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Islamic Movement

The origins, foundations and history of the global Islamic movement (Part 2)

Muzaffar Iqbal

While most of the Arab world was under the sway of nationalism and small men were strutting the political stage of the Middle East, propagating their brand of Arab nationalism tinted with socialism, a quiet revolution was taking place in the religious circles of Iran. A man who had devoted all of his life to the pursuit of religious knowledge was calling his companions to give up their abstinence from politics and provide desperately needed leadership to a people that was rapidly being westernized by its ruling circles. Born on September 24, 1902, in Khomein, a small town about one hundred kilometers (60 miles) south-west of Tehran into a family well known for its scholarship and learning, Ruhullah al-Musavi al-Khomeini clearly perceived the great danger that had arisen out of the political abstinence of the ulama, and had decided to dedicate his life to change it.

During the early years of his education and training under the guidance of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Karim Ha’iri, the most respected and learned student of the great scholars of Shi`I teaching centers in Iraq, first in Arak and later in Qum, Ruhullah had been drawn to mysticism and ethics. But even in those early years of his life, while his piety, knowledge and mystical writings were drawing thirsty souls to his lectures in Qum, he was not unaware of the situation of his people, and was constantly troubled by the reluctance of the ulama to fulfill their duty in the social and political domains. However, at that time, he could not wield much influence over the religious authorities in Qum; he was, after all, just one of hundreds of young men who were pursuing knowledge in the madrassas run by great Ayatullahs whose learning, piety and guidance were revered by millions of people in the Shi`a world. Although he quickly rose to prominence among his peers, and became a respected alim in his own right, he remained quiet on political issues until the death of Ayatullah Burujirdi in March 1962.

Although Ruhullah did not officially become Burujirdi’s successor, the publication of a collection of his fatwas by his close friends soon after the death of Ayatullah Burujirdi implicitly declared Ruhullah’s willingness to assume the responsibilities of leadership. Great events were, however, about to unfold as Raza Shah Pahlavi had launched a new drive to westernize Iran. By 1963, liquor stores were opening all over the country, women were being stripped of their traditional role in Iranian society, and an elite group was leading a movement that urged the total Westernization of Iranian society through the so-called White Revolution.

The time had come for a decisive step and Ayatullah Khomeini, now sixty, stepped forward to provide leadership to a movement that would produce the only successful Islamic Revolution of modern times. The period between March 22, 1963 – when the Shah’s paratroopers stormed the Fayziya Madrasa in Qum and killed a number of students – and February 1, 1979, when Imam Khomeini returned to Iran after fourteen years in exile, is one that requires careful scrutiny in order to understand the various phases by which a successful Islamic revolution took place in Iran. It was also a period filled with details of horrific repression and savagery unleashed by the Shah on his people, as well as an era that provides inspiring examples of sacrifice by those who had clearly understood that their proclamation of the shahadah would only be a true proclamation if they strove to establish Allah’s deen in their lives as individuals as well as in the collective body of believers.

These details, however, belong to another study dealing with the Islamic Revolution in Iran proper. What is important for us, in this examination of the phases of the Islamic movement during the period 1950-2000, is that the first Islamic Revolution succeeded under circumstances that were far worse than those in many other parts of the world where Islamic movements failed to achieve results; Pakistan is a case in point.

A country established in the name of Islam for the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan has noraison d’être other than Islam; yet it is a great irony of our time that Pakistan has drifted continuously away from Islam since its inception in 1947 through a political struggle led by a nationalist leadership who had been educated and trained at Western institutions. What is worse is that its religious leadership have never clearly understood the process by which an Islamic state can be established. As a result, Pakistan’s people have not only lost many opportunities to establish an Islamic state, they have now been carried so far away from Pakistan’s founding principles that the country faces internal collapse. Many factors have contributed to Pakistan’s present condition, but the most important has been the lack of a leader who could transform the Islamic commitment of its people into a systematic movement working for the establishment of an Islamic state.

This failure is complex and implicates a whole range of religious and political leaders; the most important of these are associated with the Jama`at al-Islami founded by Sayyid Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi (1903-1979), a contemporary of Ayatullah Khomeini (1902-1989) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), but quite different from both in many respects. Unlike Imam Khomeini, Mawdudi did not have a childhood and early adulthood steeped in the tradition of Islamic learning; unlike Sayyid Qutb, he did not possess a revolutionary spirit. Yet his slow emergence as a leader of Pakistan’s Islamic movement, and his failure to accomplish the task, provide significant insights for understanding a phase of the Islamic movement that we must admit is a tragic and terrible waste of opportunity.

