Power: the neglected dimension of the Seerah

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Jumada' al-Akhirah 07, 1423 2002-08-16


by Zafar Bangash (Features, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 12, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1423)

The ICIT held a second International Seerah Conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, earlier this month. Here we publish the first section of an abridged version of the keynote paper, presented by Zafar Bangash, Director of the ICIT.

The vast body of Seerah literature produced by Muslims over the centuries demonstrates many dimensions of the Prophet’s blessed personality, but two issues have received scant attention: power and politics. This is all the more surprising in view of the fact that the earliest Seerah compilations were about maghazi, the Prophet’s battles, which had essentially to do with power. Only in the last few decades have some Muslim scholars -- Professor Muhammad Hamidullah, Maulana Maudoodi, Naeem Siddiqui and Dr Kalim Siddiqui, for instance -- drawn attention to these aspects. Professor Hamidullah in particular has written specifically about the political life of the Prophet (Muhammad Hamidullah: Rasool-e Akram ki Siyasi Zindagi, Dar ul Asha’at, Karachi, 1961), while Dr Kalim Siddiqui proposed the study of the Seerah from the power perspective (Kalim Siddiqui: Political dimensions of the Seerah, ICIT, 1998).

In the Qur’an, Allah describes the Prophet’s character as a guiding light and shining example for all humanity to eternity (33:21); He also says that the Messenger was sent with clear guidance and the deen of Truth so that it becomes dominant over all other systems, however much themushrikeen (those who associate partners with Allah) may detest it (9:33; 61:09). In Surah al-Nasr (s. 110), Allah says that when Muslims are victorious and dominant, then mankind will enter the fold of Islam in multitudes. So there is Allah’s declaration that Islam must become dominant, and that only then will people enter its fold in large numbers. In other words, for the successful propagation of Islam its dominance is important.

But the absence of the power perspective in the Seerah literature, and the Muslims’ experiences under European colonialism, appear to have affected their thought processes profoundly. In the West, the idea of separation of religion and politics is well established; it has now been adopted by some Muslims as well. The argument is extended even to the role of the Prophets: that they were sent merely to deliver the message; implementing it was not their responsibility. Since power and authority relate to governance, they are considered to be outside the Prophets’ purview. Instead, "rationality," projected as the highest form of human achievement, unencumbered by divine guidance, is presented as a panacea for all the ills affecting the Muslim world. Muslims, it is argued, will not be able to make "progress" unless they go through their own Reformation and banish religion from politics. The Church’s peculiar role in history has affected Western society adversely in many ways, yet Muslims have a very different historical experience with the deen(way of life) of Islam.

Based on this dogma of separation of Church and politics, Western Orientalists have written that Muhammad (saw) was a "Prophet" in Makkah but became a "statesman" in Madinah (e.g. Montgomery Watt). What this implies is that as long as he delivered the message without any enforcement mechanism at his disposal, he performed the function of a Prophet, but when he acquired temporal power and authority in Madinah to enforce the laws of Islam, he somehow ceased to be a Prophet (astaghfirullah). In the Western conception of the role of the Prophets, power is excluded, and it is alleged that they were sent merely to preach morality and to deal with rituals; it was not their function to interfere in affairs of state. Even morality has now been relegated to an individual’s personal choice; moral values are no longer anchored in divine guidance, but determined by pressure groups under the rubric of "freedom of choice."

Among Muslims there is another common misconception: that the Prophet (saw) had no power in Makkah; only when he arrived in Madinah did he acquire power. This is not an accurate reading of the situation. The Prophet was not totally powerless in Makkah, nor did he immediately acquire supreme power in Madinah. But before we can discuss the issue of his acquisition of power, we need to define power itself.

