By Asghar Ali Engineer
(Islam and Modern Age, October 2010)
For last fourteen hundred years we have heard a slogan one Allah, one Prophet and one Qur’an and so all Muslims should unite and constitute one ummah. Also, interestingly enough our ulama narrate a hadith from Prophet (PBUH) that “my ummah will be divided into 72 sects and only one of them will be naji i.e. will achieve liberation and others will be doomed”. Thus we ourselves contradict ourselves. On one hand, we desire unity and then go on dividing the ummah in 72 sects conflicting with each other.
And fact is that Baghdadi by the end of second century hijrah wrote a book AlFarq Bayn al-Firaq (Difference between Different Sects) and gives more description of more than 100 sects among Muslims by that time. In fact we should understand that emotional slogans will never bring unity and more we raise such slogans, more we will stand divided. In fact differences among Muslims–political, social, economic and cultural began among Muslims not too long after the death of the Prophet (PBUH).
The conquests, if anything, made situation much more complex bringing in more power wealth and foreign influences which sharpened divisions though it took some time for sects to formalize and differences assume theological structure. In order to understand and analyze these differences, we have to go much beyond theology and try to understand much deeper causes.
First of all we must understand that the message of Islam brought about a fundamental change in the then Arab society of much deeper nature than we realize. It completely changed religious, moral, social and political structures and the Arab society could never be the same again. Yet the change was so rapid that Arabs could hardly absorb it. What was more tragic that the Prophet (PBUH) also departed from the scene who was a supreme guide who was listened to reverentially by all Muslims?
Muslims for various reasons turned outward rather than inward to consolidate the gains of deeper Islamic revolution which could have been more beneficial to the nascent Muslim society. The most fundamental message of the Qur’an was moral and to bring in equality and justice in the society. The Qur’an repeatedly emphasizes importance of ‘amal salih along with iman (faith or belief in Allah, His prophets and the Prophet, day of judgment and accountability
Secondly the Qur’an gave a new vision of a just and egalitarian society with due emphasis on human dignity and freedom of conscience. It also found a new middle path in which both ummah and individual was important with freedom of conscience which until then was unknown in the Arab society. The Arabs were highly tradition bound and deeply immersed in their respective tribal cultures.
Islam tried to usher in new culture which was deeply humane and universal rather than tribal. But it was not easy to liberate oneself from pre-Islamic traditions which Muslims themselves called culture of jahiliyyah i.e. culture of period of ignorance. Yet its influence was so deep that mere acceptance of Islam could not bring in deep transformation which was in need for total social transformation.
The Qur’an had given Arabic language a new diction both moral and literary at which great Arab creative poets and others wondered and found themselves unable to match. But this diction was not only full of creative beauty but also morally high as the Qur’anic vision was to create a new society and a new human being literally what Qur’an calls mu’min a man of faith working for new vision as Iqbal put it mu’min hai to naya jahan paida karr (if you are a man of faith create new world and don’t live in the old world).
This new human being of faith not only would have accepted all the Qur’anic values of unity, human dignity, freedom of conscience, diversity, truth, compassion, equality, justice and great courage. But except a few companions of the Prophet (PBUH) there was no one dedicated himself or herself to cultivate this new culture and sustain this new Islamic vision.
What were worse the conquests further damaged this process as new alien values, mostly feudal and authoritarian in nature further damaged the whole process. Now emphasis was more on share state power and newly acquired wealth and splendour than fulfill the Qur’anic moral vision. The process of coming into being view visionary society received serious setback. The Islamic society began to be polarized between those who were engaged in worldly pursuits and squabbling for power and those who engaged themselves in only matters spiritual and almost reduced themselves as recluses.
One more setback came with coming into existence the Umayyad Empire which was highly repressive in nature and authoritarian and build more on the Roman model than inspired by Islamic values and vision. The Umayyads, deeply immersed as they were, in pre-Islamic jahiliyyah culture and tried to revive pre -Islamic culture with emphasis on its poetry. Kitab al-Ghina was written based on pre-Islamic jahiliyyah poetry and became immensely popular.
This jahilliyah culture’s foundational values were simply worldly pleasure completely devoid of high moral values. One can argue well what was wrong with it, after all it was rich Arab heritage and its revival after all was a legitimate act. This argument has of course some validity. After all a powerful Arab empire had come into existence and it needed its own national cultural heritage to be proud of and to trace its own national and tribal roots.
But as far as our present concern of Islamic society we are looking at it from altogether another perspective. What was tragic in this revival was revival of pre-Islamic culture only strengthened tendency to seek pleasure and power and enjoy life irrespective of what kind of society Islam wanted to build up. Secondly, and more damaging was that now this pre-Islamic language and diction became fashionable and even Qur’anic words and their meanings were sought to be understood in the light of how they were used in pre-Islamic poetry.
