All of the foregoing questions, and many more, could have been asked 26 years earlier – but, for the most part were not – when Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Teddy Roosevelt and a member of the Central Intelligence Agency, helped orchestrate a coup d’état of Iran’s democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossaddeq and appointed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, as the new ruler of Iran and, in the process, effectively assisted him to take millions of Iranians as hostages – and would continue to do so for the next 26 years. Those who control the media get to frame world events as they please, which is why depriving Iranians of their most basic right of self-determination has been depicted by most American media as being justified in 1953 because it was said, by various leaders, that over-throwing a democratically elected government was in the interests of the United States, whereas what happened in 1979 was described by various leaders as not being in the interests of the United States and, therefore, not justified.
People’s human rights were trampled upon in both cases. People were taken hostage in both cases. International law was flouted in both instances.
There were a few differences in the two cases, however. First, none of the 52 embassy employees were tortured or killed by their Iranian captors (although some of the hostages were treated roughly and kept isolated for a time), whereas thousands of Iranians were tortured and killed by the U.S. supported regime of the Shah and his infamously notorious security force: SAVAK. Secondly, the Iranians voluntarily released their hostages after a little over a year had passed, whereas the United States was not prepared to ever release the hostages it had helped the Shah to take until the United States was forced to do so by the 1979 embassy incident in Tehran.
The foregoing scenario helps to introduce several issues that will figure prominently in the remainder of the present discussion. (1) Trampling on the rights of others and taking hostages, in one form or another, is a common practice of many so-called leaders within the Muslim (and non-Muslim) community; (2) the leaders for a variety of Islamic revival movements believe – incorrectly -- that they are justified in undermining, nullifying, or controlling the God-given sovereignty of both Muslims and non-Muslims to make individual choices concerning matters of spiritual and material welfare; (3) shari’ah and Divine justice are not legal issues but give expression to matters of ontology, metaphysics, morality, identity, essential potential, and spiritual development that are best handled individually and, when necessary (i.e., when problems arise), through seeking social – not legal – consensus or mediation. The following discussion will briefly explore some of the ideas of a number of individuals who are considered to have played an important role in pioneering various species of social reform within the Muslim world and/or with respect to Islamic revivalism. While this exploration is not meant to be definitive, it is intended to be suggestive in relation to various issues of leadership among Muslims.
Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was a nineteenth century proponent of employing so-called ‘pan-Islamic unity’ as a strategy for resisting and fighting against British imperialism. While all people have a right to be free from the oppressive tentacles of imperialism – whether this imperialism is: British, American, French, German, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other – the character of the tactics that are used to fulfill such an intention tend to reveal a lot about the person using those tactics as well as about the sort of “leader” that individual seeks to be.
For example, although born in Iran and educated through a Shi’a perspective, Afghani often claimed to be a Sunni from Afghanistan. The issue here is not whether he was Sunni or Shi’a – or neither – but, rather, the point is that he was willing to alter his biographical narrative as a tactical means of promoting his overall strategy concerning anti-imperialism.
In fact, there is considerable historical evidence to indicate that Afghani was not much interested in being either a Sunni or Shi’a but was, instead, committed to certain philosophical and political ideas. Religious themes were considered by him to be merely useful tools to bring about the kind of non-spiritual end in which he was interested.
Afghani sought to blaze a path that was neither rooted, on the one hand, in a blind, unthinking commitment to the sort of theological tenets and practices that populated a great deal of the traditional Muslim landscape nor, on the other hand, was he interested in a slavish subjugation to Western values, ideals and practice. Afghani believed that the ‘correct’ use of rationality, political/military strength, and social activism would enable Muslims – both individually and collectively – to reinterpret Islam in a manner that would effectively unite Muslims against the onslaught of British imperialism, in particular, and Western imperialism in general.
Afghani was wrong. Islam doesn’t need to be re-interpreted. Islam was, during the days of Afghani, what it always has been since the time of Adam (peace be upon him), and what it is today, and what it will continue to be in the future. Islam is the Deen or spiritual way given by God to humankind so that the latter may -- with appropriate effort and if God wishes. -- find their way to, and drink from, the water of Divine Truth, wisdom and knowledge in accordance with one’s primordial spiritual capacity, or fitra, to do so.
Islam is not something which needs to be reinterpreted, reformed, or revived. What needs to be refashioned are the human attitudes, practices, and ideas that serve as obstacles to the discovery of Islam’s actual nature.
Discovery is a process of learning, development, spiritual maturation, and, ultimately, of Divine Grace. This process of discovery is a delicate, fragile, challenge-laden struggle.
Such discovery is not something that can be imposed on or forced on someone … either individually or collectively. The Quranic principle that there can be no compulsion in matters of Deen is a reflection of the complex and subtle character of the process of spiritual discovery.
Afghani was also mistaken in other ways. Islam is not something to which one can reason one’s way … although reason does have a role to play during the discovery process. Islam is not something that can be discovered or defended through political and military strength but, rather, Islam is eternally protected by Divinity … although individuals do have the right to resist attempts by Muslims or non-Muslims to undermine one’s ability to engage the discovery process concerning the nature of Islam. Moreover, social and political activism will not, in and of itself, lead to the discovery of Islam … although social activism may be an appropriate means under the right circumstances and conditions to help protect and secure the rights of all human beings to have full sovereignty with respect to choice in relation to the process of spiritual discovery concerning the way or path or Deen which God has provided to humanity through which essential identity and capacity may be realized for purposes of learning how to worship Divinity.
In many ways, most of the foregoing points are moot as far as Afghani is concerned because he was not really interested in Islam per se. Afghani was committed to certain philosophical ideals – especially rationalism.
He believed that truth was capable of being apprehended through the scientific use of reason. However, only an elite was capable of achieving this, while the vast majority of Muslims were limited to – and should be constrained by – a form of religious belief which maintained that misdeeds in this world would be punished in the life to come and, by conforming to such a belief system, would cause no trouble in this world for the elites who would rule over the masses.
For Afghani, the populace should be induced to unify and, thereby, provide the elite with the power and strength the latter needed to pursue philosophical truths in relative freedom. Through social activism, the masses could be shaped and directed by leaders to serve an agenda which entailed something other than the discovery of Islam or the true spiritual welfare of Muslims. Through reason, Afghani hoped to demonstrate that certain aspects of Islam could be organized to form an effective ideological buffer against the encroachment of imperialism … a buffer which would protect the elite and create the public space necessary to enable such an elite to pursue their own ends free from the oppressive intrusion of imperialism and without being bothered by Muslims who would be preoccupied with seeking to attain salvation in the next world by not transgressing in this world.
Afghani was skeptical concerning the potential of religion. He saw it as little more than a way of helping to console people’s anxiety concerning what came after death and/or as a means of comforting people with respect to the problems of this world.
However, although skeptical about the value of Islam – or, really, the value of any spiritual tradition – Afghani felt that such sentiments could be exploited if one could convince Muslims that imperialism was a threat to their way of life. Furthermore, if one enhanced the foregoing threat with the idea that imperialism was the Trojan horse through which Christianity would be forced upon Muslims, then, one might have a very effective tool for manipulating and harnessing Muslim emotions and concerns to serve other political and social ends.
