Re-Writing Muslim Political History

By Yoginder Sikand,,

Based in New Delhi, Maulana Waris Mazhari is a leading Indian Deobandi scholar. He is a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband, and is the editor of Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Deoband Madrasa’s Graduates’ Association.

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In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, Maulana Mazhari talks about his views on Islam, historiography and politics.

Q: Muslim history has generally been written in the form of a series of battles and a succession of rulers and military generals. This, in turn, has had a deep impact on the way Muslims imagine their past and their identity and on the way they relate to people of other faiths. What do you feel about this way of presenting Muslim history?

A: I have major problems with the traditional approach, including the traditional way of presenting the sirat, the history of the Prophet Muhammad, who Muslims consider as the model for all humankind. Typically, sirat-writing has taken the form of a narration of events that focus mainly on the maghazis or military confrontations and victories of the Prophet. This tradition goes back to early times. In fact, one of the first available sirat texts that we have, by Ibn Ishaq, is also known as Maghazi Ibn Ishaq. This is a reflection of how Ibn Ishaq portrayed the Prophet’s life. Ibn Ishaq was by no means an isolated case. In fact, many other sirat writers followed in that mode, and still continue to do so.

By focusing so much on the battles of the Prophet, most sirat-writers gave much less attention to other crucial aspects of the Prophet’s life, in particular his efforts, both in Mecca and then in Medina, to communicate, through peaceful persuasion and dialogue, the message of the Quran to people of other faiths. Since these aspects have been given little attention in the corpus of sirat literature, it is made to appear as if battling was the major occupation of the Prophet, which was not really the case at all, because this was just a minor part of the Prophet’s life. His major focus was actually the peaceful propagation of God’s message and moulding the beliefs and morals of his followers.

I think there is an urgent need for reappraising our approach to writing Islamic history. Many aspects of the Prophet’s life, which numerous sirat-writers, in their obsession with war and conquest, ignored or else gave little attention to, must be highlighted as these are particularly relevant for Muslims living in a plural society today. For instance, the Mithaq-e Medina, the pact between the Prophet and the non-Muslims of Medina, which set out the rights and duties of the different communities residing in the town. And, of course, the thirteen years of the Prophet’s peaceful preaching in Mecca. These things need to be highlighted in sirat writings, for they are particularly relevant to Muslims in India today, living as a minority in a very diverse country.

Q: Some radical Islamists might counter that by arguing that the Medina model of the Prophet—of establishing political power and supremacy—is the one that Muslims should follow, because it came after the Meccan period of the Prophet’s life.

A: Those who argue in this way give a political interpretation of Islam, but they have no solid basis for their claims. The whole life of the Prophet is a model for Muslims to follow, not just one phase of it. If the absurd argument that the Medinan phase of the Prophet’s life eclipses or abrogates the Meccan phase is accepted, it would lead to the bizarre conclusion that only some aspects of the Prophet’s life are worth following and that the others must be rejected. This is a conclusion that no real Muslim would ever accept. It would be tantamount to claiming that the verses of the Quran that were revealed in Mecca, that have to do with tolerance, patience in the face of adversity, peaceful persuasion and so on, have no validity. Needless to say, almost all the ulema would vehemently denounce this argument.

Q: Radical Islamists might argue that in Medina the Prophet succeeded in establishing a state or polity, and that, hence, struggling for such a state is a duty incumbent upon Muslims for all time.

A: God bestowed upon the Prophet the opportunity to establish and lead a polity in Medina, but this was a result of a long process of peaceful persuasion or dawat which the Prophet began in Mecca many years before that. It can be said to have been a stage in the path of the Prophet’s dawat. But this does not mean that winning political power must be the ultimate aim or the natural result of the peaceful missionary work of dawat. God gives political power to whomsoever He wills. But that should not be the main aim of the Islamic dawat, whose major focus is to communicate God’s message and to shape human beings’ minds and character in line with that message. If, in the course of the work of Islamic dawat, God provides political power, it is to be accepted as a gift, but it is not, and should not be, the real aim of the dawat. And if political power, to establish a polity that would enforce God’s laws, does not come into being, it is not a sin, contrary to what radical Islamists claim.

