Dr Dzulkelfy Ahmad’s recent commentary on “Political Islam at the crossroads in Malaysia” was both encouraging and disquieting.
Encouraging, because it said, and quite directly, a few things that many people, especially with the national elections approaching, have wanted to hear from the “moderate” forces or wing in PAS.
Things, for example, such as his conviction that PAS must, and can, take its stand on “the middle ground”, and consolidate its appeal (or at least its acceptability) to centrist voters, by means of a consistent commitment to a moderate, conciliatory and “gentle” form or understanding of Islam.
And disquieting too, since, Dzulkefly’s own exposition, as much by what it does not say as through its explicit words, provides grounds for doubt that his bland reassurances may be confidently accepted.
It prompts some real concern, through what he fails to understand and acknowledge as much as by what he does acknowledge.
These are important considerations.
Not abstract but considerations of immediate practical political relevance. Why?
A need for credible reassurance
Dzulkefly is, or so it seems to a distant and detached observer, a very decent man, a politician of admirable attitudes and political impulses (I will not use here the contentious term “instincts”).
But is that enough?
Here and elsewhere Dzulkefly makes an argument and advances a position. He wants to provide reasons for people to suspend a number of the deep-seated doubts that they may have about the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, and whether they should support it.
In particular many “middle of the road” Malaysian voters, mostly non-Malay and non-Muslim but also including many Malays and Muslims, harbour reservations about Islamist politics — and specifically about what has long been, especially since the rise of the “new Islamists” and their capture of the party in the early 1980s, PAS’s own “hardline” version of Islamist politics.
They are worried, in short, about giving their support to a multiparty coalition that might, if elected, eventually serve as the instrument for the creation of an explicitly Islamic state in Malaysia, or powerfully promote the demand for one.
They are worried that, with their well-intentioned but differently intentioned support, the Pakatan Rakyat coalition might become a vehicle in which the hardline political Islamists in PAS might ride to Putrajaya and from the “commanding heights” of government there push with unprecedented force for the further implementation in Malaysia of Syariah law, including the hudud punishment provisions.
That is their fear.
They want to be reassured.
Dzulkely wants to provide them with that reassurance, and people look to him, and to his “moderate” friends within PAS, for precisely that reassurance.
Dulkefly, as well as having his own political agenda and purposes (as all politicians do and must), may sincerely wish to provide Malaysians with that assurance. I think he does.
The question is whether people can accept that assurance, and whether they would be well-advised to do so.
As the thirteenth national elections approach, people are being asked to rely heavily on the trust that they place in, and in the reassurances provided by, Dzulkefly and his allies among the “moderate Islamists” in PAS.
It is a hugely important question, an enormously fateful choice — for them and for the nation as a whole.
That is why Dzulkefly’s argument and its adequacy, or otherwise, need some thoughtful consideration.
Yes, correct. Dzulkefly is right. In this country PAS represents, or is the manifestation of, the worldwide phenomenon of “political Islam”, in its distinctive, and also historic, local form.
But what is “political Islam”?
It simply will not do for activist Islamist commentators to complain about so-called “Western” characterizations of Islam, both as a religion and civilization, as inherently and also threateningly “political”, and then to assert, as Dzulkefly now does, that they also see Islam as inherently “apolitical” –– and so must invent, with the provision of a further adjective, the notion and fact of something called “political Islam”.
Yes, in its outlook and history and civilizational self-understanding, Islam is inherently political.
Or, as Dzulkefly puts it, “The holistic paradigm of Islam includes its inherent and intrinsic interests in matters of ‘government and governance’, thus making it political from the very outset.”
That is what many, both Islamic scholars and Western writers about Islam, have long maintained.
So there was never any need, as Dzulkefly now wants to suggest, for “Orientalists” and others to invent the term “political Islam” so that Islam’s political dimension might at last be recognized, and so to call into being something that had not previously existed.
The question, as Dzukefly recognizes, is not whether Islam is political but what the politics of Islam should be.
And, specifically, what kind of politics should Muslims as Muslims in today’s world, and now here in current Malaysian circumstances, seek to affirm and pursue.
