There are few known civilisations and societies – religious or secular – which have not felt the brunt of internal divisions and tensions or the pain of external threat. The Islamic civilisation is certainly to be counted amongst these. Founded, as it were, on the twin sources of Barakat (Divine Grace) – the Quran and the Prophetic Sunnah – Islam extended itself to embrace a bewildering diversity of cultures and peoples. But despite this expansion – which covered almost half of the known world – and its accompanying problems, there was one thing that it never sacrificed and that was leadership in almost every domain. From the arts to the sciences it was Muslims who laid the foundations of “progress” – not only for themselves but for the benefit of others as well. Furthermore, they never allowed their juristic and philosophical disagreements to stunt their contribution to both their own and to world growth. Muslim thought appears to have been inspired, not by a parochial, but by a sense of universal duty.
Nevertheless, this civilisation decayed and the last three centuries of the Ottoman Empire – immersed in political corruption and general complacency – witnessed a hastening of this decadence. And along with the rise of the western powers came its final political collapse. Up to today Muslims have not yet fully recovered. It appears more and more that as Muslims we find ourselves at the crossroads of our own confusion. Having lost our position as world leaders we are grappling to make sense of a message that preaches universality and brotherhood. A message which consistently tells us that: ” We have made you an Ummah justly balanced that you might be witness over other nations.” ( Surah Baqarat :143 )
Unfortunately, we as a “justly balanced Ummah ” viz. free from fanaticism and extremism, are no longer doing the judging. On the contrary, we are the judged. And our performance, to a large extent, is quite appalling. Furthermore, when it comes to analysing our inadequacies and problems, we all too frequently attribute them to external factors such as imperialism, zionism, etc. But has it ever occurred to us that if the House of Islam were in order, that any imperialist or zionist or any other plotter would have great difficulty in upsetting its internal cohesion? To be aware of belligerents trying to undermine Islam is one thing. But for that calm, rational awareness to transform itself into a “plot mentality ” – not infrequently manifesting itself as phobia – may yet prove to be our greatest undoing. The awesome suspicion that this mentality generates even against brothers and sisters of a kind in some Islamic movements sprouting up in many parts of the world, is sufficient evidence for this.
Certainly we have to remain aware of belligerents who are bent on undermining Islam. Muslims in the past have been aware of and have dealt adequately with this problem. Similarly, Muslims in the future would have to remain equally vigilant. But of far greater and more immediate importance is our awareness of the message of Islam and ourselves as Muslims. Our own internal ” domestic health ” must remain of paramount importance. We simply cannot, with impunity, wreck our own homes and then shout to the world that the cause of all this chaos is exclusively the product of some mysterious plot.
Moreover, if there are any anti-Islamic forces that seek to undermine the unity of Muslims and that seek to distort the truth of Islam, then this should serve as a unifying factor – and not as a point of departure to internal ruin. It is also important to note that the way we handle our internal affairs will, of necessity, affect the way in which we present the message to the non-Muslim world. And this message can only truly be projected if we ourselves are examples of the ” balanced Ummah ” mentioned in the Quranic verse. The Quran is also emphatic when it tells us that:” Indeed, Allah will not change the
condition of a people until they ( first )change that which is in themselves “ ( Surah ar-Ra’d :11 )
In other words, in as much as we are expected to bear witness over other people we are similarly expected to bear witness over ourselves. Every effort to pass on the message must be preceded – or at least accompanied by – an even greater effort to improve ourselves. Now this inner struggle (the Jihad of the self) to better ourselves does not only depend upon extensive spiritual practices – the transforming powers of which are undoubtedly effective – but also on a healthy and constructive sense of self-criticism.
Let us hasten to add, however, that a serious concentration on the effort to improve ourselves cannot and should not act as an excuse for social and political apathy. This, in fact, is a contradiction in terms. There can be no internal struggle – no internal Jihad – if its results do not overflow into the external struggle to make known the message. But what we do know is that during or after an effective inner Jihad, the message that would then flow from us would not be a message of the truncated and fanatical variety that we so often see around us today. A fanaticism that is making it difficult for the Ummah to stand on one leg let alone balance itself.
A cursory look at how Islam spread in the past ought to illustrate this point. In Indonesia Islam was not spread by the sword or by “pseudo ” revolutionaries, but by people who had imbibed in their characters and personalities the greatness of the Islamic message. And where the Muslims entered in battle array – such as Egypt – the sword of battle was wielded along with the sword of truth. The Egyptians (both those who embraced Islam and those who did not) collectively raised their hands in thanks after their liberation from the eastern Roman Empire. The reason for their success was simple. These Muslim merchants, scholars, and warriors were representatives of the highest values known to any civilisation – the values of communal love, respect for human dignity and the respect for freedom of thought and religion. These were people who knew that if an injustice was committed against them that to requite the injustice was permissible. But they also knew that to forgive was better. They were people who, when it came to differences of opinion – a natural part of being human – understood clearly the principle contained in a Prophetic tradition where a matter requiring a legal ruling arose amongst the companions in the presence of the Prophet (s). The Prophet (s) then asked Amr ibn ul-`As to provide them with an answer. Amr replied : “How is it possible for me to give judgment while the Prophet (s) is here amongst us?” The Prophet (s) then said: ” Give your judgment, Amr. For if you are right then you have gained two rewards (one for being correct and the other for sincerely trying to find a solution) and if you are wrong then you will be granted one reward (for having at least tried to solve the problem). These, too, are people who embraced the sublime principle contained in the Qur’an:
” And do not let others’ hatred of you cause you not to be just – be just for that it is nearer to piety.” (Surat al-Maida : 9)
To vie amongst ourselves in decadence and not in righteousness, and to merely pour scorn upon non-Muslims whose twin sources of information are our own narrowness and the writings of many a bigoted orientalist, is to commit a grave wrong both against humanity and against Allah the most Merciful of the Merciful.
(This article which appeared in “The Dome” newsletter in 1991)
© 2012 As-Sunnah Foundation of America