New Age Islam
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Islamic Society ( 25 Jun 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Social Transformation in Islam: Reform or Revolution?

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand/Noor Mohammad Sikand)

A crucial issue that needs careful deliberation and clarification is: What is the appropriate method for social transformation according to the principles and teachings of Islam and the model of the Prophet Muhammad? Contemporary Islamic movements display considerable confusion in this regard. They believe that Islam aims at the extermination of falsehood and that it can, in no way, tolerate it. They believe that tolerating falsehood or remaining silent on it is tantamount to betraying the Islamic mission. This is why many of these movements regard revolution as the most important and potent method of social transformation. Accordingly, revolution is at the top of their agenda, or so they claim.

However, it is a bitter truth, and one that activists involved in Islamic groups are themselves increasingly beginning to realize, that the policies and activities of ‘revolutionary’ or radical Islamist groups are, far from advancing the cause of Islam, actually undermining it by creating increasingly insurmountable hurdles in its path. Despite the efforts of radical or self-styled ‘revolutionary’ Islamist groups over the last 70 to 80 years, no such revolution has taken place in the Sunni world. On the contrary, in most cases the radical activities of such ‘revolutionary’ groups and movements have had precisely the opposite results, proving to be entirely counter-productive. A good example is that of the Ikhwan ul-Muslimun or ‘Muslim Brethren’ in Egypt, which participated in the downfall of the regime of King Faruq, only to be later brutally crushed by the regime of Jamaluddin Abdul Nasser, whom it helped to come to power. One can cite numerous more such instances from other parts of the world.

The Islamic ‘revolution’ in Iran was marked by the deep impact of Shia theology. With the help of the doctrine of the wilayat al-faqih or the ‘guardianship of the jurist’, which was developed by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian Shia ulema managed to acquire some sort of theocratic power. Due to major differences in outlook and theology between the Sunni and Shia understandings of Islam, this is not possible in the Sunni world. Nor, to my mind, is this in accordance with the basic principles of Islam. It is undoubtedly true that many Muslims in the Sunni world, particularly among the youth, were indeed inspired by the Iranian ‘revolution’. For its part, the new Iranian regime sought to export its ‘revolution’ to the Sunni world. However, nothing much actually came of this in practical terms, although this certainly emboldened Islamist groups while leading to heightened fears in the West over what was described as ‘the opening of the bottle containing the Islamic genie’, which was regarded as a threat to the West.

Coming to the question of whether or not revolution is the way prescribed in Islam for social transformation, it is crucial to understand what the term ‘revolution’ actually means. What, in reality, are the features of revolution? What are, or should be, its aims and objectives? Without clarifying these complex issues, one cannot discuss the appropriate method of social transformation in Islam.

The fact of the matter is that nowhere do the Quran and the Hadith use any word that connotes revolution. Nor do they advocate any concept of revolutionary transformation of society in the sense that contemporary Islamist movements understand it. The term ‘revolution’ as understood today connotes a struggle that aims fundamentally at the total transformation of the bases of governance and society. It suggests a complete and drastic change. The model for such change in modern times are the communist revolutions in countries such as Russia and China. Communism regards revolution as the means for social change. In contrast, and contrary to what radical or ‘revolutionary’ Islamist ideologues argue, the basis and means for social change in Islam is reform (islah), not revolution.

There are fundamental differences, indeed contradictions, between the reformist and revolutionary paths to social change. The principal objective of revolutionaries is to bring about change at the external level, particularly in the bases of political power, while reformists aim primarily at change at the internal level—in the inner consciousness and behaviour of individuals. While revolution stands for total and sudden change, reform stands for partial and gradual change or, at least, it does not oppose it. Reform is guided by concern and goodwill for others, while, typically, revolutions are fired by feelings of hatred or revenge.

