What Future for Muslim Identity?

by Dr. Munawar Anees


Today, the Muslim world faces the most critical period of its history. It is a civilization standing at the crossroads, seemingly unable to carve a niche in the community of nations. The colossal tragedy that struck the United States on September 11, 2001, has once again put the House of Islam at the forefront of world affairs. And it can be decisively argued that a strategy for change in the Muslim world is one of the crying needs of the hour.

Though it would be erroneous to characterize the Muslim world as a monolith, it is fair to argue that not a single Muslim country today meets the criteria for modern political and social governance, religious liberty, economic evolution, gender equality, cultural prosperity, and human dignity. Muslims continue to live under dictators, autocrats, kings, and authoritarian rulers—in grossly oppressive conditions.

Having lost the ability to face the outer world, which is motivated by concern for human rights, multiculturalism, and tolerance, the Muslim social fabric has seen little beyond sectarian strife, tribal wars, and suppression of women and minorities.

Nearly one-fourth of the human population—1.2 billion people, living in fifty Muslim countries—face a grim and uncertain future. And those who habitually put the blame for their ills upon the colonial oppressors need only to be reminded of intra-Muslim carnage: witness the Muslim-on-Muslim violence that led to the division of Bangladesh from Pakistan, a country born in the name of Islam; the decade-long Iran-Iraq war; and the abject neglect of the Palestinian refugees by the wider Arab community, to name a few examples.

Historically, Islam absorbed and comprehended other cultures and gave them expression. The early Muslim civilization, heir to a rich and diverse intellectual stock—Roman, Greek, Indian, and Persian—accomplished a unique synthesis of ideas in all branches of knowledge.

From the eighth to the thirteenth century, there were more religious, philosophical, medical, astronomical, historical, and geographical works written in Arabic than in any other language. And the religious code itself—that is, the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet—was a very liberal, forward-looking code of ethics.

So, in turning a critical eye to Islam, my focus would not be on the religious code. Rather, it would be on how to revive the culture of learning, how to revive the culture of tolerance, how to revive the culture of liberalism, which have remained at the core of Muslim civilization for centuries. We must ask: What are the factors that have gone into pushing that culture back into the Dark Ages, which is what we see today all over the Muslim world in this cultural impasse?

The Prophet of Islam, in his own city—in Medina, where he lived the later part of his life after he was forced to emigrate from Mecca—allowed Jews and Christians to coexist there. Did he subdue them? Did he force them to become Muslims? Did he kill them? He did not. This is the ideal. So we need to find out why this ossification has occurred in Muslim thought and behavior, which is now denying or altogether ignoring its own heritage—to its own detriment and to the detriment of the rest of the world.

In the last few centuries, Muslim culture has grown inward instead of growing outward. There has been a rejection of anything “other.” It has become xenophobic, not in the racial sense but in the epistemological sense. It has an inward-looking attitude at the global, civilizational, and community levels.

And this creates a literalism, which is equal to fundamentalism, that is the rejection of tolerance, the rejection of the other’s opinion. This, to my mind, is a great hindrance to the peaceful coexistence of different ideals, different ideologies, and different religions, and it is a great obstacle to the Islamic world becoming a participant in global transformation. So I think this cultural impasse has to do with the current Islamic worldview, and we need a dynamic invocation that can play a pivotal role in breaking its grip on the Muslim mind and culture.

The formation of a democratically governed Muslim world must be driven by an imperative born out of a new Muslim recognition of their rights and responsibilities in a globalized world. For this mindset to emerge, Muslims must learn the magnanimity of critical self-analysis. While democratic freedom does not germinate out of the barrel of a gun, neither is it obtained by being oblivious to self-identity, to our own tradition.

According to the teaching of the Prophet, one’s cognizance of the Almighty is inseparable from the cognizance of the Muslim tradition of liberalism and tolerance. And the future of Muslim identity in the twenty-first century and beyond lies with that vital cognizance, not with confrontation.

Dr. Munawar Anees, a Pakistani-American writer and social critic, is founding editor of the International Journal of Islamic and Arabic Studies and Periodica Islamica, as well as author of numerous books, articles, and reviews. He is a special consultant to the John Templeton Foundation and is among UNESCO’s select group of forty international scholars. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in February 2002.

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Even the Heavens Are Not Immortal

An Alluring Vision of Death

An interview with Connie Barlow
by Craig Hamilton

In a culture obsessed with the preservation and extension of life, defending the value of death may seem like a task fit for few but the devil. But for biologist Connie Barlow, singing the Grim Reaper’s merits is becoming nothing short of an inspired mission.

Having spent the last three years on a nonstop nationwide speaking tour with her husband, Michael Dowd, this itinerant “evolutionary evangelist” and author of such popular science books as Ghosts of Evolution and Evolution Extended has recently unveiled a new chapter in her running rendition of “the great story” of our cosmic and terrestrial history. Death, as Barlow tells it, is not something to be feared, or even merely accepted, but is a healthy and life-giving part of the cosmic process that deserves our wholehearted embrace.

