In Part 1 of his article on the acquisition of political power, Dr. Perwez Shafi examines the peculiar evolution of Sunni political thought and its crippling impact on the contemporary Islamic movement.
There are various aspects of Muslim awakening and changes that cannot be explained easily, logically and rationally. Observing the awakenings and changes, some uncomfortable questions arise:
Answers to these questions are contained in the worldview especially in political thought spread over the entire history of Islam. If Muslims have intellectual clarity about their worldview — their objectives and the means to achieve them — which is consistent and free of contradictions then one can answer all of the above questions. However, that is not the case. Lack of clarity shows ideological confusion that prevents Muslims from identifying their real enemy, forcing them to compromise at every turn on objectives and means, and still resigned to the fact that no meaningful change can occur without the consent of the West. Unfortunately this state of affairs regarding lack of clarity in worldview can be observed in Tunisia, Libya,Yemen, Egypt, the Gulf sheikdoms and now in Syria.
If one takes a holistic and systemic approach to Muslim political thought and particularly Sunni political thought we discover where the problem lies. This writer and the Crescent International magazine have consistently stayed above sectarian considerations but if the problem lies in the ideology of a particular sect then simply ignoring or condemning it is not enough. Any attempt at Muslim unity will not be successful unless the problem is identified at the root of the particular sectarian ideology. This requires moral courage, intellectual honesty and awakening to deal with Sunni political thought — as the majority in the Muslim world adheres to it — that is a source of political confusion and contradiction in ideas and practices, hence a taboo subject even among revolutionaries.
The above conclusion was drawn from the historical evolution of Sunni political thought, which can be divided into two phases. In the first phase up to the advent and domination of Western colonialism in the Muslim world by about the 17th century, Sunni political thought and worldview were stuck in tribalism, jealousy and competition to acquire political power; and authoritarianism. The pristine principles of Islam, which would have eliminated these vices, were never allowed to be practiced from the beginning.
The change in the direction of Islam took place soon after the death of our beloved Prophet (pbuh). A number of mushrik leaders were killed in various battles waged against the Prophet (pbuh) and his Companions. However, Abu Sufiyan survived till the liberation of Makkah and to save his skin he and his family reluctantly became Muslims. The Prophet’s (pbuh) attitude toward his enemies after they became Muslims was always cordial and kind. But in Abu Sufiyan’s case, the Prophet (pbuh) would turn his face away whenever he appeared and did not maintain close relations with him due to his severe opposition to Islam. Soon after the passing of the Prophet (pbuh) to heavenly company, Abu Sufiyan’s family and children acquired important positions in the Islamic State through nepotism and started consolidating their new found power. Thus, what Abu Sufiyan failed to achieve in direct confrontation with the Prophet (pbuh) he was able to achieve from within the Islamic fold.
Abu Sufiyan’s children and grandchildren twisted key Islamic teachings in politics and governance of the Islamic State which enabled them to concentrate more power and somehow to acquire legitimacy. Through deceit, intrigue and open warfare, Mu‘awiyah became the absolute ruler of the Islamic State. He acquired the title of “Scribe of the Revelation” when in fact he never benefitted from the Prophet’s (pbuh) company for a single day. Within a year of the liberation of Makkah, the final wahy completed the message of Islam, followed by the death of the Prophet (pbuh). By distorting the teachings of Islam, Abu Sufyan sought to achieve two objectives — legitimacy for himself by generating fake hadiths and suppressing original ones, bestowing on himself and his cronies Islamic titles such as radiya allahu ‘anhu, changing the meaning of key Quranic ayat to suit his purpose, and deprived most of the Prophet’s (pbuh) dearest friends and families of their rightful and legitimate position. Those that opposed him were persecuted. Thus illegitimacy, instinctive reliance on force to counter any argument against their illegitimacy and persecution became the norm and part and parcel of Sunni political thought since that time. Most of the Prophet’s (pbuh) beloved Sahabah were not only deprived of their right to propagate true Islamic teachings by exposing the distortions and deviations but when they insisted, they were banished to faraway lands, imprisoned, or poisoned leaving the field wide open to the power hungry clan of Abu Sufiyan to propagate their own imperial vision.