Q: But radical Islamists, such as Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e Islami, argue that what they call an ‘Islamic state’ is indispensable in order to ‘enforce’ God’s laws, in the form of the shariah, in their entirety. How do you look at this argument?

A: Maududi and others like him, ideologues like Hasan al-Banna and Syed Qutb, have indeed argued in this way, but their arguments have been heavily critiqued by many well-known ulema. If we accept Maududi’s insistence that struggling for establishing what he calls an ‘Islamic polity’ is the central aspect of Islamic dawat, many serious questions arise. It would, God forbid, mean that many prophets of God had failed in their mission because they did not establish any religion-based polity. Muslims accept the Prophet Muhammad as being of the same stature as the other prophets, and the Quran warns against making any distinctions between the prophets. All the prophets, the Quran says, taught the same primal religion or deen, which, in Arabic, is called al-Islam or ‘The Submission’, although their methods may have been different in some respects. Now, from the Quran it appears that only a few of them were also political rulers. Most were not, and focused only on peaceful persuasion or dawat. God gave the Prophet Muhammad the opportunity to establish a polity, but Jesus did not, so, would this mean that Jesus should be regarded as having failed in his mission? Obviously no. No Muslim would ever say or think so.

So, I would repeat, contrary to what people like Maududi have claimed, the final culmination of Islamic dawat does not have to necessarily be the establishment of a religious polity. The establishment of Islam does not depend on such a state.

Q: Some have argued that the notion of Islam as a total system of life (nizam-e hayat), including the concept of an ‘Islamic state’, is a modern invention, the product of people like Maududi, Qutb and the like, and not an integral part of Islamic tradition. What is your own view?

A: The notion of an Islamic system or order is definitely part of Islamic tradition, although not in the same stark, radical way as it is presented by people like Maududi who have a totalitarian understanding of Islam and who believe that Islam is incomplete without a state to enforce the shariah. Maududi made the Islamic state as the real basis of his version of Islam, but this is something quite different from the traditional approach. It is absent in traditional Islamic thought, which does not countenance the notion that Islam and what Maududi termed as the nizam-e islam are virtually synonymous. Traditional thinkers saw Islam as a religion, a basis for morality, a relationship between the individual believer and God, and as a means for success in the hereafter. They also believed that Islamic teachings must influence and shape society and governance, but they did not equate this with the notion of an Islamic state in the way Maududi developed it. In contrast to the ulema, Maududi based his entire understanding of Islam on the notion of the state as the pivot, and he sought to interpret Islam solely in a political framework.

Q: Maududi argued that Islam calls upon Muslims to work for establishing its supremacy (ghalba) over other religions and political systems. This, he claimed, was an exhortation to struggle for the establishment of an ‘Islamic state’. How do you relate to this argument?

A: The Quran refers to the ghalba of Islam, but many traditional ulema understand this to mean the establishment of the ideological supremacy of Islam through offering proofs (dala‘il). People like Maududi have, however, taken it to mean the political supremacy of Islam. Naturally, this has created major problems, as evidenced by the violence that numerous radical Islamist groups have unleashed in the name of struggling for establishing the ghalba of Islam.

I think Maududi and others who saw Islam in this fashion were a product of their times, and were reacting to the fact of Western colonialism, which had reduced almost the whole of the Muslim world to European control. What they wanted to argue was that it was not enough if Muslims were allowed to pray or fast or build mosques by the colonial rulers. If they had said that Muslims, not Europeans, should rule their lands, it would have been understandable. However, they instead made the contentious claim that Islam should rule. They saw the state as an end in itself, rather than as a means. This was in contrast to the ulema’s position. Hence, it is not surprising that, for instance, the majority of the Indian ulema opposed Maududi and his understanding of Islam. Even now the Jamaat-e Islami, the outfit established by Maududi, does not have much support among the traditional ulema of South Asia. In the years leading up to the Partition of India, the Deobandi ulema, who are commonly thought of as the most ultra-conservative, consistently opposed Maududi’s ‘Islamic state’ demand, as well as the Pakistan scheme of the Muslim League, and demanded a united India where Hindus and Muslims, who it considered to be members of the same qaum or nation, would have equal rights. This, it based on the model of the Mithaq-e Medina, the Treaty of Medina between the Prophet and the various Muslim and non-Muslim tribes of the town. So, it is important to note the opposition of numerous traditional ulema to the political project of radical Islamists, something that is unfortunately not widely known or recognized.