Is science’s race to free us from mortality’s grip a misguided and perhaps even perilous attempt to override the cosmic order? What are the evolutionary implications of making a permanent break in one of nature’s most time-proven cycles? If we were to do away with death, what would become of life? Barlow spoke with us about her passion for the perishable and her thoughts on the quest for immortality.

WIE: There’s a growing body of scientists who are convinced that before long—some even would say in the next twenty years—we’re going to have the capacity to extend the human life span indefinitely and attain physical immortality. Based on your own understanding of biology, do you think such a thing could be possible?

Connie Barlow: Honestly, I haven’t wanted to think about it. But I guess I’d probably have to say yes. If we’re speaking about long extensions of life, if not actual immortality, I’d certainly say yes. But I haven’t wanted to think about it.

WIE: Why not?

Barlow: Because I don’t like the prospect. For one thing, it will exacerbate the schism between the haves and the have-nots because, obviously, the whole world isn’t going to have access to this. For another, I view it as undesirable because we’re having enough trouble right now limiting our reproduction, and if we have a significant number of people who are engaged in that sort of life extension, it will create even more of a population problem on the earth.

But more fundamentally, I think that our tendency to avoid the thought of death or think that there’s something wrong with death actually limits our understanding of life and our zest for life. When people have such an individualized sense of self and self-importance that they don’t see the larger picture in which death functions, that to me is immaturity.

I mean, if you view your individual self as being this body and this mind here, then the prospect of death could be rather frightening. But in what I would consider a broader, more mature understanding of the self, the fear of death eases up. In fact, death becomes something that’s seen as good for the whole, and also good for individuals.

When I look at the new cosmology—which harvests discoveries from all the modern mainstream sciences—the conclusion I draw is that death is not only natural, it’s generative. Understanding that death is natural and coming to peace with it can happen at any level of human development.

For thousands of years, our myths and creation stories have given us that peace. But only recently has it become possible to see death not just as natural but as creative and generative at all levels of reality; not just to reconcile with the fact of death but to see goodness in and feel gratitude for death.

So many of the things that we love and cherish in life would not even be here were it not for death. And the way that I’ve come to this more alluring vision of death has been through cultivating what I like to call “deep-time eyes,” eyes that see the fourteen-billion-year story of the universe as a sacred story.

WIE: Could you give us some examples of what helped awaken you to this more alluring vision of death?

Barlow: I’d love to. My own field is evolutionary biology and evolutionary ecology—that is, a deep-time understanding of ecology and biology. But the example that was the most eye-opening for me came later in life, from outside my own field. And that is the understanding from astronomy and astrophysics that what powers stars is the creation of elements.

The original simplest element in the universe is hydrogen; it’s been here since the beginning, since the big bang. In the center of stars, gravity fuses hydrogen atoms into more complex atoms. Our sun is fusing hydrogen into helium right now. And as it approaches death, it will be fusing helium into carbon. Larger stars than our sun move on and fuse carbon into silicon, and silicon into calcium, and so on.

Every single element in our bodies, other than hydrogen, was once inside a giant star that lived and died before our sun was born. As stars died and recycled themselves, they sent their elements pulsing or exploding out into the galaxy.

These elements eventually came upon primordial clouds of hydrogen gas and were caught up by the gravity of those clouds as though by spider webs, providing the matter from which new generations of stars could be formed. And these stars, such as our sun, enriched as they were by the creativity of previous generations of stars, were able to have rocky planets around them, whereas the first generations of stars could not.

We are recycled stardust. Everything we love and everything we see is recycled stardust. And we’re only here because the heavens and the stars are not immortal. To me, that’s an eye-opening insight, particularly when we think of how our religious traditions view the heavens as where God is, as immortal. Over the life span of human cultures, stars do not come and go. But over the life span of geological periods they certainly do. Death is in the heavens just as much as it is on earth.

WIE: In this example from cosmology, you’re using death as a metaphor, because the elements and the stars were never alive in the sense of our biological definition of life. In the way we normally think of live versus dead, they’re dead matter already—dead matter taking another form. Are you saying that the same principles apply to living systems as well?

Barlow: Right now we’re looking out the window at these glorious trees. The only way we have trees that can stand up against the wind and gravity, and move their leaves up toward the light of the sun, is because previous generations of tree cells have died but haven’t been immediately recycled. That’s what wood is: dead cells that now provide support for the very thin layers of living cells between the wood and the bark.

But the litany of examples that come out of the biological sciences really starts with evolutionary biology. The basic underlying premise of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is the understanding that species have gone extinct in the past.

Around the beginning of the 1800s, paleontologists were out discovering fossils and they realized that enough of the world had been explored to be able to state definitively that a certain animal whose bones they’d found—be it a mastodon or a mammoth—no longer existed on the earth. Whether people believed in God or didn’t believe in God, there was huge resistance to the idea that nature could have produced something so “imperfect” that it would go extinct.

Once that was understood, Charles Darwin could open his eyes to what he was seeing in the world and visualize the whole complexification of life for the first time in history. It was now possible to see how wave upon wave of species had come into existence and gone out of existence, and that through that process, there were tendrils of complexification. Eyes developed. Fins developed. Wings developed. Neurons developed into congregations that we call brains. All of that depended on the death not just of individuals but of whole species.

