Colonialism has had a profoundly negative impact on Muslim societies. Physical occupation was but a minor manifestation of this phenomenon. More serious was the mental subjugation that continues long after direct colonialism has ended. We point out some steps on the way to breaking out of this mental slavery.
The Muslim world has suffered hundreds of years of colonial rule. The colonialists did not only physically occupy Muslim lands, they also occupied Muslim minds. Physical occupation ended decades ago but mental occupation continues with devastating consequences for Muslims and their societies.
The fact that this column is being written in a European rather than a Muslim language is proof of this long-lasting impact. True, English has become universal but this was not always the case. There was a time when Arabic was spoken almost throughout the world. Non-Muslims used to travel to Muslim lands to not only learn Arabic but also study at Islamic universities acquiring knowledge about medicine, science, mathematics, and astronomy, to name but a few subjects.
The Arabic language also inspired several other languages to emerge, among them Urdu and Swahili. Further, many Arabic words have made their way into the English language much as English or even French words have now been incorporated into what may be considered traditional Muslim languages including Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Urdu, Malay, etc.
Colonialism’s greatest impact was that it forced Muslims to think outside the framework of Islam. This has distorted the personality of Muslims in profoundly negative ways. Take the example of the legal system in most Muslim societies. It is based on English Common Law or French law depending on the occupying colonial power. Islamic Law, commonly referred to as the Shari‘ah, is widely derided even in many Muslim societies by Westoxicated Muslims who occupy important positions in their respective societies.
Let us start with some simple concepts that Muslims have uncritically incorporated into their discourse.
Many Muslims erroneously translate ummah as nation. It is not. The word nation derives from the concept of the nation-state and its related aspect, nationalism. Nation-state is a European construct that was imposed when the colonialists occupied Muslim and other people’s lands. For their own interests, the colonialists drew arbitrary lines in the sand or in the valleys and mountains to separate their colonial possessions from others. The Muslim East (aka the Middle East) offers a ready example of this phenomenon. Prior to colonialism, Muslims thought in terms of the Ummah, which Allah (swt) uses in the Qur’an when referring to Muslims (21:92).
True, there were Muslim empires; and even though there was a political deviation from the original concept of the khilafah, these empires still were ensconced in the overall social dynamic of Islam. What the colonialists did was to impose totally alien concepts on Muslims, distorting their socio-political culture. By the time the era of direct colonialism ended, the Muslims, no longer able to think in terms of the Ummah, began to look at themselves as nation-states. Thus, there emerged Syrian, Iraqi, and even a Saudi nation-state. The latter had never existed in the entire history of Islam. It was called the Arabian Peninsula. The negative consequence of these arbitrary divisions was that it greatly weakened the Muslims by fracturing their unity along tribal, national, racial, and sectarian lines. It was only after such divisions that the ground could be prepared for the implantation of the Zionist entity in Palestine.
The nation-state structure has had other negative consequences. Travel between Muslim countries has been greatly restricted. Even the Islamic injunction of Hajj has not been left unaffected. While Allah (swt) invites all Muslims to perform Hajj (3:97, 22:27), the Saudis have imposed a visa to do so. It is like a sentry standing guard at the entrance of a masjid, either granting or refusing permission to Muslims that want to enter for salah. What could be more absurd than this? Yet unfortunately, Muslims have accepted the visa imposition as if it is natural.
Closely related to the nation-state structure is the manner in which politics are conducted. The political party approach to politics is again a Western innovation to determine who should govern in society. This is essentially an arrangement between competing elites who take turns at being at the helm of affairs. The facade of elections is scripted to create the illusion that the masses are involved in the process and determine who should rule.
Party politics are not only a total fraud but also divisive. Political parties are beholden to their paymasters, essentially executives of big corporations who determine what policies are to be pursued, what people should be at the helm, and for how long. The circus that is currently underway in the US, while providing ample entertainment, is a good reflection of what the political party system is all about.
Unfortunately, political parties have infected the Muslim world as well in different ways. Vast sums of money are used to buy votes. Beyond vote buying, in most Muslim countries parties are not even allowed to participate in the electoral process. If allowed, political parties, especially Islamic ones, are impeded in their work by not allowing them to pursue their agenda openly. The bosses in most Muslim societies — generally the military establishment, which itself has to seek permission from its imperial sponsors to organize politically — determine whether they would allow a political party to be in charge and for how long. Egypt, Indonesia, and a host of others offer ready examples.
