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Home » Religion » Healing the ills of the Muslim ummah’s public life

Healing the ills of the Muslim ummah’s public life

… Verily Allah does not change a people’s condition unless they change what is in themselves. And when Allah intends for a people ill, there is no repelling it. And there is not for them besides Him any patron. (Al-Qur’an 13:11)

 Stocktaking

Long gone are the early days of Islam when Muslims were the best people on earth. They formed a global Muslim community – an ummah of purpose – with core beliefs and rituals, values and deeds for the good of humanity and an incomparable love for and modelling of behaviour on the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). For over a thousand years Muslims created a civilisation that helped reshape the old world and usher in a new era. Their long success was due to the fact that they followed universal human values that were blended with Islamic principles of pluralism and welfare for all.

Those are now bygone days. There is no denying the fact that Muslims around the world today, including those in a minority situation in many places, are not in good shape – in almost all spheres of life. There are obvious external factors that have helped to create this spiral of mess, but conscientious adherents of Islam are aware that the reasons for this are almost entirely self-inflicted. We should take ourselves to task for our predicaments of the last few centuries; we are in an undignified situation, to say the least, in recent decades.

Many in the ummah have been trying to pinpoint the causes and have been trying hard to overcome them and bring us back to a position of stability and dignity. The serious reformers would not exclude the external factors that have exacerbated the chaos, but almost all would agree that the answer to our mess is rightly in our hands. The social and religious leaders who are driven by the agenda for a renewal of the ummah need to think deep and find the real reasons behind this, before making effective plans to rise above the challenges with creative energy and the right courses of action.

This is what is expected of us as believers and in this endeavour we must have full trust in Allah. The verse mentioned in the beginning cannot be more relevant.

The uniqueness of Islam is its deep rooted ‘structure’ of beliefs, the five firm ‘pillars’ of ritual worship and giving due rights of fellow humans (in fact, Allah’s creation). The purpose of Islamic Shariah is public good (maslaha) that has five foundational goals, such as the preservation of life, religion, lineage (progeny), intellect and property. Allah has blessed Muslims by making their religion simple and a balanced way of life, with principles and guidelines in their private and public life – in arts, culture, economy, politics, etc. Distortion and denial of this balance or over-emphasis to any area of life is bound to be harmful for Muslims.

The Qur’anic verse

“… This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed My favour upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion …” (chapter 5, verse 3)

expects that Muslims, followers of Islam, have to make the most of this favour from Allah through our beliefs and actions. This was fully grasped by the first generation of Muslims and the two successive generations thereafter.

But gradually Muslims started squandering the gift of Islam, becoming weaker in core beliefs, losing spirit in practising the essential rituals and forgetting their rights to the people around them. As the ummah’s knowledge capital diminished, so too did the social and spiritual capital. As Muslim individual life was losing the spark of faith and action, the social and public life was being led by those who were lacking in moral clarity and spiritual strength.

As a result, Muslims everywhere started retreating from their primary role as a community of purpose, decadence was hitting hard on them and they were being overtaken by others in life’s highway. The disengagement from knowledge (ilm) and intellect (aql) by successive generations gave rise to stagnation and inertia that halted their progress. As they were sinking as a people, a regenerated and adventurous Europe took over the baton of world leadership. The rest is now history.

We have now come to a situation where the house of Islam is full of cracks and crevasses that is haemorrhaging its internal fortitude. Even after the ending of physical colonialism in the mid-20th century, most post-colonial Muslim countries are riddled with social division, economic mismanagement and political strangulation.

The century-old foreign rule siphoned Muslim wealth to Europe and the colonial ‘divide and conquer’ policy made things worse. Being unable to overcome their weaknesses some Muslim countries are being literally torn apart as of late, making them once again easy prey to predatory hegemonic world powers – some old and some new.

Many in the post-colonial breed of corrupt, incompetent and often repressive rulers – having little regard for the ordinary people and their human rights or respect for the rule of law – have turned the conditions of some Muslim countries unbearable. They are the political opportunists who have been using the garb of nationalism or Islam, but far removed from any meaningful loyalty to national interest or Islam’s egalitarian concept of running public affairs. Whether monarchical or military, some are behaving like fiefs or Soviet-era communist rulers. Their lease of political life is only extended by their foreign masters, not by the people of the land.

