The notion of civil society is one which continues to be revisited as the human political and social experience gains more momentum. It has claimed more ground in modem societies, especially those which have recently acquired a taste for democracy. Perhaps the word “civil” is a contrast to “military” which implies rigidity similar to that adopted by armies. In a civil society, the rule of law is the main point of reference in disputes and disagreements among the citizens. The personality of the ruler becomes a symbol of a political executive. Citizens expect him to uphold the rule of law in a strict sense. All are equal in the eyes of the law. Much has been said about the features of a civil society whose attributes have been widely discussed. A society in which the three wings of government are truly separated and in which the government becomes a mere servant of the people is one that most people aspire to achieve. By the same token, those whose main ambitions are to exploit human and material resources with unbounded selfishness bear little passion for the idea of civil society. It is therefore paradoxical to witness the rise of the business class and multi-millionaires to the echelons of power. It is widely believed that conflicts of interests often lead to corruption avnd unbalanced governance. Civil society is sometimes viewed with suspicion by some thinkers and religionists. It is seen as a product of modern western culture and is therefore perceived as being alien to their cultures. In particular, there is a new class of religiously oriented thinkers who look at modern ideas and notions with either disdain or suspicion. They may be right in assuming that the terminologies imply a degree of secularisation, but they must also realise that modern terms and notions are the product of other people’s civilisations and cultures. Muslims are merely recipients of these human achievements.
We like to introduce the idea that the human race is both an integral part of existence and its achievements are public property for all inhabitants of the globe. Many of the main attributes of modem times are the product of western secular civilisation. Banking, democracy, human rights, educational systems in their latest forms are alien to the original Islamic culture. However, they can be adapted to the needs of Muslims with relative ease in many cases. If these notions are “purified” i.e. de-secularised, then there will be no serious impediments in attempting to make use of them in accordance with Islamic values. Early Islamic civilisation managed to make the most of previous cultures and civilisations.
Works of the Greeks and Romans were translated, adapted, modified and finally adopted by Muslim thinkers and scientists. This may be one of the reasons behind the success of the early Muslim scholars in marrying the genius of the human race with the ideals of Islam to create one of the most productive civilisations on the face of this earth. It is a well-known fact that European philosophers became acquainted with Aristotle through the work of the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd (Averroes). He had presented the works of the Greek philosophers in three different forms which were later studied by the Europeans. Ideas were thus transformed by the early Muslim scholars in a way that brought them into line with Islamic thought. The idea of civil society may not be a pure one from an Islamic perspective, but it can be cleansed of any impurities and presented in a form that is based on Islamic teachings. The idea of a society in which people are equal in law and their identities are recognised and respected, where human dignity is preserved, power sharing is practised, dialogue forms the vehicle for collective stands and the decision making process, human rights are observed, equal opportunities are preserved replacing cronyism and favouritism, is an appealing one and Muslims are well suited to adopt it in their societies. As part of the struggle to attain a degree of civility in Muslim society, modern notions and practices must be allowed to flourish. The elite are charged with carrying out this mission among the masses. Non-governmental organisations are yet another symbol of modern civil society and must be encouraged. Transparency, accountability and responsibility must be practised in these societies. Refusing to adapt to such notions is a precondition for the rise of dictatorship and authoritarianism. Islam is a strong religion that can embrace human endeavour, enhance it and take it forward. The way ahead for the human race in general and the Muslim community (ummah) in particular starts from the acceptance that all are equal in the eyes of law. This is a central concept in Islamic injunctions which view all members of the human race as being equal and only faith in God distinguishes people from one another. Equality is a holy concept that necessitates the establishment of the rule of law in our societies.