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The Ulema and the Modern Age

 By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

(Translation of selected extracts from Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s Urdu book Ulema Aur Daur-e Jadeed by New Age Islam Edit Desk)


In early March 1992, the Students’ Islamic Welfare Society organized a seminar in Lucknow to discuss the question of the leadership role of the Ulema. On the invitation of the organizers, I participated in this seminar and prepared this essay for the occasion. 

In this essay, I have made a critical examination of the leadership role of the Ulema in the contemporary age. For this sort of critical examination, the Shariah requires one to make a clear distinction between two things: people’s intention, faith and sincerity, on the one hand, and their course of action with regard to particular matters, on the other. According to the Shariah, it is wholly impermissible to make someone’s intention, faith or sincerity a subject of debate. But, on the other hand, it is permissible to debate about the course of action or policy that someone adopts with regard to a particular matter.

I have kept these vital issues in mind while writing this essay. Abstaining from discussing their intention, faith and sincerity, I have focused simply on examining the policies and courses of action adopted by our Ulema in the modern age.

The crux of my argument is that the courses of action adopted by the Ulema have not been in accordance with the demands of contemporary times. And that is why the efforts and sacrifices they made did not bring about the results that they expected. This was a result of their mistaken reasoning or Ijtihad. According to a Hadith report, if a believer’s ijtihad is correct, he earns two rewards or Sawab, and if he makes a mistake in his Ijtihad, he earns a single Sawab.

This essay might appear, on the face of it, to be a criticism, but, in actual fact, it is a proposal or suggestion—to formulate a suitable plan of action for the future while drawing lessons from an examination of the past, so that, with better planning, we may achieve in the future what we failed to earlier.

Wahiduddin Khan


 The Leadership Role of the Ulema

In this essay, I would like to elaborate on the leadership role of the Ulema in contemporary times. In order to do so, one first needs to be clear about what role Islam sets for the Ulema. This will provide us the proper criteria for examining the course of action adopted by the Ulema in our times.

The Role of the Ulema in Islam

In my understanding, the following Quranic verse gives us appropriate guidance with regard to the role of the Ulema:

It is not right that all the believers should go out [in time of war] all together. Why, then, does not a party from every group come to [the Prophet] in order to acquire a deeper knowledge of religion and to warn their people, so that they can guard themselves against evil?

 (9: 122)

In this verse, the Muslim Ummah has been provided with a guiding principle of lasting significance. Accordingly, one section of the Ummah was given the responsibility of being active in the field of political effort, while another section was charged with the responsibility of looking after the sphere of knowledge of the faith, to which they were to devote themselves entirely.

His principle does not indicate any opposition between religion and politics, but, rather, a division of the arenas of activity among the believers. This division is fully in accordance with the Shariah.

In Islam, the Deen for men and women is the same. Men and women are identical in terms of being addressees of the faith. However, their arenas of activity have been kept separate. Women are charged with the responsibility of nurturing the next generation, while maintaining and providing for their families is men’s responsibility. In the same manner, even among men there are differences in terms of their respective spheres of activity. One such differences that Islam makes is between the arena of activity of scholars, on the one hand, and political leaders, on the other. Their respective spheres have been kept separate and distinct. Scholars have the responsibility of being guides and teachers of the people so that the latter do not go astray.

As far as practical politics are concerned, those who engage in this field must possess the necessary skills. Not everyone can shoulder the responsibility of practical politics. It was on the basis of the recognition of this difference among people in terms of their capabilities that the Prophet (s.a.w.) repeatedly indicated to the Ummah that after him they should appoint Abu Bakr (r.a.) as their leader, while, on the other hand, he advised Abu Dharr al-Ghifari (r.a.), Abu Hurairah (r.a.) and Hassan bin Thabit (r.a.) never to accept any governmental post.

Due to their in-born qualities, some people are more suitable for occupying official posts than others. According to Islam, the political field should be given over to those who possess the requisite political skills and capabilities, while others should engage in various other fields that are also necessary for the community. Accordingly, while politicians are charged with the task of administering and organizing the people, scholars have the responsibility of providing the people with the knowledge that they need.

This distinction between the activity of politicians and scholars is made clearer in the Hadith, especially in the chapters about Fitna or chaotic conditions that will prevail in the future (kitab ul-fitan). The Hadith texts record numerous traditions that refer to the deterioration in governance in later times; exhorting people that even if they see that their rulers have gone astray they must not challenge them. Even in such circumstances, these traditions suggest, they must not brand the rulers as ‘oppressors’ or revolt against them.

This clearly indicates that the believers must respect the division between the ‘men of politics’ and the ‘men of knowledge’ even in such extreme conditions. This also suggests that it is not only in ordinary circumstances that the Ulema of the Ummah must fulfill their responsibility as teachers of the people. Rather, they must continue to play this constructive role even when they see that the rulers have fallen prey to corruption. No matter how degenerate the system of governance may appear to have become, the Ulema must not deviate from the work that they have been entrusted with.

A Hadith Report

In the section on leadership and justice in the Mishkat al-Masabih of Muhammad bin Abdullah al-Khatib Al-Tabrizi, it is reported that the Prophet (s.a.w.) said:

“Your leadership will be a reflection of you [the people].”

From this hadith report, we learn about two distinct things: on the one hand, the mentality of people, their likes and dislikes, and so on; and, on the other hand, leadership of a society. The political structure and the nature of the leadership of a particular society, this report teaches us, is indelibly shaped by the former.

The Ulema are charged with the responsibility of helping to shape people’s minds and guide them on the right path, leaving the task of governing people to politicians. A healthy society must observe this distinction of tasks and responsibilities. Violating this distinction is bound to lead to great disruption. If people are properly guided and their minds shaped in the right way by the Ulema, they will enjoy the right sort of government. Conversely, if people’s character and minds are corrupted, the government that rules over them will be of the same sort.

In life, the question of people’s mentality is more important than that of the government that rules over them. The former is the base, while the latter is the super-structure, which rests on this base. Often, people mistakenly perceive this superstructure to be more important than the base, but in reality the base is much more vital. It is for this reason that the status of the Ulema is loftier than that of the rulers, and the divine reward that they will receive is more, too.

Among the two generations that followed the Companions of the Prophet this division of spheres of activity was observed. Some of these early Muslims specialized in the scholarly field, including Quranic commentary, Hadith, fiqh and related disciplines. This pattern continued for around a thousand years. Those who specialized in the field of scholarship, as Quranic reciters (qurra), Hadith scholars, Fuquaha, Ulema, da‘is or Islamic missionaries, Sufis, teachers and so on, focused on their own particular sphere of activity. This division of work gave rise to a glorious history of scholarship and Dawah that is a precious legacy of the Ummah.

The Emperor Aurangzeb

I think that this tradition, of a clear distinction between the spheres of activity of the Ulema and the political class, was first breached in India in a significant way at the time of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707). Although Aurangzeb was born in the royal family, he was an alim. Aurangzeb’s father, the Emperor Shah Jahan, wanted to make his elder son, Dara Shikoh, his successor. In this way, circumstances seemed to have been taking Aurangzeb in the direction of becoming an Aalim rather than an Emperor. But he did not accept this. In 1658, he had his father dethroned, and then imprisoned him in the Agra Fort. Then, in 1659, he murdered his brother, Dara Shikoh, after which he ruled as the head of the Mughal Empire for about half a century.

Aurangzeb was a man with many skills. Had he played the role of an alim instead of an Emperor, it is possible that he would have done such a good job of it that he could have become a model for the Ulema to emulate for several centuries.

Aurangzeb’s reign was a period when the foundations of modern science were being laid in Europe. The impact of this new knowledge had reached India’s shores by Aurangzeb’s time. But Aurangzeb did not consider this development, and, instead, remained engrossed in his political quest. His father, Shah Jahan, had built the enormous Taj Mahal, and Aurangzeb had the opportunity to build an impressive mahal or palace of knowledge in India had he wished. He could have let Dara Shikoh handle the governance of the Empire, while he could have focused on establishing an ‘educational empire’ in India. Had he done so, he would have done much more for the sake of Islam and the ummah than what he unsuccessfully tried to do through politics and war.

