(Islam and Modern Age, March 2010)
Should religion be power centered? It is an important question in view of what is happening in the world today when dangerous weapons are in the hands of some nations on one hand, and religious fanatics, on the other. In fact religion, by its very nature, cannot ever be in pursuit of power and if at all it gets associated with power it is either due to some historical factors or due to lust for power by its followers.
Religion, primarily is spiritual and moral entity and comes into existence due to social degeneration or neglect of moral and spiritual values by the people among whom religion comes into existence. Be it Buddha, Mahavira, Moses, Jesus or Mohammad (PBUH) they were seriously perturbed by moral and spiritual decline around them and gave to the world spiritual and moral system, never a political doctrine.
However, with passage of time these religions came close to power structures and their followers primacy became political power rather than moral and spiritual uplift of its followers as intended by its founders. Let alone primacy of moral and spiritual concern, due to political power struggle among its followers, morality takes a sharp dip and religion, at best becomes institutions of certain rituals. Rituals too are then performed mechanically, loosing touch with spirituality in which they were originally deeply rooted.
And to justify involvement with political power new doctrines are invented and theologically justified. As long as religion remains aloof from political power it remains an inspiration for moral and spiritual transformation of individual as well as society. Only concern of its followers remains with moral excellence. Nothing else matters and worldly interests are subsumed by spiritual values.
Christianity, for example, remained religion of oppressed people for three long centuries and until then Christians remained an exemplar of spirituality. They were oppressed and faced persecution in the Roman Empire. Wherever they went, went as harbingers of morality and good news for the people of the area. However, once the Roman Emperor adopted Christianity, its priority began to change and ultimately Church itself became power centre and Papal authority became political, rather than spiritual authority. Scheming, conspiracies and wars found its new home in the Church. Its moral and spiritual excellence was lost and at last its spiritual authority was challenged and inevitable split took place.
Islam met this fate immediately after the death of Holy Prophet. The Prophet was mainly concerned with moral and spiritual values and he, through Qur'an declared Allah's and his sympathy with the weaker sections of society. In fact the Qur'an talks of empowering the weak and making it the inheritor of this earth (28:5). The Bible also says the meek shall inherit the earth.
In Meccan period the main concern of the Qur'an was to fight moral corruption in the society and sensitize the people to the sufferings of weaker sections of society - the widows, orphans, the needy and the poor as the rich in Mecca neglected them. The Prophet himself had experienced the travails of an orphan and had experienced poverty in the midst of riches. Justice was his top priority.
The rich of Mecca were arrogant and felt they will not ever be accountable for their greed and insensitiveness towards the poor and the weak. They ridiculed the very idea of world hereafter and maintained there was no life after this life and hence for them their power and wealth was everything. All the time they were engaged in accumulation of riches, nothing else mattered.
The Qur'an tried, through Mohammed, the messenger of Allah, to make them aware of higher realities and spiritual values and to pull them out of crass materialism and their obsession with wealth and this- worldly affairs. They were too arrogant to understand higher side of spiritual except a few who favorably responded to the Prophet's call. Majority of Meccans, instead of reflecting on what the Prophet (PBUH) was calling them to, in the arrogance of wealth and power, began to persecute him and his followers.
The Prophet of Islam and his followers migrated to Madina and people there responded enthusiastically to the call and became his helpers Ansar. The reason was obvious: there were no wealthy people like the one in Mecca. Whereas in Mecca Islam was seen by the rich as hostile to their worldly interests exhorting them to spend their wealth in the way of Allah, the people of Madina had no such interests. They saw Islam, on the other hand, as helpful, uniting them and ending their long standing inter-tribal feuds. Islam came to them as peace maker and bringing about social transformation.
However, there were other challenges to Muslims in Madina. The Meccan tribal chiefs and the rich saw in Islam still a challenge to their interest as it was a great spiritual and moral force. It certainly threatened their interests and hence they began to conspire to wipe it out so that they could pursue their material interests. Thus the developments in Madina should be seen in the light of historical situation and tension between clashing interests.
Whenever any attempt is made by any prophet, seer or visionary to bring about social transformation for the better, all vested interests join hands to throw the efforts off track and resort to war and violence. This is precisely what happened to the Prophet of Islam and his followers. He (the Prophet) could not rest in peace in Madina and carry on his mission. The Meccans repeatedly attacked Muslims and the Jews in Madina conspired with the Meccan Quresh as Jews of Madina felt threatened by the emerging influence of Muslims dislodging them. Thus they readily conspired with the Meccan unbelievers to dislodge Muslims from Madina and re-establish their influence.
Because of all this the Prophet (PBUH) was forced to defend the nascent Muslim community and had to organize Muslims for defense. However, his priority was not to fight wars of defence but to bring about spiritual transformation of his followers. He constantly was socially engaged, giving them, through Allah's revelation laws for their better social and personal lives. Thus bulk of the Qur'anic revelation in Madinese period consists of these laws which became the corpus of shari'ah laws subsequently.
