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Islamic Movement

The origins, foundations and history of the global Islamic movement

Muzaffar Iqbal

During the last three decades, the Western discourse on Islam has, in general, posited the rise of the global Islamic movement in negative terms with such consistency and force that many aspects of this worldwide phenomenon are now associated with fanaticism, extremism and violence. This negative projection is not only limited to the West, moreover; it has also found its way into the Muslim world. The ferocity of this global effort, supported by a multi-million dollar budget, has been so powerful that even many sincere Muslims find it difficult to remain clear about this historical development that has deep roots in Islam and Muslim history. Thus it is not uncommon to come across negative characterizations of the Islamic movement by devout and pious Muslims who mean no harm to the cause of Islam and who would willingly contribute to the movement if their doubts could be removed.

Another group comprises Muslims, as well as many non-Muslims, who simply deny the fact that there is, indeed, a worldwide Islamic movement that aspires to reconstruct an Islamic polity on the basis of theQur’an and Sunnah. Such a denial is generally based on the apparent lack of a visible organizational structure of the movement, and is supported by arguments derived from sectarian, national, social and even cultural differences prevalent among Muslims.

A third group is that of “secular Muslims”, who have aligned themselves with the West and who see nothing but medieval backwardness in Islam’s social, economic and political dimensions. For them, the Islamic movement is a threat to world peace and, of course, to their own lifestyles and ideological orientations. The post-9/11 period has seen further split among Muslims and the prominence given to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida in the West has tainted a whole range of issues associated with the Islamic movement. Under these circumstances, it has become necessary to restate certain fundamental social and political dimensions of Islam that are central to the emergence of a worldwide Islamic movement, and to clarify certain historical developments that have shaped (and continue to shape) various facets of the Islamic movement at this particular juncture of history.

Defining the global Islamic movement and its historical continuity

What many Muslim intellectuals now refer to as the “global Islamic movement” does not refer to an institution, with a head office located in a particular office block in a particularly city; rather, the term refers to the historical processes that have brought diverse currents of thought to a point of convergence to produce a widespread awareness among Muslims that Islam does indeed present a complete and internally coherent belief system encompassing all aspects of life, and that it has become an urgent necessity for Muslims to establish systems and institutions of governance and social order based on Islam in order to avoid being swallowed by a rising ride of Western-style secularism. This consciousness has given birth to a variety of local movements in many parts of the world in the last century, virtually all of which see their particular efforts as only part of a global struggle on the part of the Ummah as a whole. This common realization reflects the convergence of various trends that has formed a global Muslim consciousness of Islam that seeks to establish Islamic polities in all the traditional Muslim lands, and to redefine the role of Muslims living in the West. This consciousness among Muslims all over the world is a phenomenon that is definitely situated in time and place; in other words, it is rooted in a historical reality and is a concrete and visible process that can be observed and studied.

The fact that Muslims around the world are now far more conscious of their religion than those who lived during the first half of the twentieth century is so obvious that it does not require empirical proof. One glance at the news coverage of major Islamic practices such as the Hajj and fasting in Ramadan suffices to confirm that Muslims have a new and dynamic consciousness of their deen that is unlike the passive, small-scale observance of these practices during previous decades. In addition, any observer of Muslim communities in various parts of the world can easily find internal evidence of this rising tide of attachment and adherence to Islam’s abiding principles by millions of people. Another measure of this reality is the huge amount of hostile literature that is appearing in the West; this can only be attributed to anIslamophobia of a hitherto unknown kind.

Another equally verifiable reality is the fact that this revitalized consciousness of Islam among Muslims is radically different from the passive, subdued and usually non-political practices of the generations of Muslims who lived under colonial occupation, although, even then, there were small groups of Muslims who realized the dangers posed by colonial rule and had taken up arms against the occupying armies with the aim of establishing Islamic states. These include the movements led by Uthman Dan Fodio in Nigeria(1754-1817), the Grand Sanusi of Libya (1787-1859), the Mahdi of Sudan (1848-1885), and Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi (1786-1831) of India. Though short-lived, all of these movements contributed substantially to the subsequent development of the Islamic movement. They not only produced strong military resistance, they also generated intellectual and emotional waves within the Muslim world that had far-reaching effects. Among other things, these early Islamic revivalist movements defined certain fundamental aspects of the present global Islamic movement, including the emphasis on the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the clear denunciation of non-Islamic practices, their bold stand against the occupying Western armies and, most of all, their method of drawing inspiration from the Seerah of the Prophet of Islam, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him. All these have become permanent features of the Islamic movement in the later phases.

