Muslim political thought seems to have drifted from the teachings of the Qur’an, and the Sunnah and Sirah of the noble Messenger of Allah (s). In Part I of this essay, Zafar Bangash, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Isla-mic Thought, places it back in the Sirah to enable the Islamic movement to transform wayward Muslim societies.
Every committed Muslim agrees that the Qur’an and the Prophet’s (s) Sunnah and Sirah must form the bases for all activities in life. The Qur’an is the eternal source of guidance revealed to the noble Messenger of Allah (s) who then demonstrated a practical example of its teachings in his own life. Thus the Qur’an and the Sunnah and Sirah form an integral part of a Muslim’s journey through life. While there is no disagreement on this at the theoretical level, at the level of implementation Muslims have a tendency to pursue secondary or even tertiary paths rather than remaining close to the primary sources of Islam: the Qur’an and the Sunnah and Sirah. Each group insists on the validity of its own interpretation as a framework for their work. Even this would be acceptable were it not for the fact that they also insist that theirs is the only valid understanding and every other interpretation or approach is either flawed or entirely wrong. Such thinking has caused much confusion in the Ummah and has led to endless arguments and numerous unpleasant developments.
It is, therefore, imperative to review the Prophetic Sunnah and Sirah carefully in light of the teachings of the Qur’an to determine how the noble Messenger of Allah (s) transformed the jahili society of Arabia in the short period of 23 years into the Islamic State, turning the savage people of the Peninsula into the most-upright human beings on earth.
In the glorious Qur’an Allah (SWT) describes His noble Messenger (s) as the “best of exemplars” (33:21). His Sirah (life-history) and Sunnah (life-example) are guides for humanity till eternity because he embodied in his blessed life the teachings of the Qur’an. Even before receiving the first revelations confirming his mission as the last and final Messenger of Allah (s), he led a pure and clean life earning the title of al-Amin (the trustworthy one) from the tribal, wayward, and quarrelsome society of Makkah. He was soft-spoken, kind, and compassionate. Allah (SWT), in His Infinite Wisdom and Mercy, called his beloved Prophet (s) a “Mercy for all the worlds” (21:107). Allah (SWT) also commands those who have made a faith-commitment to Him to “Obey Allah and obey the Messenger” (4:59) in all matters. In fact, Allah (SWT) reminds His servants that if they truly love Allah (SWT), they should express it through loving and obeying the Messenger of Allah (s).
Almost all Muslims are aware of these lofty qualities of the noble Messenger (s). These are repeated in jumu‘ah khutbahs as well as in sermons on other occasions, especially in the month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal when the birthday of the noble Messenger of Allah (s) is celebrated with great joy and fervor. By approximating our behavior as closely as possible to that of the noble Messenger (s), Muslims hope to achieve nearness to and the pleasure of Allah (SWT).
Allah (SWT) says in the noble Qur’an that Prophet Muhammad (s) was sent with clear signs of guidance in order to bring those who commit themselves to Allah (SWT) —that is, make a faith-commitment — and do the associated deeds (that validate the commitment), out of darkness and into light (65:11). The great Muslim thinker, writer, and shaheed, Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), has said that any action or behavior that does not conform to the commands of Allah (SWT) is jahiliyyah (ignocracy); similarly, all actions and behavior that conform to Allah’s (SWT) prescribed path are good, wholesome and commendable. Thus, even the simple act of kindness to one’s family, friends, relatives, or total strangers becomes an act of ‘ibadah (worship) because it is pleasing to Allah (SWT).
Throughout history societies have experienced dramatic upheavals but no substantive change in the way people conduct their individual and communal activities under the authority of largely corrupt, self-serving, and undisciplined human masters. The one breakthrough in this degrading continuum of human subservience and bondage to other men was the one initiated and institutionalized by the noble Messenger of Allah (s); it was a comprehensive disengagement from the mushrik theater of national exclusivism, religious racism, and racist religion and all they stand for and occupy in the world. It was a totality for it encompassed the entire spectrum of human existence. Historically, most changes have resulted in one class of people replacing another; the French and communist revolutions were of this kind. Similarly, the balance of political and economic power merely shifted from one class to another, not materially deconstructing the injustices that led to a revolutionary “change” in the first place; the ordinary people’s social mobility and political identification with the ruling classes were seldom affected or enfranchised.
