The Seerah and the political questions confronting the Islamic movement today

Developing Just Leadership

Muhammad H. al-'Asi

Ramadan 11, 1423 2002-11-16


by Muhammad H. al-'Asi (Features, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 18, Ramadan, 1423)

The ICIT held a second International Seerah Conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, last month. Here we publish the paper presented at the conference by IMAM MUHAMMAD AL-ASI.

The question of politics has always been a grey area in the minds of contemporary Muslims. Thank Allah that at last Islamic political consciousness is on its way in, and the over-ritualisation of Islam is on its way out. There are, of course, many strains of political and even "ideological" approaches to this Islamic movement, which is here to stay. That is no reversal of Allah’s will. Islamic political awareness is the wave of the future, and it should be. But does that mean that the vanguards of this Islamic movement are at the peak of their political maturity? Of course not. Does it mean that the leaders and activists of this Islamic movement are not going to make mistakes, and sometimes terrible mistakes? Of course not. There will inevitably be mistakes and errors along the way, which will refine and reposition the movement as it tentatively progresses, taking one step back for every three forward, stumbling through one phase only to regain its footing in the next, learning and maturing from the errors it makes and the experience it gains. Allah’s Messenger (saw) said: "All the descendants of Adam are prone to making mistakes, and the best mistake-maker is he who asks [Allah] for forgiveness."

Today’s Islamic movement is like a callow and inexperienced youth trying to feel his way through the jungle of modern politics in a pitch-dark night. This confusion is the product of a chronic disconnection between the experiences that enriched the first generation of Muslims and that dearth of experience that plagues our contemporary Muslim generations. Allah’s Messenger (saw) spent a lifetime in struggle against the deniers of Allah’s power and rebels against His deen. The details of the Prophet’s paradigm of radical social transformation of the pre-Islamic Arabian jahiliyyah into a new and forward-looking Islamic social order are rich with lessons if only we, the Muslims of the contemporary world, could see past the limited traditional understandings of the Seerah and look instead to its historical and power dimensions.

The Center of Reference

Makkah and Madinah were the battlefields of the earlier Muslims. In Makkah there was low-intensity war between Muhammad (saw) and the few who were with him, on the one side, and the power structure of the vested interests and the majority of the people, on the other. In Madinah there was all-out military war between Muhammad (saw) and the new power-base of Muslims in the liberated Yathrib against the rest of the Arabian peninsula, with Makkah as its headquarters. In Makkah, the enmity to Allah’s Prophet and his message was led by the mushrikeen; in Madinah, their equivalent were the Yahud; both these groups have their modern successors. But then, neither of these hostile factions had the benefit of hiding behind their religious rituals or their national or racial cultures, as they do today.

When Allah’s Messenger (saw) was being persecuted in Makkah, it is inconceivable that the Yahudis in Yathrib, the closest urban area to Makkah, later to become known as Madinah, were unaware of the thirteen years of power struggle in Makkah. Some of these Yahudis were merchants who used to come to the annual fair of Ukaz, held near Makkah. But whatever contact there may have been between Yahud and the mushriks, the Muslims’ principled struggle in Makkah at that time was focused entirely against the mushriks there. Even when Allah’s Prophet (saw) moved to Madinah, he continued his unrelenting struggle against the mushrik enemies of Islam in Makkah. This endeavour was not compromised in any way; the Prophet and his Companions knew well that Islam faced two enemies, in Makkah and Madinah, but the struggle against the Arab enemies of Islam was maintained until Makkah was liberated.

The identification of these two enemies is to be found in Allah’s words: "You will surely find that, of all people, the most hostile to those who are committed [to Allah] are the Yahud as well as themushriks..."(5:82). We should understand that the Yahud were hiding behind these Arabianmushriks. They knew that their day was coming, and that the longer the mushriks held out against the Prophet, the more time they themselves would have to put together forces and alliances that would, they hoped, eventually defeat the Muslims and destroy Islam.

The Rationale for a War Against "Israel" in Madinah Rather Than the Mushriks in Makkah

This is not the place for a detailed account of the long and tortured history of the struggle between Allah’s Messenger (saw) and the Israeli deniers of truth in Madinah. Instead we will look at some arguments that are seemingly logical but are in fact contrary to Seerah priorities and precedents.

