Beyond simplistic models for the Islamic movement

Developing Just Leadership

Editor

Safar 07, 1422 2001-05-01

Editorials

by Editor (Editorials, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 5, Safar, 1422)

Dr Kalim Siddiqui (r.a.) often spoke of the ‘total transformation’ of the Ummah from its present condition to a state of Islamic order as a “historic process”, and pointed out that this process would take time and patience; it could not be rushed. His last book, Stages of Islamic Revolution, outlines some of the phases through which the movement must pass. Having worked in the Islamic movement from the dark days of unchallenged Western hegemony, through the heady days of Islamic Revolution, he was familiar with the errors to which Islamic activists are prone.

Two in particular recur. One is the tendency to take shortcuts in the hope of quick results. This tendency is typified by the ‘political party’ approach of movements that seek either to work within existing systems, or to come to power in partnership with un-Islamic political forces such as the military, in the hope of establishing Islam afterwards. The list of places where Islamic movements have chosen this course, only to fail dismally, is depressingly long: Pakistan (where the Jama’at-e Islami lost all credibility by its alliance with general Zia ul-Haq); Algeria (where the Islamic Salvation Front was prevented from coming to power by a military coup); Turkey (where Erbakan’s government proved utterly powerless); Sudan (where Turabi was supposedly the power behind the throne until Omar al-Bashir decided otherwise) etc. Yet movements remain committed to following the same failed approach.

the ‘total transformation’ of the Ummah from its present condition to a state of Islamic order as a “historic process”, ... it could not be rushed.

The second is the tendency for movements to have simplistic and formulaic definitions of what an Islamic state is, based on one or both of two magic words, shari’ah and khilafah, usually used without considering what they actually mean or the forms these concepts must take in the modern world. Thus we have the shari’ah movement in Nigeria, celebrating the adoption of shari’ah in some states, without realizing that it can only work as part of an Islamic institutional structure. We also have numerous khilafah movements whose object is to persuade some general or colonel to seize power and call himself khalifah (and implement shari’ah), as though the word itself is the difference between Islamic and un-Islamic rule. In the past, such movements have demanded that Saddam Hussain and Zia ul-Haq declare themselves khulafa! In Afghanistan, Mullah Omar is regarded as the emir of an implied khalifah.

All this is not to disparage shari’ah or khilafah, of course. Establishing and following the path of Islam (shari’ah) in societies ruled by worthy successors (khulafa) to the Prophet (saw) is the aim of all Islamic movements, so fundamental that activists do not feel the need to articulate it explicitly at every juncture. The difficulty is in establishing what is involved in following the path of Islam, and establishing the rule of worthy khulafa, in modern societies. These are questions of ijtihad that cannot be answered purely and only from theological sources. Rather, they require fresh ijtihad based on understandings of both Islamic principles and modern societies. The answers can only be hypothetical until they are tested, and authoritative understandings — as far as products of ijtihad can be authoritative — will only be established by trial and error.

It is this process that the Islamic Revolution in Iran pioneered. As a prototype, it was bound to be flawed. Dr Kalim emphasised the importance of studying it, pointing out that its survival was not guaranteed; that the movement needed to learn as much as possible from its experiences, as quickly as possible, lest it was plunged into darkness again. Islamic Iran’s success and value did not depend on its being the perfect, finished article; rather, they lay in Iran’s experience of trying to establish Islamic social order, and getting further than any other recent attempt.

Nonetheless, the obvious question soon arose: when does a prototypical Islamic state cease to be an Islamic state? Within a few years of the Revolution, disillusioned by what they saw as Iran’s failures, or misled by its enemies’ propaganda, its supporters began to drift away. That process has been exacerbated by developments within Iran; now, with debate about the nature of an Islamic state raging within Iran, it is being asked even by some of its staunchest supporters. What the future holds for Iran and the Islamic movement remains to be seen. One thing is certain: the Islamic movement still needs an intellectual revolution, as hypothesised by Dr Kalim, for future progress. The simplistic models that have failed in the past must be left by the wayside of history.

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