Their dismal rule is sapping the energy of the ordinary citizens. Civil wars or external aggressions in some Arab countries are destroying whatever infra-structure they have had; this is driving people away from their homes and causing massive refugee problems that the world is finding difficult to cope with. Worst of all, the situation is turning some desperate or misguided people, whose backs are against the wall, to nihilism or terrorism – although there are no reasons sanctioned by Islam for this. Needless to say, the world powers are not setting any better examples to help the situation; the post-9/11 vengeance in the form of invading sovereign countries, torture of ‘enemy combatants’ and extra-judicial killings are a scar on humanity. This vicious cycle of tyranny, terror and torture is making the world more and more unsafe.

While Islam teaches Muslims to celebrate their diversity and remain glued together on its beliefs and principles, many are now fragmented with theological intolerance and political violence. The lack of contextual understanding of Islam and an absence of the ethos of serving people through politics are the two major concerns in recent times. This is not only inhibiting progress in many Muslim countries, but also having a negative impact on immigrant Muslims in the West as many of them originate from these lands. The Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), a global body of 57 Muslim countries, has little teeth as it is a body consisting of governments that are in chaos themselves.

The bare fact is that post-colonial nationalist and secular politics have dismally failed to deliver anything good to the ummah. The added sadness for the ummah is that conventional Islamic politics in recent times has also proved naive and failed to add value to good politics; Islamic politics in many countries, the way it is today, has little to offer.

With secularism and ‘political Islam’ on one hand and tribalism and sectarianism on the other at loggerheads, the Muslim ummah is awaiting further disaster.

 

Ummah’s house needs repair and renewal

Muslim religious traditions and politics do not have to be so fractured, divisive and confrontational. Our forebears managed their various traditions and multiplicity with dignity in the past; it is very much possible to do the same today. We have a lesson to learn in how they were able to harness a certain synergy within the diversity of the ummah. We can also learn from modern developed nations as to how they manage themselves in difficult situations. We must look into our own hearts; more reflection and introspection is needed.

I have been deeply involved with Britain’s Muslim communities and mainstream socio-political works, including in major organisations and mosques, for over three decades. Through this I have developed a strong empathy for the Muslim ummah vis a vis global humanity. The level of polarisation and fragmentation in the socio-political arena in some Muslim countries, particularly among its educated middle class that form the civil society, is alarming. Where are the Islamic and human values of tolerance, love, respect, fairness and justice in public realm that made Muslims great?

There are many reasons behind the current tensions and erosion of values, but in my opinion we should concentrate on some primary ones only. To me, it is the absence of a right level of theological, political and intellectual leadership that has given rise to despondency and impatience in the masses leading to violence, corruption and the blame-game – a vicious circle. The situation is hurtful to us in the West, where we have our own challenges to tackle in a post-9/11 world. Why should this ummah, so rich with human and material resources and blessed by faith and spirituality, be going through this pain for so long?

No one, even with modest belief and a sense of dignity as a Muslim, would feel comfortable with the status quo. Some other developing countries are coming out of their difficult past right in front of our very eyes – why can’t we?

When a large house needs repair and renewal any sensible homeowner will look deep into the whole house and mend the main problems first, rather than sorting out the piecemeal issues or just changing its external aesthetics. With internal repair and renovation the house would be strong enough to protect itself from external storms as well.

Temptation to make a long list of do’s and don’ts is always there. But it is important that we concentrate on a few priority areas for the ummah’s renewal now, without which we will slide further downwards. In my humble opinion, we have the three difficult but prime areas to address:

 

1) To bring a meaningful understanding (unity) among Islamic scholars on core Islamic values and avoid enmity

Our religious scholars and groups, whatever their backgrounds, are the pillars of the ummah.

“Scholars are the inheritors of the prophets.” (Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud).

Many scholars throughout the history of Islam have been inspirational role models, because of their knowledge, integrity, dedication and sacrifice. Given the current internal challenges and external onslaught, it is vital that they proactively bring their heads together and unite – with a few key agreed issues and a few ‘no go’ areas. This must be done for the sake of Allah and to protect ourselves from falling into further disgrace.

