Ideological basis of the Islamic movement:Sirah as the divine instrument of liberation

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Sha'ban 10, 1430 2009-08-01

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 6, Sha'ban, 1430)

Muslim political thought needs to be realigned to the Sunnah and Sirah of the Prophet (s). In Part II of his essay, Zafar Bangash, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, looks at the consolidation of the Islamic power base in Madinah and the ideological, socio-political, and economic challenges it had to survive and ultimately overcome.

Ideological challenge

Clashes occur within or between societies when ideological differences emerge. The Makkan society was based on idol-worship; into this environment was introduced the message of tawhid, the Oneness of Allah (swt), embodied in the Kalimah. Naturally, the Makkans saw this as a direct challenge to their system. As Sayyid Qutb has so perceptively observed, the Prophet (s) neither attempted to mobilize people on the basis of class or economic divisions, nor along tribal lines.1 Given the immense economic disparity in which a small tyrannical class dominated society imposed its will on the majority that was poor, the Prophet (s) could easily have aroused the down-trodden in the name of social and economic justice and risen to power in Makkah, but he did not do so. Neither did he mobilize his own clan, the Banu Hashim, to rally round him. Had he done so, the Prophet (s) would have saved himself the wrath of people like Abu Lahabwho together with Abu Jahl and Abu Sufyan, were three of his most implacable foes.

He also did not appeal to people on the basis of Arab nationalism to confront the Persian and Roman empires which dominated the southern and northern regions of the Arabian Peninsula respectively. It would have appealed to the Arabs’ sense of pride if the Prophet (s) had issued a call to rid the Peninsula of alien powers. Yet it was not part of the divine scheme to fight the Roman and Persian taghuts by replacing them with an Arab taghut even if the Prophet (s) planned to make the people submit to Islam later. This reflects an important principle of Islam: it is not permissible to use wrong means even to achieve noble goals. All these would have proved potent weapons in the hands of the Prophet (s) to mobilize people. Once he had acquired power, he could have used his enormous prestige and authority to guide them to submit to the one God, Allah (swt), but he did not do so. Rather, Allah (swt) did not want him to adopt such means. Instead, the more difficult but universal approach of proclaiming the Kalimah was adopted to challenge the dominant ideology in society. This meant facing the combined power and acrimony of the vested interests in Makkah and indeed the whole of the Arabian Peninsula; nonetheless there was no compromise on principles.

Islam’s ideological challenge was not confined to the mushriks alone; even those who became Muslims were not automatically cleansed of all jahili traits. One was their attachment to the Ka‘bah, which was based more on cultural attachments than on a covenant relationship with Allah (swt) that would supersede all exclusivist limitations. Thus, Allah (swt) designated Masjid al-Aqsa as the Muslims’ first qiblah to break their cultural attachment rooted in tribal customs and traditions. When the Ka‘bah was restored as the qiblah, theQur’an made clear that it was also meant to distinguish those who truly obeyed and followed the Prophet (s) from those who were beholden to their customs and traditions (2:143). The function of the ideological challenge is thus to sharpen rather than blur divisions and contradictions in society, especially pertaining to divine commitment so that people are able to distinguish between right and wrong. Islam does not compromise with ideologies opposed to the divine order, whether they are based on nationalism, tribalism or family and class interests. This is a lesson unfortunately lost on many Muslims today.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that today Muslim societies are not only ruled by alien ideologies but also deeply penetrated, and in some cases, controlled by the kafirs. Whenever and wherever the Islamic movement embarks on the process to restore Islamic values in society, the most fierce opposition will come from the kafirs. According to Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim world today cannot be considered Dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) because it is not governed by the Shari‘ah, but as part of Dar al-Harb, or the state of jahiliyah. Sayyid Qutb’s understanding is of course based on the well-known hadith of the noble Prophet (s) which says a Muslim must with live with bay‘ah (that is, live in the Islamic State or strive to establish one) or he dies the death of jahiliyah.