In fact Qur’an had created a new language rich in its own meaning. Its diction was moral and revolutionary to infuse new values in building a new society and the Qur’an used that new diction for this purpose. Now tragically pre-Islamic poetry became the basis of understanding Qur’an and its meaning. I think it was a great calamity that pre-Islamic poetry constituted the very basis of understanding Qur’an’s meaning. To some extent it was perhaps inevitable but without being conscious of its consequences it cause serious damage to the vision Qur’an was aiming at.
Third thing was the nature of theological debates which began to rage among theologians when the very moral foundation of Islamic revolution began to be weakened. Theological debates whether human being is free agent or divinely determined became supreme in which the ruling class had very high stakes. If human person is divinely determined then Umayyad regime is also divines willed and its oppressive and exploitative base cannot be challenged. After all it is divinely willed.
As we have pointed out Qur’an lays emphasis on freedom of conscience as much as even Shaytan was granted freedom and allowed to choose not to bow before Adam. Now human person was sought to be seen as mere toy destined to act as per divine will. Theologians were polarized according to their political inclinations. Those who did not want to challenge Umayyad power sought refuge in this theological formulation and refrained from political activism and some even sought to benefit from being part of ruling classes.
This is not to say that there were no ulama of great courage and moral integrity who refused to become part of ruling structure and engaged themselves in cultivating and promoting Islamic values and vision. But such were very few and far in between.
Fourthly, the Abbasids, in order to challenge Umayyad power launched an underground movement with the help of Iranian discontents who were feeling marginalised with Arab supremacy in the political as well as cultural areas. They had embraced Islam but never became part of political and cultural processes. The Persians readily agreed to support the Abbasids who promised them substantial part in the political process and Abu Muslim Khorasani organized military and mass support in favour of Abbasids.
The Persians had their own proud cultural and political heritage and they looked upon Arabs with sheer contempt as uncouth and uncultured Bedouins. As soon as Abbasids captured power and Umayyads dethroned, many Persian wives slaughtered their Arab husbands. But this was not to last longer. The Abbasids were after all Arabs and they did not want to share political power, at least substantial part with non-Arabs.
Thus first thing they did was to get rid of Abu Muslim Khorasani who had meticulously built political basis of Abbasid power. But they were shrewd enough to reward Persians for their support in some other way. Many Persian intellectuals were appointed on key bureaucratic posts to give them sense of participation. Though not politically but they became dominant in intellectual and cultural fields.
This also had its own social and moral consequences. Great social and intellectual changes began take place in very approach to Islam. The Mu’tazila movement acquired a new vitality under the Abbasid patronage and controversies like whether the Qur’an is created or uncreated broke out and Muslims were divided never before on such intellectual issues. If the Umayyads encouraged controversy about human determination, Abbasid encouraged the controversy about created-ness or uncreated-ness of Qur’an.
Both controversies, may or may not have philosophical and intellectual importance but helped divert attention from basic political social and economic issues. The theologians debated these issues and were polarized. Also, the Abbasids patronized translations of Greek books on philosophy into Arabic as well as from Persian and Indian sources and Biat al-Hikmah (the House of Wisdom) became centre of great intellectual ferment and enlightenment and Arabs began to lead in science, mathematics and technology and several other sciences.
It was indeed a great intellectual contribution to the world by Arab and non-Arab Muslim thinkers, philosophers and intellectuals, mostly Persians. By all means it was unparalleled intellectual ferment. But it also resulted in further division in the ummah and new sects were born, especially Ismai’lis and Qaramia, also known as batinis i.e. those who believed in interpreting the Qur’an with hidden meaning which were real meanings and the zahiri apparent meanings were meant only for masses, not for initiated.
The Isma’ilis were further subdivided in several sects and sub-sects. The Qaramitas, a sub-sect of Ismailis, were on the other extreme and believed in suspending practicing zahiri shari’ah as those who followed hidden meaning of Qur’an (also called ta’wil), need not indulge in shari’ah practices. Also, Qaramita’s whole emphasis was on communistic living under a da’is command.
All the members of the sect contributed all their earnings to the da’i who ran common kitchen. Private possession was allowed only in arms like swords and bows etc. The Qaramitas succeeded in establishing their state in Bahrain for thirty years. Nasir Khusrro whose Safarnameh, critical edition edited and published by Zakir Husain in
Germany, has given detailed account of Qaramita’s state in Bahrain and has refuted unfair charges against them like possessing common wives etc. It is interesting to note that some scholars maintain that Mansoor Hallaj who was put to death by Abbasids, also belonged to Qaramita movement and was put to death not really for his slogan of ana’l haq but for conspiring, along with Qaramita, to overthrow Abbasid regime.
Qaramita also became rivals of Fatimids in Egypt and Tahir Qarmati established his regime in Syria when he took away Hajar al-Aswad from Ka’aba and kept it in his possession for thirty years and the Fatimids had to persuade him with great difficulty to release it and they (Fatimids) restored it to Ka’ba and thus relieved the whole Islamic world of great anxiety.
