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Islamic Movement

The need for Islamic institutions to develop positive agendas for Muslim societies

Muzaffar Iqbal

At a time when the Islamic movement seems to be dominated by political struggle against external enemies, MUZAFFAR IQBAL emphasises the need for non-political institutions to work for the Islamic improvement and development of Muslim societies.

For most of the last two centuries, Muslims’ attitudes and actions have been defined by the need to respond to various aggressions against them. The result has been a defensive and reactive mindset which has precluded the positive pursuit of well-thought-out agendas for the improvement and development of Muslim societies. This situation has produced a series of setbacks which continue to dictate the course of events in the entire Muslim world. It is true that by about 1800 Europe had attained an upper hand in international affairs, and all other peoples were forced to adjust their social, economic and political orders to cope with the aggression and brutality of a technically industrialized Europe bent upon colonizing the rest of the world. However, it is equally true that this fight for survival can only succeed if there is a simultaneous agenda of positive change that can create and sustain truly Islamic polities in various Muslim lands in a world currently dominated by un-Islamic social, political and economic systems.

To understand this aspect of the contemporary situation of Muslim societies, a distinction needs to be made between societies and governments. Muslim societies have extensive built-in mechanisms for the protection of a distinctly Islamic way of life. These mechanisms have historically acted as shields against the misdeeds of governments. These pillars of society, existing at various levels of social, political and economic order as independent entities, have been enormously significant throughout Islamic history; at times they have been the only ray of hope in a despotic environment.

Sometimes embodied in a single person, but more often working as institutions, these non-governmental entities have existed in the Muslim world in the form of private educational, charitable and waqf (endowment) institutions since the beginning of the Prophetic mission. The large house of Arqam, near the foot of Mount Safa—now unfortunately destroyed by the undeserving rulers of the noble sanctuaries of Islam—was the first such waqf institution, dedicated by its owner to the service of the Muslim community shortly after he embraced Islam. It was a place where Muslims could meet, pray, discuss community matters, and plan their strategies in a hostile city dominated by their enemies.

In time other institutions emerged. Among them was a vast network of private educational institutions that served as a source of scholars whose prestige and honor overshadowed the misdeeds of many rulers. These scholars of Islam have left us a corpus of literature that continues to provide insights into fundamental problems of our times. Among these problems is the problem of survival of an Islamic way of life—in all its dimensions—in a world where even Muslim societies are being ruled by men and women whose qibla has changed to Washington DC.

It is true that modern states have far more power than these private institutions, and governments control a very large portion of resources in any given polity, but it is also true that the non-governmental institutional structures that have traditionally protected Islamic polities have always existed and survived in a similar imbalance of power and resources; they draw their strength from the very large number of people who come into their sphere of influence. A shrine-complex in Mashhad providing food, shelter and education to the dispossessed, a madrasa in the remote mountains of Pakistan and an orphanage in the desert of Yemen are far more effective in protecting and propagating a certain vision of life and death, rooted in Qur’anic teachings, than hundreds of state institutions serving their lords.

These mechanisms of change are effective because they transform individual lives. Once transformed, these men and women serve as agents of further change, setting up a chain of effects, leading to large-scale improvements in society. It should be clearly understood that, unlike the general perception, these private institutions not only provide material benefits to people, but also propagate an active agenda of positive change much feared by tyrannical regimes and their patrons. This is because ultimately a society is made up of individual men, women and children who exist within a larger framework of formal and informal institutions. It is this institutional base that provides sustaining mechanisms for the survival of various modes of life. Embodying the accumulated wisdom, moral and spiritual values, and a vision of life and death, this large network of institutions shapes the worldview of individuals in a manner no government can hope to do. It is through these institutions that subsequent generations of Muslims are groomed. Islam has provided humanity with many such institutions, of which the mosque is the most important.

It was due to the significance and importance of these non-governmental institutions that the colonial rulers tried to destroy them, and it is precisely for this reason that the US has been forcing various "friendly" regimes in the Muslim world to ban these institutions, whether they be madaris, orphanages, or charities sustaining large numbers of families.

These institutions of hope must be strengthened by our private efforts. In addition, new institutions are needed to cope with Western aggression against Islam and Muslims. It is only by means of effective institutions with an agenda of positive change that Muslim societies can hope to survive. What is at stake now is not only oil and other physical resources of the traditional Muslim lands, but the entire range of our cultural, moral, ethical and spiritual life. Thus, for Muslims who understand these challenges, the predicament is clear from two contemporary realities: firstly, that since the beginning of colonization in the eighteenth century there has been no real independence: only the form and name of colonization has changed. This is most apparent in the so-called independence of the six Central Asian Republics, whose ‘independence’ from the Soviet Union was celebrated with a great deal of fanfare but which quickly fell back into the same institutional tyranny from which they sought freedom; in their situation, even faces did not change; in most cases, those who had been the members of the Communist Party until the day of "independence" merely changed their clothes and remained in control.

The second reality is equally straightforward: ever since the great wave of colonization broke over traditional Muslim lands, Islam and Muslims have been under attack at every level. This onslaught targets Islam and Muslims to (i) eliminate Islam as a complete way of life, as it has been understood since its revelation; and (ii) to transform Muslim men and women so that their adherence to their faith becomes a private, ‘religious’ affair, while the rest of their lives are defined by the reigning orthodoxies of secular Western civilization.

