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Islamic Movement

The Prophet’s Seerah and the contemporary state of the Ummah

Muzaffar Iqbal

The Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought convened a conference on the Seerah in Toronto last month, in association with Crescent International. Here we print the paper presented by DR MUZAFFAR IQBAL

The celebration of the life of the Prophet of Islam (saw) is being held when almost the entire Muslim world is under neo-colonial rule. This is perhaps the darkest time of our history, when truth and falsehood have become indistinguishable for most, and the forces of kufr have penetrated deep into the Muslim world.

This terrible state of affairs has not emerged overnight; it is the result of a long process. In order to understand our situation and seek guidance, we must examine the processes that have brought us to our present predicament. But before that we need to understand the condition of the Ummah today. What is meant by neo-colonialism? How does it operate? Who are the people using this new method to subjugate the Ummah, and what does it mean to be governed by proxy rulers?

After the collapse of Muslim rule in Ottoman Turkey, Mughal India and Safavid Iran, almost the entire Muslim world was occupied physically by European powers. During the occupation they established new institutions in almost all spheres of collective life. These institutions were used to cultivate a new generation who looked like us but behaved like them. In the century of colonial rule, steps were taken to undermine the Islamic tradition. This aspect of colonization was the destruction of a tradition, a way of life and a unique orientation of society toward the Creator. This barbaric policy has received little attention; in fact, this willful destruction of a civilisation has been called "bringing modern education, industry, science and technology" to the Muslim world; many Muslims see this aspect of colonization as the colonizers portray it. Most nineteenth-century reformers also saw it so.

They considered British and French education far superior to their own. Many travelled to England and France, witnessed the "fruits" of the scientific and industrial revolutions, and came back mesmerized. They saw technological inventions and called them miracles. They were so impressed by the wide and clean roads, by the water-supply systems and the town-planning of their rulers, that they were ashamed to belong to a community that they learnt to regard as riddled with illiteracy, poverty and disease, in towns and villages where there was nothing "civilized" by their new standards.

Thus a terrible verdict was passed on Islamic civilization, not only by the colonizers but also by the colonized: people whose standards had been changed; people for whom the material wealth and glamour of Western civilization had become the only definition of advancement and progress. True, there were many ills in Muslim societies, especially enormous problems concerned with the development of infrastructure and institutions suitable to a changing world. But these problems were misunderstood and exaggerated; a general verdict was passed that the whole of Islamic civilization was backward, ill-suited for changed times, and in need of reform.

The reformers’ discourse was, in fact, a product of the new "educated elite" that had emerged in the colonized lands. This elite considered Western civilization the most advanced and sophisticated civilization, and all others as backward and primitive. When applied to Islamic civilization, this verdict discredited everything achieved during the previous millennium in the sciences, architecture, education and health-systems. It could not, however, reject Islam outright. So it made allowance for faith by creating a deep fissure in the Islamic tradition. This operation separated personal faith from all other aspects of Islam, thus producing a generation that possessed a dormant faith and lived a life shaped by Western ideals.

This schizophrenia showed in their blindly imitating the colonizers’ ways. Thus there emerged thousands of educational institutions, teaching a curriculum in which Islam either was absent or had been abstracted from real life by a reductive process that made the Qur’an a book wrapped in cloth and kept on a shelf so high that it was out of reach, even physically. Likewise the Prophet (saw) was made into a sacrosanct being whose memory was celebrated year after year but whose life had no relation to the lives of those who revered him.

This abstraction of Islam, this caricature of a faith, produced a society in which Islam had lost its role as the shaper of the social order. Once Islam was reduced to theoretical formulations, Muslim society lost its inheritance that had been cultivated for over a millennium. One of the worst parts of this loss was accomplished by a master-stroke: the forces of occupation simply discarded the Islamic languages and substituted their own, thus making a vast amount of spiritual, ethical and intellectual guidance inaccessible to future generations of Muslims.

Robbed of their languages that had linked them to centuries of scholarship, wisdom and literature, the Muslims were uprooted from the very soil that could have helped them to recover from the occupation. Herein lie the roots of our present condition. It is in this process of intellectual and emotional genocide that we find clues to changes that are now apparent all over the Muslim world.