The noble Messenger (s) transformed both the individual and society but he neither promised wealth nor power to attract adherents to Allah’s (SWT) principled cause. He also did not instigate class warfare despite great disparities in wealth at the time. Nor did he launch a movement merely to rectify people’s morals even though the Arabian society was steeped in immorality and corruption. For 13 years in Makkah, he emphasized only one point: the Oneness of Allah (SWT). While it may appear to be a simple statement, in the mushrik society of Arabia, it signaled an ideological challenge that carried profound implications.
The Prophet (s) brought the entire Arabian Peninsula into the fold of Islam in the relatively short period of 23 years. From hopelessly divided warring tribes, he organized the people into an Islamic state that not only defeated the two superpowers of the time (Byzantium and Persian) but also went on to dominate the world for more than 1,000 years. What methods and processes did the Prophet (s) employ to bring about such profound change at the individual as well as collective (societal) levels? We need to address these questions by studying the Sirah from a new perspective. The Sirah must not be viewed merely as a series of unrelated events but as part of the divine mechanism to transform humanity by bringing it into conformity with Allah’s (SWT) laws.
We must reflect on the Prophet’s (s) Sirah in light of the Qur’anic description of his role in society,
Muhammad is not the father of any man among you; but he is the Messenger of Allah, and the Seal of all the Prophets (9:40).
This day have I perfected your deen for you, and completed My favor upon you and have endorsed for you Islam as your deen (5:3).
Say [O Prophet] to all mankind, “I am a messenger to all of you” (7:158).
You have indeed in the Messenger of Allah the most beautiful pattern of conduct for him whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day, and who engages much in the praise and conscientizing of Allah (33:21).
Whosoever obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah (4:80).
A messenger reciting unto you the revelation of Allah made plain, so that he may bring those who make a secure commitment to Allah and do validating deeds [of that commitment], out of darkness into light (65:11).
He [Allah] it is Who has sent the Messenger with clear guidance and the deen of Truth, so that it becomes evidently obvious [as a better way] over all other systems and beliefs, however much the mushriks may detest it (9:33).
These samples of ayaat from among many others in the noble Qur’an establish the centrality of the Prophet’s (s) role in reorganizing and guiding the affairs of man. In the first set of ayaat (9:40, 5:3, and 7:158), Allah (SWT) confirms Muhammad’s (s) position as the last and final Messenger (s); so no more prophets will follow him. Also, Allah (SWT) confirms that the deen of Islam has been “completed and perfected” which means this must now be followed by all people, including the followers of earlier prophets and scriptures. In order to remove any doubts among those who have a tendency not to understand things clearly, Allah (SWT) makes it clear in Surah al-A‘raaf that unlike the earlier prophets, he is the Prophet (s) for all mankind (7:158). All previous prophets were sent for a specific time period, place, and people and the message they brought has now been consolidated and encapsulated in the final revelation, the Qur’an. Further, that since the message delivered by the final Messenger (s) is complete, it must encompass all aspects of human endeavor: spiritual, material, individual, collective, social, cultural, economic, political, as well as dealing with civil and military affairs.
The second set of ayaat (33:21, 4:80) relates to the lofty character and personality of the noble Messenger (s) and how obedience to him has been equated with obedience to Allah (SWT) Himself. Indeed, obedience to all the previous Prophets (Å) also meant obedience to Allah (SWT) because they were all tasked to deliver Allah’s (SWT) message to mankind. This position has now been vested solely with the noble Messenger of Allah (s). This is illustrated by an episode in early Islamic history when the Prophet’s (s) companion ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab was seen reading the Torah. Upon inquiry, ‘Umar said that the Prophet (s) himself had said it was one of the Books of Allah (SWT). The Prophet (s) told him that if Moses (a) were alive today, he too would have no option but to follow the Qur’an. Thus, following the Prophet (s) and the Qur’an is obligatory for all people, regardless of what previous books or religion they followed.
