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Reiterating the Book

June 7, 2020

POLITICAL ISLAM – C

Let us reiterate that the Book gave Muhammad’s followers Eman, a set of rituals and very specific ceremonies of worship (in a jami’, not in a mosque). But it also gave humankind Islam that is embodied in the intention to achieve, in a truly universal manner, the highest possible human ideals, a message that began with the tauhid of Noah (“That you should worship God, fear Him and obey me…”, Nuh:3), that was continued by the many calls of ancient prophets and messengers, and that was perfected by the noblest of Allah’s messengers: ‘Say: “I am but a man like yourselves, (but) the inspiration has come to me, that your god is one God…”,’ (Kahf:110). Islam contains the highest forms of morality as exemplified in Noah’s call to respect our parents (“O my Lord! Forgive me, my parents…”, Nuh:28) and in the noble Messenger’s admonition to pay attention to the smallest details of everyday life (‘O you who believe! When you are told to make room in the assemblies, (spread out and) make room: (ample) room will God provide for you…,’ Mujadila:11).

As its core value, Islam promotes freedom of worship. It negates slavish submission to a wrathful God. Human beings are free in their worship; obedience or disobedience occurs from their own will. They are God’s affirmers, not His slaves. This is what Umar bin. al-Khattab meant when, in the famous narration of Amr bin. al-‘aas, he said, ‘Why did you enslave people when their mothers had born them free?” Umar said this in order to promote a strong sense of social justice among his companions, and this at a time when the son of a slave was still considered a slave! His words contain one of the most important human rights, namely the right of individual freedom, because it is a gift from God, like His gift of life and His gift of intellect.

No human society can live without it. Individual freedom is the foundation of collective democracy; and democracy is the practice of freedom that is backed up by the most influential civic authorities of a society.

In spite of Muhammad’s monumental efforts to establish a new political culture in Medina, building upon the few traces of democratic rules that existed in ancient Arabia, most of his achievements were destroyed by the political events that followed his death.

Disregarding the Book’s injunction, people started to confuse his prophethood with kingship, in spite of the fact that Muhammad did not create his state as a king or statesman, but only as a prophet.

After his death, political-theological measures of the companions filled the (political, not religious!) vacuum that caused a serious internal crisis, as a result of which economic and tribal interests completely took over the political agenda—and history took its ill-starred course in the seventh century. Fatally, the political measures taken by the companions were eventually regarded as the continuation of Muhammad’s prophetic office and entered Arab consciousness as a combined form of Islam and Eman. But they had nothing to do with either of them. Our most important task today is to separate these political (and purely historical) measures again from Muhammad’s messengerhood, which in effect demands a separation of religion from politics.

Since political rule of the companions entered our political consciousness as Islam, religion was confused with politics, and after this the political and religious establishment has always found it necessary to promote educational and intellectual methods which suppress critical thinking and freedom of speech. We should remind our political and religious elite that the governance of Muhammad’s companions was purely based on a realpolitik which any state, ancient or modern, would be able to pursue (i.e., regardless of any prophetical message). The Arabs were by no means original in anything they did (politically) in the seventh century. Even their concept of a caliphate was completely improvised and based on the companions’ need to fill the political vacuum left by the Prophet’s death. The period of the caliphs was in fact a transition period between the era of the Prophet and the era of Arab imperialism (of the Umayyads and Abbasids). Everything that happened in that transition period was based on the political-theological requirements of the day—the companions’ decisions were human, fallible, and contingent— with no real connection to the Messenger. With the emergence of the epoch of imperial expansion, which started with the reign of Mu’awiya bin Abi Sufyan, rulers began to suppress the democratic right of people to participate in politics. Jihad was transformed into conquest and military raids, while during the period of the Prophet it had meant a struggle in God’s way to secure freedom of choice for all people.

During the formative period of the first three to four centuries, the pillars of religion were reduced to only four (prayer, zakat, fasting, and pilgrimage). Shura consultation and fighting (al-qital ) in Allah’s way (i.e., freedom of choice) were removed from of Eman, while ‘good work’ and ethics (moral laws) were removed from Islam.

Of course, eliminating these democratic and ethical dimensions from the pillars of religion was entirely in the interest of the individualistic and despotic political culture that dominated the formative period of (historical) Islam. In fact, this removal even bolstered the power and authority of political tyrants and despots. It created a lack of critical thinking because people thought that as long as they pray, fast, and go on pilgrimage, everything will be all right and Islam will prosper!

The lack of critical awareness created a mind-set that easily accepted the ulama”s newly devised theologies of predestination according to which God predetermines every single human act. The concept of free will and freedom of choice was entirely marginalized.

In this way the formerly revolutionary (Islamic) concept of social, collective responsibility was replaced by a political-dynastical practice by which one tyrant removes another tyrant, leading to an endless series of political assassinations and a political culture of force and violence. Until today it has not been fully registered that jihad and qital does not mean militant holy war but rather ‘legislation’ for the purpose of establishing God’s word (kalimat Allah) as the highest ideal. The most significant ‘word of God’ is freedom of choice for all people, regardless of whether they are assenters, heretics, believers, or unbelievers. Any other form of qital (in particular if it means ‘killing’) does not qualify as a ‘fight in God’s way’, even if it is regarded as legal (e.g., the execution of prisoners). In order to change the current situation and mind-set of Arab Muslim-Believers we need to achieve a higher degree of acceptance of democracy in the Arab-Muslim world. We believe that these following four things will achieve this:

  1. A spiritual covenant, consisting of worship of God by all people and based on freedom of choice between obedience and disobedience— a worship that will be assessed by Allah on the Day of Judgement. The Book’s eschatological vision of God’s judgement acknowledges the existence of free will and the freedom of choice (between faith and heresy) because freedom is a ‘word of God’ that is given primordially to humankind since God has eternally granted freedom to all of His creation.
  1. An ethical covenant (the covenant of Islam) which includes all humankind. The protection of Human Rights is a fundamental part of this ethical covenant.
  2. A civil covenant (in the sense of Rousseau’s Civil Contract), implying a pledge of citizenship.
  1. A political covenant (or a code of practice for political participation).

This consists of a pledge to successfully implement democratic values and procedures in all spheres of political life, from the formation of political parties (so that they cover a wide spectrum of political opinions) to the practice of state censorship (so that it does not stifle political opposition and dissent).

It is a regrettable fact that most people in the Arab-Muslim world have still not learned that freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion can only be achieved if that society is organized by a political system that wholeheartedly embraces democratic principles such as political pluralism, equality before the law, freedom of the press, the right to petition elected officials, civil liberties, judicial independence, separation of powers, and so on. We all have to learn that without these democratic principles a society cannot promote independent, critical thinking, and without intellectual autonomy and critical thinking a society will slide back into the darkness of either tyranny and despotism or complete anarchy. Our plea for more democracy is a plea to prevent the current attitude among Arabs from becoming so entrenched in archaic notions of politics that we can no longer hope for any reform of the political regimes currently in power.

Apostasy is next