Islamic identity in the Muslim world

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Ramadan 19, 1428 2007-10-01


by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 36, No. 8, Ramadan, 1428)

There are more than 56 Muslim nation-States in the world today, yet few would register on an informed Muslim’s radar screen as being particularly significant. What determines a country’s importance relative to others? Before answering this question, let us first list those that would probably make the top grade without assigning any specific order to them: Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia and Lebanon. A quick glance at the list indicates a pattern: with the exception of Indonesia andMalaysia, all have something to do with Islam or the Islamic movement. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, but it has offered little to Islamic thought or movement. An Islamic state existed in Aceh-Sumatra in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, which was a centre of Islamic thought at the time, but it is now virtually subsumed in the larger entity calledIndonesia. Malaysia, too, although it is a Muslim-majority state, has made its mark more as an economic success story than as a country that has made any significant contribution to Islam or the Islamic movement.

The cases for Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia are easy to make. Iran underwent an Islamic revolution and successfully overthrew a Western-backed tyranny in 1978-79. Iran is thus the leading edge of the Islamic movement, and the only Islamic state in the world today. Pakistan’s prominence, despite its poor economic and educational performance, is due to the fact that it is the only country in contemporary history to have been created in the name of Islam. Its nuclear prowess, unique in the Muslim world, came much later and has become a liability because of the ruling elites’ incompetence. Turkey’s significance lies in the fact that it was the last seat of the khilafah before Mustafa Kemal abolished it in March 1924, severing the Muslims’ temporal link with the first Islamic state established by the noble Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace. The area currently ruled by the Saudis includes, of course, the cradle of Islam, including the Haramain—Makkah and Madinah—which are at the heart of Islam’s worldly presence. Egypt is the traditional centre of Arab culture and Islam, not least because of the status of al-Azhar University, which contributed so much to Islamic thought before its status was corroded by the influence of dictatorial regimes. Finally we haveLebanon, a country of just four million people, many of them non-Muslim. Its prominence is almost entirely due to the valiant resistance of Hizbullah against the zionist invaders; it is this that makes Lebanon register higher in the consciousness of most Muslims than Bangladesh, for example, even though Bangladesh has a population of some 120 million people.

What is clear is that the historical significance of any Muslim country for the global Ummah is directly linked with Islam and the contribution that its people make to the cause of the Islamic movement. Neither numbers, nor geographical size, nor even financial clout, matter much by comparison. After all, Kuwait is one of the richest countries in the Muslim world, yet it has little standing among Muslim activists. It is only the unique position of the Haramain for all Muslims that gives Saudi Arabia, despite its riches, any particularly status in the Ummah. Given this reality, we need to ask why the ruling elites in the Muslim world shun Islam when the Muslim masses yearn for Islamic rule. Barring Iran, Malaysia and now Turkey, where there are governments that are relatively representative, virtually every Muslim country is ruled by dictators beholden to foreign masters. Because they are not in power with the support of their people, they have little sense of what the people want. If they enjoyed mass support, they would have had far greater success in solving the problems of their societies; but that would require sacrifices which they are not prepared to make. The result is that every Muslim country ruled by dictators is mired in massive corruption, mismanagement and oppression. These rulers treat their own people as enemies, displaying open contempt for them. By contrast, any Muslim government, such as Iran, or Islamic movement, such as Hizbullah, that enjoys the support of their people becomes an impregnable fortress capable of standing up to enemies many times larger and apparently more powerful than themselves.

Indonesia suffers from profound weaknesses in these areas, despite being the most populous Muslim country in the world. Its scholars and activists suffer from fundamental weaknesses in their understanding and thought processes. For instance, many Indonesian intellectuals argue that there is no concept of an Islamic state; that the Prophet (saw) established merely a community of believers in Madinah. Leading Muslim intellectuals such as Norcholish Madjid (d.2005) and Dr Amien Rais, a former speaker of parliament and leader of an opposition political party, assert that there is no Islamic state in the Sunnah. The two leading Islamic organizations, Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, prefer to focus on personal religiosity and community organization, rather than the idea of an Islamic state. Debate among Indonesian intellectuals about the role of Islam in society focuses largely on the pagan ideology of Pancasila, created and imposed on the country by Sukarno during his rule, which they argue is somehow “Islamic”. It is such confusion that has kept Indonesia a footnote in the sight of Islamic movement activists. Only when their intellectuals and thinkers emerge from this confusion will Indonesia and other such countries have a chance to find their rightful place in the Islamic movement.

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