Last month, the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) announced that it will hold an International Seerah Conference in Pretoria, South Africa, in June this year. This follows similar conferences in Pakistan and Sri Lanka last year.
ZAFAR BANGASH, Director of the ICIT, discusses the Seerah and the thinking behind the ICIT’s programme of Seerah conferences.
That Muslims have a deep attachment to the noble Messenger of Allah (saw.) is beyond doubt. His birthday is celebrated by Muslims throughout the world. During the Rushdie fitna, Muslims demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice their lives to defend the Prophet’s honour. This is exactly how it should be; after all, Allah says that he was sent as a “mercy to all the worlds” (21:107), and as “a witness, bringing glad tidings, and as a warner” to humanity (33:45).
But the noble Messenger of Allah was sent not only to inform but to transform humanity by bringing it “out of darkness into light” (65:11). This is a point not fully appreciated by many Muslims today. The Seerah (life-history) of the noble Messenger has been reduced to a few anecdotes about his life, and some rituals. That the Seerah is central to the very ethos of Muslim life is also forgotten. The Qur’an cannot be understood without recourse to the Seerah. As Seyyeda Aisha (r.a.) pointed out, the Prophet’s character was the Qur’an in practice. In a well-known hadith, the noble Messenger himself has said: “Hold to the Qur’an and my Sunnah (life-example), and you will not go astray.” There are other versions, but the point is clear.
During the Prophet’s time (nearly 1500 years ago), Arabia was steeped in jahiliyyah in which idol-worship was the basis of religious, social and cultural behaviour. People believed in Allah, but they associated partners with Him. Injustice, oppression, tribal arrogance (and tribal warfare borne of such arrogance), female infanticide and slavery were other practices that characterised Arabian society at the time. Today Muslims are afflicted by many of the same problems, even though the worship of idols has been replaced by the worship of nationalism, money and class interests. Thus, in order to bring about a “total transformation” of their societies — to echo the phrase memorably used by the late Dr Kalim Siddiqui — Muslims will first have to understand the nature of the dhulm and darkness that surrounds them. Their success in transforming their societies will be determined by their proximity to the Prophetic Sunnah and Seerah.
For some Muslims, the Prophet’s Seerah is a means to attaining greater spirituality, oblivious of its relevance for the world at large. Muslims use the Seerah to seek blessings but not guidance, and individual but not collective salvation. No lessons are derived from it for the arduous struggle of life. Many Muslims quote hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) endlessly, but either do not follow them or use them selectively to support their preconceived ideas.
Allah declares in the noble Qur’an: “He [Allah] it is Who sent the Messenger with clear guidance and the Deen of Truth so that it becomes dominant over all other systems, however much the mushrikeen may oppose this” (9:33 and 61:11). We know that Islam became dominant during the lifetime of the noble Messenger of Allah (saw) but this is no longer the case, despite there being more than 1.2 billion Muslims in the world today. The darkness that prevailed in Arabia at the time of the Prophet has once again engulfed the world, but on a much greater scale.
The Prophet’s example is applicable at all times and in all situations because he is the “seal of all the Prophets” (33:40); no more Prophets will come after him. Yet contemporary Muslims have failed to derive appropriate lessons from the Seerah to guide them back to a position of dominance in conformity with Allah’s promise. The Prophet’s Seerah demonstrates a complete and perfect model for humanity covering all aspects of life, personal, family and community life, as well the ordering of society and state. The application of the Prophetic method in its entirety is, therefore, the only way to transform Muslim societies. The Muslims’ present predicament confirms their deviation from the divinely-prescribed path as exemplified by the Seerah: Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala commands the believers to “obey the Messenger” (4:59) whom He describes as “the best of exemplars” (33:21).
While Muslims accept the validity of these principles and even argue passionately in their favour, in practice they appear to have accepted the de facto separation of deen from politics and other aspects of societal activity. There is a long history behind this schizophrenic behaviour, which has affected not only the socio-political and economic outlook of Muslims but has also made its impact on the study and understanding of the Seerah itself.
