Leading PostsSeptember October 2004

Reconstructing the Muslim Ummah: The Legacy of Abraham

Future Islam

Islam is not an identity that a group can claim on its sole patent rather, it is an attitude of willing and unconditional submission to God, a door open on all those seeking solace in the oneness of God. This call for willing submission, expressed throughout history by the true prophets of God and their rightful followers, has to be carried forward by the Muslims of our time. However, this does not imply that submitters in other prophetic traditions will be denied a role in this modern day venture. A movement calling for world revolution, for establishing a global family comprising of the children of one God cannot afford to shut its door on the submitters found in other traditions.

No objective reading of the Qur’an can miss the dominant theme that all the prophets of God, from Abraham to Mohammed or before them, were calling people to worship one God, to embrace the life example of submitters, the Muslim Haneef. No wonder then that the Qur’an makes it a precondition of faith to believe in all the prophets one and at the same time. The believers are asked to look at the prophets not as the founders of an specific Ummah but as upholders of the same divine mission: In the divine scheme they are inseparable; together they constitute a galaxy of divinely inspired leaders of humanity. They are not to be understood in isolation. The Quran makes it an inseparable part of the Muslim faith to believe in all the earlier prophets and what has come down to us through them. The remnants of the earlier prophetic communities, we are told, are our natural allies. Since Mohammed has not brought a new message rather he came to revive the Abrahamic religion, believers are encouraged to find in him the convergence of the entire prophetic tradition.

Mohammed founded no new Ummah. Instead, far from a new identity or a name, the new believers were asked to shun all pseudo religious identity, be it Jewish or Christian – the patented Muslims of Mohammed’s time. All those claiming to be the true inheritors of Abrahamic heritage from among the Jews and Christians or adamant on converting people to their bandwagon were told in clear terms that there was no goodness attached to mere labels. Far from being a Jew or a Christian, Abraham was a submitter per se. Hence all those willing to submit to one Lord must follow his example(Q 2:135). Had Mohammed and his followers taken a new identity as opposed to the Jewish or Christian this move had certainly undermined his position as the prophet to humanity. As opposed to those calling for conversion to Jewish or Christian fold the new believers had to stick to the Abrahmic fold: ‘the true religion of Abraham who worshiped no God other than Him’ (Q 6:161). Contrary to the Jews and Christians who attached so much importance to their religious tags, the new believers were to march through history tag-free. The Quranic invitation of of urging people to be a God-based Ummah or taking the color of God, was to drive home the same point that no prophet ever in history came to establish his own cult or invited people to submit to his own self. The Quran tell us, time and again, that all the prophets, despite their geographical and temporal difference, in essence had preached the same message (Q: 3:68). And since Mohammed represents the essence of Abrahamic tradition where else one would find a model to emulate? (Q 3:68)

Mohammed thus projected in the Qur’an is no cult leader. He is a global prophet; a warner to all and a blessing for all mankind . In the early era of Islam one even does not hear of the term Ummah Mohammadiya same as in the hay days of earlier prophetic communities the cultic identity like the Jew, the Christian or the Buddhist was not known. It took almost centuries for these personality based identities to evolve. All the true prophets of God did their best to connect to people to one God, to raise a just society centered around God alone  and to unite people in Tawhidi paradigm as children of one God. The prophet is no ordinary seer; he is endowed with a cosmic knowledge and a meta-cosmic vision  It is not expected of him to indulge in cult formation or call people to worship his own cult whereas he is assigned to call people to worship one God or identify themselves as none but His slaves alone (Q 3: 79). Like the submitters of all time the new believing community too, we are told, were to accept all the prophets as a pre-condition to their faith. They would not even prefer one prophet over the other (Q 3: 84).

