by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 6, Rajab, 1429)
The last few years have been a period of exceptional turbulence in the Muslim world, even by the standards of an Ummah that has become accustomed to the buffets of history during the period of colonialist imperialism. In this extended essay, ZAFAR BANGASH, the Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), reflects upon the nature of social change and lessons for Muslims today.
Change is endemic in human nature. Both humans and societies undergo continual change. The biological process of ageing, for instance, occurs all the time and is irreversible. Similarly, millions of cells in the human body die each day while millions of new ones are produced. Some cells are never replaced; these processes can be described as natural change.
Natural change of a physical type is generally predictable largely because physical processes are regular, consistent and constant. The predictable motion of the stars and planets, for instance, has motivated the development of calendars that help us manage necessary activities such as agricultural cycles; similarly, the predictable flow of blood and the functioning of organs in the human body have helped medical science develop diagnostic procedures that determine a departure from normality; and lastly, understanding the predictable flow of electrons from a high energy-level to a lower energy-level has helped us distribute hydroelectric power across wide networks in space.
Change at the social level is more complex because human behavior is neither consistent nor constant, and thus not amenable to easy prediction. For thousands of years philosophers, social scientists, sages and others have tried in vain to model human behavior such that a degree of predictability can result in a modicum of stability in society. Reining in complexity to begin to address the solution to such a problem is beyond the aggregate capabilities of human beings. We need help.
To this end, Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala in His infinite mercy, all-encompassing knowledge and wisdom, has continuously sent guidance for mankind, culminating with the final revelation to Muhammad (saws): “Social laws have been revealed before your time. Go, then, about the earth and behold what happened in the end to those who gave the lie to the truth…” (3:137). Humanity needs guidance; without it, we are prone to tyranny and corruption: “Verily, man is prone to tyranny, whenever he sees [his own deeds, actions] as impressive” (96:6-7). In a sense guidance, for those who are firmly committed to it, can be viewed as a set of rules, commands, observations and guidelines that can reduce complexity in the social dynamic and assign predictability where none existed before. This gives those who are committed to Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala a significant advantage, though most Muslims have not yet come to terms with this competitive edge.
One significant aspect of Allah’s guidance is immunity against corruption. Just as He has endowed the human body with an immune system or a defense mechanism, to ward off viruses, bacteria, disease and even death, He has equipped societies with certain defense mechanisms. Those that are governed by principles such as ‘adl, fairness and freedom from exploitation and oppression are better able to meet internal and external challenges compared with those who manage their affairs with rampant criminality and corruption.
Unfortunately, in the world today, societies are managed less by the proximity of ideas to fairness and justice than by concentrated power centers pursuing various selfish interests. For instance, ruling elites in most societies promise to usher in certain policies to improve people’s lives, but such improvements are defined only by material gains: better jobs, more income, better houses and so on. Some changes are discouraged or even suppressed. If people attempt to curtail the power or wealth of the ruling elites, or try to change the imposed political system, they are actively opposed and their efforts suppressed. Most Muslims want their societies to be governed by Islamic principles of social and economic justice, but such aspirations are vetoed by the ruling elites.
This is not dissimilar to the opposition the noble Messenger of Allah (saws) faced when he proclaimed the message of Islam in Makkah. The ruling elites viewed Islam’s teachings as a direct challenge to their privileges in the prevailing system; hence their violent reaction to it, even though Islam’s message, like that of all the earlier Prophets, was to bring humanity back to its pure fitrah of submission to the one God, Allah. Throughout history, no exploiters have ever given up their privileges voluntarily; the Makkan mushriks were no exception. This struggle between haqq (truth) and batil (falsehood) can be traced back all the way to the creation of Adam (as). The Qur’an tells us that when Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala created Adam (as), He commanded the angels and Iblis to bow down to him. The angels complied immediately but Iblis, puffed up by arrogance, refused (2:30-32). His rebellion was based on elitism; Iblis argued that because he was made of fire he was “superior” to Adam (as), who was made of clay. Condemned for disobeying Allah’s command, Satan then decided to ambush Adam (as) and his spouse, misleading them while they resided in Paradise.
