Prelude to Reconstruction: Shedding Complexes and Avoiding Violence

(Paper presented at, MUSLIMS and ISLAM in the 21st CENTURY:IMAGE and REALITY. International Conference, August   4-6, 2004, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)


Only some may know the reality about Islam and Muslims, but the image that is everywhere is not good. Islam and Muslims are being projected as a threat to peace. Some   perceive it as a threat to their personal security. Exceptions are made but not universally believed. It is claimed that like the Nazis and the Fascists and the Communists, radical Islam is out to dominate the world by force, destroying everything that comes in its way. Since radical Islam is not ascribed to any particular territory but alleged to be almost everywhere, the entire world of Islam has been thrown on the defensive.


What a change! Before a quarter century the world of Islam was buoyant, not only because of oil money but also because of its identity and its potentialities. It may have been perceived to be distinct yet it was acceptable, as neighbor, friend or/and partner, to all except to the lunatic fringe of the rightists. It was known for its tolerance and its desire to coexist with people of different faiths and persuasions in peace and harmony. Even the Islamic movements in various parts of the world were seen as committed to the rules of decency and non-coercion. This is no longer so. What went wrong?


It is not my intention to attempt an answer to that question. Many in this conference will address it and discuss its antecedents and consequences. I want to suggest an agenda for the immediate future. I shall confine myself to advocating a two point agenda, as a necessary prelude to a wider agenda[1] that I am sure will come out of the deliberations at this conference. It is a prelude to something bigger as the real task to focus on is construction, building up, forging ahead and not just warding off some evil that has befallen us. But there are debris of the past to be cleared and impediments to be removed. My two point transitional agenda should be seen as some urgent action needed to enable us to regain our balance in a turbulent world.


Firstly, I am suggesting keeping away from violence. My second plea is for Muslims to adopt the culture of equality and partnership with everyone and anyone in the global village without any complexes of being superior or inferior. This requires some elaboration, so I begin with it. I will take up the issue of violence later.


But let me warn again. Neither violence nor a bloated sense of being different and superior is the cause of Muslim decline. Our decline is not going to change into progress once we take care of these two problems. We have to deal with these two issues in order to clear the ground for the main work which I shall briefly mention in the end but which is not discussed in this essay. 


Why the culture of equality?


Over the last few centuries Muslims have developed some notions about themselves that deserve scrutiny. To be specific, these are:


We are different

We are superior

We deserve to be supreme

We are destined to dominate


We Muslims have these perceptions about ourselves as we are, not as we ought to be, i.e., as Muslims are described/characterized in Quran and Sunnah. Each of these perceptions has some connection with truth, but it is not true as it stands.  I find these perceptions adversely affecting the image of Muslims as good neighbors, congenial friends and durable partners. I find these perceptions counterproductive in the context of the Islamic mission of calling humanity toward our One Lord and interacting with men and women as bearers of God’s message to them. And, of course, I find them out of context, exaggerated and mostly false.


Being Different


We are different in certain respects but not different in many other respects. As human beings we share myriad needs and the efforts for survival with the rest of humanity. We share the planet earth with all its environmental problems. Our similarities in body and mind far outnumber the dissimilarities that can ever be acquired.


Compared to the rest of humanity we Muslims differ in our faith.

Even those who believe in God, and that applies to the overwhelming majority of human beings, do not have the clear tawhidi view of the divine. But when you travel down the long queue assessing purity of tawhidi notions among Muslims you face the stark reality of blurring concepts tending to imperceptibly mix and merge with notions of the divine elsewhere. There is no need of taking the other articles of faith one by one and repeating the same mental exercise as the message is clear: the difference is to be taken realistically.

Also, differences related to faith need be placed in context as the rule of faith is not uniformly spread over our life. In trade and commerce, in agriculture and transport, and in so many walks of life all human beings need to interact irrespective of their faith. The perceived differences do not and should not affect the common agenda of removal of poverty and deprivation and maintaining planet earth in good shape for the generations to come.


The reason I am worried by too much emphasis on being different is that it acts as a barrier obstructing normal interaction with non-Muslims. It creates a tendency to withdraw as against a desire for reaching out which would be expected from a people with a mission. Instead of building on what we share and using shared problems as springboards for Islamic contributions to the weal of humanity that would in turn draw attention to Islamic faith, we tend to use blown-up differences as excuses for Muslim exclusiveness.


Before I proceed further to examine the next idea, that of Muslim superiority, I wish to draw attention towards the verses of Quran that underscore the common humanity of us all.


