rich and subjective tone used by Umer Chapra.
The book notably lacks the geopolitical aspect of the question. The description of the complex situation in the world during the period of the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, which is commonly referred to as the period of the decline in question, is described in the broadest strokes (Umer Chapra 2008, p. 91). Meanwhile, some scholars argue that the inner tensions between the Gunpowder Empires, as well as the pressure from the neighboring countries, played a crucial role in the process. Martin Sicker, in his work The Islamic world in decline: from the treaty of Karlowitz to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, makes a thorough argument in favor of such suggestion, detailing each major event and actor, like the exhaustive inner conflicts between Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (Sicker 2001, p. 12), the emergence of Russia as the imperial power (Sicker 2001, p. 78), tensions in Western Europe (Sicker 2001, p. 102) and the adherence to Jihad as a fundamental cultural and political principle (Sicker 2001, p. 5). Sicker actually uses the term “theopolitics” to emphasize the equal importance of both the religious and the political aspects in shaping the history of the Muslim world (Sicker 2001, p. vii).
Instead, Umer Chapra’s book offers a multidisciplinary approach, covering the culture, worldview, science, and economy of the Muslims. The skeptical inquiry into the argument presented by the author reveals several weak points, including his attempt to narrow the complex matter to a single cause and using the reverse approach of backtracking from the conclusions to the suggestions. His proposed outcomes after the changes in the political system also lack solid argumentation, being essentially one possible outcome but presented as the most likely one. When viewed as a solid analytical work, Umer Chapra’s book is unconvincing. On the other hand, it offers a good base for a theological study on the effect of the Qur’an on Muslim civilization, especially its influence on economy and sciences. Keeping all this in mind, we can conclude that Muslim civilization, while not consistent in terms of the scientific method, still offers valuable information for students of social and economic studies, history students, and people who seek to broaden their scope on Muslim nations, or even those looking for an introduction to the topic.
Sicker, M. (2001). The Islamic world in decline: from the treaty of Karlowitz to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
Umer Chapra, M. (2008). Muslim civilization: the causes of decline and the need for reform. Markfield, Leiscestershire, UK: Islamic Foundation.