By Yasser Latif Hamdani
My secular comrades and friends will probably disagree with me or maybe not, and it is nothing less than sacrilege for a self proclaimed secularist like myself to say so, but the core values of any civilization are drawn from the dominant religio-cultural system. There are contributory factors from other minority strains but ultimately the way society is organized is around the religio-cultural system the majority of its adherents follow. So for example, the Western civilization- as we know it today- has for evolved out of a Judaeo-Christian cultural norms and as it is secularized, it is enriched by other cultural strains but it remains manifestly a product of Judaeo-Christian evolution. It certainly has strong heritage in Hellenistic past but that itself is expressed through established Christian traditions (for example Christmas which is an adopted Hellenistic holiday), much like Islam adopted a lot of pre-Islamic Arabian heritage as its own.
We – who live in the Muslim World- are going through painful pangs of an accelerated evolution. Our predicament has been exacerbated by the information age and what we see today – the terrorism, the in-fighting, sectarianism, absolutism and religious extremism of the worst kind is part of a process that has been accelerated at a greater pace. Very often secularists – self included- are guilty of ignoring the bigger picture and the process when we express our impatience to irrational and apparently dogmatic adherence most of our co-religionists (to put it loosely) express on a daily basis. Our analysis has often fallen short on account of our inability to rise above a sense of self righteousness that we justifiably exhibit when interacting with the Mullah and custodian of the mosque. While we don’t resort to violence like many of the religious bent are given to, we need to also understand how this process works.
Islamic revival has been a long and painful journey for its adherents. It often becomes very hard to adequately distinguish between reform movements and revival movements as the two have often complemented each other when these have not been antagonistic. Take for example Jamaluddin Afghani (not his real name – he was actually a Iranian Shia from the city of Hamadan)– the main force for Islamic unity as well as global Islamic modernism in the late 19th century. He was a Sunni revivalist, reformist as well as a prominent freemason all in one. His most direct influence was on Muhammad Abduh, the liberal Islamic jurist who wanted to reconcile Islam with 19th century rationalist thought. Muhammad Abduh’s most noted disciple was Rashid Rida who was the most influential scholar of his time. He founded – ironically – the “Salafiya order” which seeks to purify Islam from all western influence. Amongst his followers can be listed men like Hassan Al Banna, Syed Qutb and Syed Abou Ala Maududi – three most influential Islamists of our time. Syed Qutb’s influence on Abdullah Bin Azzam thus creates a direct link between Al Qaeda’s Islamic terrorist strain and Syed Jamaluddin Afghani- the Islamic modernist, liberal and freemason. Hassan Al Banna similarly influenced a number of Palestinian Islamists who founded the “Hizbut-tahrir” in 1952-53. From within Hizbut-tahrir has emerged two strands – one a more virulent version of the same called “Al-Muhajiroun” and the second an exact opposite- a modernist, secular interpretation as forwarded by Majid Nawaz and his associates in the Quilliam Foundation.
There is another side to this coin though: Afghani inspired Allama Iqbal’s Ijtehadi thought as well. Iqbal inspired another interesting thinker , the Islamic Marxist, Ali Shariati. Ali Shariati was the ideologue of Islamic Revolution in Iran and this makes the same freemason Afghani directly linked to his own original country’s Shiite Islamic revival. It doesn’t stop here though. Most of Afghani’s work was in the Ottoman Empire and his influence on young Turk and then Ziya Gokalp cannot be underestimated. Therefore Afghani had a direct impact on the secular ideology of Kemalism as well. Similarly his work in Egypt inspired the modernist nationalist and in a way Gemal Abdel Nasser and his socialist secularism.
Taking Afghani’s Islamic strains in consideration for a minute – Muslim Brotherhood which can directly be traced back to Afghani’s efforts as well through Rashid Rida and Muhammad Abduh has shown remarkable evolution from a subversive Islamist movement of agitation to a democratic Islamist movement which more inclusive and even accepting women’s rights. Hassan Al Banna – another follower of the salafiya political Islamist strain – was assassinated in 1949. His grandson Tariq Ramadan- a Swiss citizen- is the foremost scholar at the frontline of reconciliation – to use late Benazir Bhutto’s term- of Islam and the West. Banna’s youngest brother Gemal El Banna is a learned Islamic scholar from the same strain who forwards complete equality and secularism as tenets of Islam.