‘And We have given you (mankind) power in the earth, and appointed for you therein a livelihood. Little give you thanks!’ (7:10)

That theme is repeated in 67:15. Verses 7:189 and 39:6 emphasize the fact that all human beings had a common ancestor and 17:70 underlines the privileged position of mankind among other creatures. Verse 49:13 underscores the fact that mankind is one big family descending from the same couple, and the existing divisions into tribes and nations should be treated as a means of introduction only. Verses 67:2 and 21:35, among many others, remind everyone of the transient nature of life on earth in which one is undergoing a test, a trial. Verse 5:32, emphasizing the sanctity of human life, warns against violations of the right to live. Verses 35:15-18 underscore our vulnerable position and that one’s destiny depends on one own doings.



Superiority Complex


The perception of being different is accompanied by a feeling that we Muslims are superior to the rest of humanity. The scope of this superiority is not very clear but it may cover anything and everything. It is certainly not confined to tawhid and other articles of faith in which (true) Muslims are in fact superior as evidenced by the Quranic verse 3: 110, ‘You are the best community that has been raised for mankind. You enjoin right conduct……’. In Muslim perception it extends to culture and civilization. The truth of superiority of a people living, by and large, in accordance with Islamic teachings (as they did in the early days of Islam, as evidenced by Quran 24:55), is metamorphosed into the dubious assertion of superiority of all Muslims, irrespective of how they conduct themselves. Superiority rooted in spirituality and morality brings humility, as the Quran informs us in verse 25:63. In our case it produces arrogance that is bound to repel others.


In the context of the Muslim people’s mission with humanity, this perception too is counterproductive. It separates, erects barriers, obstructs smooth interaction, alienates and invites hostility. It certainly does not endear us to people. It does no good to us either, diverting our attention from hundred and one instances of our inferiority which could have/should have spurred us to work harder, reform and improve. Whereas the Prophet asked Muslims to adopt wisdom, what ever its source (“For a Muslim, wisdom is a lost item found”), our superiority complex all but destroys our capacity to learn from others. We have ceased to be warned by others’ failures under the impression that what happened to them may not happen to us Muslims. We do not venture to repeat their success stories thinking their ways might be tainted. This attitude becomes a liability in facing the problems caused by increasing numbers, crowding of peoples in metropolitan cities, polluted environment, arms proliferation, diseases unheard of earlier, etc. that call for joint action.


I have a hunch that both the above mentioned perceptions, those of being different and of being superior, got a boost during the period of Muslim decline when instead of gaining new ground, attracting large number of people towards Islam, it became our vocation to defend ourselves, consolidate our fold, sharpen our identity and keep our flock from being snatched away from us by the attacking wolves. This happened when interaction with non-Muslims was seen not as an opportunity, carrying the possibility of attracting them towards Muslims and their religion, but as a threat bearing the risk of Muslims being attracted towards others and their ways of life. This disrupted the normal humane relationship desired in case of all except those who persecute Muslims and drive them away from their homes (as Makkans once did). The Quran says:


‘Allah forbids you not those who warred not against you on account of religion and drove you not out from your homes, that you should show them kindness and deal justly with them. Lo! Allah loves the just dealers.’(60:8)



Claim to supremacy


One step forward and the perception of being superior leads to the feeling that Muslims deserve to rule the world. After all it is our Lord who owns it, and has He not ordained us to remove all corruption, destroy all evil and establish peace and prosperity on earth? Who else can do that but the bearers of the true divine message? And how can this mission be fulfilled without wielding power and removing all powers that do not submit to the sovereignty of Allah?

Henceforth the line bifurcates into two different paths. One line regards that Muslims have to become true Muslims so that they can be supreme, implicitly assuming that supremacy may come by without targeting it. The other line argues that Muslims can become true Muslims only by establishing the rule of Shariah in lands under their control, the Muslim majority countries. Islam’s universal mission with humanity thereby gets translated, temporarily, into struggle for Islamic state(s), which are envisioned as logical transits to global supremacy. That, by irony of history, almost everywhere pitched Muslims (actively working for Islamic rule) against Muslims (ruling the nation states) and the mission of carrying the message of Allah to the rest of humanity was put on hold.


Is power a necessary condition for the mission of Islam? Is the power of governance the only kind of power relevant in this context? [The Prophet Ibrahim was declared ‘leader of mankind’ (2:124) though he never governed.] These are core issues crying for a debate. Also, there must be a way to avoid Muslims fighting Muslims in the name of Islam, squandering away energies that should/could have been put in service of Islam’s mission with humanity.