Thus jihad in Qur'an primarily meant social struggle for meaningful transformation of human society. It never meant war. All usages of word jihad and its derivatives in Qur'an are in this sense. However, after the death of the Prophet jihad underwent change of meaning and it began to be used for war. It should also be noted that the Prophet never created paid army during his life time as war was never his priority. He was forced to fight for defence. Had it been his priority he would have easily created such an army. It remained a voluntary effort for him to meet exigency of the situation.
The Prophet (PBUH), even when engaged in social struggles or while making efforts to defend the nascent community, never neglected moral priorities. Thus Qur'an even in Madinese period is full of exhortations for truth, justice, compassion, doing good to others and other-worldly consciousness and accountability to Allah on the Day of Judgment.
Spiritual and moral values were supreme for him. He did not create power structures in his life as he knew very well power will sow the seeds of discord between Muslims. The emphasis in Qur'an remained social rather than political organization. Thus the Qur'an says, �You are a best community raised up for people you enjoin good and forbid evil and you believe in Allah. � (3:109)
The Prophet did not indulge in any war of aggression much less that of conquest or did not create any state structure though a large part of Arabs had embraced Islam during his life time. He remained steadfast in this. He remained head of a community of Muslims and a supreme authority. He was everything for the Muslims, legislative, executive as well as judiciary. No one could have taken his position as such.
However, after his death power structure began to emerge and Muslims got involved in power struggle and hence they split into two as to who should succeed the Prophet (PBUH). Even those who gathered in the Saqifa Banu Sa'ida to elect the successor to the Prophet (khalifa) differed among themselves and claims and counter claims were made. There were chaotic scenes. Power struggle always divides.
The institution of khilafat remained controversial and was embroiled in power struggle between different tribes, clans and groups. The moral and spiritual priorities were gradually lost until the institution of khilafat also disappeared and was transformed into hereditary institution, in other words monarchy. Also, conquests became the rule and two great empires Roman as well as Sassanids were shattered.
Now a doctrine had to be formulated that in Islam religion and political power cannot be separated and this belief became common among Muslims and consequently other subsequent doctrines like dar al-Islam and dar al-harb (i.e. abode of Islam and abode of war) emerged. These doctrines have nothing to do with Qur'anic teachings and are result of politicizing of Islam. Many eminent companions of the Prophet like Abu Dharr Ghifari and others thus withdrew themselves from power struggle and gave priority to what the Qur'an and Prophet had given priority.
We would like to deal with contemporary Muslim society in this section. 1400 years of uninterrupted belief that power is a must if Islam has to survive and revival of the concept of Islamic state in post-colonial period has created its own consequences. All the shari'ah formulations which were made while Muslims were in power also made them more rigid. Muslim ulama and jurists are not ready to re-think them. The criminal law in some Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia is harsh and rejects all modern developments and advances in the science of criminology and criminal punishments.
In Iran too, the clergy is all powerful after the Islamic revolution and refuses to change a wee bit. It is the result of arrogance of power. Religion looses its appeal if there is no place for forgiveness and compassion in it. In Islam Allah's two names are Merciful and Compassionate (al-Rahman and Rahim) and yet one finds anything but mercy and compassion in practice of Islam in Muslim countries. The Muslim rulers believe in harsh punishments, not only for crimes but also for political opposition and often they seek Islamic legitimacy in doing so. Various harsh punishments for crime also, in a way sends a message to the ruled - submit or else face harsh punishment.
In contrast to behaviour of Muslim rulers in Islamic state, the behaviour of Sufis reflect Islamic values and spirituality. Sufis were much closer to the spirit of Islam than Muslim rulers. Sufis always emphasized humility and compassion and believed in freedom of conscience. Muslim rulers always tried to punish freedom of conscience and discouraged tolerance of other religions.
I would like to refer to recent controversy of using name of Allah by Christians in Malaysia. Apart from ulama, even Malaysian Government prohibited use of name of Allah by Christians. It was extremely ridiculous. Thus power always breeds arrogance and intolerance. Power can never be tolerant of other's power; the very logic of power is to exclude the other. Other's power creates insecurity.
Religion, on the other hand, promotes both compassion and tolerance. Sufis, who maintained their distance from power, practiced both these virtues. Sufis like Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi and Maulana Rum give central importance to love and even declare that their religion and shari'ah is love. Love of power and power of love are exclusive of each other. Rulers believe in love of power and Sufis in power of love.
Power divides and love unites and Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi and Maulana Rum understood this very well. Despite theological assertion of unity of all Muslims, history never witnessed unity of all Muslims except during the period of Prophet. Since power became the issue after his death, Muslims were divided till today. Muslim nations are divided into more than 50 different nations today and no Muslim can enter any other country without visa. The Saudis, who never tire of declaring the Qur'an as their constitution, do not admit even fellow Arabs from other countries to settle there, let alone non-Arab Muslims from other countries.
