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Dhaka Tribune

The Islamist narrative - Part II

Update : 09 Sep 2014, 07:42 PM

The concluding part of a series on the Wahabbi influence coming out of Saudi Arabia – the Salafist agenda has merged almost seamlessly with notions of what it means to be a good Muslim, making it difficult if not impossible for many sincere Muslims to tell the difference between Islam and Islamism

Part 2: The alchemy of artificial values 

This mixing of religion, revolution and resistance has caused the Islamist narrative to become even more convoluted over the years. For example, the struggle in Syria and Iraq has invariably added to sectarian hatred because of their respective political configurations, and anti-Sufi sentiments were, among other reasons, stirred by the belief that Sufi views softened Muslims and curbed their appetite for revolt (a fact that is entirely untrue when one looks at the number of Sufis that have both led and fought in revolts).

Anti-Semitism is a reaction to Israeli aggression. The Brotherhood’s reaction to the Egyptian establishment is a result of political persecution and is as much a class struggle as it is a religious one. But there are also doctrinal inconsistencies that are much more discomfiting.

The Muslim Brotherhood was inspired by men like Muhammed Abduh who was pluralistic and rational. Abduh was also comfortable with the followers of the Baha’i faith, considered heretical by the Muslim orthodoxy, and may have even been a Freemason.

On the other hand, Rashed Rida, who was also a founding influence, was strict about his Salafism, yet suspicious of dogma. Both these men influenced Hassan al Banna, founder of the “Ikhwan al Muslimun” or Muslim Brotherhood, who was already heavily influenced by Sufism. But Banna’s and Rida’s successors were more zealous in their approach to the Islamic revival and strayed far from anything remotely Sufi, with the Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb eventually becoming Bin Laden’s and Zarqawi’s ideological guru.

Qutb possessed a particular disdain for Western civilisation and promoted the concept of an Islamic vanguard, sworn to struggle against the non- Muslim’s “jahili (ignorant) society, jahili concepts, jahili traditions and jahili leadership.”

Yet, for all his hatred of the west, Qutb incorporated numerous socialist and fascist principles into his ideology, which are of course of western origin, and pitted a heavily Islamised political philosophy against virtually everything else, even against Islam itself.

This is evidenced by how present-day subscribers to this ideology – al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State – violate Islamic principles on civil liberties, justice, other religions, the rules of engagements and the sanctity of life, (among many others) at almost every turn.

Qutb’s book “Milestones” became the seminal text for all subsequent jihadist movements in the region and contains xenophobic, reactionary rhetoric along with revolutionary solutions for problems facing Muslim countries.

Sayyid Qutb’s intellectual inspiration was none other than Abul Al’a Maududi, the fountainhead of modern Islamism and founder of Jamaat-e-Islami. Maududi’s writings and his advocating for a clerical “Islamic State” forms the foundation for today’s IS and have also, in some ways, influenced the Iranian Revolution – perhaps explaining why certain theological distortions are common to both.

Ayatollah Khomeini and Maududi knew each other and exchanged notes on their respective ideas for an Islamic revival, with some of Maududi’s suggestions making their way into the Iranian Revolution’s policies.

Maududi grew up in an India under British domination and much of his writing was the expression of his longing for emancipation, sought in an Islamic utopia. He blamed Muslim weakness in the face of European ascendancy on what he believed was a dilution of Islamic values, and sought to infuse it with a puritanical zeal that could unlock the revolutionary “Islamic” energies of lore.

In this regard he was not unlike the Wahabbis who had wanted to do the same thing a century earlier. His influences included Ibn Taymiyyah, Shah Waliullah, Syed Ahmad Barelvi and Haji Shariatullah, many of whom tried to establish an Islamic State governed by the principles of Salafism – the latter in Bengal in fact, under the Faraizi Movement.

In his quest for the perfect country, he was not unlike many other thinkers of his time who were trying on the various grand narratives of idealism, like communism, fascism and socialism, to combat what they collectively viewed as decadent and exploitative imperialism. And like nearly all Salafists, he linked him revolutionary rhetoric to religious doctrine, polluting the stream of spiritual guidance by blurring the lines between political objectives and the duties of faith.

