Competing visions of memory in the Ummah

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Dhu al-Qa'dah 25, 1434 2013-10-01

Special Reports

by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 8, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1434)

The subversion of Khilafah by the Ummayyad dynasty has led to two divergent memories in the Ummah. The Muslim masses yearn for memory based on Prophetic and Khilafah history while the ruling elites continue to push the memory of mulukiyya.

How people view and deal with the past has profound impact on their present and future. “We are prisoners of our past,” goes an old saying but it need not necessarily come true if people are prepared to deal with it honestly and learn from it. It is however, also true that if they do not learn from history, they are condemned to repeat it. It applies especially to Muslims.

While Allah (swt) has endowed all human beings with certain innate qualities, the response to external factors varies greatly among people. This is conditioned by what is referred to as their shared memory. This is shaped by people’s common historical experience, and common political, cultural and social heritage as well as common expectations of the future.

Muslim memory is shaped by three distinct phases of history. The first phase is that of Prophetic history. The second comprises the period of Khilafah al-Rashidah, while the third and last phase is that of mulukiyah (hereditary kingship). We can be more specific. The first phase can be characterized as the primary roots of Islamic political culture; the second constitutes its secondary roots while the third phase falls into the category of tertiary roots and is quite removed from the first and second phases even if some traces of earlier phases are found within it.

Muslims consider all the Prophets of Allah (a) as their own since the Creator Himself chose them. The primary roots of the political culture of Islam, therefore, go all the way to the first prophet, Adam (a), the first human being created by Allah (swt). There is absolutely no difference of opinion among Muslims on this point, there has never been and there will never be. Muslims also believe that at the time of creation when Allah (swt) sent Adam and his spouse Eve (a) to earth to spend a part of their life there before returning to Allah (swt), He promised to send guidance in the form of revelation. Those that abide by Allah’s (swt) guidance will be rewarded while those that reject it will be punished,

There shall most certainly come unto you guidance from Me, and those who follow My guidance need have no fear, and neither shall they grieve; but those who are bent on denying My power presence and giving the lie to Our messages — they are destined for the Fire, and therein they shall abide (2:38–39).

There are admittedly differences among Muslims over the second phase of Islamic history. This has to do with the question of succession after the Prophet (pbuh) left this earthly abode to join heavenly company. While some Muslims, for their own peculiar reasons, talk up these differences in early Islamic history, the overall impact of this phase of history was positive. It established the norms and values of the political culture and system of Islam. While Prophetic history was error free because Allah (swt) Himself chose all the Prophets (a) and protected them from committing error through divine intervention, the phase of the khilafah was an entirely human experience and open to mistakes. It would be inaccurate to suggest that no mistakes were made in this phase or that the khalifahs were perfect human beings.

Their errors, however, were not deliberate or based on selfish motives. It was the third phase that deviated from the Prophetic Sunnah (method) and the norms established in the formative phase of Islamic history: the khilafah. The most crucial breach occurred in the manner in which power was grabbed by force. In mulukiyah, bay‘ah (the willing consent of people) was replaced by hereditary kingship. Coercion became the norm.

Allah (swt) commands us in His noble Book that we must always stand up for truth and justice. These are fundamental principles of Islam. If we are to encapsulate Islam’s basic message, we can say that it is based on ‘adl (justice in a comprehensive sense) in society within the framework of iman (faith-commitment to the One and Only). We are reminded in the majestic Qur’an,

And [always] remember the blessings that Allah has bestowed upon you, and the solemn pledge by which He bound you to Himself when you said, “We have heard and we pay heed.” Hence, remain conscious of Allah’s power presence: verily Allah has full knowledge of what is in the hearts [of men]. O You who have made a faith-commitment [to Allah]! Be ever steadfast in your devotion to Allah, bearing witness to the truth in all equity; and never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviation from justice. Be just: this is closest to taqwa. And remain conscious of Allah’s corrective justice: verily, Allah is aware of all that you do (5:7–8).

In his book, al-Bidayah wa-al-Nihayah, Ibn Kathir writes that when Mu‘awiyah, the first hereditary king in Islamic history, took over the reins of power, he addressed the Muslims thus, “I am fully aware that you are not happy with the manner in which I have grabbed power. You do not support it because I have usurped power and subdued you through the sword… Now if you see that I am not fulfilling my obligations, you should be content with whatever little [good] I do.” (Volume 8, p.132).

This is an admission of great significance. The man who usurped power was aware of the fact that his act was illegal and violated the norms established by Khilafah al-Rashidah. He candidly admitted as much. Once he grabbed power through force, the people were left with little choice but to accept him fearing that rejection would lead to sedition and turmoil in society.

Unfortunately, King Mu‘awiyah’s usurpation of power proved disastrous for the Ummah. Bad as this was, he introduced even more destructive policies that caused great damage by deepening divisions among Muslims. He ordered his governors to insult and vilify Imam ‘Ali and Ahl al-Bayt during Jumu‘ah Khutbah. This was the worst kind of bid‘ah introduced in Islam. Even the minbar in al-Masjid al-Nabawi where the noble Messenger (pbuh) used to stand to deliver the khutbah was not spared from this un-Islamic practice.

When Mu‘awiyah appointed Ziyad as governor of al-Kufah (he was already governor of al-Basrah but al-Kufah was added to his domain), he intensified the vilification of Imam ‘Ali and his family. For the record, it must be stated that Ziyad was an illegitimate child of Abu Sufyan, fathered during the time of jahiliyah. Mu‘awiyah accepted him as half-brother but Umm Habibah, the daughter of Abu Sufyan and wife of the noble Messenger (pbuh), rejected him and never allowed him into her house.

