Muslims, like other religious communities, went through a phase of degeneration in their later period and matters have not improved in the present day. What to do when this happens? The remedy was outlined in advance in the chapter Al-Hadid (Iron) of the Qur’an. The translation of the relevant verses is as follows: Has the time not come for the faithful when their hearts in all humility should engage in the remembrance of God and of the revelation of truth, so that they should not become like those who were given the Book before them, whose hearts with the passage of time became hardened and many of whom were disobedient? Remember that God brings the earth back to life after its death. We have made Our signs clear to you, so that you may fully understand. (57:16-17)
These Qur’anic verses refer to the period of decline of the ummah (Muslim community). This degeneration has come about because the members of the Muslim community have lost their fear of God and have become insensitive to their faith. So, what is the formula for their regeneration, or their reform, so that they may be brought back on to the right path? The formula is given here in terms of an example from agriculture. With the passage of time, land which had been fertile becomes barren. When the farmer tries to make his land fertile again, he begins his task by preparing the land and not by harvesting. If he starts his job by harvesting, it would be like putting the cart before the horse.
The same is true of the declining Muslim community. Here, reformers must start their task from the beginning, and not from the end. For example, if they try in such circumstances to establish their political rule, it will not work. But if they start by reviving the spirit of religion, awakening the soul, and bringing about intellectual development, then it will be the right beginning.
The decline of an ummah means a decline in terms of spirit, and not in terms of form. Forms or rituals have always been in existence: what disappears is the spirit. So, it is the spirit that needs to be revived, and not merely forms or rituals. At that time Muslims need to revive their faith, rediscover the living ideology of Islam, and reawaken their minds along the lines which were followed by the Prophet and his companions.
What is degeneration? Degeneration is simply a kind of detachment. When people forget the original message of Islam and cling merely to some lifeless rituals—that is the sign of degeneration. At that time Muslims need to revive their faith, rediscover the living ideology of Islam, and to re-awaken their minds along the lines which were followed by the Prophet and his companions. It is this act which is called in the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) tajweed, or revival. The process of tajweed cannot be successful if the reformers want simply to revive the ritualistic form of Islam. The above example of the barren land tells us that the starting point for reform is intellectual awakening and not simply the revival of ritualistic practices.
Moreover, the task of revival needs a creative approach entailing the use of the contemporary idiom; reformers should try to sense their listeners’ moods and preach in such a manner that their minds may be addressed. If people’s minds are not addressed, then no reform movement will yield any positive results.