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Islamic Movement

Understanding the historical phases of the Islamic movement

Muzaffar Iqbal


The history of movements and societies is widely understood to move through phases. The history of the Islamic movement is no exception. MUZAFFAR IQBAL considers the phases of the Islamic movement, and its current situation.

The fall of Baghdad in 1258 CE, ending the weak and by then thoroughly corrupt and impotent Abbasid caliphate, seemed to many contemporaries a terrible blow from which the Muslim Ummah could never recover. Yet within a century of that devastating surrender the entire Muslim world was reconfigured, resulting in the emergence of three powerful empires: the Safavi, the Ottoman and the Mughal. This realignment of the traditional Muslim lands was to last until the beginning of the modern era, when almost the entire Muslim world was colonized by the Europeans in a manner that once more seemed to have dealt a final decisive blow.

Unlike the Mongols, who arrived at the gates of Baghdad only through their fearless zeal, and who had little by way of science, technology or philosophical learning, the nineteenth-century colonizers of the Muslim world were self-proclaimed harbingers of a civilization that had attained supremacy in the production of scientific knowledge. This important difference was to determine many aspects of subsequent Muslim responses to colonization.

It has taken almost two centuries for Muslims to recover, albeit partially, from this new attack and, unlike the previous occasions, this recovery is still not complete; many internal fractures remain to be healed. These internal fissures have produced a sub-class within Muslim societies that has lost its own faith-based worldview and now subscribes to the worldview of the colonizing powers. In their short-sighted and hurried approach, these people see the encounter between the Islamic and the Western civilizations as a fait accompli, as if it has solidified in time for all eternity. Their hurried conclusion is the product of a lack of understanding of historical processes as well as of a certain weakening of confidence in their own faith tradition. But regardless of the causes, for this small but influential group the Islamic civilization has succumbed to Western civilization for ever. They draw this conclusion from the material disparities between the two civilizations. Since these disparities loom large in their eyes as a decisive element in civilizational encounters, they despair because they see no possibility of achieving similar material strength to the West’s, to use against the West. This defeatist attitude then leads to servitude, submission and eventually to acceptance of client-status.

It was this defeated elite that received the gift of governance from the departing colonialists; now these men and women control almost all the material resources of the traditional Muslim lands, and work against the interests of their own people. This is ironic, because they played little part in forcing the colonizers to leave. The colonizers departed not because this small elite fought against the occupation, but because of the heroic struggle of ordinary Muslims who made great sacrifices for their emancipation from the colonial yoke.

These ordinary Muslims, whose renewed faith provided them a new sense of dignity and a new power against the occupying armies, could not provide leadership in the post-colonial era; they were mostly illiterate, poor and disempowered people from villages and the new shanty-towns of crowded cities in the colonies. They took part in the freedom movements and fought against the occupying armies in the various struggles and wars of independence that emerged throughout the Muslim world during the first half of the twentieth century. These ordinary believers had an unconquerable faith; their power did not come from sophisticated weapons but from their resolve to reclaim their lands, traditions and dignity.

Having done their duty, these men and women left their fate in the hands of those who looked like their own brothers but who were, in fact, defeated and enslaved men who had little understanding of their deen and far less commitment to a way of life rooted in a vision of reality that seeks to build a polity driven by Allah’s laws. These men then became the so-called fathers of Muslim nations and heroes of revolutions, who walked on the stage of history with their greater-than-life portraits over-shadowing the true dynamics of the Islamic movement that had given birth to these independence movements; their remnants are still around, but for all practical purposes this phase of the struggle is over. There are no more heroes to be found in the Muslim world from this class, only traitors, collaborators and despised clients.

In addition to this small subclass that willingly submitted to the colonial masters and received the reins of the newly independent Muslim states as a reward, there is another, much larger, class of Muslims, who feel hopeless against the odds, but for entirely different reasons. These Muslims have not sold their loyalty for worldly gains, political positions or money, and they have not abandoned their faith or traditions. They genuinely feel despair when they look at the situation of Muslims in a world dominated by non-Muslims. This despair leads to defeatism and to a feeling of helplessness. What is wrong with us, they seem to be asking; why can we not achieve even a minimum degree of material progress, self-sufficiency and dignity?