But Adam (as) and his progeny were bound to spend a portion of their life on earth for a divinely prescribed period of time before their return to Allah. Adam (as), and by extension human beings in general, despite all of their divinely endowed abilities, still do not have the capacity to create a harmonious set of rules to manage their own behavior. Thus Allah in His infinite care, love and generosity created what we could not: a perfect, comprehensive and balanced set of guidelines and rules to manage our earthly existence. Those who abide by Allah’s commands are promised generous reward in the hereafter (17:9 and numerous other ayaat), while transgressors are warned of a painful doom (17:10 and many other ayaat). Unlike angels, human beings have also been endowed with free choice: to accept or reject Allah’s commands, thus determining their station in life and death. Conformity to Allah’s power presence is the natural state for humans, but there is always the Satanic temptation to violate these rules and fall to the lowest depths (95:5). Similarly, there are individuals and systems, guided by ambition and personal greed, that attempt to distance human beings from the divinely prescribed path. The Qur’an has identified such figures, guided as they are by their baser instincts, as Pharaoh, Qaroon, Nimrod and others, collectively referred to as mustakbireen. In today’s world the obvious examples are the imperialist powers. Imperialists attempt to impose conformity on target societies by aggression, the primary objective being the facilitation of their own narrow-minded agendas, achieved by exploitation of the labor and efforts of the dispossessed majority. They also use force to thwart the type of actionable change that would challenge their plans.
On the other hand, the vast majority of human beings, given the opportunity to choose freely, would find certain changes highly desirable: changes designed to achieve certain pre-set goals. The Muslims’ quest to return their societies to Islamic values from the present Western-imposed systems would be one such change. At times there are also sudden upheavals; they can be both positive—like an Islamic revolution overthrowing a corrupt imposed order, as happened in Iran—or negative, such as a foreign invasion that the victim society may have little capacity to withstand, such as the zionist occupation of Palestine and the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. This last category can be characterized as imposed change.
How victim societies react to such imposed change determines the nature and outcome of their struggle. Victim societies may not be able to resist the initial onslaught, but if they are led by muttaqi leaders they can gradually neutralize the invaders’ advantage. By the judicious use of force the resistance can control change in a manner that imposes overwhelming costs on the invaders. When the losses in material, manpower or morale exceed the benefits that accrue to the invaders, the balance is tipped, forcing them to abandon their quest for domination. Hizbullah’s resistance to the zionist occupation of Lebanon is a good example. It escalated to a point where the zionists could no longer afford it. The Afghans did the same to the Soviets in the 1980s. The Americans and their allies are close to reaching a similar tipping-point through the resistance they face in Afghanistan and Iraq today. Thus the overwhelming firepower of the invaders may not be the insurmountable obstacle that many fear.
Having lost the edge more than 200 years ago, Muslims today are forced to react to the policies and plans of predatory powers, often by means of military aggression. The suffering inflicted on the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and Chechnya, and now increasingly in Pakistan and Lebanon, reflects this grim reality. Muslim societies are targeted and affected in many different ways, undermining their growth and development and frustrating their aspirations for dignified existence. Most Muslims feel helpless because of this onslaught, especially one directed at them by the US, but they need not feel completely powerless. Power and powerlessness are first and foremost states of mind. In the Qur’an, Allah narrates the story of the confrontation of Daud (as) with Goliath (2:251). While the soldiers in Saul’s army refused to confront Goliath because they felt that he was too big, Daud (as) saw his size as an opportunity: he was too big to miss! In contemporary terms, America is too big to miss or, to use America’s own words, it is a target-rich country. America’s size and military power need not necessarily be considered as a competitive advantage.
There is also a need to move beyond defining power merely as the possession of brute force. A coach cannot match the physical strength and skill of a highly trained professional athlete; however the coach has “power” over the athlete because he decides which player will play and which will not. This is because the proper exercise of power is related to important factors, of which physical strength is but one. On the world stage, it is in the interest of the dominant powers to make the vast majority of people uncomfortable with power and its manifestations; given this discomfort and unfamiliarity with power, people in general display a Pavlovian response to force: fear. Because of the non-existence of stable representative political institutions in much of the Muslim world, the fact that the judicious exercise of political power is interwoven into the Islamic social conscience is lost on them. They feel that the only way for them to re-emerge on the world stage is with the force of nuclear technology, bombs and warplanes. This is first and foremost a conditioned response, not a reasoned one.