It should also be understood that the importance of these early movements for the current phase of the global Islamic movement is not merely theoretical and historical; men and women who sacrificed their lives in these movements remain sources of inspiration for Muslims all around the world, and will continue to produce similar, action-oriented inspiration in the future. Whenever a substantial history of the Islamic movement is written, the contributions of men like Sayyid Ahmad will be remembered and recognized. No future historian will be able to ignore the day when a small contingent of Muslims stood at Hudaybiyya (at more or less the same place where the Prophet of Islam had signed the historic pact with the Quraysh that opened the way for the Muslims’ final victory over non-believers) to pledge their lives and property for the restoration of an Islamic state under the command of Sayyid Ahmad. It will be impossible then to treat these Muslims’ 3,000-mile journey to the rugged mountains of Northwest India to fight against the Sikh armies in 1826 as an isolated and irrelevant episode of little wider consequence; rather, these early re-awakenings of Islamic political consciousness will be properly linked to subsequent developments in various parts of the world, just as the men and women who are contributing to the current phase of the Islamic movement will be regarded as the forerunners of the victories to come.

Paradigmatic principles of the global Islamic movement

It is of the utmost importance that Muslims today understand that the contemporary, global Islamic movement is neither a historical oddity nor a passing phase; it is deeply rooted in the foundations of Islam itself, the Qur’an and the Sunnah. It should also be clearly understood that the term “global Islamic movement” refers to a living, growing and emerging process of great historical importance and not to a static entity fixed in space and time. This living and emerging process is not situated in the confines of intellectual theorizing; it is a process that is affecting millions of people, a force that is shaping and defining how real men, women and children exercise choices and live out their lives. Moreover, it is a process characterized by the tremendous sacrifice and perseverance of millions of ordinary Muslims all over the world. Furthermore, it is important to understand that, as the word ‘movement’ suggests, this is a continuous and dynamic process; this continuity can be traced back to the earliest times of Muslim history. It also needs to be clearly realized that the fundamental principles of this movement have always been the same: the Islamic movement has always sought to reassert Islam as a complete way of life and to purify Muslim societies from various alien social, political and economic ideologies and institutions that have crept into Muslim polities and society over time.

These are verifiable historical realities. The practical performances of Islamic movements in history may have varied from place to place and time to time, but a common and abiding foundational principle of these movements is the belief that the process of renewal that they seek requires a reenactment of the first paradigmatic revolution led by the Prophet of Islam, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him. In this paradigm, religion, state and society are integrally related and all are subservient to the revealed Law.

It is this simple yet effective paradigm that has always governed Islamic movements in Muslim history; this historical continuity not only yields an internal clarity for Muslims, but also produces an effective methodology to assess the true strength of a movement and establish a framework to study and assess these movements. At the same time, it is important to understand that, although this paradigm provides a clear methodology to analyze and discuss Islamic movements, it is not merely a theoretical or academic formulation that is applied to a social phenomenon. The systematic process of framing the global Islamic movement within a revealed belief system is both personal and practical; through this formulation, each Muslim is brought face to face with the question of his or her role in the process.

Indeed, this formulation puts a direct question to each and every Muslim. It insists that all Muslims ask themselves: Since, by proclamation of my shahadah, I have entered into a fraternity of believers (“indeed all believers are brothers to one another,” al-Qur’an, 49:10), and by joining this community of believers I have become part of those who have been called to be a witness for truth and to be a witness for all humankind (2:133), then what responsibilities do I have? Given that there is no neutral ground for my choices, that is to say either I am with the Haq (the truth) or against it, how do I become among “those who will be called on the Last Day by the most pleasant of all greetings” (56:26) and who will achieve “that greatest of successes” (85:11) that is reserved for those who strive in the cause of Allah and fight against the taghut?