Some of these Muslims then try to understand the situation through the works of Western or Western-trained Muslim scholars. This leads to total confusion and hopelessness because of the methodology used in these works. These attempts to understand Islam, its civilization and history, using Western academic methods that refuse to acknowledge the primary force of Islam, the revelation, wahy, are inadequate because revelation is so central to all things Islamic that nothing can be gained without an understanding of this decisive factor, which began the process of Muslim history in time and space. Moreover, this secular methodology does not accept the second most important factor that has shaped Muslim history: the end of the Prophetic phenomenon in history with Allah’s Messenger, the Prophet of Islam, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him.

In the absence of any acknowledgment of these two primary factors, this scholarship is left with a tale of dynasties, interest groups, market forces, materialistic politics of various social groups and other elements that it considers fundamental to the study of any civilization and history. The inadequacy of these studies can be likened to the study of human body through a methodology that does not acknowledge the presence of a spirit that gives humans a dynamic inner integrity and unity. Thus, even when these studies are not concealed attempts to propagate a hidden or disguised agenda, they fail to explore their subject because they lack adequate insight to understand the greatest operating force in the Islamic polity: wahy (revelation), having a specific inner (batini) and outer (zahiri) dimension.

A similar confusion arises in many minds when secular methodologies are used to understand the so-called split of Islam into Sunni and Shi’a polities. When viewed from secular perspectives, these two historical and social deployments of the inner reality of Islam appear to be the product of schism rooted in worldly gains, politics, clash of individual egos, and the like. But when viewed from the perspective of sacred history and with its own methodology, these two polities do not arise out of these factors, but from the very nature of the Divine plan, through a historical process that precedes the arrival of the Prophet of Islam (saw) by several centuries. When viewed from this perspective, the Sunni and the Shia traditions do not arise out of a conflict of secular interests, but as two expressions which together fully express the inner reality of Islam on a historical and human plane. This deployment in two realms, let us note, is only limited to a certain outer sphere of Islam’s universal message, which remains valid for all races and all times; there is nothing in these two traditions destroys the vital unitary reality of Islam.

In fact, the dynamics of history that have given rise to these two distinct polities in Islam provide us an insight into the mechanisms of the preservation of many aspects of Islamic civilization. For instance, at different times in Muslim history, it was through these two distinct polities that certain aspects of Islamic civilization were safeguarded, enriched, preserved and developed. Islam’s rich traditions in various branches of knowledge, arts, natural sciences and crafts needed these two polities, which emphasise different civilizational aspects of Islam for their full expression. Hence, it is not merely an act of blind chance that after the fall of Baghdad, the greatest concentration of Islamic scientific activity re-emerged in central Asian and Persian lands; nor is it merely the result of patronage, market forces and economics that some of the most important scholars of Qur’anic sciences of the post-Abbasid period – such as Ibn Kathir and Jalal Uddin Sayuti – lived, taught and wrote in Damascus and Cairo and the greatest revival of hadith studies in Sunni polity appeared in the Indian subcontinent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is an inner scheme and dynamics of Islamic history that guides these developments.

Likewise, it is not mere chance that in the post-colonial era, of all Muslim lands, the greatest potential for swift recovery lay in Iran. A certain dimension of Islam, that was to serve as a springboard for revival in our own times, was cultivated in the Shi’a tradition. This cultivation needed a peculiar temperament which is present more overtly in the Shi’a polity. Although it had been overshadowed for some time even in that polity, it could not be fully destroyed. It was this particular temperament of Shi’a thought that Imam Khomeini was able to nurture by removing the thin veil of political passivity and inactivity that had arisen in Persia in the post-Safavi period. Preserved in the inner folds of this polity and carried for centuries was the ability to regenerate a political philosophy uncontaminated by the secular worldview; this regeneration led to the Revolution in Iran.

