Wednesday, July 08, 2015

"Islamic State" and the state of Islam

For a long time Islam's adversaries have been salivating at the opportunity to manipulate Islam from within. As early as 1981, A.J. Quinnell made this the subject of his novel "The Mahdi" in which Western security services try to groom a Mahdi whom they control in order to direct Muslim behaviour. The plot is not as far-fetched as was suggested by critics back then. Having created a modern-day version of the assassins of old and calling them Islamic State has been a master stroke and done more to discredit Muslims and Islam than any other covert mission since Lawrence of Arabia helped incite the Arabs against the Turks to pave the way for the Zionist state whilst the Arabs mistook him to be their advocate. Likewise, with IS, you would think that only the blind can fail to see who is behind fanatics with strong self-righteous "Islamic" rhetoric, armed to the teeth with American hardware, but persistently abstaining from ever criticising, never mind harming, Israeli interests, whilst happily burning a Palestinian flag as a sign of misguided nationalism. But alas, there are many Muslims who seem to prefer walking around with their eyes closed.

Whereas IS was purposefully created not just to discredit Islam but to provide the pretext for Western engagement in a proxy war with Russia over Syria in violation of international law, it would be rash for Muslims to dismiss them as if their effects did not reach well beyond the region in which they operate. Hate preachers with views close to those of IS abound throughout the Muslim world, financed by the petrol dollars of Saudi Arabia, the beneficiary of Lawrence's British sponsors and key ally of the United States and, by implication, Israel. During the first decade of the 19th century their Wahhabi forebears ransacked Mecca, Medinah and Ta'if under the leadership of Saud ibn Abdul Aziz with a violence against Muslim men, women and children everything as brutal as their IS successors today, destroying tombs and burial grounds, mosques and madrasahs. Whilst the Ottoman caliphate eventually regained control, the rebel group managed to hold out in the Najd and eventually, with the help of British cunning that hailed the end of the caliphate, installed themselves back in the holy land where they have styled themselves the custodians of the holy places whilst continuing to dismantle and destroy Muslim heritage ever since, turning cherished relics of Muslim history into hotels and parking lots and exporting a version of Islam which aims to throw away fourteen centuries of its rich history under the pretext of referring back directly to the source.

In today's world where Muslims put money before God, mosques and scholars can readily be bought, and petty-minded sectarian preachers are commonplace. They replace Islam as a means of mundane and spiritual guidance to further the personal growth of its adherents with a pharisaic set of obsessive rules relating to dress code and appearances; they replace the richness of the Qur'anic message with a narrow literal and anthropomorphic interpretation; they dismiss centuries of diligent effort by Muslim scholars in trying to extract meaning from divine revelation with an arrogant claim to be sufficiently qualified to go back directly to the prophet, yet in their attempt to destroy the complex edifice of Islamic learning with jabs at Muslims' alleged blind following of their scholars and Madhhabs they reach no further than blindly following the neo-Madhhab of their very own saint, Ibn Taymiyyah. As for him, their prime targets for persecution are other Muslims who differ in their understanding of what Islam stands for, whereas they happily appease those of other faiths. The aggressiveness and self-righteous confidence with which they impose their message on fellow Muslims makes especially young people, who are still unsure about their faith and their place in the world, fall prey to the imagined certainty and security only dogma can provide.

That Muslims globally have been so easily duped or, where they were aware of the facts, have generally failed to respond meaningfully to the challenge, shows that the wounds of colonialism and the scars from having lost the caliphate run a lot deeper than is apparent at first glance. By having been robbed of their own administrative, judicious and educational structures, Muslims have been reduced to an array of individuals without a cohesive community structure. Fragmentation has deprived them of a political voice. In Christendom the separation of church and state was accomplished by "reform" from within. The secular establishment which became the heir of a disempowered church then proceeded to force the same banishment upon Islam by removing the state, the public space of Islamic expression, from them. Regaining that state remained an delusional vision of Muslims for almost a century, obscuring the fact that once Islam had been relegated to the personal space alone, the ensuing multitude of opinions of what constituted Islam would ensure that concerted action and agreement remained well out of reach. Now, as a last blow, we've been handed the physical reality of an "Islamic State" which is as unislamic as could possibly be.

