In May, Lebanon marked the anniversary of the Hizbullah’s successful expulsion of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon in 2000. For Muslims around the world, the Hizbullah success was a triumph for the courage and steadfastness of its members in the field of battle and in the far more complicated arena of Lebanese politics. But the Hizbullah deserve, in fact, to be celebrated for far more than just military and political achievements, for they, like the Islamic movement in Iran that achieved the Islamic Revolution there, are an Islamic movement in the fullest sense of the word.
By that I mean that they embody and reflect every aspect of Islam and what it is to be Muslim. Today we have numerous Islamic movements whose understanding of what Islam is is limited to one or more particular elements of Islam. Just as we have groups that are entirely apolitical, and regard tasawwuf or other forms of personal religiosity as the true essence of Islam, ignoring all else, we also have Islamic movements who regard politics or law as the true essence of Islam, to the exclusion of everything else. Thus we have “khilafatist” groups for whom the use of the word “khalifah” is a panacea for all society’s problems and ills, and groups that are entirely nomocratic in outlook, regarding the Shari’ah as the be all and end all of Muslim societies. We have often spoken in Crescent of “jihadist” groups, who regard militant jihad as all that is required in the contemporary Islamic movement, with anything and everything else being irrelevant distractions. No such group can offer answers to the full range of problems facing modern Muslim societies; indeed, all would probably create more problems by their limitations than they would solve by their restricted verions of Islam. The Taliban are a case in point: being entirely committed to military jihad and a very limited understanding of Islamic society, albeit one deeply rooted in Afghan traditions, they failed to recognise many of the problems Afghanistan faced after the years of Soviet rule and constant warfare, let alone address them.
The movement led by Imam Khomeini, and the Hizbullah, deeply influenced by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, have a far broader understanding of Islam. Both understand that the norms and values of Islam cannot be fully realised without the power of the state; but both understand also that that power is there for a purpose, not for its own sake. Both also understand that Islam offers far more than a rigid, inflexible and monolithic power structure, and that its intellectual roots, its spiritual possibilities and its jurisprudential and legal frameworks must be knitted together to form a holistic framework for the betterment of society as a whole and everyone in it. Both also understand that social change is a process, not an event, that must be given time to unfold, and must inevitably proceed through a process of trial-and-error, on the basis of experience, rather than by the robotic implementation of some theological or theoretical understanding of what constitutes an Islamic state and society.
The limitations of many Islamic movements’ understanding in these areas are often the result of historical reasons; for example the de facto separation of religion and politics when khilafah was converted to malukiyyah in the early decades of Islam, and the later constraints of operating under colonial rule .
But they are often also responses to the current situation in which Muslims find themselves, living in a world dominated by an aggressive Western civilization that claims to represent universal values, but is incredibly brutal and ruthless when dealing with those who resist its hegemony. Muslims react to this historical reality in different ways; some accept the position traditionally taken by the Christian churches, that politics is evidently too dirty a field for good men and must be left to those without moral constraints; others find themselves increasingly adopting Western methods and mindsets in their attempts to resist them. The phenomenon of conquered peoples adopting the ways of their conquerors to fight back is well-established.
One of the remarkable things about Imam Khomeini, however, was that he emerged from an environment in which his personality was shaped largely by Islamic and other traditional elements, without being exposed to Western ideas, institutions and hegemony, until he had to deal with its harsh realities in confronting the Shah. This insulation from Western influences probably explains the clarity and balance of his thinking to a considerable extent; for all too many Muslims, the proximity and strength of Western power and influence distorts their worldviews and understandings, a magnet can distort the results of scientific experiments. It may be that one of the things we need to learn, in order to understand our historical situation, the challenges facing us and the path ahead, is to envisage and conceptualise the Islamic movement without constantly relating it to the West and to the West-dominated world as it currently exists.