The Promise Betrayed

Islam was our only truth; but we failed it.

By Tarik Jan

There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Rasul

Whether we suffer owing to the failure of “political Islam” or leadership crisis could have been an important discourse. But while discussing such an important subject an article by Senator S. M. Zafar in the Nation straddles along the theme raising doubts on the author’s intent. If one takes it in the secular vein, it seemingly pleads for discarding Islam as an ideology.

But before I discuss the said piece, it will be expedient to sum up its essence. It has three parts. The first relates to introducing the theme by raising the question: Has political Islam failed? The second goes on discussing the failure of the Muslim leadership. The third part calls for creating institutions rather than depending on pious charismatic leadership. Apparently, the schematic arrangement sounds all right. But since the author himself has failed to define political Islam, it has confounded its thrust and meaning. According to him, “political Islam has failed.” But having said so, he gives us obviously the bad news that the same “political Islam is now asserting at the grassroots and revivalism is taking place across the length and breadth of the entire Muslim population.” This is certainly a contradictory position because if political Islam has failed, how come it asserts itself at the same time. Failed means failed. Period!

So what is political Islam? Is it the rhetorical pronouncements of the current crop of the Muslim leadership that they often make to deceive their peoples’ Islamic aspirations, or is it Islam in the sociopolitical aspects other than dogma and prayers that has been enforced but failed?

Whatever the case, there is hardly failure because the concept of systemic failure is tied with running the Islamic system and not succeeding. This necessarily involves the undisputed criterion of ideals as against practice, promise as against performance.

Again in failure one has to see if the leadership was deficient in its ability to deliver or there was a built-in problem in the system itself that caused the breakdown? In both cases, the responsibility needs pinning down and the culprit found. Reason being that if it is the failure of the political Islam the author should not have talked about the crisis of leadership in the Muslim world, for one cannot blame the poor leaders for Islam that has failed to   deliver. The piece in reference fails to make such a distinction. For example, the author’s list of leaders who left “imprint on history” carries names that are at odds with each other in their orientation toward Islamic value system. At least two of them were rabid haters of Muslim consciousness and preferred anything but Islam.

I won’t say that the author does not know about Islam but reducing Islam to a religion or splitting it into religion and political Islam is at best a bad formulation perhaps inadvertently made. The word “political Islam” came into currency in the West after the Iranian revolution and the Intifada’s rise in Palestine. Its genesis lay in the West’s inability to understand the emergent phenomenon of Islam and the revivalist movements that began to mobilize the Muslim masses against secularism and its heartless enforcers. The traditional concept of religion, as furthered by the West, described it as a private impulse that seeks comfort in withdrawal from the problems of life.

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Second, the Islamic uprising was anathema to the West for it showed discordance with the secular thought, which considered religion as part of the human past when humanity was in its intellectual infancy.

Third, there was a need for splitting Islam into political and nonpolitical so that religion does not exceed the parameters that the West sought to impose on the global scale. In other words, it was willing to let religion be a palliative for the strains of modern times but not as a system that can help build social and political constructs in real life. According to this thinking, if Islam had to be stopped, there was a need to engineer its pulverization. It was this destructive urge that resulted in another formulation of the “sufic Islam,” as distinct from the “shari‘ah Islam.” The secularists held sufic Islam as good because in their perception it was nonworldly while the shari‘ah or political Islam was bad. The invectives used were “militant Islam,” “fundamentalism,” and lately “jihadist Islam,” as if there is another Islam which is opposed to jihad.

I am sure the author knows about this evolution in Western thought on Islam. Stated differently, one may say that this was part of the West’s method to check Islam. Thus, the terminological use of political Islam is to mess up the situation and not to offer solution. To begin with, it distorts what the author wants to say that there is a genuine crisis of leadership in the Muslim lands. But when he prefaces it by saying that political Islam has failed, he unwittingly saves the very leadership that he rightly accuses for its wrongdoing by shifting blame to political Islam.

Having said that, would it be right to slash Islam into parts when Islam insists on its being holistic (ad-din) and promises punishment for those who believe in some of it and discard the rest (al-Baqarah: 84-85)? While alluding to the Jewish attitude of violating the scriptural injunctions, the Qur’?n (al-M?’idah: 83) classifies the violators and the dodgers who refuse to implement Allah’s agenda as nonbelievers (k?fir?n), evildoers (f?siq?n), and oppressors (z?lim?n).