Social challenge

After the ideological challenge, the issue that most irked the Makkan aristocracy was the Prophet’s (s) rejection of the established social order in society. The principle of equality of all human beings regardless of birth, tribe, wealth or color was viewed with alarm by the Quraysh. They had created a hierarchy based on wealth and power; the leading figures used to congregate in Dar al-Nadwa, the Assembly Hall of the Makkan elite, to discuss issues affecting them. Dar al-Nadwa was established by Qussay, the great grandfather of the Prophet (s), who had united all the tribes of Makkah and was proclaimed as their leader. Naturally, the call in which the poor, the slaves and women were given equal voice and rights was seen as a threat to the privileged few in society. But that is precisely the purpose of social challenge; it creates a breach in the ranks of the established order. The Makkan chiefs were not going to tolerate this.

While the majority of those who accepted Islam in its early days were young or poor and downtrodden, there were also a number of them who belonged to powerful Makkan families. The Prophet’s (s) own family was divided: his cousins Ali and Ja‘far accepted Islam but their brother Aqeel ibn Abi Talib did not do so until later; his uncle Hamzah became a Muslim in the sixth year while Abbas was initially lukewarm until he accepted Islam after the Battle of Badr. Among the uncles, Abu Lahab was openly hostile and did everything to disrupt the mission of the Prophet (s). Abu Talib stood by the Prophet (s) and protected him until the very end. Abu Sufyan’s daughter, Umm Habibah had also entered the fold of Islam as had Abu Hudhayfah, the son of Utbah ibn Rabi‘ah who together with Abu Jahl led the Qurayshi army in Badr. Abu Sufyan’s wife Hind was the daughter of Utbah ibn Rabi‘ah. Then there was Uthman ibn ‘Affan, a youth from the Umayyad clan, also related to Abu Sufyan. Mus‘ab ibn ‘Umayr was the scion of a rich and powerful family of the Abd ad-Dar clan but he repudiated family wealth for the sake of Islam. The Qurayshi chiefs saw their own children rejecting the comforts of life they had inherited by virtue of being part of the elite of Makkah.

The matter of slaves was even more irritating for the Quraysh. Sumayyah, her husband Yasir and son ‘Ammar were mercilessly tortured for embracing Islam, as were Lubinah, Nahdiyah, Zanirah and Umm Ubais, all slave-girls. Bilal and Khabbab ibn al-Aratt, too, suffered the same fate. Sumayyah, of advanced age, was tortured to death, becoming the first martyr of Islam. The Prophet’s (s) proclamation that upon uttering the shahadah, no difference remained between the slave and his/her master, was something the prejudiced mind of the Makkan aristocrats could not accept. Despite suffering much persecution, the Muslims remained steadfast. In fact, it helped create greater awareness and brought them closer to each other.

It is interesting to note that the Prophet (s) did not use the platform of Dar al-Nadwa to propagate the message of Islam even though he approached members of the Makkan aristocracy on an individual basis. Instead, the Muslims used to gather in Dar al-Arqam, a house belonging to one of the companions. This was a clear rejection of the jahili system and laid down the principle that its institutions cannot be used to advance the cause of Islam. Muslims struggling to transform their society today need to bear this in mind; the ruling systems in Muslim societies have little or nothing to do with Islam even if they are run by Muslims. This is a point not clearly understood by many Muslims, including some leaders of the Islamic movement.

Again, Islam’s social challenge was not confined to the established order in Makkah alone. Even those who became Muslims still carried the germs of jahiliyah based on the false notion of superiority by virtue of birth or tribal affiliation, described as “the jahili spirit,” by Malek Bennabi (Islam in History and Society). These resurfaced immediately after the period of the Khilafah al-Rashidah with devastating consequences for the Ummah. As the Muslim political and social personality was being constructed, it had to be cleansed of the jahili disposition simultaneously. In Makkah all Muslims were oppressed, so their common experience united them; in Madinah, the Muhajirun were destitute and outsiders. The brotherhood established between the Ansar and the Muhajirun laid the foundations of a socially-balanced and cohesive community in which everyone shared with others according to their capacity. Equally dramatic was the marriage of Zaynab, the Prophet’s (s) cousin belonging to a prestigious clan, the Banu Hashim, to Zayd ibn Harithah, the freed slave and adopted son of the Prophet (s). Social taboos were broken through dramatic action in which the Prophet (s) himself took the lead. Similarly, the Prophet’s (s) appointment of Zayd ibn Harithah as commander of the army for the Mu‘tah expedition in 8ah was designed to wipe out any remaining traces of jahiliyah, such as superiority based on class or birth. Serving under him were the Prophet’s (s) own cousin, Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib, as well as Khalid ibn al-Walid, a leading fighter and strategist. In the tenth year after the Hijrah, Zayd’s son Usamah, barely 18 years old at the time, was appointed commander of the Muslim army. Again, many leading companions served under him (Zayd ibn Harithah was martyred in the Mu‘tah campaign).

