Reflecting on ICIT/Crescent International conferences on the Seerah

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Jumada' al-Ula' 22, 1423 2002-08-01

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 11, Jumada' al-Ula', 1423)

Last month, the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) announced that it is to hold an International Seerah Conference in Sri Lanka in October, two years after a similar conference in June 2000. Here we are pleased to reprint reflection on that conference by Zafar Bangash, Director of the ICIT.

In his last paper before his death in 1996, Dr Kalim Siddiqui proposed the study of the Seerah of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, from the "power perspective". He suggested that a series of international conferences be organised at which scholars from around the world would examine the Seerah in the light of these broader dimensions. Dr Siddiqui did not live to see his proposal put into effect, but those of us who have taken up his mission are attempting to work along these lines.

In June the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) and Crescent International organised two international conferences, one in Colombo, Sri Lanka (June 16-18) and the other in Karachi, Pakistan (June 25) on the Seerah of the Messenger of Allah (saw). The Sri Lanka programme, organised jointly with the Al-Islam Foundation, was held at the Bandranaike International Conference Centre. The three-day event attracted a wide variety of participants: ulama, academics, journalists, intellectuals, students and activists of the Islamic movement as well as judges and parliamentarians from Sri Lanka (for details, see Crescent International July 1-15 and July 16-31, 2000). Shortage of space prevented the accommodation of more participants. This was in fact the most-frequently voiced complaint about the conference.

Papers were presented by an equally wide array of scholars from such distant lands as Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Iran, South Africa, Britain, the US and Canada. The papers covered many subjects including political aspects of the Seerah, the Islamic concept of leadership, reviews of Seerah literature, the importance of the Seerah for the contemporary Islamic movement, as well as the Prophet’s battles and treaties, and the role of women in the Islamic movement.

Among the most prominent features of the conferences, much to the satisfaction of the organisers both in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, was the tremendous interest shown by people. Given the fixation of many Muslims with rituals, there had been some apprehension that interest in such a theme would be limited to a narrow circle of academics. The responses in Sri Lanka and Pakistan laid such concerns to rest. Were Dr Siddiqui alive today, he would certainly be pleased with the outcome. We are confident that his soul would rest contented after the launch of the Seerah project by the ICIT and Crescent International. (The conferences were preceded by the publications of two books on the subject.) The deep love and reverence he had for the Prophet (saw) was reflected in all his writings. He constantly referred to what he called "the Prophetic method," and insisted that the Seerah was the only guide in reshaping the individual and collective lives of Muslims.

There is no difference of opinion among Muslims about the unique position the Prophet occupies in the life of the Ummah. He was not only the recipient of the divine message but also its firstmufassir (commentator). His Seerah (life-history) and Sunnah (life-example) are fundamental to understanding the Qur’an itself. Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala refers to the Prophet as the "best of exemplars" (33:21) and as the "one who has the most lofty and noble character" (68:04). Muslims are commanded to "obey Allah and to obey the Messenger of Allah, upon whom be peace" (4:59). No Muslim disagrees with these divine precepts, yet few understand their broader implications. Almost everyone has created his own image of the Prophet and established his own criterion for following him. This is not the place to discuss these issues in detail; suffice it to note that, just as many Muslims have reduced Islam to a few rituals, so too have many reduced the Prophet’s Seerah to a few anecdotes and parables.

It would be helpful to consider briefly the historical background that led to such developments. The compilation of Seerah literature started in that phase of Islamic history when the khilafah(succession of rulership to the Prophet) had been subverted into mulukiyyah (hereditary kingship). Although the domain of Islam was still expanding, with Muslim armies marching victoriously into other lands, the rulers had deviated from the Sunnah and Seerah of the Prophet. Some ulama in early Islamic history attempted to arrest this decline, but the sword of the rulers proved mightier than their pens. Others succumbed to the temptations of the vast riches accrued by Muslim rulers with the expansion of the empire.

The body of Seerah literature compiled in this era reflects the scholars’ concern to record every minute detail of the Prophet’s life, without feeling the need to derive lessons relating to the acquisition and exercise of power. Since Muslims were already securely established, there seemed little need to reflect on such issues. They could not imagine a time when Muslims might be powerless or dominated by the kuffar. It is to the credit of these early scholars that they recorded almost every aspect of the Prophet’s life in such detail that virtually nothing is hidden from the world. His is the most minutely recorded life-history of any person in history.

Another point is also worth noting. The compilation of the Seerah occurred at about the same time as that of hadith literature, but the rigorous method of analysis and verification employed in the latter, to ensure accuracy, was not applied in the former. In his Seeratun Nabi (‘Life of the Prophet’), Shibli Naumani has gone so far as to suggest that some early compilers of the Seerah allowed themselves to be influenced by non-Muslim sources, thereby inserting stories that had little or no relation to the Prophet’s life. The fact is that the Seerah, while recorded in the most detailed manner, is largely chronological and little attempt seems to have been made to study it from the power perspective. This is now essential for changing the condition of Muslims today.