Imagine an occupying army in Washington DC announcing that English is no longer the language in which the business of the state will be conducted. This would not only render thousands of skilled administrators redundant, it will also subvert four hundred years of historical process by making thousands of scholars, scientists, teachers and thinkers illiterate. It must create a new generation of administrators, scholars, writers, teachers and institutions that align themselves with not only the newly-imposed language but also with the civilization and lifestyle of the occupying force. And if this occupation were to last a hundred years, it would create a truly new order. This is exactly what happened in the Muslim world.

During the nineteenth century this new order manifested itself through educational and administrative institutions that are still operative in almost all Muslim lands. But despite the violence with which this new order was enforced, Islam could not be uprooted completely. Reduced to ‘ibadah and made abstract and unreal, still it remained in the hearts of millions. They had lost the tradition of learning that once produced profound thinkers, scholars and scientists, but their faith could not be destroyed completely. We see this even in the most Westernized lives: even those raised with only rudimentary knowledge of Islam wish to get married and be buried according to traditional Islamic practices.

Despite all the social, political and economic forces against it, Islam remained the faith of the vast majority, and continued to guide the religious life of society, although its social, political and economic aspects were overshadowed. Thus there emerged a severance between the various components that comprise Islam, producing a schizophrenic society which was being pulled in opposite directions. This severance is still the dominant feature of the Ummah today; it is no exaggeration to say that it is the Ummah’s worst sickness.

This severance separates faith (iman) from deeds (a’mal), education from knowledge and insight, personal conduct from social conduct, politics from ethics, and beliefs from practices. It permeates all Muslim societies. It is to be found in all classes of these societies, at all levels.

Thus an Ummah of more than a billion has become impotent, ineffective and oppressed. It is inconceivable that Islam has produced a social body without goals and purpose, consisting of weak and ineffective individuals who have no collective direction, goal or purpose. Islam by definition is a dynamic and effective system with a definite goal and direction, which exists as the result of a covenant (mithaq) between the Creator and His creation: a covenant that pulsates with strength and creativity. It also produces coherence in individuals and societies by guiding individual and collective lives.

Thus severance and dissonance are unIslamic characteristics: docility and weakness are not the result of Islam, as some claim, but the antithesis of Islam. The life of Allah’s Messenger (saw) proves this. His is the best-recorded life in human history, and not a single report suggests a docile, ineffective and split state. On the contrary, his whole life is characterized by a decisiveness that knows no hesitation. Whether in danger of defeat and death at Uhud, or at his triumphant entry into Makkah, we see him in a resolute faith that knows no doubt. His was a life governed by the inner radiance and strength that comes from total obedience to and acquiescence in the will and command of Allah.

The social and political order that came into existence in Madinah, and spread to a large part of the world within fifty years of his death, also shows the signs of great inner coherence and outward decisiveness. This resolution, this clarity of means and ends, this unity of inner certainty and outer action, were passed on to the Companions (ra). Whether we examine the small battalion of Muslims that arrived in Samarqand to establish an Islamic order in Central Asia, or the Muslims who went to the ancient seats of learning in Alexandria, we find the same unity, the same steadiness, the same confidence in the truth and beauty of Islam.

Islam is not a faith that comes into existence on Fridays; it is a way of doing and a mode of being. It cannot be patched with any foreign philosophy or way of life. It is impossible to think of a Muslim being a Muslim in a masjid and not a Muslim in the office or laboratory or home. This coherence is one of the most fundamental aspects of Islam. During colonization this inner coherence of the Ummah was destroyed. It is this destruction that has produced a split in the Islamic polity today. As a result of this split the Ummah has been reduced to an ineffectual mass of undirected lives.

Many diagnoses and prescriptions have been made of our present state. This forlorn state has been described by thinkers in diverse ways during the last century. Some have suggested that the calamity is a result of our departure from the Qur’an and Sunnah; others have said that it is the result of falling behind Europe in science and technology; still others blame it on this or that social, economic or political factor. Perhaps all these diagnoses have some degree of truth. What it is important that we achieve, however, is a general acceptance that there is something terribly wrong with the followers of Islam; that our docile existence is in contradiction to our faith, which by definition is a faith of action, strength and resolution.

