Studying the Sirah from a different perspective

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Safar 27, 1432 2011-02-01

Islamic Movement

by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 12, Safar, 1432)

In the month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal, Muslims worldwide celebrate the birthday of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Lectures are delivered highlighting aspects of his great personality and the miracles he performed. Would it not be more appropriate to express our love for him by reviewing his life-struggle and the pain he endured in order to achieve the supremacy of Islam by establishing the Islamic State? Zafar Bangash, Director of the Institute of Islamic Thought, discusses some of these issues.

Among the many dimensions of the Sirah, two have received scant attention from Muslims: power and politics. It would be tempting — but wrong — to assume that this is result of the influence of Western political thought on Muslims. The fault lies with the Muslims themselves since they have dealt with the Sirah merely as history, narrating events in a chronological order without drawing lessons from it.

Neglect of power and politics in the Sirah is all the more surprising since the earliest Sirah compilations were about maghazi, the Prophet’s (pbuh) battles that had essentially to do with power. Only in the last few decades have some Muslim scholars — Professor Muhammad Hamidullah, Maulana Maududi, Naeem Siddiqui and Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, for instance — drawn attention to these aspects. Professor Hamidullah has written specifically about the political dimensions of the Sirah (Rasool-e Akram ki Siyasi Zindagi, 1961), while Dr. Kalim Siddiqui proposed the study of the Sirah from the power perspective just before his untimely death in April 1996 (Political Dimensions of the Seerah, ICIT, 1998).

In the Qur’an, Allah (swt) describes the Prophet (pbuh) as the best of exemplars for all humanity till eternity (33:21). He also says that the Messenger (pbuh) was sent with clear guidance and the din of truth so that it becomes dominant over all other systems, however much the mushriks (those associating rivals and competitors with Allah’s (saw) divine power and authority) may detest it (9:33; 61:09). In Surah al-Nasr, Allah (saw) says that when Muslims are victorious and dominant, then mankind will enter the fold of Islam in multitudes. So there is Allah’s (saw) 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.

This however, is not the case today. European colonialism appears to have infected Muslim political thought profoundly. In the West, the idea of separation of religion and politics is well established; some Muslims have also adopted this view. The argument is extended even to the role of Prophets (as): that they were sent merely to deliver the message; implementing it was not part of their assigned task. Since power and authority relate to governance, they are considered to lie outside the domain of the Prophets’ (as) responsibility. Instead, rationality, projected as the highest form of human achievement, unencumbered by divine guidance, is presented as a panacea for all the ills affecting society. 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 European history has adversely affected Western society in many different ways but Muslims have gone through a very different historical experience that has nothing to do with the Church’s oppressive role in history.

Based on this dogma of separation of church and politics, Western orientalists like Montgomery Watt have written that Muhammad (pbuh) was a Prophet in Makkah but became a statesman in Madinah. 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 to enforce the laws of Islam, he somehow ceased to be a prophet (nastaghfirullah). In the Western conception of the role of 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 the affairs of state. Even morality has now been relegated to individual 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 (pbuh) had no power or authority in Makkah; only when he arrived in Madinah did he acquire power. This is not an accurate reading of the situation. The Prophet (pbuh) was not entirely powerless in Makkah, nor did he immediately acquire total power in Madinah. But before we can discuss the issue of his acquisition of power, we need to define power itself.

Western policy makers (for instance, Joseph Nye in The Paradox of American Power, 2002) have defined power as “the ability to effect the outcome you want, and if necessary, to change the behaviour of others to make it happen.” Another definition of power is “the possession of certain resources, such as population, territory, natural resources, economic strength, military force and political stability.” These are purely materialistic definitions; there is no role for any moral or spiritual values here. Muslims have a different perception of power. Dr. Kalim Siddiqui says, “Real power lies in faith, belief, contentment, commitment, responsibility and accountability to the Almighty in the Hereafter” (Stages of Islamic Revolution, 1996). The concepts of faith, belief, commitment, responsibility and accountability must be revisited to understand their true impact on the acquisition and exercise of power. Islam does not say there can be no power differentiation; it regulates its use within well-defined rules so that the powerful do not have a free hand to oppress and exploit the weak, a situation far too common in the world today.