Had Aurangzeb travelled to Europe, instead of spending years fighting wars in the Deccan, he would have realized that what he was doing was against the demands of his times. He sought to establish the supremacy of Islam through the ‘politics of the sword’, although the age had already dawned—and which would soon arrive in India, too—when the ‘politics of knowledge’ would become a powerful means of establishing supremacy.

It appears that Aurangzeb and the other Ulema of his age were probably unaware of not only the intellectual and scientific developments that were taking place in Europe at that time but also of the progress that had been made in this regard in the centuries of Muslim rule in Spain, spanning from the early eighth to the late fifteenth century.

When the Muslim Sultanate collapsed in Spain, many Spanish Muslim scholars and scientists left for other lands. At that time, a powerful Muslim Caliphate ruled over Turkey. Some Muslim scientists, fleeing Spain, headed to Turkey, but they received no support in the royal court there. Not long after the demise of Muslim power in Spain, the Mughals established their empire in India. But the powerful Mughal Emperors never thought of inviting at least some of the great Spanish Muslim scientists to India to carry on their intellectual work.  This sort of work required governmental patronage. And so, when the scientists of the erstwhile Muslim Spain received no support from or opportunities in the Muslim world, they shifted to Western Europe instead, where they received the patronage of non-Muslim rulers. This was one reason that the work that had begun in Muslim Spain reached its climax not in the Muslim world, but, rather, in non-Muslim Europe.

Because he was unaware of all these developments, and owing to his inordinate interest in politics, Aurangzeb took no steps in this regard. And so, the entire credit for the flowering of modern science went to Europe.

The conditions that gave rise to what is called the ‘modern age’ as well as the earliest manifestations of this new age had already appeared by the time Aurangzeb ascended the Mughal throne. The first model of the spring-driven watch, which was to replace the old-fashioned clock, was produced in Germany in 1500. Based on Portugal’s advances in geography and naval technology, Vasco Da Gama landed on the Malabar coast in southern India in 1499, inaugurating a sea route that connected Europe with Asia. In 1501, Portugal captured Goa. A century later, the British East India Company was set up, and, a short while later, the French East India Company. But because of his political involvements, Aurangzeb was unaware of these developments or else did not give them the importance they deserved, although they clearly suggested the grave external challenges that they would soon pose, not just to India but to the entire Muslim world.

Long before Aurangzeb was born, in the second century C.E. a rudimentary form of printing had been invented in China, which was later further refined in Europe before Aurangzeb’s time. Aurangzeb is hailed by some for making copies of the Quran in his own hand, but he was not aware that before him, in 1455, Gutenberg had printed the first copy of the Bible in the printing press that he had invented, thereby taking the Christian missionary enterprise from the age of handicrafts to that of the machine. Had Aurangzeb known of this development, he could have set up printing presses in India to print the Quran, rather than having to make copies of the Quran by hand.

Cambridge University was established in 1571, while Paris University and Oxford University were established much before that—in the 12th century. Aurangzeb reigned in the seventeenth century. How much better it would have been had he focused on a much more important task—that of establishing a massive university in India for all the various branches of knowledge! He could have set up centres to engage in research in various contemporary disciplines. He could have established a new ‘House of Knowledge’ in Delhi to translate important works by European scholars. He could have arranged for an academy of Ulema who could have acquired knowledge of modern subjects and engaged in research on them. But he did no such thing whatsoever. And the simple reason for this was because he did not agree to observe the distinction in the arena of activity that we have alluded to.

Humanity in a New Age

In the early ages when polytheism and idolatry were rife, human beings in large parts of the world worshipped various manifestations of Nature. This worked as a major hurdle in the emergence of science or the study of Nature. For modern science to emerge, it was necessary for scholars to be able to study Nature, as distinct from worshipping it. Yet, because for centuries Nature had become an object of worship in much of the world, this was difficult. But things changed with the advent of Islam. The intellectual revolution that Islam ushered in, based on tawhid, the oneness of God, opened the doors of scientific progress.

In this regard, one can delineate three periods in the progress of modern science or the study of Nature. Firstly, the breaking of the mental block that I have just referred to. This began with the advent of Islam in Makkah, and continued thereafter, up to the great scientific achievements made by later Muslims till the period of the decline of the Caliphate in Baghdad in the mid-13th century. The second stage involved opening the doors of practical research and experimentation in relation to Nature on the basis of new ways of thinking. This stage extended over much of the period of Muslim rule in Spain. The third stage, which was centred in Western Europe, extending from the 16th to the 19th century, entailed the further progress of the trends that had their origins in the Muslim world.

In this context, the question arises as to how and why the process that had its origins in the Muslim world witnessed its culmination in Europe.  One reason for this is that from the very beginning there was stiff enmity between the Muslim Sultanates of Baghdad and Spain. That is why Baghdad never thought of seriously understanding the developments that were being made in Spain. And it is perhaps because of this enmity that no well-known figures in Muslim-ruled India or in other Muslim lands considered it important to study the achievements of Muslim Spain and to carry these further.

If this reality had been made clear to the contemporary Muslim rulers and had they taken constructive steps in this regard, the Muslim scholars who fled Spain in the wake of the collapse of Muslim rule there and took refuge in other parts of Western Europe would have sought refuge in the Muslim world instead. And then, the intellectual revolution that Islam had ushered in would have witnessed its continuation, not in Europe, but in the Muslim world instead. And then, too, just as the credit for triggering the modern scientific age goes to Islam, the credit for the culmination of that age would have accrued to Islam as well. Needless to say, if that had happened, human history would have taken a course very different from what it actually did.

Shah Waliullah of Delhi

Another phase in the role of the Ulema is symbolized by the figure of the well-known Shah Waliullah of Delhi (1702-1762). Undoubtedly, Shah Waliullah did some useful work—for instance, translating the Quran into Persian, establishing the Madrasa Rahimiya in Delhi, promoting the study of Hadith, penning such important works as Hujjatullah al-Baligha (‘The Excellent Proof of God’), and so on. But his contributions of this sort were of a defensive nature. They were not something that could be called ‘leading’ contributions. Undoubtedly, defensive contributions are also a valuable service, but there is a fundamental difference between them and contributions that play a leading role. The former have to do with the protection of the past, while a leading role is linked to constructing the future.

For someone to engage in defensive work, it is enough for him to be aware of the inheritance of the past. But to provide appropriate leadership, one must be able to see into the future. That is why for the former, it is enough to imitate or blindly follow past precedent (taqlid), while for the latter one must have a good understanding of the demands and conditions of the times as well as the capacity to engage in ijtihad.

In his Fuyuz al-Haramayn, Shah Waliullah writes that he saw a dream in which he was the ‘Leader of the Age’ (qaim uz-zaman). He went on to claim that God used him as an agent in order to fulfill His purposes.

Shah Waliullah was born at a time when the modern age was dawning. He was born at a truly historical time and in a place where he could have understood the flow of time. Accordingly, he could have established a tradition of Islamic engagement that could have continued centuries after him, and in such a way that the ‘modern age’ could have truly become a revival of the age of Islam. However, he failed to play this historical role. He was at the stage where he could have become the qaim uz-zaman but, in fact, he did not do so.

Shah Waliullah lived in the eighteenth century. Before him, in the thirteenth century, the seeds of a new age had been sown in Europe, which were to later bring about a massive change across the entire world. That was the age of science, which was to replace the age of blind imitation. In earlier times, when polytheism and idolatry were rampant, natural phenomena were explained in terms of religious belief. But now, for the first time in human history, an age was dawning wherein these phenomena were to be explained purely in terms of material causes. This was to lead to a fundamental transformation in human thought. However, Shah Waliullah was more concerned with local developments, in which he got deeply embroiled. He did not plan a course of action based far-sightedness, which was what was something expected of a qaim uz-zaman.