This naturally raises the question of what would be the format for a representative political process in a Muslim society? First, Muslims should be clear that the systems in most Muslim societies are bequeathed by colonialism. These systems will not and cannot serve the interests of the masses. Unlike most Western societies where a minimum level of income is guaranteed to the people, Muslim societies are not structured in this manner. Thus, unless the imposed systems are replaced by genuine Islamic systems, there can be little hope for progress or redemption.
This cannot come about through political parties, even those carrying the Islamic label, coming to power through elections that are manipulated by the entrenched secular elite. We have seen the consequences of Islamic parties in many Muslim countries — Algeria, Egypt, etc. — that won elections fair and square but ended up being crushed and their leaders sent to the gallows or jail.
Instead of the political party approach, Muslims must operate through the Islamic movement. This is also according to the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) who led the first Islamic movement in history. Unlike the political party that is a closed system with membership etc, the Islamic movement is an open system where every Muslim is automatically a member. Leadership in the Islamic movement is not sought but conferred through the sacrifices of those that have shown their commitment and dedication to the cause.
Those seeking an example of this in action should look at the Islamic Republic of Iran. The late Imam Khomeini led the Islamic movement to bring about an Islamic revolution that demolished the old system and brought about an Islamic order in society. Unlike most other Muslim countries, Iran has had dozens of elections, not under party labels but under different but complementary approaches to issues affecting the Ummah in Iran. There is no party line that individuals pursue. This is most clearly evident in the manner in which voting takes place in Iran’s Majlis. Members are free to vote according to their conscience, not according to any line set by the party as is so common in party-based politics. One only has to look at the workings of any Western parliament to see how the party line approach constrains members from acting.
This is another term that is greatly misunderstood and, therefore, misused. Nowhere in the Qur’an is any word equivalent to the English word religion used. Throughout the noble Qur’an, Allah (swt) uses the word din to describe Islam (3:19, 3:83, 3:85, and many other ayat). Din means a comprehensive way of life. Thus, there can be the din of Islam — the Islamic socio-political and economic system of life — and the din of kufr — a way of life based on the denial of Allah’s (swt) power presence in our lives.
The word religion is based on the secularization of Christianity. The Church has had a troubled history that led to such horrific practices as the Inquisitions and witch burnings. It was as a consequence of these practices and the dictatorial nature of the Church fathers that led to a rebellion resulting in the separation of church and state. Christianity was reduced to a religion instead of being Allah’s (swt) din as was revealed to His noble prophet, Jesus (a). Muslims have had no such problems. Islam accepts no such separation.
The West loves to impose definitions on Muslims. Jihad is one such word that has been mangled beyond recognition. It is mistranslated as holy war. This is not the correct meaning of the word. At its simplest, it means struggle and can take many different forms. A Muslim doing an honest day’s work is engaged in jihad just as a person who removes a stone from the path to prevent someone from tripping over. The Qur’an has a specific word for war — qital — but it contains no equivalent to holy war. In fact, the designation holy war and related language such as infidel were the vernacular of the Crusades, a war on Islam, and not by Islam. Islam does not enjoin Muslims to shy away from fighting when they are attacked; they are permitted to defend themselves (2:190). There is no turning of the other cheek; in fact, nobody in this world turns the other cheek except as a propaganda tool. But in the same ayah of the Qur’an, Allah (swt) tells Muslims not to be aggressive.
The West’s insistence on distorting Islamic terms is meant to serve its own nefarious agenda. Muslims must challenge this and not allow the West or its media to impose their own exclusivitst meanings on Islamic terms as part of a God-offending agenda and then get away with such distortions, as indeed the distortion of many other terms.
This is another word that even Muslims have misunderstood and misinterpreted. It is often translated as piety. This is a great injustice to a word that has abounding and profound meanings. To understand any Arabic word correctly, one must go to its root. Taqwa is derived from waqa or wiqayah. These mean protection or canopy. What is being implied is that a person with taqwa has secured the protection of Allah (swt) from the violations of His social law, or from insolence to His power presence. Muslims would do well to understand the proper meanings of the terms used in the Qur’an and use them accordingly.
It is bad enough for non-Muslims to distort Islamic terms and expressions, it is infinitely worse for Muslims to do so as well. When Muslims begin to understand the meanings of Qur’anic terms and use them appropriately, they could then embark on the process of taking control of their own destiny.