The personal character of Muhammad’s companions should be emulated, but the political system they created, which resulted in assassinations, civil wars, and other conflicts, should not be seen as a model for the future
Muslims have been at war with each other ever since 632 AD, after the demise of the Prophet, for power, control and dominance – tribal characteristics that even the original message of the founder of Islam couldn’t make a dent into. That is because there were instructions left for the establishment of a political framework for the city of Mecca, the Prophet’s hometown, which he had entered triumphantly a decade ago.
For the city that gave him and his followers refuge, when he was persecuted for his beliefs, he drafted the Medina Compact, setting out governance principles for the newly established city-state. If he had wanted an Islamic State globally, he would have explicitly said so for Mecca too, but his experience of revelations was always about the establishment of a ‘state of Islam’ rather than an Islamic State and he trusted his Companions to do the needful.
Renowned scholar and author Olivier Roy, in his work The Failure of Political Islam, describes the Islamic political imagination that took root in the era after the Prophet. This imagination is dominated by a single paradigm, which is the model of the first community of believers at the time of the Prophet and of the first four caliphs.
This paradigm offers an ideal for Muslim society, characterised by the non-separation of religious, legal, and political spheres, the sharia as the sole source of law, and the rejection of autonomous political space. The state is never considered in terms of a territorialised nation-state, and the ideal is to have a power that would rule over the entirety of the ummah, the community of the faithful.
This paradigm of the original community is a deep conviction of political actors in contemporary Islam and should be taken seriously in studying its effect on thought and political practice.
For Islamists today, there is only one Islam, that of the age of the Prophet, and a return to it is considered ideal for establishing an Islamic State. Islamists need to be distinguished from Muslims. Islamism, also known as political Islam, is a political ideology that seeks to establish Islamic law or sharia as the basis for governance and public life in Muslim-majority countries. It is a diverse movement that includes both peaceful and militant groups and encompasses a range of political and social beliefs.
At its core, Islamism emphasises the role of Islam in shaping all aspects of society, including politics, economics, and culture. It seeks to create a state that is fully in accordance with Islamic principles and values and to promote the moral and spiritual regeneration of Muslims.
While many Islamists participate in electoral politics, some have also resorted to violence and terrorism to achieve their goals. Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the Taliban have all used violence to advance their agendas.
Islamism has been a controversial topic, with some arguing that it represents a threat to secularism and democracy, while others argue that it is a legitimate expression of Islamic identity and values. Yet paradoxically, the Islamists of the 21st century come from recently urbanised families or from impoverished middle-class families. They receive their political education not in religious schools but on college and university campuses, where they rubbed shoulders with militant Marxists, whose concept of revolution they borrowed and injected Quranic terminology into their propaganda and activism. This explains the Leftist-Islamist alliance.
The masses that follow the Islamists are not traditional or orthodox in the sense of the terms either. They live with the values of a modern city – consumerism imparted by the shop windows of the large metropolises, they live in a world of movie theatres, cafes, jeans, videos, and sports, but they live precariously from menial jobs or remain unemployed in immigrant ghettos, with the frustration inherent in an unattainable consumerist world.
According to Olivier Roy, Islamism is a Third World Movement and it has adapted to the modern urban setting with followers who live with modern city values of consumerism and upward mobility. This movement is in line with the pre-existing tendencies of fundamentalism, centred on sharia, and anti-colonialism or anti-imperialism that has now become anti-Westernism.
The Islamist movement has taken up the torch of the Third World movement, but with slogans that cannot be shared by Western leftists. The movement has similarities with the Marxist-leaning revolutionary movements of the 1970s, with a cult of the return to the past, authenticity, and purity.
This single paradigm, dominant in Islamic political thinking, of the model of the first community of believers and their actions post-Prophet’s life needs to be viewed critically if Islamism is to be defeated. Canadian-Pakistani author and activist Tarek Fatah, in his book Chasing the Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State, boldly urges that Muslims have a right to ask why they should have any obligation to adopt, as an article of faith, the political structures and institutions created after the death of Muhammad.
In his chapter ‘Medina – The Politics of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, he writes: After all, God/Allah makes it clear in his last revelation to Muhammad that ‘Today I have completed your faith for you.’ A system devised by mere mortals (even though they were the companions of the Prophet) and one that failed to last beyond three decades and that created permanent divisions in the global community should never be presented as the cornerstone of Islam. In fact, every single Muslim dynasty in the 1,400 years since the death of Ali has rejected the political processes adopted by the Rightly Guided Caliphs.
Muslims who demand an Islamic political system modelled on the 7th century should revisit the events of 632 AD and acknowledge the imperfections and bloodshed that occurred in the early days of Islam.
The personal character of Muhammad’s companions should be emulated, but the political system they created, which resulted in assassinations, civil wars, and other conflicts, should not be seen as a model for the future. A frank, open and free discussion about the early caliphs and their actions should be conducted on a global level, on all international fora, the critical thinking spaces that desperately need to be created in the Muslim communities of today, be they in the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, the Shiite-Arab states, or Turkey.
The first four caliphs are models of piety, but elevating them to a level beyond reproach or criticism isn’t wise for the future of Islam.
Arshia Malik is a Delhi-based writer, blogger and social commentator.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own