The Caliphate Chicken & Egg

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It can be argued that any mean­ing­ful dis­course dis­till­ing ancient wis­doms or guid­ance for today must take into account the unique posi­tion of Mus­lims today com­pared to the past. The trau­ma of Moder­ni­ty and hege­mo­ny has scat­tered and atom­ised Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties and nations, char­ac­terised by the inter­na­tion­al denial of a uni­fied Ummah; a vio­lent break in con­ti­nu­ity from our own sto­ries and knowl­edge pro­duc­tion over the last 1,400 years. As a result Mus­lim groups and move­ments aim­ing to improve the state of affairs in some shape or form in recent cen­turies have seen a num­ber of prob­lems that need solv­ing. Dic­ta­tors and despots, pover­ty and eco­nom­ic sub­ju­ga­tion, epis­temic oppres­sion, 1 vio­lence and igno­rance, and all man­ner of per­son­al, social and soci­etal ills have been identified.

Nat­u­ral­ly, as in any non-triv­ial mat­ter, a per­son look­ing at this is sub­ject to com­mon mis­takes of the his­to­ri­an. It is tempt­ing to fall into a sin­gle cause fal­la­cy when ask­ing the ques­tion: what do we do now? The prob­lems faced by the world today have coin­cid­ed with or fol­lowed many impor­tant phe­nom­e­na over the last few centuries—the offi­cial fall of the Ottoman caliphate; the sys­tem­at­ic dis­es­tab­lish­ment of localised shari’a sys­tems replaced by author­i­tar­i­an (Euro­pean) legal­ly monis­tic struc­tures of pow­er; mate­ri­al­ism and con­sumerism; the atom­i­sa­tion and dis­en­fran­chise­ment of com­mon peo­ple; colo­nial­i­ty; the explo­sion in num­ber and degree of moral­ly abhor­rent vices. It requires cau­tious think­ing not to fall for blam­ing the state of affairs on a sin­gle cause.

When look­ing at the host of prob­lems and/or poten­tial caus­es, a dis­tinc­tion emerges between issues on the micro, indi­vid­ual, per­son­al or spir­i­tu­al lev­el on the one hand, and issues on a macro, sys­temic, civic or polit­i­cal lev­el on the oth­er. Both spheres expe­ri­enced a decline in recent his­to­ry. Both cat­e­gories of prob­lems (and there­fore loci for puta­tive solu­tions) require atten­tion. It may be impos­si­ble to dis­tin­guish which came first in real­i­ty, and it should not mat­ter. Despite this a chick­en and egg para­dox has appeared in some minds where one might for exam­ple, blame the fall of the last Caliphate for the host of micro prob­lems we suf­fer from today; or blame Mus­lims’ spir­i­tu­al bank­rupt­cy (or “devi­a­tion from the sun­nah”) for the fall of the last Caliphate and oth­er macro problems.

The main prob­lem with such a false para­dox is that it lures unsus­pect­ing peo­ple into a polar­i­ty that need not exist, and I believe this is one of the most suc­cess­ful tricks of the shaytān, if not a delib­er­ate pol­i­cy deci­sion by his allies. Cer­tain­ty is like a drug for some, and the cer­tain­ty of sim­ple for­mu­lae for Islam­ic “revival” is extreme­ly tempt­ing, albeit cost­ly. Some move­ments focus­ing on spir­i­tu­al res­cue have spawned a polit­i­cal qui­etism. Some move­ments focus­ing on polit­i­cal revival have nur­tured a spir­i­tu­al bankruptcy.

Polar­i­ties that were once upon a time car­i­ca­tures appear to be becom­ing more and more of a real­i­ty as the pres­sures on 21st cen­tu­ry Mus­lims are com­bined with the need for sim­ple answers and certainty—and social media. I have heard with my own ears and read with my own eyes slo­gans that reveal a whole­sale accep­tance of such a false dichotomy.

Why are you doing a talk about dhikr when peo­ple are dying in Palestine!?”

Why are you talk­ing about pol­i­tics when peo­ple are upon mis­guid­ance and bid’a!?”

The cure to this dis­ease is not to con­vince some­one on one extreme to go to the oth­er, but to break them out of the polar­i­ty of think­ing alto­geth­er. We must col­lec­tive­ly focus on both the micro and the macro. Not mere­ly for the sake of tol­er­ance and uni­ty but impor­tant­ly because to focus on one at the expense of the oth­er is doomed to fail­ure. In polar­i­ty 1, focus­ing on a sys­tem at the detri­ment of its parts will lead to a fail­ure of the sys­tem itself. In polar­i­ty 2, focus­ing on improv­ing the parts of a cor­rupt­ed sys­tem will only improve corruption!

