Maulana Wahiduddin Khan

With the dawn of the modern age the western colonial powers had spread all over the world. Their primary focus was not the establishment of political power in the world; it was their discoveries in science and technology, of new lands and opportunities. This was also the case of the companions of the Prophet who took the divine message to different parts of the world. It is altogether another matter that both — western colonial powers and the companions of the Prophet — also won political power. The western powers were in fact the ambassadors of the scientific revolution and had discovered a world completely different from the traditional order.

With these discoveries they had spread out to the far corners of the world, but the Muslims and their ulema considered these western powers their political rivals and stood against them in confrontation.

The western powers were ambassadors of the scientific revolution.

The unnecessary political and violent efforts of the ulema failed to defeat the Western colonial powers. What happened, instead, was this: internecine fighting among the Western countries themselves, culminating in the Second World War, drained their military strength to such an extent that it became exceedingly difficult for them to continue to exercise political control over other countries. That is why they granted political independence to these countries in the mid-20th century, although their cultural and economic control over them remained intact.

As a result of this development, some 50 Muslim-majority politically independent states emerged in Asia and Africa. At this time, too, it was the task of the ulema in these countries to shoulder the very same responsibility that Islam had given them — that is to say, to leave politics to the politicians and to focus their energies, instead, on the spread of knowledge, communication of the divine message, as well as social work and other such constructive activities. But, instead of doing this, they again rushed headlong into the field of politics in a completely unwarranted way.

Before this, in the period of European colonial rule, the aim of the politics of these ulema had been ‘the struggle for independence’. Now their politics was conducted in the name of ‘the enforcement of Islamic law’. In numerous countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Algeria, Indonesia and so on, the ulema set up parties whose aim was to establish political rule according to Islamic law. This politics once again turned Muslim countries into battlefields, the only difference now being that while earlier, in the colonial period, the ulema had been pitted against non-Muslim peoples, now they were up in arms against a section of fellow Muslims themselves. And so, these ‘Islamic’ parties found themselves playing the role of the Opposition in almost every Muslim country.

These efforts of the ulema did not result in the establishment of purely Shariah-based rule in any Muslim country. But what did result from all of this was that Muslims everywhere became divided into, broadly, two mutually-opposed camps that were at war with each other. If, in the colonial period, non-Muslim forces killed Muslims, now Muslims began slaughtering their co-religionists. And, consequently, everywhere Muslim societies fell prey to destructive activities.

The primary focus of the western colonial powers was not the establishment of political power in the world; it was their discoveries in science and technology, of new lands and opportunities.

Had the ulema of the Muslim countries stayed aloof from practical politics, and focused instead, on the reform of Muslims, awakening the spirit of Islam among them, producing Islamic literature according to modern standards that would promote a thirst for Islam among Muslims and similar sort of work, they would have been better able to work towards establishing an Islamic government. If they had played their role in transforming Muslim societies into truly Islamic societies, the system of governance that would have naturally emerged from this process would undoubtedly have been an Islamic one, as is suggested by a Hadith:

Your leadership will be a reflection of you [the people]. The real cause for the failure of efforts to enforce Islamic law in Muslim countries is not the oppression of secularist rulers or the conspiracies of the enemies of Islam, unlike what many of those who regard themselves as ‘lovers of Islam’ repeatedly claim. The real reason for this is the blunder committed by the so-called flag-bearers of Islam who, without properly preparing Muslim societies for this sort of governance, went about stirring up campaigns for the enforcement of Islamic law. The Pakistani example very well exemplifies this point. In that country, what are called ‘pro-Islamic’ forces have, on more than one occasion, won the chance of ruling the country, either partially (as in the case of Mufti Muhammad Mahmud’s winning control of the Frontier Province in the 1970s) or completely (as in the case of the rule of General Zia ul-Haq). Yet, in no way have they succeeded in enforcing the Shariah there.

A narrative of Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, provides a very appropriate commentary on this matter. It is a long narrative, in Sahih al-Bukhari and a portion of it reads as follows: The verses of the Quran which were revealed in the beginning contained details about Paradise and hell. Subsequently, when the people embraced Islam the verses regarding legal and illegal acts were revealed; which, had they been revealed earlier, would not prevent people from pursuing the illegal, as they would not yet be aware of Eternal reward and punishment.

In Muslim lands, the ulema involved in movements for the enforcement of Islamic law simply assumed that because the majority of the inhabitants of these countries were Muslims, they were, by definition, in favour of Islamic law. This was a complete misreading of reality, however. The fact is that the present-day generation of Muslims is actually a communal aggregate, and not, in the real sense, a truly religious collective. Hence, it is wrong to assume, even about people who pray and fast and perform Haj or Umrah, that they want that political power should be wielded by the ulema, who should impose Shariah laws on them.

The unrealistic politics of the ulema in Muslim countries have produced a situation which we can properly appreciate in the light of the Hadith referred to above. Without preparing the populace to welcome and accept Islamic laws, the ulema seek to impose these laws, including with regard to the consumption of liquor and adultery, while at the same time, large sections of the populace react to them, saying, “We will never let these laws of yours be imposed on us.”

In January 1827, Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi and his companions had established what they termed as an Islamic government in the Peshawar region, near the Afghan border. Sayyed Ahmad Shahid was selected as the head of the state, the Amir ul-mumineen (leader of the believers). But, very soon, internecine rivalry broke out, so much so that local Muslims set about slaughtering the representatives that Sayyed Ahmad Barelvi had appointed in their areas. And so, this ‘Islamic government’ collapsed almost as soon as it had been established.

This failed experiment in seeking to establish Islamic rule without preparing Muslim society adequately for it was not, however, accepted as a warning sign by later generations. That is why efforts continue to be made even in our day to repeat this experiment which, some 250 years ago, very clearly showed how impossible it was for it to succeed.