When states attempt to project power, they consider military and financial weight or even a large population-base as important factors, although these do not automatically guarantee success. If military might and abundant wealth were the only determining factors, the French would still be in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, the Russians in Afghanistan and the zionists in Lebanon. Empirical evidence from history shows that even small numbers of people have been able to defeat much larger forces using ingenuity, determination and creativity. The most crucial factor in any struggle is morale. It helps one party withstand the greater firepower of the other or find creative ways to avoid it. Morale can be enhanced by patriotic fervor, belief in the righteousness of one’s cause, and iman—the most crucial factor for Muslims in any struggle. From the pace-setting days of the first generation of Muslims to our present unsettled times, iman has played a crucial role in enabling Muslims to overcome enormous odds. There is a hadith of the noble messenger of Allah (saws) in which he states: “Iman is the source of my power.” Implied beyond the obvious message of this hadith is that Allah wants man, His chosen ruling species on earth, to exercise power justly. Therefore, attuned to the divine power culture, man has to be comfortable with the idea of power — quite the opposite frame of reference from the taghuti-imposed systems in vogue today.
In addition to divine guidance, the other important factor in managing change is leadership. If the leadership is muttaqi, the Muslims’ or (to use the correct term) the Islamic movement’s chances of success are greatly enhanced. The first generation of Muslims, led by the Prophet (saws), repeatedly defeated foes many times larger and better armed in almost every battle. This is because winning on the battlefield requires extensive alignment to the leadership culture off the battlefield. Just as individual acts of devotion (prayer, fasting, etc.) are redeemed by social activism, so Islamic social integration into the fabric of affected societies (municipal, civic and economic services), along with direction-setting activities geared towards a balance of social justice, are validated by a measured, unified and determined engagement on the field of military battle. Winning on the battlefield is all about execution (of plans and strategies, not people); it should be a matter of fact. Similarly, successful leadership separates itself from those who simply give orders or issue commands by what it accomplishes in the stages of preparation.
In this area, great leadership helps societies to manage change by doing several important things, two of which are direction-setting and motivation through informal networks. Both of these serve to integrate the leadership into the social fabric of society at all levels, so that when a major sacrifice is demanded (e.g. the loss of life in war), the leaders and the led are prepared to make it. Results from these types of activities do not accrue overnight; they take time, maybe decades of dedicated work in the way that this work ought to be done. Individuals and their leaders who have demonstrated the patience and fortitude to go through this slow but necessary tempering process have not often lived long enough to see the fruits of their efforts, but the associated gains have benefited their societies for hundreds of years.
Direction-setting consists of establishing a sense of urgency, setting a vision of the future and satisfying the needs of important constituencies (as long as such satisfaction is not outside the bounds of Allah’s guidance). An overwhelming ambiance of injustice brings about its own sense of urgency. All of Allah’s prophets focused their societies’ attention on the imbalance of justice in their daily lives, and on the forces responsible for maintaining this degrading status quo. The ordinary people who committed to the prophetic programmes yearned for a more just society responsive to their aspirations and needs. To this end, consider the vision that Allah’s final Messenger painted for his people: “The time will come when a woman will be able to travel from Sham [Syria] to Hadramaut [Yemen] having no fear other than the fear of Allah.” Now this is a vision—a vision to look forward to. It is about a traditionally powerless element in society having recognition on par with all other human elements of society; it is something tangible about a geostrategic area whose social characteristics and norms are well understood; it is about integrating security into the cultural mindset and expectation of a people; it is about the kind of conscious socialization that replaces human protection, usually at a huge cost, with the only protection that matters: free courtesy of Allah. Compare this to the pablum that regularly issues forth from Muslim mouthpieces for Western social-engineering propaganda.
Long before Allah’s Prophet (saws) migrated to Madinah, he, through the three bay’ahs, began to satisfy the needs of the two power blocs in Madinah: the Aws and Khazraj. When he reached Madinah, he even satisfied the needs of the Madani Jews, entering into a constitutional arrangement with them and others through the Pact of Madinah. This was the first-ever written Islamic constitution, outlining the rights and responsibilities of the state and its member constituencies. And from this groundwork emerges one of the greatest lessons of Islamic warfare; for without the painstaking effort engendered in the Prophet’s leadership, Muslims might never have learned it. The stress of war separates those who give mere lipservice to Allah (swt) and His Messenger (saws) from those who commit their life-service to Him. This was proved over and over again through the Islamic military engagements in Uhud, Mu’tah, Khandaq, Yarmuk, Khaybar and Hunayn.
