Islam, Globalization and Challenges

Islam, Globalization and Challenges

Much is being written these days on globalization and its effects as well as Islam and challenges of globalization. Yet much more is needed to be written to cover various aspects. Globalization has emerged as a major challenge for religions in general and Islam in particular. Before we deal with these challenges, we would like to throw light on the nature of globalization itself so that we can comprehend the challenge better.

I would like to assert here that globalization is nothing new. Right from known history there have been intercontinental migrations. Silk Route well known in history was also sort of globalizing process. Then colonization of Asian and African countries in 18th and 19th centuries was also a phase of globalization. These phases of globalizations had distinct features and the current phase of globalization has its own features. In order to understand nature of globalization in the current phase it is important to understand these distinct features. Then only can we understand nature of challenges, then and now.

The nature of globalization when trade was carried out through silk trade route was of non-dominant nature. The trade caravans started from China and passed through India, the Yemen by crossing the Indian Sea and from Yemen it proceeded towards Eastern part of Roman Empire after crossing the desert called Rub’al Khali. This globalization also created certain challenges to Arabs which we would like to discuss.

Then the colonial powers of Europe colonized various Asian and African countries and this globalization was of very different nature from the one brought about by Silk Trade Route. Silk Route trade was participative, not dominating in nature. Each country participated in trade in their own way and contributed to trade. No country dominated over any other country. However, colonial globalization was of different nature altogether. The colonial powers dominated the colonized countries and deeply influenced the social fabric of the colonized country. It posed great challenges which we will discuss.


First we will throw light on challenges posed by Silk Route trade to Arab society in 5th and 6th century. It was this challenge posed by Silk Route trade which brought about birth of Islam. We would like to discuss this in some detail below.

The Silk Route trade also deeply impacted on social fabric of Meccan society in 6th century. The Meccan Arabs were expert guides for crossing the desert of Rub’ al-Khali. No trade caravan could cross that formidable desert without their help. Thus the trade caravans wishing to reach Roman Empire had to cross this desert and these Arabs acted as expert guides. Mecca thus became a station on this international trade route and gradually a high centre of international trade and finance.

These Arab guides gradually became expert traders too and began to accumulate riches through profitable international trade.

Accumulation of riches deeply impacted tribal way of life and soon there occurred divide between rich and poor. A tribal society has no concept of private property except in animals and personal weapons and consequently has no concept of poverty. But this transformation from a tribal to trading society brought about dynamics of social change of its own and while some traders became rich and others were consigned to lower levels of social structure. A tribal society has no concept of social hierarchy and believes in equality of all and even tribal chief is first among equals, nothing more.

But division between rich and poor changed the whole social fabric and poor members of tribe were no longer treated as equal and these poor were forced to labor for the rich, often were used for loading and unloading the camels carrying trading goods. Slavery also developed and slave trade also took place as slaves were needed in Roman Empire and rich Meccans also began to keep slaves.

The tribal ethics underwent drastic change. Since in tribal society there is no concept of poverty, there is no question of neglecting poor. But in newly emergent society not only poor came into existence but the rich began to neglect them thus violating tribal tradition. Thus a social malaise developed and social tensions between rich and poor emerged. The life style of the rich changed completely and the poor could not even meet their basic needs.

Muhammad (PBUH) was deeply disturbed by this social malaise and retired to cave of Hira to reflect over the situation. He began to receive revelation from Allah to guide him and the earliest chapters and verses dealt with this situation in Meccan society. These powerful verses strongly condemned accumulation of wealth (see verses 104, 107 and others). These verses exhorted the Meccan rich to take care of poor, needy, orphans and widows what we can term in modern political terminology as weaker sections of society.

The Qur’an also made justice (including distributive justice) as central to the Qur’anic ethics and attacked lavish life style of the rich. Thus Islam emerged as a strong political as well as spiritual movement in response to the impact of ‘globalization’ of its own time. That globalization too was favoring the rich and accentuating differences between rich and poor and Islam’s sympathy was clearly with the poor and the neglected sections of society on its margin.

Other countries were not deeply impacted by this international trade as India, Yemen and region of Roman Empire was feudal where such differences had already existed. It was Meccan society, which was structurally very different and was in the process of developing such economic classes. Thus Islam was embraced by the youth who were desiring change (in all revolutionary movements youth play and important role), slaves, and other marginalized sections of society. Of course some rich traders too responded to it as they were also pained by marginalization of fellow tribals and wanted to bring about favorable change. Traders like Abubaker, Usman (who subsequently became political successors of the Prophet) embraced Islam readily and helped Islamic movement by generously donating their wealth for spread of the movement.