The next set of ayaat (65:11, 9:33) highlight the Prophet’s (s) indispensable role as the one who leads humanity out of darkness and into light. Darkness must be understood in its proper context: it is any state that is not in conformity with Allah’s (SWT) prescribed laws for humanity. Light, on the other hand, means that state in which one is mentally, physically, emotionally, and intellectually attuned to Allah’s (SWT) commands and consciously striving to adhere to them at all times. Allah (SWT) has promised that He will make Islam dominant in the world (9:33). This was realized during the lifetime of the noble Messenger (s) but did not end with his earthly mission; this promise is available to all those who follow the Prophet’s (s) Sunnah and Sirah. As Dr. Kalim Siddiqui has observed, the Prophet’s (s) role as the last and final Messenger of Allah (s) and as the “best of exemplars” (33:40, 33:21) was not confined to a specific time period.1 The Prophet’s (s) method is applicable to all times and in all situations. This is Allah’s (SWT) infinite mercy because Muslims can always hope to emerge from whatever depth of darkness they have fallen into provided they follow the Qur’an and the Prophet’s (s) Sunnah and Sirah.
As Muslims embark on the process of transforming their societies by applying the prophetic model, it may be argued that we face a very different historical situation, the greatest of which is the absence of the noble Messenger (s) himself. His presence at the advent of Islam was a source of great inspiration for early Muslims. This is completely true. There are other differences as well: the Arabian society of the Prophet’s (s) time was rather small, comprising a few thousand people in Makkah and a similar number in Madinah. The Arabian Peninsula as a whole had several hundred thousand inhabitants but today, the world’s population has surpassed six billion and Muslims account for about one-fourth of this total.
Is it possible for Muslims to be able to transform their societies in 23 years as the Prophet (s) did in Arabia, starting with a handful of followers? Is there a time limit in which change must be achieved? These differences — the Prophet’s (s) physical absence, and the much larger scale today — however, should not overwhelm us. The Prophet’s (s) physical presence has not been made a condition by Allah (SWT) to achieve success in this world; Allah (SWT) is in charge of everything, and thereby it is not the prophetic presence that is important, but the prophetic model. And so for anyone who is interested in resuscitating a societal formulation based on principles of institutional justice, the foundational tools and the driving instruments in the form of the Qur’an and the Sunnah have been preserved for all times to come. Any group that can coalesce into a motivated covenant-bearing force, better known as al-ladhina amanu, can achieve what the Prophet (s) achieved over 1,400 years ago, because the shaping strategy is already in place. All that is required is a human society that is ready to execute Allah’s (SWT) command and share the Prophet’s (s) destiny and legacy; and no expectation is more guaranteed than Allah’s (SWT) promise.
The Prophet (s) had to convince the mushriks at a time when the Qur’an was gradually being revealed; today there are nearly two billion Muslims in the world, in possession of the entire Qur’an, as well as the Sirah and Sunnah of the noble Prophet (s). True, the Muslims are disconnected from Islam and the Sirah but this is precisely the challenge we face today. We have to make the Sirah applicable in our lives by understanding it the way it must be understood and followed. There are other impediments as well: kufr has not only become globalized but in the words of Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, it has also penetrated the House of Islam.2 Yet the Sirah as a model is the divine prescription for humanity and is applicable in every situation regardless of different historical time periods.
The process of transformation, however, requires a priori, a clear understanding of the nature of society in which we live. During the Prophet’s (s) time, Arabia was steeped in jahiliyyah in which idol-worship and subservience to human tribal authority formed the principal mode of religious, social, and cultural behavior. People believed in Allah (SWT) as Provider and Sustainer, but they made themselves rivals with Him in the area of dominion and governance, hence their designation as mushriks in the Qur’an. Injustice, oppression, tribal arrogance, and therefore tribal warfare borne of such arrogance, and female infanticide as well as slavery were other practices that characterized Arabian society of the time. Today Muslims are afflicted by many of the same problems even though idol worship may have been replaced by such other idols as nationalism, money, and class interests. Exploitation is as rampant and widespread in the world including the Muslim world today as it was in the jahili society of Arabia. It is, therefore, imperative for Muslims to recognize and understand the nature of zulm and darkness that surrounds them as they embark on the process of transforming their societies.