Although Afghani often would paint himself in the colors of an ardent defender of Islam, he was merely camouflaging his true intentions. He considered prophets to be wielders of a craft rather than true emissaries of God. He believed that Islam was antithetical to science even though through the Qur’an’s guidance concerning the importance of empirical observation and critical reflection, the Muslim world had helped transform the face of scientific practice. Moreover, he had a fairly misogynistic view of women that did not reflect the actual esteem with which women were held in the Qur’an.
As noted previously, he felt that religion had little more to offer than as a way of consoling people concerning the difficulties of life and, consequently, as something that had no solutions to the problems of life. According to Afghani, only rationalism, military strength, and social activism could provide solutions to the challenges of life.
Apparently, Afghani was intelligent, charismatic, and had some oratory skills. He used these qualities to attract some followers, but in concrete terms he was able to accomplish very little except to be able to gain access to some of the more influential social and political circles in certain localities and, thereby, have the opportunity to ply his gift of gab.
In fact, Afghani got kicked out of a number of places when, among other reasons, he ended up on the wrong side of a political crisis despite his connections. These localities included: Iran, Istanbul, Afghanistan, and Cairo.
Interestingly enough, although various pronouncements of Afghani were considered to be heretical with respect to Islam, he was never killed for espousing his views. Instead, he was escorted out of the locality.
Afghani sought to be a leader. However, his desire to be a leader was almost entirely self-serving and predicated on a need to exploit others and to control them to serve his ends.
He tried to clothe his intentions in the language of Islam, but, in point of fact he had very little understanding of Islam. To the extent that he did speak some of the language of Islam, this was used as a tactical tool to bring about Muslim unity so that he would have a power base through which to fight against British imperialism and open up the sort of free space that would enable him to pursue his own – and that of others whom he considered to be among the elite – rationalistic approach to truth.
Some people may wish to cite Afghani as a pioneer of Muslim reform and Islamic revivalism. Nevertheless, I believe that anyone who takes a closer look at his life and teachings will see that he has nothing to offer to anyone who is sincerely seeking to discover the truth about Islam.
Unfortunately, there are all too many so-called Muslim leaders who are prepared to use the language of Islam to serve agendas which are not concerned with Islam or the spiritual needs of Muslims. Indeed, Afghani belongs to the lineage of would-be leaders who are willing to exploit, oppress and rule others for the ends of the alleged “leaders”, and, perhaps, that is why some people try to invoke Afghani’s name as a kindred, revolutionary spirit and, in doing so, unintentionally disclose something of their own underlying, self-serving agenda with respect to Muslims and Islam.
When Afghani was in Cairo, one of the individuals who was a part of Afghani’s circle was Muhammad Abduh, a student at al-Azhar University. Afghani purportedly led the circle in discussions of philosophy, law, theology, and mysticism.
Whatever Afghani’s facility with philosophy, law, and theology may have been, he knew next to nothing about mysticism because he had never been a practitioner of the discipline. However, when the people who are being led are relatively ignorant about a given topic, it is amazing how wise and informed someone with the gift of gab can sound to the uninitiated.
There is evidence that Muhammad Abduh had a passing acquaintance with some aspects of the Sufi path because he had spent time in the company of an uncle, Darwish Kadr, who was reportedly a shaykh and sought to teach the young Abduh about the principles, practices, and adab of the Sufi way. Nevertheless, Abduh’s time among the Sufis was fairly short-lived and, in fact, later in life Abduh came to be quite critical of this mystical tradition.
Afghani was an activist. Muhammad Abduh was influenced by Afghani to also be inclined toward political and social activism, but Abduh was more interested in reform than revolution.
At one point, Afghani’s activities became too problematic, and he was expelled from Egypt. Due to Abduh’s association with Afghani, the younger activist also ran into difficulties, but new opportunities arose when Abduh was appointed to be one of the editors for ‘The Egyptian Gazette’, an official newspaper, and later went on to become the chief editor for the publication … a position which permitted him to wield considerable influence in framing public discussion about a variety of issues.
Eventually, Abduh’s criticisms of military and political leaders, as well as his writings concerning nationalism and the British occupation led to a three year period of exile. During this hiatus, Adduh reconnected with Afghani in Paris, and the two of them formed a society and publication whose primary objective was to sound the clarion cry concerning the dangers of European imperialism and interference in the affairs of non-western peoples.
Both the society and publication came to an end. Abduh returned to Beirut where he taught young children and, as well, wrote about a variety of issues.
In time, his exile from Egypt ended, and he was appointed to one of the law courts in Egypt. Subsequently, he became part of an administrative council at al-Azhar, and, then, later on he became the Grand Mufti for Egypt. While Grand Mufti, Abduh issued a number of fatwas for individuals who came to him with a variety of problems involving legal issues and matters of morality.
Abduh was aware of the allure which European civilization had for many Muslims. For instance, Western weapons of war were superior to anything in the Muslim world, and many Muslims felt they needed to acquire Western technology in order to be able to defend their lands against further Western encroachment. In addition, the economic wealth of the West was in stark contrast to the economic impoverishment of large parts of the Muslim world, and, again, many Muslims thought that if they imitated Western approaches to economics, that some of the ‘magic’ might rub off on Muslims.
War, technology, economics and politics were all fed and shaped by ideas. Some Muslims believed – quite incorrectly – that if the Muslim world would incorporate Western ideas into their lives, then perhaps, Muslims might ascend, once again, to the glory days of early Islam.
On the other hand, as much as many Muslims were dazzled and intrigued by the success of the West, it was also apparent that a considerable amount of that success was coming at the expense of Muslims whose lands and resources were being taken – through force, intrigue, or the co-opting and corruption of Muslim leaders – by Western powers. Muhammad Abduh was one of the individuals who understood that there was a basic disconnect between the lofty principles of freedom, democracy, technological progress, and economic growth espoused by the West, and the oppressive manner in which the West sought to induce the non-Western world to subsidize the materially expansive way of life that was being established in the West.
Muhammad Abduh also believed, however, that the West was not necessarily the primary reason for the problems of the Muslim world. In fact, he laid the responsibility for those problems at the feet of Muslims themselves, and he maintained that the wretched condition of Muslims was a punishment from God for having strayed from ‘true’ Islam.
Abduh’s solution was multifaceted. He urged Muslims to be guided by the authority of the salaf or spiritual forbearers of early Islam, but he felt that all such authority should be measured against the teachings of the Qur’an.
He argued that human texts were capable of being critically questioned to determine their degree of authoritativeness. On the other hand, he believed that the Qur’an did not contain any errors and, therefore, must serve as the source of criteria for judging the spiritual authoritativeness of the texts written by human beings – even those of the salaf.
Abduh believed, however, that there could be no disagreement concerning the teachings of the Qur’an. Consequently, the Qur’an would become the means of uniting Muslims and ridding themselves of their sectarian differences, and reason would be the essential tool for ascertaining the principles and values being given expression through the Qur’an.