Thus it was that globalization brought about by this Silk Route trade between far off China and region of Roman Empire via India and Yemen. Islamic movement soon reached these countries – parts of China, Central Asia, India, Yemen and conquered Eastern Roman Empire and Sassanid Empire in a course of a century. But though Islam deeply impacted the spiritual life of these regions, it could not leave deeper impact on political and social structure in these countries. The feudal politics co-opted Islamic politics and Khilafat, the representative model of Islamic politics, soon turned into monarchical model of politics so aptly discussed by Maulana Abul a’ala Maududi, the founder of Jamat-e-Islami in India, in his book Khilafat aur Mulukiyyat.

Thus Islam, after it spread in non-Arab regions of the world with advanced feudal political structure lost its revolutionary political impact and a political movement became an essentially other worldly spiritual movement. Thus social hierarchy prevails today in all Islamic countries though it is anathema to Islamic ethical as well as political teachings. Serious social and political inequalities prevail throughout Islamic world.


Thus seemingly innocuous trade between different countries in 6th century brought about a profound transformation in the region of Arabia which subsequently equally profoundly influenced whole of our world. Thus globalization can throw up entirely new social movements and political structures. The globalization of second wave was colonial globalization as pointed out before. This globalization also had great impact on social and political structures of the colonialized countries.

Most of the Islamic countries from Algeria to Indonesia came under direct or indirect influence of colonial countries like Britain, France and Italy etc. This phase of colonization seriously upset social structures and political outlooks. The colonized people

were faced with the challenge of new culture and western political as well as moral philosophy. Now the challenge was not only cultural and political but also that of science and technological inventions.

By nineteenth century the European countries had developed far more superior technology and had made significant scientific discoveries. These discoveries had given great boost to rational and secular outlook, on one hand, and political philosophy of democracy, on the other. The colonized countries had not known these technologies and scientific discoveries and hence they developed inferiority complex. This colonization also led to developing a universal secular educational institutions thus creating an educated elite easily co-opted by the colonial country.

Thus colonized countries, in this second wave of globalization created deep divisions among colonized people – those educated and politically privileged and mass of poor people looked upon with contempt by the educated elite. The elite welcomed change, even westernization and religious elite and unlettered masses opposing it. Nevertheless colonial impact brought about democratic movements, administrative reforms, universal secular education and rational thinking. The colonial rule thus proved blessing in disguise to a limited extent. None of the colonized countries had democracy. They were governed by monarchies including India. While colonial rule amounted to slavery, it also left its imprint on almost all spheres of life.

Thus challenges of colonial rule were a mixed bag. The colonial rule did not allow people of colonized countries to take independent decisions, it arrested economic growth and they could not free elect their own representatives. But at the same time as an impact of colonial rule Islamic countries underwent beneficial changes in outlook and many reform movements were launched. Also movements to revive early Islam also came into being. In Egypt Muhammad Abduh, a great Islamic thinker, reinterpreted many provisions of Shari’ah and tried to reform Egyptian society. Many women writers took up the gauntlet and advocated reforms to improve the status of Muslim women.

Muhammad Abduh spent number of years in France and was highly impressed by level of education in that society and rational outlook of people of France. He started a magazine and named it Urwat al-Wuthqa along with Jamaluddin Afghani. Jamaluddin Afghani launched a pan-Islamic movement and tried to create unity among all Muslim countries to challenge western supremacy. Jamaluddin was active in political sphere while Muhammad Abduh, his disciple, preferred to work for dissemination of education among Muslims.

In Indian Islam too there was intellectual ferment and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan founded MAO College, which became university in 1920. He also launched a magazine and called it tahzib al-Akhlaq and advocated social and religious reform. He also tried to re-interpret Holy Qur’an by writing a new tafsir in the light of new development in the world of science and scientific discoveries. Interestingly enough Syed Hamid, the then Vice Chancellor of AMU revived Tahzib al-Akhlaq and it is continuing ever since.

Justice Amir Ali, Maulavi Chiragh Ali, Maulana Mumtaz Ali Khan and others also advocated reforms in Muslim law in keeping with the modern times and made seminal contributions in that field. Philosopher poet Mohammad Iqbal wrote Reconstruction of Religious thought in Islam and invited Muslim intelligentsia to re-think on many Islamic issues. There was conflict of views between the conservative ‘Ulama and reform minded Muslim intellectuals.

Also during the colonial period Islam was reviled by the Christian clerics and many Muslim practices came under attack from British colonial masters. New laws and new judicial processes were introduced which again were mixed bag. Muslim countries were dominated at the gunpoint. These challenges thrown up by colonization were quite severe enough but also partially beneficial as they stirred our thinking and caused intellectual ferment.

However, while in non-Islamic countries like India colonial rule brought structural changes both in political as well as economic spheres in no Muslim country such basic structural transformation took place and as a result of this no Muslim countries could usher in either democratic or capitalist revolution. Both feudal politics and feudal economy could not be replaced. Some ‘Ulama and Muslim intellectuals who talked of Islamic democracy and Islamic economy also did not succeed in bringing in any fundamental change in political or economic sphere. It was nothing more than empty rhetoric. Thus there is complete stagnation in these countries.