For some Muslims, the Prophet’s (s) Sirah is merely a means to attaining greater spirituality, oblivious of its relevance for the real and practical world at large, as if men misruling in the practical world is somehow divorced from impacting a person’s individual spirituality. Like their attitude towards the Qur’an, Muslims use the Sirah to seek blessings but not guidance, and individual but not collective salvation. The Prophet’s (s) birthday is celebrated with great veneration, even fanfare, but no lessons are derived from it for the arduous struggle in life. Many Muslims quote hadiths (the Prophet’s (s) sayings and practices) endlessly but either do not follow them or use them selectively to support their preconceived notions and ideas.
The Muslims’ attitude can be compared to an episode in early Islamic history. Prior to signing the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah in 6 AH, the mushriks of Makkah sent a number of emissaries to negotiate with the Prophet (s). One Qurayshi delegate, ‘Urwah ibn Mas‘ud al-Thaqafi, noted the companions’ reverence for the Prophet (s): they would not let even the water he used for wudu’ (ritual washing for purposes of purification and harmonization) to fall on the ground; they rubbed it on their bodies as a sign of blessing. When ‘Urwah returned to his fellow chiefs, he advised them against fighting a people so dedicated to their leader. There was another aspect which ‘Urwah did not witness but is relevant for our discussion: with the exception of one person, each of the 1,400 companions of the Prophet (s) gave a bay‘ah (the oath of allegiance given to the head of an Islamic state, described in the Qur’an as Bay‘ah al-Ridwan, 48:18) that they would fight to the last man if war were imposed on them. This followed a rumor that ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, the Prophet’s (s) emissary sent to Makkah to negotiate with the Quraysh, had been murdered. The situation facing the Muslims was bleak: there were only 1,400 of them; they were far away from Madinah and armed with only a sword each; there was no prospect of help from any quarter and no possibility of escape in the event of defeat. Yet their commitment to Islam and to the Prophet (s) was so great that they were prepared to face every challenge. The difference in attitude between the early and contemporary Muslims is that today’s Muslims would readily splash the Prophet’s wudu’ water (or perfume) on their bodies but refuse to give their bay‘ah! When we reduce the Prophet’s (s) Sunnah and Sirah to little more than splashing perfume and gobbling large amounts of halwa, as some of Muslims have come to do, then it should not surprise us if Allah’s (SWT) promised help (47:07) does not materialize in our lives.
Similarly, Muslims spend endless hours arguing about the number of miracles the noble Messenger of Allah (s) performed and whether the mi‘raj was a physical journey or merely a vision. While there may be merit in discussing these issues at some level, the Muslims’ current plight hardly allows for such indulgences. It would be far more relevant to consider the circumstances in which the Prophet (s) was rewarded with the mi‘raj. He had to endure 12 years of extreme hardship and when the worldly prospects for his mission looked almost totally bleak, there was an explosion of divine mercy, resulting in the mi‘raj. Therefore, the mi‘raj must not be viewed merely as a phenomenon that occurred in isolation but as the culmination of a long process of struggle to establish Allah’s (SWT) deen on earth. Unfortunately, many vital issues have been frozen out of Muslim consciousness during the dark period of Islamic history. The study of the Prophet’s (s) Sirah, for both historical and contemporary reasons, has also fallen victim to this phenomenon. It is our duty to rectify this error.
Seldom, if ever, in history has any ruling class voluntarily relinquished power or accepted the inherent injustices of its system. Whenever its inequities are exposed, the system has reacted violently to suppress such attempts. The struggle to transform a society built upon principles of human authority, as opposed to Allah’s (SWT) authority, into the Islamic state will not be without human or material costs. It will demand great sacrifices because those who have a vested interest in the established order will use all means at their disposal to crush any challenge but the Sirah also shows that through sustained effort, change can be achieved.