Power has been defined as "the ability to effect the outcome you want, and if necessary, to change the behaviour of others to make it happen" (Joseph S. Nye: The Paradox of American Power, Oxford University Press, NY, US, 2002, p.4). Another definition of power is "the possession of certain resources, such as population, territory, natural resources, economic strength, military force and political stability" (ibid, p.5). These are both purely materialistic definitions; there is no role for any religious or spiritual values. Muslims have a different perception of power. According to Dr Kalim Siddiqui, "Real power lies in faith, belief, contentment, commitment, responsibility and accountability to the Almighty in the Hereafter" (Kalim Siddiqui: Stages of Islamic Revolution, London, 1996, p.75). The concepts of faith, belief, commitment, responsibility and accountability must be revisited to understand their true import.

Even the West’s definitions, based on military power, territory and wealth, however, have often proved inadequate. Despite its huge population, China was unable to project power commensurate with its resource base before 1971; the same holds true for India, which has a large population as well as territory but is still weak both economically and politically. India has a soft underbelly: its 350 million absolutely poor people are more than the total population of all its neighbours (except China). The erstwhile Soviet Union had an enormous military machine armed with nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles, yet these prevented neither its defeat at the hands of the Afghan mujahideen nor the break-up of the Soviet Union. America’s nuclear weapons were little help in Vietnam, where it suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of the poor and poorly-armed Vietnamese people. Israel, despite the military, economic, political and diplomatic support of the US, was convincingly defeated in Lebanon by a small group of Hizbullah fighters, armed only with faith and small arms. So there is clearly more to power than the possession of military hardware and territory. On the other hand, countries such as Japan and Canada are not militarily strong but they project considerable attraction and power on the global scene.

So we need to define power more precisely. Two kinds of power can be identified: soft power and hard (or coercive) power. Both have distinct roles that complement each other.

Soft power can be defined as the power of appeal, reason, persuasion, attraction, influence and moral authority. There is generally little or no coercion involved in appealing to others in order to attract them to a particular point of view, although in the contemporary world this is not always the case. All human beings possess some degree of soft and hard power. These manifest themselves in different ways: children exercise soft power over their parents through emotional appeal; both soft and hard power are exercised in husband-wife relationships. Employers exercise both soft and hard power over their employees: appealing to the employees’ sense of duty, employers use soft power to motivate them; the threat of dismissal falls under the heading of hard power. Similarly, employees can exercise hard power by the threat of a strike to secure better wages or working conditions, or both. In the political arena, political parties strive to translate their soft power ñ their policies projected through propaganda as the panacea for all a society’s problems - into hard power, that is, to get the chance to govern and implement those policies. Running the government, commonly known as "being in power," puts the resources of the state at the party’s (or coalition’s) disposal, enabling them to increase their soft and hard power. Thus the possession of hard power helps to increase one’s soft power as well.

On the societal level, soft power includes the following:

  1. Ideology – which should be appealing and must have certain intrinsic values - moral, ethical and social;
  2. Culture;
  3. Ability to provide spiritual upliftment;
  4. Ability to induce sacrifices;
  5. Ability to generate contentment and satisfaction
  6. Ability to create strong bonds among its adherents (i.e. a sense of community, called the Ummah in Qur’anic terminology.)

Soft power is more than influence; it is the ability to entice, attract and persuade, which leads to a break with past habits and traditions and the formation of new ones. Soft power has the ability to motivate an individual to break even with his family and friends if they adhere to an ideology that is at odds with that of the individual. The ideology projected by the new value-system itself leads to the creation of new bonds. We see from the stories of many Prophets Nuh, Ibrahim, Lut and Muhammad (as), for instance that they abandoned those relatives who insisted on clinging to beliefs and practices that were opposed to belief in the One God, Allah.

Hard (or coercive) power, on the other hand, can be described as the ability to force people to modify their behaviour to obey certain rules and accept certain values, even though they may not like them or agree with them. This comes from having the authority to enact and enforce laws, to punish law-breakers, and to use military force to fight those who oppose the interests of such a power. Economic and political power is part and parcel of the function of hard power. The preponderance of military power also generates the feeling in some people that they can subjugate and dominate other people, directly or indirectly. Hard power without a corresponding legitimizing soft power, however, does not last long. It invariably leads to tyranny and oppression, and soon people rebel against it. All the colonial powers exercised hard power in their colonies and were thus regarded as illegitimate. There was resentment of their rule, and in time it became too difficult for the colonial powers to maintain their domination.