A public declaration of this practical unity with a commitment not to attack one another will be a massive relief for ordinary people and a boost to their morale; this will bring Allah’s mercy on us as a people. It is highly possible that some of those who have turned into extremism and violence would be swayed if our scholars are seen to have come together.

We must not forget that whatever the levels of ritual practices or Islamic commitment individual Muslims may have, most people hold dear their religion and believe that one day we all will face our Lord.

Islamic scholars have a higher responsibility to preserve our religion and its dignity. While there will be natural disagreement, scholars should not be seen to be discourteous to one another, let alone fighting amongst themselves. There are established principles or ethics of managing disagreement in Islam.

It is a reality that Islamic attachment and spirituality among many Muslims have waned over the centuries, yet our scholars still hold huge authority over the Muslim ummah. But this may not continue for too long.

We cannot pretend that there will be no hiccups in this unity effort, as there are practical issues that have divided our scholars for so long. But the beauty of Islam is it has taught us to amicably sort out our differences through internal discussion and civilised debates. These differences should not stand between us and Allah on the Day of Judgment, and at the cost of our best interests.

As the time and challenges are continuously changing and getting tougher, it is also essential that our scholars and religious leaders invest more in contextual knowledge and the spiritual capital of people. By doing this they can serve the ummah far better than any other section.

Practising or not, Muslims still love their religion. This means that we should not be judgemental on one another’s ‘Muslimness’; one’s ultimate fate should be left with Allah alone.

I am sure many high-spirited scholars are already working hard to remain united in many places, but what is desperately needed now are some public steps to make this a reality for all of us to see. If some dedicated, active, respectable and broadly acceptable scholars are seen to be seriously taking practical steps of coming together we will remain ever grateful to them and pray for their success.

 

2) To make a truce between moderate secular and Islamist politicians to protect a country’s sovereignty and national interest

Politics is about organised control over a people, particularly a state; it evidently deals with power. The nobility of politics lies in bringing positive changes in people’s life through serving them. Those who have nation’s interest in mind will behave differently from those who use political power for their self-interest and egos or to benefit their own family, tribe, group or party.

Political leadership is a big trust (amanah) in Islam; those who do their job with honesty and competency deserve support and supplication from their people.

 The best of your leaders are those that you love and they love you, you supplicate for them and they supplicate for you. The worst of your leaders are those that you hate and they hate you, you curse them and they curse you. (Muslim)

Whatever driving forces political leaders may have – nationalistic, secular or Islamic fervour – they can be the ‘force for good’ if they have competence, integrity and a sense of justice for all. Politicians of a Muslim background should not go into enmity with one another just because someone may not appear to be practicing or probably too practicing. People should judge political leaders on what they say, whether they keep their promises or what they deliver to people.

In many Muslim countries politics has become dysfunctional in recent decades, not just because politicians come from nationalist, secularist or Islamist backgrounds but for many practical reasons -­ such as the dearth of people-oriented political training, a lack of accountability, an inability to stand up for principled politics, the absence of fair media and the weaknesses of the civil society to vigorously take politicians to task, etc. Politics has been an Achilles’ heel for many people in developing countries.

Due to the lack of a sound political culture, with colossal ignorance and fear between secularist and Islamist political camps, some Muslim countries are now torn apart and sliding further backward. The worst example is the Arab world’s historic and most populous country, Egypt, that recently rose from the ashes of tyranny but has quickly fallen flat again. On the other hand, the Tunisian model of moderate Islamist and secular groups working together appears to be bearing some fruits.

Confrontational politics and labelling each other negatively, as if the political opponent is an enemy is the source of hatred, conflict and division. For hegemonic powers this is a golden opportunity to keep weaker nations perpetually dependent and exploitable.

Had there been any objective research into a Muslim country’s political turmoil, we could find that the proportion of diehard or fanatical ideologues in any political camp is negligible. However, this tiny minority is given oxygen of publicity by divisive forces within and outside the country.

Politicians belong to the communities and are part of their people; it is vital they try to maintain and improve their personal and family relationships with their political opponents. This will remove the fear factors and most of them will find common grounds to serve people.