Also, there was sharp polarization in the Sunni Islam. As a reaction to new intellectual trends due to transfer of philosophical treasures of the world to Baghdad which then established itself as greatest intellectual and philosophical centre of the world, brought about sharp reaction to intellectual trends among mainstream theologians. They used the weapon of philosophy and developed what came to be termed as ilma al-kalam i.e. dialectical knowledge.
They began to refute all claims of philosophers through ilm al-kalam. The famous debate between al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd is well-known. Al-Ghazali wrote his tract Tahafut al-Falasifa (Bewilderment of Philosophers) to which Ibn Rushd replied by counter-tract Tahafut Tahaful al-Falasifa (Bewilderment of Bewilderment of Philosophers). Ash’ari, another theologian took extreme positions on all theological issues and naturally as against philosophers who had limited following among the intellectual elite, theologians like Ash’ari found mass following and established themselves as great theological leaders.
Ghazali himself wrote classic work Ihya’ al-Uloom (Revivification of Knowledge to revive traditional theology). It became a classical ash’arite theological work in Islamic world and is referred to by all traditional scholars. Some scholars maintain that it was after al-Ghazali’s work that all gates of ijtihad were closed in the Islamic world. But this seems to be oversimplified position. There are very complex causes for this. Fall of Baghdad, end of central Abbasid regime what the great historian Toynbee calls universal
Islamic state and development of weak regional states are some among them.
What is to be noted here is that this polarization could have been avoided with some caution to avoid division in Islamic world. The traditional theologians and ulama reacted too sharply to the intellectual and philosophical movement; some philosophers too, on the other hand, went to extremes. And Qaramita, as already discussed, even suspended shari’ah causing alarm among all.
A section of Isma’ilis who later established Fatimid regime first in Western Africa and later in Egypt exercised due caution in creating balance between what was zahiri and batini but their political rivalry with the Abbasids proved no less divisive on theological front too. Unfair accusations were made against them by mainstream theologians. In fact it was Fatimids who persuaded Qaramitas to return hajar al-Aswad back to Ka’ba.
There was another division too: the philosophers and intellectuals tried to grasp truth through intellectual efforts while the Sufis laid stress only on spiritual aspects and experiences. In this the Qur’anic middle path was lost. Qur’an had evolved a unique approach which was very comprehensive. It was approach based on all important components of life – spiritual, intellectual, moral and material.
It invited believers to live in this world, contribute to its material prosperity, reflect deeply on Allah’s creation, enrich spiritual relations with its creator so as never to become arrogant of ones material achievements, to maintain high moral standards to keep order and balance in the world and to constantly learn lessons from the past how people suffered because of their misdeeds. The Qur’anic language was a new contribution of all these aspects.
However, theological debates and efforts to understand Qur’an in the light of pre-Islamic Arabic diction destroyed much of this uniqueness. What was worse many commentators of the Qur’an not only depended on this pre-Islamic usages of Arabic words but also on myths and legends from Judaic and Christian sources which completely destroyed the Qur’anic spirit and Qur’anic commentaries became a mythological labyrinth.
Commentators like Imam Fakhruddin Razi tried to use Aristotelian deductive logic to write commentary on Qur’an. All this went on causing sterile theological debates. More such debates took place more theology became complex and beyond the reach of common Muslims. For jurists Qur’an was more a source of legal wrangling and sterile debates on various sterile issues like whether to raise hands or to do masah this way or that way and so on. Fiqh, instead of becoming a source of high morality became cause of division among Muslims on very petty and ridiculous issues.
Now we have reached a stage wherein sharp divisions have taken place among Muslims through out history. As explained these divisions were political, theological and intellectual and it is very challenging to undo these differences. The present political climate in the Muslim world is further sharpening these differences. That is why one ummah has become an empty slogan. What is worse every effort to unite results in further division.
The Arab worlds itself stand divided along their political interests and then there are Arab and non-Arab divisions. They do not get united even on major political challenges like those from Israel and United States of America. This reality should not be lost sight of. To evolve common strategies one has to be realistic and should not be swayed by any kind of rhetoric.
Muslims tend to be often emotional and more divisive forces work, more insecure they feel and more insecure they feel more emotionally they react. Attacks on Islam have multiplied like never before and it makes Muslims react more emotionally than strategically and intellectually. It requires great maturity and political shrewdness to respond these attacks. Our emotional reactions and street protests, and worse, terroristic and violent response benefits only our enemy and attacks on Islam further sharpen.
We may not be able to overcome our differences resulting in complete unity of ummah but certainly we can work out strategies to reacts un-emotionally and more intellectually so as to project a peaceful and dignified image of Islam. It will greatly enhance respect for Islam and Muslims in the world.
Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org