We are destined to dominate


Then come the predictions. The promises of divine support and the predictions of victory made on the explicit condition that Muslims abide by Islamic teachings and conduct themselves selflessly as servants of God (‘…you will overcome them if you are {indeed} believers’[3:138]) are applied by some of us to Muslims as they are.  The promise is predicated on good conduct (24:55). More importantly, the promise of victory is made to Prophets and their followers under attack (22:40; 58:21; 37:171-73; 47:7).


Three points deserve attention in this regard.

(1)              Firstly, the Quranic conditionality applies to a collective, the community, and not to individuals and groups of Muslims.

(2)              Secondly, the qualifying community is promised dominion under God, free to practice Islam without fear of outside intervention (24:55). The victory of Islam (110) should not be interpreted as disappearance of all other religions and/or their adherents as this runs counter to Text (11:118; 16:93; 12:103; 64:2). In other words the promised position does not amount to a rejection of coexistence with peoples of other faiths. In fact Allah has made it very clear that the arrangements He made for trying us human beings involve such coexistence (64:2; 109; 10:19; 11:118; 16:93). Muslims have been well aware of this throughout history. But extremism could easily build on a premise that is false but capable of being projected as true. Some recent responses to American-led aggressions are a case in point.

(3)              This brings me to the third point that deserves attention. The Quranic verses bearing the promise of the ultimate victory of Islam have a context. They boosted the morale of a people under attack (3:138). But they do not provide a basis for unprovoked attacks (2:190-94).  They are not a prelude to a world-dominating agenda. Though I do not think such an agenda exists or ever existed in Islamic history, the falsehood of perceptions leaves the possibility open. It is, therefore, necessary to guard against it before it vitiates our ability to function and carry on our mission in the global village.




I would now take up the point I mentioned first, that we must avoid violence[2]. Violence is essentially unethical. It is justified only to deter and punish criminals and to defend oneself. No noble objectives may ever be achieved by violent means. Violence has not been a means for achieving Islamic goals over the centuries. It has not been a part of the agenda for Islamic regeneration during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Islamic movements in the twentieth century did not adopt violence as a means to establishing the cherished Islamic state. Much can be written about the happenings during the last quarter of the twentieth century that trapped a group of Muslims into violent strategies, but it is not the purpose of this paper to examine that line of thinking. What concerns me here and now is the damage violent strategies are doing to the image of Islam and the harm they are inflicting to the Muslim society itself. I do not think violent strategies are succeeding in their avowed purpose: defeating the adversary and thwarting it in its aggressive designs against Islam and Muslims. Also, Islamic objectives can be achieved only through Islamic means of persuasion and good examples. Wrong means, methods that are bad in themselves may never be adopted in the name of Islam as they negate their very objective, i.e., Islam itself.


Resort to violent strategies harming Muslim Society


I begin with the harm being done to Muslims. Three are most visible, having far-reaching consequences.


Firstly a people whose religion had taught them to rely on persuasion, moral appeal and the power of good character in their interaction with the rest of humanity (26:125; 41:34-35) are increasingly being led to lose faith in these methods (before even trying them!).This is being done on the basis of a false premise, that of Islam and Muslims being under attack from every quarter, especially by the entire west.

Secondly, violence, which is justified as a defensive measure, must be used under the supervision of a central authority that can regulate it in accordance with Islamic teachings related to Jihad. In case of Muslim lands subjected to forceful occupation by others, a unified resistance movement could provide a substitute, as happened in case of Palestinians fighting Israeli occupation. Unlike these examples of jihad, violence organized by clandestine groups secretly and in violation of the laws of the land from where it is launched cannot be regulated properly. In the long run it cannot be regulated at all as its leadership is made to run for life, gets fragmented and falls prey to the inevitable dissentions. When a Muslim group living under other people’s rule endorses violent strategies against their adversaries at home or abroad, it is forced by circumstances to accept a leadership that thrives on secretiveness, deception, smuggling, breaking laws and joining hands with criminals. This is bound to corrupt us from inside and does not endear us to outsiders.

Thirdly, this obsession with what the others are doing to us diverts attention from what we are doing to ourselves—something that has been the focus of attention of all the movements for reform and regeneration.


Add to these the adverse impact of violence and counter-violence on what is most important for Islam and Muslims: carrying the message of Allah to the rest of humanity. An environment full of war cries is not the right one for men and women responding to the Islamic call for deep thinking and dialogue (34:46; 14:4; 30:8), nor is it the most efficient way of winning hearts and minds. Note how the peace treaty in Hudaibiyah brought Arab tribes to Islam, first to listen and explore and then to embrace. Historically the expansion of Islam owes itself to peace more than to war. While Islamic jihad removed threats to Islam’s existence and the tyranny of overlords who won’t allow their peoples to listen, it was peaceful interaction in trade and commerce that brought the bulk of adherents into fold. The spread of Islam to South and South-east Asia and into China is an eloquent witness to that.