The West’s definition, based on military power, territory and wealth, however, has often proved inadequate. The US, for instance, has the largest military budget in the world; it possesses thousands of planes, hundreds of warships prowling the seas, tens of thousands of tanks and missiles as well as nuclear weapons, yet even the rag-tag bands of Afghans have defeated it using primitive weapons. India’s inability to provide for 400 million absolutely poor people out of its 1 billion population is another example of the inadequacy of the Western definition of power. Israel’s defeat at the hands of a handful of Hizbullah fighters, not once but twice, again exposes the weakness of the materialistic definition of power.

Power, therefore, needs to be defined more precisely. Two kinds of power can be identified: soft (persuasive) power and hard (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 powers are exercised in husband-wife relationships. Employers similarly exercise both powers over their employees: appealing to the employees’ sense of duty, soft power is used to motivate them; the threat of dismissal falls under the category of hard power. Employees can also exercise hard power by threatening to go on strike to secure better wages or working conditions, or both. In the political arena, both kinds of powers are deployed in the unceasing quest to get elected, or “get into power” as is commonly known, thereby acquiring more power through the availability of resources.

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 development of new ones. Soft power has the ability to motivate an individual to break even with family and friends if they adhere to an ideology at odds with that of the individual. The ideology projected by the new value-system itself leads to the creation of new bonds.

Hard (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 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 powers and their threatened use are part 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.

To become effective, soft power, even if it is based on sound principles, needs hard power. The role of all the Prophets of Allah (a) 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 doing so. Most Prophets (a) 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, divinely-ordained laws were not implemented in their societies. Only in a few cases did the “soft power” of the Prophets (a) translate into “hard power”, that is, they obtained the authority to enforce the laws of Allah (saw) on earth.

Even before he received divine revelation, the Prophet (pbuh) had a certain amount of soft power: he was honest, he had integrity and he had charisma. He was well-known in Makkah as al-Amin (the trustworthy one). He had also established his reputation 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 Ramadan he would retreat to the Cave of Hira’ for meditation and contemplation. It was in Hira’ during one Ramadan that he received the first revelation from Allah (saw). The message, or soft power, was given to him by divine sanction from on High.

For nearly three years this message was conveyed only to the Prophet’s (pbuh) relatives and close friends. It was only when he went public with his message 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 (pbuh) confronted by the hard power of the tribal chiefs. Despite the oppression unleashed by the tribal chiefs, people continued to be attracted to Islam, and soon a fair number of adherents gathered round the Prophet (pbuh). While most of them belonged to the category of the weak and the oppressed, there were also a number from the Makkan aristocracy. This created a breach in the ranks of the ruling elites. Even with a small following the Prophet (pbuh) had gained some power at the expense of the established order in society. 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 (pbuh) exercised. In fact this soft power was demonstrated most effectively when he allowed a group of Muslims to migrate to Abyssinia to escape persecution. Among the migrants were several members of the Makkan aristocracy, such as Umm Habibah, daughter of Abu-Sufyan who was one of the leading figures of Makkah, and Uthman ibn Affan, another prominent member of the powerful Banu Umayyah clan.

The migration to Abyssinia demonstrated two points: the Prophet’s (pbuh) 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. 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 by migrating to an unknown land with 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 (pbuh) 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 — the Prophet (pbuh) was insulted and attacked by the people of the town — the fact remains that it was an attempt to secure a safe territorial base.

