Understanding the Seerah as embodying first principles for the Islamic movement

Developing Just Leadership

Iqbal Siddiqui

Jumada' al-Akhirah 28, 1422 2001-09-16

Islamic Movement

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 14, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1422)

The ICIT’s next Seerah conference takes place in Erasmia, South Africa, later this month (September 21-23, 2001). It follows similar conferences previously organized by the ICIT at the same venue and also in Pakistan, Canada and Sri Lanka. Also this month the ICIT publishes The Unknown Prophet: Forgotten Dimensions of the Seerah, a new paper on the Seerah by Imam Muhammed al-Asi, and a new paper by ICIT director Zafar Bangash, The Concepts of Leader and Leadership in Islam, which also draws substantially on the Seerah. At the same time, the ICIT is also publishing a new edition of Dr Kalim Siddiqui’s essential paper Processes of Error, Deviation, Correction and Convergence in Muslim Political Thought(first published in 1989), with an explanatory introduction by Zafar Bangash.

The ICIT’s commitment to the study of the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) is based on the proposals put forward in Dr Kalim’s final paper, Political Dimensions of the Seerah (ICIT, 1998). In this paper, Dr Kalim argued that the Seerah needs to be radically re-understood from what Imam al-Asi has called a “power perspective”, pointing out that much traditional writing on the Seerah tends to focus on the Prophet’s personal and religious conduct rather than his conduct as political leader of the Muslim community and his use of power for the good of the community and for the promotion of Islam.

Much of the paper highlights areas in which the Seerah can be used as a model for Islamic movements trying to establish Islamic order in modern society, including the nature of leadership in Islam, methods of dealing with opposition to the Islamic movement, with the pursuit of power, the conduct of diplomacy, and how to use military strength. Other sections of the paper discuss conceptual issues confronting the contemporary Islamic movement for which guidance may be found in re-examining the Seerah, including the definition of an Islamic state, the nature of politics, and issues arising from the nature of the Islamic movement itself.

There is, however, much more to Dr Kalim’s understanding of the Seerah than this. More radical than his proposal that it be used as a model for the Islamic movement in political affairs is his understanding of its role as the basis for Muslims’ understanding of history. It is perhaps understandable that this point is not widely understood, for it is not explicitly discussed in Political Dimensions of the Seerah. Instead, it requires that the arguments in that paper be read in light of the understanding of Islamic history articulated in Dr Kalim’s earlier paper, Processes of Error, Deviation, Correction and Convergence in Muslim Political Thought.

In this paper, Dr Kalim traced the intellectual errors that had resulted in the deviation of both Sunni and Shi’i Muslims from the path laid down by the Prophet (saw), resulting in the crucial weaknesses at the political heart of the Ummah that made inevitable its political decline and ultimate conquest by the forces of kufr during the colonial period. Dr Kalim identified these crucial errors as being, on the Sunni part, the tacit acceptance of illegitimate political authority once the khilafah had been usurped by the Umayyads and turned into hereditary monarchy and, on the Shi’i part, their initial withdrawal from political activism.

Both these errors — which, Dr Kalim pointed out, were legitimised by theological formulations by the ulama of each side — have been tacitly recognised by ulama of both schools of thought, and corrective measures attempted. The Islamic Revolution in Iran — widely recognised as the greatest achievement of the Islamic movement in the modern era, even if subsequent developments have been disappointing to some observers — was made possible by the corrective process in Shi’i political thought that began with the usuli revolution in the eighteenth century and culminated in Imam Khomeini’s ijtihad on Islamic government. “The act of establishing the Islamic state”, Dr Kalim said, “comes at the end of a prolonged process of corrective action amongst those ‘lost’ within Islam. In the Sunni tradition, one must admit, this corrective process has still hardly begun” (Processes, 2001 edition, 2001, p. 17).

It is interesting to note how Dr Kalim characterised the achievement of the Islamic Revolution:

In terms of the legitimacy of the leadership of the Islamic State, Imam Khomeini restored the situation as it existed during the rule of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth of the khulafa al-rashidoon. This means that, for all practical purposes, in terms of State and politics in Islam, the Ummah has been returned to a point very close to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace. (Ibid., p. 21.)