Through discernment of the true teachings of the Qur’an, one could become spiritually united with the understanding of the followers of Muhammad (peace be upon him). Through the use of reason and, coming to understand the actual nature of the Qur’an, all schools of theology and law, according to Abduh, would come to share a common foundation, and, as a result, the ummah or spiritual community would become united once again.
Reason is something of a will-o’-the-wisp that seems to give off a kind of light but often tends to recede as one tries to approach it and determine its true nature. Oftentimes, one person’s reason is another person’s insanity or nightmare, and although we all make appeals to the importance of reason, we frequently have difficulty clearly stating, or agreeing upon, just what reason is.
Furthermore, trying to use reason in conjunction with understanding the Qur’an is fraught with problems. This is not to say that reason has no place in relation to the Qur’an, but one cannot start – or end -- with reason.
In a number of places in the Qur’an, one is told that if an individual will have taqwa, or piety, then God will teach that individual. So, the starting place is a matter of taqwa, not reason.
Taqwa is more of a spiritual orientation marked by an individual’s openness to, or willingness to, go in whatever direction Divinity wishes to take a person. The use of reason may have played a role in helping to shape the condition of taqwa, but taqwa cannot be reduced down to a rationalistic process since taqwa is also informed by understandings that are fed by other dimensions of human existence … such as faith – which is not a matter of blind belief but of informed, insightful experience that comes through Divine grace – and faith (as do God’s blessings) has many levels and degrees … the faith of a Muslim is not the faith of a Momin, and neither of these is the faith of a Mohsin – that is, one who practices ihsan.
Reason is only one of the mediums through which Divine teaching takes place. Moreover, Divine logic will not necessarily be reflected in what someone considers to be an expression of impeccable reason, and, therefore, although all Divine logic is eminently rational, not all human reason resonates with such rationality.
The mind, heart, sir, kafi, and spirit – all of which are referred to in the Qur’an – do not employ the same modes of understanding, and each of these faculties are taught by Divinity in accordance with the capacity of that faculty. Reason is a function of the mind, and the mind is capable of understanding some things while it is incapable of understanding other dimensions of truth.
Unfortunately, many Muslims erroneously believe that the Qur’an can be penetrated and circumscribed by what they consider to be tools of rationality or reason. As a result, they use reason to interpret the Qur’an instead of waiting for Divinity, if God wishes, to teach them about the principles and nature of the Qur’an. Interpreting the Qur’an is a sign of impatience and lack of humility.
So, Abduh was wrong when he believed that there could be no disagreement about the Qur’an. Many people (both Muslim and non-Muslim) have a tendency to bring their own agendas to the Qur’an and filter the words of the Qur’an through that agenda, and this can lead to nothing but distortion, misunderstanding and sectarian divide. They may use the words of the Qur’an, but the Divine meanings of those words often have been corrupted, sullied, and/or distorted by human ignorance.
The Qur’an gives expression to nothing but truth. However, the interpretational methodologies and disciplines through which the Qur’an may be engaged by human beings lead to nothing but problems since the Qur’an tends to close itself – unless God wishes otherwise -- to whomever seeks to touch the Qur’an in a condition of impurity – not just physical impurity but intentional impurity and emotional impurity and mental impurity as well … and the desire to interpret the Qur’an is but one manifestation of such impurity.
Abduh spent a considerable amount of time writing about how what he considered Islam to be was superior to Christianity. Yet, the very book which he claimed as the ultimate authority – namely, the Qur’an -- indicated that Christians were people of the Book, as were Jews … as were the followers of other Prophets who were alluded to in the Qur’an but were not specified.
He put forth his interpretation of Christianity just as many Christians put forth their interpretations of Islam. But, in the end, all such disputes are mired in the quick-sand of arbitrary speculations and musings in which so-called rational arguments are crafted through the tools of human rather than Divine logic … although everyone involved in the quarrel seeks to claim -- in self-serving ways and, therefore, without reliable proof -- that Divine logic is on their side of the argument.
Rather than get on with the business of life’s actual purpose, Abduh, at times, allowed himself – and in the process sought to induce others to do the same – to become preoccupied with irrelevant issues of which civilization – or spiritual tradition -- was superior and which civilization – or spiritual tradition -- was inferior. The coliseums in which such battles are waged are the playground of nafs, Iblis and fools.
It doesn’t matter what someone else thinks of me, or whether someone else labels me as inferior. All that matters is what God thinks of me, and this is something to which no one else is privy and which no human being can establish.
Unfortunately, when the ego is caught in the vise of pride and self-esteem, Deen, fitra, and Divine assessment tend to be forgotten. Under such circumstances, everything of real importance tends to be relegated to the sideline before the childish concerns of nafs.
In trying to argue about the purported superiority of Islam over Christianity -- or, on another front, the importance of Semitic contributions versus Aryan contributions to the greatness of a given civilization relative to another – one becomes enveloped in a war of interpretations that are entirely man-made, and, as a result, quite distant from the truth of Divinity even as the respective antagonists seek to argue that their delusional systems reflect Divine truths. Yet, Muhammad Abdu’s allegedly pioneering efforts in this regard have helped frame the way in which all too many Muslims today seek to engage the spiritual problems before us.
Motivated by a massive sense of inferiority because of the material success of the West and motivated by a deep sense of self-doubt which often asks the question of themselves as much as of God: namely, how could the alleged infidel be so powerful and dominant, while the true believers (i.e., Muslims) are so oppressed and unsuccessful, the quest of many Muslims – due to the teachings of so-called leaders like Muhammad Abduh -- becomes diverted by issues of wanting to feel superior, to feel powerful, and to recapture what they perceive to be the lost glory of a by-gone age … they want to be victorious and defeat an external foe, while ignoring the internal foe (their own nafs) which is caught up in trivialities.
What many Muslims seem to forget is that Allah has promised in the Qur’an that people’s faith will be put to the test in various ways. Sometimes the test will be through wealth and riches, and sometimes the test will be through privation and constraint.
Both the West and the East have been tested through historical events. Who comes out on top in a historical sense does not necessarily reflect the spiritual calculus that God uses to assess who passed and who failed such tests.
What many Christians, Jews and Muslims often share in common is an essential ignorance about the relationship between God and human beings. That ignorance is used to “reason” about life, the world, and what should be done in relation to a series of humanitarian crises that have been brought about by delusional interpretations that reflect agendas other than Divine purpose.
Samuel Huntington was quite wrong when he talked about an irreconcilable clash of civilizations involving the West and Muslims. What makes the clash irreconcilable are the delusional systems rooted in ignorance that populate both sides and which are driving the conflict … and Huntington, as well as people like Muhammad Abduh – each in their respective ways – has helped to perpetuate that problem of ignorance over the years.
Muhammad Abduh had been disappointed with his early encounters with education, feeling that too much emphasis was given to learning by rote and too little effort was invested in helping individuals understand the meaning and significance of what they were being required to memorize. He ran into the same kind of problem when he attended al-Azhar.
Consequently, one is somewhat perplexed when one reads about Abduh’s approach to certain facets of education. For example, he maintained that the children of craftsmen and peasants should be given no more education than is necessary for them to follow in the footsteps of their parents.
