Let us begin at the beginning, again. This is the only way we can keep up with the ever moving and advancing frontiers of knowledge, progress, growth, advancement and struggle that we might be engaged in at any time and in any place. It is not necessary for us to be conscious of the frontiers at all times; it is possible that we may not even be aware of the exact position of the ever moving frontier.
Over the last 1400 years, Muslims have developed a number of ‘schools of thought’ and systems of law (fiqh).
Fellow travellers may even disagree on their current position. But there is never any dispute about where we began. Thus the beginning is a unique point of unity among all Believers. The structure of Islam is such that it repeatedly reminds the Believer of the beginning. For example, we say bismillah [‘In the Name of God’] hundreds of times in a day. We pray five times a day and each of the five daily prayers consist of many parts (rak’ah), and each part has many obligatory recitations and movements, all beginning with bismillah ar-Rahman ir-Rahim [ie., ‘In the Name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate’].
Over the last 1400 years, Muslims have developed a number of ‘schools of thought’ and systems of law (fiqh). In the global conditions prevailing today, there are a number of approaches, or systems of ‘political thought’, competing with one another. There are also many traditions, tariqas, systems of leadership and following (taqlid) in vogue. This intellectual and spiritual diversity have produced a rich mosaic of patterns of behaviour among Muslims. But nobody has produced an alternative to bismillah ar-Rahman ir-Rahim.
I was at a gathering of ulama [Muslim scholars] recently. In fact I have been present at hundreds of gatherings of ulama over the last 50 years. At these gatherings every alim [Muslim scholar] has begun with bismillah and then proceeded to say his own piece, mostly at divergence with everyone else’s. They make bismillah sound like a shotgun. Like the barrel of a shotgun, it gives us, the pallets, a direction, speed, and range .
In this metaphor the bismillah is the gunpowder at the bottom of the cartridge rather than the barrel of the shotgun.
What then is the barrel? There are many candidates for this role - the Qur’an, the Sirah [life of Prophet Muhammad] and the Sunnah [examples through traditions] of the Prophet, upon whom be peace. But in the open space of history, the pallets have developed their own parallel routes and even targets. They have also developed competing or distinct semantics to convey the same meaning. When cornered they would admit, mostly in private, that, for example, such terms as khilafah [caliphate], imamah [Imamate], Islamic State, Islamic Republic or ’Nizam-e-Mustafa’, etc, mean the same thing. But within their ‘party’ manifestos they mean different things because this is what they have told their followers. It is like trade differentiation between white and whiter-than-white. They proclaim unity but are afraid to practise it.
Perhaps we should abandon the metaphor of the shotgun here before we shoot ourselves in the foot!
Back to the most recent gathering of ulama. There the learned got into the philosophical rendering of what may be called Islamic reductionism. It goes like this - the whole of the Qur’an is inSura al-Baqarah [the second chapter of the Qur’an], the whole of Sura al-Baqarah is in Sura al-Fatiha [the opening chapter of the Qur’an], the whole of Sura al-Fatiha is in bismillah ar-Rahman ir-Rahim, and the whole of bismillah is in the Arabic letter ’ba’ which is the beginning of the bismillah.
Logically, therefore, if we begin with the ’ba’ of the bismillah and reverse the process, we would arrive at the end of the Qur’an. True. But the Qur’an itself marked the end of a process of revelation and at the same time the beginning of a phase of history in which mankind was on its own - no more wahy [divine revelation], and no more prophets were to come. And because history is a versatile, moving conveyor belt, every point in it is a point of bismillah, of the beginning, of renewal. Thus, everyday, in a sense, is a new beginning and at all times we begin at a new point.
This reminds of another occasion in 1982. The Muslim Institute had invited many ulama of various schools of thought to a world seminar on Hajj. Before the seminar began, I invited all the assembled ulama to dinner at my house. I had the furniture stacked away in the garage. It was an all floor affair. The ulama came and sat down. Many were famous names from the Arab/ Sunni and Irani/Shi’i background. Some of them sat close to each other, facing each other, their folded knees touching. They were pleased to see each other. To express this pleasure they touched each others’ folded legs above the knees and they stroked each others’ beards. I was deeply moved by this spectacle of brotherhood among ulama of rival schools of thought.