This verdict needs no evidence: the sheer force of reality verifies it; the present state of the Muslim world is indeed one of defeat. But I wish to qualify this verdict. The decay and decadence, the fall of ethical action, the economic and political subjugation and the military weakness of the Muslim world, all are indeed undeniable, but we must not make the mistake of accepting the present state of the world in general, and the West in particular, as an enviable alternative. The fact is that all civilizations have decayed, and Western civilization most of all, by Qur’anic standards. This distinction is important because otherwise we are liable to fall into the trap of self-laceration, glorification of taghut, and total confusion. Let there be no doubt about the nature of decay. The decay of the West is of the worst kind: the very criteria of right and wrong have been lost. The very basis of existence as a social entity has been eroded during the last fifty years. This must be kept in mind, because when a civilization reaches such a state, though it may still have material wealth and military power, it is bound to collapse eventually. History testifies amply to this general rule; there is no reason to believe that Western civilization will be an exception. That is another subject; permit me, therefore, to close by suggesting practical steps for the Muslims in North America.

The Muslim community in North America enjoys a unique position in the world of Islam. Never before in our history have we seen a Muslim community of this composition. We have among us people of all races, colors, languages and social backgrounds. This wonderful composition, this truly diverse community, has a vital role to play. This community has been blessed with great material resources, and its very composition is testimony to the universality of the message of Islam. Through the declaration of the shahadatain, through our submission to the Creator, through our covenant with Allah, we have entered into a bond that no human law can abrogate; through Islam we have entered into a fraternity who are like one body. This bond, transcending all racial, social, political and economic considerations, allows us to act as a community of believers dedicated to the sole cause for which Allah created us. We in North America are in a position to take up leadership in many fields and bring the Ummah out of its current predicament.

I will mention one field that requires our immediate attention: education. Education is the most important area in the life of the community, and for this reason the colonizing forces have paid great attention to it. They have not only implanted their institutions in our lands, but have trained, and continue to train, men and women from among us who are busy producing yet another generation of Muslims who know none of the traditional Islamic languages, who have no inkling of the great intellectual resources our forefathers preserved for us, and who are not rooted in anything Islamic. This calamity is perhaps the greatest affliction of the Ummah today. What we teach our children is slow poison. Look carefully and critically at any textbook, and you will see that we are giving matter to our children that is going to deaden their souls, compromise their moral and ethical foundations, and produce a relativism that corrodes faith and trust.

Take a grade-10 social-studies textbook: you will find a tremendous amount of sophistry, and a socio-historical framework that appears to present various dimensions of social studies; closer examination reveals that all of it takes the present secular, West-dominated order as the best possible outcome of human history and endeavour. It makes no mention of the devastation caused to other civilizations by the rise of the West; nor of the destruction of institutions that used to produce al-Ghazalis and Ibn Sinas: it regards all other civilizations and historical situations merely as steps in the evolution of Western civilization, which must inevitably spread to all parts of the world. Most of all, there is no possibility, no framework of inquiry that allows the consideration of a Divine Order.

This secular framework is not only present in the social sciences; it also permeates the physical sciences and mathematics. In teaching students the structure of the water molecule, for instance, a chemistry textbook looks at properties of hydrogen and oxygen atoms and explores the nature of bonding between these atoms to make water, which, it acknowledges, is the most fundamental requirement for life on earth. These textbooks are replete with information about water resources, problems of pollution and waste. But nowhere in these textbooks is there any mention of the discussion between Ibn Sina and al-Biruni in the eleventh century about why the density of water is reduced when it freezes. Our present-day textbooks tell us that this is because of hydrogen-bonding, which makes it impossible for water molecules to pack solidly when water freezes, but they do not direct attention toward the hikmah of Allah behind this physical property that enables life to survive underneath ice in oceans and lakes when they freeze in winter. No science textbook takes the cosmos as a sign pointing to greater mysteries, as the Qur’an does. For the Western-educated writers of these books, the physical world is autonomous and self-sufficient, needing neither a Creator to make it nor a Sustainer to support it. Such a writer believes in the absurd notion of "laws of nature", as if "nature" were a law-giving entity.

