By Professor Muhammad Amin
(President, Tehrik-e Islah-e Talim, Lahore, Pakistan)
[Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com]
Some proponents of a new Islamic movement appropriate for our times argue that such a movement must necessarily be preceded by destruction or deconstruction of existing movements, and subjecting them to an incisive critique. They insist that if this task is not undertaken it would be tantamount to hypocrisy and cowardice. These critics believe that the new Islamic movement for our times that they desire would be the sole upholder or representative of the truth, and that all else is false and misleading.
[As someone who is also convinced of the need for a new Islamic movement suited to our present-day context] I think otherwise. I believe that for 1400 years or so Muslim societies have sought, in different ways and to different extents, to shape themselves in accordance with Islamic teachings. There may well be problems in people’s understanding and interpreting of Islam and in living up to its teachings, for which reformist efforts are necessary. This is what is referred to by the phrase amr bi’l maruf wa nahi an al-munkar (‘commanding the good and forbidding the wrong’), and by the terms tabligh (‘communication’), tazkiya (‘purification’), dawah (‘invitation’) and islah (‘reform’), and so on. These reformist efforts can be made in different fields—in politics, in education, in our morals and ethics, and in every other field of life. The forms, limits and methods of such reforms are a matter to be decided through ijtihad. I do not refer to this activity using such terms as islami inqilab (‘Islamic Revolution’), iqamat-e din (‘Establishment of the Faith’), ‘Divine Governance’ (hukumat-e ilahiya), and so on, [terms which activists of some religio-political movements generally use]. Several times in the Quran God refers to the purpose of sending prophets to the world as trying to reform people through education and purification. Accordingly, the prophets of God were instructed to guide to God’s path people who accepted their message. If a considerable majority accepted God’s message then they were to arrange for their collective life (that is to say, state and governance) to be regulated in accordance with God’s laws. This is the sort of society that the Prophet Muhammad sought to bring into being, which provides a model for Muslims for all times, including our own, to emulate. Of course, mistakes are constantly being made, and people do err, but it is the task of the ulema and other pious people to seek to reform the rulers and the public in order to encourage them to truly follow Islam in their lives and dealings. As I see it, the basic task of the ulema and religious organizations and movements is to seek to reform society through the purification of individual selves and through promoting knowledge and wisdom.
One of the most critical challenges we are presently faced with is the fact that, by and large, Muslims are today under the domination of others and are confronted with hostile ways of life, particularly by irreligious, materialistic Western culture and thought. Countries that uphold this sort of culture and thought are now globally dominant, and have long been attempting to subvert the culture and beliefs of the Muslims. One of the biggest problems we face today in terms of Islamic activism is precisely what our stance should be with regard to this irreligious Western culture and way of life.
There have been, broadly speaking, four paths that Islamic groups have taken with regard to Western cultural and intellectual hegemony. The first is what I term the ‘awed’ approach; the second I call that of ‘understanding’, the third is what I term ‘overlooking’, and the fourth is termed ‘resistance’.
The prime proponents of the ‘awed’ approach were Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran and Mustafa Kemal Attaturk in Turkey, both of who tried to forcibly impose Western culture on their people against their will. In the South Asian subcontinent people like Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan and Ghulam Ahmad Parvez exemplified this trend. They tried to modify Islam to suit Western thought and culture.
The second stance, that of ‘understanding’, is represented by modern-day Islamic movements such as the Jamaat-e Islami in South Asia and the Ikhwan al-Muslimun in the Arab world. They adopted the irreligious Western concept of democracy and made some cosmetic and seemingly ‘Islamic’ changes to it and sought to bless it as ‘Islamic democracy’. Likewise, they adopted the Western system of capitalism and capitalist banking, made some slight ‘Islamic’ changes to these, and sought to pass it off as ‘Islamic economics’. They tried to make the same sorts of cosmetic changes in other fields, such as education and politics. In Pakistan this attempt proved a miserable failure. Despite such efforts, almost every sphere of public life in Pakistan became even more devoid of Islam and even more heavily Westernised. One reason for this was that the concept of religion propagated by such movements was a reaction to Western intellectual and cultural domination, and reaction of this sort can never be evenly balanced. Moreover, these movements viewed the political sphere as the sole arena where they needed to intervene. This was because they saw religion in political terms, as a political system. Hence, they came to believe that instead of focusing on the reform of individuals, the focus of their work must be entirely on seeking to bring about political revolution and establishing a political dispensation through which they believed they could enforce Islamic laws on the people.