All these moves by the Prophet (s), and after him by his companions, were designed to shake off any lingering traces of jahiliyah based on birth or tribal superiority. Such traits are present in those not properly grounded in Islamic teachings. In ayah 49:13, the Qur’an identifies taqwa as the only basis for achieving closeness to Allah (swt). It was the elimination of such artificial barriers that led to the creation of a community completely tuned to the message from on high.

Economic challenge

We must now turn our attention to the economic challenge. Had Islam been just another religion that did not threaten the vested interests of the mushriks, it probably would have encountered little opposition. After all, there were Christians living in and around Makkah; some even from among the Quraysh, such as Waraqa ibn Nawfal, had accepted Christianity. Then there was a large concentration of Christians in Najran. The Makkan aristocracy had no problem with them; nor did they have any problems dealing and trading with the Jews in Madinah. So it was not religion per se that the mushriks in Makkah objected to; rather, their primary concern was with Islam as a value system that challenged the very foundations upon which their economic prosperity was built.

The mushriks realized that if Islam gained a foothold, they would lose their privileges. Similarly, the Prophet’s (s) condemnation of idol-worship alarmed them because their economic well-being was directly linked to it. The most important trade fairs in the Arabian Peninsula were held in and around Makkah, at the time of Hajj. The Quraysh benefited from these fairs greatly both in trade as well as from the desire of the traders to execute pilgrimage rites. As it turned out, Islam banned neither the trade fairs nor prevented people from performing the pilgrimage but it shifted the focus in which the privileges of the Makkan aristocracy were curtailed and replaced by the egalitarian values of Islam. The Quraysh, however, were bound to be affected both economically as well as politically once they lost their privileges, which were based on injustice and exploitation.

Hijrah as part of the process of change

Hijrah is an important factor in the process of change. In the Qur’an, Allah (Â) chastises a group of people who were oppressed but neither resisted it nor moved out to another location. The Qur’an says, “Was not Allah’s earth spacious enough for you to migrate to [to escape evil and oppression]?” (4:97). Throughout history, hijrah has played an important role at crucial junctures; Prophet Ibrahim (a) performed hijrah from his place of birth in Ur (present-day Iraq) to escape persecution and ultimately settled in Palestine. He settled his oldest son, Ismail (a), in the barren valley of Makkah, which ultimately became the cradle of Islam. The early Muslims first migrated from Makkah to Abyssinia in the fifth year of the Prophet’s (s) mission, again to escape persecution; and when Allah’s (Â) permission was granted, the Muslims migrated to Madinah, leading to the establishment of the Islamic State there. From being oppressed and persecuted and without support in Makkah, the Muslims became the dominant power in Madinah after the Hijrah.

If life in Makkah was characterized by passive resistance, in Madinah it entered a more active phase with the Prophet (s) himself initiating many of the moves. Within six months of arriving and consolidating the internal situation there, the Prophet (s) sent several expeditions against the Quraysh caravans. The first one was sent under the command of his uncle, Hamzah; others followed suit. There were eight such expeditions before the famous Battle of Badr in the month of Ramadan in the second year of the Hijrah. There was a specific purpose behind such expeditions. First, it was to declare the Muslims’ presence and stake a claim to the trade routes around Madinah; second, it served notice that the days of the Quraysh’s trouble-free journeys were over and that their aggression which had driven the Muslims out of Makkah would now be resisted by force. Third, these expeditions helped facilitate alliances with tribes along the trade routes; if these did not materialize, at the very least, the tribes were neutralized in any future conflict with the Quraysh. Finally and most importantly, the Quraysh’s most vulnerable point — their economic lifeline — was threatened.