The social change wrought by all the prophets, including the Prophet Muhammad, were instances of reform, rather than radicalism or revolution. Their reformist efforts aimed primarily at the transformation of the inner consciousness, beliefs and behaviour of individuals through education, moral instruction and purification. This is what the Quran regards as the aim behind God sending to humankind a long chain of prophets. As the Quran puts it, referring to the Prophet Muhammad:

‘Allah did confer a big favour on the believers when He sent among them a Messenger from among themselves, rehearsing unto them the signs of Allah, purifying them, and instructing them in scripture and wisdom, while, before that, they had been in manifest error’ (3:164).

The many prophets sent by God to guide humankind, the last of who was the Prophet Muhammad, did not make regime change or the capture of political power their aim. Rather, their primary focus was the reform of individuals, who, when suitably reformed, could form a society inspired to follow God’s teachings. Only then could a government that would rule according to the teachings of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have declared, ‘Those who rule over you will be just as you are’ (kama ta kununa kazalika yoammaru aleikum). In other words, people get the government or rulers they deserve, because the representatives of people emerge from and are chosen from among them. This clearly indicates that it is only through gradual and sustained reform at the level of individuals that society, and, then, the system of governance can be reformed. This is the natural system of bringing about social transformation.

Over the last 80-odd years, Islamist movements have never ceased from raising emotionally-driven slogans of what they call ‘Islamic Revolution’. Because they ignored the natural method of social transformation, the slogans raised by these movements remained precisely that—mere slogans that could not be actualized. Consequently, today many Muslims are growing weary of such clichéd slogans, and are losing faith in the claims of those who never tire of mouthing them.

In today’s world, political and radical or revolutionary interpretations of Islam are proving to be a major source of chaos, conflict and strife, or what the Quran terms fitna. The major ideologue of this politically-oriented version of Islam was an Indian (who later migrated to Pakistan), Maulana Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi, founder of the Islamist Jama‘at-e Islami. In his hugely influential, and, at the same time, enormously controversial book Islami Nizam-e Zindagi Aur Uske Buniyadi Tasavvurat (‘The Islamic Way of Life and its Basic Conceptions’), Maududi projected Islam as a revolutionary ideology and the Muslim ummah as a revolutionary party. On this basis, he called for Muslims to struggle for what he termed as ‘Islamic Revolution’ throughout the world. He considered all the prophets of God to have been revolutionary political leaders. If one were to take this obviously erroneous claim to be true, one would have to admit that, with a very few exceptions, none of the prophets were successful in their mission because they were not accepted as political leaders by their people, and nor were they able to establish Islamic political rule. Obviously, no sensible Muslim can believe that the prophets were failures and that they were unable to do what God had sent them to the world to accomplish.

To claim, as Maududi does, that Muslims are ‘not a band of preachers and missionaries, but, rather, a party of soldiers of God’ is to betray ignorance, and, indeed, transgression of, the basic truths of Islam. The major difference between the truly Islamic method of social transformation, as followed by the prophets, and the radical method of present-day politically-oriented Islamist movements is that the former is gradual and aims at reforms from below, from the individual to the social and then to the political plane, while the latter is radical and seeks to impose change in individuals and in the society from above, using political power for this purpose. The latter method is unnatural, unrealistic and impracticable, and inevitably results in strife and much bloodshed and destruction. That, indeed, is the fate of any movement that uses unnatural methods, no matter how noble its aims may be. It is also apparent that any revolution wrought by such means can never be long-lasting. Revolutions are generally sooner or later subverted, ironically often by those who played key roles in bringing them about in the first place.

All this clearly suggests that Islamic movements and groups that are engaged in, or so they claim, in ‘revolutionary’ action to capture power must seriously revisit their methods and their ideology. Such radicalism is proving, as the case of Pakistan today, for instance, so tragically shows, to be entirely counter-productive for Islam and its adherents. If at all any ‘revolution’ occurs as a result of the activities of these ‘revolutionary’ self-styled Islamist groups, the true lovers of Islam will, one can be sure, desperately seek safety from it and from ‘political Islam’, an obvious parody of authentic Islam, on which it would be based.

Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.