As I just mentioned, in ancient times various natural phenomena were explained in terms drawn from faith, so that it was believed that the doer behind everything was God. Prior to Islam, when polytheism was rife, it was believed that there were several gods, all of whom were behind these various phenomena. With the advent of Islam, or the arrival of the age of tawhid, these phenomena began being explained in terms of the actions of a single God. In the age that followed, for the first time various developments began to be explained purely in terms of material causes.

In the sixteenth century, the phenomena of Nature began being studied in great detail. Galileo (1564-1642) studied the moon, the planets and other such entities. He realized that Nature works according to such firmly-established laws that they could be explained in mathematical terms. According to him, the Book of Nature is written in mathematical form. 

Despite opposition from the Church, this trend of thought gathered momentum. By the seventeenth century, there were numerous scholars in Europe who were seeking to provide a mechanical or materialistic interpretation of natural phenomena. This ‘mechanical philosophy’ came to be the dominant theme of 17th century science.

In the 18th century, Isaac Newton took this philosophy to its logical culmination. His Principia was published in Latin in 1687, about 75 years before Shah Waliullah’s death. The book appeared in English in 1729. While issues like space, time, gravity and force had long been discussed by scholars, Newton took these debates to new heights.

So, by Shah Waliullah’s time there was ample evidence of an intellectual revolution sweeping across Europe. This revolution held great importance for Islam. It was tearing apart age-old ways of thinking about the world. It accepted only those explanations that passed the test of modern science. But Shah Waliullah seemed to have been completely unaware of these enormous changes at the global level. He viewed things from the prism of the Delhi of his times, and tried to address them through superficial efforts. Had he travelled about widely and viewed the developments that were taking place from a global perspective, he would have realized that the real challenge was that of a veritable global storm, and not, as he thought, that of saving the tottering Mughal Empire—which, in any case, was a futile effort, for this Empire was already dying, with the authority of the Emperor being now restricted just to Delhi and its suburbs.

The fact of the matter is that the Mughal Empire that Shah Waliullah was so concerned to protect had already become so weak that there was no possibility at all of it being able to live much longer. Despite this, Shah Waliullah continued to have great expectations of it. In his Al-Tafhimat al-Ilahiyyah he addressed the Muslim Sultans of his times, telling them that God willed that they must draw out their swords and not put them back in their sheaths until God ‘establishes a distinction between Muslims and polytheists’ and until unbelievers had been so suppressed that they are rendered wholly powerless. He claimed that God had commanded that the Muslim Sultans must wage war against non-Muslims until fitna or strife is abolished and religion remains entirely for God.

The fact of the matter is that the nominal Muslim powers that Shah Waliullah turned to had, by his own time, become thoroughly powerless. The Mughal Empire was wracked with internecine strife, with rival claimants to the throne killing each other. To lecture about ‘jihad through the sword’ to such a Sultanate was akin to singing a martial song before a corpse.

Shah Waliullah is credited in the popular Muslim imagination of trying to save the tottering Mughal Empire. Through Nawab Najib ud-Daulah, he invited Ahmad Shah Abdali, ruler of Kabul, to invade India. Abdali defeated the Marathas, formidable enemies of the Mughals, at Panipat in 1761. But if one looks at this development in a proper perspective, rather than being a great achievement of Shah Waliullah, it reflects a lack of foresight and clarity of thought on his part. Shah Waliullah could have made a much better contribution had he studied the celebrated Muqaddimah of the noted Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), wherein the latter perceptively notes that every Sultanate survives only for a certain age, just like an individual, and that when it grows old, it is impossible for it to stand up again.

Had Shah Waliullah been cognizant of this law, he would have known that the task before him was not to seek to protect the pillars of the tottering Mughal Empire that had been almost completely gnawed away by termites and that, in accordance with the laws of Nature, were bound to soon collapse. Rather, he would have known that he needed to turn to understanding the new conditions that now prevailed, and, accordingly, helping the ummah to chart a new course in its history.

The Ulema in the Age of Colonialism

A new phase in the approach of the Indian Ulema began with Shah Abdul Aziz of Delhi (1762-1823). This was a period when Indian Muslim leaders were faced with the challenge posed to Muslim authority by internal forces, particularly the Marathas, Jats and Sikhs, and engaged in armed confrontations with them. They seem to have had little or no awareness that the real challenge that they faced was actually from external forces—that of European colonial powers, armed with new weaponry and technology, who were rapidly conquering large chunks of India, as well as much of the Muslim world.

A sign of how powerful these forces had become by this time was that in 1803, the nominal Mughal Emperor of India came under the protection of the East India Company. It was only then that the Indian Ulema realized what was happening around them. And so, in 1806, Shah Abdul Aziz issued a fatwa opining that India had turned into an ‘abode of war’ or dar ul-harb, noting, as he put it, that he had witnessed that the British, ‘masters of wealth’, had engineered strife across vast parts of the country, from Delhi to Kabul.

Following this, the Indian Ulema began a long political confrontation with the British. In Muslim-dominated parts of Africa which were now under French colonial rule, Ulema and other Muslim leaders similarly revolted against the French. But it was destined, from the very first day onwards, that these confrontations should fail because the Ulema viewed the issue of European colonialism simply as caused by what they saw as people who were habitually wedded to strife. The fact, however, is that European colonialism owed to the fact that Europeans were now in command of new intellectual and technological resources and forces, which provided them an enormous advantage over non-European peoples.

This was something that the Ulema paid little or no attention to. To cite just one example, the British East India Company began laying a railway line in India in 1853, but the Ulema who rose up in what they called a jihad against the British shortly after this, in 1857, seem to have had no knowledge of this momentous development.

The confrontation that the Ulema of this time called for against the European colonialists was improper from both the practical as well as ideological points of view. From the former perspective, the confrontation that the Ulema lent their weight to led to nothing but a one-sided slaughter of Muslims, and it in no way achieved the aims that they thought it would. This was because the Ulema possessed only traditional weaponry, while the Western colonial powers were armed with the latest scientific weapons. It was not simply a question of a quantitative difference in power as far as two opposing parties were concerned, as used to be the case in the past. Now, the difference was qualitative, and the hiatus between the two camps was enormous. Giving this fact, this confrontation was in accordance neither with Islam nor with reason.

As a matter of principle, it is not at all the work of the Ulema to get involved in practical politics. If they do so, their other, much more basic, responsibilities are bound to be neglected. The Ulema must always observe the division of arenas of activity that we discussed earlier. In other words, they must leave political disputes to politicians to handle, and, instead, should devote themselves entirely to scholarly work, social reform, constructive efforts and Dawah. They are charged with responsibility for these activities, and so they must focus on them.

The period extending from towards the end of the Khilafat-e Rashida, the age of the rule of the Righteous Caliphs, through the Umayyad Caliphate and down to the end of the Abbasid Caliphate covers a span of some 600 years. This period witnessed numerous political wars. But it was also in this period when various disciplines, which come under the rubric of what are called ‘Islamic sciences’, were crystallized. How was this constructive work made possible in the midst of political strife? The only reason is that the Ulema and the rest of the scholarly community at this time kept apart from practical politics and, instead, immersed themselves in scholarly work. This division of roles enabled these scholars to focus their energies on the enormously valuable task of crystallizing these various branches of Islamic knowledge while remaining unaffected by the political tumult raging around them.

Similarly, the Muslim Sultanate in Spain lived on for some 800 years. There, too, there was much political strife and many bloody revolts. Yet, in the same period, the Spanish Ulema and other Muslim scholars made impressive intellectual and scientific contributions. And the reason for this was the same—the Ulema and other scholars kept themselves aloof from the political strife, focusing, instead, on their intellectual and other related tasks.