My pleasure was short-lived when they began talking. For their learned exchanges they chose the topic of qiyama, the Day of Judgement, when the world will come to an end. And they were all agreed that qiyama was just round the corner, all the signs of the approach of the qiyama were present. Thus it was that the ulama of many rival and competing schools of thought who were not agreed on many vital issues were all agreed on the end of the world being imminent.
I was more than a little disappointed. There I was thinking and writing of a new destiny for the Ummah and exploring a revolutionary path to a great future in the wake of the events in Iran, and here were our ulama happy in the thought that the world would soon be coming to an end. But of course it is no fault of the ulama. It so happens that Allah has clearly defined the Beginning and the End. Thus the human mind feels very secure at these two extremes. This explains why our ‘religious’ sector finds it easy to talk about the akhira [the Hereafter] and overlook the dunya [this world]. To put the world to rights requires very hardwork, ijtihad [legal judgement by a qualified person] and jihad [any struggle for Islam] included.
The path of history is undefined, uncharted, full of pitfalls, and demanding sacrifices. Akhira, on the other hand is a few short, safe jumps ahead. All one has to do is to fall into the grave reasonably unsoiled by the greater sins (minor sins don’t matter), and eternal happiness in Heaven, in the company of beautiful ‘hoories’, is guaranteed. Trying to put the world right requires taking unnecessary and awful risks.
This was, and is, the path of those who have put a safe distance between ‘politics’ and din [Religion]. The whole history of Islam can be written in the framework of this separation of din fromdunya. Fortunately, this separation was not peculiar to any one school of thought; some strains of it are found in most parts of the spectrum of Muslim thought, including the two major schools, Sunni and Shi’i, and their numerous branches and the plethora of Sufi orders.
Just recently, very recently, the Islamic movement has taken the final plunge and wrapped din and dunya (religion and politics) into an inseparable whole. Inevitably, the spectrum of the Islamic movement is very wide. Some parts of it, such as the Refah Party in Turkey and the Jama’at-e Islami in Pakistan are still firmly stuck to the ‘democratic’ trail into wilderness. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and some parts of the old Ikhwan in Egypt and other Arab countries have overtly and covertly, moved over to new and strident revolutionary path. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the revolutionary wing of the Islamic movement is now making all the news and is referred to by the west as ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘terrorist’.
The recent long jail sentences passed on Shaikh Omar Abdel Rahman and others in the US is clearly part of the west’s global declaration of war on Islam. The partition imposed on Bosnia, the Bantustanisation of Palestine as part of a ‘peace process’, the CIA’s open commitment to overthrow the Islamic State of Iran, the wars in Chechenya and Algeria, the British attempt to silence the Saudi opposition, are all parts of the same agenda. But some Ikhwan and Jama’at worthies would not stand up for Shaikh Omar while expecting everybody else to stand up for them. In the Islamic movement, the choice of standing apart on vital issues does not exist.
This is why it is important that we understand where we all began and where we are heading. We will not get there in dribs and drabs, taking different routes. Neither is it possible to structurally unify the global Islamic movement. It is right and proper, and totally understandable, that the diversity of history and experience is reflected in the Islamic movement. The west’s war on Islam, in the meantime will continue. The west will find, it has always found, ulama who give fatwas needed to justify policies of the west’s client regimes.
The Saudis have reared the so-called ‘Wahabi’ ulama who have endorsed the need to station US troops on Islam’s most holy land permanently. But, bless them, what would we do without our enemies? They help to keep our minds focused. For example, all parts of the Islamic movement would undoubtedly agree that the toppling of the Saudi regime and the liberation of Jaziratul Arab (the Arabian Peninsula) from US occupation is a major goal that we should all pursue together.
And that too requires a bismillah again. The end of the world can surely wait. Even Allah will certainly not blow the whistle while the Saudis and the Americans are in occupation. My own feeling is that we have time for a great deal more besides.
The writer was Director, The Muslim Institute (London) and Leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain.
Muslimedia: April 1996-August 1996