Another point that many traditional ulema have made with regard to radical Islamists is that the latter have, by seeking to reduce Islam to a political ideology, ironically sought to secularise it, in the sense of making it an instrument of worldly power. The Islamist vision of Islam, they claim, is drained of true spirituality, and appears like any worldly ideology, an alternative to, say, capitalism or socialism or nationalism or whatever.

Q: Do you see any shifts emerging within Islamist movements in their approach to capture of state power, their attitudes to democracy and secularism and to relations with people of other faiths?

A: I think religious worldviews of people are often shaped by social and political contexts and conditions. So, as I said, colonialism provided the context and conditions for radical Islamism to emerge as a means to seek to challenge it. Likewise, today the demands of living as a marginalised minority in religiously plural India has forced the Jamaat-e Islami to make a major departure from Maududi’s rigidly doctrinaire thinking. Maududi was vehemently opposed to democracy and secularism, branding them as wholly un-Islamic. But now in India the Jamaat is planning to launch its own political party, which would function under the Indian Constitution, and which would naturally have to accept the Constitution’s secular and democratic character. The Jamaat has realized that, given the context in India, there is no feasible alternative to this. So, it is the force of circumstance and the feasibility or otherwise of something that forces such changes, which then get translated into modifications in ideology, and then all sort of arguments are sought to be marshaled to seek to ‘prove’ the new position as ‘Islamic’, and the previous position as ‘mistaken’. The same thing happened with Maududi himself. To begin with, he denounced the Pakistan plan as ‘un-Islamic’, but no sooner was Pakistan created than he migrated there. He consistently opposed the notion of women in politics, but, when he felt he had no alternative, he openly supported Jinnah’s sister, Fatima, as presidential candidate.

So, yes, I would say, force of circumstances is making several radical Islamists reconsider their approach to politics. In many countries, including in the Arab world, Islamist groups have witnessed fierce repression, and, despite decades of struggle, are no closer to achieving their dream of an ‘Islamic state’. In fact, they find that the ground is slipping further from under their feet in many places. Many of them are now realizing that violence does not pay, and, from their point of view, is even counter-productive. As a result, many are now convinced that the Islamic state that they aspire to create cannot come about by force—that it cannot be imposed, and that to attempt to do this is totally unrealistic. Rather, they are now realizing, it can only happen through democratic means, through peaceful persuasion which leads to the people themselves wanting it.

This sort of change in approach has taken place in some Islamist circles as a result of the experience of Islamist groups in the last few years. It has to do with the realization that holding on to a certain ideology is one thing, but that if it is too utopian its implementation is quite another matter, and then this leads to ideological modification. And so you see moves in some Islamist circles that suggest a reappraisal of standard Islamist approaches to crucial political issues. For instance, the head of the Egyptian Ikhwan ul-Muslimun recently went on record as saying that Christian Copts must have the same political rights as Muslims. Some Islamists are now willing to consider a woman as head of state. Rashid Ghanouchi, the Tunisian Islamist leader, now talks about the pressing need for Islamists to dialogue with people of other faiths, to work with them for issues of common concern, to value pluralism and to adopt a secular, democratic, humane approach, insisting that this is not at all un-Islamic. Of late a number of books have appeared in the Arab world dealing with what is called Marajat, or turning away by former radical Islamists from what they now consider to have been a deviant, terror-driven interpretation of Islam.

Q: In today’s context, when the nation-state itself is being questioned, and when the centre of power has shifted from the nation-state to international bodies, multinational corporations, the media, etc. how do you think Islamic political thought, which has hitherto been obsessed with the state and the capture of state power, should respond?