For instance, Muslims spend endless hours arguing about the number of miracles the noble Messenger of Allah performed and whether the mi’raj was a physical journey or merely a vision. While there may be merit in discussing these at some level, the Muslims’ present plight hardly allows for such indulgences. It would be far more relevant to consider the circumstances in which the Prophet was rewarded with mi’raj. He had to endure 12 years of extreme hardship and when the worldly prospects for his mission appeared bleak, there was an explosion of divine mercy, culminating in mi’raj. So the mi’raj must not be viewed merely as a phenomenon that occurred in isolation but as the culmination of a long process of struggle to establish Allah’s deen. The secularization of Islam through the dark period of history has clearly taken its toll, freezing many vital issues out of Muslim consciousness. The study of the Prophet’s Seerah, for both historical and contemporary reasons, has also fallen victim to this phenomenon.
It is with this problem in mind that the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) continues its efforts to study the Seerah from a new perspective by organizing international conferences. Last year, two International Seerah Conferences were organized, one in Sri Lanka (June 16-18) and the other in Pakistan (June 25). The response of Muslim scholars from around the world was overwhelming. This year, another International Seerah Conference is planned for South Africa (June 15-17).
The ICIT’s aim is not to repeat what earlier scholars have already written about the Seerah but to seek answers to contemporary problems through the processes of examination and analysis of the Seerah. The Seerah literature is a goldmine of basic information which has to be sifted, analyzed and applied to contemporary issues and problems. Why Muslims have failed to derive any lessons from the Seerah to solve their current problems, especially relating to their collective existence and governance, is a question that needs careful consideration.
Few Muslims have risen above their emotional attachment to the Prophet and appreciated the larger significance of the Seerah. They are accustomed to reading a ‘sanitized’ version of the Seerah, oblivious of the Prophet’s role in dealing with such issues as state and politics. Some recoil in horror from the idea that the Prophet had anything to do with politics. The corruption of politics and the abuse of power and authority clearly has much to do with this, but it also reflects the distorted view some Muslims have of the Seerah itself. Since crookedness and lying have become considered a normal, indeed essential, part of modern politics, Muslims have assumed that politics per se is bad. Similarly, the reduction of Islam to merely a “religion” like so many others has resulted in Muslims overlooking many important aspects of Islam and the Seerah.
Another misconception is also common among Muslims: they believe the Prophet was sent merely to convey a message; he had no responsibility beyond that. These Muslims may agree that rectifying people’s morals was also part of his mission, but little else. According to this line of thinking, if the people of Makkah had merely stopped worshipping idols everything would have been all right. There would have been no need for the Prophet to migrate to Madinah or to establish an Islamic State. There are some Muslims who even go so far as to argue that there was no Islamic state, merely a Muslim community in Madinah. Is there a difference between the two? What then of the Qur’anic ayah: “Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you” (4:59)? Who are the people placed in authority and what is their role? Do they have any power? Do they exercise their authority, or is their role merely to advise people to behave, without any mechanisms of enforcement to ensure compliance?
From this line of argument follows another misrepresentation: it was not the Prophet who challenged the prevalent system; the challenge came from the kuffar. The Prophet, according to them, was a pacifist who believed in non-violence and shunned all worldly authority. This is based on a superficial understanding of the situation in Makkah, where the Muslims did not physically resist the oppression of the mushrikeen. Does the absence of physical resistance automatically mean no resistance at all, or even acquiescence? What about the ideological and psychological challenges posed to the system in Makkah by the proclamation of the kalimah, “La ilaha il-Allah, Muhammad al-Rasool Allah” (“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”)? Such stalwarts of the jahili system as Abu Lahab and Abu Jahl were roundly condemned by the Qur’an itself (surah 111 and ayaat 43:43-46). Then there was the challenge to the social system, in which the aristocracy was split right down the middle. The sons and daughters of leading figures entered the fold of Islam, repudiating the existing order and their own privileged position in it. Islam also proclaimed the rights of women and slaves, in direct and open challenge to the existing social order in Makkah.
But the question remains: why have so many Muslims adopted an apologetic attitude to the use of force to confront evil and oppression? Part of the reason may be found in the anti-Islamic propaganda alleging that Islam was “spread by the sword.” In order to refute such allegations, Muslims have resorted to a pacifist interpretation of the Seerah. The other reason may be found in the vast body of Seerah literature itself. The early compilers of the Seerah naturally concentrated on an accurate record of events. Islam’s impact on the world was so great that Muslims were anxious to learn every detail, however minute, about the life of the Messenger of Allah who was at the centre of all the breathtaking changes. This need was felt both by early Muslims who did not get the blessings of the company of the Prophet for very long, as well as those who came into the fold later. In fact, a proper understanding of the Qur’an and Islam was and is only possible through a greater awareness of the Prophet’s Seerah.