If there was no need “adjectivally” to invent a special notion of “political Islam”, or if that was not the reason, then where did the term come from and why was it devised?
Towards “Third-Phase Islam”
What is known in our time as “political Islam” has arisen not from the simple and gratuitous provision of an additional adjective to highlight (as if that were necessary!) Islam’s inherent and characteristic — some would say “defining” — political dimension.
It arises from, and is the product of, the history, both specifically religious and more broadly civilizational, of Islam itself. It is the consequence of, and a reaction to, its “career in the world”: of the entanglement of Islam in world history.
It is what we may term historically as “third-phase Islam”.
i. The first phase. The first phase in religious evolution is born of a specific moment, the formative moment of the faith and faith community.
It comes from that moment, first experienced in this “faith tradition” by Abraham and later re-experienced anew (and, for Muslims, in its ultimately definitive form) by Muhammad, though others prophets in between had also been struck by a similarly powerful intimation, of first sensing the compelling presence of the divine.
That formative moment is when an individual, a prophet, is seized by the sudden, absolute, and all-encompassing awareness — both intellectual and broadly existential and hence spiritual — of the “one-ness” of God. That awareness takes the form not simply of a weak realization but of a powerful conviction. It is a total, and totalizing, apprehension of the central reality of Tauhid.
The first phase of religious evolution is born of this revelatory moment and centres upon the implications of its prophetic experience, upon its humanly transformative impact: for the prophet and for those who, by following his insight and lead, seek to replicate in their own inner lives, if only in part, that same transformation.
In that first phase religion itself, in this case Islam, is centred and focused upon that direct, immediate experience and conviction of Divine Unity. It is an awesome and awe-inspiring realization.
It is what in this tradition faith, what religion, is all about. What more, some wonder, might ever be needed?
ii. The Second phase. The first phase generally lasts for the lifetime of the founding or focal prophet himself. Whether it was Moses on the mountain or Muhammad in the cave, he (and he alone) has had the extraordinary experience, originating and defining, of the Divine Unity. He communicates that revelatory experience, others reach towards it and follow him.
A problem arises, however, with the death of the prophet. Others may succeed to his mundane role and assume some of his worldly responsibilities and functions. But their experience is not his, nor is it authoritative in the same way. Their experience may be derived from his, but only as a small and partial replication of his personal experience of revelation.
After his death, the community has to deal with the problem of the “absent lawgiver”, of the vacuum of legal and spiritual authority, of their faith community’s distancing or separation from the authoritative personal source of spiritual authenticity.
New problems arise, and people must wonder and will naturally ask themselves “What would the prophet himself have done?”
Differences of opinion arise. Conflicts occur. Different groups, to assert their own position and to justify their rejection of others, promote — in all sincerity — their own views not just of what the prophet meant and intended but also of what his entire life and prophetic career, as well as his spiritual understanding, were really about.
With that the history of the faith community enters into its second phase.
This is the phase where the intellectual and also the emotional focus of the believers are in some way, if only in part, transferred from their original or primary object, from the defining apprehensions of the Divine Unity or “godhead”, and instead are attached in some measure to the now-absent founding prophet and to shared community memory of him.
This is generally done not as a diminution of their commitment to the Unity of God but as a reaffirmation of the community’s own human and historical connection through whom God, in his awesome and majestic unity, has become and been made known to them.
The sacred faith, as members of the faith community now understand and experience and live it, becomes to some extent “prophet-centric”.
Well-known to students of comparative religion and religious history, this same dynamic or pattern — this developmental trajectory — is also recognizably familiar in the case of Islam.
This is how a concern with the prophet’s sunnah, or attested ways and habits, and the compilation and then the assessment of the hadith, or sayings attributed to him, took shape, becoming, after the Quran itself, the next most authoritative inferential basis for the determination and derivation of Islamic law.
This is how the great Sira, or authoritative biography, of Muhammad came to be compiled and take on its authority. This, too, is how the various madhab, or legal schools, including the four main Sunni madhab and the Shi’a legal tradition, emerged and developed.
That is a general process, common to all or most cases of religious evolution.
But in the case of Islam something more — something specific to Islamic civilizational history, to “the career of Islam in the world” — also happened which gave further impetus to this same development.