Maududi’s influence on the religious discourse across the world, but particularly in South Asia, has been both wide and deep. At least three generations have grown up in a religious atmosphere spiked with his reactionary grand narrative, which has made its way into sermons at mosques, religious instruction, religious schools (Madrassas) and religious programming on television.

It has been exported and adopted by thinkers, writers and influencers in various parts of the Muslim world, who have in turn had it incorporated into the religious curriculum in their respective countries.

Coupled with the Wahabbi influence coming out of Saudi Arabia, the Salafist agenda has merged almost seamlessly with notions of what it means to be a good Muslim, making it difficult if not impossible for many sincere Muslims to tell the difference between Islam and Islamism.

What is to be done?

This linking of Islam with Islamism has turned Islam from a religion into an ideology, and is largely responsible for the fascist-like demands for conformity that have become one of its hallmarks. It has become a political movement with a religious face, and is increasingly comfortable with its militant orientation.

Many ordinary Muslims subscribe to these tenets because they have become convinced that their faith requires them to, and while the vast majority will never join the ranks of jihadists, many will, and this trend is growing.

A full investigation of how Muslims go from being secular and liberal to becoming Islamists is beyond the scope of this article but it bears remembering that men like Sayyid Qutb were not Islamists to begin with. His observation of injustices, prejudice and the ethical laxity of secular governments of his time convinced him that the answers lay in Islam, in particular in Islamic government.

This is the same impulse that drives most Islamists towards revolution today, both violent and non-violent. Like idealists anywhere, they believe they can change the world for the better and will do whatever it takes to try and achieve this aim.

The indoctrination process, which is prolific, is also a crucial ingredient and each new generation had been adept at using the tools available to them. The IS is active on Twitter, Facebook, the blogosphere and Youtube, and has been able to attract a large number of recruits from western, secular backgrounds – converts who have rushed headlong into battle and in many cases lost their lives.

The broadness of the IS’s appeal and its support base, in terms of nationalities, is an indication of how far the Islamist message has spread and the sort of universal appeal it is able to rely on.

Obscure news reports have suggested that IS maybe have been created by Western forces in collusion with Bashar Al Assad, like the Taliban and al-Qaeda were (for which there is actual evidence of involvement), to make finger-pointing more believable and to create a “hornet’s nest” of terrorists in one place. Its highly unlikely, but even if it were true it still serves the purpose of polluting the narrative, making both Muslims and people that hate Muslims even more determinedly bigoted.

Any counter-narrative to the current Salafi one therefore, will have to speak to takers in a language that they can understand, if it is intended to have any effect on them at all. The best to expect is to be able to wean potential adherents and the more naive ones away from the monolithic, distorted version on offer, by presenting them with alternative, indeed actual, Islamic ways to express their idealism.

Pointing to esoteric Sufi treatises about Divine Love and mystical disengagement will not suffice, nor will it do to build up secular liberalism or the concept of “moderate Muslims” as the enlightened option – in fact it will make it worse, since Islamism exists, arguably, as a reaction to both of those sets of values.

What is needed is a robust political solution that can provide a viable blueprint for responsible statecraft, guided by the values and principles that are promoted in the Quran. For example, any state that is governed by consultation and a popular mandate, has a welfare system for the less fortunate, patronises learning, ethics and enlightenment, acknowledges both a man and a woman’s rights upon each other, allows a principled economy to flourish, weeds out corruption, adulteration and nepotism and has a reliable justice system is adhering to core Islamic principles.

Similarly, a society that eschews vulgarity, encourages virtuousness, mercy, peace and kindness, and allows freedoms of worship and expression, is reflecting the basic values of a Muslim.

Deductive reasoning like this was the original source of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence until the Sharia was developed (nearly a century and a half after the life of the Prophet) following Imam Malik’s and Imam Shafi’i’s efforts at codifying the Sunnah and promulgating the duties of Muslims across an expanding territory (it was never binding upon non-Muslims), and to limit the arbitrary powers of a sovereign.