It is not the intent of this article to trace the personal development of Abu’l-A’la Mawdudi from a “man of middling stature, rather plump with English-cut hair, clean shaven, wearing a fez cap, Aligarh fashion trousers and Hyderabadi close-collar long coat” (Ra’is Ahmad Ja`fari, cited in Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr,Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996, p. 29) in 1937 to the founder of the Jama’at al-Islami in Lahore in August 1941; this survey aims to examine the methodology that he advocated for the establishment of an Islamic state in his writings, the most influential being those published between 1933 and 1941. It was through this body of work, which clearly articulated a methodology for the establishment of an Islamic state, that Mawlana Mawdudi earned a respected and influential place in the history of Islam. Yet it is ironic that the man who so vividly described the stages of a vast social revolution did not follow his own prescription. This personal failure is tragic because his vision was not abandoned in favour of another sincerely worked-out method, but for the sake of immediate benefits and political power.

The path to revival of Islam that Mawlana Mawdudi advocated began with the transformation of the individual Muslim. He argued that it was the individual believers who had to re-evaluate their roles as a Muslims before a Muslim polity could emerge and before an Islamic state could be established. The path to a successful Islamic state, therefore, began with the mobilization of individual Muslims around what he called “active submission to Allah”. The crisis faced by Muslims, Mawdudi argued, was not the result only of decay of Muslim societies and failure of their institutions; the root of the problem was the fall of the individual Muslim. Until and unless “partial” Muslims become whole again, he argued, there can be no Islamic state. The revival of the faith at the individual level was, therefore, the first necessary step toward the resuscitation of an Islamic polity.

Let us note parenthetically that there is a certain degree of convergence of methodologies proposed by Imam Khomeini and Mawlana Mawdudi, although Imam Khomeini had formulated the path to an Islamic state in the context of Iran, whereas Mawlana Mawdudi had charted the course of establishment of an Islamic state within the context of the Indian subcontinent, where Muslims were faced with two challenges: one of colonialism and the other of Hindu dominance. Both Khomeini and Mawdudi emphasized the need for an active participation of individual Muslims in the process of establishing an Islamic state. In a series of lectures given at Najaf between January 21 and February 8, 1970, Imam Khomeini outlined three major aspects of the process of establishment of an Islamic government. The first was the propagation of the cause by reaching out to people and clearly demonstrating to them the nature of taghut (al-Qur’an 2:256 and 257) and the benefits of establishing an Islamic government; the second step was the overthrow of tyrannical governments; and the third was the establishment of Islamic institutions. Later published as Islamic Government, these lectures to students of religious sciences emphasized the fact that it was their duty to establish an Islamic state:

Sometimes I see people who sit in the centers of religious institutions saying to each other: ‘these are matters beyond us; they are not our business. All we are supposed to do is to offer our prayers and give our opinions on questions of religious law.’ Ideas like these are the result of several centuries of malicious propaganda on the part of the imperialists, penetrating deep into the very heart of Najaf, Qum, Mashhad, and other religious centers, causing apathy, depression, and laziness… Rid yourself of your depression and apathy. Improve your methods and program of propagation, try diligently to present Islam accurately and resolve to establish an Islamic government. (R. Khomeini, Islamic Government, translated by Hamid Algar, 2nd Edition, European Islamic Cultural Centre, Rome, 1983, p. 34.)

The methodology proposed by Mawlana Mawdudi did not have the revolutionary tone of the Imam’s message, yet it was not devoid of its own candid and inspiring tone:

The worker who has taken upon himself to establish Allah’s deen should not take anyone but Allah as his helper, sustainer, friend and source of power, because no one else has any power. He should only accept Allah as the King, the Owner of the Kingdom and the Ruler; he should not accept anyone else as a Law-giver and he should refuse to accept any authority that is not subordinate to Allah, because our land has only one rightful ruler: Allah... (Constitution of Jama’at al-Islami, p. 10-11).