Sadly, in the age of European colonialism most of the Ulema abandoned their primary task—of building up people’s levels of consciousness—and, instead, got involved in useless political conflicts, which they termed as ‘jihads’. Yet, in the same period, there were some Ulema who realized that the task before them was not to waste their energies in such conflicts. Instead, they believed, they should remain aloof from politics and focus on the building up of people’s consciousness. However, these Ulema were in such a small minority that they were unable to make any effective change in the situation.

In 1857, a large number of Indian Ulema declared ‘jihad through the sword’ against the British. At that time, there was a noted Aalim in Deoband, Maulana Shaikh Muhammad. His opinion was totally opposed to that of many other Ulema. He claimed that, far from it being a duty binding on Muslims to wage jihad against the British, given the then prevailing conditions it was not even permissible or ja’iz. And so, a consultative meeting was held in Deoband, in which, among others, Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi and Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanotvi (both of who were soon to be closely involved in the establishment of the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband) also participated. In describing this meeting, Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani writes in his Naqsh-e Hayat:

In this meeting, the issue of jihad was discussed. Very courteously, Hazrat Nanotvi asked Maulana Shaikh Muhammad Sahib, “Hazrat, what is the reason that you do not declare jihad to be a binding duty (Farz), nor even permissible (ja‘iz)?” And he replied, “We do not have the weapons and instruments for jihad. We are totally without resources.” Maulana Nanotvi then said, “Do [we] not have even that many resources as [the Muslims had] during the battle of Badr?” At this, Maulana Shaikh Muhammad Saheb remained silent.

This comparison that Maulana Nanotvi made with the battle of Badr was undoubtedly incorrect. In that battle, the difference between the two contending parties was quantitative. The Muslim force numbered 313, while their opponents were around a thousand. In contrast, the difference between the two forces in the 1857 confrontation was qualitative. The Muslims had old-fashioned weapons, used in face-to-face fighting, while the British had new types of weapons, modern scientific inventions that could shoot from afar. The former relied only on ground troops, while the latter had a powerful navy, too. The British forces were backed by a community that was fired by a new determination, while the Muslim army was backed by some members of a community that had gone far into decline.

But the Ulema who were leading the revolt at this time did not have any understanding of the fundamental qualitative differences between the two contending forces. Had they fully understood this difference, they would have advocated patient steadfastness (sabr), not physical jihad for the Muslims. They would have realized that by remaining firm on the path of patience and steadfastness, Muslims could begin to make the necessary arrangements for appropriately responding to the prevailing conditions, instead of plunging into armed conflict at an inappropriate time and thereby further magnifying their own destruction.

A chilling reminder of how unaware the Ulema at this time were of the conditions that prevailed around them was that although by this time Europe had entered the age of modern communications, the Ulema seemed to have no knowledge of this momentous development. The fact is that modern communications played a key role in the British victory in the revolt of 1857, but there is no mention of these new methods of communication in the literature produced by the Indian Ulema of that period.

In his The Ifs of History, the historian F.G.C. Hearenshaw speculates about what might have happened in history instead if some things had not taken place. A chapter in this book is titled “If There Had Been No Electric Telegraph in the Fifties”), and there Hearenshaw reveals:

There were in India at the time [i.e. of the 1857 Revolt] only 45,000 British troops, as against more than 2,50,000 sepoys. Nothing could have saved the lives of any of the British residents, whether military or civilian, in the whole of the Ganges valley, nothing could have prevented the extinction—at any rate temporarily—of the British dominion in Bengal and Oudh, if the Mutiny had occurred before the installation of the telegraph. By means of the wire (which the mutineers were not able to cut), the Governor-General, Lord Canning, sent for reinforcements from England. Again by telegrams, Lord Canning was able to get, and get quickly, invaluable contingents from Madras, from Bombay, London, and from Burma. Further, he was in a position to recall a powerful force under General Outram that had been sent on service to Persia. But most decisive of all was his ability to intercept, by an urgent and peremptory message sent by wire to Singapore, a completely equipped expeditionary army of 5000 men which was just on its way under Lord Elgin to deal with trouble in China. From the Cape Colony, too, were brought, in response to a cabled appeal, two batteries of artillery, stores, horses and 6000 pounds in gold.

A True Voice

The noted Arab reformer and scholar Sayyed Rashid Rida (1865-1935) visited India in 1912 at the invitation of the Nadwat ul-Ulema, Lucknow. He also visited the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband, where he delivered a long speech to the students and teachers of the madrasa. In this address, he drew the attention of the Ulema to the task of spreading Islam. He pointed out that in India there were people who worshiped idols, others who worshipped trees and stones, and yet others those who worshipped the moon, the sun, stars and so on. If the Muslims had a strong team of missionaries, he suggested, they could reap great success in spreading Islam among such people. These missionaries could also work to remove misunderstandings about Islam, but for that, he added, they needed to be well aware of modern philosophy.

Undoubtedly, what Sayyed Rashid Rida suggested was proper, but not a single Indian Aalim appeared to consider this suggestion as worth paying attention to. Besides Sayyed Rashid Rida, there were other perceptive individuals who, at this time, sought to draw the attention of the Ulema to abandon useless political involvement and to devote their energies, instead, to constructive, result-oriented work. But the opinions of such people were not effective, and so the caravan of the Ulema rushed headlong on the path of destructive politics.

One reason for this was that the Ulema had begun to consider criticism as unnecessary, as almost a sin. The majority of the Ulema only knew what they deeply revered as the practice of their predecessors or ‘elders’. Because the opinions of people like Sayyed Rashid Rida were construed as a criticism of their predecessors, they were rejected. It was unthinkable for the Ulema to rethink the methods that their predecessors had adopted, to critique them or to adopt any other methods but the ones that their ‘elders’ had used.

An illustration of this is found in the life of the early nineteenth century Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi, who is considered by his admirers as a leading Aalim of the India of his times. One of his companions and disciples was Maulana Mir Mahbub Ali. His differences with Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi arose when the latter declared jihad against the Sikh rulers of the Punjab. Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi made this declaration on the basis of what he said was divine illumination (kashf). When Maulana Mir Mahbub Ali learned of this, he remarked, “The basis of jihad is consultation.” In other words, he suggested that the decision to launch jihad ought to be taken on the basis of consultation among those responsible for this sort of decision, rather than on the basis of someone’s kashf or dream.

After this, the men in Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi’s camp turned into stern opponents of Mir Mahbub Ali. Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi’s response to Mir Mahbub Ali’s comment was to say, “Your obedience ought to be [in the form of] silently listening—maintaining such silence as that of the mountain that stands before me.”

Mir Mahbub Ali did not accept Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi’s order, and so left him and decided to return to his homeland. At this, Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi declared, “He who leaves me and heads back to his homeland shall lose his faith (Iman).”

This anecdote is recorded in Maulana Shah Abul Hasan Zaid Faruqi’s Urdu book Maulana Ismail Dehlavi Aur Taqwiat ul-Iman.

In Islam, decisions about collective affairs are to be taken on the basis of mutual consultation or Shura. Such consultation leads to healthy decision-making. And for proper consultation, a climate wherein criticism and differences of opinion are accepted is a must. But because the contemporary Ulema do not accept criticism and differences of opinion, there is no genuine Shura in their circles.

When the British were ruling India, there were, of course, other communities in the country besides the Muslims, and they indulged in various forms of shirk, associating others with God. Now, from the perspective of the Shariah, the first responsibility of the Ulema ought to have been to launch a movement to promote the worship of the one God and to counter polytheism among these people—not through fierce polemics, but through kind words and gentle guidance and exhortation, infused by a genuine concern for their true welfare. But if you examine the history of the last three hundred years, you will find that there was not even a single Indian alim who was clearly conscious of this urgent need and who drew the attention of Muslims to it. This task of Dawah is so very vital that if it is abandoned, the whole Muslim community will lose all value in the eyes of God.  And, if this task is left undone, all other tasks, if undertaken, will prove to be unsuccessful and can never help Muslims gain respect and honour.