It was commissioned by the Caliph of the time, who instructed Imam Malik to develop a code that would neither be extreme nor excessively ad hoc. It was to adhere to the Muslim principles of balance and middle paths, and was, if anything, a systematic attempt at building institutions and structures that would rely on sober and rational decision making in matters of law, ethics and governance – much like any other attempt at responsible statehood.

So the answer to a medieval understanding of Islamic jurisprudence is having an educated and progressive set of thinkers, be willing to engage with the Islamic discourse. Otherwise we will be leaving our economic and political emancipation (which is a common goal) to the Islamist, which is mostly what we have done so far.

But breaking Islamism’s stranglehold on the Islamic narrative is not going to be easy. Attempts will be met with allegations of blasphemy or “bida,” and a slew of “authentic” daleels, or evidences, will be presented alongside the list of “scholars” that will be trotted out to prove that Islam is indeed as bigoted and regimental as they believe it is.

Most of these evidences will be hadith-based, the questioning of which will be considered a sacrilegious act, even though hadiths are the product of human agency and are therefore necessarily fallible. There is nothing new about this approach. Generations of people who challenged the Islamist construct met with the same and in certain unfortunate circumstances, much, much worse.

It should be remembered that the current narrative is only one stream of thought among many others that have existed alongside it. As early as the eighth century, while Imam Shafi’i, “defender of the Sunnah” was systemising the study of prophetic traditions, the theologian Ibrahim an Nazzam was simultaneously challenging their legal validity and asserting that only the Quran and “aql” or reason, were valid sources of Islamic law.

His student Al Jahiz, the famous writer and one of the earliest in a long line of renowned Islamic scholars and thinkers, also believed this, but made certain allowances for the Sunnah in it’s capacity as historical record. Shortly afterwards, in Nishapur, As Imam Bukhari and his student Muslim Hajjaj were compiling their Sahih volumes, the ecstatic Sufis Bayazid Bastami and Mansur Hallaj were preaching mystic exegesis and encouraging an experiential relationship with the Divine.

In more contemporary times, at the beginning of the Islamic revival, 19th century Indian Professors, Aslam Jairajpuri, of Aligarh Muslim University and Maulvi Abdullah Chakralawi also rejected the hadith as sources of law and jurisprudence, as did the Egyptian Taha Hussein, who lived alongside Sayyid Qutb.

Pakistan’s Ghulam Ahmed Pervez was among the more prominent advocates of “Quranism,” and was also Muhammed Ali Jinnah’s right hand man. In the present day, Turkish theologian and lawyer Yasar Nuri Ozturk has started a “back to the Quran” movement, and in Nigeria Kalo Kato which means “a mere man said it” is a Quran-only movement led by Islamic scholar Malam Isiyaka Salisu.

Javed Ahmed Ghamidi is a Pakistani theologian who used to belong to the Jamaat-e-Islami and worked closely with Maududi before splitting with him on ideological grounds as well on Ghamidi’s refusal to accept the hadith as sacrosanct. Ghamidi founded the al-Mawrid Institute of Islamic Sciences, which works to spread what they believe is the true nature of Islam.

There is nothing new about this struggle to control the narrative. Throughout Muslim history, it’s ebbs and flows have created periods of enlightenment followed by periods of constricting narrowness. Its unlikely that Islamism will ever be taken out of the equation completely; it appeals to swathes of Muslims all around the world and does, in its own reactionary way, serve a purpose in the struggle against colonial aggression and the attacks on sovereignty.

The thing that has changed significantly is the rate at which ideas are able to spread across the world using information and communication technologies. To keep abreast of it, challenges and contradictions to a Salafi view of reality have to be stepped up and sustained if other ways of being Muslim are to enjoy their legitimate place at the table where, by many accounts Salafism should not have one.

In the coming days, this will become all the more crucial if Muslims in Darul Islam (The house of Islam) are to be salvaged from the train wreck their civilisation and its historical credibility is speeding towards, with no view to an imminent end. 

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