Indeed, the Qur’an is emphatic about its demand that we make our choices and live by them. It does not deal with abstract, theoretical formulations; it asks us, in the most urgent terms, to enter Islam completely: “O you who believe, enter Islam completely” (2:208). The premise of the Islamic movement is built upon this complete entrance into the deen because either one believes in the completeness of Islam and strives to apply this complete way of life to one’s situation, or one simply does not believe in Islam. There is no such thing as an Islam that has nothing to do with our social, political and economic lives, or is related only to personal spirituality or religious rituals. What Allah has revealed is only one Islam and He has perfected and chosen this for all until the final day of humanity on this planet: “This day have I perfected for you your religion and fulfilled My favor unto you, and it is My good pleasure to choose Islam for you as your deen” (5:3).

Historical Developments

Having understood the paradigmatic foundations of the Islamic movement, we must now consider the different phases of this movement and look to our own time, when the entire Muslim Ummah—that is, a body of believers aspiring to a certain way of life—is faced with the threat of annihilation. It is necessary to trace the recent history of the Islamic movement in order to understand our own situation, as the contemporary Islamic movement has not emerged in isolation from history; in fact, it is deeply rooted in the history of the Ummah, and particularly in the period during which virtually the entire Muslim world was colonized by the West. The impact of this colonization has been so great that even the so-called Islamic leadership of the colonies was dislodged from the principles of the Islamic movement, and the pressure against Islam was so insidious that many pious Muslims living in occupied Muslim lands were reduced to making apologies for Islam.

The Muslim leadership that emerged in the colonies during the late nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth had neither the strength of faith of the earlier generations that had produced men like Sayyid Ahmad of Barelwi, nor the clarity of vision or the courage; the large-scale destruction of Islamic institutions, and the attacks on Muslim culture, and the deliberate targeting of our intellectual and Islamic leaders and elites, resulted in generations of thoroughly demoralized and disoriented leaders. By and large, this leadership was the product of implanted Western political, educational and economic systems, and rose to prominence not because of their Islamic qualities but because of their ability to adapt to alien norms, institutions and systems. When this leadership sought independence from the colonial yoke, it did so not because it wanted to establish Islamic states, but because it wanted to rule the new states in the manner of the colonial masters. These men wanted to become rulers in the manner of their European masters because they were thoroughly colonized in their minds and considered the European rulers as models par excellence. Recall Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s words shortly after he was awarded the title of the Companion of the Star of India by Queen of England in 1869: “Without flattering the English,” he wrote, “I can truly say that the natives of India, high and low, merchants and petty shopkeepers, educated and illiterate, when contrasted with the English in education, manners, and uprightness, are like a dirty animal is to an able and handsome man.” (Musafaran-e London, Majlis Taraqi-e Adab, Lahore, 1961, p. 184)

The distance that separates us from these men (there were few women in this class) allows us to see their errors clearly, but we cannot pass judgements about their iman or condemn them for what they did; “for them is what they earned and for you is what you earn” (2:286) They called themselves Muslims and pronounced the shahadah; some even prayed regularly and fasted. But for all practical purposes, they were demoralized, secular Muslims who had not left their faith but who believed that their proclamation of the shahadah entailed a social, political and communal responsibility that could only be fulfilled by following the West. Islam for them was primarily concerned with the rituals and the Hereafter; as far as the community’s social, economic and political life was concerned, they were convinced that the answers to their problems could only be found in the West. Furthermore, they considered the Western social, economic and political systems far superior to anything that Islam had ever produced, and certainly they thought they were the only possible choice for themselves.

During this phase of Muslim history, these secularized Muslims controlled the political and intellectual stage. This is not to say that the entire Muslim world was devoid of religious leadership, or that there was no undercurrent of discontent against this secular outlook. In fact, in many parts of the world, devoted and sincere Muslims continued to work for the cause of Islam, but their efforts seldom came to the center stage.