At the time of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, the non-Muslims had the status of subjects of the Muslims, and so it would have been fairly easy to engage in inviting them to the faith of Islam, to call them to the worship and service of the one God, and to reform their beliefs. But the Ulema were not able to use this great opportunity. They made no real efforts to save the polytheist communities from the deviation of shirk or associating others with God.

British rule was formally established in India in the middle of the 18th century. In pursuit of their political interests, the British adopted a policy of maintaining a balance between the different religious communities in the country. Accordingly, Muslims and other communities acquired an equal status. In this period, too, there were ample opportunities for Muslims to engage in Dawah work, but here, too, the Ulema made no use of them. On the contrary, some of them gathered together for the cause of Indian independence, while others banded together in order to partition India, although both these movements were major obstacles as far as the task of inviting others to the path of Tawhid was concerned.

These two movements among the Ulema—one aiming at India’s freedom, the other at India’s partition—both proved successful in what they had set out to achieve. The former resulted in India becoming an independent country, while the latter led to the creation of Pakistan, a separate Muslim communal homeland. But, consequently, the opportunities for Dawah in both countries were sharply reduced. In independent India, this was because the non-Muslims, on the basis of being in a majority, acquired a dominant status, while Muslims were consigned to being dominated. In Pakistan, this was because as a result of the ‘two nation’ theory, non-Muslims were treated as enemies of Muslims, rather than as ma‘dus, potential addressees of the Dawah of Islam.

Undoubtedly, this was an unforgiveable crime, which took place under the direct guidance of the Ulema. The only way to compensate for this is to honestly admit this mistake, and, using the opportunities that are available today, to start that work which the Ulema failed to do in the past.

In the Aftermath of World War II

The unnecessary political and violent efforts of the Ulema failed to defeat the Western colonial powers. What happened, instead, was this: internecine fighting among the Western countries themselves, culminating in the Second World War, drained their military strength to such an extent that it became exceedingly difficult for them to continue to exercise political control over other countries. That is why they granted political independence to these countries in the mid-20th century, although their cultural and economic control over them remained intact.

As a result of this development, some 50 Muslim-majority politically independent states emerged in Asia and Africa. At this time, too, it was the task of the Ulema in these countries to shoulder the very same responsibility that Islam had given them—that is to say, to leave politics to the politicians and to focus their energies, instead, on the spread of knowledge, Tabligh and Dawah, as well as social work and other such constructive activities. But, instead of doing this, they again rushed headlong into the field of politics in a completely unwarranted manner.

Before this, in the period of European colonial rule, the aim of the politics of these Ulema had been ‘the struggle for independence’. Now their politics was conducted in the name of ‘the enforcement of Islamic law’. In numerous countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Algeria, and Indonesia and so on, the Ulema set up parties whose aim was to establish political rule according to Islamic law. This politics once again turned Muslim countries into a battlefield, the only difference now being that while earlier, in the colonial period, the Ulema had been pitted against non-Muslim peoples, now they were up in arms against a section of fellow Muslims themselves. And so, these ‘Islamic’ parties found themselves playing the role of the Opposition in almost every Muslim country.

These efforts of the Ulema did not result in the establishment of purely Shariah-based rule in any Muslim country. But what did result from all of this was that Muslims everywhere became divided into, broadly, two mutually-opposed camps that were at war with each other. If, in the colonial period, non-Muslim forces killed Muslims, now Muslims began slaughtering their co-religionists. And, consequently, everywhere Muslim societies fell prey to destructive activities.

Had the Ulema of the Muslim countries stayed aloof from practical politics, and focused, instead, on the reform of Muslims, awakening the spirit of Islam among them, producing Islamic literature according to modern standards that would promote a thirst for Islam among Muslims and similar sort of work, they would have been better able to work towards establishing Islamic government. If they had played their role in transforming Muslim societies into truly Islamic societies, the system of governance that would have naturally emerged from this process would undoubtedly have been an Islamic one, as is suggested by a hadith report that we had quoted earlier:

            “Your leadership will be a reflection of you [the people].”

The real cause for the failure of efforts to enforce Islamic law in Muslim countries is not the oppression of secularist rulers or the conspiracies of the enemies of Islam, unlike what many of those who regard themselves as ‘lovers of Islam’ repeatedly claim. The real reason for this is the blunder committed by the so-called flag-bearers of Islam who, without properly preparing Muslim societies for this sort of governance, went about stirring up campaigns for the enforcement of Islamic law. The Pakistani example very well exemplifies this point. In that country, what are called ‘pro-Islamic’ forces have, on more than one occasion, won the chance of ruling the country, either partially (as in the case of Mufti Muhammad Mahmud’s winning control of the Frontier Province in the 1970s) or completely (as in the case of the rule of General Zia ul-Haq). Yet, in no way have they succeeded in enforcing the shariah there.

A narrative Hazrat Aisha (R.A.), recorded in the Sahih al-Bukhari, provides a very appropriate commentary on this matter. Hazrat Aisha is reported to have said that when the Quran began being revealed it talked about heaven and hell. Later, when people began turning to Islam, the commandments declaring things as forbidden (haram) and permissible (halal) were revealed. If, Hazrat Aisha noted, at the outset itself the Quran outlawed the consumption of alcohol, people would have declared that they would never stop drinking. If at the very outset the Quran had forbidden adultery, they would have refused to ever stop indulging in it.

In Muslim lands, the Ulema involved in movements for the enforcement of Islamic law simply assumed that because the majority of the inhabitants of these countries were Muslims, they were, by definition, in favour of Islamic law. This was a complete misreading of reality, however. The fact is that the present-day generation of Muslims is actually a communal aggregate and not a truly religious collectivity in the real sense of the term. Hence, it is wrong to assume, even about people who pray and fast and go on the Haj or Umrah, that they want that political power should be wielded by the Ulema, who should impose shariah laws on them.

The unrealistic politics of the Ulema in Muslim countries have produced a situation which we can properly appreciate in the light of the narrative of Hazrat Aisha (r.a.) referred to above. Without preparing the populace to welcome and accept Islamic laws, the Ulema seek to impose these laws, including with regard to the consumption of liquor and adultery, while at the same time, large sections of the populace react to them, saying, “We will never let these laws of yours be imposed on us.”

In January 1827, Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi and his companions had established what they termed as an Islamic government in the Peshawar region, near the Afghan border. Sayyed Ahmad was selected as the head of the state, the Amir ul-Momineen (‘commander of the faithful’). But, very soon, internecine rivalry broke out, so much so that local Muslims set about slaughtering the representatives that Sayyed Ahmad had appointed in their areas. And so, this ‘Islamic government’ collapsed almost as soon as it had been established.

This failed experiment in seeking to establish Islamic rule without preparing Muslim society adequately for it was not, however, taken as an eye-opener by later generations. That is why efforts continue to be made even in our day to repeat this experiment which, some 250 years ago, very clearly showed how impossible it was for it to succeed.

By the middle of the 20th century, movements aiming for what their proponents called ‘Islamic Revolution’ emerged almost all across the Muslim world. These were led by Ulema as well as ‘pro-Islamic’ intellectuals. But these people, both when they were in the Opposition as well as when, in some cases, they came to power, simply became a cause for giving Islam a bad name. It is a fact that these movements in the name of ‘Divine Government’ (Hukmat-e Ilahiya), the ‘Islamic System’ (Islami Nizam) and the ‘Enforcement of the Shariah’ (Nifaz-e Shariah) proved only to be counter-productive.

It is worth noting in this regard that numerous great non-Muslim thinkers, from the late 19th till the mid-20th century, had declared Islam as the solution to the problems besetting humanity in the present age. But, at the end of the 20th century, no important non-Muslim thinker made any such announcement.