Polar­i­ty 1: Macro > Micro

If you man­age to put a well func­tion­ing sys­tem in place—political, eco­nom­ic, social or otherwise—but have not spent seri­ous effort in nur­tur­ing the indi­vid­ual integri­ty and qual­i­ty of those in it, you are on thin ice. One of the mirac­u­lous aspects of Islam is that even imple­ment­ing parts of it can lead to great benefit—as many enlight­ened non-Mus­lim soci­eties have done his­tor­i­cal­ly, includ­ing our own. 2 How­ev­er, to reap ful­ly the fruits of Islam as a sys­tem, dif­fer­ent parts need to syn­er­gise with one anoth­er. Take for exam­ple the Islam­ic eco­nom­ic system.

In Sūrat al-Baqara before announc­ing the pro­hi­bi­tion of riba (usury) Allah swt spoke in four­teen āyāt of a cru­cial pil­lar of the econ­o­my to allow peo­ple to ful­ly imple­ment and enjoy the incum­bent pro­hi­bi­tion of riba: sadaqa. 3 Allah com­mands peo­ple to spend in Allah’s way, not to fear pover­ty or hoard wealth. Impor­tant­ly, an addi­tion­al dimen­sion of ‘prof­it­ing from wealth’ is intro­duced: the here­after ben­e­fit. Peo­ple are encour­aged to lend mon­ey to one anoth­er, extend the repay­ment terms and even for­give debts of those bur­dened, for a prof­it in the here­after. As a result, there is no space for peo­ple to exploit debt to flourish.

How­ev­er, if you were to repli­cate the clas­si­cal sys­tem overnight it would still col­lapse if peo­ple did not have the ‘īmān’ sys­tem to sup­ple­ment it with. If there was not a min­i­mum lev­el of here­after con­scious­ness to pre­vent peo­ple cheat­ing, exploit­ing and cir­cum­vent­ing the let­ter of the laws (as we see in much of today’s bur­geon­ing ‘Islam­ic’ finance indus­try or even in some mod­ern nation states that try to enforce some ‘Islam­ic’ laws). A use­ful anal­o­gy is an organ such as the heart. It is a com­plete sys­tem made up of parts, struc­tures and the move­ment of metabo­lites and impuls­es, which come togeth­er to make a heart­beat. If the con­stituent cells of the heart are dis­eased, the func­tion of the sys­tem will suffer.

Polar­i­ty 2: Micro > Macro

It is also prob­lem­at­ic to focus only on the devel­op­ment of ‘the self’ whilst ignor­ing sys­tems. Let us recall the exam­ple of an eco­nom­ic sys­tem. Islam­ic eco­nom­ics is far more than just the pro­hi­bi­tion of riba. If sys­tems are not in place for peo­ple to earn a halāl eth­i­cal liv­ing, to pre­vent large amounts of mon­ey cir­cu­lat­ing in few hands, to pre­vent the pow­er­ful exploit­ing those with­out pow­er, and so on, then even if peo­ple have the īmān sys­tem and here­after cen­tric­i­ty, some­thing very wor­ry­ing will happen.

Take for exam­ple the dom­i­nant hege­mon­ic sys­tems of eco­nom­ic ‘devel­op­ment’ export­ed across the world from today’s impe­r­i­al pow­ers. We have sys­tems which are now fine-tuned to fun­nel wealth from the pub­lic into pri­vate cor­po­rate pock­ets, and nat­ur­al resources from ‘third-world’ coun­tries into ‘devel­oped’ nations. If you devel­op spir­i­tu­al­ly and per­son­al­ly every­one in such a sys­tem, make them right­eous believ­ers who are hon­est, God-fear­ing and char­i­ta­ble, the effect will it have on the func­tion and out­put of the unjust, un-Islam­ic sys­tems will be to make them even more efficient!

Remem­ber, the cells of the heart do not need to even know what a heart­beat is—even though they are cru­cial to it. Their being involved in the right place and time in the sys­tem that pro­duces the heart­beat allows the sys­tem to endure. If the indi­vid­ual health and integri­ty of the cells were to increase then it fol­lows that the over­all health of the heart would increase.

