Part of Lecture 5 of Islamic Economics 2019 at IIIE, IIUI [shortlink: bit.do/azdmt ] – For full paper, see: Development: Myths and Truths & also: Is Development Accumulation of Wealth? Islamic Views.
The main theme that runs through all of my articles is that the message of Islam, which changed the course of history 1450 years ago, is just as powerful today. However, Muslims fail to realize its power, and think that today our path to development lies in following the West. WHY do Muslims fail to realize that their own religion contains the keys to the revolution and success that the Ummah is looking for today? This is a HUGE puzzle.
The key to solving this puzzle is to understand that Europeans colonized the world and had control of nearly the entire globe (Europe conquered all but five countries ) by the beginning of the twentieth century — Most importantly, we do not realize that colonization is, in the first place, colonization of the mind (see History: Conquest Song of the Victors). In order to be colonized, and made to serve as useful subjects, we must learn to think of the world in the conceptual frameworks furnished by the colonizer. One of the central ideas of the colonizers is to justify their conquest by presented the Europeans as superior to us in all ways, and our own civilization and heritage as inferior and contemptible (see The Conquest of Knowledge). Our own traditional educational systems were systematically destroyed, and replaced by Western institutions which were designed to create a deep seated inferiority complex. These educational systems continue to function today, and continue to poison our minds with the idea that development is what the colonizers defined it as — namely accumulation of power and wealth. Once this myth is planted in our brains, then it becomes impossible for us to realize the power of the message of Islam — because we evaluate the message to see if it will give us power and wealth, instead of looking at the radically different definition of development that Islam offers. Islam provides us with the means of self-transformation, realizing the hidden capabilities of excellence that all human beings are born with. This inner transformation leads to an external transformation of societies and the world.
The first step requires a radical alteration of mindsets, a paradigm shift. This involves cleansing our minds of the myths implanted by our colonizers, and replacing them with truths which Islam gave us 1450 years ago. My article on Development: Myths and Truths discusses a dozen myths which we must replace a dozen truths. Three of these myths can be classified under the heading of “Materialism Versus Idealism”. These three myths are the subject of this post. A video talk in Urdu, which was part of Lecture 5 in Islamic Economics 2019 at IIIE, IIUI is linked below – this is part 1,and part 2 will be provided in a later post.
Materialism Versus Idealism
Human beings are made up of body and soul. The materialistic philosophy which we have absorbed in our Western education teaches us to give great importance to the BODY and ignore the soul. The fact is that without the soul, the body is dead. Material by itself is dead, and only our ideas make it useful. It is the power and the energy of our hearts and mind, ideas and passion, which brings about change. A Western education teaches us the opposite lesson in many different ways. We discuss three myths which poison our minds, and prevent us from realizing the full potential given to us by God.
Myth #1: Materialistic Determinism
Materialism is a philosophy which gives primacy to material circumstances as determinants of history. That means that the fate of nations is determined by material circumstances – if they have good geographic location, natural resources, and other favorable materials, then they will progress. Lack of development is explained by inadequacy of natural resources. On this view, nations are undeveloped because they lack material resources.
Throughout human history, it has been IDEAS which have changed the course of history. The tiny country of Japan has virtually no resources except one INVISIBLE resource — this was ONE of the four countries which was never conquered by the west. As a result, their MINDS remained free of colonization, and they were able to become world leaders and overtake the USA and the richest Western countries in many dimensions.
Another easy way to see that the idea of material determinism is wrong is the following. It can be checked that in terms of material resources, USA, Russia, Brazil and India were roughly on par in the early nineteenth century. Yet all four have had drastically different development trajectories. If the theory of material determinism was even roughly correct, then this should not have been the case. Political and Social structures, shaped by ideological and material struggles, matter immensely for development.
Truth #1: Visions and Ideas are Powerful
The history of mankind is the history of visionaries and idealists, men committed to grand ideas who gave their all and changed the course of history. The greatest example for us is our Prophet Mohammad S.A.W. who took the Arabs from the bottom to the top fourteen centuries ago. At the time, the Arabs were primitive and illiterate nomads in a world which had advanced civilizations like Roman, Persian, Egyptian and Chinese. Historians like Hart (2000) have correctly identified our Prophet Mohammad S.A.W. as the single most influential person in human history. His life changed the course of human history forever, and his work has deeply influenced the lives of more than a billion people on the planet today, fourteen centuries after his passing. What material changes did the Prophet bring about which created this revolution? The answer is NONE. He did not introduce new weapons, techniques of warfare, or any new industry or technology. He gave a new vision to the Arabs, in the shape of Islam, and this vision re-shaped the world.