In this section we will deal with the third wave of globalization which we are faced with presently. The challenges thrown up by this phase of globalization are qualitatively very different and response to these challenges are also very different from the ones during colonial phase. There is no political colonization in this phase but economic colonization. No guns have been used to establish political domination as in colonial period but financial domination has been imposed through various means. Violence has been used in some incalcitrant countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, but not everywhere. Even in these countries direct political control has been avoided. We will shed more light on this little later.

Though globalization always results in connectivity (without which there is no question of globalization as the very term indicates), in this phase connectivity has very significant role to play through computer revolution. Whole world has been connected through e-net work, email and websites. This connectivity is being used by both who are supporters of globalization as well as those who vehemently oppose it.

‘Ulama too are taking maximum benefit of this connectivity. They have set -up Islamic websites and websites of their Islamic institutions. Today all important Qur’anic commentaries and entire corpus of ahadith are available on these websites. Not only this these facilities have been used for making various arithmetic calculations about the Qur’anic words, verbs and sentences. Searching Qur’anic verses and ahadith has also become extremely easy. It has thus immensely benefited Islamic scholars. Thus this connectivity is an important part of present phase of globalization and no one opposes it.

While this is positive side of globalization in this phase, its negative side is no less problematic. This phase of globalization has bulldozed all native cultures homogenizing them in one sweep through various media channels. Also, this homogenization is being promoted through gross commercialization of culture. This commercialization has bulldozed all religious, cultural and civilizational values too.

It is this bulldozing of cultural and civilizational values which has created strong reaction from traditional religious elite and has resulted in what is being termed as ‘religious fundamentalism. This is a major challenge which has emerged during the current phase of globalization. As pointed out during before, colonial phase too saw this challenge but not on such massive scale. There was an attempt to impose western culture as superior culture during colonial phase but there was no such challenge at market place and means of communications were extremely limited and such homogenization could not have been possible as it is today during the current globalization and fast connectivity.

All T.V. channels and print media are at the service of those attempting the bulldozing. Also, unlike earlier colonial days, there is no coercive imposition which could be strongly resisted. In this phase it is attempt at popularization through commercial channels. The economic elite consider it their privilege to accept western culture. During colonial phase different colonial powers dominated various colonized countries though Britain was largest among them. In this phase one single country USA has established its domination in all spheres political, economic and cultural. American values have emerged as universal values.

Thus conservative religious elite are strongly resisting this attempt, though not very successfully as people of all communities want to have ‘good things’ of life. Islamic countries themselves like Dubai and Kuwait have emerged as huge markets for these goods and special festivals are often organized by governments of these countries to promote sale of these goods.

Women’s bodies have also been commercialized and one sees photographs of semi-naked women in every commercial advertisements evoking strong reaction from traditional elements. Thus Muslim women are subjected to more controls to protect their chastity. Men continue to enjoy all the freedom but women come under greater male control.

This globalization has also resulted in Huntingtonian theories like ‘clash of civilizations’ which are in the interest of American domination of Islamic world. And Islamic world is sought to be dominated on account of its treasures of oil and oil is needed to meet the requirements of energy for automobiles as well as industries. Without the oil wheels of western economy would grind to halt. Today American foreign policy in Middle East, is totally governed by oil politics.

America lends blind support to Israel and keeps on arming it to teeth as Israel is the only reliable ally in Middle East. It was in fact created with an eye on Arab oil. Many Arab rulers are also allies of America but rulers may be reliable but not the people of these countries. People continue to be anti-America. US lent total support to the Shah of Iran but people of Iran overthrew Shah’s rule.

However, in case of Israel both rulers as well as people can be totally relied upon and hence its value as a most reliable ally in that oil rich region. Thus when Saddam Husain proved to be recalcitrant, theory of weapons of mass destruction was invented and Iraq was bulldozed. However Iraqi people too have proved to be more recalcitrant. Earlier Taliban regime was dethroned as it did not permit USA to lay down pipe lines to ferry Central Asian oil through its region.

The response to American violence has been equally violent by forces like Al-Qaida. Thus this reactive violence is resulting in loss of innocent lives and what is worse Islamic notions like Jihad are being invoked by Al-Qaida and other ‘terrorist groups’. Such groups are multiplying in regions of South Asia too which has also emerged as volatile region.

However, this reactive violence is not desirable and is against Islamic values of compassion and wisdom. Wisdom is strongly emphasized by Qur’an and other measures which could be more effective in correcting American policies without loss of innocent human lives should be adopted. Because of this reactive violence powerful western media is reviling Islam though it is none of Islam’s fault whose central value is peace. Peaceful, non-violent means would be much more effective and Muslims Ulama and intellectuals should join hands to evolve peaceful, non-violent means to respond to American violence in Islamic countries.