One strong argument for a war with the Israelis of Madinah at that time was their obviously racist character. The Israelis refused to acknowledge Muhammad (saw) because of their racism: he was an Arab — descended from Ibrahim (as) through Isma’il (as) — instead of being an Israeli, descended from Ibrahim as through Ishaq (as). This racism turned them against God because He had given His mission to Muhammad (saw) of the Quraish, instead of giving it to them and their race!

Let us try to follow this Israeli racism and the extremes to which it will go to undermine an Islamic order. The Israeli Yahud in Madinah tried to use hypocrisy to subvert Islam from within. Some of these yahud feigned Islam; some of them were even rabbis. Many are known by name in the recorded history of the Prophetic period: Sa’d ibn Hanif, Zaid ibn al-Lusait, Nu’man ibn Awfa, ‘Uthman ibn Awfa, Rafi’ ibn Huraimalah, Rufa’ah ibn Zaid ibn Tabut, Silsilah ibn Barham, and Kinana ibn Suriya’. These Yahud would wait for a suitable moment to inject their venom. One such incident concerns Zaid ibn al-Lusait. He blew his cover, so to speak, when the Prophet’s pack animal got lost. "Muhammad claims to receive news from heaven, yet he does not know where his own pack animal is!" he exclaimed.

Another ploy to cause confusion was to declare that they had accepted Islam, and then proceed to renounce and revile Islam. The idea was to take in or distract weaker, newer Muslims, who — they hoped — would be easily misled and confused, in order to cause rifts in the Muslim rank and file, and to slow the phenomenal progress and growth of Islam.

The books of Seerah — in episodes that tend to gather dust rather than inform the contemporary Islamic movement — tell us that ‘Abdullah ibn Daif and ‘Uday ibn Zaid (both Yahudis of Banu Qaynuqa) met with al-Harith ibn ‘Awf (a Yahudi of Banu Quraida) and made a plan. They said: come, let us all announce our faith in Muhammad at the beginning of the day, and then at the end of the day let us quit the faith. In this way the general Muslim public will be shocked and confused.

Addressing this fifth column, Allah says in the Qur’an:

O people of earlier Scripture! Why do you cloak the truth with falsity and conceal the truth of which you are [so well] aware? And some of the followers of earlier Scripture say [to one another]: "Declare your belief in what has been revealed to those who believe [in Muhammad] at the beginning of the day, and deny the truth of what came later, so that they might renounce [their deen]." But [O Muslims] do not believe anyone who does not [really] follow your own deen. (3:71—73)

Another ploy that these Yahud used was to come to Allah’s Prophet (saw) and ask him to do impossible things. They were not doing so in order to ascertain whether or not he was a prophet (they already knew that he was), but rather to show that he was inferior in some way to the miracle-performing prophets who had preceded him. So they asked him: "If you are telling the truth and you are God’s messenger, then have Him talk to us so that we may hear Him." On another occasion their question was: "O Muhammad! If you are truly a prophet, then tell us: when will the Day of Resurrection come?" Another time they said: "We understand that God created humanity, but who created God?" It may easily be considered that the trouble that these Israeli Jews were trying to brew within the Islamic power base in Madinah gave the Islamic leadership enough reason to declare war against them; yet Rasool-Allah (saw) did not do so at this stage. The war continued against the mushriks of Makkah.

Then, as the war against the powers of kufr and shirk in Makkah intensified, the Israeli Yahud began to show their true colours. There were contacts between the Yahudi instigators in Madinah and the mushrik leaders in Makkah. These contacts developed into the Makkan military campaign against the Islamic presence in Madinah known as al-Ahzab (the confederates); this assault ended with the mushriks of Makkah withdrawing without having accomplished their objectives.

It should be noted that the Yahud of Madinah had entered into a civil constitutional arrangement with the Prophet (saw). They were not an independent and distinct nation-state or polity, as they are today in the form of Israel. There were three Yahudi tribes in Madinah which had a degree of autonomy, but they had no military force to speak of, and their agreements with the Prophet involved no military ties. At the battle of Uhud, when the Muslims were in dire need of help and support, the Prophet (saw) declined a suggestion to call on the support of the Yahud. Their main power concentration in the Arabian peninsula was at Khaibar. Interestingly, the three Israeli power factions in Madinah began to violate their agreements with the Islamic authority one after the other in a way that ran parallel to the Muslims’ military gains against the mushriks. Banu Qaynuqa was the first faction to break its agreement with the Prophet, after the Quraish were defeated at Badr.