A: I think Muslim groups should give much more focus to issues such as the economy, education, media and interaction with civil society. These are major centres of power and influence. No community can progress if it is weak in terms of economics, education and media presence. Because Muslims, not just in India, but globally as well, lag behind others in these spheres, their marginalization is hardly surprising. And, being marginalized, it is not likely that others will bother to listen to them. Even from the point of view of Islamic dawat, Muslim empowerment in these sectors is crucial. This must get much more attention from Muslim community organizations than it has so far. One often hears Muslims lament about how backward we are in these spheres, and all sorts of conspiracy theories purporting to explain this do the rounds, but, sadly, few Muslim leaders are willing to do anything practical to address these issues in a positive and constructive way.

This, of course, is related to revisiting our understanding of what ‘Islamic awakening’ means. There is this very warped understanding, especially in Islamist circles, that it is synonymous with political activism for establishing an ‘Islamic state’ or simply greater commitment to Islamic rituals and laws. I disagree. I think Islamic awakening must also be thought of in terms of working to strengthen Muslims in such spheres as the media, education and economics, because only thereby can they have greater voice and influence and be able to put across their message and views more effectively and also be able to engage in Islamic dawat. After all, is not that the secret of the success of the Jews, who, despite being such a numerically small community, are so powerful at the international level because of their strong presence in the Western media, economy and educational institutions?

Sadly, though, I do not see Islamist movements making any major shift in their approach to the capture of state power, although, as I said, some of them are now advocating democratic, as opposed to violent, means for the purpose. I do not see them giving more stress to strengthening their presence in the non-political spheres, the new nodes of power. They have not realised that this can also be a major means for Islamic dawat. They still tend to cling to the notion of the capture of political power as the solution, and obviously here it is not simply loyalty to traditional thought that is involved but also, in many cases, a host of vested interests.

One must also add that working to strengthen the Muslim presence in the media, economy and education requires serious planning, organization and rational thinking, but, sadly, we Muslims are easily swayed by emotionalism, by emotional slogans about Islam, and are just not prepared to do any serious thinking and work. Many Muslims simply don’t want to learn from others, because of a misplaced sense of superiority and also intellectual lethargy, although the Prophet clearly said that wisdom should be accepted no matter where it is found.

There is another issue that I want to touch upon here. Experiments by radicals to impose an Islamic state by force have failed throughout the world, and these efforts have often been opposed by the people in whose names these states were set up, because they soon turned totalitarian and even fascistic. This shows the failure of the top-down approach to Islamisation and the Islamic state, through capture of state power. As I suggested earlier, this approach reflects a deep-rooted notion in traditional Muslim political thought and modern Islamism. This belief in the primacy of the state and of its capture needs to be urgently reconsidered, because the sort of change that Islam demands is possible not only through political power, but through other means, such as peaceful dawat, working together in solidarity with non-Muslims for common aims and empowering Muslims in the fields of economics, education and the media. The failed experiments at seeking to impose Islamic states by force, as in Iran and Afghanistan, should makes us realise that the nurturing of truly moral and Islamic individuals, rather than the state, should be the principal focus of Islamic movements. And in this the activists of these movements should not be like militia men, as radical Islamists conceive themselves to be, but guides, social reformers and missionaries of love and mercy, inviting people to God’s path through peaceful means. This is precisely what the Prophet Muhammad himself did.

Sadly, radical Islamists do precisely the opposite of this. So, for instance, Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e Islami, once proudly declared that his movement was like a train, whose passengers were forced to go to the destination decided by the driver, although many of them might have wanted to go elsewhere. This forcing of people to agree to live under what is proclaimed as an Islamic state, which is so characteristic of the attitude of radical Islamists, is not at all in accordance with Islam. It breeds hypocrisy and violates the Quranic dictum that there should be no compulsion in religion. It is also totally counter-productive. Seeking to force Muslims and others to accept and live under the state that the radical Islamists want to impose on them just cannot work for too long if the people themselves do not want it. That is why many Iranians are now vehemently opposed to the mullah regime in their country and many Afghans to the Taliban.