The Prophet (pbuh) 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 13 years, only a few hundred out of a total of some 5,000 people accepted Islam. In Makkah the Prophet (pbuh) possessed only soft power; using their hard power, the Quraysh made every attempt to frustrate the spread of the message of Islam. The Quraysh could have held an honest and open debate with the Prophet (pbuh), but they did not choose such a course; they knew that if he were allowed to deliver his message openly, most people would accept it and the Quraysh would lose their power and influence. Instead, they attempted to suppress the message, and finally plotted to kill the Prophet (pbuh). The soft power of the Prophet (pbuh) was confronted by the hard power of the Quraysh. This is a common experience: wielders of hard power always try to destroy those with soft power by terror and intimidation.

What the Prophet’s (pbuh) experience in Makkah shows is that despite possessing soft power conferred by Allah (saw) 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 (saw). This does not mean that Muslims have to play unfair, but the ruthlessness of our enemies leaves us no choice but to confront them with the hard power of those firmly committed to Allah (saw). Possession of soft power is an essential prerequisite, but is not sufficient by itself to defeat the hard power of the oppressors, which ultimately must be challenged by the hard power of the committed Muslims, fortified by the soft power of their message.

In Makkah the Prophet (pbuh) was also offered a share of power in return for compromising with the Quraysh. The Prophet (pbuh) turned this down emphatically. In fact, his reply contained within it the element of struggle and conflict in which Islam would ultimately triumph. He told his kind uncle Abu-Talib, through whom the Quraysh delivered their message: “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.” Looked at from the perspective of realpolitik, the Qurayshi offer may have appeared tempting. By accepting it, the Prophet (pbuh) could have become their leader and propagated Islam from the top but he did not do so. Had he done so, some would argue, he would not only have acquired power but also saved his followers from many years of persecution. Such faulty thinking still exists among many sincere but naïve Muslims.

The Prophet (pbuh) knew that compromise with the Quraysh would have diluted his message and conferred legitimacy on an illegitimate system created by the hard power of the Quraysh. This point, unfortunately, is lost on many members of the Islamic movement today; they are 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 the Qur’anic ayah: “He [Allah] it is Who has sent the Messenger with clear guidance and the din of truth so that it becomes dominant over all other systems, however much the mushriks may be averse to it” (9:33; 61:09), as well as from the Sirah of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh).

The soft power of Islam gained dominance and was translated into hard power when the noble Messenger (pbuh) migrated to Yathrib, later to be renamed Madinah. From a persecuted minority in Makkah, the Muslims became a dominant presence in Madinah, albeit still a minority. Interestingly, the Prophet (pbuh) was accepted as the undisputed leader to whom all disputes were to be referred even by non-Muslims, whether Yahud or umiyun (those who had not yet had access to the divine message). An Islamic state emerged in Madinah with the rights and responsibilities of all citizens clearly established in a written document, referred to as the Mithaq or Covenant of Madinah.

Thus, the soft power of Islam was translated into hard power and Islam was made dominant in Madinah, much to the chagrin of the mushriks of Makkah. The Prophet (pbuh) could foresee that the Makkan chiefs would not leave the Muslims in peace just because they had left Makkah and gone to Madinah. On the contrary, consolidation of Muslim power in Madinah alarmed the Qurayshi chiefs even more; they were bound to strike in an attempt to eliminate this threat before it established itself more firmly. By the judicious use of soft power, the Prophet (pbuh) linked a number of tribes residing in the narrow corridor between Madinah and the Red Sea, through which most of the Makkan caravans passed, into an alliance with the Muslims. This was a successful transformation of soft power (moral persuasion) into hard power (military muscle). These tribes were now obliged to come to the aid of the Muslims if the Quraysh attacked Madinah; the Muslims similarly pledged to defend these tribes if they were attacked.