Power has become so absolute in Muslim countries that in most of the Muslim countries there is no democracy as the Muslim rulers refuse to share power with their own people. Though the fundamental principle of Islam is shura' (mutual consultation) which in modern day politics translates as democratic rule in consultation with common Muslims; yet it is monarchs, sheikhs and dictators who wield absolute power in most of the Muslim countries. On one hand one finds well enunciated principle of human rights in Qur'an, no one can utter this word in many Muslim countries. There are instances of human rights activists having been jailed in countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia etc.
The latest weapon of power struggle today in some Muslim countries is terror attacks. Hundreds of innocent Muslim lives are being sacrificed daily by such attacks. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, among other countries have become battle grounds of terrorism. If it is not power game what is it? The killing of shi'ahs in Iraq by al-Qaeda supporters is nothing but bringing recent passing of power in the hands of shiahs to end.
And in Pakistan the scenario is much more complex. The Taliban there are being supported by ISI (Pakistan intelligence agency) and a section of Pakistan army. The Pakistan army wants to retain supreme power in its own hands and does not want civilian government to enjoy power. The moment the army sees signs of elected government becoming powerful it stages either direct coup or sends signals to the elected government that we are the boss.
It is Ziaul Haq, a military ruler, who declared Pakistan to be an �Islamic state'; and enforced various provisions of Islamic punishments to create a fear and an awe to establish his absolute power. He encouraged sectarian forces and reinforced religious orthodoxy to legitimize his power and to win over orthodox ulama to his side. All this did immense damage to democratic institutions which Pakistan had inherited.
Zia also welcomed American intrusions into Pakistan's internal affairs and even considered Afghan struggle against Soviet invasion on Afghanistan as a boon. Thus with the help of CIA Taliban came into existence and they have become the greatest menace for the very existence of Pakistan. Taliban could not have carried out such terror attacks without tacit support of a section of Army officers in Pakistan.
Pakistan as an Islamic state, has become a curse to its people rather than a boon, if true Islamic values had been followed. But then in power game there is no place for values. It is indeed a great iron that those people who apparently fight for supremacy of shari'ah law, kill mercilessly and without any justification. The Qur'an declared �ilm (knowledge) as nur (light) and made acquisition of knowledge obligatory attack and destroy schools and glorify ignorance which has been described as darkness by Qur'an.
Afghanistan is also home to terror today thanks to power play between different sections of ruling classes. And in order to buy guns and other highly destructive weapons they smuggle and sell opium in international market and destroying lives of thousands of young men and women throughout the world. It is prohibited in Islam. Thus those demand enforcement of shariah want to spread drug habit which is forbidden in shariah. One can argue all this happens in other non-Muslim countries also. Yes, quite true and perhaps much worse also happens but then it does not happen in the name of religion. My argument is that let sanctity of religion not be sullied in this manner. The logic of power and that of religion are mutually exclusive.
Religion, if left to itself can be very valuable and asset Religion is all about values of love, justice, compassion and humility. It is religion which should make power obsessed rulers to behave rather than politics dominating religion and distorting it and making religion a handy tool in the hands of rulers. The Prophet of Islam has been descry bed in the Qur'an as Rahmah lil Alamin (mercy of the world). However, power obsessed rulers made life hell for their own people in the name of religion.
In the modern day democratic polity there is very little scope for mixing politics with religion and it is the doctrine of separation of religion and politics which is followed. However, it does not mean that politics would mean ceasing power and ruling according to the whims of rulers. Democratic polity has its own principle and values which are not very different from religious values of justice and equal human dignity.
For many religion is all about the other world and that theology should deal with other world issues i.e. of life after death. It may or may not be so in case of some religions but governance should not be on the basis of religion. In democracy all citizens are equal irrespective of religion, language or culture. Thus if religion is associated with politics it would be invariably of majority community and those of minority community would be discriminated. It is not acceptable in a democratic polity.
Thus most important thing in Muslim countries is to democratize the polity and leave religion to people and their conscience. State should not interfere in its domain. The state's primary duty is to provide clean government and protecting law and order. Religion on the other hand deals with theological and philosophical questions which is not state's domain.
Religion gives us not only values but also meaning and direction of life. One would be confused about purpose of ones life without religion. Religion will become boon if left to people and their conscience and individual and communities can enrich their lives and cultures with its help. Politics, on the other hand, should deal with the basic needs of existence. Thus religion would look after spiritual side of life and politics material and physical side.
Modern day state has to provide variety of services to its citizens which simply did not exist in earlier times and this is not possible without a democratic state responsible to people, not to a few theologians. If religion becomes supreme for state, the rulers will be responsible only to ulama or priests, not to people. An elected government is in no way responsible to a bunch of priests.
This is the tragedy of large number of Muslim countries. The common people have no say in governance. Time has come when supremacy of people should be recognized.