Q: To come back to the issue of Muslim historiography, the history of Muslims after the Prophet also tends to take the form of political history, being a narration of the military exploits and successes of various Muslim kings. What do you have to say about this?

A: I suppose this is a universal phenomenon, and not one peculiar to Muslims alone. Although Islam is a democratic religion, and hence Muslim historiography ought to have been much more egalitarian, it has not generally been the case. One factor for this is the influence of pre-Islamic Iranian monarchical traditions, which the Arab conquerors soon absorbed. Muslim rulers employed historians to pen treatises to sing and exaggerate their praises, and in that stern feudal age the masses naturally got little or no attention in history-writing.

Today’s context is vastly different, and so we need a new way of understanding and presenting Muslim history. If traditional Muslim historiography was triumphalist, chauvinist and stressed Muslim supremacy over others, this was a result of the general social climate of those times. The same was true in the case of other communities in those days. Things have changed now, and we need to understand and present our religion, tradition and history in the context of the demands of the plural society in which we live. We need to shed the communal approach to writing our history. We also need to move away from the obsession with the history of Muslim political and religious elites and retrieve and highlight the histories of ‘ordinary’ Muslim people, whom our historians have cruelly ignored. Work in this direction has begun in some Arab countries. Unfortunately, this has not been attempted in ulema circles in India, one reason being that our ulema do not have access to new forms of history writing coming out from elsewhere because their English and Arabic language skills continue to be very limited.

Q: What sort of mind-set do you think develops as a result of the way Islamic or Muslim history is presented, as mainly a series of military conquests directed by Muslim rulers against non-Muslims?

A: I think it has seriously negative consequences for how people imagine what Islam is, what Islam demands of its followers and how Muslims should relate to people of other faiths. It makes Muslims think that non-Muslims are enemies who should be opposed, through military means if need be. It rules out the possibility for good and harmonious relations with non-Muslims, which is really indispensable in our day and age. It also tends to overlook the Islamic imperative of dawat or peacefully inviting others to God’s path, which is the fundamental duty of a true Muslim.

Since the history of Islam or of Muslims comes to be seen essentially as the story of a series of wars between Muslims and others, the misleading impression is definitely created that Islam demands constant physical confrontation with non-Muslims, that the principal aim of Muslims must be to capture political power and so on, which, in my view, represents a gross distortion of what Islam really stands for. And because of the way our history is written, the stress that Islam gives to peaceful relations with people of other faiths, to the fundamental duty of Muslims to peacefully dialogue and communicate with others and to think and work for the welfare of the whole of humankind, and not just Muslims alone, is completely shut aside.

Unfortunately, there is also a stifling defensiveness about many of the negative aspects of Muslim history, which most Muslims are still unwilling to admit, leave alone confront. They see the whole of Muslim history as somehow something to be ardently defended, ignoring the fact that, after the short period of the Prophet and a few decades thereafter, there was no truly Islamic polity and society in existence, with the onset of monarchy and despotism, which gave rise to all sorts of distorted interpretations and versions of Islam. It is wrong to consider this latter part of our history as sacrosanct, as something to be defended as ‘Islamic’. We have to admit that many of our rulers, for instance, including several of those who claimed to be champions of Islam, were bloody tyrants. We have to critique them if they strayed from Islamic teachings—for instance if they oppressed non-Muslims or destroyed their places of worship, which Islam does not allow for, even though in taking some of these actions they were instigated by worldly-minded ulema in order to please them. We have to look at our historical heritage critically, and critique un-Islamic actions that may also have been done by Muslims in the name of Islam. Unfortunately, we shy away from all this that is indefensible from the Islamic point of view. Moreover, we tend to glorify and romanticize everything about the Muslim past—warts and all—as if Muslims are the epitome of virtue and non-Muslims have a monopoly of vice. We have to make a crucial distinction between Islam and Muslims, Islamic history and Muslim history, and this should be reflected in the way we approach and write our history.