That extra dimension or impetus was the long period of civilizational rivalry between “Christendom”, or the culture and way of life built upon a foundation in Christianity, and “the world of Islam”. This was, and has in many ways remained, a rivalry that has laid down a large part of the contours of world history — for all of humankind, not only for Christians and Muslims but everybody else too. After all, that is what is meant by the term “world history”.
That is the rivalry that was waged from the time that Islam crossed the Pyrenees into mainland Europe but was turned back by Charles Martel and the Christian forces at the battle of Tours and Poitiers in 732, through the entire period of the Crusades and the ensuing Christian “reconquest of Spain” (and the end of Islamic al-Andalus) in 1492, to Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798, and which even continues, so some would say, until this present time.
In this sense, to some people the notion of a “clash of civilizations” may be politically unpalatable, but it is historically an accurate characterization of much of our common past. Indeed, it is that history and those facts that now compellingly make the case against “the clash of civilizations”: a case not to deny that it has ever happened, but to find ways to ensure that it is stopped, that it does not continue to cast its shadow and disastrously shape our actions in the present and future.
What was involved here?
Beneath all the varied politics there lay, at the outset, a basic religious disagreement. The Christian world was based upon a commitment to the idea that Jesus was not simply a prophet but the definitive prophet. (For Christians, more for his followers than for Jesus himself, Jesus was the saviour or “messiah”, the historical redeemer, that Judaism had envisaged, and hence the completion of Judaism itself. The Jews has forfeited divine favour and protection when they rejected Jesus, it was now held; in consequence, Christians had now become “the true Israel”.)
Islam in turn emerged on the basis of the insistence that the revelations neither to Moses nor Jesus had been definitive, nor had they been perfectly transmitted; and that the Abrahamic revelation of true monotheism found its completion, and perfection as well as untainted transmission, in the prophetic career of Muhammad.
But the ensuing dispute between Christendom and Islam was not simply a doctrinal one between theologians. It was a basic rivalry of political regimes and civilizations that were based upon, and faced each other from, opposite sides of the Mediterranean.
Those in the West were not likely simply to agree to an abstract doctrinal proposition about religious truth and prophetic succession, and then capitulate politically. Instead, and predictably, they stood their ground politically, and accordingly chose not to accept Muhammad as their prophet, as a true prophet, the final prophet. And, in the characteristically “robust” way and terms of medieval religious disputation and political conflict, they expressed their rejection vehemently.
Today we are all cultural legatees and historical heirs — whether we can recognize it or not — of the great “polemic over Muhammad” and of Europe’s defining denial of him. Out of that historic refusal “Europe” and “the West” were born. On both sides of that great historical schism, we are all today heirs and legatees of that fateful rejection.
Yet, all religious questions aside, in political terms and those of civilizational survival Europe had to do exactly that.
To have accepted its adversary’s claim, to acknowledge Muhammad not merely as a front-rank historical figure but as their own religious leader exactly as Muslims did, would have been not just to surrender religiously, to “submit” to God in a certain way. More, it would have been to capitulate politically and culturally to the world of Islam, to accept its civilizational ascendancy.
No political order or civilization that maintains the strength of its own identity, and has a continuing capacity to do so, submits just like that.
Born of the era of the Crusades, the result was the long, often scurrilous, polemic of Christendom, and many formative Western thinkers, against Muhammad: from the early modern and very pejorative typification of “Mahound” to the critique of Thomas Carlyle and even into our own time (again, some would say), of Salman Rushdie.
The response to this polemical “campaign” against Muhammad was equally strong. Islam as a civilization came increasingly, in the context of this defining opposition and rivalry, to define itself and to “ground its case” in a defence of Muhammad: of his authenticity as a prophet, of his character and reputation, of his exemplary standing, both religious and historical.
“Be careful with Muhammad!” became the watchword. Do not trifle with his reputation!
In this way, the world of Islam came increasingly, as it looked outward beyond itself, to be based upon defending its prophet, upon affirming and upholding Muhammad’s dignity in the face of strenuous, often vicious, demonization and denial, of calculated and wounding rejection.
