The nature and objectives of intellectual work in the contemporary Islamic movement

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Rajab 06, 1420 1999-10-16


by Zafar Bangash (Features, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 16, Rajab, 1420)

In March 1924, when Mustafa Kemal abolished the khilafah in Turkey, it evoked three distinct responses from Muslims globally. In India under British colonial rule, with a substantial Muslim population, there was great anger; strenuous efforts had already been underway through the Khilafat Movement to try to save the institution. The movement, however, was tainted by the nationalist sentiment sweeping India, in which the Khilafat Movement became an early casualty. Even Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Muslim-hating Hindu, had joined the khilafah bandwagon.

In the Middle East, there was an equally bizarre reaction. Sharif Husain, the British agent in Makkah, declared himself khalifah, but apart from the regimes in Iraq, Jordan and Yemen, nobody else bothered to confer any credibility on a man who was rightly seen as a British stooge. Jordan and Iraq were already under the sway of Sharif Husain’s sons, gifts bequeathed by the wily British in their drive to divide the Middle East into nation-States. Yemen was the only place that delivered an independent judgement.

In Cairo, a meeting of Muslim scholars was convened to consider the future of the Ummah without its principal institution of khilafah, and how to revive it. Presided over by the rector of Al-Azhar, Shaikh Abul Fadl al-Jizawi, with the president of Egypt’s High Religious Court, Muhammad Mustapha al-Maraghi, in attendance, the assembly of scholars ponderously debated the issue but reached no definite conclusion.

What came out of the meeting reflected the terrible decline in Muslim political thought over the centuries. The large body of scholars ï the learned of the Ummah ï after careful deliberation, could only resort to the arguments advanced by three scholars from early Muslim history: Abul-Hasan al-Mawardi (d.1058 CE); Abu-Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (d.1111); and Ibn Taimiyyah (d.1328). Muslim political thinking, it seemed, had advanced little in more than six hundred years.

If the paucity of original political thought had been their only failing, one could be charitable. But the scholars assembled in Cairo concluded also that the Turks had been usurpers of the khilafah, which rightly belonged only to the Arabs; thus, its demise was no great loss to the Ummah since it had been in the ‘wrong hands’ in any case. Such obsession with nationalism, manifested by religious scholars representing one of the principal intellectual Islamic institutions of the Muslim world, was depressing indeed.

The three classical scholars cited above wrote at a time when the khilafah had already been subverted into mulukiyyah (hereditary kingship), with unworthy characters claiming title to the leadership of the Ummah. These scholars wrote their political works ï Al-Mawardi’s Ahkam as-Sultaniyya, Al-Ghazali’s Ahya Ulum ad-Deen and Ibn Taimiyya’s Siyasat ash-Shari’yya ï under circumstances over which they had little control, much less the opportunity to effect change. What they attempted was no more than damage-limitation. In all three cases, the priority appears to have been to provide a thin veneer of legitimacy to a political reality that was already far removed from the requirements of Islam. For more recent scholars trying to respond to the total loss of the khilafah, therefore, using the arguments of scholars writing 600 to 900 years ago, and applying them to the situation facing Muslims in 1924, was both unrealistic and a reflection of the distance Muslims had travelled away from the teachings of Islam.

Mustafa Kemal’s arguments for abolishing the khilafah reflected his anti-Islamic venom. He not only complained about Turkey carrying the "burden" of the institution alone, but that "those who advocate a universal khalifah have so far refused to make any contribution" to maintaining the office. He insisted that the institution had already lost what little meaning it had had since, according to Kemal, "the notion of a single khalifah, exercising authority over all Muslims, is one which has come out of books, not reality."

Kemal was a very modern sort of anti-Islamic crusader; but other Muslims had long since accepted a de facto division of the Ummah into empires headed by rival kings, and were also seeing these empires divided into nation-States. The abolition of the khilafah came at the end of a long process of deviation from the pristine purity of Islam.

It was also a result of the impact on western societies and thought of another, more virulent and aggressive civilisation which erupted from Europe, and which not only challenged the power of Islam but also proceeded to attempt its total demolition.

The Europeans came armed with weapons of mass destruction; even more destructive, however, were their ideologies of nationalism, and their greed. They systematically demolished all institutions that posed any threat to their hegemony. Among their first targets were the languages of their victims. As long as Muslim intellectuals studied and communicated in the language of the Qur’an, they were able both to connect to the traditions and history of Islam, and to communicate with the Muslim masses. With the advent of colonialism, a major shift in this discourse took place. There emerged a breed of Muslims educated in the European languages, who in less than a generation had become totally alienated not only from the Muslim masses but also from their own roots.

