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The Impact of the Perception of Religion on Societal Development: From the Past to the Present

The prevailing sentiment during the 1970s and 1980s, when some argue we experienced our youth, was that Islam, almost single-handedly, was the primary culprit for our lack of progress, akin to Western countries. The cliché expression went something like this among those holding this view: “The West progressed after abandoning religion.”

This statement had some partial truth to it. When examining the relationship between religion, particularly the Church, and aspects like science, governance, nature, and administrative styles in the Western world, it was clear that progress or even humane living seemed impossible under the mindset and governance style of the Church. However, in those awakening years of our youth, we lacked the ability to comprehend this.

Therefore, the opposite meaning of the phrase “The West abandoned religion and progressed” was etched into our minds. Some of us found this through our own reasoning, while others, influenced by our parents, teachers in school, Turkish cinema films, and the explicit statements of famous authors in bookstores, had their minds shaped with messages like, “If we want to progress like Western countries, we must abandon religion.”

So, what did our parents, grandparents, or teachers who imparted religious teachings say? Looking back from today, I can divide them into two groups.

Firstly, those who lived without questioning the religion as they inherited it from their ancestors – mostly our parents – had nothing specific to say. While continuing their own religious practices, they entrusted us to mosque or Quran course instructors and guided us towards various books, from anecdotal books like “Kan Kalesi” by Hz. Ali to Ömer Nasuhi Bilmen’s catechism.

Secondly, our teachers were individuals trying to live a religious life consciously, answering our questions with slogan-like sentences. They continuously took us back to the past, saying things like, “Islam will come, brutality will cease; Truth has come, falsehood has perished!”

What they said was correct in the historical context. Especially, the examples given during the revelation period of the Quran and the practices of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) proved this. However, what about afterwards? Why didn’t we ask about what happened after that? Why didn’t we question why the finest companions of Allah’s Messenger (PBUH), namely Hz. Umar, Hz. Uthman, and Hz. Ali, were killed and martyred while the traces of such a blessed era were still present? Why didn’t the questions of why the Battle of the Camel and the Battle of Siffin took place come to our minds? Anyway.

So, what do I think today? While I am not in sharp agreement with the idea that the West progressed after abandoning religion, I believe that our perception of religion is an important factor in hindering our development. To avoid misunderstandings, let me emphasize this in a different way; it is not the religion itself but our way of perceiving it. Not the knowledge of religion but the interpretation of religious knowledge. Not the Quran and Sunnah, but the interpretations of our scholars.

If you ask, “Why this topic now?” I would say it has never left my mind. Religion takes a central place in my life, both personally and professionally. For over 43 years, my professional readings, writings, and speeches have revolved around this central theme.

Secondly, I came across a well-known hadith in a book I read: “Facilitate, do not complicate. Bring glad tidings, do not repel. Cooperate, do not conflict!”

I thought about this hadith more than I had ever thought before. Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) said this advice to Muadh ibn Jabal when appointing him as the governor of Yemen. This admonition was crucial, especially considering that Muadh would be sent to a new geography where different socio-cultural conditions prevailed, despite people being acquainted with Islam. It was important for him to understand the capacity of the people and the society who would be recipients of the message. Our methodology in religion, which we call “tedricilik” (gradualism), already explains this.

I agree and accept; the Muslim world’s failure to adapt to the developments of the last two to three centuries, inability to read and understand the world and its course, and consequently, its decline, has numerous reasons, including economic, military, demographic, geographic, political, cultural, etc. The dominance of the West is a significant reason in this context. However, our perception of religion and religious values must also play a role.

Just look at this difference; those who have noticed this difference and have emerged to say, whether it’s reform, revival, renewal, or reform, “We must change this perception,” have always been sentenced to annihilation. They have either been killed, or they have been dragged through one trial after another, one prison after another, or they have been sent from exile to exile.

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Dr. Ahmet Kurucan is a an author and scholar focusing on Islamic Studies and Law.

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