According to Abduh, this meant providing such children with nothing more than summaries of Islamic teachings, along with outlines of ethical principles that indicated what was considered to be right and wrong. In addition, such children should be provided with a list of reasons as to why Islam became ascendant in the world.
Yet, we didn’t come into this world primarily to become peasants or craftsmen or teachers. We came into this world to learn about and realize our relationship with Divinity, and, in effect, Abduh wanted certain classes of children to be subjected to little more than the very kind of rote learning with which he had been unhappy as a child.
Abduh believed that the curriculum for higher education should consist of, among other things, being exposed to the exegesis of the Qur’an, as well as learning about the science of Hadith, and being taught to have a rational understanding of doctrine. Again, one is confronted with the specter of rote learning in which one must simply learn and accept someone else’s ideas – the accepted beliefs of the time -- about exegesis, the so-called science of hadith, and what constitutes an allegedly rational understanding of Islamic doctrine. I don’t really see any focus in Abduh’s approach to learning that gave emphases to assisting students to learn how to become open to being taught directly by God rather than being taught through the intermediary of human interpretations, theories, and ideas about the nature of Islam.
In the realm of politics, Abduh maintained that the ummah or community is not only the fundamental source of authority for any ruler, but, as well, the ummah is the sole determiner of what is in the best interests of the ummah, together with being the sole determiner of the means which are to be used to realize such interests. Abduh also held that rulers are not permitted to interpret the Qur’an and that rulers are to be obeyed only as long as they adhere to the requirements of the Qur’an.
Elsewhere, Abduh argued that the final authority for everything is God and His Prophet. He further stated that in Islam, there is no authority except the call to do good and condemn the evil.
The foregoing several paragraphs -- although admittedly merely a summarized overview of Abduh’s perspective – seem somewhat problematic. If God and His Prophet are the final authority for everything, then it would seem that the source of a ruler’s authority may be something other than the ummah. Moreover, presumably, it is God not the ummah -- Who is the One that determines what is in the best interests of the ummah, as well as the One Who determines what is the best means through which things should be done. Is this not the whole point of revelation or guidance?
Moreover, just as a ruler is not to be obeyed if that individual deviates from the teaching of the Qur’an, so too, might one not suppose that the same principle applies to the ummah. In fact, one is a little fuzzy about just who it is, within Abduh’s scheme of things, that is to establish what constitutes the true teachings of the Qur’an.
Abduh mentions that shura, or consultation, should govern the relationship between the ummah and the ruler. Yet, the precise character of this process of shura and how it is to govern the relationship between ruler and the ummah seems somewhat amorphous.
He claims that it is not necessary for people to have been trained in various disciplines of argumentation, investigatory research, or the like in order to participate in the process of shura. According to Abduh, all that is required is that people be committed to the truth and to the pursuit of what is in the public interest.
What it means to be committed to the truth is an issue of some contentiousness. Moreover, what constitutes the public interest or welfare also tends to be a very complex issue.
Does shura require unanimous consensus? Or, can shura be just a matter of simple majority? Or, is it enough that only certain elite groups be in consensus concerning such matters? And, can individuals – without prejudice -- opt out of, and not be part of, something to which others may agree? Finally, if a ruler consults with the ummah and, then, rejects or ignores the direction indicated by the shura process, has the ruler abided by the requirements of shura? Just what are the requirements of shura?
These matters are not straightforward. They have not been settled in a definitive manner – although there are some people who claim that the fundamental features of all of this were settled by the 10th century and, consequently, further deliberations were not only unnecessary but, according to such individuals, were, somehow, haram or forbidden … although I don’t recall that God said any such thing in the Qur’an.
The foregoing problems are not being raised in order to argue that the idea of a Muslim community is unworkable. Rather, the problems are being raised as a way of pointing out that a great deal of additional thinking, exploration, reflection and discussion needs to take place in order to be able to have a better understanding of the possible relationships among ummah, authorities, the Qur’an, God, welfare/public interest, truth, and Shari’ah.
Abduh – and this also is true of many other Muslims – seems to want to give the impression that everything is known ahead of time … that principles of right, wrong, truth, public interest, authority, and purpose are already known by everyone and have been agreed upon. Consequently, all we have to do is measure the conduct of a leader against the established standard and everyone will know where they stand.
The Qur’an enjoins human beings to obey the Prophet and those who have been placed in authority over one. What is less clear is whether, or not, for example what the Prophet said more than 1400 years ago should be obeyed today especially when the Prophet himself gave the order – on several occasions -- that all collections of his sayings should be destroyed. Indeed, if we are supposed to obey the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and if the Prophet indicated that one should not keep collections of Hadith, then why are we listening to Bukhari or Muslim or Dawood rather than the Prophet, and on what justifiable and convincing basis can it be argued that I am obligated to follow such sayings under such conditions?
Even if it could be undeniably established that we should consult the Hadiths, there are a great many questions about how to apply those sayings, teachings, and principles to the problems of today. When someone tells me that the Prophet, if he were physically with us today, would do things in a certain way and we can tell what that would be by consulting what he said some 1400 years ago, the question arises in me: Would I be obeying the Prophet or would I be obeying someone’s interpretation of the Prophet, and if I were to obey the latter, would this necessarily be following the Prophet?
In addition, what is not clear with respect to the meaning of God’s words with respect to the process of having someone placed in authority over one is just that: What does it mean to place someone in authority over another individual? The Prophets have been placed in authority over human beings. Therefore, when the former directly indicate – that is, when one is in their physical presence, or when one is given a veridical dream or spiritual encounter – that a specific individual ought to do something, then one should try to obey them.
Parents have been placed in authority over their children. But, even here, the Qur’an indicates that one is not obligated to obey one’s parents if they depart from the teachings of Islam … although there is an etiquette to such departures and, as well, there is much upon which to reflect with respect to trying to determine what it might mean to claim that one’s parents had departed from the teachings of Islam.
Everyone and everything has certain rights over me. To the extent that I honor such rights, then people and things have authority over me, and I am obligated to obey such authority in relation to fulfilling the structural character of the rights that bind them and me.
My shaykh was placed in authority over me when I became his mureed. To the best of my ability, I sought to obey him.
Over the years, other individuals claimed to have been placed in authority over me. However, with time and experience I came to be skeptical concerning such claims.
Furthermore, I am much more cautious about whether, or not, what Divinity may have meant in relation to the idea of placing someone in authority over one is that this should extend to an assortment of would-be leaders and rulers simply because the latter individuals may have come to power in some way. After all, power and authority may not be co-extensive.
For example, one possible question is this: is coming to power through whatever means necessarily a matter of God having actively placed such people in authority, or is it merely a matter of Allah having permitted such things to happen without investing any Divine authority in those individuals, and, as such, these individuals have power but not Divinely sanctioned authority? I am equally uncertain that what God meant in the Qur’an with respect to obeying those who have been placed in authority over one means that one is required to obey whatever religious clerics, imams, muftis, mullahs, and other such authorities say simply because they claim that they have been placed in authority over one.