Similarly, the Ali Shariati strain de-generated into Khomenism but indirectly created Islamic Republicanism and in the last 15 years we have seen a newer version of this Islamic Republicanism in form of Khatami and Mousavi who have emerged as a liberal and progressive opposition to the conservatives.
In Pakistan Syed Maududi’s “Jamaat-e-Islami” and its student wing Islami Jamiat e Talaba has long been at the vanguard of the “Islamic Movement” in Pakistan. Given their antipathy to the Pakistan Movement and Maududi’s opposition to Mahomed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, they’ve been never been successful at a direct election, but they have infiltrated by placing their people and sympathizers in key places within the Pakistani establishment thereby thwarting the state’s growth as a modern nation state. However Maududian thought itself has splintered into diametrically opposing groups. Maududi himself took a giant leap in terms of political maturity when he supported Fatima Jinnah’s candidacy in 1965 despite having held the view that women should not be entrusted with the business of running the state’s affairs. A faction within Maududi’s Jamaat-e-Islami broke away under the leadership of Maulana Amin Islahi whose school of thought was then carried forward by Khalid Masud and Javed Ahmed Ghamidi. Javed Ahmed Ghamidi today is probably the most liberal and progressive scholar in the entire Islamic world. This Maududi-trained Islamic scholar has come a full circle by claiming that Islamic state is not an objective of a Muslim but rather the objective of a Muslim is individual reform. Contrast this to another breakaway Maududian faction – Dr. Israr Ahmed- whose Tanzeem-e-Islami is a religious movement working towards “Non-violent attainment of Khilafah”. Interestingly like Hassan Al Banna, Maududi’s own family now leans towards liberal interpretations of Islam.
The essential issue is not of whether a strain is good or bad, but whether there is some intellectual movement forward. Individual Muslims, thinking outside the narrow confines of taqlid and madhab- have often found themselves with new ideas and “taabeers” of Islam. In addition to the above mentioned, this may include Sir Syed Ahmed Khan – the great Islamic Modernist- , Syed Ameer Ali whose intellectual contribution to modernity in Islam is second to none, the Muslim Internationalist Ubaidullah Sindhi (whose disciple Zafar Hassan Aibak went through a profound evolution from a Jehadi to a Marxist to a Kemalist) and Allama G. A. Pervez . The last one was a rationalist Quran scholar in the finest Qaramtian tradition of late. Similarly the “heretic” movements within Islam are also in a way an expression of this trend. Abdul Baha of Iran and Mirza Ghulam Ahmed of Qadian presented themselves as Mujadads and reformers. Mirza Ghulam Ahmed’s movement produced geniuses like Sir Zafrullah- whose legal and political contributions to Pakistan and the world at large make him a towering figure- and Dr. Abdus Salam who claimed that his remarkable theory which won him the Nobel Prize in Physics resulted from his profound study of the Holy Quran. Meanwhile Abdul Baha’s Bahaism is one of the fastest growing religions in the US.
There has often been a tendency by some Non-Muslim observers (and now some secular Muslims) of the process of Islamic revival and reform to draw a distinction between a “traditional Muslim scholar” and a “radical Muslim ideologue”- a distinction which is not always useful or fruitful. This view tends to conclude in general that “traditional Islam” whatever that creature is better than “political Islam”. This ignores the basic fact that Islam is – whether we like it or not- largely political. Those who wish to resolve the issue of terrorism by supplanting “political Islam” with Sufism and “traditional Islam” are going against the current of history. It is political Islam alone that needs to evolve to a secular-leaning paradigm i.e. Ghamidi or Gemal Al Banna. Indeed Sufism and “traditional Islam” are likely to fail in this respect because they don’t have any political application because Sufism is at the end of the day an intensely personal creed whereas “traditional Islam” is a misnomer and refers to the Madrassah educated Maulanas who in the long run are even more harmful as they oppose modernity more trenchantly than Islamic revivalists, who over a generation or two seem to be more adaptive.
Islam’s on-going Lutheran Movement has not emerged from within the confines of Darul Ulooms and Jamias. This movement has come from the middle class – and for a time it will remain confused and shall be violent for a while as it is now- but ultimately it will reform the Muslim World and usher upon it an age of reason, enlightenment and I daresay modern secularism. Lucky us that thanks to the information age, every thing is accelerated and exaggerated.