This is the insid­i­ous real­i­ty of unjust sys­tems that have been set up by human beings to exploit each oth­er. The atom­i­sa­tion of soci­ety, 4 self-decep­tion and cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance of humans allows for an ‘hon­est’ and ‘good’ per­son who is going about their dai­ly work, pay­ing their tax­es and donat­ing to their char­i­ties, to go through an entire career not even recog­nis­ing that they play a vital part in the destruc­tion or con­tin­ued sub­ju­ga­tion of entire peo­ples. It was the brave­ly dif­fi­cult real­i­sa­tion of this fact and its asso­ci­at­ed guilt that led econ­o­mist John Perkins to write his sem­i­nal book, Con­fes­sions of an Eco­nom­ic Hit Man: The shock­ing sto­ry of how Amer­i­ca real­ly took over the world. He wrote of how he was in fact piv­otal in cre­at­ing a sys­tem of US-based dom­i­na­tion of the world in which ‘devel­op­ing’ coun­tries were forced into exor­bi­tant inter­est-bear­ing “devel­op­ment” loans (enrich­ing rul­ing fam­i­lies and depriv­ing their pop­u­la­tions, lead­ing to count­less suf­fer­ing and deaths), designed for them not to be able to repay them and as a result be dom­i­nat­ed polit­i­cal­ly, eco­nom­i­cal­ly and mil­i­tar­i­ly for gen­er­a­tions to come.

Macro = Micro

It is because of the pow­er and influ­ence of sys­tems that those inter­est­ed in indi­vid­u­als’ per­son­al devel­op­ment or sav­iour should also hope to change sys­tems. For a per­son to accept Islam, for exam­ple, in today’s day and age requires them to take a very coura­geous step of integri­ty; to make sac­ri­fices and for instance become a tar­get for Islam­o­pho­bia (a sys­temic issue). For many of those with less willpow­er and deter­mi­na­tion, the sys­temic issues are enough of an obsta­cle for them to delay accept­ing or even con­sid­er­ing Islam seri­ous­ly. This phe­nom­e­non appears time and time again through­out his­to­ry, with the Con­quest of Makkah being a prime example.

Even though the Con­quest of Makkah was a con­quest with­out bat­tle, it was still a change of the sys­tem of the most impor­tant and most ancient city of the entire Ara­bi­an penin­su­la. Peo­ple would no longer be expos­ing them­selves to per­se­cu­tion and oppres­sion by accept­ing Islam, so the main obsta­cle to accept­ing some­thing every sane, open-mind­ed per­son would intrin­si­cal­ly accept was gone; and as a result they entered Islam in droves.

When the vic­to­ry of Allah has come and the conquest,

And you see the peo­ple enter­ing into the reli­gion of Allah in multitudes,

Then exalt [Him] with praise of your Lord and ask for­give­ness of Him. Indeed, He is ever Accept­ing of repen­tance. 5

The above is not an argu­ment for every per­son or even group to focus on every­thing. Prac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, one would expect dif­fer­ent groups and move­ments to focus dis­pro­por­tion­al­ly on their main vision and activ­i­ties. How­ev­er, it is when they begin to dis­par­age oth­ers that they dis­close the polar­i­ty and a sheer igno­rance with­in. There is a require­ment for peo­ple and experts in ‘macro’ lev­el polit­i­cal and inter­na­tion­al issues; and there is a require­ment for experts for ‘micro’ lev­el indi­vid­ual, spir­i­tu­al or the­o­log­i­cal enterprise.

Because of the fact that both focus­es are extreme­ly impor­tant, state­ments from the Prophet sal­lAl­lahu ‘alay­hi wasal­lam and schol­ars of the past will exist to high­light the impor­tance of each. These state­ments should nev­er be decon­tex­tu­al­ized to prove the absolute pri­or­i­ty or impor­tance of one over the other—this would be a betray­al of the over­all mes­sage of the Prophet sal­lAl­lahu ‘alay­hi wasal­lam. Rather we should aspire indi­vid­u­al­ly to excel in all areas, even though we will nat­u­ral­ly fall with­in a spe­cif­ic exper­tise or job descrip­tion. We should have issues out­side of our own exper­tise in our radar and make them the sub­ject of our du’ās and con­cern, even if they are out of our direct influ­ence. That is one way we can avoid the pit­falls of polar­i­sa­tion and the traps of shaytān in this mat­ter. But of course Allah knows best.

  1. Sin­gling out the effect of hege­mo­ny and impe­ri­al­ism on sys­tems of knowl­edge pro­duc­tion and expres­sion.
  2. Take as exam­ples the rule of law, due process and jus­tice; aspects of social and polit­i­cal empow­er­ment; avoid­ance of social ills result­ing from intox­i­ca­tion or free mix­ing; and so on.
  3. See vers­es 2:261–274
  4. Han­nah Arendt in The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism in 1949 famous­ly wrote that the atom­i­sa­tion of the ‘mass­es’ was a pre­req­ui­site for impe­r­i­al dom­i­na­tion and total­i­tar­i­an­ism.
  5. Al-Qur’an 110:1–3