Would-be leaders – both Muslim and non-Muslim -- make many claims concerning how things in society should be arranged … about who should decide, and about how they should decide and in accordance with what criteria things should be decided and in relation to which goals decisions should be made and about what the obligations of people are with respect to such decisions. Nevertheless, it of essential importance that one not cede one’s intellectual, moral and spiritual sovereignty or authority to such so-called leaders until one is completely sure – and this might never be the case -- that such a process of ceding, if it does take place, will not be betrayed, abused, or exploited … and one only can become certain about such issues through a rigorous process of asking – and having satisfactory and complete answers be given – for an extensive variety of very pointed questions.
For Khomeini, hikmat – wisdom – was the means through which irfan, or gnosis, was to be realized. By adhering to a discipline shaped by religious law as well as a set of spiritual practices, one would arrive, according to Khomeini, at a spiritual condition through which, if God wished, the individual would be ‘opened’ to spiritual truths.
Khomeini believed that irfan and hikmat were not antithetical to shari’ah but, in fact, were inextricably tied to Divine law. By following shari’ah one would be led to both hikmat (wisdom) and irfan (gnosis), and, as well, through kikmat and irfan one would be led to a deeper understanding of shari’ah.
There is no doubt that Khomeini was not only very knowledgeable with respect to traditional Shi’a poets, but he also knew about Sufi poets like Jalal-ud-din Rumi and Hafiz of Shiraz (may Allah be pleased with them). In fact, his familiarity with poets was such that it has been reported that a person could recite a line from almost any Sufi poet and Khomeini would be able to recite the following line. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence to indicate that Khomeini was fairly conversant with at least some of the writings of Ibn al-‘Arabi (may Allah be pleased with him).
Like Ibn al-‘Arabi (may Allah be pleased with him), Khomeini believed that the path to gnosis consisted of a process of purification. He broke this process down into four stages or modes of spiritual journey.
The first journey allegedly went from the human being to God. During this stage, the individual seeker of truth and ultimate reality attempts to transcend the realm of human limitations.
The second stage was said to be a journey with God through the Names and Attributes of Divinity. By means of this kind of journey, one supposedly came to understand how the Names and Attributes manifested themselves and governed different facets of reality.
The third facet of the spiritual journey involved the seeker’s return to the material world and society. However, during this stage, the seeker is not separated from Divinity but is intensely aware of the Divine presence.
The fourth and final stage of the spiritual journey occurs when the seeker, after having acquired gnosis, uses that understanding and knowledge to assist others to struggle toward Divinity. According to Khomeini, one of the ways in which such assistance would be given is when the spiritually realized individual implements a government of Divine justice through which human beings will be guided toward perfection.
For Khomeini, the individual who had completed the four stages of the spiritual journey was the ‘perfect’ human being. Such people were the vicegerents of God and the ones who were to be placed in authority over the rest of humanity.
In essence, Khomeini’s system of thought was an amalgamation of: (1) some of the teachings of ibn al-‘Arabi, Rumi, Hafiz and other Sufi poets/authors (may Allah be pleased with them) concerning various aspects of transcendental mysticism; (2) Suhrawardi’s philosophy of light (and this Suhrawardi is not to be confused with the Sufi mystic of the same name); (3) Avicenna’s school of rationalistic philosophy, and, finally, (4) Shi’a theology. What is far less clear is whether, or not, Khomeini ever actually successfully traversed any of the four stages of the journey -- outlined previously -- to become a spiritually realized individual or perfect human being.
Many people who are intelligent can spout the theory of, say, mysticism … and, indeed, academia is replete with these individuals. Such people can impress and dazzle many with their encyclopedic knowledge of poetry, doctrine, theory, and history, but none of this ‘knowledge’ necessarily means that such intellectually gifted people have realized the condition of gnosis concerning their relationship with Divinity. ‘Talking the talk’ of gnosis does not always entail ‘walking the walk’ of actually being spiritually realized.
Gnosis is not about genetically inherited intelligence. Gnosis is about the gift of experientially realized understanding which God gives to whomsoever Divinity pleases.
Furthermore, there are different modalities of human perfection. Human perfection is about the realization of primordial fitra or potential which defines one’s essential nature.
There are as many different kinds of human perfection as there are created fitras or potentials. The perfection of the Prophets gives expression to 124,000 kinds of perfection. The perfection of the saints gives expression to countless other forms of perfection. The potential for perfection in each and every human being gives expression to still further modes of perfection.
Perfection is not about becoming God. Perfection is about fulfilling the potential which is inherent within us.
Happy is the person who is content with such perfection. Longing for any other kind of perfection will be a tawdry exercise in endless disappointment, frustration, and problems – for oneself and for others.
Consequently, even if, by the Grace of God, someone is able to realize her or his primordial potential or fitra, this does not mean such a person should assume that she or he has the right or duty to ‘lead’ others. To be God’s vicegerent is to be a caretaker of creation, and having such duties of care does not necessarily mean one should become a political or social leader.
The individual who is a spiritually realized person has no need to seek to lead or guide others. By being who he or she essentially is, that person’s mode of being a vicegerent is manifested through whatever that individual does or does not do. God uses that perfect ‘tool’ in whatever way Divinity pleases to serve God’s purpose.
According to Khomeini, government can only be authentic when it acts in accordance with the rules of Divinity. Consequently, in order to be authentic, Khomeini believes that governments must implement shari’ah.
All too many Muslims have been brow-beaten into believing that shari’ah is purely a function of jurisprudence, legal doctrine, and legalisms. However, the Qur’an is not a legal document but a book of guidance, discernment, wisdom, example, balance, and knowledge which provides human beings with an opportunity to rigorously explore what it means to be a human being.
The Qur’an very clearly states that there can be no compulsion in matters of Deen, so just how does someone justify making government the medium through which shari’ah will be implemented and forced on the people in a given locality? The Qur’an also very clearly indicates that oppression is worse than killing, and, one wonders what could be more oppressive than when someone tries to force people to live in accordance with some given interpretation of shari’ah which reduces shari’ah down to little more than a narrowly conceived legal system.
Shari’ah is Divine Law, but this does not mean that such ‘Law’ must be explicated through legalistic doctrines and principles. Divine Law is the nature of the universe on all levels of Being … material, emotional, mental, human, spiritual, and transcendental.
Shari’ah is the path which leads to a place where, if God wishes, one may be opened up to the truth – literally, to drink the waters of reality -- concerning the nature of the universe, including the nature of one’s own essential self. To be sure, shari’ah is a path of purification, but there are many non-coercive, non-oppressive, and non-legalistic ways through which such purification may, God willing, be realized.
On the positive side, purification involves acquiring such qualities as: patience, courage, nobility, honesty, generosity, tolerance, integrity, friendship, forgiveness, repentance, love, steadfastness, humility, kindness, dependence (on God), longing (for God), and remembrance (of God). On the negative side, purification involves ridding oneself of such qualities as: jealousy, anger, envy, hatred, hypocrisy, deceit, selfishness, insensitivity, cruelty, resentment, arrogance, impatience, and heedlessness.