In addition, the situation in some occupied lands was so bad that devout and sincere Muslims could only contribute to the Islamic movement in indirect ways; one aspect of this was simply to keep Islam alive in the hearts of the new generation. In the case of Central Asia, for instance, just the basic observance of Islam was an increasingly difficult task, and thousands of sincere Muslims were subjected to extreme torture, and often died painful deaths, merely for practising their faith. These were, indeed, trying times for millions of Muslims in the occupied lands, and we must not sit in judgment against them. The poor, simple and weak of Bukhara who prayed five times a day in a secret hideouts and who kept the glow of iman and Islam in the hearts of their children, even if they were ill-equipped to teach them much about the deen, contributed far more to the cause of the Islamic movement than we can imagine.

In any case, when the growing consciousness of Muslims meant that the colonial powers could no longer rule the Muslim lands directly, the reins was transferred to secular, Westernised Muslims who were made into national heroes in the newly carved out countries. But even as they tried to establish modern states on the Western model, they often had to use Islam as a rallying cry to muster support. At this time another phantom arose: nationalism. Many secular leaders asked for support from the masses in the name of this new god of their own making that had absolutely no legitimacy in Islam. Nationalism, combined with hero-worship, then produced larger-than-life images of people like Mustafa Kamal in Turkey, Gamal Abdul Nasser and various other nationalist leaders in the Arab world, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah in Pakistan. All of these men were held in great esteem for a little while in their own countries, and although some of them are still respected, their larger-than-life profiles have disappeared from the minds of most Muslims. Most now realize that these leaders merely led them from one blind alley to another.

This realization produced the second phase of the contemporary Islamic movement. During this phase, Muslims living in the so-called independent states in the traditional Muslim lands were faced with growing problems of corruption, misuse of resources and the willing submission of their rulers to Western governments for paltry personal gain. In addition, the rising tide of secularization forced upon Muslim societies by state policies was producing societies full of deviant social and cultural practices. This social and cultural catastrophe has clearly demonstrated to Muslims that their passivity has not only made them hostages to the economic exploitation of the West, but has also endangered their deen and their life in the Hereafter.

This realization contributed much to the growth of Islamic consciousness among millions of Muslims, and generated popular support for political parties and organizations proclaiming Islam as the best and only way of life. The Muslim masses saw the programs of these groups as a way out of their plight. Most of these organizations were, in many ways, the second generation of the modern Islamic revivalist phase, that is to say they had come into existence after the emergence of a weak, diluted and often confused wave of intellectual revival that appeared toward the closing years of the nineteenth century. This wave produced thinkers like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), and Rashid Rida (1865-1935), all of whom went through various stages of intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual transformation during their lives; their ideas and work contributed significantly to the emergence of later, more mature, stages of the Islamic movement. This is especially true of Rashid Rida, who became more wary of modernism, nationalism and all other “isms” as time passed, and his intellectual developments aligned him more closely with the ulama. During the final years of his life, he clearly rejected Western secular liberalism and emphasized the comprehensiveness of Islam. His later thinking inspired thinkers like Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen). But even al-Banna was not completely secure in his Islamic foundations; nationalism remained a major element in the political thought of the Ikhwan.

It is easy for us to examine, and even criticize, the mixed intellectual, spiritual and emotional commitments of this generation, and find flaws in their tendency to mix Islam with certain aspects of Western civilization which they thought could contribute to the revival of Islamic civilization. This approach was particularly applied to the Western scientific enterprise; almost all leaders of revivalist movements felt the need to import Western science, and many Muslim intellectuals of this generation demonstrated an uncritical admiration for Western science and technology. The extent of their confusion about Western civilization can be judged from the fact that all of them took Western science as a positive source of knowledge; they idealized it to such an extent that many reduced the Qur’anic term ‘ilm to mean science, and used Qur’anic ayaat to justify the adoption of modern science. Muhammad Abduh even used his lectures on the Qur’an (later compiled as tafsir al-Manar by Rashid Rida, who was a student of his), to situate the acquisition of Western science within the Qur’anic conceptual scheme of acquisition of knowledge. Tantawi Jawhari (1870-1940), another Egyptian, produced a twenty-six volume tafsir, al-Jawahir fi Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Karim, illustrated with drawings, photographs, tables, and charts, so that he could show Muslims that the Qur’an contains all the discoveries of modern science, and that they need only to acquire modern science to understand the Qur’an.