Colonial entities can also cut down local populations. The Europeans did this very successfully in North America and Australia; they were less successful in Africa and Asia, although not for lack of trying. The zionists are trying to do the same in Palestine today, although likewise without much success. Similarly, soft power without hard power does not go far, even if it is based on sound principles. The example of almost all the Prophets of Allah falls into this category. They had "soft power," that is their message was divinely inspired; it was legitimate and presented in a clear and concise manner, yet most people did not accept the message or were prevented from accepting it. Most Prophets delivered their message and left the world; others were killed by their own people; their "soft power" was not translated into "hard power", that is the implementation of divinely-ordained laws in their societies. Only in a few cases did the "soft power" of the Prophets translate into "hard power" i.e. obtain the authority to enforce the laws of Allah on earth.

The Prophet’s Soft Power in Makkah

Long before the Prophet (saw) started to deliver the message of tawhid -- belief in One God, Allah -- the people of Makkah knew him as a man of impeccable courtesy and integrity. In a society steeped in immorality (not unlike most human societies today), he was a paragon of virtue. Even his worst enemies could not point to any flaw in his character; he was called al-Amin (the trustworthy one) and al-Sadiq (the truthful one), yet when he proclaimed the message of Islam the Makkan aristocracy immediately became his mortal enemies. Clearly they did not oppose him because of any flaw in his character (na’uzubillah).

Even before he received divine revelation, the Prophet had a certain amount of soft power: he was honest, he had integrity and charisma, and he belonged to Banu Hashim, a highly respected clan of Quraish. He had also established his credentials as a successful trader and businessman. Thus he possessed many qualities that could be used to rally people around him and attain power if he had personal ambition. Yet he did exactly the opposite: he often withdrew from society, and in the month of Ramadhan he would retreat to the cave of Hira for prayer, meditation and contemplation. It was in Hira during one Ramadhan that he received the first revelation from Allah. The message, or soft power, was given to him by divine sanction from on High.

For nearly three years the message was conveyed only to the Prophet’s relatives and close friends. It was only when the Prophet went public and it became known that a number of people had already accepted Islam that opposition emerged. Here we see the classic pattern of conflict between two types of power: the soft power of the Prophet confronted by the hard power of the tribal chiefs. At first they contemptuously dismissed the message, hoping that it would die a natural death through lack of attention. When that did not happen, Quraish resorted to ridicule, followed soon after by their anger. When even this failed, Quraish intensified their opposition by oppressing and torturing Muslims, leading to the deaths of some of them: Sumayya shaheeda and Yasir bin Ammar, for instance; others, such as Bilal ibn Rabi’ah and Khabbab ibn al-Aratt, were tortured without mercy.

Despite the oppression unleashed by the tribal chiefs and their followers, people continued to be attracted to Islam, and soon a fair number of adherents gathered round the Prophet. While most of them were from the oppressed and downtrodden of Makkah, there were also a number from the aristocracy. This created a breach in the ranks of the ruling elites. Even with a small following the Prophet (saw) had gained some power at the expense of the established aristocracy. This was because he exercised moral authority that flowed directly from the message.

By giving Muslims a set of values based on divine revelation, Islam established new norms in society. Clearly this could not have been done without the "soft power" that the Prophet exercised. In fact this soft power was demonstrated most effectively when he ordered a group of Muslims to migrate to Abyssinia to escape persecution. Among the immigrants were several members of the aristocracy, such as Umm-Habiba, the daughter of Abu-Sufyan, one of the leading chiefs of Makkah, and Uthman ibn Affan, another prominent member of Banu Umayya, another powerful clan.