The Prophet (s) faced numerous difficulties and challenges in his quest to convey the message of Islam and to establish the Islamic state. At the start of his mission, Islam was propagated only among his close relatives and friends. This may be categorized as the initial quiet phase. When Allah (SWT) commanded him to proclaim it openly (Surahs al-Muzzammil and al-Muddaththir), the message was then neither confined to the cave where the Prophet (s) received his first revelation, nor to a small circle of acquaintances. It was proclaimed, propagated, and spread in the marketplace despite clear risk to the Prophet’s (s) person and life. The beneficiaries of the established system immediately adopted two tactics to undermine the challenge: ridicule the message and persecute those who were weak; that is, the slaves and the downtrodden. In this phase, the Prophet (s) counseled patience, with the expectation of delayed satisfaction, to his followers. As the persecution intensified but failed to break the spirit of resistance, the Makkan chiefs resorted to offering inducements to the Prophet (s) to get him to modify his stand vis-a-vis their system. When this also failed, a reign of terror was unleashed upon the committed Muslims, including a three-year siege in Sha‘b Abi Talib, ultimately leading to a plot to kill the Prophet (s) himself. With the Prophet’s (s) migration to Madinah where he secured a territorial base, permission to take up arms was granted by Allah (SWT). Muslims today will have to go through similar phases as they struggle to establish Islamic states in their territories.
It may be noticed that armed struggle was delayed for as long as possible because time was needed to attract and consolidate a sufficiently large following; a safe territorial base from which to operate was also necessary. As physical confrontation was delayed, resentment against the established system built up because of its oppression and tyranny borne of arrogance. When armed clashed finally occurred, the challengers proved highly motivated, willing to make every sacrifice for their cause. Allah also helped them because He is with those that are oppressed and persecuted and those who strive in His cause (28:05; 47:07).
The declaration of Islam at the popular level was necessary to deconstruct the socio-political order in Arabia in order to pave the way for implementing the Islamic order with its own ideology and power base. There are some Muslims who recoil in horror at the suggestion that the Prophet (s) may have had anything to do with politics. This is clearly the result of corruption in politics and the abuse of power and authority in the world, but it also reflects the distorted view some Muslims have of the Sirah itself. Since crookedness and lying are considered normal, indeed essential parts of politics these days, little or no room in it for honest people, Muslims have assumed that politics per se is dirty. Similarly, treating Islam merely as just another “religion” like so many others despite the Qur’an’s clear reference to Islam as a deen (3:83; 5:03) has unfortunately resulted in Muslims overlooking many important dimensions of Islam and of the Sirah.
There is another misconception, prevalent among some Muslims, that the Prophet (s) was sent merely to convey the message; he had no other responsibility beyond that. These Muslims may accept that perhaps rectifying people’s morals was part of his mission but little else. According to such thinking, if the people of Makkah had merely been worshipping idols everything would have been fine and there would be no need for the Prophet (s) to migrate to Madinah leading to the establishment of the Islamic State. But fasting, praying, and going to Hajj is supposed to open a connection with Allah (SWT) that translates into withholding society from moral corruption (faahishah) and institutional mechanisms of human bondage (munkar). The Makkan mushriks and their Yahudi counterparts in Madinah would have been happy with praying a new way and fasting for one month out of the year so long as they could maintain their generational systems of exploitation. Why do so many Muslims feel apologetic about the use of force against evil and oppression? Part of the reason may be found in the anti-Islamic propaganda alleging that Islam was “spread by the sword.” In order to refute such allegations, Muslims have resorted to a pacifist interpretation of the Sirah.
There is another important aspect highlighted by the Sirah: the Prophet (s) did not perform any miracles in the struggle to establish the Islamic state. This was clearly a distinctive part of the final implementation of the divine program in its Muhammadi incarnation. If the Islamic state had come into being through miracles and not through sustained human effort, future generations may have used this as an excuse to claim that they could not possibly achieve the same results without some form of divine intervention, such as miracles. Muhammad’s (s) mission was meant to get humanity to commit the kind of effort that would bring it to terms with its latent human capacities; and that a measure of these capabilities would be enough to overthrow all those forces who try to rival Allah’s (SWT) power presence on earth, and thereby divert the mass of human beings from their responsibility to ensure a balance of justice in their real world. Miracles, or a demonstration of Allah’s (SWT) suspension of the natural law, in previous human experiences with scriptural integration did not give human beings confidence in their innate abilities to extricate themselves from ambiances of injustice and oppression. However, in a world and a historical continuum where no more revelation can be expected, then human beings have to be confident in the skills, capabilities, and strength that Allah (SWT) has blessed them with; and the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the Sirah activate and energize Allah’s (SWT) power presence in the covenant-carrying human instrument. Allah’s (SWT) miracles are interwoven in the hand and experience of man as it executes the divine command.