These thinkers were also impressed by many other aspects of Western civilization; some of them had personal experience of living in cities like London and Paris, which had more advanced infrastructures and civic services than any city in the Muslim world; others had a second-hand knowledge of the marvels of Western science and technology, and all of them had experience of living under the colonizers who treated ‘natives’ like animals, inculcating an inferiority complex that can still be seen in myriad forms in the Muslim world. There were hardly any exceptions to such attitudes in the nineteenth century; it was only toward the very end of that century and early in the next that Muslims began to see their own situation viz a viz the West in more balanced terms, and it was not until the emergence of Muhammad Iqbal (1875-1938) on the scene that a clear articulation of the situation of Muslims emerged.

It should also be recalled that nineteenth-century Muslims lived in a very different historical, emotional and cultural climate. It was a climate dominated by fear of physical annihilation and intellectual demoralization. Almost two centuries of Orientalism had, at least in its own estimation, dismantled the house of Islam, and this estimation appeared reasonable to many Muslims. The Qur’an and Sunnah, the twin sources of Islam, had been thoroughly ‘studied’ by Western scholars, and a huge corpus of literature had been generated to reduce the Sunnah to a wishy-washy mixture of dubious sayings attributed to the Prophet (saw), a body of narrations that might have contained some genuine sayings but that was nevertheless unreliable in totality because it was simply impossible to distinguish between the authentic and the non-authentic. And as for the Qur’an, Western Orientalism had all but reduced it a manual of life fabricated in the dark ages and filled with material lifted from the Bible—a book that was dated, to say the least, and was of no relevance whatsoever in an age of scientific discovery. And in any case, Orientalists contended, contemporary Muslims had no or little understanding of it because most of them were illiterate and lacked adequate linguistic skills to read it.

This historical survey brings us to the immediate background of the current phase of the Islamic movement: the post-World War II period. The second half of the twentieth century was to see the emergence of a much more rapid and astonishing phase of the Islamic movement. The post-1945 developments have been so fast and varied that numerous conflicting and contrasting currents seem to be running through the Muslim world. The best way to examine various aspects of the Islamic movement during this period is as a broad wave of a huge body of water, moving rapidly in a certain direction, so that some of this torrential water is already at the farthest horizons of our vision, whereas its tail end is many miles behind the marching current. This image also helps us to see the diversity of the current phase of the movement, as well as its often contradictory and sometimes negative aspects. But, like all historical developments, there is a vanguard of the Islamic movement in our time and there are many elements that lag behind or even resist the progress that the vanguard is making. It is hardly surprising that the actions, thoughts and ideas of the vanguard are starkly different from those of much of the rest of the movement; this is nothing unnatural or unusual, and as for as Islam is concerned, this variation is directly linked to the level of iman and taqwa in a given polity, both of which, we are told by the Prophet (saw), fluctuate continuously even within one person.

What were the major features of the quick maturing of the global Islamic movement in the second half of the twentieth century? Why did certain organizations and political parties, such as the Jama’at-e Islami of Pakistan, lose their initial Islamic foundation and sink into their present pitiful state? How could the Islamic movement produce an Islamic Revolution in Iran under such impossible conditions as prevailed under the rule of the Shah? Why has the same not happened anywhere else in the Muslim world? These, and other questions, need to be considered before we can understand the process that is now radically altering the global situation; and which is bound to have a major impact on the path and success of the Islamic movement in this century.

(The second part of this three-part article will appear in the February 2005 issues of Crescent International.)


Article from

Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 11

Dhu al-Qa'dah 20, 14252005-01-01


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