It is interesting to note that the Prophet (s) did not use the platform of Dar al-Nadwa to propagate the message of Islam even though he approached members of the Makkan aristocracy on an individual basis.

The Prophet’s (s) challenge to the Qurayshi caravans was a new and more ominous development. Hitherto they had enjoyed trouble-free movement between Makkah and Syria, a rare privilege in that uncertain part of the world. Further, this was the first time that anyone had threatened the Qurayshi caravans so openly and were the gambit to succeed, it would certainly encourage others to challenge the hitherto unrivaled position of Quraysh. In the past, whenever their caravans were threatened, all they had to say was they were from the land of the Haram. This was enough to secure them safe passage. A modern-day comparison could be made with the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf. Just as a blockade of the Persian Gulf would lead to the collapse of Western economies, so challenging the Qurayshi caravans at the time of the Prophet (s) threatened their economic lifeline.

In warfare, all factors — military, political, social and economic — must be utilized. For instance, if a country is undermined economically, it may not even be necessary to wage war against it. In the 1980s, the US involved the Soviet Union in an expensive arms race that crippled it economically. Additional blows were delivered by the mujahids in Afgha-nistan, bringing the Soviet colossus to its knees and leading to its collapse and disintegration. Today, the US imposes economic sanctions — as a bullying tactic — against a host of countries whose policies it does not approve of. Economic pressure is, therefore, a recognized form of warfare. It is important to identify the enemy’s most vulnerable point and apply one’s strength against it. For instance, America and Israel can be defeated by imposing on them human costs that their societies cannot bear; this may not work in the case of a country like India where human life is considered cheap. India, however, can be confronted through an economic strategy as well as by deepening the fault lines that exist within it. Muslims must consider more creative ways of confronting their enemies in order to ward off aggression and violence directed at them.

The Prophet’s (s) strategy involved clipping the power of the Quraysh while increasing the power of theIslamic state. True, the Quraysh had driven the Muslims out of Makkah; they even plotted to kill the Prophet (s) but he managed to leave safely once Allah (Â) granted him permission. But it was not merely to save his own life; Allah (s) says in the Qur’an,

He [Allah] it is who has sent the Messenger with clear guidance and the din of truth so that it may become dominant over all other systems, however much the mushriks may be averse to it (9:33; 61:11).

No apologies are offered for making Islam dominant, as some Muslims do these days. It is the divine system which must triumph but Muslims have to work for it. Change will come about only when Muslims are prepared to make the requisite sacrifices. Apologizing for Islam’s power or not making it dominant are not from the sunnah of Allah (swt); He wants Islam to be dominant so that His laws are implemented on earth. This is precisely what is exemplified by the Sirah of the noble Messenger of Allah (s).

Similarly, the Prophet (s) initiated a covenant with the residents of Madinah, including the Jews, to manage the security of the new city-state.

We must now return to the Prophet’s (s) method of dealing with the Quraysh once he had secured the internal situation in Madinah. Upon arrival, he established a bond of brotherhood between the Muhajirun (migrants from Makkah) and the Ansar (helpers of Madinah). The former were completely destitute and would have suffered immense hardship had this bond not been created. It is instructive to note that the bond of brotherhood was based not on blood relationship but on iman, a new basis for social interaction. Similarly, the Prophet (s) initiated a covenant with the residents of Madinah, including the Jews, to manage the security of the new city-state. This was a unique document and reflected the statesmanship of the noble Messenger of Allah (s). It also established his undiputed leadership in Madinah. Everyone, including the Jews, accepted his authority. What is noteworthy is the Prophet’s (s) consolidation of authority to enable him to deal with any threat to the fledgling Islamic State including the ever-present menace of the Quraysh who had declared open war on Islam and were beginning to threaten Madinah as well. Soon after the Muslims’ arrival in Madinah, the Quraysh had sent a message to Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Sallul, the well-known munafiq, asking him to expel the Muslims or prepare to face the consequences. When the Prophet (s) learned of this, he personally intervened and averted the crisis. Despite this, it would not be long before the Quraysh attacked the city-state, so it was important to make adequate preparations for it.