Perhaps it was providential that the two ICIT/Crescent Seerah conferences were organised in locales which reflect two distinct phases of the Prophet’s Seerah. In Sri Lanka, Muslims live in a minority situation; in Pakistan, not only are Muslims the overwhelming majority, but Islam is the country’s very raison d’etre. Thus the Sri Lankan situation may be compared to the Prophet’s life in Makkah, while Pakistan would be comparable to the Madinah period, although one must hasten to add that the parallels end there. In Sri Lanka, Muslims are not subjected to the kind of oppression that the Muslims suffered in Makkah. Similarly, Pakistan is far from the Madinah model; its society can be more accurately compared to the state of jahiliyyah that dominated Makkah at the advent of Islam.

One must, however, also readily admit that there is vigorous debate within Pakistan about how best to apply the Seerah to overcome the present state of darkness (dhulumat in the language of the Qur’an, 65:11) that engulfs society. It is also in Pakistan, in addition to Iran and Egypt perhaps, where some of the political aspects of the Seerah have been highlighted. A few names in particular stand out: Dr Mohammed Hameedullah, Maulana Abul A’ala Maudoodi and Naeem Siddiqui. In Egypt, Syed Qutb Shaheed drew attention to the political dimensions of the Seerah and reflected it in some of his writings before his execution by the Nasser regime in 1966. In Pakistan, a number of groups have used isolated aspects of the Seerah to try to justify their dubious political practices.

Pakistan perhaps displays most clearly the confusion that engulfs the Ummah today. Even many Islamic scholars there are unable to see the jahili system that has been imposed on their society. Similarly, they fail to understand that America cannot be a friend of the Muslims. It is painful to observe how many Islamic scholars measure their own importance by America’s view of them; American approval seems to be the greatest reward they can imagine. This subservience to America is frightening, and shows the general confusion that grips the Muslim mind today. The Muslim masses, often dismissed as illiterate, do not suffer from such confusion. They are quite clear about who their enemies are and why; it is the ‘educated’ Muslims who display the greatest degree of ignorance about the realities of the modern world.

It is in this context that the study of the Seerah is most useful in lifting the fog of confusion. Muslims need to re-examine the nature of the dhulumat that engulfs them today and how best to apply the Seerah to bring themselves out of it. Despite suffering much persecution in Makkah, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, did not accept the offer of the Quraish chiefs to join their jahili system. Even more important, he neither attempted to organise the Makkan society by appealing to tribal loyalty, nor mobilised them on the basis of Arab nationalism; both might have proved potent weapons in his hand. The Quraish, to which the Prophet belonged, was the most powerful federation of tribes in Makkah, and was much respected. He could easily have mobilised people on a tribal basis and then introduced Islam once he had acquired power. Similarly, nationalism could have been used to organise the Arabs against the Persians and Romans who dominated the southern and northern regions respectively of the Arabian Peninsula. Yet he rejected both these strategies. Nor did he mobilise the poor against the rich, despite there being widespread oppression and persecution in Arabia. When he proclaimed the kalimah ("la ilaha ill’Allah, Muhammadur rasulullah") he in fact aroused the enmity of the most powerful groups in Makkah. He did not choose the easy options, as so many "Islamists" are wont to do today. Worse still, they cloak their naive, short-sighted policies in Islamic terminology to try to convince the people that they are following the Sunnah and Seerah of the Prophet. What greater insult could there be to the Prophet than such deception?

A fresh look at the Seerah from the power perspective is the foremost task of the contemporary Islamic movement. The ICIT’s recent Seerah conferences were aimed at these twin objectives. Naturally, these are only the first tentative steps on a very long road. There is a long way to go before the confusion of centuries genuinely clears, but a beginning has been made. How successful these conferences are in achieving their objectives will be judged by others as well as history. We, as organisers, were very satisfied with them, both in terms of their proceedings and responses to them. We must express our profound gratitude to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala for this privilege, and also thank all those who helped with the conferences.

Much more work needs to be done along these lines. It was gratifying to note that a large number of ulama and other scholars participated in these conferences. We feel that there are many more ulama, scholars and intellectuals who can contribute to this work. We invite them to join us so that we can make the Seerah a living example and make a truly sincere effort to break out of the darkness that engulfs us. It is only by applying the methods of the Seerah that we can defeat the global power of kufr and restore Islam as the dominant reality in the world, as Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has proclaimed (al-Qur’an 9:33). That promise, however, will only be fulfilled when Muslims themselves live up to their obligations by following the Sunnah and Seerah of the Prophet, upon whom be peace. An essential pre-requisite for that is a clearer understanding of the Seerah itself, especially from the power perspective.

[This article was first published in Crescent International, August 1-15, 2000.]

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