The Covenant and the alliances with nearby tribes had another consequence: they widened the theatre of conflict; it was no longer confined to Makkah and Madinah. Makkah’s advantage as a concentrated power centre was somewhat neutralized by this stroke of military genius. Moreover, the Muslims’ allies began to threaten Makkah’s trade caravans, which were their lifelines. Thus, even before a formal armed clash occurred between the Muslims and their Makkan foes, the Prophet (pbuh) had taken the initiative and undermined some of the hard power of the Quraysh. In a direct clash between Makkah and Madinah, the Quraysh enjoyed a preponderance of hard power: military, economic and political. They also had links with many tribes in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula because of the location of the Ka‘bah in Makkah, which was also a city on the east-west trade route that conferred further advantage upon it. Besides, the Quraysh were good fighters; Muslims, few in number and with far fewer resources, had not been tested in battle yet, so they could not point to any victory to attract allies. Their soft power — their wonderfully fair message and superior moral character — were not usually sufficient in themselves to win people over against the threat of Makkah’s hard power.

It is a historical truism that most people do not support an ideology or system simply because it is right; they align themselves with it because they perceive it to have greater military or economic power. Thus, in the struggle between Islam and kufr, most tribes in Arabia sided with the mushrik Quraysh. Until the first decisive battle at Badr, the Prophet (pbuh) only had the power of persuasion and the legitimacy of his position from on high; he used these to persuade people to accept Islam and to enter into alliances with the Muslims or remain neutral.

In the 13 years in Makkah only a few hundred people became Muslims, yet in the 10-year period in Madinah, hundreds of thousands did so. Why such a great disparity? This is also a question that must be pondered by those who insist on tabligh these days, to explain why their efforts bear so little fruit. The difference is that in Makkah the Prophet (pbuh) only had soft power; in Madinah he acquired hard power as well. Soft power must be backed by hard power to achieve the desired results. This is also evident today. The US as a world power has no intrinsic values of decency, ethics, culture or morality but because of its hard power, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Dunkin’ Donuts products are consumed by millions of people daily, despite these foods having little or no nutritional value. American clothes are considered fashionable all over the world for the same reason. With decline in US hard power through military defeats, its appeal is wearing thin.

We can identify a number of important landmarks in the Prophet’s (pbuh) mission. For 13 years in Makkah, he wielded only soft power; its impact was limited because it did not have a territorial base. Madinah provided a territorial base, establishing the power of Islam on a formal basis. The Battle of Badr tested the Muslims’ resolve and demonstrated to people in the Arabian Peninsula that a new power had emerged. Despite this they were not convinced that Muslims would be able to withstand, much less defeat convincingly, the power of the Quraysh, who were militarily strong, economically prosperous and had political alliances and influence because of the Ka‘bah in Makkah.

The most eloquent testimony in favour of hard power is the growth in the number of Muslims during the Madinah period. Success has an energizing effect on people: they are automatically attracted to it; failure, by contrast, has few supporters, regardless of how well grounded or reasoned its case may be.

One final point is in order. Today’s political, economic and educational systems produce men and women who are not suited to achieving the goals of Islam. They produce people who can only serve the interests of the prevailing system, which is opposed to the values of Islam. This is true even of many Islamic institutions, because they have been contaminated by Western influences, and hence become largely irrelevant to the needs of Muslims. Such institutions do not train men and women for the mission for which the Prophet (pbuh) prepared his companions during his lifetime. That is why it is imperative to change the entire system in the manner of the Prophet (pbuh) in the Arabian Peninsula, and as his Companions continued to do in the surrounding lands after his death. Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) inculcated a different set of values that did not serve the prevailing order. Muslims will have to launch a similar campaign to make Islam the dominant paradigm, as promised and demanded by Allah (Al-Qur'an — 9:33, 61:09), but we must understand that this will not come about by operating in or compromising with the present jahili system.

Unfortunately there are too many well-meaning but naive Muslims who believe that, as long as they “do good deeds”, they are not responsible for the injustices of the system which they serve. Neither the Qur’an nor the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) corroborate such a view. After he received the first wahy (revelation), the Prophet (pbuh) did not return to the cave: nor did he preach meditation or merely to do good deeds quietly. He entered the marketplace and challenged the established order, suffering great hardships in the process; without this, Islam could not have become the dominant social convention.

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