Violent strategies are not serving their purpose 


Once Muslim peoples had regained their independence from colonial powers -- over the period 1945 (Indonesia) to 1963(Algeria) -- they focused inwards on national reconstruction. Muslim society by and large remained free of violent strategies, obviously because there is no role for violence in reconstruction. Unfortunately the state in some Muslim countries opted for violent suppression of some movements. This resulted in some splinter groups of the suppressed parties responding to state violence with violence. Since the post-colonial states in many Muslim countries were seen as vassals of one superpower or other, those powers too became targets of violence by a group of Muslims. This brings us to the last quarter of the twentieth century when the American involvement with the Muslim world, in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq reinforced Muslim perception of victim-hood generated and sustained by its pro-Israel policies since the middle of the century.


Preachers of violence started gaining ground, but did they achieve their avowed objectives? I think not. The power relations are too skewed. The cost in terms of ill will being generated by terrorist activities is too high. In fact protagonists of violent strategies may already have destroyed the vast amount of goodwill, sympathy and moral support Muslims had earned over the last half-century.


And the damage to the image of Islam has been immense indeed.

Despite the crusaders’ propaganda and the colonial curricula, Islam was generally perceived as a model of decency. The overwhelming majority of human beings regarded the Prophet with respect and reverence. As the violent strategies pursued in the name of Islam started taking forms explicitly prohibited by Islam the situation started to change. Blowing up busses, trains and planes, attacking foreign embassies, taking hostages and indiscriminate killing of civilians in the name of Islam has tarnished that image. The portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media as uncivilized inhuman and unkind has gained in credibility, eroding the image of compassion and humanity.


Regarding the achievement of positive goals, like Islamic regeneration and uplift of the Muslim Ummah in moral, material and intellectual terms, one has to adopt the means that suit these goals. Objectives are means-sensitive. Since the Islamic objective inheres in value-oriented living, means destructive of those very values do not suit it. In fact they are inimical to it. One example should suffice. Islam stands for a consultative way of making social decisions. A dictatorial/autocratic organization can never lead us to the achievement of Islamic state/society as it destroys a core Islamic value on the way to its avowed objective.[3]


Concluding Remarks


The combined effect of both the ailments analyzed above, violence and complexes, is to divert our attention, energy and resources from the real tasks. One of these tasks about which there is unanimity is education—starting from a literacy drive in our people about half of which are still illiterate. Our educational agenda would comprise imparting revelation based knowledge as well as science and technology. But our complexes are a stumbling block in the way of reform of curricula. We lack the humility that is necessary for learning. At the same time we lack the self-confidence to make new experiments. Our complexes make us averse to innovation and change, especially those that we perceive to be equating us with others and reducing the differences. Among the other areas calling for immediate attention are health and hygiene and economic enterprise. Recent emergence of Islamic financial institutions provides hope for improvement in Muslim economy. But further progress requires normal market relations undisturbed by violence. Then come the attitudinal reorientations called for by the new environment—the fact that we are living in a global village. Exclusiveness and the tendency to create our own separate space are out. In is the wholehearted sharing of God-given space with all human beings on the basis of freedom, equality, mutual respect and human rights. That provides a unique opportunity for the Islamic mission of carrying God’s message to His people, the ultimate end of those who care for nothing other than Allah’s pleasure.


Neither the American-led aggressive expeditions nor the menace of terrorism is destined to last forever. Both may already have crossed their zenith. The time is coming when the perpetrators of these wrongs will have completely lost public support. We need do all we can to expedite the change and create an environment in which Islam gets an unbiased reception. Much will depend on how we Muslims conduct ourselves. Before we can endear ourselves to others we will have to clean up our own house and put it in order. An emphasis on equality, doing things democratically and insisting on transparency in all our institutions can take us part of the way on the road to launching a comprehensive program of action encompassing education, economy, political reform and conducting ourselves in the global village with self confidence and dignity.

[1] I have addressed that issue in my paper ‘Towards Regeneration: Shifting Priorities in Islamic Movement’ Encounters, Leicester, vol. 1, no.2, September 1995.Also included in: Nature and Characteristics of Modern Islamic Movements, edited by Muhammad Mumtaz Ali, and published by A S Noordeen, Kuala Lumpur, 2000.

[2]. .I have dealt with this issue at greater length in my paper ‘ Violence and Muslims’ in the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences ,vol.21,no. 2,Spring 2004,pp.137-43.

[3] Please read Syed Qutb’s  ‘Fi Zilal al-Quran, related to verse 3:159..Core procedures  take precedence over consequences