Responding to the needs of early Muslims, and in order to preserve the most accurate record of events, the scholars busied themselves with recording every detail of the blessed life of the Prophet. The early biographers did not concentrate on the Prophet’s method of acquiring power. This, as Dr Kalim Siddiqui has pointed out in his paper Political Dimensions of the Seerah (ICIT, 1998), was perhaps because Muslims were already in power and their influence was increasing, with new lands coming continually under their sway. There appeared to be no need to discuss issues that were already taken for granted; Islam was the dominant reality and they saw no reason why that should change.
Another reason for recording every detail of his life, especially the moral precepts he enjoined and the great victories he achieved in battles was that pre-Islamic Arabia was steeped in jahiliyyah. Islam reintroduced the values that had been ordained by Allah through all the earlier Prophets but which had since been forgotten. Muslims were anxious to conform as closely as possible to the Seerah of the final Messenger of Allah. Similarly, narration of the Prophet’s conduct in numerous battles was a source of great inspiration for Muslims. This is evident in the brilliant victories they achieved in a short period of time after the death of the Prophet. So it not surprising that the early biographers concentrated on narrating details of the Prophet’s life, the Seerah, and his battles (maghazi).
Another reason maybe that after the period of the Khulafa al-Rashidoon (the four ‘rightly-guided’ successors to the Prophet), rulers started to deviate from the Prophetic example. Muslim scholars felt, quite rightly, that by highlighting the spiritual and moral dimensions of the Seerah, they would encourage the rulers to reflect upon their own conduct, personal as well as administrative.
There is another important aspect of the Seerah: no miracles were performed by the Prophet in his struggle to establish the Islamic state. This was clearly part of the divine scheme. If the Islamic state had come into existence by miracles and not through sustained human effort, future generations would have used this as an excuse to claim that they could not possibly achieve the same results as the noble Messenger. In fact, the establishment of the Islamic State in Madinah provides additional proof of the finality of his Prophethood. The Prophet also demonstrated superb mastery in the conduct of state and politics, two fields not normally considered to fall within the domain of Prophetic mission. Of all known previous Prophets, only Yusuf, Daud and Sulaiman (a.s.) acquired worldly power.
This led perhaps to the assumption that religion has nothing to do with politics. The Prophet, upon be peace, not only established a state where none existed before, but it became so powerful that it went on to dominate the world for more than 1,000 years. It was only by the deviation of Muslim rulers from the Prophetic Sunnah that Islamic power lost its standing, and societies ruled by Muslims strayed from the Prophetic principles and standards. It is also clear that only by understanding and applying the Prophetic method can these standards be re-asserted, and Islamic social order re-established as the only natural habitat for Muslims, indeed of all human beings.
It is to these matters that Muslims must begin to pay attention. Dr Kalim Siddiqui led the way, and many scholars are now following his lead. A volume containing papers on this subject by Muhammad al-Asi and this author was published early last year (The Seerah: a Power Perspective, ICIT, 2000 [see p. 7 above]) and proceedings of the ICIT’s Seerah conferences last year will shortly be published. In the meantime, the ICIT hopes that holding international conferences to bring together scholars to discuss these issues will go some way towards addressing the contemporary problems of Muslims. What we must bear in mind is that Muslims must not limit themselves to narrating what has already been recorded in Seerah books. A simple description of the Seerah, however eloquent, is not the purpose of such conferences. The aim is to derive and discuss fresh analytical insights to the Seerah.
The ICIT invites scholars to submit abstracts of papers before April 30. Dr Kalim Siddiqui pointed out that “the Seerah... is a vast ocean that cannot be charted in a short paper”. The same is true of a conference, or even a series of conferences. But the ICIT’s objective, in starting this work, is to help Muslim scholars to develop fresh approaches to the understanding of the Seerah that can inform the intellectual revolution in Muslim political thought that, despite the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the blossoming of the global Islamic movement, remains embryonic. Such an intellectual revolution is essential for the “total transformation” of the Ummah and the emergence of a new era of Islamic civilization in the future.