This thrust of Islam and its history is so obvious that educated, honest Western scholarship acknowledges it. For example, Prof. Ann Lambton in her remarkable work State and Government in Medieval Islam (1991) says: “The shari‘a is thus not a law-book in the western sense of the word. It is rather a discussion of the duties of the Muslim. It regulates, in theory, all aspects of public and private life and commercial and business affairs and forms the basis of political theory.” Writing on the nature of state, she says: “The state is given and it is not limited by the existence of an association claiming to be its equal or superior.”

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Equally emphatic is Hamilton Gibb (The Heritage of Islam in the Modern World, 1970) when he talks about the heritage of Islam in the modern world. “The community,” he says, “exists to bear witness to God amid the darkness of this world and the function of the government is essentially to act as the executive of the law.” Does this mean that our educated elite is short on the basic knowledge about Islam?

He agrees that Islam is the fastest growing religion. But at the same time he also asserts that it does not represent the strength of political Islam, though “it fairly indicates the attraction and the vigor of Islam as a religion.” He surely has the right to make such a statement, but it would remain an observation and not a fact. For example, it can be asked how he knows that the people who embraced Islam accepted it as a religion excluding so-called “political Islam.” Conversion is after all a complex phenomenon. Other than the evangelical Christianity, which is tied to charity work among the poor of the world, Islam has been spreading on the strength of its message and not on the ostensible charity of seducing others to conversion. That is why it could be said that many people accept Islam because of its holistic approach or because of its relevance to present-day problems. Dr. Abdul Ghani’s book profiles score of cases of notable conversions, while Muhammad Hanif Shahid’s Why Islam is Our Choice in two volumes carries more than 100 cases. Worship stripped from its holistic context is least attractive to the new converts because worship and the belief in a living God is a common denominator among most religions. In the convert’s view the new religion has to be the truth, it should offer something powerful, something sensible and holistic. Political Islam, which is the program for societal change, is by and large a central consideration. A new Muslim does not accept Islam in piece meal. For him it is a radical turn in his or her life – a calibrated move loaded with consequences. Slashing Islam into pieces and playing games with it is left to “us” – people born in Islam.

The article’s plea to ignore honest pious leadership and its thrust on building institutions is again a problematic. The Constitution lays down qualification for a public office holder, with honest living as an important ingredient in the seeker’s profile. But here again, it is the secular establishment that adamantly insists on holding the constitution in abeyance. Without enforcement of the integrity clause, how can one expect to have viable, resilient institutions that the author so zealously seeks? In fact, there is nothing innately good or efficient in an institution for in its essence it is a mechanism to achieve a stated goal. Whatever qualities it will have will be the individuals’ qualities that are going to man it.

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More correctly, I would say the relation between the individuals who man an institution and the institution, which is wedded to a purpose, is symbiotic. Nevertheless, it is time now to correct lopsided emphasis on the imagined institutional miracles and address ourselves with equal vigor to the problem of producing quality individuals, for in the ultimate analysis individual is the institution.

The leadership failure, however, is true. But here again, there are two aspects to it that must not be ignored. First, in the recent past the Muslim leadership by and large has been secular, though paying lip service to Islam to garner votes from the Muslim masses or to legitimize their hold on power.

Second, this leadership suffered from a loss of faith and had no respect for their value system. By and large their agenda was Western in sociopolitical development. Most important, the leadership in the Muslim lands failed to appreciate Islam’s hold on the people and “the influence that religion will bring to bear,” as John Esposito says, “on contemporary politics.”

Third, by following the secular way, so-called leadership fostered conflict within the Muslim polity and thus weakened it in its ideological moorings and social dynamism. In other words, instead of furthering Islam-based unity among the people, it has put the apparatus of the state against society, which exposes its conspiratorial role against the Muslim unity.

Of all the things in Islam, the author likes shura the most perhaps because of its superficial similarity to parliamentary democracy. How about Islam’s moral and politico-economic concerns and its desire to create a new person who would worship Allah the Exalted and not the crass materialism of the capitalistic society? Would it have any place in the author’s agenda for the Muslim leadership? For sure, it is the shari‘ah alone that will give us dignity, authenticity, and the drive for excellence and justice for all. The wretched of the earth can still wear the crown.

Tarik Jan is a scholar whose scholarship can be matched by few. He has intensive research in Islamic history and political Islam. Writing to him is like oxygen to living beings, he has written several books and papers. His famous books have been on the life of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and Secular Threat to Pakistan. Both these books drew tremendous readership both home and abroad.

Tarik Jan is a Member Board of Advisors Opinion Maker, he takes active part in its publication.