By the middle of the 20th century, movements aiming for what they called ‘Islamic Revolution’ emerged almost all across the Muslim world. These were led by ulema as well as ‘pro-Islamic’ intellectuals. But these people, both when they were in the Opposition as well as when, in some cases, they came to power, simply became a cause for giving Islam a bad name. It is a fact that these movements in the name of ‘Divine Government’ (Hukumat-e Ilahiya), the ‘Islamic System’ (Islami Nizam) and the ‘Enforcement of the Shariah’ (nifaz-e shariah) proved only to be counter-productive.

It was the task of the ulema in these countries to shoulder the very same responsibility that Islam had given them.

It is worth noting in this regard that numerous great non-Muslim thinkers, from the late 19th till the mid-20th century, had declared Islam as the solution to the problems besetting humanity in the present age. But, at the end of the 20th century, no important non-Muslim thinker made any such announcement.

The cause for this was the wrong representation of Islam by the socalled revolutionary Muslim leaders. Prior to this, the intellectuals of the world were presented with the history of the early phase of Islam, and, impressed by it; many of them had a very positive image of Islam. But the meaningless movements stirred up in the name of Islam by the present-day ulema and other Muslim leaders turned into nothing but yet another cause for adding to human misery. Faced with the record of these so-called representatives of Islam in our times, many people have become disgusted with Islam itself. And so, no longer do many globally-influential intellectuals believe that Islam can be a means for human welfare in the present age.

The Example of the Prophet

Abdullah Ibn Abbas, a companion of the Prophet reports an incident from the early Makkan phase of the Prophet’s time. One day, the leaders of the Quraysh gathered near the Kabah. They decided to send one of their men to the Prophet to call him so that they could talk over matters with him. When he received this message, the Prophet went to meet them.

When the discussion started, the representative of the Quraysh told the Prophet that he had become a source of trouble for their tribe, and accused him of abusing their forefathers, criticizing their religion, and insulting their Gods. After going on in this vein, he told the Prophet that he should desist from what he was doing, in return for which the Quraysh were ready to give him whatever he wanted. The Quraysh would even concede to making him their ruler if he wanted that.

The Prophet did not accept this offer of the Quraysh, and, instead, continued with his missionary efforts. Later, when he shifted to Madinah, he established an Islamic government there. Now, the question arises as to why the Prophet did not accept the offer of heading the government earlier, in Makkah, which the Quraysh had made to him, while he established an Islamic government 15 years later, in Madinah. Why didn’t he establish this Islamic government in Makkah, fifteen years earlier?

The reason for this is that the way to establish an Islamic government is not that any ‘Islamic personality’, using any means whatsoever, comes to occupy the seat of governance. The establishment of a regime is very closely linked to the prevailing external conditions. The establishment of an Islamic government requires a suitable society, whose members have become receptive to Islam, and where the political factors necessary for the stability of the administration are present.

In the Makkan period of the Prophet, these favourable factors had not crystallized. That is why the Prophet did not try to establish Islamic government in Makkah. But, later, in Madinah, these factors had crystallized, and that is why the Prophet established the rule of Islam there.

The difference in the two contexts is clearly apparent from the fact that in Makkah it was possible for the wife of Abu Lahab to condemn the Prophet and to even publicly sing verses criticizing him and announcing that she refused to accept the message he was propagating. On the other hand, in the 13th year of his prophethood, when the Prophet, along with his companion Abu Bakr, arrived in Madinah, he was greeted by the children of the town singing verses that celebrated his arrival and his message.

A similar example can be drawn from the life of the Prophet Moses. The Children of Israel, the people of Moses, the Quran tells us, had been destined to acquire political power once again. And so, after the demise of Moses, the Children of Israel rose up in revolt against the then ruler and established their own government over Syria and Palestine.

Here, it is interesting to note that the Children of Israel had the same opportunity of establishing a government half a century earlier, at the time of Moses. Why, one might ask, did they have to wait for so many years till they finally did so?

At the time of Moses, the Pharaoh of Egypt and his entire army were drowned in the sea, and this cleared the field for Moses. Moses could have returned to the then Egyptian capital, Memphis, along with the Children of Israel, and occupied the vacant Egyptian throne. After the miraculous destruction of the Pharaoh and his army, the denizens of Egypt must have been so awe-struck that they would have readily accepted Moses as their new ruler.

But Moses did not do this. Instead, he left the vacant political field of Egypt and, along with his people, went into the Sinai desert. There, the Children of Israel faced forty years of harsh life, where a new generation was born, that was reared in the desert and survived.

Now, the only reason for this delay was that the generation of the Children of Israel that had earlier lived in Egypt had, for certain particular reasons, fallen prey to moral decline, so much so, as the Quran (5:25) relates, Moses told God that besides himself and his brother Aaron (Harun), he had no faith in any person. And so, all the people of Children of Israel were kept in the wilderness so that a new generation of the Children of Israel, reared in the desert, should develop a reliable character and then become capable of establishing an Islamic government.

These two instances very clearly prove that a new regime can only be established when the necessary collective conditions favourable for it prevail. The example of the Prophet tells us that if among the public a conducive environment does not prevail in the real sense, even a prophet cannot establish a government in such a context. And if he does establish a government despite the absence of such a conducive environment, it will soon collapse, and the end result of this will be fruitlessness.

Keeping this Prophetic example in mind, it will be clear that the agitations that swept all across the Muslim world, driven by the slogan “Establish Islamic Government”, were simply foolish. Their logical result could only be — and it turned out to be precisely so — terrible destruction, with their goal remaining as distant as before.

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