Revival of a universal Ummah based on God alone was no ordinary vision; the rallying cry for becoming rabbanin or a general invitation for plugging in to God created an extra-ordinary amount of energy and ecstasy. As long as the new believers remained conscious of their rabbani identity they looked at themselves as a convergence of great prophetic tradition. They were like an open door wherein all souls seeking solace would find refuge. This extraordinary emphasis on God based identity gave the new believers an ideological edge and soon transformed them into a power not to reckon with. Though rooted in Arab traditions their changed outlook had such a great impact that wherever they went they appeared as a group of people united around one God and for whom the racial, cultural, linguistic and geographical identities had lost all meaning. However, as the era of first generation Muslims passed by, gradually it became clear as if the Arab culture was the natural color of Islam. Some even considered the grandeur of the Abbasid Empire as the logical destination of the rabbani movement. The Arab bias or asabiyah became a foundation stone for the later Muslims to emulate. Further, the degeneration of the mawali institution, from a brotherly corporation into a social protectorate, also made us believe that hence onward non-Arabs had to limit themselves only to the periphery of the Islamic movement. An empire founded on the Arab asabiyah claiming the superiority of some Arab clans left little room for the remnants of other prophetic communities to join in. The once God oriented vision embracing all were now transformed into the idea of a community centered around the personality of a prophet. This was a clear case of misplaced loyalty, or what is termed as the ghuloo in Qur’anic terminology. The idea of a new Ummah centered around an Arab prophet, reduced the new believers to the status of just another community, and like the Jews and the Christians, yet another slice of the great Abrahmic loaf. This process of the closing of the Muslim mind not only transformed them from within it also changed the entire world around them.

The Ummah was now on a course of perpetual decline and its Ulema had taken an intellectual exile. However, the so called golden age of Abbasid Baghdad, or the splendor of Muslim Spain and Mughal India and the military prowess of the Ottoman Empire created some illusions about our ever declining graph. It was a process where the Muslim nation, the Ummah Muhammadiyah had defeated Islam.The very emergence of cult Islam, or Muhammadan nation, had in fact sounded the death knell of an ideology based Ummah. The color of God no more remained the only identity of Muslims. Forced to take shelter in the psychological prison house of their own making, Muslims made Ummah the main focus of their concern, nay rather object of worship. The cult worship further degenerated into sub-cults and the new believers found new identities to cling too. Internal feuds between the Shites and Sunnis, Hanafis and Shafais, not only engineered the fall of Mohammedan Empires, it caused so much ideological confusion that it became almost impossible to figure out who really was the true representative of Islam. That something had gone awry with the House of Islam was a general feeling however those who came to repair the situation focused mainly on the reorientation of the Ummah Muhammadiyah itself. What has been the main cause of its aliment came to be regarded as its cure.

Instead of a employing the cultic notion of Ummah Mohammadiyah the Quran uses the term Ummah Mislimah. In Abraham’s moving prayer one hears him saying: ‘Our Lord! Make us submitters to you and raise from among our children a nation of submitters, (Q 2:128). Abraham enjoined upon his sons and so did Jacob: ‘my sons! Die not except in the state of submission’ (Q 2:133). The Qur’anic vision of Ummah Muslimah comprises all those submitters no matter whatever geographical, historical or civilizational slot they are found. It is a glittering galaxy of all the prophets and their true followers. The people of Cave whom God blessed and protected, female role models such as Mary (Jesus’ mother) and Pharos wife and all other believing nations mentioned in the Qur’an or left unmentioned, together they constitute the broader Ummah of Islam. Despite this so clear pronouncements if there still are people who insist that Abraham was a Jew or a Christian, the Quran challenges their misconceptions: ‘say! You know better or God?’ (Q: 2:140). Calling Abraham a Jew or looking at Mohammed as the founder of Ummah Mohammediyah tantamount to great injustice: ‘And who is more unjust than those who conceal the testimony they have from Allah?’ (Q: 2:140). And those who still insist that the present day Ummah Mohammediyah constitutes the sum total of Ummah Muslimah can they dare expel Abraham and his progeny or Aasiya and Mary from the Islamic fold? Salvation for Submitters alone: Those who submit themselves to the Lord Almighty and make right moves need not worry about their salvation. This is the assurance given to all those who submit to one Lord thereby constituting the broader Ummah of submitters. On the contrary those born in the Muslim tradition and even raised in the family of submitters if they recourse to non-Abrahmic way, this assurance is immediately withdrawn:  or Such and the like verses are clear indications that mere group identity is no good for salvation nor any blood relation with a group of submitters or Ummah Muslimah can be a sufficient ground for it. This is why the Jewish and the Christian claim — the traditional Muslims of Mohammad’s time — that they were the darling children of God, the chosen ones was out rightly dismissed (Q 5:18).