Muslims may have diverse political opinions and attitudes towards religion and life, and this is normal, but very few would undermine their religious root. Most politicians in Muslim countries and communities have varying degrees of religious commitment – from devoutness to casualness – and want to serve their people. A blessed nation has the ability to build on from this.

Our social reality is not that dispiriting, as it appears. The overwhelming proportion of Muslim citizens is proud of their heritage, land and belief. The number of public figures who flare up raw emotions on the basis of religious, tribal or ethnic divisions for their gains is tiny; they should not be allowed to set the national or community agenda.

Unless someone publicly renounces Islam or works as a fifth column, all Muslims should be treated as assets, not liabilities. The emergence of totalitarian regimes in many Muslim countries – be they family or military dictatorships, or through manipulated elections – has been a tragedy for the ummah. We all need to work harder to unburden ourselves from this shame.

It is time our conscientious and moderate social and political leaders from whichever camp – nationalist, secularist or Islamist – bring their heads and hearts together and engage in people-centred public service.

 

3) To create or strengthen non-partisan civil societies wherever they are so that they can stand up for the people and their dignity

The two areas mentioned above can be undertaken by only a small section of our people; scholars, political leaders and upper middles class who exert high influence on the affairs of a country and community; in reality, they are not big in number. Blessed are the people who have a legacy of sound scholarship as well as morally upright political and social leadership.

But anyone, from an ordinary citizen to a highly educated individual, can contribute towards a country’s civil society.

Civil society is about people in non-government sectors who work for the common interest and will of citizens. It is also seen as a concept of civic values, such as freedom of speech and independence of judiciary, of a democratic pluralist society.

Volunteering is the pillar of any society; active citizenship from members of the society strengthens our social capital. From an Islamic standpoint civic responsibility is a necessity for each member of a society; this gets nourishment from families, neighbourhoods, streets and communities. Civil society is for everyone and by everyone who wants to live as civilised human beings.

Conscientious people, with roots to their heritage and a commitment to build their future, keep on improving their knowledge capital and build their individual and national character. This helps create a strong non-partisan civil society with a massive impact on ordinary people on the one hand and influence on political leadership on the other. When this civil society in a Muslim land is able to increase its spiritual capital it gives them an edge over other people. That was what Muslims achieved in the first few generations.

Not everyone can be a scholar or leader, but everyone can excel in whatever field they work; the net effect is enhanced social capital. Talented Muslim individuals should not just group themselves in a few professions, but spread in all areas of public life – such as teaching, media, arts, sports, etc. This will improve our social vibrancy. Even groups working with apparently peripheral sectors such as animal welfare or environmental issues would contribute hugely to our worthiness as Allah’s stewards on earth.

When civil society is weak it has little influence on those who are in power and cannot help ordinary people who have little voice. When it is politicised or ideologised it can ally itself to, or conspire against, existing political leadership; it may then give rise to destructive politics.

Dark politics is always dangerous, especially in a land where civil society is frail. Unfortunately, this has turned to be the case in some post-colonial Muslim countries where small numbers of powerful elites (a tiny minority among them appear to have even swallowed the neo-orientalist or neocon ideology) have grabbed unprecedented state or media power and dug their heels into the political and intellectual structure. They are like froth in their own land, but receive media and intellectual support from abroad. They would not relinquish their privilege, come what may, until they are dislodged and isolated by public awareness of the vainness of their alien loyalty.

A society cannot be run by moral guidelines alone; it needs rule of law, continuous checks and balance to rein in those who are in power. Moral uprightness of people and applied ethics should go hand in hand to make a society thriving. A robust rule of law and a strong moral compass of people are the safeguards against arbitrary whims from people in the top. A country where its government and the civil society work together is blessed; they quarrel with each other at everybody’s peril.

There is no use just blaming our current political leaders. They originate from us and as such are the reflection of who we are or what values and norms we carry. It is vital we all make our individual and collective effort to bring positive changes in our social life. It is crucial active Muslim citizens, wherever we are, work with a team-spirit and ‘catch the bull of our challenges by the horn’. What is needed is a recalibrated frame of mind, a basic vision and judicious approach in our public life.

Good people should come forward in public life with an ethos of service and sacrifice.