Groups that adopted a policy of ‘overlooking’, of ignoring or turning a blind eye to, Western irreligious culture and thought included the Tablighi Jamaat, and the various madrasas. These groups and organizations considered the deen or religion to be limited only to tabligh, dawah, worship and morality. In this way, they came to see Islam as having little or nothing at all to do with social affairs, with collective matters, with politics and the state.
Groups who took to armed resistance in the face of Western irreligious culture and thought included the Jamaat ul-Takfir wal Hijrah in Egypt, the Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan. It is said that these groups have taken to armed resistance against Muslim rulers even though they have no chance at all of success. Hence, it is argued, they have gone against the consensus that has prevailed among the Sunni Muslims ever since the martyrdom of Imam Husain and Abdullah Bin Zubair over 1300 years ago, according to which revolt (khuruj) against a tyrannical Muslim ruler is impermissible, even if the other shariah conditions for revolt apply, if the chances of success are not clear. This is because such revolt would result in strife and conflict in society. In other words, under such conditions one should react by trying to promote reforms, rather than by instigating revolt or revolution […]
Some people [associated with Islamist groups] consider that Islamic activists who work in fields other than politics are seeking to play safe. They even mock them for allegedly avoiding the difficult work of political activism. However, religion or the deen is not simply or even mainly about politics, unlike what some of these people believe. There are four broad aspects of the deen: iman or faith or belief; ibadat or worship or service; ikhlaq or morals; and muamilat or social relations. Now, muamilat has several dozens of sub-sections, one of which is politics. This means that politics is, in fact, only a very small aspect of the deen.
One major fault of ours is that we regard whatever sphere or aspect of the deen we are focusing on in our own work as the basis or even as the sum total of the whole deen. This is quite unacceptable. Our actual aim should be to win the pleasure of God and to serve the cause of the faith, irrespective of whichever sphere of the faith we may be practically associated with or involved in. A person who is engaged in the field of reform by being active in Islamic politics is to be appreciated just as someone who is engaged in similar reform in the field of education or economic development. This is to say that all spheres of the deen are important and we should not privilege those engaged in one particular sphere and look down on the others. People engaged in the task of reform for the sake of Islam in different spheres of the deen must seek to work together in a spirit of positive appreciation. They must also desist from conflicts based on minor issues or on the feeling that their position alone is right and that of the others wrong. It is indeed very lamentable that many of us have made our jurisprudential and theological differences and formations to be separate deens, and consider our own partial and sectarian-oriented work to be service of the deen. This has, quite naturally, conduced to strife, conflict and mounting divisions among Muslims.
It is in this context that the need for a new Islamic movement becomes particularly pressing today. This movement would need to fill the vacuum that remains unaddressed by the other such movements and undertake new and very crucial tasks. This movement’s work of reform shall focus on individuals, because, after all, individuals are the building-blocks of a social edifice and the basis of any social change. This would be in contrast to the approach of numerous religio-political movements in Pakistan, such as the Jamaat-e Islami, whose focus is not on the reform of individuals, but, rather, capture of political power and the state apparatus, which they term as ‘Islamic Revolution’. In contrast to them, the Tablighi Jamaat does focus on individuals, but the reform that it seeks to promote is not balanced or wide enough as would facilitate the required social change. For their part, the focus of madrasas and masjids remains on promoting sectarianism, while the task of ‘purification’ has been monopolized, by and large, by hereditary gaddi nashins, custodians of Sufi shrines, who have made this their business. Then, religious education and training have also become lucrative businesses for religious activists. It is in this context that we need a new Islamic reformist movement to facilitate the balanced construction of human personality of individuals.