The practice of vilification pained many Muslims, among them well known Sahabah. One of them was Hujr ibn ‘Adi. He could not remain silent in the face of such terrible behavior and started to challenge Ziyad for uttering profanities during Jumu‘ah Khutbah. Ziyad arrested him and together with 12 of his companions, sent him to Damascus to appear before Mu‘awiyah.

As if the vilification of Imam ‘Ali and his family was not bad enough, King Mu‘awiyah ordered these illustrious forebears of Islam to be publicly executed, including Hujr ibn ‘Adi who was known for his taqwa and exemplary character. This horrendous crime was committed in the early history of Islam on the orders of someone who was a latecomer to Islam and the first usurper of power. Muslims will recall that at the beginning of May of 2013, the takfiris in Syria desecrated the grave of Hujr ibn ‘Adi near Damascus and took away his body that according to some sources was still intact.

In reaction to the vilification of Imam ‘Ali and his family, some Shi‘is started a counter-vilification campaign that unfortunately continues to this day. These Shi‘is go so far as to vilify the Khulafah al-Rashidun as well. Naturally, such behavior works against any attempts at creating unity and is used by takfiris to justify their anti-Islamic behavior. It was the Umayyad ruler/khalifah, ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, who put an ended to the vilification of Imam ‘Ali and Ahl al-Bayt and told the imams delivering Jumu‘ah Khutbah to recite instead the Qur’anic ayah from Surah al-Nahl,

Verily, Allah commands you to do ‘adl [justice] and ihsan [good beyond what you would normally do]; and give to your needy kin; and He forbids moral deviation, and social deviation. He [Allah] exhorts you so that you might bear [all this] in mind (16:90).

Even so, the damage had been done. Initiating a campaign of vilification led to counter-vilification, both behaviors having no Islamic basis. The legacy of mulukiyah has been quite destructive in other ways. Many Sahabah objected to the usurpation of power by the Umayyads. They openly proclaimed their opposition, some more forcefully than others.

Shaykh Hasan al-Basri, the well-known Islamic scholar, said that Mu‘awiyah’s four actions are such that if someone were guilty of even one of them, he would face severe punishment in the afterlife,

First, he [Mu‘awiyah] imposed himself on the people by force despite the presence of many leading Sahabah that were far more senior and more deserving of this position than him. Second, he appointed his son [Yazid] as his successor who was a drunkard and a womanizer and who used to wear silk clothes [forbidden in Islam for men]. Third, he accepted Ziyad into his family although the noble Messenger (pbuh) has clearly said that children are accepted only if they are born to legitimately married couples while for the adulterer, there is to be confinement. And finally, he ordered the killing of a respected Sahabi, Hujr, and his companions.” (from Ibn al-Athir in al-Kamil fi al-Tareekh and Ibn Kathir in al-Bidayah wa-al-Nihayah).

Mulukiyah led to additional developments whose detrimental effects are still present with us today. When the Sahabah and other scholars objected to the usurpers of power and their un-Islamic behavior, these kings punished the objectors and encouraged the emergence of court ‘ulama to provide “religious” justification for the “divine right of kings.” Such court ‘ulama started to rationalize un-Islamic behavior through sophistry in return for rewards. The valiant attempt by Imam al-Husayn to stand against such behavior ended with his martyrdom at Karbala’ together with almost all male members of his family. That sacrifice closed the door to legal justification for hereditary kingship even thought it continued to exist in practice.

If the Muslim world is littered with kings, amirs, generals, colonels and tyrants today, it is the direct legacy of mulukiyah that subverted the khilafah in the early period of Islam. Regrettably, some court ‘ulama even went so far as to distort the hadiths (sayings) of the noble Messnger (pbuh) to justify the un-Islamic behavior of rulers. If this sounds familiar, it should. There is, regrettably, no shortage of such ‘ulama even today. It is these ‘ulama that have tried to justify the disastrous legacy of mulukiyah by trying to sugarcoat its negative consequences. Often, this has taken the form of projecting the great strides Muslims made in science, medicine, mathematics, geography and astronomy — as if these were the achievements of rulers. True, some of them patronized such work but that cannot justify the illegality of their rule.

The dilemma facing Muslims today can be summed up as follows. For the Muslim masses and muttaqi ‘ulama, whether Sunni or Shi‘i, the true legacy comes from Prophetic history and the khilafah. For kings, generals and other assorted tyrants and their court ‘ulama, mulukiyah is the foundation of illegitimate rule but under the rubric of Islamic terminology like “khilafah.” Even the illegitimate rulers cannot cross the line by indulging in un-Islamic behavior publicly even if in their palaces they do all kinds of terrible things. Thus, they are fond of being seen at prayer or organizing iftar parties in order to provide themselves an Islamic crutch.

It is this tussle between two competing memories — one based on Prophetic history and the khilafah, and the other on mulukiyah — that is at the root of most of the problems in the Ummah. The Islamic movement and its numerous strands struggle for the first vision while the ruling elites in almost all Muslim societies continue to cling to the second.

Muslims must ensure that the corrupt era of Muslim history is not invested with legitimacy. The first corrective step would be to properly understand what occurred and to speak out forcefully against all forms of social and political deviation. Muslims must also rise above the petty squabbles of bid‘ah and see the mega-bid‘ah that was perpetrated and continues to be perpetrated frustrating the Muslims march to a life of dignified existence.

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