Effective leadership motivates people to overcome obstacles to change. One way of achieving this is to energize them into satisfying basic human needs such as a sense of accomplishment, a sense of control over their lives, and the confidence to live up to Islamic ideals. Coping with change demands initiatives from people at all levels of society. Initiative-taking is a leadership activity. Multiple leadership activities could easily conflict and be at cross-purposes were it not for coordination through strong networks of informal relationships. Once again, consider the approach of Allah’s Prophet. When he arrived in Madinah, he immediately established the Ansar and Muhajirun as brothers in every household. This inculcated the essential qualities of trust, accommodation and adaptation, helping to resolve conflicts that inevitably emerge in human relationships. In Madinah, he built the first masjid outside of Makkah after the five daily salahs were institutionalized. Although salah is a required activity of Muslims, congregating and going to the masjid does not require any formal preparation. Muslim merchants were encouraged to establish their own marketplace, governed by Allah’s principles of economic engagement.
Communities were required to know the poor and destitute in their environs and address their needs before they were asked. All of this activity was taking place through informal networks as only the salah and the Pact of Madinah had been formally institutionalized. This helped to bind historically dispossessed elements in that society to the dominant power culture in the city. Was such enfranchisement worthy of protection by the sacrifice of life for one who was traditionally on the margins? Certainly! Contrast this with today’s world, in which the Muslims’ obsession to build masajid in places where there is no Islamic state and the five-times salah is divorced from its vital imperative of anchoring Islamic leadership culture in the salah attendees. Building strong networks of informal relationships that coordinate leadership activities is an essential act of leadership. During the time of Allah’s Messenger (saw), most direction-setting activities and the development of informal networks took place before a single sword was lifted, a single arrow fired or a single spear aimed. This is the kind of leadership that helps societies of ordinary people to manage continual change extraordinarily.
In the contemporary age, we have witnessed similar achievements by Muslim activists. Whenever attacked by vastly larger and better-armed enemy forces, Muslims have frequently defied the odds and done better than expected. Although they have been forced to react to external aggression, their resilience has frustrated their enemies’ plans. Further, while Muslims will not be able to match the weapons of their enemies in the near or even distant future, in most struggles they have given a good account of themselves. One cannot say the same about the mercenary armies of Muslim nation-states, which do not fight on the basis of iman but for low-level loyalties such as nationalism. They have done more to integrate themselves into the social fabric of special interests dominated by corrupt opportunistic power blocs, rather than establish a meaningful social presence in their own populations; hence their dismal performance in almost every major battle. No military confrontation proceeds to a successful outcome as long as the people are unwilling to commit their lives for the cause. Allah’s promised help does not extend to Muslims fighting for nationalism, which is a form of shirk, or for personal glory or wealth. A glance at some contemporary conflicts imposed on Muslims will clarify this point.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, most analysts predicted that the Afghans would have little chance against the world’s second most powerful military machine. The Soviet army had never been defeated, and once it entered a country it did not leave, they argued. A comparative analysis of Soviet and Afghan weaponry and manpower also clearly indicated that the Red Army would not only prevail against the Afghans but would also extend its reach beyond the borders into neighboring countries. The Afghans were viewed as ragtag bands of brave but foolish warriors who were no match for the Soviet Union’s military might. Ten years later, when the Red Army was driven out of Afghanistan, there was no Soviet Unionleft for the Reds to return to. The ragtag Afghan bands had prevailed, contrary to experts’ analyses, not because of their superior weapons but on the strength of their iman.
While the Soviet army was busy slaughtering the Afghans, the Ba‘athists of Iraq were instigated by the Americans and neighboring Arab states to invade Islamic Iran, then in the throes of an Islamic Revolution. They thought that the Revolutionary government would quickly collapse and that the old order would be restored to the “safe hands” of such figures as Abolhassan Bani Sadr and Sadeq Qutbzadeh, who had managed to penetrate the inner circle of Imam Khomeini and become president and foreign minister respectively in the Revolutionary government. A few weeks into the Ba‘athist-imposed war, Bani Sadr as president and, therefore, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, went to the Imam and advised him that without foreign backing and military support Iran was in no position to continue fighting and that it should accept the UN-proposed ceasefire. The Imam dismissed such defeatist talk; instead he mobilized Iran’s Revolutionary youth to confront the grand conspiracy of the international warmongers financed by Arab regimes. Soon thereafter, Bani Sadr fled and Qutbzadeh was arrested, tried and executed for attempting to overthrow the Islamic government by means of a coup that included a diabolical plot to assassinate the Imam.
