By R Jagannathan
Jun 19, 2014
A new spectre is haunting the world - the spectre of yet another terrorist outfit - the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - that has suddenly fought its way to capture huge swathes of territory in West Asia. It promises to be a nastier version of al Qaeda, and now accuses the old al Qaeda of forgetting its initial ideals.
Academics will again go about explaining how the failure of President Obama to act in time and the exclusionary nature of the Iraqi Shia leadership gave space for Sunni-based ISIS to grow, but this will be only a partial explanation. The real explanation lies at the heart of Islam and it goes back to the time of the Prophet.
Islam is not just a religion; it is also a system of accumulating and consolidating political power. Its ideology is perfectly suited for these goals.
This is what explains how a rag-tag bunch of thugs and extortionists morphed into an all-conquering army and now holds several towns and large territories in Iraq and Syria. Soon ISIS could be creating a caliphate - a dream aborted in Afghanistan after the American invasion pushed Mullah Omar out. If ISIS succeeds, it will become a new power centre for political Islam. But it won’t be the only one, for we still have the Shia power centre in Teheran, and several others elsewhere.
Islam is unique not for its great messages of brotherhood and justice, which are certainly inspiring, but in how it formally allows spiritual and temporal power to reside together. They reinforce one another.
The Prophet was not just the spiritual leader of the early Muslims, but also their political leader and head of the army. The ideology of Islam - an extraordinary faith in one god, and none other - is exactly the right one for claiming and consolidating power and building empire.
Even though there are other religions that talk of only one god - Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, among them - all of them, at least in their modern forms, are more accommodating and pluralistic than Islam. The latter has been rigid in its belief not only about one god, but in not separating power from religion.
Sigmund Freud, in his book Monotheism, writes about how monotheism evolved as an important adjunct to the growth of empire. Most ancient societies were polytheistic and plural. The worship of many gods was the norm even though small tribal societies had their favourite gods. But once tribes became kingdoms and kingdoms became small empires, the rulers - both to consolidate power and to retain it - saw the need to adopt some form of monotheism as state ideology. At its basic level, monotheism is about concentrating power in one person or institution.
The first monarch who sought to go monotheist was the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who in the 14the century BC declared Aten as the supreme god. His priests did not like it much, and his brand of monotheism - which some also called henotheism - did not outlive him in polytheistic ancient Egypt.
The Arab tribes living in and around Mecca before the advent of the Prophet were also polytheistic. This was what Mohammed decisively changed when he destroyed all the idols at the Kaaba and said only Allah was the true god.
The link between one god and power has been recognised all through history. Emperor Constantine wanted all rival versions of the Bible destroyed so that there could be a unified Christianity. Thus we had the Nicene Creed. In India, Mughal Emperor Akbar was declared secular both because of the diversity he allowed and also because he tried evolving a unified religion called Din-e-Ilahi. But his own Ulema were not amused and the effort died an unsung death. Akbar’s motives in evolving Din-e-Ilahi may have had less to do with secularism and more with the consolidation of power in a diverse empire.
But it was the Prophet of Islam who took this idea to its logical conclusion by making belief in one god central to his religion, and giving his followers the mandate to expand this to all of humanity. He created the ultimate masculine religion driven by the pursuit of both power and spirituality.
Was this unique, was this different from the two earlier Abrahamic religions – Judaism and Christianity? Both of Islam’s predecessor faiths emphasised one god and opposed idolatry. The progress of the three religions was, however, different. Judaism resisted change and stuck to its belief that Jews were a chosen people. Much like Hinduism, it sought no conversions of other people to Judaism and ultimately posed no threat to temporal powers. But Christianity, once it grew out of its initial moorings in a Jewish reform movement that also resisted the Roman occupation of Palestine, became a proselytising faith that could have threatened kingly power. This is why Christianity had a difficult existence in its initial phases, till Constantine embraced it politically and made it a part of his power base. After that, church and state were often joint stakeholders in power, or shared an uneasy relationship, till the European enlightenment forced the two apart.
Islam never saw any of these pressures and tussles. From the start, the Prophet ensured the merger of state and god – and there has been no reformation, renaissance or enlightenment to force a change.
A key feature of religions that emphasise monotheism is that rival monotheists are a threat to it. It has to be my god, not your god. This is why even though Islam accepts the validity of Jewish and Christian prophets, its claim to having the final word of god ensured centuries of conflict with both Judaism and Christianity – with the crusades being the most logical outcome of extreme monotheism and the combining of temporal and spiritual power.
All consolidation of power needs an ideology that's larger than self-interest, and the Prophet created that combination in Islam where its followers think nothing of sacrificing themselves for achieving this ideal. This is why less than 100 years after his death, the warriors of Islam had reached all over Asia, Africa and Europe.
The power and weakness of Islam lies precisely in this mixing up of spiritual and temporal power. It means anybody can use the appeal of religion to seek power, and anyone with power can claim Islam as his own. This means ambitious warmongers can and will threaten not only other rival states, but even states that are formally Islamic. Genghis Khan ravaged many Muslim states during his campaigns, but his progeny embraced Islam. Taimur called himself the Sword of Islam. Anyone seeking power can merely say that he is the guardian of Islam, or his is the right version of Islam, and go for it. Thus Islamists after often a big threat to other Islamists. An Osama bin Laden was as much a threat to the Saudi monarchs as to America.
This is what explains the huge, bloody schisms of Islam - Shia-Sunni, Sunni-Ahmadiyas, etc. Every time you have managed to finish off an al-Qaeda, an ISIS will rise. When ISIS fails - as it surely will, for no terror can hold unnatural countries together - another "truer" version of Islam will rise. Pakistan is failing precisely because it made Islam its ruling ideology. The corollary to this ideology is: which Islam? This can only lead to more bloodshed.
The vision of Islam - of converting the whole world in order to have a peaceful world - is impossible precisely because the ideology is wedded to power. Anyone who seeks power can claim to be the better Islam and make a grab for it.
The world cannot do anything about this, and especially by demonising Islam - as the west and we in India sometimes tend to do. This is an issue internal to Islam and will be addressed only when enough Muslims begin to see the dangers to themselves and their faith from this. Let's remember, Christianity went through the same process and needed the reformation and enlightenment to separate church from state.
Islam will become a normal religion when two things happen: when enough Muslims see the damage they are doing to themselves and call for change, and when the secular process of women getting educated, empowered and emancipated expands. The antidote to a hyper masculine religion is feminine power.