Mawlana Mawdudi proposed that an Islamic government could come into existence through the emergence of a group of righteous men and women—people who were mu’mins in their beliefs and salih(righteous) in their character and conduct.

Once you have such a group of people, you will not only rule this country, but also the political, economic, social, intellectual and judicial institutions of the entire world and the lamp of transgression cannot remain lighted before such a force… I cannot say when this revolution will occur, but just as I am certain about the rising of the sun tomorrow, I am certain about this revolution. (History of Jama`at al-Islami, p. 87).

On March 18, 1938, Mawlana Mawdudi took a step toward this revolution by moving to Pathankot inGurdaspur district, where he planned to establish a prototype of an Islamic state on a large tract of land donated by Chaudhary Niaz Ali. This prototype was to prepare a group of righteous men and women who would be harbingers of a future Islamic state. Ironically, the organization established to produce this group had to be registered with the British government’s bureaucracy, but once the Dar al-Islam Trust had been established in October 1938, it attracted a small group of people who started a rigorous programme of training and practice in a geographical setting evocative of pristine Islam. Dar al-Islam was intended to be a place from where the future Muslim leadership would emerge, but within three months Mawlana Mawdudi had to abandon it because of differences with Chaudhary Niaz Ali, who wanted to keep the Trust apolitical. In January 1939 Mawdudi and his colleagues left Pathankot and moved to Lahore, where the Jama`at al-Islami was founded in August 1941. He then returned to Dar al-Islam under a renegotiated agreement with Niaz Ali, and stayed there until 1947.

By 1947, when the Indian subcontinent was divided into Pakistan and Bharat (India), Mawlana Mawdudi had become an acknowledged intellectual and religious leader, and his writings were having an impact beyond the confines of India. By then he had elaborated on several of his earlier themes dealing with iqamat-e deen (establishment of deen), and the Jama`at al-Islami had become one of the most organized political, social and intellectual forces in a society that was still suffering from the ills of the feudal age.

Soon after the emergence of Pakistan, Mawdudi was able to join ranks with many ulama, and together they became a considerable force that was able to have a strong impact on a large range of issues and events, from the anti-Qadiani movement to the making of the constitution of the new state. Jailed and later sentenced to death for sedition, Mawlana Mawdudi remained firm in his beliefs and commitments, and provided intellectual support for a number of Islamic causes during the formative period of the new state. The death sentence was commuted to fourteen years in prison by a civilian court, and his conviction was reversed by the country’s supreme court in 1955.

A central doctrine of the Jama`at, the one that made it an Islamic movement rather than merely a political party, was its abstinence from electioneering. But by 1957, when the Jama`at had achieved considerable strength, Mawlana Mawdudi was ready to abandon this principle. In the annual meeting of the Jama`at held at Machi Goth in 1957, and in the subsequent meeting of the Shura held at Kot Sher Singh, Mawdudi forced the Jama`at to adopt a new strategy by threatening to resign if its other leaders did not accept his proposed course of action. Mawdudi’s personal influence won the day and led the Jama`at into a political cul-de-sac from which it has never recovered. A number of senior members of the Jama`at resigned, reinforcing Mawdudi’s full control over the affairs of the Jama`at. From this point onwards, the Jama`at al-Islami was neither a revolutionary political party, nor part of the Islamic movement; it was merely another political party in Pakistan that was primarily interested in winning seats in a thoroughly corrupt and un-Islamic system, believing, ironically, that by doing so it could make the system Islamic.

Mawlana Amin Ahsan Islahi, one of the most senior members of Jama`at al-Islami, was among those who resigned from the Jama`at after this change in direction. He later wrote two long letters to Mawlana Mawdudi, in which he expressed his dismay over the way in which Mawdudi had been able to impose his personal agenda on the Jama`at. These letters are haunting reminders of how a budding Islamic movement can be destroyed by its leader, and how weaker personalities can harm the cause of Islamic movements. This internal rift in the Jama`at was, however, merely the tip of the iceberg; after achieving absolute control over the Jama`at, Mawlana Mawdudi tried to reach the corridors of political power by various questionable alliances, including some with military generals. As a result, Pakistan’s only available avenue to becoming an Islamic state was destroyed, perhaps forever.