Imam Khomeini, let us note, was the active agent of this change only because he was himself thoroughly rooted in the Islamic tradition and at the same time had a deep understanding of the forces that are shaping the modern world. This understanding, which is a product of insight (baseerah) as much as of a diligent study of history and its mechanisms, was combined with the power of faith, which made him a fearless leader. If one looks at the material resources at his disposal at the time of the Revolution and compares these with the resources and power of Shah’s military, police and other institutions, one can never draw the conclusion that a revolution was possible. This is why the learned scholars of Islam in the Western academia were utterly shocked when the Revolution occurred; it was beyond their wildest imagination and calculations. However, their failure was not merely because of lack of information, analyses and scholarship; it was a failure of their methodology to understand the inner dynamics of Islam itself. This failure has not caused them to re-examine the apparatus they use to study Islam and its history and civilization, which may be a blessing in disguise for the Islamic movement.

The Revolution in Iran, like all revolutions, has its shortcomings. These dictates of history notwithstanding, the sheer force of its coming into being against overwhelming material odds is a proof of the inner resilience of Islam. There is a general trend in political thought that tends to minimize the importance of this revolution by isolating it from the rest of the Muslim world. Iran had special conditions, the argument is made, which are not present in the rest of the Muslim world; hence Islamic Revolutions are not possible in other lands.

This argument is flawed on two counts. First, while it is true that Iran had its own specific conditions at the time of the Revolution, this in no way is an argument for eliminating the possibility of Islamic Revolutions in other lands, because these other lands have their own peculiar local conditions. The second, and a much more important, flaw is the fact that the Revolution in Iran cannot be isolated from the much broader dynamics of the Muslim world because the peculiar factors which produced this Revolution are rooted in the inner dynamics of Islamic history itself, and these are operative throughout the Muslim world, regardless of local conditions. It is true that in the Sunni polity the religious leaders have, for the most part, failed to provide the leadership required of them. It is also true that in most of the Sunni world the post-colonial era has witnessed various misplaced priorities, resulting in crude movements based on nationalism. It is also correct that two false starts, which at first sight appeared to be promising, have further delayed a real revival and renewal in these lands, but these two failed beginnings, which emerged in the form of the movement of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Egypt and that of the Jama’at al-Islami in the Indian subcontinent, are failures only when they are viewed as an end in themselves. Seen as part of a historical process, these were inevitable stages of the Islamic movement. Both these movements, let it be noted, were not wanting in sincerity; they did not, however, attain maturity because of certain flaws in methodology and in their leaders’ understanding of Islam’s internal dynamics and of its own process of renewal and revival.

But like scientific methodology, in which failed experiments contribute as much to the investigation as successful ones, these two movements have contributed to the advancement of the Islamic movement. What is needed now is to place the results of these failed attempts of regeneration in the wider context of Islam’s own sacred history and build upon these attempts.

The Islamic movement is not a fashionable movement that emerges one day and disappears the next. A true understanding of our times cannot be achieved without understanding the permanence of the message of Islam, preserved in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet (saw). The Muslim Ummah is a living reality, like a biological being that reacts to its environment, responds to external stimuli and continues to exist because of its own inner force – which is none other than the agency of wahy. No matter how many dictators come and go, no matter how many client rulers arrive on the scene, the message of Islam will always continue to serve as the source of guidance and inspiration for those who have dedicated themselves to their Creator.

It is the men and women who continue to fight the Pharaohs of our times who will lead the way in the next phase of the Islamic movement. The choice before us is plain: either we join these valiant fighters who continue the struggle on intellectual, spiritual, political, economic and military fronts, or we remain passive observers to our own surrender; either we become witnesses (shuhada’) to Divine Truth, or remain physical bodies given to consumption and decay. The Islamic movement continues to unfold and continues to offer choices to Muslims at each stage; it is up to us to accept its invitation and join this struggle that promises great rewards for those who long for an everlasting abode in Allah’s Rahmah.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 2

Safar 11, 14252004-04-01

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