EditorNovember December 2005

Islam vs. Islamism

Future Islam

Islam vs. Islamism

In the hey days of Islam when the last prophet of God lived amongst us it was highly unthinkable that anybody would claim to be an Islamist. To be a Muslim then was the ultimate in submission, the highest spiritual ladder that one can climb on. The great patriarch Abraham, the role model for all Muslims to come, was admiringly given only this name. Then, Islam was more of an attitude than an identity.

Today we live in an age of Islamism. There are Muslims amongst us who pride themselves in being called as the Islamists. The emergence of this new sect among Muslims is a twentieth century phenomenon, nevertheless, it has its roots in the holier than thou attitude of the fiqhi mind of the bygone days. As opposed to Islam — the universal deen of God for all time, Islamism is a 20th century Muslim response to neo-colonialism. While Islam is a wide open gate for all those seeking solace, Islamism is generally seen as an ideology that can re-establish a Muslim hegemony. The appeal of Islamism is limited to the Muslims; the rest of the world perceives it as a threat. And while Islamism is still considered as a strong weapon in the hands of Muslims, the fact is that it has delivered little to the Muslims.

Let me explain. The modern day Islamist movements are either continuation or offspring of Islamic movements that came as a response to the termination of the Ottoman Caliphate. The termination of the age-old institution had created havoc in the Muslim mind and the Muslim activists of that time were in favour of an ad hoc solution, to rebuild the fallen structure with a greater sense of urgency. And as they were in a hurry there was no time to deliberate as to why the Ottoman Caliphate had eventually crumbled. The Islamist organisations of various denominations sometimes despite their opposing and conflicting priorities were generally accepted as the good omen for the future of the Ummah. The Faith movement of Maulana Ilyas in India and the call for establishing an Islamic political system by Maudoodi in Pakistan and by Syed Qutub in Egypt, though contradictory in their strategy and priority, were conveniently looked at as movements leading to the same destination. The post-Khilafa movements and their thinkers also suffered from a systemic syndrome. It was unthinkable for them to perceive Islam without a political system, no matter how deviant or different this system had to be from the prophetic model. Today, despite a century of vigorous campaigning and fierce struggle we as an Ummah are no better. Worse still, the Islamist movement has not matured yet and we do not know where to go from here.

No doubt, as a nationalist movement Islamism has played a significant role in the past and it is still giving impetus to liberation struggles in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq, to name a few. But if we look at them as prophetic movements, we will simply be mistaken. Islam and Islamism may appear to be overlapping, and at times they do, but in their essence they are two different ideologies altogether. Precisely speaking Islamism is a nationalist ideology that grew up among Muslims. At its best it speaks for Muslims alone. It had little in common with the prophetic Islam that ensures a better future for the entire humanity both in this world and in the hereafter.

Today the nationalist overtone of Islamism has overshadowed the true colour of Islam. At a point of history when Islam is being demonized in the world media and every Muslim is taken as a potential terrorist it is no easy to distance ourselves from this ongoing civilization clash. It needs no less than the calibre of a prophet to fashion ourselves as upholders of a salvafic mission to all. Muslim nationalism, or Islamism as we call it, can only add fuel to the fire. Probably it is high time to put Islamism under strict scrutiny. We cannot ignore the fact that Islamism has created a depressing scenario in Muslim dominated countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt where the Islamist claimed the sole right to interpret God’s commands. The Islamists were at war with their own nation. This large-scale bloodshed for a political change has cast serious doubts not only about their modus oprendi but also about the nature of their Islamicness. In 1991, during the election campaign in Algeria, when Ali Belhaj stated that the legislative elections that he expected to win was ‘the last in Algeria’, he was claiming the sole right to interpret and implement Islam. This self-conceitment of the modern day Islamists who otherwise appear to be democratic has its roots in the fiqhi milieu of the past, a point that I shall later return to.

