That the Muslim world is engulfed in numerous crises is not in doubt; what is debated is who is responsible for this state of affairs and how to rectify it. There are some—Muslims and non-Muslims—who put all the blame on the Muslims; others say it is the direct result of colonialism and continued foreign interference in the internal affairs of Muslims. The former insist that unless Islam itself is “reformed” Muslims will not make “progress”. Both reform and progress are viewed through a distinctly Western prism. Just as Christianity went through a Reformation, so must Islam, they argue, without taking into account their very different historical experiences. As for progress, read materialism; far be it for the proponents of progress to consider spiritual elevation or justice, for instance, as being important. These reforming zealots would sound more credible were they to demonstrate even an elementary knowledge of Islam; their woeful inadequacy is apparent from their illogical insistence on grafting Christian experience onto Muslim history.
On the other side, Muslim thinkers have for centuries grappled with the question of how to arrest this decline and pull Muslim societies out of mental and political stagnation. No reasonably informed Muslim would disagree that the early history of Islam offers the best example of the model Islamic polity, especially the Seerah of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, that is the model for all Muslims (al-Qur’an, 33:21). Despite the Muslim scholars’ great emphasis on this point, there appears a distinct lack of clarity on how to go about implementing it.
Before considering the application of the Seerah, Muslims must be clear that the imposition of alien ideas and institutions onto their societies will not achieve the desired results. Muslims are resistant to such attempts; this is evident from the experience of all post-colonial societies in the Muslim world. Despite centuries of colonialism, only a tiny minority of Muslims accepted the primacy of Western ideas, and they only primarily because their socio-economic interests had become tied to colonial institutions. Unfortunately, Western thought and ideas have affected some parts of the Islamic movement as well. For instance, they have accepted some Western notions of governance as not only compatible with Islam but fundamentally Islamic in nature. The dilemma facing Muslims today springs directly from such flawed thinking: a tiny minority insisting on aping Western values, while the masses long for the implementation of Islamic principles.
If ideas are the foundations of a civilization, then Islamic civilization cannot be built on ideas borrowed from others. Nor can Muslims hope to establish Islamic states, institutions or societies by participating in elections organized by corrupt and dishonest elites competing for influence and power.
If ideas are the foundations of a civilization, then Islamic civilization cannot be built on ideas borrowed from others. Nor can Muslims hope to establish Islamic states, institutions or societies by participating in elections organized by corrupt and dishonest elites competing for influence and power. With the sole exception of Iran, the established order in the Muslim world is so thoroughly corrupted and manipulated that genuine representatives of the people have no chance of coming to power through the electoral process. Participation in such elections only lends credibility to the corrupt system.
The other more important issue is the kind of ideas Muslims must pursue to bring about change. This is an entirely internal affair. The Muslims’ decline commenced with deviation from the Prophetic model and the system devised by the Khulafa’ ar-Rashidoon. Reactions to such deviation took different forms, based on local circumstances. These were essentially partial understandings of a much larger problem, but over time they came to be regarded as the only correct solution. The issue of sectarianism that plagues parts of the Ummah today is an example of this kind of thinking. Ideas rooted in local culture is another, and under the influence of colonialism, nationalism has been added to this list of problems. The Taliban’s approach in Afghanistan is a good example of attitudes rooted in local, largely tribal customs, with a thin veneer of Islam. While there are some aspects of Islam mixed in their approach, it would be wrong to declare the system they espouse as Islamic. The Afghans no doubt are good fighters, indeed brilliant fighters, but Islam is not merely about fighting; its purpose is much greater: to order life in a manner that conforms to the Will of Allah, and enables people to live in peace, harmony and justice.
The Ikhwan al-Muslimeen in various Arab countries, and the Jama’at-e Islami in Pakistan, represent parts of the Islamic movement that have been influenced by nationalism. Some Muslims may protest this categorization, but we must be clear that Islamic movements must not accept a nationalistic framework for their operations; otherwise they cannot be Islamic. Even inIran, where there is an Islamic government, both nationalism and sectarianism are still entrenched in some parts of the establishment. Such behaviour is contrary to the example of the Prophet (saw). After all, even in Makkah, the Prophet’s companions included Bilal, Salman and Suhayb (r.a.), much to the chagrin of the Makkan elites, who regarded them as inferiors.
Muslims striving for change in their societies must develop a clearer understanding of the Seerah, one that is inclusive and based on the divine principles of fairness and justice. Narrow tribal or sectarian interests have no place in this struggle; those who pursue such interests cannot claim to represent the full reality of Islam.