The Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) held the latest of its International Seerah conferences in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from October 5-6. The conference was the latest part of the ICIT’s Seerah project, based on the pioneering approach proposed by the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui before his death in 1996. (The Seerah: A Power Perspective, by Dr Kalim Siddiqui, ICIT, 1998; also available on the ICIT-Digital website, https://www.icit-digital.org/).
Dr Siddiqui pointed out that, while all Muslims feel deep reverence for Allah’s last and final Messenger to all mankind, described in the Qur’an as the best of exemplars (33:21), the Seerah’s power perspective is largely ignored in much of the discourse on the Messenger’s life.
The Colombo conference, on the theme ‘The Seerah: A Power Perspective’, was the second of the ICIT’s Seerah conferences to be held in Sri Lanka (the first was in June 2000), and was graced by a number of scholars from all over the world, presenting papers on various aspects of the Seerah. Preceding the formal inauguration of the conference, jum’ah khutbas were delivered by Imam Abdul Alim Musa, Zafar Bangash and Imam al-Asi in different mosques attended by thousands of Muslims. The occasion coincided with the anniversary of the great events of Isra’ and Mi’raj, but the purpose of the conference was to broaden the outlook of Muslims about the Seerah. True, Isra’ and Mi’raj are important landmarks in the Seerah, but instead of only describing the events it is important to consider the circumstances leading to them, especially the 12-year struggle of the Prophet (saw), in which he and his companions faced immense opposition and oppression.
In his keynote address, Zafar Bangash, the director of ICIT, discussed the Prophet’s acquisition of power. The title of his speech was ‘Power: the neglected dimension of the Seerah’; in it he pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, the Prophet was not totally powerless in Makkah, but the nature of his power must be understood. He drew a distinction between the Prophet’s “soft power” in Makkah and his acquisition of “hard power” in Madinah, which, underpinned by the soft power of his divinely-sanctioned message, led to dramatic results. In his 13 years in Makkah only a few hundred out of about 5,000 people accepted Islam; in ten years in Madinah the number of Muslims grew to more than 100,000 when the Prophet performed the farewell pilgrimage in the tenth year of the Hijrah. This extraordinary growth was the direct result of the hard power – political power and authority – acquired by the Prophet in Madinah, reinforced by the soft power of his message.
Other speakers built on this theme and presented interesting perspectives. Dr Salleh Koya Kuti, a management consultant from Malaysia, and Imam Abdul Alim Musa of Washington DC addressed the issue of the Prophet’s leadership, while Haroon Kalla of South Africa highlighted the business dimensions of the Seerah. In a lively and engaging style he shed light on contemporary business practices, comparing them with the principles established by the Prophet. An important point brought out by Haroon Kalla was that there is no “manipulation zone” in the Seerah. Lessons from the Seerah for contemporary leaders were brought out in a fascinating way, highlighting such concepts as processes, methods, behaviour, assumptions, choices, values, and the results thus achieved by the Prophet (saw). Imam Musa then addressed the Prophet’s management style, in which optimism formed the core of his approach. Even in the most difficult circumstances the Prophet never lost hope, and when he gained power and authority he was assertive but never aggressive; he was decisive yet at the same time sought advice and listened to it.
Dr Pervez Shafi, ICIT director in Pakistan, sought guidance from the Seerah on system change, and found that he rejected co-optation in the existing jahili systems, working instead for total change, being clear both about his objectives and the means. Zaibunnisa Kamran, a young sister from Pakistan, examined the nature and philosophy of the Prophet’s negotiating style and treaties. She reviewed two documents in particular: the Mithaq (covenant) of Madinah and the Treaty of Hudaibiyya, drawing interesting lessons from them. Another sister, Ghada Ramahi, originally from Palestine, looked at the divide between the ulama and technocrats in the Muslim world and the adverse consequences of this. She then contrasted invasive modern medical practiceswith the holistic approach of the Prophet (saw). She urged a return to the Prophetic approach to medical problems, in order to heal the entire person and not merely symptoms.
Imam Mohammed al-Asi compared the Prophet’s approach with today’s politics and said that while the Prophet was intimately involved in every aspect of the decision-making process, today members of the Islamic movement are not. Muslims can be found in medicine, engineering and information technology, but are absent from decision-making. He traced this to the disconnection between the Prophet’s Seerah and today’s political environment. The absence of a realisation that the Prophet had to confront the mushriks of Madinah and the Yahudi power structure in Madinah and Khaybar, making critical choices, has affected Muslim thinking badly. While the mushriks and Jews of the Prophet’s time were denied the cloak of religion, today’s mushriks and Yahuds are able to hide behind this cloak because Muslims have ritualised Islam to such an extent that they are unable to understand reality. Placing the Saudi regime in the mushrikcamp, Imam al-Asi said that if Muslims want to be faithful to the Seerah they must concentrate on liberating Makkah before heading for al-Quds.
The conference ended with a panel discussion on the Seerah, in which Sri Lankan Muslims played a full part. Hamza Haniffa, the conference’s local organizer, said after the community’s connections with the ICIT, and the local distribution of Crescent International, the ICIT’s bi-weekly international newsmagazine, were contributing significantly to Sri Lankan Muslims’ awareness of their place and role as part of the global Muslim Ummah. ICIT director Zafar Bangash, speaking to local Muslim youth after the conference, emphasised that the lessons of the Seerah were as relevant to their day-to-day lives as Muslims in Sri Lanka as to issues of global politics. The partnership between the ICIT and the Sri Lankan Muslim community is a source of strength and new hope for both, alhumdulillah.