The cause for this was the wrong representation of Islam by the so-called revolutionary Muslim leaders. Prior to this, the intellectuals of the world were presented with the history of the early phase of Islam, and, impressed by it, many of them had a very positive image of Islam. But the meaningless movements stirred up in the name of Islam by the modern-day Ulema and other Muslim leaders turned into yet another cause for adding to human misery. Faced with the record of these so-called representatives of Islam in our times, many people have become disgusted with Islam itself. And so, no longer do many globally-influential intellectuals believe that Islam can be a means for human welfare in the present age.

The Example of the Prophet

Abdullah Ibn Abbas (r.a.) narrates an incident from the early, Makkan phase of the Prophet’s time. One day, he relates, the leaders of the Quraish gathered near the Ka‘aba. They decided to send one of their men to the Prophet (s.a.w.) to call him so that they could talk over matters with him. When he received this message, the Prophet (s.a.w.) went to meet them.

When the discussion started, the representative of the Quraish told the Prophet (s.a.w.) that he had become a source of trouble for their tribe, and accused him of abusing their forefathers, criticizing their religion, calling them foolish and insulting their idols. After going on in this vein, he told the Prophet (s.a.w.) that he should desist from what he was doing, in return for which the Quraish were ready to give him whatever he wanted. The Quraish would even concede to making him their ruler if he wanted that.

The Prophet (s.a.w.) did not accept this offer of the Quraish, and, instead, continued with his missionary efforts. Later, when he shifted to Madinah, he established an Islamic government there. Now, the question arises as to why the Prophet (s.a.w.) did not accept the offer of heading the government earlier, in Makkah, which the Quraish had made to him, while he established an Islamic government 15 years later, in Madinah. Why didn’t he establish this Islamic government in Makkah, fifteen years earlier?

The reason for this is that the way to establish an Islamic government is not that any ‘Islamic personality’, using any means whatsoever, comes to occupy the seat of governance. The establishment of a regime is very closely linked to the prevailing external conditions. The establishment of an Islamic regime requires a suitable society, whose members have become receptive to Islam, and where the political factors necessary for the stability of the regime are present.

In the Makkan period of the Prophet, these favourable factors had not crystallized. That is why the Prophet did not try to establish Islamic government in Makkah.  But, later, in Madinah, these factors had crystallized, and that is why the Prophet established the rule of Islam there.

The difference in the two contexts is clearly apparent from the fact that in Makkah it was possible for the wife of Abu Lahab to condemn the Prophet (s.a.w.), and to even publicly sing verses criticizing him and announcing that she refused to accept the message he was propagating. On the other hand, in the 13th year of his prophethood, when the Prophet (s.a.w.), along with his companion Abu Bakr (r.a.), arrived in Madinah, he was greeted by the children of the town singing verses that celebrated his arrival and his message.

A similar example can be drawn from the life of the Prophet Moses (a.s.). The Bani Israel, the people of Moses (a.s), the Quran tells us, had been destined to acquire political power once again. And so, after the demise of Moses (a.s.), the Bani Israel rose up in revolt and established their own government over Syria and Palestine.

Here, it is interesting to note that the Bani Israel had the same opportunity of establishing a government half a century earlier, at the time of Moses (a.s.). Why, one might ask, did they have to wait for so many years till they finally did so?

At the time of Moses, the Pharaoh of Egypt and his entire army were drowned in the sea, and this cleared the field for Moses. Moses could have returned to the Egyptian capital, Memphis, along with the Bani Israel, and occupied the vacant Egyptian throne. After the miraculous destruction of the Pharaoh and his army, the denizens of Egypt must have been so awe-struck that they might have readily accepted Moses as their new ruler.

But Moses did not do this. Instead, he left the vacant political field of Egypt and, along with his people, went into the Sinai desert. There, the Bani Israel faced forty years of harsh life, with many of the older generation dying off. Only the new generation, which had been reared in the desert, survived.

Now, the only reason for this delay was that the generation of the Bani Israel that had earlier lived in Egypt had, for certain particular reasons, fallen prey to moral decline, so much so, as the Quran (5: 25) relates, Moses told God that besides himself and his brother Aaron (Harun), he had no faith in any person. And so, all the people of Bani Israel were kept in the Valley of Tih so that all the elderly people of the community should breathe their last and a new generation of the Bani Israel, reared in the desert, should develop a reliable character and then capture political power and establish an Islamic government.

These two instances very clearly prove that a new regime can only be established when the necessary collective conditions favourable for it prevail. The example of the Prophet tells us that if among the public a conducive environment does not prevail in the real sense, even a prophet cannot establish a government in such a context. And if he does establish a government despite the absence of such a conducive environment, it will soon collapse, and the end result of this will be fruitless.

Keeping this Prophetic example in mind, it will be clear that that the agitations that swept all across the Muslim world, driven by the slogan “Establish Islamic Government!” were simply foolish. Their logical result could only be—and it turned out to be precisely so—terrible self-destruction, with their goal remaining as distant as before.

Temporal Changes

A fundamental mistake of the Ulema of modern times is that they took the dominance of Western nations to be simply a political phenomenon. But, in actual fact, this dominance was a reflection of a powerful culture. This indicates that the political aspect is secondary. Even if the dominant Western nations were to come to be politically defeated, their dominance would still remain intact. This was very well illustrated in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The dominance of the Tartars in the 13th century over large parts of the then Muslim world was simply through the rule of the sword—that is to say, it was mere political dominance. Suppose the Tartars had gone on to be defeated politically, through the sword. In that case, their dominance would have come to an end. But the dominance of Western powers in the modern age was much more deeply entrenched than this. And so, unlike in the hypothetical case of the Tartars, the future of Western dominance could not be determined simply on the battlefield.

The true secret behind the dominance of the Western powers was that they had transformed the structures of human thought. The intellectual revolution that they had brought about compelled the entire world to think in the same way as they did, to hold the same opinions of things.

This major transformation led to a shift in the arena of confrontation between the Western powers and the peoples they came to dominate, from the battlefield to the field of ideas. To successfully confront the Western nations, it was now necessary to defeat them in the realm of ideas. To gain victory over the Western peoples, it was necessary, once again, to transform the structures of human thought. But because the Ulema got involved in political conflicts, they failed to understand this secret, and they failed, too, to undertake any appropriate action in this regard.

Thought and Leadership

As indicated above, the structure people’s thought is of fundamental importance, while political leadership is, in a sense, derivative. If the former is in good condition, inevitably the latter will be, too, and then no conspiracy can cause it to deviate from the right path. And when people’s ways of thinking gets corrupted, even a virtuous ruler cannot, simply through wielding political power, transform a society into a truly virtuous one.

In contemporary times, we are confronted with the painful reality that all the efforts of the Ulema in the field of practical politics have continuously proven to be ineffective. As we mentioned earlier, Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi established an ‘Islamic government’ in the Peshawar region, but, shortly after, the entire structure collapsed. Some years after Pakistan came into being, Maulana Mufti Mahmud got the opportunity, as Chief Minister of the Frontier Province, to form a ministry consisting of ‘pro-Islamic’ forces, but this ministry was unable to complete its term in office, and so proved to be a failure. In Sudan in the late 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood got the opportunity of playing a key role in the government of Jafar Nimeiri, but their participation in this government made no positive difference to the conditions of Sudanese society, and they soon went out of power. In Pakistan, General Zia ul-Haq got the opportunity of ruling the country as dictator for more than 11 years. He received the support of the Ulema of both India and Pakistan. Yet, he did not succeed in bringing about any truly Islamic change in Pakistan. And so on.

A basic cause for the continuous failure of the Ulema in the field of practical politics is that they are going against the Divine plan. This can be better appreciated when we see their activities in the light of the statement attributed to Hazrat Aisha (r.a.), which we earlier referred to. They want to acquire leadership over the people without reforming the latter’s way of thinking. As Hazrat Aisha’s statement tells us, such a course of action would not have succeeded even at the time of the Prophet. So, how can it succeed today, 1400 years later?