If the new movement that we plead for focuses on the Islamic reform of individuals, a process that would produce the ideal sort of Islamic personality based on appropriate education and wisdom, it is natural that this would lead to the reform of the society. By social reform we mean not just that more people will start saying their prayers and keeping their fasts, but, rather, the birth of a truly Islamic social system. Today, because of the restricted understanding of the deen that we continue to entertain, people who are considered conventionally as religious are cut off from the wider society, from the wider civil society, and this is one of the major causes for their failure. The new Islamic movement that I plead for would engage in mobilizing civil society, for which it is necessary that activists of the movement must regard the problems faced by civil society to be their own and should struggle to solve them. In the past this is precisely the sort of tasks that Muslim leaders and guides were engaged in. They were inspired by love for God and for God’s creatures, and so social service was an integral part of their mission. We need to revive this tradition today. We also need to resist the growing tendency towards materialism and irreligion, a task that the new movement will pursue through non-political reformist effort.
Religio-political movements, as in Pakistan, are so engaged in their political work that they have no time for any other sort of activity. They regard capture of power as the only secret to success that can solve all the problems of society. Owing to this warped approach, they leave all other social affairs and works to be undertaken by the government. Likewise, religious groups engaged in dawah and islah or reform, like the madrasas and the Tablighi Jamaat, are, practically, cut off from the burning social problems and are not concerned with providing solutions to them. For instance, if people in a locality do not say their prayers these groups think this is an ‘Islamic problem’, but if a man in the locality commits suicide out of hunger these groups don’t consider this their headache, although, in actual fact, if problems like this, too, are solved in the light of the teachings of the deen, more than half the laws of the shariah can, in this way, be enforced. However, our religio-political leaders leave this work entirely to the government to handle, and absolve themselves of their responsibility in this regard, although there is a lot that can, and should be done without the help of the government. For example, most educational institutions are now in the private sector, so why cannot our Islamic reformers enter the field of educational provision by providing appropriate, Islam-oriented education? Why cannot they open institutes for training judges and lawyers in Islamic law? Why cannot they engage in activism and relief to prevent people from committing suicide out of poverty? Why cannot they initiate projects and other efforts to save people from the immoral impact of the mass media by providing them with an alternate, Islamic media? If, today, there are no religious forces engaged in these sorts of activities, it is all the more necessary to have a new religious movement that can, among other things, take up such issues.
As a result of the failure of religio-political groups and of the inactivity of apolitical religious forces, some religious elements have taken to arms demanding the imposition of the shariah, which has created a climate of strife and conflict across Pakistan. If our non-political religious elements get engaged on particular issues and engage in result-oriented activism then there will be no need for the elements who are now demanding the imposition of the shariah by taking to arms. The new religious movement is necessary for prodding civil society and religious elements to engage in this struggle.
I admit that the deen is a comprehensive whole, which includes politics and other spheres. That is why, from the point of view of the shariah, it does not make sense to distinguish between political and non-political religious activism. But we bring this distinction into our discussion from the administrative, and not the shariah, point of view, because the fact is that political activism for anyone is nothing less than a full-time job. A person who is engaged in political activism for the sake of Islam finds it difficult to spare time for dawah, islah and other such religious tasks, and vice versa. The solution to this pressing dilemma is to affirm our faith in the wholeness and comprehensiveness of the deen but, at the same time, for each of us to focus our efforts for reform in one or the other aspect of the deen. We must, accordingly, recognize our own work as limited and partial and respect the efforts of those engaged in reform-related efforts in other spheres of the deen.
Some people argue that the new religious movement that is needed must engage in protest and resistance. My opinion is that while through protest and resistance some problems can be solved, some forms of oppression ended, and some rights won, this method creates the psychology of reaction, not the foundation and motivation to walk in the path of virtue. For that to happen, the most appropriate path is that of reform, which can transform people’s hearts and minds. This is how the oppressive Tatar rule was ended with the conversion of the Tatars to Islam, how Indonesia became home to the world’s largest Muslim population, and how Islam spread across South Asia. This happened by using not violent agitation but peaceful and non-violent persuasion and social reform as a vehicle. Today, I firmly believe, the path of character-building and peaceful social change and reform, rather than agitation, is both more blessed as well as more practicable. There are hardly any groups working in this direction, and the new movement that we need for will fulfill that role.
(This is a modified, slightly edited translation of an essay by the author titled Mujawiza Nai Dini Tahrik: Nauviyat aur Hikmat-e Amali Ki Bahas, which appeared in the August 2010 issue of the Gujranwala-based Urdu journal Al-Shariah).