He then goes on to say:

The realization that politically one part of the Ummah at least had achieved a position that puts it within two or three decades of the Prophet is an exhilarating experience. We are liberated from responsibility for at least some parts of our history... We can stop having to defend or justify what goes by the name of ‘Islamic history’... [and] ‘black box’ a great deal of the divisive theology written and promoted during this period...

Once we place ourselves within this timeframe close to the Prophet, virtually all subsequent sources of error and deviation in the Ummah disappear. The disabilities imposed by our long, fruitless commitment to essentially indefensible positions also fade away; or at least the option of liberating ourselves from such historical handicaps is now available. (Ibid., p.22—23)

The understanding of Islamic history that Dr Kalim puts forward in Processes of Error, Deviation, Correction and Convergence in Muslim Political Thought, with all its facets and nuances, is obviously far too complex to be summarised in a few lines. However he clearly understands the Seerah as far more than simply a model for subsequent generations of the Ummah to emulate, even in the field of power politics in which it has not traditionally been considered. He also sees it as a standard against which all subsequent Islamic movements can be assessed, and a reference point for measuring the proximity of subsequent generations to the Islamic ideal encompassed in the life and example of the Prophet (saw).

On the face of it, this does not appear to be a particularly radical or profound proposition. What makes Dr Kalim’s understanding unique is his clear articulation of its implications in view of the historical decline of Islamic civilization. Few contemporary Muslim thinkers have had the courage to say that almost the entire history of Islam consists of “a tradition of continuous error and deviation”, for fear of undermining the Ummah further at a time when it is already politically weak. In this paper, Dr Kalim points out that a clear view of our history makes it possible to set this tradition aside without cutting the ground away from under our feet, because of the stability and permanence provided by the Seerah — an unshakeable foundation that many Muslims seem to have forgotten about, although every other rock in our history has proven unstable.

This is particularly crucial at a time when Muslims have realized that the roots of their failures need to be found in historical errors, and when they have sought stability by clinging to the rocks of the past. Implicit in Dr Kalim’s argument is the understanding that many of the disputes and controversies of our recent history, particularly the sectarian ones that have caused so much damage and have been exploited so skilfully by our enemies, have been caused by Muslims choosing to cling to the wrong rocks: historic positions which have either themselves been rooted in error, or which are only accessible to parts of the Ummah and therefore cannot contribute to the unity and regeneration of the entire Ummah.

When a structure that has evolved over a long period of time fails to perform as expected, it is clearly easier to try to find local and immediate solutions, in the hope of short-term improvements in performance, than to take on the enormous task of returning to the drawing-board and starting again from scratch, from first principles. This has been the difficulty faced by generations of Muslims confronted with the gradual decline of Islamic civilization, manifesting itself in many different ways at once — the passing of power into patently illegitimate hands, the breakdown of social order, the decline of moral standards in all areas, and eventually defeat by and subservience to the powers of kufr. And as successive running repairs have failed to fix the problems, it is natural to delve ever deeper into the working of the structure in the hope of finding and repairing the fault. This is what generations of Muslims have done; the problem is that all have delved into their own strands of post-Prophetic history believing that they were searching Islam itself.

Dr Kalim Siddiqui’s call for a radical reinterpretation of the Seerah for the global Islamic movement is in fact a call to end this barren process of historical tinkering, and return instead to Islam’s first principles, as actualized and exemplified in the life and method of the Prophet (saw), the ‘noble paradigm’ (‘uswatun hasana’, al-Qur’an 33:21). Elsewhere, Dr Kalim repeatedly called for an “intellectual revolution” in Muslim political thought; it is clear that he regarded the study of the Seerah as vital and necessary to this process, and that he understood this as far more than simply a matter of developing new models for future Islamic societies and states.

The Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought is one of numerous bodies in the Islamic movement today working to advance the intellectual understanding of the movement; it is, however, perhaps the only one working explicitly on the understanding developed and articulated by Dr Kalim Siddiqui (rahmatullah alaihi). The ICIT’s coming Seerah conference in Pretoria, like its previous ones, is both a memorial to his unique contribution and a humble attempt to build on it for the benefit of the contemporary Islamic movement and future generations of Muslims, insha’Allah.

[Iqbal Siddiqui is editor of Crescent International and works for the ICIT in London, UK.]

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