Q: The only noticeable radical Islamist group in post-Partition India, the now-banned Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), is reported to have exhorted the Indian Muslims to struggle to establish an Islamic Caliphate (Khilafah) in India, and to resort to what it called armed jihad. What do you feel about this approach?

A: The SIMI’s ideological roots lie in the Jamaat-e Islami, of which it was, till some years ago, an official part. Its vision of Islam is the same as that of Maududi, whom it regards as its ideological mentor. I believe the SIMI’s approach was stupid. It was totally wrong and un-called for. Muslim political and religious leaders ought to have nipped the SIMI in the bud when it began mouthing its radical rhetoric in response to Hindu fascism. They should have discouraged it and not let it spread. But, sadly, for whatever reason, they took no action against it. And the whole thing backfired on the Muslims, making their position even more vulnerable.

However, one thing is clear. If the ban on the SIMI is lifted, I am sure that the new avatar of SIMI will not be extremist or radical. They would have learnt the hard way that their misplaced utopianism and sloganeering was not at all feasible or practicable, that it was as foolish as trying to drill a tunnel into the face of a mountain by banging one’s head against it.

I also want to say something about the concept of the Khilafah, which groups like the SIMI insist are integral to Islamic politics. They lament the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 by Kemal Attaturk, but little do they realize that it was hardly an Islamic form of governance. It was horribly corroded from within and so its demise was not unexpected. It was like a terminally ill patient who had suddenly been removed from his artificial supply of oxygen. These ardent advocates of the Caliphate stupidly imagine that if Attaturk had not abolished the Caliphate, it would still be there, and that, because of it, Islam would have been triumphant. This is foolish thinking.

There has been a lot of debate on whether the Caliphate, as the Sunnis traditionally understand it, is really necessary or not. Personally, I don’t think it is an article of faith for a Muslim to believe or desire that all the Muslims of the world should be governed by a single Caliph, as some radical Islamists insist. In fact, almost the whole of Muslim history is against this fallacious notion. It is not possible or realistic, nor, in my view, necessarily desirable. It is not at all feasible in today’s world of nation-states. Were this something that Islam demanded, it would go against the Quran’s assurance that God does not put any burden on us more than we can bear. So, I would say that the concept of Khilafah is not an indispensable or integral feature of Islam.

Q: Radical Islamists consider lands not under Islamic rule to be abodes of war (dar ul-harb) that must be conquered and brought under what they regard as Islamic rule. What do you feel about the notion of dar ul-harb?

A: The term dar ul-harb is not mentioned in the Quran. It was developed after the demise of the Prophet. I think this concept has lost its validity today, if ever it had any validity at all. I would like to refer here to the noted Deobandi scholar Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanavi who once remarked that the whole world should now be considered as dar ul-ahad or dar ul-mu‘ahida, the ‘abode of treaty’, because, following the setting up of the United Nations, all the countries of the world are bound together by common treaties. One could also consider the whole world to be dar ud-dawa, or an abode where Muslims must continue with their mission of peacefully communicating God’s message to everyone, Muslims and others.

Q: A final question. From an Islamic point of view, what do you think the Muslim political approach and agenda in India should be?

A: I think the Muslims of India must seek inspiration from the life of the Prophet in Mecca, where he spent the first thirteen years of his prophethood, when Muslims were a relatively small minority lacking political power—a situation analogous to that of the Indian Muslims today. We need to learn from the tolerance and patience exhibited by the Prophet at this time, despite the painful opposition that he faced, and his determination to carry on with the work of inviting people to God’s path. Despite the odds that he was confronted with, the Prophet did not resort to violence. He did not demand Muslim communal rights. His only concern was to communicate God’s message and win people’s hearts through peaceful persuasion and concern for their welfare. And that, I think, is what we Indian Muslims should also be doing. He accepted the conditions set by his foes, as at Hudaibiyah, as long as they let him carry on with the work of inviting humankind to God’s path, and did not get involved in communal controversies with them. We have a valuable lesson to learn from his noble example in this regard.