Can prayer, fasting, zakat, and hajj assist one with respect to the foregoing processes of purification? Of course, they can, but if one tries to compel people to pursue those practices, there is a very high likelihood that such compulsion and oppression will not only result in zero beneficial spiritual effects but quite possibly will have a problematic, if not destructive, spiritual impact on the people so oppressed.
Neither character nor morality can be legislated. One cannot be legally forced to develop character or to be moral since both character and morality are rooted in, among other things, having a purified niyat or intention, and methods of compulsion and oppression will never bring about such purification.
Outward behavior may be controlled through such methods, but the inner world of the heart and mind will not be so-controlled … indeed, it is human nature to be inclined to respond in problematic ways with respect to such oppressive attempts. Since spiritual progress is a matter of inward transformation not just changes in external behavior, seeking to compel people to follow a given legalistic path – even if it were correct (an assumption about which I am deeply skeptical) – is doomed to failure as a means of assisting people to realize their spiritual potential.
Does the foregoing perspective mean there should be no regulation of the public space … that there should be no attempt to protect our better selves against our lower selves? No, it doesn’t, but the regulation of public space is not shari’ah. Rather, the regulation of public space is a process of creating conditions which are conducive to people being able to choose to pursue, or not, the actual path of shari’ah without adversely affecting the right of other people to make different kinds of choices concerning how to proceed in life regarding such matters.
One of the most precious gifts – and challenges – which God gave to human beings is the right to choose. Those who wish to make shari’ah a legalistic system of coercive rules seem to believe that they have the right to take away one of the most essential gifts that God has given to human beings.
Steps do need to be taken to ensure, as best as possible, that when the personal exercise of choice spills over into the public space in a problematic or destructive way, the possible deleterious ramifications of such choices for other human beings must be constrained and limited. However, the Qur’an offers up a tremendous variety of principles for dealing with such matters that do not have to be limited to legalisms … and, in fact, a very good argument can be made that to insist on such legalisms as the only way of regulating public space is to be oppressive with respect to the guidance and teachings of the rest of the Qur’an.
What the Prophet did with respect to the regulation of public space when he was in this world physically is one thing. But, none of us is a Prophet, and, therefore, we should not suppose that we have the wisdom, gnosis, or authority to regulate public space in the same way he did.
We have absolutely no reliable insight into, or understanding of, what went on in the mind and heart of the Prophet when he was called upon to make different decisions. We have absolutely no reliable proof that if the Prophet were physically with us today that he would decide matters in this day and age in precisely the same way as he did more than 1400 years ago.
People who seek to use only part of the Qur’an to regulate public space are not following the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The Prophet’s character, understanding, behavior, insight, judgment and decisions were shaped by the entire body of the Qur’an – not just a part of it -- and there are very few, if any, people living today who can claim to know how all of this would come together to shape how the Prophet might seek to resolve any given problem involving the regulation of public space if he were physically living among us in today’s world.
In the ‘70’s Khomeini sought to convince students that they had an obligation to establish an Islamic state – that is, a government which was to be ruled by Khomeini’s conception of shari’ah. During this time, Khomeini also sought to persuade clerics that they had a responsibility to assume control of such a state and to ensure that the state would be regulated through the enforcement of shari’ah construed as a legal system.
Khomeini’s justification for seeking to establish an Islamic state was rooted in the doctrine of ‘Velayat-e Faqih’. This idea has been translated in a number of different ways including: ‘the guardianship of the legal jurist’ and the ‘theological vicegerency of the jurist’.
In turn, the notion of ‘velayat-e faqih’ is rooted in Khomeini’s ideas about the four stage spiritual journey to spiritual realization that culminates in a return to society through which the spiritually realized individual, or perfect human being, sets about leading other people to perfection. All of this is very presumptuous.
Khomeini seemed to assume that he was such a perfect man. He assumed that it is the right and duty of a perfect man to tell others how to live their lives. Khomeini assumed that it is the right and duty of such a person to impose shari’ah on others and to force them to pursue a particular way of life. He further assumed that a perfect person could lead others to perfection.
I believe that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is a perfect human being, and, yet, the Qur’an clearly indicates that the Prophet cannot guide people to the truth. Only God can lead a person to realization of the truth. Only God can open up hearts to faith and knowledge.
The Prophet is the best of examples. He is a friend and supporter and one who prays for the forgiveness of his community and for all creation. He assists people – whether Muslim or Muslim – whenever he can and in accordance with the limitations of the sort of help which he has been permitted and enabled by God to offer. He gives counsel when asked, and, yet, he encouraged people not to ask him questions concerning Islam. Why did Khomeini believe that he could accomplish what the Prophet could not and, indeed, what was not even within the Prophet’s mandate to try to do?
Ibn al-‘Arabi (may Allah be pleased with him) – someone who Khomeini considered to be a perfect human being – never sought to establish an Islamic state nor did the former individual ever try to impose shari’ah (however he may have conceived it) on others. This is also true of Sufi mystics such as Rumi, Hafiz, and others (may Allah be pleased with them), and Khomeini looked favorably on all of these individuals.
However, somewhere along the line, Khomeini came to a very different conclusion than the spiritual predecessors whom he admired and quoted. This fact raises a lot of red flags concerning the legitimacy of Khomeini’s understanding of many things.
Once Khomeini achieved power he proceeded to seek to purify society by ridding it of the alleged forces of evil that had been serving, in one capacity or another, as agents of the deposed Shah. The manner in which this allegedly perfect man sought to lead the evil-doers to a purified condition was not through counseling, guidance, dialogue, spiritual assistance, or the like, but, rather, he purified them by having them executed, and such executions were followed by similar purifications of other lesser officials and military personnel.
The Qur’an indicates that one is justified in killing those who spread corruption in the earth, but this doesn’t mean that one must do this. Furthermore, one could engage in a rather lengthy discussion about who, exactly, was spreading corruption in the land with respect to the Iranian revolution … especially given that the Qur’an says that if it were a matter of taking humankind to task for their transgressions against God, then not one living creature would be left on the face of the Earth (Qur’an 16: 61).
Once he ascended to power, Khomeini increasingly wanted everything under his control. He didn’t do this because he was a spiritually realized individual and knew – via gnosis – what was best, rather he sought to control things because he apparently failed to realize that oppression and compulsion are not part of shari’ah.
Behavior sometimes is a good indicator of the intentions underlying it. In many ways and as the foregoing discussion suggests, Khomeini’s behavior betrayed his apparent belief that he was a spiritually realized human being.
Unlike Khomeini, the example set by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did not involve oppressively and forcibly trying to control the lives of people … although that example did involve some instances of regulating public space in a way which resonated with the times in which, and circumstances under which, he and the rest of the community lived. Therefore, whenever a so-called leader presumes he or she has the right and authority to oppressively and forcibly control the lives of others, then one should observe due diligence in examining the theory of leadership out of which that person operates.
Hasan al-Banna, an Egyptian, was born in 1906 and passed away at the age of 43. Among other things, he founded the Muslim Brotherhood.
When he was approximately 12 years old, Banna joined a Muslim group that was concerned with issues of moral behavior. In fact, one of the primary purposes of the group was to induce its members to actively observe whatever the group considered to give expression to a strict code of Islamic behavior, and part of the inducement process was to levy fines on anyone who transgressed against that code.