That the Quranic term Ummah Muslimah is a broad based House of submitters can further be asserted by a re-reading of Surah Ambiya where we are assured once again: Verily this Ummah of yours is a single Ummah and I am your Lord and Cherisher, therefore worship me (21/91). It is a long chain of submitters from Abraham to Lot down to Solomon, Jacob, Ismael, Idrees, Zulkifl, Zunnoon, Zakariyah, Yahya and Maryam. All of them in fact constitute one single group though their later generation might have divided themselves among different groupings: (Q 21:93). There are numerous verses in the Qur’an emphasizing that all those submitting to one God constitute one Ummah as opposed to those who get trapped in sectarian thinking or take refuge in cult worship. The Qur’anic verdict that this set of people are one nation (Q 2:213) or this Ummah of yours is one Ummah (Q 21:92) can better be explained by yet another expression: ‘Abraham alone constitutes an Ummah’ ,the same Abraham who is projected as a role model for Muslims of all time. Abraham’s submission is beyond all doubts as he never created a cult of his own nor he was the originator of the Jewish or Christian identity. Those who follow him will have to be an integral part of the greater Ummah of Islam.

This broader view of the Ummah Muslimah has been in operation in the hay days of Islam. Even during the dangerous war days and fierce struggle when Muslims had to face open opposition from Jewish and Christian quarters our vision of the broader Ummah of Islam remained intact. For we are warned in the Qur’an, time and again, not to fall prey to generalization. There are still many among the people of the book sticking to the truth: Among them are also God fearing nice souls who stand all night long reciting the word of God and prostrating themselves in adoration (Q: 3:113). As a group identity is not a source of salvation it cannot be an excuse for condemnation either. Those among you who are more God conscious are more worthy in the sight of God (Q 49:13) On that day every soul will have to carry his own the burden alone (Q 74:38). Such verses then, are sufficient pointers to the fact that submitters to God together constitute one nation and for them God’s favor is guaranteed: ‘Those who believe and those of the Jews and Christians and the Sabians who believe in Allah and the last day and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve’ (Q 2:62). This verse of the Qur’an extending scope of salvation to the followers of other prophets, to the submitters of other faith groups, has been an enigma to many Muslim Ulema and jurists and a matter of irreconcilable controversy. While Abu Hamid Ghazzali, Rashid Raza and Tabatabaei believed that God’s mercy would be extended to the submitters of other faith groups, for an overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars this notion was no less than a blasphemy. Where then Muhammed stands in the scheme of things? they quipped. The more Muslims started looking at Mohammed as the founder of a new Ummah it became increasingly difficult for them to find in him the convergence of the great Abrahmic tradition. They also lost sight of the fact that Islam, the chosen deen of God propagated by all true prophets throughout history, is essentially a God-centered religion. It was St. Augustine’s hand in theology that made salvation almost impossible without Jesus. Those who fashion Mohammed in similar light or place him on a much higher pedestal of intercession, are in fact guilty of operating within an Augustinian framework. As opposed to Augustinian Christianity where salvation is the sole right of Christians, the Qur’an discourages humans to pass strictures on this sensitive issue. We have to keep our mouths shut not only about the people of the book who are taken as our natural allies, but even about those who are guilty of committing Shirk. It is God’s prerogative, we are told: ‘on that day God will bring forth His verdict about them’ (Q 22:17). Same as God created people in different clans and races so that they can be mutually recognized (Q 49:13), it is also His scheme that his obedient children are known with varying labels. ‘Had God so willed’, we are told, ‘He would have raised us as one Ummah’ but it is His plan to test us in what has come down to us. We are therefore exhorted to mutually compete in acts of goodness (Q 5:48). If submitters to one God find themselves in divergent traditions of submission this diversity should not be cause of worry. The Qur’an testifies to the fact that the Torah and Injil have come down from the same source and there too one may find guidance and light. Those claiming to inherit different prophetic traditions should not sink so low in their disputes as to indulge in deciding who is going to hell or who can be sure of salvation. Instead, what all we are required is to strive in a stiff competition of virtues; for God alone is the goal of us all, it is He who will show us the truth of the matters in which we dispute’ (Q 5:48). Having