Throughout history, it has been men of vision who have brought about the greatest changes, unconstrained by material resources. Karl Marx was dismayed by the exploitation of laborers by capitalist as a result of the industrial revolution in England. His vision of an egalitarian world where each would be provided for according to their needs captured the imaginations of many. It changed the course of history in Russia and China; no material means were involved. It is ironic that Marx himself was one of the greatest advocates of material determinism, since the impact of his ideas furnishes such a strong counterexample to his own theories in this regard. In a similar way, it has always been leaders with visions which have, for better or worse, changed the development trajectories of their nations.
It is important to clarify that ideas by themselves cannot directly impact the real world – they must always be translated and implemented via material means. This means that there will always be an apparent material cause, which allows us to ignore the vision and idea behind the material cause. For example, materialists might argue that the atom bomb led to the US victory over Japan. This ignores the ideas which led to the conception of the atom bomb, as well as the ideas which made it morally permissible to kill millions of innocent civilians as a demonstration of power.
Lesson #1: De-colonizing the Mind
If material circumstance will not determine our development trajectory, then what will? My main contention in this article is that the greatest obstacle to development is the vast number of wrong ideas which we have absorbed due to a western education. Removing these blindfolds from our heads will enable us to clearly see the pathways to progress. This must be the first step, though certainly it will not be enough by itself. It is essential to see the goal clearly, before one can take steps towards achieving it. In particular, development will not be achieved by any of the popular nostrums – such as privatization, liberalization, good governance, democracy etc. – being touted as the remedy for our ills. Another important consequence of unlearning material determinism is the importance of people. Human beings like you and I have changed the course of history by learning new and powerful ideas. Thus our ignorance is responsible for current conditions prevailing on the planet, and knowledge will guide us to the efforts required to change them. The understanding that we can change things is one of the most powerful ideas that is required to make changes. The oft-expressed despair that we are locked into a bad condition, and there is nothing we can do to change things, is a powerful obstacle to progress. We have to learn that WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE, if we try hard to do so.
Myth #2: The World is built of Stones, Mountains and Rivers
The materialist world view tells us that we live in a world constructed out of mountains, rivers, oceans and continents. There are physical laws which bind every particle to a determinate trajectory. These are concrete hard realities, written in stone, which constrain the scope of our possible actions. As individuals, we have very little power to change things. An individual weighing 80 Kilograms cannot make much of a dent in a world massing thousands of metric tons.
While no one can deny the existence of the world out there, it is also true that we all have a picture of this world in our own minds. This picture is a very rough approximation of the true reality out there. When we think about the world, we have no access to the “true reality” – we only have access to the mental representation of this reality within our minds. Nearly all the furniture in my mental landscape — Hiroshima, Africa, the Mongols, the Steam Engine, Red Indians, Baghdad – consists of accounts that I have read and absorbed, rather than experienced reality. Our lives and actions are far more strongly influenced by this mental representation of the world, than by the real world.
The materialist world view is based on the idea that the mental representation of reality is a close and accurate match to the true reality. If this is true, then our IDEA of reality is the SAME as reality and so the material reality completely determines our picture of the world out there. The truth is that our picture of the world is VERY DIFFERENT from the real world, and this picture is built by our own ideas based on our ideological frameworks. For example, a Hindu and a Muslim living in Indo-Pak subcontinent will have very different conceptions of history — one will think that his land was invaded by foreigners, while the other will trace his roots to the advent of Islam 1400 years ago. Yet both live in exactly the same material reality.
As Keynes (1936,p 383) said:
“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
We have a large number of ideas about the world we live in. We are used to thinking in binaries – this idea is true and that one is false. We also believe that there is only one set of true ideas which describes accurately the world we live in. A collection of ideas which shapes the world we live in may be called a worldview. There are many alternative worldviews possible, all of which provide explanations of the facts we see. We have a free choice among worldviews, which is not constrained by facts. Choice among worldviews must be made on other grounds. Believing that there is only one possible view which is factual, objective and concrete leaves us in ignorance of other frameworks and worldviews. When we are not aware of the extremely important choice of how to organize the world we see into a coherent and understandable reality, then this choice is imposed upon us by others. That is, without any conscious awareness of having made a choice, we accept a worldview implicit in the ways that the world is described to us by others. In support of these ideas, Eribon (1992, p. 282) quotes Foucault:
There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than “politicians” think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them. Ideas do not rule the world. But it is because the world has ideas (and because it constantly produces them) that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think.