A little later, he joined another group whose activities also revolved around issues of morality and bringing pressure to bear on anyone who might have erred – at least according to that group’s leaders -- with respect to some aspect of moral behavior. One of the practices of this group was to send threatening letters to the alleged miscreants.
When he was thirteen, Banna became associated with a Sufi Order. This group was not only committed to following a strict code of Islamic behavior, but, as well, it had a charitable arm that sought to reform the morality of others, and Banna became actively involved with this dimension of the Sufi Order.
Although Banna developed an appreciation for certain aspects of the Sufi mystical tradition, he also had reservations about certain practices associated with some Sufi groups. On the one hand, he was attracted to what he felt was the tendency of Sufis to adhere to the moral dimension of Islam, but, on the other hand, he felt that too many innovative practices, or bid’a, had become intermingled with the Sufi path.
Without wishing to make a pronouncement one way or the other as to whether, or not, Banna was correct in his assessment of the Sufi path, a point does need to be raised with respect to the issue of bid’a or spiritual innovation. More specifically, while the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had issued warnings about the dangers of spiritual innovation, his warnings tended to be of a general nature and done without specifying that which constituted innovation.
Unfortunately, it is a common practice of all too many Muslims to try to claim that what the Prophet meant when he gave such warnings has to do with whatever the Muslims are against who are invoking the saying of the Prophet concerning spiritual innovation. If those Muslims are against music, then music becomes bi’dah, and the claim is made that this is what the Prophet had in mind when he talked about spiritual innovation. If those Muslims are against certain kinds of art, then such art becomes bi’da, and the claim is made that this is what the Prophet had in mind when he warned about spiritual innovation … and so on.
Such Muslims may, or may not, be correct in their claims. The problem is that they don’t really know what the Prophet meant when he is reported to have said what he did with respect to the issue of spiritual innovation.
The Prophet did indicate on a number of occasions that people should not make or keep collections of his sayings. So, is it an instance of spiritual innovation, or bi’da, when people seek to cite the authority of the Prophet’s words to justify imposing beliefs or behavior on others?
While later in life, Banna never condemned the Sufi path, per se, he did argue that misguided Sufis should be reformed. Moreover, Banna indicated that Sufi writings should be rid of their impurities.
Determining who was a misguided Sufi and what writings needed to be cleansed were a function of Banna’s judgment concerning such matters. Moreover, Banna believed that it was people such as himself who should be the ones who ought to have influential authority in relation to determining how misguided individuals and impure writings should be reformed.
Indeed, one of the facets of the Sufi path with which Banna was much enamored involved the relationship between a seeker and the shaykh or teacher. According to Banna, the connection was one of absolute obedience – a characterization with which I would take exception since I do not believe it reflects the actual nature of the relationship between a shaykh and a seeker. Banna wanted to extend this theme of absolute obedience to other kinds of relational arrangements involving so-called leaders (which he considered himself to be) and followers.
Obviously, if Banna was a leader, then the generality of people – who are defined by Banna as followers -- should obey what he, and others like him, said with respect to matters of bi’da, impure writings, and being misguided. According to Banna, it is the prerogative and right of the leader to decide, and it is the duty of follows to follow the prerogative of the leaders.
I have no problem with someone like Banna believing anything he likes. This after all is the right of sovereignty concerning the exercise of choice which God has bestowed on human beings.
I do have a problem when what someone like Banna believes spills over into the realm of behavior, and through this spill over, Banna begins to try to control me, or others, so that I, or they, become obedient to, and are compelled to serve, his vision of things. Banna presumes he has a right – nay duty -- to interfere in my life and rid me of whatever misguidance and impurities he believes me to operating through, and his justification for doing so is that he believes that he is right and that I am wrong.
Even if Banna were correct with respect to his understanding of the ‘true’ Islam – and this is not a foregone conclusion – there is a logical jump he is making which needs to be justified independently of being correct about something. This logical jump concerns the following question: under what circumstances, and to what extent, does someone have the right to interfere in another person’s life even if one were to assume that the former person is correct and the latter person is wrong about some given issue?
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was told through the Qur’an that it was not the Prophet’s duty to guide others to the truth. Guidance belonged to Allah alone. Therefore, if the Prophet did not have the responsibility of guiding people, why does Banna believe he has the right and duty to do what the Prophet could not do?
When Banna was 21 years old, he wrote an essay to fulfill part of his educational requirements. In the essay he was critical of Sufis for withdrawing from society.
He believed that such a tendency limited their effective influence with respect to reforming society. Moreover, Banna argued that because regular teachers did not withdraw from society and, as a result, had a better opportunity to influence, change, and reform the lives of people, regular teachers were better than Sufi shaykhs.
Banna’s essay was predicated on the presumption that: it is the job of a teacher or Sufi shaykh to influence, change, or reform other human beings. Perhaps part of the reason why some Sufis chose to withdraw from society is because they wished to remove themselves from the temptation of trying to interfere in the lives of other people rather than focus on reforming and changing their own lives.
Banna’s essay is more than a little self-serving since, at the time, he was trying to satisfy the educational requirements for becoming a teacher. Moreover, his thesis seems not to reflect his earlier experience with a Sufi Order which did promote charitable acts with respect to the needy in society.
Of course, feeding, clothing, and housing people does interfere in the lives of people. However, this kind of interference is quite a bit different than trying to change, influence, reform, or purify the way people live their lives.
The former kind of interference has always been encouraged by both the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of Islam. However, there are many cautionary considerations surrounding the latter kind of interference … and one of these cautionary considerations is that the process of actively interfering in another person’s life in order to reform or purify such individuals would seem to come in direct conflict with the Quranic teaching that there can be no compulsion in matters of Deen, and, as such, therefore, possibly qualify as an expression of bid’a.
One of the central principles in the Muslim Brotherhood which Banna established in 1928 revolved around the idea of restoring the caliphate. Banna, among others, had been appalled when earlier Kemal Ataturk had done away with the position of caliph in Turkey, and Banna believed that restoring the caliphacy would be an important means through which to reform and purify society so that it could be brought back to the true Islam.
Later on, Banna argued that politics should not be subjected to the divisiveness of a multiparty system, but, instead should be regulated through just one party. Supposedly, having just one party would be a means to unify the electorate or ummah, but Banna does not seem to have appreciated the fact that divisiveness comes from individuals not parties … or said in another way, the divisiveness of parties is a function of the divisiveness of individuals as each, in her or his own way, seeks to find ways of controlling others to serve some agenda, and, therefore, the aforementioned divisiveness also can occur within single party systems as well as within multi-party systems.
Although Banna believed in holding elections, he believed that the people who ran for office should be restricted to certain classes of people. He felt that, on the one hand, only experts in religious law and public affairs, and, on the other hand, already established leaders of organizations, families or tribes, should be permitted to run for office.
Obviously, Banna was something of an elitist or oligarch and believed that power should be invested in a select group of individuals of whom Banna approved. Commoners, peasants, the un-empowered and women need not apply.