Instead of the Islamic State, hereditary rule became the defining feature of political structure and ideology. When political and governance issues became strictly off limits to the public, they were confined to performing religious rituals. The great emphasis on rituals, devoid of any exhilarating and liberating feeling and spirit, became the norm which has continued to this today. The Islamic rules of acquiring political power and maintaining it were never allowed to gain a foothold. Vices of tribalism, mutual jealousy, the quest to grab power, persecution and authoritarianism became entrenched in Sunni political ideas, structure and practice. As a result, the Sunni political system based on Banu Umayyah and Banu Abbas dynasties was never able to gain legitimacy. However, in the process they permanently eclipsed the true and egalitarian teachings of Islam in critical areas. In Islam the definition of politics was to acquire power in a legitimate manner as prescribed by the Qur’an and the Sunnah (that is, masses select one for responsibility based on taqwa rather than anyone proposing or imposing himself and acquiring power by brute force or guile). The exercise of power was related to the maintenance of social justice, through a framework of collective decision-making to serve humanity. Thus, acquiring power by illegitimate or immoral means and spending immense financial resources are strictly forbidden. In short, Islam was reduced to rituals and practiced in an individual capacity. These unhealthy and illegitimate developments changed the direction of Islam permanently while its just, universal and egalitarian spirit was extinguished.
Illegitimacy separated the interests, norm, values and belief system of the masses from power-hungry elites. For instance, military training has not been part of any Sunni society precisely because the elites’ illegitimacy leads them to distrust the masses. Thus illegitimacy, persecution and authoritarianism became the hallmark of Sunni political thought and structures. As a result, promotion of a new imperialistic version of religion in the name of Islam became the norm, which was maintained by coercion and persecution. In this version, Islam was deliberately reduced to a religion where rituals, devoid of spirit, gained paramount importance while their connection to the overall Islamic system was cut off. Values like the rule of law and social justice were abandoned from the early days. This version of Islam, mired in oppression, which Muslims follow without thinking or reflection even today is the basic reason why Muslims are unable to distinguish between friend and foe or between rightful, pious and legitimate leaders of a Muslim society and power-hungry opportunists; or how to legitimately acquire and exercise political power for the benefit of the masses.
…creativity was channeled into non-political and non-theological areas like art, architecture… [and] explosion in scientific study and research methodologies...
The door to intellectual pursuit, the right of pious and legitimate imams to lead the nascent Islamic society, and the door to ijtihad gradually became closed as imams, ‘ulama, scholars and the Muslim masses that supported them were persecuted. For this reason creativity was channeled into non-political and non-theological areas like art, architecture, improvement in warfare techniques and equipment, explosion in scientific study and research methodologies, study of Greek and Roman ideas of rationalism, etc. To be sure, these intellectual developments were because of Islam, not due to Sunni political structures and systems or guidance, or funding and encouragement from Sunni governments represented by hereditary authoritarianism.
It is not necessary to resolve all theological issues of early Muslim history to present as evidence in support of what has been said above. Rather decline and decay of Muslim civilization as recorded by Muslim and non-Muslim historians and scholars itself is a debilitating empirical evidence of illegitimacy and authoritarianism. Whether one agrees and accepts historical facts or rejects them, their effect has been devastating for the Muslim world. No one can deny the divisions, infighting, decline, decay and disintegration resulting in domination by others that had been going on for centuries up until the advent of Western colonialism. It was the great Islamic and political scholar Dr. Kalim Siddiqui who guided this writer during his dissertation to look first for decline and decay of Muslim civilization as evidence of distorted and dysfunctional Sunni political thought.
Most of the muttaqi imams and ‘ulama with deep knowledge of Islam and capable of leading the society were brutally suppressed; others were bought or coerced to join authoritarian courts and governments and granted vast perks and benefits. The few that chose to challenge illegitimate rulers were poisoned or murdered as a warning to others. Some went into the countryside or faraway places to quietly spread and preach Islamic knowledge, emphasizing Sufism albeit without addressing burning political issues. Islam spread to Central Asia and the Indo-Pakisan subcontinent through these ‘ulama or Sufis and not by secular kings or warriors. Strong evidence of this is found in the desolate and barren mausoleums of famous and powerful kings and warriors of Muslim history where only stray dogs roam while ordinary people, millions of them, throng the mausoleums of the ‘ulama and Sufi saints.
But in general they abandoned politics and implicitly accepted bifurcation: let the kings and warriors rule while they concentrated on preaching Islam and providing healing to the suffering masses through spirituality. While these depoliticized ‘ulama and Sufis provided great service to humanity in their individual capacity, they were no match against the organized power, logistics and resources of the state. Muttaqi leaders were there but they were not able to function as leaders of state. With time, persecution and bifurcation, the quality and number of muttaqi leaders also declined. And hence, this depleted Islamic society could not provide an effective Islamic or practical response to the onslaught of Europeans with superior scientific knowledge, better organizational and mobilizing capacity, and a spirit filled with adventurism, curiosity, greed and seeking domination of others.