Islamic Politics, Muslim Militancy and ‘Jihadist’ Movements
By Maulana Waris Mazhari
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)
Islam is not simply a collection of some beliefs and ritual practices. Islam, if understood properly, is a complete code of life, covering all aspects of personal as well as collective existence. The basic premise of Islamic Politics, then, is that Islam is not merely a personal affair between the individual believer and God. If this were the case, it would have been susceptible to being manipulated to suit people’s whims and fancies, as has happened with religion in the West, where excessive individualism has led to a great crisis of human and religious values.
Islam does not ask its believers to seek to forcibly impose a particular system all over the world, contrary to what many people believe. The laws of Islam relate to the followers of Islam, and Muslims cannot seek to impose them on others against their will. Islam respects religious pluralism and peaceful coexistence, and the best evidence of this is the polity that the Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) established in Medina, where non-Muslims were granted their religious and civic rights along with Muslims. This is the true model and criterion for us to follow, and other models that depart from this practice cannot be considered to be traditions that we must emulate.
Unfortunately, the history of Islamic or Muslim culture has been written in such a way as to make it appear synonymous with Muslim political history. So deeply-ingrained is this approach that even biographers of the Prophet sought to present him mainly in the form of a warrior for the faith (ghazi), so much so that in the initial stages the biographies (sirat) of the Prophet were referred to as maghazis or records of wars. In the books of Hadith, too, this one aspect of the Prophet’s life is given particular focus, although nowhere does the Quran refer to the Prophet as a ghazi or mujahid.
The Prophet’s approach was based on the development of individuals’ personalities and character, awakening their hearts and souls, and for this he used only patience, determination, preaching and inviting others to the faith. That is why the Quran repeatedly reminds the Prophet that he is not the ruler of people, that he cannot coerce them, that their faith is a matter that they have to choose themselves, and that God alone can punish or reward them.
The Islamic movements that emerged in the modern period were deeply influenced by the fact of brutal colonial oppression which much of the Muslim world had experienced. They thus developed a reactionary approach, which made them susceptible to extremism. Because they were, in large measure, impelled by a desire for revenge against the West for the brutalities of colonialism, some of them considered even such actions as Islam forbids as permissible for them in order to attain their supposed ends, although such acts gave Islam a bad name.
In 1943, the Jamaat-e Islami was founded in India by Syed Abul Ala Maududi, who is regarded as one of the chief ideologues of modern-day Islamism. He was an enormously prolific writer, and his books had a seminal influence on Islamist ideologues elsewhere in the world. Islamist groups such as the Jamaat-e Islami presently face a tremendous intellectual crisis. Their approach to and understanding of Islam is one-sided, neglecting spiritualism and humanity and making Islam almost synonymous with politics. The Jamaat in Pakistan, Kashmir and Bangladesh keeps raising the slogan of jihad, and claims that it is an inevitable means for the Islamisation of society. I seriously believe that such sloganeering is simply a product of a defeatist mentality, which, in turn, is a result of Muslims having suffered continuous defeat at the hands of the West over the past two hundred years.
Islamists, such as Maududi and others, gave the understanding of the supremacy of Islam a political meaning, arguing that the struggle in the political realm was the principal task of Muslims. This added further fuel to the fire, worsening the already dismal situation of the community. This politicized notion of Islam’s supremacy over other faiths was further reinforced by scores of Muslim writers, poets and preachers. But since in this period of Muslim decline, this dream of political supremacy showed no sign of coming true, disappointment was inevitable. To this feeling of despair were added the new imperialist strategies and plans of seeking to further enslave Muslims, as evidenced in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and various other Muslim countries. All this added up to produce a very volatile mixture.
It is an undeniable fact that numerous self-styled Islamist jihadist movements have not hesitated to engage in clearly un-Islamic acts despite speaking in the name of Islam. These actions of theirs have given Islam a bad name the world over, and this has further exacerbated Muslim marginalization. In fact, even in Muslim countries the space for such movements is rapidly contracting. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria several thousand Muslim activists have been imprisoned on charges of being involved with terror groups. It is true that many of these people are probably innocent and have been wrongly targeted by dictatorial regimes that do not tolerate any dissent. Yet, it cannot be denied that among these people are many who would be willing to engage in violence and armed conflict to seek to overthrow ruling regimes, although this is allowed for by Islam only if the rulers exemplify open or explicit opposition to Islam.