Imagine for a moment the impact of this material on the development of the minds of Muslim children. Continuous exposure to this sort of material diverts the mind from its rightful function of reflection–that incessant Qur’anic invitation–and is likely to produce an inner split in which faith begins to be regarded as having no relevance to the study of the cosmos.

Our solution to this problem of educational material has been to sprinkle a layer of "Islamic studies" over the existing curricula in our "Islamic schools". Thus we add a smattering of Qur’an-recitation, memorization, Islamic history and hadith to the curricula, and think that we have done our duty, without realizing that this patchwork is the perfect way to perpetuate the inner split of which I spoke. This smattering strengthens the notion in young minds that their religion, its Book and the teachings of its Prophet (saw) are abstractions, and that his or her "real" educational curriculum is in the textbooks prescribed by the Alberta Learning or Ontario Board of Education, with no connection between the two worlds.

This solution has been adopted by "Islamic schools" for two reasons: the necessity of living in a society that demands conformity to its own order, and a collective failure of the community to fulfill its covenant with Allah. When examined, one also finds that the first reason is not a reason at all; it is an excuse. Let me clarify.

It is true that a Muslim child growing up in North America needs to exist in this society and obtain an education that will give him or her access to the job-market. It is also true that, in order to exist in our contemporary world, we need to master the sciences and other branches of knowledge that have been produced in the West. But this does not mean that we have to rely on textbooks produced in a secular framework. Let me take the example of the water molecule to explain: if we were to teach this short unit to a Muslim child, we would still examine the role of water’s crystallographic structure to understand the chemical bond, but we would also link this unit with the Islamic scientific tradition by mentioning the correspondence between Ibn Sina and al-Biruni on the subject. We would also include a reference to the ayah "Indeed we have created every living thing from water" (Q. 21:30) in order to direct attention from the physical world of life to the Qur’anic world, where the presence of the Creator is manifest. Imagine the process of comprehending the message of the Qur’an when in a biology textbook we rewrite the chapter on honey-bees to point out that all species of bees construct their combs from hexagonal units, and that this structure holds the most honey for the least amount of beeswax, and then direct attention to the ayah which tells us that the Creator Himself sent a wahy to the bees to construct these structures in that way.

These are merely a few examples of what must be done. These are not attempts to sprinkle ayaaton the existing textbooks. I am proposing completely redesigned, rewritten curricula that would fulfill all the requirements of the local educational authorities, but which would produce minds imbued with the message of the Qur’an and students aware of the Islamic intellectual tradition.

This is not a small task; nor is the need a small need. It is an effort in which a whole generation needs to invest its resources, but the impact of this effort will bring such a resounding change that our next generation should be able to begin to reverse the decay of the Muslim world today. Furthermore, new curricula designed and tested in North America will be demanded in all parts of the Muslim world, where caricatures of Western schools have mushroomed in the name of modern education.

The need for new curricula is so great that it would not be wrong to call it our most important duty. In order to fulfill our covenant, we have to live and die in the light of the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet (saw), who himself taught and demonstrated Islam, and initiated the tradition of learning that produced scholars whose vision of reality enabled them to advance knowledge in all branches, and who produced works of astronomy, chemistry, physics and mathematics with as much confidence and expertise as they wrote commentaries of the Qur’an and hadith.

Addressing this need is also a community obligation, a fard kifayah. This responsibility is as much part of our religious obligations as is the responsibility to provide places of worship, cemeteries and halal food, for instance by the establishment of an Islamic Education Waqf (IEW). If the Muslim community of Canada were to establish such an institution, it could become a model for the American and European Muslim communities.

This effort requires leadership. Unfortunately our "Islamic leadership" has paid little attention to such essentials. Our so-called Islamic functions have become food-consuming, fashion-displaying events where we exhibit our newly-gained material wealth; on the pretext of Islamic get-togethers we take our children to Disneyland. All this must end. Our commitment to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala demands that we rethink our priorities and redefine our goals, so that on the Last Day we may not fail, insha’Allah.

I seek forgiveness from Allah for any untrue word, and for anything I have said that is not pleasing to Him. Ameen.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 8

Rabi' al-Thani 16, 14242003-06-16

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