Later Islahi and a few associates tried to set up another organization to work for the cause of Islamic revival, but nothing came of the attempt, although Islahi left many works outlining thepath to this revival. His most important work is Tadabbur al-Qur’an, a nine-volume commentary on the Qur’an.

Its failure now established, the Jama`at al-Islami continues to pursue a dubious course of political bargains in Pakistan’s fractured politics. A hodge-podge of so-called Islamic parties, the Jama`at and its allies make and break deals with the ruling army, they deceive their people by raising slogans that mean nothing, and they call for long marches to Islamabad that are abandoned even before they start. During the American invasion of Afghanistan, these parties gained considerable prominence and led thousands of ill-trained and ill-equipped young men into the killing fields of Afghanistan, where they were ruthlessly slaughtered. Later they closed ranks with Pakistan’s latest military dictator, who has become a trusted ally of the US, only to be ditched once his objectives were achieved. Thus, for all practical purposes, the Jama`at al-Islami’s role as an Islamic movement ended in 1957 when it abandoned its own principles.

Another important part of the Islamic movement during the period under consideration is that of al-Ikhwanal-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood), founded in Ismailiah, a town on the Suez Canal, Egypt, in 1928 byHasan al-Banna (1906-1949) and his associates. Adopting al-Islam hua al-hal (“Islam is the solution”) as its motto, the Ikhwan came into existence by a powerful synthesis of various political and social forces operating in Egypt at the time. The early members of the Ikhwan were aware not only of the colonial exploitation of Egyptian resources, but also of the role of the ulama of al-Azhar in the making of the terrible conditions that were turning Egypt into a secular, westernized state. One of al-Banna’s early influences came from Shaikh al-Dwijiri, who criticized al-Azhar’s ulama for their complicity with Egypt’s pro-Western forces. Al-Banna was also strongly influenced by Shaikh Muhibb al-Din al-Khatib, a Syrian scholar who had organized an Islamic library for the youth.

Between 1928 and 1938, the Ikhwan concentrated on establishing branches throughout Egypt. Members became a strong social force in curbing the rising tide of Westernization; in many areas, they succeeded in closing down places that promoted vices such as gambling, drinking and prostitution. Initially, the Ikhwan tried to work within the system. Al-Banna wrote letters to King Farooq and prime minister Nahas Pasha, urging them to adopt Islamic laws and root out corruption. But al-Banna soon realized that an Islamic government cannot emerge from a totally bankrupt system. As a result, as early as 1940, the Ikhwan was establishing military training camps in preparation for an ultimate armed struggle with the ruling class. This proved a turning point in the history of the Ikhwan.

Between 1940 and 1948, al-Banna’s considerable organizational skills turned the Ikhwan into a powerful force, with its own political, educational, social, judiciary and military arms. The Ikhwan became so powerful that in 1948 it was able to send volunteers to Palestine to fight the Zionists. In the same year, al-Banna met Jamal Abdul Nasser, who was then leading a secret Free Officers’ Association; the two men agreed to join forces to liberate Egypt. However, there was already growing apprehension of the power of the Ikhwan in Egypt’s government, and it was banned in December 1948. The Ikhwan went underground, but in February 1949 Egypt’s internal security forces assassinated al-Banna, allegedly in retaliation for the assassination of the prime minister by a member of the Ikhwan.

At the time of his assassination, al-Banna was only 43. He had dedicated his entire life to the movement, and although his death was a severe blow to the Ikhwan, it survived. However, it was still subjected to a massive crackdown, with its assets impounded and thousands of its members jailed. However, the Ikhwan, which by now had spread to Syria, Sudan and Jordan, worked with Nasser to overthrow the monarchy; when Nasser succeeded in July 1952, the Muslim Brotherhood hoped to march forward toward an Islamic Egypt. But, like most military officers, Nasser was not interested in Islam as a ruling paradigm. He had merely used the Ikhwan for his own ends, and once in power he quickly distanced himself from it. Egypt’s Coptic Christians and the army’s secular officers came to his aid and the Ikhwan was banned.

Nasser’s crackdown on the Ikhwan was much severer than King Farooq’s had been; thus began a heroic phase in the history of this bold and powerful Islamic movement that was to have far-reaching effects in many parts of the Muslim world. By the time Nasser unleashed his reign of terror, he had acquired considerable popularity among the masses by his fiery rhetoric, tinged with Pan-Arabism and socialism. The Ikhwan had miscalculated not only his true intentions, but also his ruthlessness and support in the army. During this second crackdown, many Ikhwan leaders went underground, as unprecedented terror was unleashed by the security forces.