The emergence of a self-righteous religious sect among Muslims is not a phenomenon for which only branded Islamists are to be blamed. In the Taliban’s Afghanistan which had witnessed the revival of many religious vocabulary of early Islam and where Mulla Omer had preferred to call himself as the amir-ul-momenin, there too, Muslims were forced to believe that the Hanafite fiqh, and that too as envisaged by the Dewbandi sect, was the only true colour of Islam. For the non-Dewbandi ulema and Muslims of other fiqhi schools this created a suffocating situation and they long prayed for the fall of the regime. The failure of modern day Islamists in establishing an Islamic political order lies mainly in our divided fiqhi vision of Islam. The Islamists, though tried hard to bridge the fiqhi division among Muslims, they did not realise that by creating very many organisation within the body polity of Islam they were paving the way for its further disintegration. For example, in Egypt alone the breaking away of many long time associates from the Ikhwan resulted in numerous fringe organisations. Soon the situation became chaotic as some of these fringe organisations accused the fellow Islamists of betrayal and even considered to spilling their blood lawful.

Today, Islam and the West may appear on a colliding course but the real threat to Islam and Muslims is from within. The American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq is no less troubling but what is more worrisome is the fact that upholders of the last revelation are unable to put their own house in order, save rescuing the world from imperial machinations. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the Northern Alliance played pivotal role in the fall of the Taliban and in Iraq due to the existing Shia-Sunni divide the occupation forces found it easy to prolong their stay there. The root cause of our malaise lies within us. It is the deep fiqhi division of the Ummah that has made it almost impossible for us to forge a united front in case of any external aggression. In our fourteen centuries long history if any one could defeat us it were only we.

As a Muslim nation our crisis is twofold. Our internal feuds have encouraged foreign nations to subjugate us and occupy our lands. But what is more alarming is the fact that the situation appears irredeemable as we are totally unaware of the malaise that afflicts us. Conceding that our fiqhi division is no new and none in the past could muster courage to uproot them, many of us believe that a return to pure Islam, bypassing the fiqhi schools may be normative but is not feasible. In fact for so long we have lived with the four conflicting schools of fiqh and for so long we accepted them as legitimate expressions of Islam that any attempt at their rollback appears to us as the very demolition of Islam itself.

Islam, the religion of patriarch Abraham, was refreshed in human memory by the last prophet Muhammed for all time to come. It was perfectly explained and documented in the Qur’an and had taken a normative shape during the Prophet’s own life time. In later centuries, the emergence of fuqaha and of muhaddithoon were a natural corollary to a prophetic movement that placed so much emphasis on knowledge but they cannot be considered as founding pillars of Islam whose interpretation of religion could hold the key for all time to come. Had Sultan Baibars (1260-1277 C.E.), the malik uz-zahir as he is generally called, not officially chosen the four warring schools of fiqh for state patronage, the four great imams whom we conceive them today as given, would not have come down to us. It was mainly a political decision to quell the social unrest of riot torn Egypt that later resulted in the permanent division of the Ummah. Even the holy Harem in Makkah, the focal point of Islamic unity, for almost five centuries witnessed four simultaneous prayers as prescribed by the four great fuqaha. The restoration of a united prayer in the Makkah sanctuary was lately achieved by the Bedouin tribes of Najd under the political leadership of King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. The deep fiqhi division of the Ummah which we consider today as given is not part and parcel of prophetic Islam. It only needs intellectual and political will to set the things right, and for ever. Imagine! for almost  five centuries when the Muslims had to accept a divided prayer right in the holy Harem there were no dearth of sensible ulema amongst us who could feel that the fiqhi mind had brought us to a total ruin. Yet they lacked the intellectual courage and political will that was reserved for the salafi movement of the early twentieth century Arabia. If the Bedouin tribes of Najd by their sheer political will can uproot the centuries old deviation why not the modern day reformers can put an end to our centuries old fiqhi diaspora? To this Waliullah Ad-Dehlawi in his tract Al-Asbab fi Bayan al-Ikhtilaf has recounted an interesting episode:

(Abu Zar’aa says) One day I asked my mentor Shaikh Bilqini as to what stopped Shaikh Taqiuddin Subki from undertaking ijtihad… In the beginning he was disinclined to answer. At this I said that according to me it was due to the political positions that were earmarked for the jurisprudents of the four schools. If anyone dared to go beyond the confines of taqlid, he would not get anything. He would be deprived of any position in the court. The common people would stop approaching him for edicts and brand him as an ‘innovator’ (bida’ti). (Abu Zar’a says that) hearing this Imam Bilqini smiled and agreed with me.

As long as our thinkers and ulema will remain content with a mere smile about our intellectual diaspora there will be little hope for redress.

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
01 November 2005

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