Islamic Iran single-handedly stood against the combined might of international kufr and for eight years valiantly defended the Revolution. When the war ended in August 1988, Iran had achieved two of its three objectives: successful defense of the Revolution and liberation of every inch of its territory. The only objective it did not achieve was to put Saddam Husain on trial as a war criminal. The Americans themselves arranged the execution of Saddam 18 years later, partly because he had failed in the task assigned to him: destruction of the Islamic Revolution. He was not only provided with arms and intelligence data but also given chemical and biological weapons that he used freely against Iran’s forces, sending thousands of Iranians to painful death. Ultimately, the Americans turned against Saddam. But it was Islamic Iran that frustrated their plans by refusing to react in the manner expected by its enemies. Imam Khomeini (ra) inspired millions of young and old Iranians to defend the Revolution, thereby writing a wonderful chapter in the history of Islam. Could the Imam have been nearly as effective without developing a strong directional course (wilayat faqih)? Could he have been as effective without bypassing the imperial state communication channels by energizing informal associations of students in the hawzah networks? Could he have been as successful without first spending nearly twenty years infusing key elements of Iranian society with the culture of Islamic leadership, thereby enabling them to take control of their destiny?
The Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine have similarly demonstrated great resilience and thus achieved notable successes against enormous odds. Hizbullah’s story is especially remarkable, given the fact that it consists of the most oppressed and downtrodden people of Lebanon. These are not the typical characteristics of a people who might be expected to stand up to Israel’s military might, which is technically the most powerful military machine in the Middle East. Hizbullah operated in an environment where both the Lebanese government and the Israeli-allied Phalangist Christian militia were hostile to it and at every turn tried to undermine its resistance. Further, Hizbullah operated against the backdrop of repeated failures of Arab armies to throttle the zionist military machine. Nor did Hizbullah possess sophisticated weapons, such as aircraft or long-range artillery, to confront the zionists’ American-supplied arsenal; its fighters only had AK-47 rifles and Kytusha rockets. Despite its lack of weapons, Hizbullah demonstrated that it was and is possible to defeat the invaders. From its birth in October 1983 to May 2000, when it drove the zionist occupation army out of much of Lebanon (except the Sheba’ah Farms), Hizbullah showed how lightly armed fighters can defeat a regular army possessing vastly superior weapons. It achieved a similar success in the 34-day war in July-August 2006, frustrating the zionists’ plans to destroy it and install a puppet government in Beirut.
What is the secret of Hizbullah’s success? Hizbullah leader Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah himself has explained the movement’s strategy: to avoid, as much as possible, the zionists’ strong points—air force, long-range missiles and artillery—and use its own strength against their weak points. This was best demonstrated in the summer of 2006. Hizbullah had no anti-aircraft or surface-to-air missiles to shoot down Israeli planes. Thus its only recourse was to seek shelter from Israeli aerial bombardment in underground bunkers. Hizbullah had built a vast network of underground bunkers in Southern Lebanon in utmost secrecy. For nearly twenty years, Hizbullah has integrated itself into its constituency by providing vital social services such as health-care, schooling, distribution of aid, etc. It is now well-known the world over that for any foreign aid to reach the people in Lebanon and occupied Palestine who need it most, it must go through Hizbullah or Hamas. Formal institutional networks have been subverted by the enemies of Allah, the people and justice; thus in this type of environment Hizbullah has deftly constructed strong networks of informal relationships that are efficiently and unselfishly managed by the leaders of Hizbullah. Hizbullah provides vital services for its people, and the people in turn are willing to make sacrifices to protect the security and stability they have gained. This is another one of Hizbullah’s strengths, leading to its success.
Hizbullah’s example, like that of Iran and the Afghan mujahideen, points to what needs to be done when confronted by external aggression. Every aggressor attempts to impose change on the victim society to achieve his nefarious designs. It is important for victims not to react in a manner that will facilitate the aggressors’ intended purpose. A successful defense must include taking the initiative away from the enemy. By changing the rules of the game, such as waging asymmetrical warfare, even small numbers of lightly-armed fighters can frustrate the enemy’s plans and inflict defeat.
In the foreseeable future, Muslims will not be able to acquire the kinds of sophisticated weapons our enemies possess. Our only recourse is to establish our own rules of engagement. When confronted by external aggression, people often improvise. Self-preservation and self-defense are not crimes under any law, no matter how much the West may denounce them as terrorism. It is Western governments led by the US, not the struggling Muslims, that indulge in crimes against humanity. What is important for us to keep in mind is not to play by the enemy’s rules. The tide in global politics is slowly but surely turning in favor of the Islamic movement. This is something we can all rejoice in and build on. There is still a long struggle ahead but we can at last see light at the end of the tunnel, especially with the US and its surrogate, Israel, facing such great difficulties.