Truth #2: The World is Shaped by Human Choices
In opposition to the materialist view, we would like to argue that the mental representation of the world we live in is extremely important. The world out there is not “knowable”. The geography and history of this world is far too rich and complex to be grasped by any mind. This means that the materialist ideal of a perfectly accurate model of reality is impossible to achieve. This corresponds to the Quran[17:85]: “And of knowledge, you (mankind) have been given only a little.” Our experience of the world we live in will be strongly influenced both by the small number of facts that we know, and also by the large number of facts that we never learned during our lives. This places tremendous premium on learning the important facts, since we can never know all of them. But how can we learn what is important, and what is not, without knowing all of them? This is the dilemma of human knowledge.
Our mental models of the world, and our normative conceptions of the good and the bad determine the choices we make in the course of our lives. Our lives are far more deeply affected by the collection of human choices than by the material forces around us. It is stated in a Hadeeth that Allah T’aala creates circumstances in response to human actions – if we make good decisions, then good outcomes results. The Quran (30:41) (see also 42:30) shows that bad actions lead to bad outcomes:
30:41 corruption has appeared on land and in the sea as an outcome of what men’s hands have wrought
Our ideas about the meaning and purpose of life, as well as appropriate strategies for achieving these goals influence our actions. A huge portion of the world we live in is constructed by social conventions – human ideas about how we should live which command consensus of large communities. For example, we live in Pakistan. Pakistan is an imagined community; it does not exist, except in the minds of men. Suppose that we could achieve consensus tomorrow that nations should not exist, and that mankind should live in harmony and peace with no artificial national boundaries. Then nations would cease to exist tomorrow. The mental representation of the world does not consist purely of rocks and stones which are concrete and unchangeable. It also consists of powerful ideas, which have acquired concreteness and substance through our consensus and acceptance. Changing our mental models can change the world we live in.
Imagine a world in which all human beings are kind, considerate, compassionate, truthful, responsible, and have the characteristics described as good in the Quran. Alternatively imagine a world in which people are selfish, competitive, ruthless, power hungry, and have the characteristics praised by Machiavelli, Friedman and Samuelson. Which world would you rather live in? Would it make a difference if there was a huge amount of wealth in the second world, while people lived simply in the first one? Clearly our lives are strongly shaped by the choices, good or bad, that people in our society make. Islam teaches us to prefer the simple life of our Prophet and the Companions, over the luxury and ostentation of Qaroon and Fir’own. The Quran (3:196) tells us not to be deceived by the apparent luxury of the unbelievers. This is in opposition to dominant western teachings which place selfish pursuit of luxury above any concern for the fate of the poor and the oppressed. These teachings influence humans to choose evil courses of action leading the current state of the world, where tremendous amounts of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few co-exists with huge amounts of misery and poverty for the masses of people. Islam teaches us to care for others over and above our self. The Quran (59:9) praises those who feed others, even though they themselves are in need. The Prophet Mohammad S.A.W. demonstrated that teaching people to make the right choices can change the course of history and the nature of the society we live in.
Lesson #2: Choosing the Good
To build a better world, we do not need more factories and fertilizer. Rather, we need to change the choices that human beings are making during the course of their lives. The Quran (90:10) states that Allah T’aala has “shown him the two highways [of good and evil]”. That is, this world is a test, and man has a choice between good and evil. The Prophet Mohammed S.A.W. came to teach mankind good and evil, and how to make good choices in preference to evil ones. Today, the world is in a bad state because humans are constantly choosing evil over good. The Quran exhorts us to prefer the good, even though our desires favor the evil. To improve the state of the world, we must carry out the mission of the Ummah to spread the good and prohibit the evil.
Myth #3: Objective History is Possible
Another important way in which our mental models influence our lives is in our choice of history, which shapes our identities. The materialist view holds that there is only one unique objective history. In contrast, I would like to argue that history cannot be understood without a point of view. All points of view are automatically biased, and there is no such thing as an unbiased point of view. As a Muslim, I identify with Muslims who came to India to spread the benefits of the religion of Islam to the people living here. However, this same history could be entirely different if told from the point of view of the Hindus, Buddhists, or neutral third parties. What Indians call the war of independence of 1857 was a rebellion from the British viewpoint, and it could be called a battle between British and Indians from the Chinese viewpoint. The crucial point here is that there are no neutral, objective, and factual standpoints available. To minimize or legitimize British atrocities committed during the war is to deny validity to the native point of view. To fail to understand that exigencies of war necessitated harsh measures is to deny validity to the British point of view. Understanding requires simultaneous comprehension of alternative conflicting and contradictory narratives, and not that of a single unbiased and objective history. This is radically different from the conventional perspective that there is only one “true” and objective history.