In fact, the establishment of the Islamic State in Madinah provides additional proof of the finality of his prophethood. In addition to correcting peoples’ beliefs and morals, the Prophet (s) also demonstrated superb mastery in the conduct of state and politics, two fields not normally associated with prophetic missions. With the exception of the Prophets Yusuf, Musa, Dawud and Sulayman (a) none of the other prophets ruled a state or acquired worldly power. This has perhaps led to the assumption that religion itself has nothing to do with politics. The Prophet (s) established a state in a society which had not known this level of political and executive organization before.
In order to consider how the Prophet (s) transformed the jahili society in Arabia, we must first get a better understanding of the environment in Makkah. While it had no organized structured system, it was governed by what is referred to as customary or tribal law. The desert dwellers were not accustomed to formal laws; the harsh climate dictated its own logic that meant people had no loyalty to any place or people. It was these tribal customary laws that governed re-lations between tribes as well as individuals.
Most books on the Sirah mention the tribal nature of society but have not paid much attention to economic factors that shaped the Makkan aristocracy’s attitude to Islam. Financial interests, it must be noted, often in-fluence people’s attitude towards other aspects of life as well. The history of colonialism and im-perialism can be understood in the light of this phenomenon. Makkah has always been a desolate place; its barren hills stand as a stark reminder to its inhospitable environment. Its location at the centre of the East-West and North-South trade routes, however, gave it a commanding position that was the envy of other tribes. Similarly, the location of the Ka‘bah, the first House of Allah (SWT) on earth, conferred on Makkah a sanctity that other places lacked. In the year of the Prophet’s (s) birth, the Christian governor of Yemen, Abraha, had attempted to destroy the Ka‘bah because he had built a rival temple in Yemen that he thought would replace the Ka‘bah as a place of pilgrimage. When this failed to materialize, he decided to invade and destroy the Ka‘bah but his invasion ended in disaster because birds carrying plague-infested stones attacked his army led by an elephant and miraculously destroyed it (Surah al-Feel). This naturally enhanced the Ka‘bah’s prestige not only among the people of Makkah but also in the rest of the Peninsula and beyond.
Caravans traveled to Makkah both because it was located on the trade routes, and also because people came to perform the pilgrimage. Over time, the belief in one God, as preached by Prophet Ibrahim who had built the Ka‘bah with his son Isma‘il (a), was corrupted and people began to associate partners with Allah (SWT). Idol-worship crept in, interestingly, again as a result of the merchants’ journeys. Whenever they went out of Makkah, they would take a stone from the Ka‘bah with them to worship. In Syria, they found that people worshipped idols made of stone. The Makkans also adopted this practice. Ultimately, there were 360 idols in the Ka‘bah belonging to different tribes. Thus, both the Quraysh as well as non-Makkan tribes developed a vested interest in preserving the system built around idol-worship.
Like other people in history, the Makkan aristocracy also lived according to the dictum: might is right. Powerful tribes suppressed and exploited weaker ones; slaves, women and the poor were especially vulnerable. Since tribal warfare was common, plundering others’ wealth — camels, sheep, etc. — and abducting women and children, were regular features of life.
But it was the endless wars between tribes, often for no other reason than false pride that necessitated tribal alliances. The struggle to survive in such an environment dictated its own logic: alliances were necessary to keep hostile forces at bay. This was true of tribes as well as individuals. Those people whose own tribe could not protect them because it was weak, or refused to protect, allied themselves with powerful people or tribes. The noble Messenger (s) was protected by his own clan, Banu Hashim, as long as his uncle Abu Talib was alive. After his death, the Prophet (s) became quite vulnerable. His uncles Abu Lahab who assumed clan leadership, far from providing protection, viciously opposed his mission.
1. Dr. Kalim Siddiqui, Political Dimensions of the Sirah. (Crescent International: London, UK, 1992).
2. Dr. Kalim Siddiqui and Zafar Bangash (editor), Political Thought and behaviour of Muslims under colonialism, an article in In Pursuit of the Power of Islam: Major writings of Kalim Siddiqui. (Crescent Internat’l: London, UK, 1996), pp. 257-87.
Part II of this essay will look at the consolidation of the Islamic power base in Madinah and the ideological, socio-political, and economic challenges it had to survive and ultimately overcome.