Doctrinally, of course, nothing in Islam was changed by this. Islam remained Islam. But for its loyal and committed adherents a “phenomenological” shift had taken place. Islam was still the perfected faith of Tauhid, but in a significant way its “phenomenological” focus had moved.
In notable part, the experiential focus of mundane religious experience and allegiance had now moved towards Muhammad. Islam, by the opposition that it encountered from outside, had objectively become a matter of loyalty to Muhammad, of an unyielding protectiveness and solicitousness towards his historic reputation. Upholding Islam was now, in the first instance, defending its prophet from his detractors.
There was no notion that Muhammad was now to be given some semi-divine status, and any such suggestion was to be rejected and ridiculed. Yet grappling with this shift and its implications did provoke misunderstanding and controversy, even anger.
“Second-Phase Islam”: A notable moment of misunderstanding
One of the leading scholars of Islam of his time, Sir Hamilton Gibb (1895-1971) held academic positions at London, then Oxford, then Harvard. In 1949 he published a basic and widely used textbook with the title Mohammedanism: An Historical Survey. Seen by many Westerners as authoritative, it greatly angered many Muslims.
How, they asked, could Gibb be so insensitive? They did not worship Muhammad as God, or even see him as an aspect of God as Christians do with Jesus; only his message, not the man himself, was divine. So why should Gibb project his Christian notions and theology upon them as Muslims?
It was not only insulting to them, they held; it called into question Gibb’s standing, and very credibility, as a scholar of Islam. He was, some implied, no scholar at all, just an “Orientalist”. His career and ideas were nothing short of scandalous.
Gibb may have been mistaken, as he himself later came to accept (a later edition appeared posthumously in 1980 with the revised title Islam: An Historical Survey). Mistaken maybe, but not in the way that he was accused. Perhaps he had been insensitive. But he had not intended to demean Islam or Muslims and certainly not Muhammad.
So why had he done it? What had he intended?
At mid-century, the world was changing, fast. After two world wars, the place of the West had changed. It was uncertain, probably diminished. And the place of Islam, of “the world of Islam” as a human community, in that postwar world was also changing. The new stirrings were already evident.
Gibb wanted to write a book for the times. For those new times. He wanted to write what he thought the world and his students needed: not a conventional book about Islamic doctrine and internal religious evolution but about “Islam in the world”, in the new emerging world.
How was this to be done? How was he to get through direct to the main issues, the main points of contention that needed to be recognized and addressed?
He found his entry point by seeking to address Islam in civilizational terms: by seeing where, at the dawn of the new age of decolonization and likely Western retreat, contemporary Islam stood after one thousand years of civilizational rivalry with the Christendom, with “the West” (for, after all, what is Europe, and what now is “the West”, other than “post-Christian Christendom”?)
Seen in that way, from that vantage point, “the polemic over Muhammad” has been the crucial defining issue, the original source of antagonism. It had been one of the key defining axes of world history for centuries. The world had endured a millennium of contention between Christians (and their successors) and Muslims, between Christianity and Islam, that had originally been focused — and which thereafter long turned — upon the issue of the acceptance or rejection of Muhammad, of the authenticity of his prophethood. Upon its continuing, long-term implications.
Christendom, and then Europe and then the West, rejected him, they denied his followers’ claims vehemently. While for Christian Europe the question had been about whether Muhammad was to be accepted or not, for the world of Islam the challenge was that of what to do about Christian rejection, and often scandalizing repudiation.
In response, Muslims, and the world of Islam, rallied to the defence of Muhammad, of his prophetic authenticity and his human and historical reputation.
On both sides, it had all been at its core about Muhammad. On both sides, even into the mid-twentieth century when Gibb was writing, that was the issue on which everything turned. Here lay the division between two developed, mature civilizations.
It was about Muhammad, his prophetic authenticity, standing and reputation. Not doctrinally but in world historical terms, the world of Islam was indisputably the civilization of Muhammad and his followers.
That was not just Gibb’s view. It was the view of most Muslims themselves, of the Islamic world and its own historical self-understanding.
Gibb may have been misunderstood. He may have been insensitive. But he had a point. An important one. He was writing as an historian, not a theologian, and it was an historian’s point that he was making. A legitimate point. Provided you understood what he meant.