In the second part of this essay, Zafar Bangash, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) discusses the political culture of Islam and how its revival is essential for the Ummah.
There is also another definition of the Ummah: that of the aggregate power of the political culture of Islam. Today this is virtually non-existent because Muslims are not in control of their destiny. At this level, we cannot speak of the Muslim Ummah per se because its power is fragmented into nation-states ruled by elites and political systems that are the product of colonialism. These systems were put in place to prevent the emergence of Islam in its natural dominant role. Their practitioners are in fact at war with their own people because the Muslim masses yearn for a system based on Islamic values, while the elites insist on perpetuating an alien system in their societies. This is evident throughout the Muslim world, whether in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia or elsewhere. It is unrealistic to expect countries like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or Qatar, for instance, to help the Palestinians against Zionist oppressors when these regimes treat their own people no better, often much worse. The same holds true for other regimes in the Muslim East as well as the larger Muslim world.
Theoretically, every country’s army is supposed to defend state borders. While it has demonstrably failed to fulfill this basic function, it has launched a full-scale war against its own peoples. Having realized the true nature and function of their armies, the Muslim masses have assumed responsibility for their own defense. Self-preservation is a natural instinct not only in humans but in all living creatures. As state institutions consistently fail to address people’s concerns, the masses become more motivated to act to defend their values. This is evident in such places as Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine and Chechnya. What we are witnessing is that individuals and groups have taken over the role that state institutions should perform. Almost every state and its institutions have become appendages to campaigns launched against Muslims by the external enemies of Islam. Thus, the Muslim masses have realized that their states, and the systems and institutions that sustain them are not in place to serve their interests. They are the creation of colonialism and are, therefore, irrelevant to the needs of the people. Instead, they serve the interests of their foreign masters.
If there are some Muslims that still harbor any lingering illusions that their states and institutions were meant to serve them, recent developments have helped dispel such confusion.
If there are some Muslims that still harbor any lingering illusions that their states and institutions were meant to serve them, recent developments have helped dispel such confusion. What has become evident over several decades since fraudulent independence was granted to the colonized states is that the ruling elites in Muslim societies have failed to solve any problems of the people. Instead, these problems have become more intractable; the Muslim masses are suffering even more today than they were during the colonial period. “Independence” has simply meant a change of masters: from white to brown or black men when the colonial masters handed over power to local elites they had nurtured and trained.
Since these elites do not enjoy the support of the masses, they lack legitimacy. Over the years they have also been exposed as thoroughly corrupt and incompetent. .. Despite Hizbullah’s spectacular successes against the Israeli war machine, Arabian regimes are continuing to seek ways to surrender to the Zionist entity... The situation in the rest of the Muslim world is little better.
Since these elites do not enjoy the support of the masses, they lack legitimacy. Over the years they have also been exposed as thoroughly corrupt and incompetent. Similarly, the armies of the Muslim nation-states consume vast resources of state to acquire expensive weapons, ostensibly to defend the borders from external aggression. Their failures are so glaring that one can not only point to their repeated defeats on the battlefield against whatever enemy — Pakistan against India and Arabian armies against Israel — but that they have also demonstrably failed even to defend their people against the attacks of external powers. For decades, Israel used to bomb Arab cities without challenge until a number of these regimes — Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and others — surrendered to US-Israeli demands. It was argued that Israel’s army is so powerful that no single Arabian army or a combination of Arab armies would be able to confront it. This defeatist attitude was exposed by the emergence of Hizbullah in Southern Lebanon. Despite Hizbullah’s spectacular successes against the Israeli war machine, Arabian regimes are continuing to seek ways to surrender to the Zionist entity. They view Hizbullah as a greater threat to their survival than the Zionist State itself. Islamic Iran has also been added to this list of “enemies.”
The situation in the rest of the Muslim world is little better. Repeated US attacks on Pakistani border villages have killed thousands of innocent civilians in the name of the war on terror. However, all that the Pakistani State and army has done in the face of these egregious US crimes is to plead with the Americans to show “restraint” begging them not to create “problems of credibility” for the civilian government. What “credibility?” There have been unambiguous statements from top officials in Pakistan claiming that the war on terror is “Pakistan’s own war!” This is a clear admission by the Pakistani elites that they are agents of the West, that they were never faithful to the state or the people living within its borders, and that their survival depends on obeying orders from America regardless of how much suffering it inflicts on the people.