During the first stage in Madinah, when the Muslims were consolidating their positions against Quraish, there was what may be called "an open door approach to Yahud". This policy of good will was meant to help the Yahud surmount their own religious arrogance and racial prejudice. It was hoped that they would, with a public policy of Islamic understanding, recognise the Prophet whose coming they had expected, and accept Islam as the mature form of their own revelation. This was not a gesture of weakness, nor a policy of appeasement, and it did not work.

The factors at work when the Seerah was being established are also at work in our contemporary history. The first-line enemies persecuting and tormenting Muslims are the mushrikeen who appear firmly ensconced in Makkah today, and its offshoots, the capitals of Muslim countries from southeast Asia to northwest Africa. Remember, the first disagreements between Muslims andmushriks in Makkah were in the form of social excommunications, economic boycotts and psychological warfare. It was from this that emerged the full-fledged fight to the finish. Israeli Yahud were not neutral in this affair. They began to sense, especially after the defeat of Quraish at Badr, that if they stood aside while the Muslims defeated the mushriks, then they too would meet the same fate. They realised that if the mushriks were defeated, they would be left either to fight alone or to accept Islamic authority and governance. This, of course, was utterly unacceptable to them because of their vested interests, their xenophobic character and their historical monopoly of Scripture. So they actively entered the fray against the Islamic order.

Israeli Jerusalem in Defence of Mushrik Makkah

In today’s political landscape nothing much has changed that makes it impossible for us to draw lessons from the Seerah. In the Arabia of the nomads fourteen centuries ago there were mushriksand Yahud, both the affirmed enemies of the committed Muslims. Fourteen centuries later, the same enemies confront us, albeit from relocated power centres. Then, the mushriks had their seat of opposition to Muhammad (saw) in Makkah; today they have it in Riyadh. Back then Yahud were lodged in Madinah; now they occupy al-Quds.

There has been a suggestive change in the status of both the mushriks and Yahud between then and now that has eluded the Muslim political mind. In the case of the mushriks, this change concerns their ability to disguise their shirk by intense and concentrated rituals. Abu-Jahl, Abu-Lahab and their sort did not claim to be Muslims and were unable to use their status as the Abrahamic custodians of Makkah to accuse Muhammad (saw) and his Companions of being extremists, radicals and terrorists. Today the Aal-e Saud present and promote a distorted version of Islam, and use their status as the custodians of the Ka’aba to accuse the Islamic movement, which sees through false rituals, of being extremist, radical and terror organisations.

Today’s Yahud, meanwhile, are no longer in Madinah but in Palestine. They have graduated from being "autonomous" to being "independent". Instead of being the unbelievers (kuffar) that they were in the time of the Prophet (saw), they are seen as "ahl al-kitab"; due to a superfical understanding of the Seerah, the Yahud of today are not identified with their sort in Madinah.

"Israel" today is a combination of the Yahudi economic elite in Madinah and their military counterparts in Khaibar. The mushriks today are the ruling elites that are strung together from Arabia to Asia and from Arabia to Africa. Because of the historical changes that have taken place, the Islamic movement in today’s world has to relearn the Seerah in order to be able to draw lessons for today’s battlefield in which the mushrik and the Yahud are allied. Should the Islamic movement first concentrate on establishing an Islamic allegiance, authority, and alliance in and around Makkah? And, with the popular sentiment that will eventually take hold in Arabia, should this new development lead to a relentless opposition to the mushriks who directly and indirectly occupy Makkah and Madinah today? Or should the Muslims who are committed to Allah, and understand the significance of the Seerah, launch local and regional struggles against the mushriksin their own societies and communities? In other words the Islamic movement has to ask itself whether Makkah is to be liberated by all Muslims everywhere, before they think about liberating themselves wherever they are; or whether Makkah is symbolic, and hence wherever Muslims are they should consider that place their own priority? What follows from this is an extremely important question: should the dedicated Muslims of the contemporary Islamic movement be fighting all over the world, as they are doing now, for the purpose of fighting their own taghuts; or should they pause, reconsider their tactics, and then concentrate on one particular area to liberate, after which they may go onto other areas, one area at a time, until the Muslim territories are eventually freed of mushriks and kuffar?