I feel that the Ulema are not really aware of the vast transformations that have taken place in human thought in the modern age. They have no real idea of how people today think. But it is precisely the task of understanding and reforming this that is the Ulema’s most pressing task, one which they should have taken up at the very outset. Without reforming people’s thinking, no sort of practical political efforts can ever succeed.

The Issue of the Mindset

People act according to their ways of thinking. If their mentality is deviant or ungodly, naturally their actions will be of the same sort. Conversely, if their thinking is proper, so will their actions be.

Prior to the advent of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), the fundamental problem facing humanity was the dominance of deviant mentality. This mentality was based on polytheistic beliefs. It is referred to by the term Fitna in the Quran (8:39). The Prophet (s.a.w.) and his Companions destroyed this mentality through their struggles. And so, after this, the age of the mindset based on divine guidance dawned. It was founded on Tawhid, the oneness of God. This mindset remained dominant for about a thousand years thereafter.

With the end of the 18th century, a new phase in human history dawned. This new age was, once again, based on deviation from the right path. It was based on atheistic ideologies. In the Islamic period, God was the centre of human thought, the crux around which human activities revolved. But in the new age, Nature took the place of God and became the new basis of human thought. This fundamental transformation in people’s mindset resulted in a complete change in all practical aspects of human life, so much so that even those people who still believed in God did not remain unaffected by this intellectual storm.

The development of this new mindset took place over a long period, and numerous people played a key role in it. The symbol of this new age was Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Newton studied the solar system, including the revolution of the sun, the moon and the planets. He sought to explain these astronomical phenomena through the principles of Mathematics. He pointed out how the movement of these bodies was linked to the Law of Gravity.

In ancient times, it was believed that the movements of the sun and the moon and all other phenomena owed to supernatural causes. At this time, human beings were unaware that these developments could also be expressed using a materialistic terminology related to the Law of Nature.

Newton’s researches shook the very foundations of belief. When, through further research, it was discovered that all developments on the Earth as well in the skies are an expression of such laws of Nature as can be expressed in the language of Mathematics, the pillars of traditional faith systems were shaken. Modern thinkers declared that if all phenomena were a result of natural causes, they could not be due to supernatural causes.

After Newton, a new group of thinkers emerged who played a key role in further transforming people’s ways of thinking. Charles Darwin (1802-1882) represented this new group. Newton had seen the physical world as moving according to the laws of Nature. Darwin went further and declared that the biological world, too, moved according to the laws of Nature. From the smallest germ to human beings, all forms of life on Earth, he contended, had emerged from the known laws of Nature.

An enormous amount of research was done on Darwin’s thesis after his death. Although some modifications were later made to its original form, basically the Darwinian theory of Evolution came to be accepted by almost all modern scientists as a supposed fundamental truth. Consequently, whether consciously or otherwise, it came to be widely believed across the world that the creation of human beings had nothing to do with God, their Creator. This was a key implication of the theory of Evolution.

 A third group among modern thinkers was represented by Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx gave a materialistic explanation of human history, which he termed as a ‘scientific’ interpretation. He claimed that history was characterized by continuous class struggle. He termed this as a fundamental law. Class struggle, he opined, determined the present and the future of humankind.

In the olden days, human beings considered history to be a miracle of fate. They believed in a supreme God who shaped human history. But the philosophy invented by Marx and later elaborated upon in an enormous body of writings affected the entire world, whether consciously or otherwise. And so, people began thinking of history as something that had nothing to do with God—in complete contrast to the past, when they considered history through the prism of Divine action.

Changes in the Criterion of Power

What we have just discussed relates to some philosophical aspects linked to the discovery of the laws of Nature. From the practical point of view, this discovery provided the West with a great advantage. It made it possible for Westerners, for the very first time in history, to change the criterion of power. They developed a new understanding of power, which was hitherto unknown. Through this, the West replaced the old, traditional age with the scientific age. They replaced handicrafts with machine-based production. They replaced hand-wielded weapons with weapons that could fire from a distance. They made it possible for humans to now travel by air, and not only, as before, by land or sea. They replaced animal-drawn modes of transport by engine-driven vehicles.

Previously, the difference between contending powers was essentially quantitative. But now the West ushered in a new age, wherein the difference between Western nations and others was a fundamentally qualitative one. This transformation gave the West a clear and decisive advantage over the rest of the world.

These developments also brought about major changes at the human level. Westerners imbibed a new mentality, which set them apart from people in the Orient, whose mental world continued to be shaped by traditional beliefs. The former now gave enormous stress to change and creative thinking, while the latter continued to cling to blind imitation of past precedent. The former hailed the spirit of freedom of thought and criticism, while the latter fell prey to intellectual stagnation.

The caravan of the West was like a flowing river, while the East turned into a stagnant pond. The West was energetic and active, driven by a cause, while in the East people had lost the very notion of a cause to live for. Their bubbling energy united Westerners, while Easterners, who had now gone into decline, had lost those qualities that keep people together. Westerners were now fired by a passionate zeal to spread the civilization that they had developed to the rest of the world, while Easterners remained alive simply on the memories of what they had inherited from their ancestors. Westerners were now driven by a determination to act, while, at the very most, Easterners were concerned simply to defend or protect whatever little remained with them.

These fundamental differences between people in the West and the East were akin to the distinction between an alert and active army, on the one hand, and one that is tired and listless, on the other. In such a situation, the task before the East was to, once again, appropriately prepare its people, rather than stirring ill-prepared folk to fight their opponents—but that is precisely what the Ulema did.

Ease in Difficulty

The greatest damage caused by the unnecessary dominance of politics and the quest for political power on the thinking of the Ulema was that in the new, revolutionary age the Ulema could only see oppression, conspiracies and problems all around. They were wholly unaware of the possibilities and opportunities that the new age provided. People who fail to see the positive possibilities that a situation provides naturally fail to be able to make use of them. This happened with the Ulema in this period.

The Quran informs us that it is a fundamental law of God that in this world, ease is definitely present with every difficulty. With every problem there are positive opportunities. The Quran says:

So, surely with every hardship there is ease; surely, with every hardship there is ease.

(94: 5-6)

The classical Quranic commentators suggest that the Arabic مَعَ that appears in this verse indicates ‘along with’. Thus, Ibn Kathir, in his commentary, says that through this verse God gives us the news that ease is found along with difficulty. However, the Ulema of the modern period were so heavily dominated by their temporal conditions that they did not understand this reality. Their unrealistic way of thinking led them to take مَعَ  in this verse to mean ‘after’, and, accordingly, they interpreted this verse differently. Thus, for instance, in his commentary on this Quranic verse in his Tafhim ul-Quran, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi claimed that this point—about there being ease with every hardship—was mentioned twice so that the Prophet be fully reassured that the difficult circumstances that he was then undergoing would not last very long, and that, instead, after this positive conditions would arise. On the face of it, Maulana Maududi argued, it seemed to be inconsistent that difficulty and ease could go together. The two, he claimed, could not exist together simultaneously. And so he contended that what this verse actually meant was that the time of ease was so close at hand to that of the time of hardship as if it were simultaneous with it.

In Maulana Maududi’s commentary on this verse, the entire significance of  مَعَ  has been lost, although in the Quranic verse referred to here the word actually has enormous significance. If we take the word to mean ‘along with’, this Quranic verse indicates that in this world whenever any problem arises, possibilities for solutions also exist along with it. Every disadvantage also brings along with it an advantage.