It was largely this breach in communications that had tragic consequences for the Muslim Ummah. The scholars and the people no longer understood each other. The ‘educated’ class among Muslims, by and large, became alienated from the sources of Islamic knowledge, thought in terms of western ideas, and imported these ideas into the Muslim world.

It was this transformation that resulted in the total disruption of the already weakened body politic of Islam. The ‘educated’ Muslims could only converse in the thought process of their European masters. These ideas were alien to the majority of Muslims; thus, when the struggle for independence was launched, it was on the basis of western models and ways of thinking. It is this dichotomy that Muslims have still not resolved in their societies. It is also for this reason that not one ruling elite in any Muslim society has solved the problems of their country even 50 years or more after ‘independence.’ The only exception to this is Iran, which has undergone an Islamic Revolution to break the stranglehold of the west and is struggling to establish an Islamic order in its society.

Iran’s example is instructive. It was Imam Khomeini who, through his ijtihad, took the political thought of the Shi’is to new heights, breaking with a long tradition of detachment from direct participation in political affairs in the absence of the Twelfth Imam. Once Shi’i political thought was released from this straitjacket, it proceeded to bring about a revolution. Since Imam Khomeini’s thought was rooted in Islam, the revolution’s impact was and remains deep. Despite great efforts, it has not been possible for the enemies of Islam to disrupt it.

The two major Islamic movements that emerged in the rest of the Muslim world in the wake of the abolition of the khilafah, not surprisingly, became trapped in the nationalist mould. The Ikhwan al-Muslimoon in Egypt and the Jama’at-e Islami in Pakistan were unable to transcend the nationalist barrier. The Jama’at also fell victim to the party politics approach, and has had even less political impact than the Ikhwan in the Arabic-speaking world, despite the great erudition of Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi. Successive Arab regimes have been much more brutal in clamping down on the Ikhwan than have successive regimes in Pakistan on the Jama’at.

What both parties failed to grasp was the fundamental incompatibility of the prevalent systems in their respective societies with Islam. Only Syed Qutb was able to see this, but when he wrote about it (in his book Ma’alim fi Tareeq), he paid for his insight with his life, executed by the Nasser regime in August 1966. More recently, the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui wrote extensively about this phenomenon. In fact, he was consistently emphatic about the incompatibility of the existing socio-political order in Muslim societies with the teachings of Islam. He called for the absolute demolition of the western-imposed system as a pre-requisite to the "total transformation of the Ummah".

In his last book, Stages of Islamic Revolution, published only days before his death in April 1996, Dr Kalim Siddiqui outlined the stages the Islamic movement must go through before it emerges victorious and takes power in society. One of the first requirements, according to Dr Siddiqui, is an intellectual revolution in Muslim political thought. He was quite clear in his mind that unless the debilitating influence of western secular thought is removed from the thought-processes of Muslims, there could be no lasting change or progress in Muslim societies. Despite his great admiration for the Islamic Revolution in Iran, he was also constructively critical: he called, from the earliest days of the Revolution, for an overhaul of the state bureaucracy, and a cultural revolution, warning that Iran would otherwise remain vulnerable to disruptive western influences. The bureaucratisation of the state system, and penetration of western cultural values, in Iran point to the dangers Dr Siddiqui had cautioned against.

His prescription of an intellectual revolution in Muslim political thought remains the best solution offered by any scholar in recent history. The difficulties and obstacles facing Muslim scholars seeking to contribute to such an intellectual revolution at this time, however, are formidable. Two key points need to be clear. The first is that the scale of the task needs to be appreciated. Traditional Muslim thought needs to be cleansed not only of the influence and accretions of centuries western influence, but also of errors and misunderstandings introduced earlier; in Muslim history, dating back to the earliest years of the post-Prophetic period. The influence of the west is undoubtedly the poisonous and damaging, but unless the correction is as total as possible, problems will remain that will cause trouble in the future.

The second point is that this intellectual work cannot be separated from the political struggle of the global Islamic movement; indeed, it can only be successful if carried out in partnership with the political movement. The realization of the enmity of the west and its institutions to Islam and the Islamic movement is an essential starting point. Attempts to carry out this intellectual work in Islamic thought, while remaining politically neutral or even while working in western or pro-western academic institutions, are bound not only to fail, but to serve the purposes of the west in fighting Islam.

No society has ever progressed on borrowed ideas, much less a Muslim society whose fundamental values are not only denigrated by the dominant civilization of the west but are also the target of a vicious crusade. For Muslims, the only way forward is to recreate the civilization of Islam through the values of Islam as outlined in the Sunnah and Seerah of the noble Messenger of Allah, upon whom be blessings forever more.

[The writer is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought.]

Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1999

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