Indeed, Banna had a fairly repressive view of the role of women in society. He believed their activities should be restricted to motherhood, housekeeping, and staying out of sight. Consequently, he felt that women should not be taught religious law, technical sciences, or foreign languages but only those subjects which would permit them to be mothers, housekeepers, and invisible.
Apparently, among other things, Banna interpreted the Quranic ayat that men had been given a degree of superiority over women to mean that men had the right to take control of pretty much everything concerning the lives of women. However, although the Quranic ayat in question does not say in what way men had a degree of superiority over women, this has not stopped Muslim men from interpreting the passage in whatever way serves their interests, and, in the process, may be guilty of trying to introduce innovation, or bi’da into Islam.
For Banna, the government would manage all aspects of society. This control would extend from: ensuring that Islamic practices were correctly observed, to: censoring whatever books, films, songs, or ideas were considered to be antithetical to the ‘true Islam’.
Banna is presuming that he and the other leaders of society know what ‘true Islam’ is. He also is presuming that even if he did know this that he has the right to impose such views on other human beings. What part of: ‘there can be no compulsion in matters of Deen’ doesn’t he understand?
To be sure, society as a whole – not just government – has the challenge of determining how to proceed in a way that balances individual freedom with the need to protect the public space so that exercise of such individual freedoms do not adversely affect the capacity of others to pursue their own God-given right of sovereignty with respect to choice. This issue has a potential for being very problematic.
Nonetheless, acknowledging the existence of such a problem of social balancing does not mean that the government has the right or authority – although it may have the power to do so – to solve this problem for others and, in the process, impose its solution on the people.
Banna claims that leaders must listen to the will of the people. But, what does this really mean?
First of all, not every instance of the will of the people is necessarily in the best interests of the people, anymore than one can suppose that every instance of the will of an individual is necessarily in the best interests of that person. So, how does one decide between those expressions of the will of the people which should be listened to and those expressions of the will of the people which should not be listened to?
Secondly, if it is the will of the people which should be listened to, then, why is there any need for government? Can’t people carrying out their own will? If it is the will of the people which should be listened to, then why are only government leaders in charge of educating, reforming, propagandizing and purifying that will?
The way in which Banna organized the Muslim Brotherhood reveals his intentions with respect to society if he should ever gain control over the reins of government. By 1946, Banna had established a hierarchical organizational model in which Banna had control over every facet and level of the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Banna ran his organization in accordance with his erroneous understanding of the relationship between a Sufi shaykh and a mureed or seeker. Namely, Banna believed that everyone in the organization owed absolute obedience to him. While he did establish a smaller and larger body of members with whom he would consult concerning matters, the final decision would be his.
The process of becoming initiated into the Brotherhood is also very revealing. Candidates were required to take an oath of commitment to Banna’s conception of jihad in which a person should be willing to seek out death and martyrdom as he sought to convert the world to Banna’s ideological stance concerning Islam.
The foregoing oath of commitment was taken in a darkened room. During the ceremony, the would-be initiate had to swear secrecy concerning the Brotherhood while his hand was on a Qur’an and a pistol.
The pistol is a multi-faceted symbol. On the one hand, it implies a willingness to use force to carry out the agenda of the Brotherhood, and, on the other hand, it implies what lays in store for anyone who violates the oath of secrecy or the demand for absolute obedience.
Considered from another perspective, the use of both a pistol and the Qur’an in the initiation ceremony suggests a deep-rooted lack of faith in God. Among other things, the presence of the pistol tends to indicate that Banna seemed to believe that the Qur’an, by itself, was not considered a sufficiently adequate focus of loyalty, commitment or solution to life’s problems.
According to Banna, the purpose of the Brotherhood was to offer assistance to the rulers. The form of this assistance concerned advising the ruler how to run the country in accordance with the ideals of ‘true Islam’.
Nevertheless, Banna also indicated that the Brotherhood should be prepared to use force if the rulers proved to be intransigent with respect to the ‘advice’ or ‘counsel’ which was being offered through the Brotherhood. In other words, his position seemed to be: ‘listen or else’, and as someone once told me, if you can’t hear no, then, what one is asking is not a request or a mere giving of advice and counsel.
The fact of the matter is that at times violence was employed by the Brotherhood, not only with respect to the government but, as well, in relation to individuals with whom the Brotherhood considered to be purveyors of something other than the ‘true Islam’. This willingness to resort to violence if one doesn’t get what one wants is a very slippery slope that very quickly ends up justifying all manner of acts of cruelty, brutality, and oppression.
Banna wanted to return to the teachings of the salaf, the spiritual forbearers of early Islam. However, his motives for wishing to do so are somewhat muddled.
On the one hand, he blamed the condition of the Muslim world -- vis-à-vis being in a position of degrading subjugation to Western imperialism and colonialism -- on the fact that Muslims had strayed from the teachings of ‘true Islam’. Banna argued that the salaf adhered completely to ‘true Islam’ and, as a result they were rewarded with control of a large part of the known world at that time.
Banna believed that if Muslims were brought back to the ‘true Islam’, then Muslims would, once again be rewarded by God – as he believed had been the case in relation to the salaf -- with control of the world and, in the process, would be permitted to throw off the shackles of Western oppression. Unfortunately, by thinking in this manner, Banna has muddied the waters of intention in which what is done by a Muslim should be done for the sake of Allah and not for the sake of any advantageous rewards or ramifications which might come from this.
The Muslim Brotherhood may have accomplished any number of good things such as: assisting the needy, feeding the poor, building schools, physically cleaning up neighborhoods, and helping the sick. However, such good deeds always had a hidden price and cost in which sooner, or later, people would be expected to pay for those good deeds by ceding their moral, intellectual, and spiritual authority to the leaders of the Brotherhood.
If God wishes, true Islam teaches individuals how not to cede their moral, intellectual, and spiritual authority to anyone but God. If God wishes, true Islam teaches individuals that one does not need to commit oneself to the way of God with one’s hand on a pistol and that the Qur’an, alone, is more than adequate. If God wishes, true Islam teaches individuals that while we have duties of care to others, nevertheless, seeking to fulfill such duties does not entitle one to absolute obedience from others. If God wishes, true Islam teaches individuals that trying to convert others to Islam is not one of the pillars of Islam and that the inclination of hearts to Islam is the business of God, not of human beings. If God wishes, true Islam teaches individuals that one should have some degree of humility with respect to the correctness of one’s understanding of the truth and that just because one believes one is right, this does not justify one’s trying to impose one’s beliefs on others. If God wishes, true Islam teaches individuals that there can be no compulsion in matters of Deen, and, therefore, to whatever extent one uses compulsion, force, and oppression in order to induce someone to adhere to one’s interpretation of the ‘true Islam’, then, one is violating one of the basic tenets of Islam.
Given the foregoing, I am of the opinion that there is a great deal about the ‘true Islam’ with which Banna was not familiar. Given the foregoing, I am inclined, God willing, to be prepared never to cede my intellectual, moral, and spiritual authority to would-be leaders like Banna who tend to filter reality through their own high opinion of themselves and believe they have been given Divine sanction to proceed in a direction that, unfortunately, seems far more likely to take people away from the ‘true Islam’ than toward it.