From the point of view of the Islamic movement, this must be viewed as a positive development. These elites have, by their own words and deeds, exposed themselves as agents of the enemies of Islam. This has made the task of the Islamic movement easier; it would not require great effort to persuade the masses that the failures in the Ummah are the direct result of the incompetence and treachery of the ruling elites. Therefore, in order to bring about meaningful change in society, these elites and the systems that sustain them have to be dismantled and uprooted completely.
For any system to be considered legitimate from the Islamic point of view, it must meet two basic conditions. First, it must be rooted in the values ordained by Allah (swt) as exemplified by the noble Messenger (pbuh). Second, it must have the willing support of the masses.
This rather extended discussion should help clarify the point that the nation-states, which divide the Ummah, are the product of colonialism. Their failures are neither due to Islam nor the Muslim masses; they are the direct result of the illegitimacy and incompetence of the ruling elites. The same is true of the imposed colonial political systems. If the Muslim world has failed, it is not because of the failure of the political culture or system of Islam. For any system to be considered legitimate from the Islamic point of view, it must meet two basic conditions. First, it must be rooted in the values ordained by Allah (swt) as exemplified by the noble Messenger (pbuh). Second, it must have the willing support of the masses. Without meeting the first condition, no system can be legitimate even if the masses support it. Without the support of the masses, while the system would still be legitimate, it would not be able to have a transformative impact on the real problems afflicting the people. Thus, Islam requires the fulfillment of both conditions.
Let us now turn to the question of the success or failure in the Ummah, or to be more precise, the nation-state. There is no such concept in Muslim political thought or the political culture of Islam. This is a construct imposed on the Ummah in order to weaken it by dividing it into little statelets. This is the direct legacy of the dark period of colonialism. Competing colonial powers drew arbitrary boundaries dividing peoples and tribes that had hitherto lived and traveled unhindered across vast territories. For instance, a mere century ago, Muslims from the Malay Peninsula (present-day Malaysia and Indonesia) traveled by sea and land, traversing large distances to arrive in Jeddah on their way to perform Hajj. They neither required passports nor visas. Today, Muslims even from neighboring countries of Saudi Arabia cannot enter it without a passport and a visa. This obstructs Muslims from fulfilling one of the fundamental requirements of their din.
The divisive nation-state structure has superseded the unifying concept of the Ummah that Islam ordains. This has forced the Muslim masses and the Islamic movement to operate within this imposed system even though their attachment to the Ummah remains largely undiminished. This has been demonstrated repeatedly by people in such far-off places as Indonesia and Malaysia as well as other parts of the Muslim world holding rallies in support of their Muslim brothers and sisters suffering oppression in Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia. The overwhelming majority of Muslims have probably never met a Muslim from any of these places much less visited these lands, yet they instinctively empathize with them because of the bond of iman.
The nation-state structure and its institutions, on the other hand, have failed to address the problems even of their own people much less extend support to suffering Muslims in distant lands. Instead, what we have witnessed is the systematic degradation of the quality of life and increased oppression of people. These injustices have now escalated as a result of direct external aggression led by the US and its allies.
The inability, indeed unwillingness of the armed forces and other institutions of state to defend their people have forced the masses to defend themselves. It is this that the Americans and the West refer to as “terrorism.” Since when has self-defense become a crime and under what law? The state is supposed to defend the people and ensure a smooth functioning of society, not to facilitate the execution of an external agenda. When the state fulfills its primary responsibilities, the people pledge allegiance to it. This is what is referred to as the social contract. If the state does not fulfill its obligations or does not have the ability to defend the people, or refuses to do so, what right do the rulers have to demand allegiance?
Forced by such circumstances, the masses have taken the initiative in several theatres although these efforts are uncoordinated, disjointed and a reaction to oppression. Can this power be utilized to usher positive change in society; can it be channeled into constructive avenues that lead to improvement in the lives of ordinary people or is it merely a reaction to brute force that has no creative value? The power of the masses can be channeled to bring about meaningful change if their energies are directed toward the achievement of pre-set goals as part of a well-organized group. Such a group led by muttaqi leadership is what is characterized as the Islamic Movement. For this to be realized, Muslims must develop a better understanding of the political culture of Islam.
As stated above, the Muslims masses have a deep attachment to the Ummah even though they are forced to operate within the imposed colonial nation-state structure. The failures of the nation-states and the ruling elites have made the task of the Islamic movement easier. The shared memory that links all Muslims together is the common political culture of Islam that transcends ethnic, linguistic and nationalistic divisions. It can be traced all the way to the mission of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Indeed, it can be traced all the way to the start of prophetic history itself, linking it to the time of Adam (a). This enormous reservoir of prophetic history and experience are available to Muslims to overcome the challenges they face.