The raiding parties sent by the Prophet (s), which incidentally were not confined to the vicinity of Madinah, were meant to do just that. One of the raiding parties sent under the command of Abdullah ibn Jahsh went to Nakhlah, to the very doorsteps of Makkah. He was instructed to watch the movement of the Quraysh and to keep the Prophet (s) informed about them. The Qurayshi trade caravans used to pass through Nakhlah on their way to Yemen. To challenge the Quraysh in their backyard was an act of supreme courage especially at a time when Muslims were few in number, had participated in no battles and barely managed to escape from Makkah only a few months earlier.

Secure Territorial Base

The point that emerges from this brief look at the Prophet’s (s) Sirah is that once he had acquired a territorial base, the phase of passive resistance ended. A secure territorial base is essential for Muslims to operate from. It was perhaps providential that the people of Ta’if did not respond to the call of the Prophet (s) when he visited them in the year of ‘Aam al-Huzn (the year of calamity, the 10th year of his mission in Makkah) when he lost both his uncle Abu Talib and his wife, Khadijah. If he had settled in Taif, it is quite likely that the Quraysh may have succeeded in undermining the nascent Islamic State established at their doorstep. Madinah is 300 kilometres away from Makkah; besides, it is strategically located along the trade routes going north to Palestine and Syria. Thus, by settling there, the Prophet (s) not only secured a base but also gained leverage over the Quraysh’s trade which he would use to maximum advantage to exert pressure on them.

…in the liberation of Makkah, very little force was used although the Prophet (s) had come with an army of 10,000 heavily armed men and could have easily exacted revenge from the Makkans who had tormented the Muslims for many years.

In the first five years in Madinah, the Muslims did not go to Makkah to fight the Quraysh; instead, all the wars were fought near Madinah, Badr being the only exception which is located at a distance of about 100 kilometres from Madinah. For the Quraysh, it was still more than 200km away from Makkah but in their arrogance they thought they would easily defeat and, therefore, wipe out the Muslims. Against the other tribes, the Prophet (s) did not hesitate to go and overwhelm them in their home territory; many of them were usually caught off guard and subdued without much fighting. After the Battle of Ahzab, also called Khandaq (Trench), in the fifth year of the Hijrah, the Prophet (s) made his famous prediction that henceforth, the Quraysh will not attack Madinah, instead the Muslims will go out to meet them. This was borne out by the battles waged against the Jewish stronghold at Khyber (7ah), the liberation of Makkah and the Battle of Hunayn (8ah), as well as the battles of Mu‘tah (8ah) and the expedition to Tabuk (9ah) against the Romans.

One other point is worth mentioning: in the liberation of Makkah, very little force was used although the Prophet (s) had come with an army of 10,000 heavily armed men and could have easily exacted revenge from the Makkans who had tormented the Muslims for many years. Instead, he used psychological pressure to break their resistance by ordering his companions to light fires on the mountains surrounding Makkah the night before Muslims entered the city. This had the desired effect; when the Makkans saw so many fires, they thought tens of thousands of Muslims were camped outside; it was futile to resist such a force. The Prophet’s (s) compassionate treatment of his vanquished foes won them over easily. They entered the fold of Islam en masse. Makkah, a bastion of shirk, was transformed into a stronghold of Islam and restored to its original purpose as the House of Allah, purified of all the idols, without shedding any blood.

The Prophet (s) utilized all means — ideological, social, economic, political and military — to transform the society in Arabia. We also find that the Prophet (s) did not use institutions established by his enemies to promote Islam, nor did he resort to such means as tribalism, class interest or nationalism to mobilize the people. He never compromised on principles, preferring instead to endure suffering and persecution. It was this strict adherence to principles that helped create a body of Muslims who though small in number, were strong in commitment and prepared to die for Allah’s (swt) cause. In confrontation with such people, ungodly forces simply wither away.

Muslims today will have to imbibe these lessons from the Sirah if they want to re-emerge in their natural leading role in the world. There is no other way to transform their societies and to regain leadership of a wayward world that is so completely dominated by exploiters and oppressors.

1. Encyclopaedia of Seerah, Vol. IV; London, 1986; pp. 328–40; quoting Sayyid Qutb’s Milestones. There are different editions of the English translation of this book. The one published by IIFSO, Salmiyah, Kuwait [nd] carries this text on pp. 39–44.

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