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Options for bringing about change in the Muslim world

Zafar Bangash

Muslim activists are often engaged in heated debate about the model to follow to bring about change in Muslim societies. The best model is, of course, none other than that of the noble Messenger of God, upon whom be peace and blessings. No Muslim disagrees with this. The problem arises when they give different interpretations to the Prophetic model.

At one end of the spectrum, there are Muslims who insist on da’wah as the only correct approach. They maintain that in the first 13 years of his life, the Prophet only engaged in da’wah. Based on this simplistic interpretation of the seerah, they say we must follow the same route.

For these Muslims, the problems of the world will end once all people have been converted to Islam, they are asked to pray regularly and go on the 40-day gusht (the prescribed tour with the group inviting Muslims to come to the mosque). There will be, according to these brothers, milk and honey at the end of the rainbow and everybody will live happily ever after.

Such thinking is also encouraged by the regimes in the Muslim world. They have no problem with such passive religious activity because it poses no threat to their vested interests.

The vast majority of Muslim activists, however, are associated with various ‘Islamic’ political parties or Islamic Movements in their parts of the world. Association with political parties is the simpler approach since there is an identifiable group, a party manifesto and a hierarchy in which everyone knows his place. Thus, one finds in the Muslim world such political parties as the Jama’at-e Islami in the subcontinent, the Ikhwan al-Muslimoon in Egypt, the Refah Party in Turkey and the Islamic Party in Malaysia (PAS). There are a number of other Islamic political parties as well, the best known of which is the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria.

With the exception of the FIS (since its 1991-92 experience), all other parties have one thing in common. They believe in the electoral process and operate within the existing political framework. The Ikhwan in Egypt are banned but they still insist on participating in the electoral process through various alliances with secular groups.

These political parties have had mixed success, depending on one’s definition of what constitutes success. If it means coming to power, then perhaps both Refah and PAS have been somewhat successful. But simply getting into power is not the ultimate objective, as they themselves would readily concede. It is the means to an end.

Even the political parties agree that changing the prevalent pagan system in Muslim societies is their main objective. In this, not one party has been successful. Often, they have been forced into humiliating concessions and compromises.

The Refah’s travails in Turkey clearly show this. Even though Refah is not comfortable with Turkey’s close cooperation with Israel, it is forced by the military and the secular establishment to toe the line. Such are the pitfalls of electoral politics. One ends up with strange bedfellows, at home and abroad.

Some Muslims have also toyed with the idea of penetrating the military and bringing about a coup to change the present order. This thinking has received a boost since the Sudanese experience. It must be borne in mind that Sudan is not the first country to try this approach. The Ikhwan in Egypt had in fact had a close alliance with the free officers in the late forties and early fifties. Their experience with Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat has been extremely unpleasant.

In Pakistan, too, the Jama’at-e Islami entered into an alliance with general Zia ul-Haque’s military regime. The wily general stole the Jama’at’s Islamic rhetoric and ditched the party. The process of Islamization under Zia was an unmitigated disaster.

We need, however, to examine the validity of ‘infiltrating the military’ argument closely. Those who think this way ought to remember that the military is a vast institution. It has its own agenda, outlook and interests. The conversion of a small or even a fairly large number of officers to a particular ideology cannot bring about change in society. A military coup is not an option for the Islamic Movement.

In Sudan the military may have brought about some changes in cooperation with the National Islamic Front of Dr Hasan al-Turabi but the process of converting the masses to this point of view has not been achieved. We know from the seerah that when a society is brought under the control of Islam, it immediately comes under attack from both internal and external enemies.

In order to successfully confront this situation, the support of the masses is essential. They are the ones who will defend and sustain the nascent Islamic State. In Medina, the Islamic State faced such problems at the time of the Prophet. There were the munafiqoon in Medina and the power of the Quraish in Makkah to contend with.

When Iran underwent an Islamic Revolution and established the Islamic State it, too, faced exactly the same problems. The vicious and bloody campaign of the munafiqoon cost the Islamic Republic heavily in terms of the loss of some of its top leaders. And it was invaded by the combined might of kufr operating through the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Husain in Iraq.

Sudan is also faced with both these problems. While neither is new to the country, the external threat has intensified since the government decided in earnest to introduce Islamic rule.

The only successful model that offers itself is that of the Islamic Revolution. This is also the seerah of the Prophet, upon whom be peace. First, the Prophet had to bring about a revolution in the thought process of the people. Even while the Muslims were under attack from the Makkan chiefs, the Prophet insisted on maintaining the Muslims’ separate identity.

In fact, intellectual revolution is an essential pre-requisite before the socio-political order in a society can be changed. Some Muslims still carry the intellectual baggage of the colonial era. This has prevented them from understanding the issues clearly to bring about meaningful change in their societies.

Unfortunately, the ‘Islamic’ political parties have not grasped this elementary point. They continue to operate within the western political framework while hoping to bring about an Islamic Revolution!

There are a number of other impediments as well on the way. One is the question of understanding. The other is the Islamic requirement of obeying the leader. This is where much confusion exists.

Obeying the leader must be within the framework of the leader himself obeying the commands of God and His Prophet. There can be no obedience to the leader if he violates the fundamental precepts of Islam. In other words, the leader must be muttaqi. Charlatans throughout the Muslim world demand loyalty from their followers without fulfilling even the minimum requirements of an Islamic leader.

The Qur’anic command, ‘Obey God and obey the Messenger and those in authority over you’ (4:59) is clearly predicated on the sequence that first God and His Messenger must be obeyed by everyone, including the leader. Only then does the leader have the right to demand loyalty from his followers. The first sermon delivered by Abu Bakr, when he became the Caliph, is instructive. He asked for obedience so long as he commanded that which had been prescribed by God and His Messenger. If he ordered anything to the contrary, then they had no obligation to obey him.

This should be the motto of every leader today. Unfortunately, too often, leaders demand blind obedience without living upto their own responsibilities. This has brought about the downfall of many organisations and institutions and led political parties into the wilderness.

Inherent in this approach is also the inability of many followers of political parties to see or accept the shortcomings of their leaders. Thus, even if their leader lacks clarity of certain concepts, his followers refuse to admit such mistakes because it is perceived as disloyalty to the leader. Muslims need to develop far better critical thinking to appreciate such points.

Sometimes, however, even the most obvious points are not immediately clear to people. It takes time before they are able to absorb them. This is a process that cannot be speeded up.

In life, one encounters three kinds of people. There are those who refuse to accept a point of view, whatever its validity. They are clearly in the opposition camp. The second group accepts it but cannot bring themselves to implementing it in their lives. Most people fall under this category. The third group consists of those who have understood the issues clearly, accept them and are willing to lay down their life for them. This is the group that is in the vanguard of the Islamic movement and are the ones who will initiate change.

This is also the group that motivates and inspires the masses. The involvement of the masses in the Islamic Movement is crucial. It is far more important than getting a few military or civilian officers on one’s side. In fact, running after people who have already served the pagan system is often a waste of time. They are too contaminated to be of much help in the Islamic Movement. They also invariably demand too high a price for their participation.

The Islamic Movement is not about the personal benefit or gains of any individual. It is the divine instrument of change whose fundamental objective is ‘to command/enforce the common good and forbid the evil’ (3:104). Once this point is understood clearly, the rest will follow automatically.

Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 7

Muharram 25, 14181997-06-01

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