This principle applied, as in all other matters, to the question of Western culture and Western imperialism. These developments struck the Muslim world as a major tragedy. But, at the same time and along with this, they possessed many favourable possibilities that Muslims could have used. The biggest such possibility was that of new and powerful opportunities of engaging in the Dawah of Islam which were hitherto unavailable. Had the Ulema understood this secret and used these possibilities, they could have transformed the tragic modern history of the ummah into a very positive one. But, due to the particular mentality that they had developed, they failed to do so.

New Possibilities for Dawah

In the modern age, new possibilities of Dawah have emerged. I have written extensively on this issue in numerous books and articles. Here I will only briefly touch upon this matter.

1.     The basis of the modern age was freedom of thought. Among the many results of the modern intellectual revolution was freedom of religion. Prior to this, human history was throughout characterized by religious persecution. In the modern age, for the first time, religious freedom, including the freedom to propagate religion, were recognized as legitimate human rights. Through the human rights’ charter of the United Nations, this was accepted by all the world’s nations. This development made it possible for the first time in history to engage in Dawah without any obstruction whatsoever. 

2.     Among the several scholarly disciples that the modern age gave birth to was Anthropology, whose subject matter is human societies. Anthropologists proved that belief in God and religion have been present in all societies, thus showing that such belief is natural to human beings and an answer to a universal human quest. This finding gave a great boost to the possibilities of Islamic Dawah, for it indicated that such belief is as indispensable for human beings as food.

3.     The findings of modern science amazingly fitted into what the Quran has revealed.  They were a confirmation of this prediction of the Quran:

We shall show them Our signs in the universe and within themselves, until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth. Is it not enough that your Lord is the witness of all things?

(41: 53)

In this way, modern science became a powerful potential tool in the hands of those who were engaged in the Dawah of Islam.

4.     Among the many new inventions wrought by the modern age were new means of communication. These, for the first time in history, reduced distances to the barest minimum, and so made it possible for a da‘i of Islam to make the entire world his arena of Dawah. This was an expression of a report of the Prophet (s.a.w.) wherein he predicted that a time would come when the message of Islam would reach into every house in the world.

5.     In the Introduction to my book Aqliyat-e Islam, first published in 1978, I had written:

In the Free World, unusual new possibilities for Dawah have opened up. But the exception to this is the Communist world, because it is completely under coercive rule. Free opportunities for Islamic Dawah are unavailable there.

But just 13 years after I wrote these lines, conditions underwent a great change. The end of 1991 was also accompanied by the end of the Communist Empire. And so, the same opportunities for Islamic Dawah were opened up in erstwhile communist countries as were previously available only in the non-communist world.

Unawareness of the Modern Age

In November 1967, an article I wrote, titled Daur-e Jadeed ko Jaanne ki Zarurat (‘Need for Understanding the Modern Age’), was published in the Urdu weekly al-Jamiat. In it, I pointed out that:

The revolution in thought and action that has overtaken the world has produced many problems for Islam. But it is such a terrible tragedy that while the Ummah has been faced with this serious situation for such a long time, no serious efforts have been made so far to understand what the modern problems really are.

In 1894, the Nadwat ul-Ulema, Lucknow, appointed a committee consisting of leading Indian Ulema whose task it was to suggest suitable reforms in the madrasa curriculum. On this occasion, Maulana Shah Muhammad Husain noted:

[One fault of the present curriculum, the Dars-e Nizami] is that it does not give us any course of action to counter modern philosophy that is today attacking Islam. Hence, I think it appropriate that a book about modern philosophy should be prepared, and this can easily be done by requesting a true Muslim who has received a good education in modern philosophy and English [to write this book]. He can scan the anti-Islamic issues of modern philosophy, translate them into Urdu, and present them to the Nadwat ul-Ulema. The Nadwat ul-Ulema can write a reply to them and introduce this in the [madrasa] syllabus, and students can study this during their holidays or in their free time.

Around a century has passed since this suggestion was made but it has yet to become a reality. In this period, the Nadwat ul-Ulema claims to have made great progress, but, surprisingly, this book suggested by Maulana Shah Muhammad Husain around a hundred years ago still remains absent from its curriculum.

Ten years before the Partition of India, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi wrote a book titled Tajdid-o-Ihya-e Din (‘The Renewal and Revival of Islam’). Surveying the failure of Islamic movements, from that of Shah Waliullah to that led by Shah Ismail in the early nineteenth century, he contended:

Sayyed Ahmad Shahid and Shah Ismail Shahid […] rose up to launch an Islamic Revolution […] but did not send a delegation of accomplished Ulema to Europe to study the secret of the power and progress of that community that was spreading as fast as a storm, using new instruments, new resources, new methods, and new sciences and arts, and to learn what sort of institutions had been established in its homeland, what forms of knowledge it possessed, and the pillars of its civilization, and what, in contrast to it, we [Muslims] lacked.

Sentiments of this sort have been repeatedly voiced for a long time now, but yet not a single alim of note has so far travelled to the West with the specific purpose of doing this sort of research. Nor has any alim studied Western literature in-depth with this goal in mind. It is true that in recent years some Ulema have got the opportunity to travel to Europe and America, but these visits of theirs had nothing whatsoever to do with the sort of research that we are talking about here. All the Ulema who, on the face of it, appear to go to Europe or America, actually do not go there in the true sense of the term. In actual fact, they simply travel to some Muslims living in Europe or America. Once there, they do not establish any real connections with the Western world, nor do they make any efforts to study the conditions prevailing there.

Take the instance of two books in order to understand this point further. The Egyptian Islamic activist Sayyed Qutb penned a work titled The America I Have Seen, and the Indian alim Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi authored a travelogue in Urdu titled Do Mahine Amreeka Mai (‘Two Months in America’). Despite what their titles might suggest, both these books have nothing to do with any in-depth study of American life. If someone reads the book Two Months in America, he will be stunned by the fact that the author spends two whole months in America but in this long period he does not meet a single real American, and nor does he study any American institution in order to understand the American philosophy of life.

If someone were to read these books, he might well gain some superficial and negative impressions about America, but he will obtain absolutely no idea of the secret of American power or the heritage of thought on which America’s ideological structure is based.

The bare fact is that the present-day Ulema have absolutely no understanding of Western thought. On the basis of faulty information, our Ulema have a wrong picture of Westerners, in the same way as the old Orientalists had a totally wrong image of Islam. For instance, it is said that Westerners are ‘worshippers of Reason’, that they are advocates of unrestricted freedom of thought, and that, as an Aalim once quipped, their sole object of worship is Reason. But this is a very wrong interpretation of Western rationality. Westerners regard research-based thinking, rather than uncontrolled thinking, as the basis of Reason. In the olden days, people used to think and argue using religious arguments. But in the modern age, the basis for intellectual investigation are not the preconceived hypotheses of any belief or ideological system, but, rather, actual realities. This understanding of rationality is very useful for us, because Islam is based on firmly-established truths, while other religions, in their present forms, are based on suppositions and superstitions. Had the Ulema understood Western thought at a deep level, they would have considered it to be useful for them and so would have welcomed it. But, based on a very superficial knowledge of it, they became its enemies, heaping scorn on it.

The Crux of This Discussion about the Ulema and the Modern Age

1.     The Ulema of Islam must first of all decide to completely dissociate from practical politics. Their real work is in the fields of knowledge, scholarship, Dawah and reform. They can, when it is necessary, express their views on political issues, but for them to play a practical role in politics is not proper under any circumstances.

2.     Along with contemporary religious education, the Ulema must be made aware of trends in modern thought. Without this, they will not be able to properly fulfill their responsibilities in the modern age.

3.     The Ulema must permit open criticism of each other. Without this, it is not possible to destroy people’s mental stagnation and promote wisdom and insight.

4.     The Ulema must cultivate a spirit of tolerance, and, despite their differences, must work towards promoting unity. Without this, the Ummah can achieve no major progress.

5. Besides engaging in education and development of the Ummah, the Ulema have another very important task—that of Dawah, inviting others to the path of God, conveying the message of the true Deen , and being engaged in this work till its final limit.