While colonialism has caused immense damage to the Ummah by dividing it in a way to prevent Muslims from acting together in the making of history, Muslims have repeatedly shown that they are capable of overcoming such weaknesses if they have muttaqi leadership. This has most clearly been demonstrated by the success of the Muslim political culture against Western colonialism in such places as Iran through the Islamic Revolution, and Hizbullah in Lebanon. It is also interesting to note that in both theatres the Islamic movement has had to operate within the debilitating influence of the nation-state structure. In Lebanon, the nation-state structure has yet to be dismantled and replaced by the Islamic state. Only in Iran has this transformation taken place. In Palestine, the Islamic movement has shown great resilience but it also faces huge challenges, both of foreign occupation as well as internal subversion compounded by the treachery of the so-called Muslim regimes surrounding Palestine. The same is true in Afghanistan although the movement there suffers from a general clarity of purpose, making tribalism and sectarianism factors in diminishing otherwise positive gains against imperial domination.
We can now summarize that the failure in the Ummah cannot be attributed to the political culture of Islam. This failure is the direct result of the colonial imposed system that has divided the Ummah into nation-states.
We can now summarize that the failure in the Ummah cannot be attributed to the political culture of Islam. This failure is the direct result of the colonial imposed system that has divided the Ummah into nation-states. The only force capable of confronting the combined might of kufr as manifested by Western civilization and its agents in the Muslim world is through the Islamic movement that unites all Muslims in the pursuit of a common set of objectives. We derive this understanding from the Qur’an and the Sunnah and Sirah of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh). The purpose of the Islamic movement is spelled out in the Qur’an,
“to govern according to the commands of Allah” (12:40); “to command what is commonly understood to be right and to forbid what is common-sensically wrong” (3:104) and “to command the establishment of ‘adl [in all political, social, economic and cultural manifestations], to command upright and good conduct, to give generously to next of kin [as well as other needy people in society]; to forbid lewd behavior and evil deeds, and rebelliousness [against the commands of Allah]” (16:90).
The noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh) not only implemented these orders in society but he also demonstrated a practical example of how this should be done. That is why his conduct is upheld as a “model” for us to emulate for all times (33:21).
We also learn from the Prophet’s (pbuh) Sirah that he mobilized his followers and channeled their energies into restructuring the entire socio-economic and political order in society. He did not merely tinker with the existing system; he set out to demolish it and replace it with a divinely ordained system. He also established completely new relationships including those of family ties. Those who became Muslims were separated from their fathers, sons, mothers, wives and other relatives, and even confronted these relatives on the battlefield. The Prophet’s (pbuh) own uncle, Abu Lahab, was a staunch enemy of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and he and his wife were condemned by name — the only contemporaries of his to be so named — in the Qur’an (111:1–5).
Muslims must be clear that there can be no compromise with the imposed socio-economic and political order in their societies today. It has to be demolished and replaced with a political culture that is firmly rooted in the values of Islam. Once Muslim political culture emerges in its dominant role, it cannot be defeated by any power, self-proclaimed superpower or others. This was demonstrated at the time of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh) and has been demonstrated by committed Muslims even in the contemporary age. Muslim political culture is capable of defending itself and confronting any combination of hostile forces simultaneously. The Islamic state and civilization must always be dominant over their environment; this is what Allah (swt) has commanded in the noble Qur’an (9:33; 61:09). Islam cannot be subservient to other systems, whether socio-political or cultural. If the Islamic movement or the Islamic state find themselves in such a situation, there is something wrong in their understanding and application of Islam.
The Ummah is not in very good shape today but Muslims have started to understand who is responsible for such failure. There is also an emerging consensus about what needs to be done. The colonial imposed socio-political order and the ruling elites have all been exposed as alien to the values and political culture of Islam. They have also been exposed as corrupt, incompetent and subservient to the enemies of Islam. Only the Islamic movement led by muttaqi leadership has achieved some success. This realization is now growing. It needs to become much more widespread in order to bring about the total transformation of the Ummah. As demonstrated by the early Muslims, Islam in one country or territory does not make sense. Indeed, Allah (swt) says,
“Verily [O you who are securely committed to Allah] this is your Ummah, [when it is] one Ummah; and I am your Sustainer: so conform then to Me [alone]” (21:92).
Islam is a universal din and system; it is not static. The dismantling of the Muslim nation-state structures and their imposed systems must begin in earnest as a first step toward bringing about the total transformation of the Ummah.