A structure, once knocked down, is hard to rebuild from its ruins, but if we were to endeavour just that, we would first need to remove the rubble. Next, we would need to have a clear design of what we are going to put in its place. In line with this analogy, Muslims today require a frank discussion about what kind of future they want to build for themselves. As was the case when Islam was first introduced over fourteen centuries ago, thorough education about its values and principles is required prior to trying to rebuild its administrative and judicial system. Thus, what we need most, is a return to an Islamic identity shaped by values rather than by mere rules and regulations. A "halal" mortgage, for example, which costs more than a mortgage from a non-Islamic finance provider may be cleverly construed to be technically in accordance with Islamic rulings, but since it is even more exploitative than the mortgage condemned by virtue of the Islamic prohibition on interest, it cannot be justified morally. The prophet of Islam, peace be with him, introduced social justice and cohesion, and the God who sent him must not be reduced to a mere accountant preoccupied with the length of an individual's beard, how high he raises his hands during prayer or the technicalities of financial instruments. His divine attributes represent values to aspire to. Islam, therefore, is characterised by both the submission to the divine and commitment to fellow human beings. The first relationship defines personal spirituality, whereas the latter governs each and every individual's actions. Men and women are judged by how beneficial they are to their fellow men and women, not by how devout they portray themselves.

For any building to last it has to be erected on strong foundations. The Muslim ummah needs to take stock. It is in urgent need of a thorough survey of its foundations to ascertain which parts have remained intact and which need strengthening. This task will require the dedication of the most talented of its experts and scholars. It will also take time, and with constantly being put under pressure from outside and within, it is questionable whether there remains sufficient opportunity for such an essential self-inspection. Nonetheless, a people divorced from its history becomes a people without identity and without a joint future. To prevent this, Muslims need to re-engage with their history, not gloss over it, and learn lessons from the discussions and disputes of old instead of pretending they never happened. The idea that we could just reach back to a golden time preceding that history, that we could reconnect with the prophet's generation, whilst ignoring all that came in between, might sound tempting to the simple mind, but in reality it means that we deprive ourselves from the lessons learned through all the mistakes which were made since then and thus end up condemned to repeating them all over again. We would be well advised to instead avail ourselves of the wealth of solutions which were also developed in those intervening years. It is the height of folly for a generation to think that they are so unique that they can learn nothing from their predecessors.

Barring the actual appearance of the Mahdi, we will not be able to recreate the conditions of the time of the prophet, peace be upon him, because no prophet will henceforth be present in our midst. We will thus try to emulate his example without the direct input of prophetic guidance, just as the generations of Muslims did after his death who were arguably more knowledgeable about, and more devout in, their observance of his example. To suggest otherwise is pure arrogance. To insinuate that we are better placed to resolve the resulting challenges than they were is buying into the Darwinian myth of modernity that mankind is continually progressing to a higher state, whereas the prophet, peace be with him, quite clearly warned that the best community was that of his own time, then that which followed them, and so on through the ages. If we think ourselves better than them by pretending that we are better placed to interpret a source from which we are so infinitely more distant, then we most clearly suffer from a serious bout of superiority complex. And this is exactly what describes the attitude of IS and other fanatics desperate to compel everybody else to accept their understanding of Islam as the only permissible option.

Thankfully it is said that the body of Muslims will never be able to unite on error, which is why Muslim leaders and scholars must make it a priority to come together to reject bigotry and affirm inclusiveness and mutual tolerance. The threat to what remains of the fabric of Islam is real but for the protection promised by the Almighty himself, Who also warns us: If you turn away, He will replace you with a different people who will not be like you (Qur'an 47:38).