And if the leaders of the Islamic movement were able to bring their minds together and decide to concentrate on liberating one area, would it be Palestine or Kashmir? Would it be Algeria or Egypt? It would seem that the mass-mobilisation of Muslims is apt to go for the liberation of al-Quds and Palestine. But is this decision compatible with the Seerah? And why shouldn’t the liberation of Makkah from mushrik control be considered the first, essential step to liberate Palestine and the other Muslim countries?

We have a couple of matters to think through before we consider a final answer to these questions. The first is from the Seerah itself. Rasool-Allah (saw) could have re-focused and re-concentrated his efforts against Yahud in Madinah, and he would probably have had "tribal", "national" and "class" support for such a policy. Yahud in those days were as opposed to Islam as they are today. But Allah’s Messenger (saw) concentrated on Makkah. The three Yahudi power factions in Madinah gradually began to take the side of the Makkan mushriks. They thus they revealed their own position while Allah’s Prophet (saw) was waging jihad in the context of Arabian society from which the Muslim community had emerged.

Another thing that has to be carefully considered by the Islamic movement is the Iraqi-imposed war on the Islamic Republic (1980 to 1988). For almost a decade, when an Islamic state led by a legitimate and able Imam was engaged in active war against a mushrik-inspired, mushrik-instigated enemy, much of the Muslim world was mired in confusion. The question was: how could Muslims be fighting and killing other Muslims? — this war should be ended immediately. The obvious hollowness of this argument — the war was between an Islamic state and a state representing a secular nationalist ideology, acting for an international alliance put together by the greatest enemies of Islam, even though its soldiers were personally Muslim — still eludes many Muslims.

Is it permissible for some Muslims to conclude from such a war that today we must focus entirely on the enemies of Islam in occupied Palestine? No two Muslims will disagree about the desirability of a combined Islamic war-effort against the zionist usurpers and occupiers of the land of the Isra’ and Mi’raj and the area of the first qibla. But although this seems the logical and convenient thing to do, not least as an alternative to confronting enemies within our own lands, who may even be Muslims themselves, does it have a basis in the Seerah?

The problem today is that the distinction between mushriks and Yahud has become obscure and muddled. There is a strong facade of legitimising ideologies (democracy, freedom, human rights and so on) and rituals shrouding today’s mushriks. There is also a Muslim inferiority complex that makes it very difficult for a Muslim public opinion to take a realistic view of zionist Jews and imperialist Christians. This inferiority complex is fed daily with slanted information, coming from an official media and ulama that presents all Jews and Christians as ahl al-kitab; most Muslims have not been able to develop a practical distinction between an apparently benign people of Scripture as a religious community, and the malign realities of their worldly political ambitions and activities.

Another way of looking at this issue of priorities is to imagine for a moment that Muhammad (saw) were to return to the world today. Based on our knowledge of his Seerah, do we imagine that he would be galvanising the Muslims to liberate Makkah first, or al-Quds? Would he approve of the "royal" family that has nationalised Makkah and Madinah, and made them captive to foreign powers? Would he prioritise the liberation of Palestine when Arabia itself is under occupation?

His Seerah is meant to provide us with answers that are relevant to our times. What does it mean to have hundreds of thousands of non-Muslims stationed throughout the land of Allah’s Messenger (saw) to protect monarchies and principalities that rule not because of any Islamic legitimacy, but because they serve the purposes and interests of foreign powers? Would such piratical regimes endorse and support an Islamic war of liberation to free Palestine and al-Quds?

In today’s world, the Islamic movement has splintered into two impulses: the first is to forcefully resist mushrik control in the Ummah; the second is to resist Yahudi control. Both of these impulses acknowledge the deepest and strongest enmity against the Islamic movement. Behind the scenes these two forces are working overtime to coopt, contain or confront the Islamic movement.

Today, we need to liberate our critical faculties and our understanding of the Seerah before we can liberate our homes and our countries. There is now a serious effort to reconcile the Islamic movement with the governments that rule the Muslim world. One of the justifications for this is the external threats that loom ahead, the most immediate being the prospect of American military aggression against "Iraq", and with no end in sight to this bloody scenario. But such rapprochement with governments that have bloodstained records of dealings with the Islamic movement is a monumental mistake; the moves for such rapprochements are cold-blooded strategies against us by enemies whose objects have not changed.

In confronting these realities, committed Muslims must be crystal clear in our thinking on the contemporary historical situation, and our understanding of the lessons of the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad (saw), in dealing with enemies that are as determined, ruthless and bloodthirsty today as they were 1,400 years ago.

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