The migration to Abyssinia demonstrated two things: the Prophet’s possession of soft power, and his ability to persuade his followers to obey his orders. No coercion was involved, nor the threat of persecution if they did not comply (even today many shaikhs of the Sufi tariqahs exercise similar control and authority over their followers). The group that migrated to Abyssinia left most of their kindred behind, and members of the aristocratic families abandoned the "good life" their parents had provided for them, and migrated to an unknown land to face an uncertain future. This was accepted without hesitation by the first batch of Muslims, some 100 persons in all. Second, the migration to Abyssinia, like the Prophet’s visit to Taif in the tenth year of his mission, was intended to secure a territorial base for Islam. Although the Taif experience turned out to be extremely unpleasant ñ the Prophet (saw) was insulted and attacked by the people of the town ñ the fact remains that it was an attempt to secure a safe territorial base. Abyssinia also turned out to be unsuitable because of the intrigues of the priests there, despite the fact that the ruler, the Negus, gave the Muslims protection. He also secretly accepted Islam.

The Prophet spent 13 years in Makkah delivering the message of Islam. He was among people who had known him all their lives; they knew him well, yet they refused to accept his message. In the 13 years only a few hundred out of a total of some 5,000 people accepted Islam. In Makkah the Prophet (saw) only possessed soft power; using their hard power, Quraish made every attempt to block the message of Islam. Quraish could have held an honest and open debate with the Prophet, but they did not choose such a course; they knew that if he were allowed to deliver his message openly, it would appeal to a very large number of people and Quraish would lose their power and privileges. Instead, they did everything in their power to suppress the message, and finally plotted to kill him. The soft power of the Prophet was confronted by the hard power of Quraish; this is in fact a common experience: wielders of hard power always try to destroy those with soft power by terror and intimidation.

What the Prophet’s experience in Makkah shows is that despite possessing soft power conferred by Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala Himself, he was unable to gather a large following. Thus soft power, though necessary, is not sufficient on its own to confront the hard power of the enemies of Allah. While this does not mean that Muslims have to play unfair, the ruthlessness of our enemies leaves us no choice but to confront them with the hard power of the believers. Possession of soft power is an essential pre-requisite, but is not sufficient by itself to defeat the hard power of the oppressors, which must ultimately be challenged by the hard power of the believers, fortified by the soft power of their message.

In Makkah the Prophet (saw) was also offered power in return for compromising with Quraish. The Prophet turned this down completely. In fact, his reply contained within it the element of struggle and conflict in which Islam would become dominant. He told his uncle Abu-Talib, through whom the message from Quraish was delivered: "Were they to put the sun in my right hand, and the moon in my left, I will not stop proclaiming the message that has been entrusted to me by Allah, until it becomes dominant, or I perish in the process." It must have been tempting for the Prophet to accept the offer of Quraish, become their leader, and propagate Islam from the top, but he did not choose to do so. Had he done so, some would argue, he would not only have acquired power but also saved his followers from many more years of persecution.

The Prophet (saw) knew that compromise with Quraish would dilute his own message – the soft power - and confer legitimacy on an illegitimate system created by the hard power of the Quraish. This point, unfortunately, is lost on many members of the Islamic movement today; they are always eager to accept ministerial positions in regimes of dubious credentials. Islam cannot function or operate in a subservient role; it must create its own system rooted in the soft power of Islam. This is what emerges from this Qur’anic ayah: "He [Allah] it is Who has sent the Messenger with clear guidance and the deen of Truth so that it becomes dominant over all other systems, however much the mushrikeen may be averse to it" (9:33; 61:09), as well as from the Seerah of the noble Prophet of Allah (saw).

[The second part of this abridged version of Zafar Bangash’s paper, presented at the ICIT’s International Seerah Conference in Colombo, will be published in the next issue of Crescent International. The full paper will shortly be available on the ICIT website, www.crescent-online.net.]

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