So fundamentally, if we love ourselves and our consciousness enough to want to keep going forever, then from a biological standpoint, we must embrace death. Death is the reason we’re sitting here talking about the prospect of immortality. We’re only here because death is creative.

Another example from biology is fetal development in animals. First, egg and sperm come together as zygote and reproduction starts happening, with cells doubling and doubling and doubling. We start off as a sphere. And then, through differential death—that is, some cells go on and reproduce for a certain number of cell divisions, some die earlier, and so forth—we take on shape.

The great evolutionary gift of multicellularity is the celebration of form and shape, and that’s because of the death of individual cells within the development of creatures.

Neurons begin dying in human brains from infancy, and scientists have always thought that that was just the aging process starting early. But in the last five years they’ve discovered that the death of neurons actually allows more connections to be made between those neurons that remain.

And as we know from complexity theory, and from our own lives, it’s the connections that allow creative intelligence to emerge. We’ve also discovered that even in a healthy adult, there is a winnowing away and a replenishment of cells. It’s called programmed cell death. Part of it is due to oxidation, and the people working on life extension are trying to reduce that oxidation.

But even with minor injuries, if the body stopped discerning when to recycle the elements from certain cells and start anew, we would be wasting away even faster than we already are. Cells that forget that there is a time in their life that they need to die and stop reproducing—whether they’ve had their DNA damaged by toxic chemicals or radiation or some other means—are called cancer.

So, from the smallest levels within our bodies to the largest levels out there in the universe, we have a whole nested reality in which death is not just natural, it’s creative. It’s what allows everything to be. Were it not for death, there would be no such thing as food. Everything we eat was once alive.

When you’re eating salad, or anything that’s uncooked, those cells are still alive right at the moment you’re eating. You’re killing them as they go into you. Even if immortality comes about in some way, we still can’t eliminate death from the whole cycle of life.

WIE: Ray Kurzweil thinks that we’re no longer going to need food because our digestive systems will be replaced by little nanobots in our bloodstreams that will administer all the right nutrients at the precise time we need them. Therefore, eating food will become just an aesthetic activity.

Barlow: Once you go the route of thinking about immortality, so much sort of gets swept up along with it. If we got to the point where we were no longer growing food, would we no longer value leaves falling in the autumn and becoming compost?

How much of our aesthetic appreciation of the world would change if we didn’t have the poignancy of death—of looking at death in the autumn, and the beauty of the leaves, and also having a resonance within us that, especially as we get older, we’re in the autumn of our lives too? Would we just completely lose our connection with the natural world? I don’t know.

Or take another example. If we were immortal, eventually we’d get to the point where, at least on this planet, we would have to outlaw having any more children. And the warm, fuzzy part of us wants to always go on having babies. But also from the standpoint of cultural development along an evolutionary trajectory, there’s something to be said for a world in which you can always have children. There’s something to be said for what happens to human beings when their formative years occur at later and later stages of cultural development.

I met a woman recently who told me that in her work with kids, she is seeing that this generation of children is remarkably different from previous generations because the world they’re growing up in is changing so fast. I often think, “What would I be like today had I grown up with the understanding that my ancestors include the stars?” So much of who we are has to do not with what we read or learn later in life but with how our imaginations form as children.

So I, for one, would not want to live on a planet without death and without children, where we’re all just grown-ups together forever. For some reason, people who are into immortality find the prospect of immortality more alluring than the prospect of a mortal life, and I don’t go there. I mean, if someone were to give me the choice to actually download my brain and live forever, or have some sort of nutritional supports so I would live forever, I would absolutely say No. I can’t imagine a worse hell.

WIE: What if the technologies for immortal life become so widespread and so built into the fabric of everything that it becomes natural to live forever, or at least for a very long time? And all you have to do is take a pill to stop the dying process, to stop all kinds of diseases and degeneration.

At some point, people who take the position you’re taking are going to have to say, “I choose death.” So I’m curious: At what point would it be? It obviously wouldn’t be now, because we all have that choice every day. You could choose death over life today if you wanted to, and you are choosing life.

Barlow: Right.

WIE: Well, how do you know it’s going to be any different in fifty years? Maybe in fifty years, you’ll still wake up and say, “I’m going to choose life.” And you will. And then in another fifty years, life will still be rich and interesting, and once again you’ll want to choose life. Given the option, can you be sure that at some point you would want to choose death over life?

Barlow: The thing is, I don’t view it in those terms. The prospect that unless I chose to die, I would live healthily forever, or for a thousand years, is appalling to me. Where would we get our motivation for not putting things off till tomorrow? Or next century? Where would we get our sense of real poignancy in a moment of joy with a spouse?

The moments that we feel most alive are when we recognize that our experience is passing, that at some point it will be gone. But if we’re always at a point where our experience will never go away—like if I were going to be married for a thousand years—then I just think life would be diminished. It wouldn’t be as rich. We would have to develop a whole new psychology, and it ain’t the one I’ve got right now.

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