POLITICAL DIMENSIONS OF THE SEERAH by Kalim Siddiqui. London: ICIT Books/Crescent Publications (UK) Ltd., 32 Warrington Avenue, Slough SL1 3BQ, UK, 1998. pp: 32. Price: UK3.00/$5.00.
By Iqbal Siddiqui
The death of Dr Kalim Siddiqui in April 1996 deprived the Islamic movement of an intellectual and a leader whose loss has been sorely felt. His last book, Stages of Islamic Revolution, was published just days before his death. Now, over two years later, his final paper, Political Dimensions of the Seerah, has been published for the first time. Dr Siddiqui had been working on this paper before his death and had circulated only a preliminary draft among friends and colleagues.
His own copy of this draft, found in his files after his death, had numerous corrections and changes which have been incorporated into this published edition, along with other, minor editorial refinements. Reading the result is like hearing a voice from the grave - the voice of a man whom Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala took from this world before his friends, colleagues, supporters and the rest of the Ummah were prepared to manage without him.
Crescent readers and others familiar with Kalim Siddiqui’s work will know that the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, was a recurrent theme and influence on his ideas. He frequently said that his interest in Islam had been stimulated by reading a biography of the Prophet as a child, and among his earliest surviving writings is a paper on the life of the noble Messenger which he presented in London in 1959.
During the early years of the Muslim Institute for Research and Planning, before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, his plans included a major Seerah research project, called ‘The Road to Medina,’ to coincide with the beginning of the 15th Hijri centenary (1979). Work on this project was abandoned when the Institute’s support for the Revolution scared many of its Arab backers into withdrawing their help, financial and otherwise.
The object of the Muslim Institute was to rewrite Muslim political thought as the first step towards the re-emergence of Islamic political civilization at some indeterminate time in the future. This process was originally expected to take decades or even centuries. The Islamic Revolution in Iran and the establishment of a contemporary Islamic State took everybody by surprise, and Dr Siddiqui’s focus shifted from intellectual work to studying, analysing and explaining the embryonic Islamic State through its early years.
In the late 1980s, his emergence as a leader of the British Muslims and the Muslim Institute’s establishment of the Muslim Parliament as a ‘minority political system for Muslims in Britain’ was also a distraction. Throughout, however, Dr Siddiqui kept the long-term object of re-writing Muslim political thought in mind, and continued to work towards it as and when he could. In his later works, notably Stages of Islamic Revolution, he spoke of the need for an ‘intellectual revolution’ as the first step towards Islamic Revolution.
And, in all his intellectual writings, the Seerah loomed large as an influence, inspiration and a point of reference. In his paper ‘Processes of error, deviation, correction and convergence in Muslim political thought’ (1989), Dr Siddiqui argued that Imam Khomeini’s ijtihad regarding the Islamic revolution had restored the Ummah ‘to a position that puts it within two or three decades of the Prophet... this newly achieved proximity, though largely a matter of perception, establishes new spiritual and intellectual links with the Seerah and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace.’
Dr Siddiqui believed that the ‘intellectual revolution’ which was required would have to cover every aspect of Muslim thought, as no aspect has been left uncorrupted either by historical deviation or by western influence. However, his main interest was in political thought, as he believed the organization of the community’s collective affairs, and the exercise of the community’s collective power, to be central to recasting Muslim societies in an Islamic mould.
He also believed that, while Islamic intellectual revolutions in other areas could follow the establishment of Islamic political systems, the revolution in political thought was an essential pre-requisite to the Islamic political Revolution. This is why Islamic intellectual work in any field except politics was acceptable, even welcome, to the pro-western Muslim rulers. Islamic political thought was not to be touched.
Reviewing recent events in Indonesia, Turkey and other countries, it is easy to appreciate Dr Siddiqui’s view that no effective political change in the Muslim world could come unless the local Islamic movements developed an understanding of the nature of Islamic political organization and structures, and worked with those goals specifically in mind. It is easy enough, he sometimes said, to overthrow existing regimes; the harder part is establishing Islamic political structures - the Islamic State - in their place. It was the latter which he chose to focus on, leaving work in other areas until later.
Dr Siddiqui also appreciated that there were no easy answers to the burning questions of political legitimacy, organization and structures. These were among the issues, he said, that Muslims had been debating for centuries without reaching conclusions which had stood the tests of time and practice. Expecting theoretical answers to work perfectly in practice without hitches would be too much. This, he said, was because in matters such as politics, economics and social justice, Islam laid down principles which Muslims had to work to rather than simple formulae to be implemented.
These principles could be extracted from the sources of Islam, the Qur’an and the Seerah and Sunnah of the Prophet, peace be upon him, but strategies for their actualization in political institutions and structures need be developed in consideration also of historical factors and historical circumstances.
It is worth noting also Dr Siddiqui’s constant reminders that the first Islamic States of the modern era were bound to be experimental and to make many mistakes. In his book, Stages of Islamic Revolution, he is highly critical of attitudes displayed by some Iranians after the Islamic Revolution there, which were travesties of the principles and intentions of Imam Khomeini and other revolutionary leaders. But the important thing, he said, was that the Islamic movement learn from its mistakes, both historical and contemporary, and ensure that they are not repeated in the future. He was even more scathing of those Muslims who had a simple political formula which they regarded as Islamically correct, and condemned all those who did not share it.
This was the understanding which coloured Dr Siddiqui’s work from the establishment of the Muslim Institute until his death. When he laid out his plans for the Muslim Institute’s Seerah project in the 1970s, his intention was to extrapolate from the example and life of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, the principles of political organization and leadership which could be applied by a future Islamic Revolution. He did not know then that a Revolution was just around the corner in Iran, which he later acknowledged was a ‘blind spot’ in his thinking at the time.
Even after the Revolution in Iran, however, he emphasized the continuing need to develop the political ideas of the Islamic movement in order to lay the ground for future Revolutions in other parts of the world. It was for this reason that in his last months he was planning a new Seerah research project, built around a world conference on the political dimensions of the Seerah, as his next major work.
Dr Siddiqui also hoped that his leadership of such a project would breathe new life into the Muslim Institute, his original vehicle and institution, much of whose most recent work had been credited to the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain. Unfortunately, since his death, the decline of the latter has seriously affected the Institute as well, hence this paper’s publication by the Institute for Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), a new academic institution established by some of his former colleagues and associates to continue the work started by Dr Siddiqui and the Muslim Institute. Dr Siddiqui himself would have said that the work of the movement is more important than any institution; as long as it gets done, it does not matter who actually does it.
This final paper by Dr Kalim Siddiqui outlines the task facing those who choose to work in the area of studying the Seerah from, as Imam Muhammad al-Asi has accurately summarised it, a ‘power perspective.’ It also gives a clue of how much more Dr Siddiqui had to offer the Islamic movement had Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala granted him more time; he left only a draft of a preliminary paper on the topic. But Dr Siddiqui also recognises in this paper that the development of the power perspective of the Seerah would require the accumulated input and wisdom of countless scholars over a considerable period of time.
In Stages of Islamic Revolution, Dr Siddiqui also suggested that the intellectuals of the Islamic movement needed to act as an informal ‘open university’ of Islam, to collectively pursue and develop the intellectual imperatives of the movement, particularly (but not exclusively) in the area of political thought. His final contribution, even in its raw form, sets this ‘open university’ a task and a challenge, and provides clues to pursuing it, which may prove to be his most enduring legacy.
[Iqbal Siddiqui is Research Fellow at the Institute for Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), London.]
Muslimedia: September 16-30, 1998