“The best of people are those that bring most benefit to the rest of mankind.” (Daraqutni)

As a human being and as a Muslim with some level of faith, we should not wait for others to come first to serve our community or society. We all possess enormous potentials that we may not be aware of; harnessing them to make our planet a better place is our individual as well as collective obligation. The minimum we can do is, at least, we keep away from such actions that may fragment us further and pull us down.

 

Conclusion

All this discussion, summed up in three tasks, may seem naive to some. Or, questions may arise as to who is going to initiate the process? In the language of Aesop’s fable, ‘who is going to bell the cat?’

Blaming others or external forces cannot be an excuse for us. The task of writing our own destiny falls on all of us who carry some light of faith and urge in our hearts to bring our house in order. We all bear the responsibility to bring back our own dignity.

… Everyone will bear the consequence of what he does, and no one shall bear the burden of another. Thereafter your return will be to your Lord, whereupon He will let you know what you disagreed about (Al-Qur’an: 5:164).

A beautiful and pertinent hadith from our beloved master and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) is a timely reminder for all of us.

Every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. The leader of people is a guardian and is responsible for his subjects. A man is the guardian of his family and he is responsible for them. A woman is the guardian of her husband’s home and his children and she is responsible for them. The servant of a man is a guardian of the property of his master and he is responsible for it. Surely, every one of you is a shepherd and responsible for his flock. (Sahih Bukhari and Muslim)

36 Comments

  1. This piece is discussing an important subject. However I think it sits on too many fences and therefore in many places descends into platitudes. Further while it rightly places the blame upon Muslims themselves, it still cannot avoid the temptation to blame “predatory hegemonic world powers.”

    What will produce good governance in Muslim majority countries is no different from what produces good governance in the democracies of Europe, North America and some other parts of the world. The idea that there is something special needed for Muslim majority countries is fallacious, and is actually part of the problem. See the piece on my website with the title “Why are Muslim majority countries more corrupt?”

  2. Nabeel

    A very insightful piece, outlining our complex challenges and proposing some useful ways forward.

    @Mohammed Amin, while we need to move away from the West-blaming approach I dont think we can deny the existence of ‘world powers’ who often play very unhelpful roles, hence I think the article strikes a balance.

    Agree a key issue is governance, but we also need to consider PESTEL factors that undermine efforts for reform in the Ummah, especially political and economic factors. Those with greater political and economic power in the world perhaps need to exercise greater responsibility to create a fairer and harmonious world.

    But as the article rightly advises ‘blaming others or external forces cannot be an excuse for us. The task of writing our own destiny falls on all of us’

  3. This is a small attempt to address the stark political reality of about 1/4th of humanity that is now affecting our life everywhere.

    I value an insightful and objective debate and discussion on this vital issue. There could be various approaches and other priorities, depending on where one comes from. Passing remarks on the role of hegemonic world powers to set the scene, which is a historical and current reality, should be taken in that context.

    Nations and communities do not develop in a linear way. We have generality in our global village, but it will be seen as patronising to ignore the specificity. Mimicking solutions to the complex problems of the developing world in the model of highly developed democracies is not going to work. Majority religion in the North Atlantic countries has little influence in public life compared to majority religions in the rest of the world, particularly when it comes to Islam for Muslims.

  4. Rumman Ahmed

    The article that outlines three priority areas for Muslims across the ummah is insightful. I especially endorse the second point, i.e., ‘make a truce between moderate secular and Islamist politicians to protect a country’s sovereignty and national interest’.

    I agree, without such an all out effort our 60+ Muslim nation states will be lost to hundred years’ anarchy. The time has come for Islamically inclined thinkers, intellectuals, political and social activists to come up with a National Charter for Peace, Justice and Development for their own respective countries so as to clearly chart out a pathway for national reconciliation and harmony and making all sectors of their society stakeholders in such a process. Without such a stake-holding society, which is reflected in its politics, there can be no sustainable development or progress in any of these Muslim nation states. Any little progress made so far will just remain ephemeral benefiting mostly the elite, with small crumbs thrown down the social ladder. The citizens of these Muslim nation states all desire peace with justice, equity and the forging of unity amongst themselves.

    Pl read the rest in my blog http://www.salaam.co.uk/blogs-new/?p=1602

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