Once understood, this situation requires that Muslims invest a much greater proportion of their resources in the non-governmental institutions that have always protected their societies. It is the power and strength of these institutions that will ultimately produce a large-scale change in these societies, leading eventually to the establishment of truly Islamic societies, social orders and governments.

It should also be understood that today these non-governmental institutions cannot remain immune to the social and political currents that are transforming our world. Thus, in addition to their traditional activities, such as providing life-sustaining material benefits to individuals, these institutions must undertake new tasks. These new tasks include large-scale activities in fields as diverse as education, healthcare, and the mass media. In particular, new institutions and thought-processes are needed to understand the enormous transmutation of the Muslim world that has occurred in the last two centuries.

For instance, public perception and understanding of the impact of colonization of the Muslim world needs special attention. It was during the colonial era that an almost total transformation of the institutional structure of the Islamic civilization was achieved. From education to state bureaucracy and from the military to the judiciary, it was a large-scale reordering of the constituting building blocks of the Muslim world. What were the factors that made it possible for the colonizers to destroy our old institutions and implant their own? Why were they successful in eliminating or marginalizing institutions that had emerged and evolved over centuries, and had deep roots in our societies? Understanding this process is of utmost importance for the survival of the Muslim world as well as for its renaissance, because these implanted institutions, still operating all over the Muslim world, remain mechanisms and instruments for influence and control by the colonizing powers. Even the new institutions that have been established in our societies in the so-called post-independence period have generally been modelled on the pattern of the implanted institutions; in most cases, these clones only differ from their parents in name. This is most apparent in education and in institutions dealing with scientific research, as well in numerous state-controlled institutions.

In many cases, particularly those of educational and scientific institutions, these colonial implantations are even considered beneficial for our societies. This is based on the premise that it was only the rise of modern science that produced a concentration of social power, economic wealth and military strength in Europe between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, and that the rise of science occurred on the basis of these institutions. This premise may be true for Europe, but what is of interest here is to investigate whether the Indian Academy of Sciences, established by the British Raj, did what the Royal Academy of Sciences did for the British society during the same period. More importantly, what needs to be investigated is the impact of the emergence of these implanted institutions on existing institutions. In other words, in this specific case, Muslims need to eask: How did science serve the empire? A team of specialists, working under a project director, is bound to find a wealth of material that will tell us something about the great catastrophe that overwhelmed the existing scientific, economic and social institutions in the Muslim world, replacing them with European institutions that were specifically implanted in the Muslim lands to ensure quick financial gains and long-term servitude.

Likewise, it is a well-known fact that the colonization of the Muslim world was not accomplished without political, military and intellectual resistance at many and various levels, yet we do not have an overall picture of the intricacies of this resistance, nor any substantial understanding of the reasons for its failure. This area of Muslim history remains very poorly understood; even in textbooks used in Muslim countries, this resistance is often seen from the perspective of the colonizers. For example, in Pakistan—a country established with the clear and fully expressed purpose of the establishment of an Islamic polity—the heroic but ill-fated uprising against the British in 1857 is usually called Ghadar (mutiny or rebellion against lawful authority), instead of being recognised as a war of resistance against alien invaders and conquerors.

At first sight research into the details of resistance against the colonization of various parts of the Muslim world may seem to be a purely academic exercise. However, such studies will do more than simply help our understanding of the extent of success and failure of the resistance against colonization at that historical juncture; this effort will also redefine contemporary public perceptions of these historical processes. In addition, this research will provide Muslims with an understanding of their own history, untainted by Orientalism or colonialism.

Similarly, one of the most obvious realities of our times is a large-scale process of westernization of Muslim societies. Young Muslims in particular are attracted by Western civilization, primarily due to a poor understanding of the West, based largely on the West’s self-promoting misrepresentation of its own values and achievements. This glaring reality demands that we make a concerted and sustained institutional effort to promote a true understanding of the Western civilization in the Muslim world, because Islam and Islamic civilization cannot accept the values of the West without committing an act of self-annihilation.

Compared to the enormous effort by the West to understand Islam and Muslim on its own terms, Muslim understanding of the West remains, for the most part, grounded in an intellectual tradition belonging to the West. This has produced schizophrenic behaviour which makes general attitudes of Muslims toward the West a complex, ungrounded and unsystematic affair. This fragmented understanding of the West comes from the failure to apply Islamic criteria for assessing civilizations and societies. The task faced by Muslim intellectuals in this area is, therefore, to develop fundamental principles, rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah, that can be used to understand the West in a comprehensive manner so that its material prosperity and its moral and ethical values form one spectrum.

These are merely a few examples of what needs to be done by Muslim non-governmental institutions. Ideally, the first step would be to form an umbrella organization that can create networks among like-minded, non-governmental institutions willing to play a leading role for a positive change; once such an organizational structure is established, these institutions can set up effective mechanisms for positive change in their societies, and benefit from sharing their strengths and resources. However, this is a massive task which is likely to prove extremely difficult and will require consistent efforts over a period of time. While this effort is being made, existing small institutions already working in these areas at a limited local level need to reconsider their mandates in a global context. They may recognize themselves as part of a de facto network of similar organizations and attempt to improve links and communications with each other. By pooling human and material resources, these institutions can create a global network of non-governmental Islamic institutions for a comprehensive change in the Muslim world.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 5

Ramadan 14, 14362004-07-01

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