History can never be objective because of many reasons. The complete historical record of all events that have occurred since the dawn of time is beyond the capacity of any human being to absorb and comprehend. Only a tiny portion of this history has been recorded, and there is strong evidence that only partisans record historical events – those to whom it matters. Even if we select and learn a hundred thousand facts, these will be a small and insignificant portion of the available historical record. There is no chance that such a small collection of facts will be representative, or provide some sort of an objective picture of the totality, which will remain forever inaccessible to humans. Typically we can know or learn only a very tiny percentage of relevant historical facts within the span of a lifetime. As a result, our knowledge of history is automatically biased, and this is a problem which cannot be remedied.
Truth #3: We Choose Our Past, which Shapes Our Future
It is only after giving up hope of achieving a perfect, objective and complete record of history that it becomes possible to understand what history is about. Our past is not engraved in stone and unchangeable, as we imagine it to be. Rather, we choose the stories we will tell about our past. There are so many stories that it is impossible to tell them all. We are free to choose the stories we tell about our past, and our choices create the world we live in – they become part of our mental representation of the world. The vast majority of what I consider my history is events that I have read about, not ones I have experienced. So we choose our past by choosing what to learn about our past. The stories we tell about our past will determine what we consider worth striving for, and also delineate the space of actions open to us.
We find three different schools of thought regarding Islamic history – all three believe in the possibility of objective history, and hence dispute among themselves as to which is the “true” history. One school of thought projects the past glories of Islamic civilization, and refuses to look at the dark side. Another school of thought finds only darkness, and virtually no saving grace. A third school believes that objectivity requires that every time we tell a good story about the Islamic past, we must balance it by telling a bad story. Which is the right approach? To answer this question we must consider why we want to tell stories about our past.
A naïve answer is that we want to tell the “true” story of the Islamic civilization. As already discussed, this is impossible. It is not humanly possible to present the true story of fourteen centuries of an infinitely diverse and complex set of social, cultural, economic and political interactions within the vast Islamic empires. The available materials are too vast to be studied within a lifetime of any human being, and what is not known is far greater than what is known.
Going beyond the simplistic “search for truth,” history serves a varied and complex set of purposes which we cannot adequately summarize in a few paragraphs. Instead, we will just focus on a few points of relevance to what follows. History serves to define our relation to other human beings, and to the large scale human projects and visions which shape the world we live in. It provides meaning to our lives, by putting them in the context of a bigger picture. It provides a purpose and direction for our struggles.
Lesson #3: History as a Tool and Weapon
To understand the functions of history, imagine forgetting our history for a moment. Then we become just one anonymous individual, a drop in the ocean. History is what ties us to the past and connects us to the future, giving our life meaning beyond its finite span. To give a concrete illustration, consider the following summary of Islamic history by Marshall Hodgson (1977, p.71 ):
Muslims are assured in the Quran, ‘You have become the best community ever raised up for mankind, enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong, and having faith in God.’ Earnest men have taken this prophecy seriously to the point of trying to mould the history of the whole world in accordance with it. Soon after the founding of the faith, Muslims succeeded in building a new form of society, which in time carried with it its own distinctive institutions, its art and literature, its science and scholarship, its political and social forms, as well as its cult and creed, all bearing an unmistakable Islamic impress. In the course of centuries, this new society spread over widely diverse climes, throughout most of the Old World. It came closer than any had ever come to uniting all mankind under its ideals.
… Those who have undertaken to rebuild life in Islamic terms have ventured on an enterprise with a high potential reward – that of winning through to the best that is open to mankind; but with correspondingly great risks of error and failure.
Understanding and absorbing this history makes us a part of an enormous enterprise to spread the good to the entire human race. This enterprise has spanned centuries and taken billions of people within its fold. We can identify with its successes and feel sorrow at its failures. Such a history provides courage, vision, perspective, and allows us to be philosophical, put up with short term defeats without losing hope. This is radically different from the bleak perspective of the single individual without history, who is necessarily confined to a single lifetime of experiences with no past and no future.