Nasser was not alone in this brutal repression of an Islamic movement that had helped him in many ways; Syrian and Jordanian despots followed his example. Thousands of Muslims who were not members of the Ikhwan also suffered terrible losses in all three countries during these years of suppression. All that a regime needed to send someone to a concentration camp in the desert was an anonymous letter alleging connections with the Ikhwan. No one knows how many people disappeared during these years, but thousands of families still mourn the loss of relatives. The repression imposed by Hafiz al-Asad in Syria was so severe that even to grow a beard became a crime. He was also responsible for a mass slaughter in Hamma that is still remembered with horror by those who know its details.

But even this repression could not extinguish the flame of Islamic ideals in the hearts of millions of Muslims committed to the movement. A powerful expression of this commitment was seen when Syed Qutb was sentenced to death on the orders of Nasser for writing Ma’alem Fit-Tareeq (‘Guideposts on the Road’, 1965, better known as Milestones), a book that continues to inspire millions of Muslims. On August 29, 1966, when they took him to the gallows, a light appeared on his face and he smiled as though he was already witnessing the beatific vision that had inspired him to write one of the most important 20th century commentaries of the Qur’an, Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (‘In the Shade of the Qur’an’).

In formulating the path to revival, Syed Qutb rejected any mixing of Islam and alien philosophies. Situating his assessment of the multiple crises faced by Muslims in concrete historical facts, he boldly asserted that:

Islam cannot fulfill its role except by taking concrete form in a society, rather, in a nation; for man does not listen, especially in this age, to an abstract theory which is not seen materialized in a living society. From this point of view, we can say that the Muslim community has been extinct for a few centuries, for this Muslim community does not denote the name of a land in which Islam resides, nor is it a people whose forefathers lived under the Islamic system at some earlier time. It is the name of a group of people whose manners, ideas and concepts, rules and regulations, values and criteria, are all derived from the Islamic source. The Muslim community with these characteristics vanished at the moment the laws of God became suspended on earth. If Islam is again to play the role of the leader of mankind, then it is necessary that the Muslim community be restored to its original form. (Syed Qutb, Milestones, translated by Ahmad Zaki Hammad, American Trust Publications, Indianapolis, 1990, p. 2.)

Qutb’s courageous formulation demanded that before a revival can take place, Muslim communities must first acknowledge that they are buried under the debris of the man-made traditions… [and] crushed under the weight of those false laws and customs which are not even remotely related to the Islamic teachings…The distance between the revival of Islam and the attainment of world leadership may be vast, and there may be great difficulties on the way; but the first step must be taken for the revival of Islam. If we are to perform our task with insight and wisdom, we must first know clearly the nature of those qualities on the basis of which the Muslim community can fulfill its obligation as the leader of the world. This is essential so that we may not commit any blunders at the very first stage of its reconstruction and revival. (Ibid., p. 3.)

Limitations of time and space do not permit the discussion of other manifestations of Islamic commitment in other parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia, Turkey, Algeria, Sudan, and Central Asia, in this article. Suffice it to say that every traditional land of Islam glows with the evidence of a resurgence of Islamic commitment. In each case, this renewed sense of commitment to Islam has involved tremendous sacrifice by millions of Muslims. In Algeria alone more than 100,000 Muslims have been killed since 1991.

What is most significant for our understanding of these aspects of the global Islamic movement during this period is the fact that, except for Iran, no part of the Muslim world has been able to establish an Islamic government and that in all these failures the ultimate showdown has been between the Islamic movement (in its various forms) and the armed forces of its own country, supported by Western governments. Whether in Algeria, Syria or Pakistan, it is always the armed forces that block the way to the establishment of Islamic government. Why? What is the true nature of this unique feature of the contemporary struggle of Muslims? Why are their own armed forces, paid for by their taxes and raised from among them, a major obstacle to the fulfillment of the Islamic aspirations of Muslim peoples?

This is one of the key questions that are central to understanding of the directions that Islamic movements must take in future in order to achieve its objectives.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 12

Dhu al-Hijjah 21, 14252005-02-01

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