The diversity of the human condition and experience is one of the most wonderful elements of the world that Allah subhahanu wa ta‘ala has created for us. The evolution of human societies over time, and the need for people to learn from the experiences of earlier generations, is one of the major themes of the Qur’an. In Surah al-Baqarah, for example, Muslims are reminded of the history of the Jews and warned to learn from their mistakes. In numerous ayaat, such as the opening of Surah al-Fil (s.105), the Qur’an appeals to the intellect that the Creator has given us: “Do you not see...?”
The significance of this point is all the more important when one considers the changes that the world has undergone in the last 1,400 years. Although some Muslims have tried to translate the principles of the Qur’an and the lessons of the Seerah of the Prophet (saw) into a rigid set of laws and for the ordering of life in accordance with Islamic teachings, and treated such human attempts to codify Islamic principles as though they were as sacrosanct as the principles themselves, the experience of such attempts shows that the approach is flawed. It is not difficult to realise why: given the incredible variety of human experience, and of the immense changes in human circumstances over time, any Divine and eternal teachings that are intended for all people in all places for all time can only be broad and flexible principles that people must constantly reinterpret for the particular conditions of their time and place in history.
It is perhaps understandable that some Muslims in the past failed to grasp this point. The artefacts of modernity have both accelerated change in human societies, and made it easier for us to appreciate the range of human experience. It is also understandable that some Muslims nowadays remain ill-equipped to learn all the lessons of the history of the Ummah. Conservatism is a natural reaction among those who fear that they have lost control over the forces of change, and that change can therefore only be for the worse. This is what happened in many Muslim societies with the onset of colonialism. The Western assumption that Muslim societies were stagnant until the West introduced modernity is, of course, false. What the West did was interrupt the natural evolution of our societies, through which Muslims would have developed solutions for their problems on the basis of our indigenous values and experiences, both defined by Islam.
The impact of colonial rule can hardly be overstated: every progressive trend within the Islamic movement was attacked – intellectually, politically or physically – because it challenged Western rule. Islam was left to those who abandoned politics, and later adopted by those who had accepted Western ways because of their evident success in the world, but who understood little or nothing of Islam or their own societies. And that is precisely the situation that still exists, with the West encouraging both conservative, apolitical understandings of Islam, and the ‘Islamization’ of Western concepts such as democracy by Muslims who are taken in by the Western claim that their worldly success is based on universal values, while attacking any expression of genuine Islamic principles that might challenge Western hegemony.
In a sense, the challenge facing the contemporary Islamic movement is to find our way back, intellectually and politically, to where we would (or should) now have been had our history not been so disastrously derailed. Of course, we cannot reverse the changes that our societies have undergone, but we must understand these changes, and the impact of the political circumstances in which they have taken place, and reinterpret the principles of Islam (particularly the political and social principles of Islam, although the moral and spiritual must not be ignored) accordingly. This is what Dr Kalim Siddiqui, the 10th anniversary of whose death will be marked this month, established the Muslim Institute to try to do in the early 1970s: to lay the foundations for a future re-emergence of Islamic civilization, and repeat what Imam Khomeini had achieved in Iran.
The Islamic Revolution caught the West cold; few believed that Muslims still had the potential to challenge the West. Since 1979, Islamic movements elsewhere have been subjected to intense attack from a West that has been stung into action. Under these circumstances, the abstract consideration of broader historical, political and social issues can appear an impossible indulgence. But Dr Kalim Siddiqui realised that it is in fact an essential prerequisite for the future success of the Islamic movement. This is what the conferences that the Muslim Institute held on different aspects of Muslim history and thought in the 1980s and early 1990s aimed to achieve, and they had considerable impact on Islamic movements at the time. But the broader vision remains to be realised.
Muslims still await an intellectual revolution in the Islamic movement that can define the processes of change by which we can defeat the West, and – perhaps even more importantly – the societies that we must build once the West is defeated, insha’Allah.