This is why we must tell stories of heroism and valor, instead of despair and defeat, so that our generations have the courage to face adverse circumstances. We must tie in our lives to bigger projects of mankind so that they acquire meaning. To select exceptional stories from our past, extraordinary examples of good behavior, is not “biased” history. This must be done to create inspiring role models; to allow us to persist in enjoining the good even against overwhelming odds. It is our tremendous good fortune that Islamic history has such extraordinary events. Our ancestors have done things which no other civilization can match. We just give one example, out of a thousand and one possibilities. The way that our Prophet Mohammad S.A.W. forgave bitter enemies, and celebrated the conquest of Mecca with humility, and a night of worship at Ka’ba, has been an inspiration for all Muslim conquerors. It stands in stark contrast with the idea that “all is fair in love and war,” and the rapine and loot associated with conquest that is considered part of human nature by some writers.
End of Part I of a dozen myths about development. This part covers the first 3 myths Later parts will cover the remaining nine. All of the twelve myths were covered in Lecture 5 of Islamic Economics 2019 at IIIE, IIUI by Dr. Asad Zaman. The first half of this portion of the urdu lecture is linked here: Development: Myths and Truths, Part I. Related lectures about development are also linked below.
RELATED Posts and Videos on Development —
- The Third Poison: The Meaning of Development: A Western education teaches is that development means the accumulation of wealth and power. This makes it impossible for us to recognize and understand the value of the teachings of Islam.
- Re-Defining Development: Because human beings strive to achieve goals, how these goals (development) are defined has a tremendous effect on our actions. We show that the meaning of development has varied substantially over time, and human efforts, both individual and collective, have been directed towards achieving “success” according to how “success” is defined by society. Thus the nature of our efforts can change substantially, by re-defining what we call development. In particular, Islam gives us radically different goals to strive for.
- Spirituality and Development: Part I — Lecture to students at Cambridge University. Since modern ways of thinking say that there is no such thing, the first part of the lecture explains the meaning of spirituality to a secular modern Western audience.
- Spirituality and Development: Part II: The second part of this lecture explains how taking human spirituality into account has radical impact on how we understand development. As already discussed, changing the meaning of development changes the nature of our individual and collective efforts.
- What is Development?: Similar to (2) above, the lecture explains that human beings are the greatest creation of God, and development of the hidden potential within us is the real meaning of development. When the Muslims understood this correct meaning, then they changed the world. Now, because Muslims have forgotten the meaning of development, they are ignorant and backwards.
- The Quest for Prosperity: Culture and Economy: Our culture defines the meaning of prosperity, and we all make efforts to achieve it. If defined incorrectly, our lives are wasted in pursuit of an illusion. Therefore it is of vital importance to understand the meaning of prosperity, to ensure that all our efforts do not go in vain. Different definitions of prosperity are discussed and analyzed toward this goal.
- Colonial Atrocities: The myth that Europeans are “developed” and we in the colonies are “under-developed” can be debunked by looking at the way in which Europeans looted the world in order to achieve their current wealth. The barbarism and violence they inflicted upon all other inhabitants of the world is almost un-imaginable, and shocking beyond belief. Just a few of the examples are given in this article. This is useful for un-learning western models of development.
- The First Lesson: Before we can do anything else, we must answer the First Question: What is the purpose of my life? Only after we have an answer to this question, we can assess what we need to do in order to achieve this purpose. A Western education never discusses this question, leaving us with the (unstated) answer that life has no purpose. This is a dangerously false deception, which leads us to waste our lives on meaningless pursuits. This urdu lecture discusses the purpose of our lives.
- The Marginalization of Morality: There has been a gradual loss of moral values in Europe, and morality was removed from the syllabus of a college education in the twentieth century. Thus, even though the west has increased in material prosperity, there has been substantial decline in morality. According to European conceptions, they have progressed because of increasing wealth, but according to Islam, decline of character and morality means that they have been declining. Adopting the Islamic worldview will allow us to see through the illusion of Western progress.
- The Conquest of Knowledge: When Europe colonized the world, it also colonized the minds of people all over the globe. Everyone learned to think of the Europeans as superior, civilized, advanced, and paragon of all virtues. In order the break the invisible chains which enslave our minds, we must become aware of false knowledge that we have absorbed via our Western education, and replace it by the realities of the savage and brutal colonization of the globe.
- Achieving High Growth: This post shows that if we change our conception of development, then the methods we need to use to achieve progress also change dramatically. Achieving high growth requires first liberating our minds from colonized and enslaved thinking, so that we can visualize the paths to freedom and high achievements.