been aware of the unique position of Mohammed in history, the first generation of Muslims never divulged in such issues. Instead, they considered the remnants of earlier prophets as their natural ideological allies with whom a common program of action can be worked out: ‘O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you: that we worship none but God; that we associate no partners with Him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than God (Q 3:64). Assigned to a leadership role as they were, the earlier Muslims displayed a marked openness in embracing submitters of different hue to their fold. The door of the new Islamic movement was open on all those willing to compete in acts of goodness. However, those still trapped in sectarian thinking or who attached undue importance to their Jewish or Christian identity, they were reminded that they will find no reward for them unless they stick to the teachings of Torah (Q 5:68). Though claiming to be representative of Jewish or Christian faith, they are the people who have taken their identity as God and sunken in cult worship. No good is expected from such closed minded people. Hence it is advisable to stay away from them: ‘O submitters! Take not the Jew and Christians for your friends and protectors’ (Q 5:51). Such and the like pronouncements however should not be taken as a general statement. For we are reminded in the Qur’an: ‘Not all of them are alike: of the people of the Book are an upright Ummah, they recite the words of God all night long and they prostrate themselves in adoration’ (Q 3:113). Since the early Muslims considered the people of the book as their natural ally, they found no fault in socially mixing with them. The Qur’an had allowed their food lawful for Muslims. And same as Muslim men were encouraged to take believing women as their wife on condition of piety so they were also allowed to marry with chaste women from among the people of the book (Q 5:5). In a God-centered society founded on taqwa alone where the call for becoming rabbani or God-oriented had attained such a high pitch none could even have dreamt that one day the same people would undergo such a through transformation that it would be difficult for them to look at themselves as upholder of the rabbani identity and being Muslims would come to be regarded as wearing a cultural identity than the pure unconditional submission. Owing to some historical factors and political upheavals, unfortunately this great tragedy befell on Muslims. Gradually the Muslim national identity took precedence over their rabbani identity. This initiated the process of the closing of the Muslim mind. Soon Muslims found themselves surrounded with a plethora of doubtful historical material and unreliable traditions that had to shape the new Muslim identity in the centuries to come. This transformation of a people entrusted to lead history till end time, from Ummah Muslimah into Ummah Muhammadiyah, gave birth to a whole new set of beliefs about the Ummah and its prophet. Like the other earlier nations Muslims too prided themselves in their cultic identity and projected their prophet as super prophet. What as upholder of the Qur’an they once had found difficult to sallow the illogical claim of the Jews that no fire will touch them except for a short period and that heaven is their eventual destination irrespective of what they do, now they had developed same misgivings about themselves. In the legends that shaped the new Muslim mind Muhammed is seen as having exceptional ability to intercede to win the salvation of his Ummah. On that appointed day when Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets will shy away from taking up a single case of intercession, Mohammed upholding the banner of God’s praise will be able to send his own folk en masse to heaven. Some traditions even relate that given the mass entry of Muslims to heaven there would be general feeling that Mohammed’s Ummah as a whole is being treated like the Israelite prophets. The envisioning of an unjust God and an equally partial prophet left Muslims with no choice but to take shelter in the psychological shell of their own making. This was a great mistake. By projecting Mohammed as the super prophet they in fact painted his as a cult hero. All those who were passionately eulogizing him as the great hero of Mohammedan Ummah were in fact pouring on him insult of the worst kind. The great international prophet whom the Qur’an depicts as a blessing to all mankind, about him we were told by the fabricators that when his end came he was only worried about his own folk. On his death bed he muttered Ummati Ummati and on the Day of Judgment too, as the traditions has it, he will maneuver God’s judgment in favor of his own people. If the prophet is seen as one working for Ummah Muhammediyah alone how can one expect from his followers that they will mirror themselves as Warner to all or work for the general good of humanity.

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