In many Arab countries today, several former radical Islamists have changed their ways and are now engaged in peaceful Islamic and social activism. Many of these people have even written books about their experiences and explaining why and how they changed their approach. An interesting instance in this regard is Rashid Ghanouchi, who was once considered to be a leading Tunisian Islamist. Some months ago, the Jamaat-e Islami Hind invited him to a programme in Delhi. I attended the programme and heard Ghanouchi speak. I was surprised to note that there was not a single aspect of the Jamaat-e Islami’s political ideology which he did not severely critique, although in a very scholarly manner. He argued that groups like the Taliban as well as other radical or militant self-styled Islamist outfits and movements were among the greatest threats to Islam in the present-day. Another staunch critic of these movements is the hugely influential Qatar-based Islamic scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
In the last two decades the term jihad has been craftily manipulated so as to promote a violent mind-set and culture. To combat this, efforts need to be made at three levels. Firstly, at the level of Muslim political thought, the notion of ‘united nationalism’ (mutahhida qaumiyat), embracing people of different religions living in the same nation-state, must be accepted on Islamic grounds and the entire world should be considered to be dar ul-ahad, or ‘abode of agreement’. The ulema must collectively make an announcement to this effect. This position has been accepted by such traditional ulema as Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi and Maulana Anwar Shah Kashmiri. Further, there must no longer be any hesitation in accepting religious pluralism and peaceful coexistence of people of different faiths. After all, in the Quran God says that people have the freedom to choose to adopt or reject Islam. It is not in God’s plan of things that everyone should become a Muslim, for, if He had wanted, He could easily have done so. This point is thus the basis of pluralism from the Islamic perspective.
In this regard, it is also important for the crucial distinction between jihad and qital, in the sense of defensive violence, to be made clear to people and for Islamic activities to be pursued through peaceful means. The fact that Islam does not allow for offensive war must also be impressed upon people. It gives no sanction for the sort of so-called ‘pre-emptive war’ that an aggressive imperialist power like America seeks to wrongly justify.
Muslim scholars must also come forward to be more actively involved in inter-faith and inter-community dialogue, based on certain minimum common beliefs, interests or issues, preferring dialogue to conflict as a means to resolve differences. There is also need for the ulema to expand and broaden their understanding of the question of relations between Muslims and others. In this regard, some prescriptions contained in the traditional books of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) need to be re-examined, being too extreme, as also understandings and interpretations based on a selective and erroneous reading of certain verses of the Quran and Prophetic Traditions that relate to people of other faiths. Unfortunately, the reconstruction of Islamic thought in the modern context in this and other regards has not gone very far. In the Indian subcontinent, after Muhammad Iqbal, no one other person has been able to effectively take up this urgent task. Likewise, the movement towards a suitable reconstruction of Islamic thought that was pioneered by Muhammad Abduh and his disciple Rashid Riza in the Arab world was unable to make much progress.
The second level at which urgent action is needed is for Western imperialist powers, most notably America, to cease from their oppressive and inhuman policies. An immediate task in this regard is for American control of Iraq and Afghanistan to be ended and for foreign troops to be withdrawn from these countries. The continuing killing of Palestinians by the Israelis must cease and a just settlement of the Palestine issue must be found. America must stop its blind support to Israel and exercise full pressure on it to stop its crimes against humanity. Without all this, I believe it will not be possible to stop the radicalization of Muslims, for despair leading to radicalization often becomes the only weapon of the weak.
The third front on which energies should be focused is on creating a truly democratic climate in Muslim countries. In these countries, ruling pro-Western cliques mindlessly use their powers to promote their personal and sectional interests and brutally deny their populace their basic rights. These rulers must be held accountable for their actions. They must not be allowed to misuse their countries’ wealth, as in oil-rich states, to serve their own and their Western masters’ vested interests.
In other words, we cannot change the present situation simply by talking of the need to ‘reform’ radical and self-styled jihadist movements. There has to be adequate and far-ranging change with regard to the policies of Western powers as well as of ruling regimes in Muslim countries as well.
Waris Mazhari, a graduate of the Deoband madrasa, is editor of the New Delhi-based Tarjuman dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Deoband Graduates’ Association.