A Century of Setbacks
Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam
Now that we are in the fourth week of the first month of January 2017, we look back at the last century (1917-2017) as lost years for the Ummah, for which it has truly been a century of setbacks. Rarely any major goals that the Ummah set for itself has been achieved, except decolonisation of Muslim lands in the wake of the two World Wars. Even this came about as a result of the destruction of the European countries that had colonised Africa, Asia and Latin America (the latter was largely decolonised earlier). The two wars between the colonisers devastated them and loosened their grip over the colonised lands, not the efforts of Mahdi, Omar Mukhtar and Grand Mufti Husseini.
However, no sooner than the Muslim lands were vacated, the European powers tightened their grasp on these lands by appointing their chosen men as rulers of these notionally free countries. With the defeat of Germany and its ally, the Ottoman Caliphate, British agents provoked an Arab revolt in the countries that the Ottomans ruled. The Turkish troops, badly beaten in Arab lands, went back to Turkey, that is, troops that survived the British-assisted Arab onslaught. That was the first manifestation of Arab nationalism, its victory and the defeat of the caliphate, an Ummatic institution. The Ummatic concept was discarded and a European concept, nationalism, chosen by the Arabs. However, the Arabs were soon betrayed by the British, who taught Arab Muslims the idea of nationalism in the first place.
In the year 1917 the World War I ended. British Parliament made the infamous Balfour Declaration proposing to divide Palestine in two parts: one for the Jews, the second for the Arabs. After the defeat of the Ottoman Turks, Palestine (along with other lands) had come under the British. Palestine was a British “protectorate.” Since the Balfour Declaration the Arab world has not seen a day of peace. At one point the Saudi King Abdul Aziz bin Saud had cautioned Winston Churchill that division of Palestine to create a Jewish state would destroy peace for ever. However, Churchill ignored the sane counsel and the results are there for all of us to see.
A century of setbacks for Palestinians, Arab Muslims and the Muslim Ummah is completed this year. For some Palestinians, however, a century of their setbacks was completed in 2000 because they count the beginning of their sorrows from late 1890s, from the World Zionist Congress, when the surreptitious buying of Arab lands began. That means our troubles have roots that go back deeper in time.
It is educative to look back at our largely futile efforts of the last 100 years that often brought us false dawns (Subh-e-Kazib) for a few moments of jubilation before the fearsome darkness of night enclosed the Ummah once again. Looking at the decline of the Ummah and the dominance of Western colonial powers over the Muslim lands ulema and thinkers had begun to conclude by the middle of the 19th century that the Western dominance had come because of some fundamental weaknesses in the Muslim societies and countries. But, what had caused those weaknesses? Some thought that Muslims had fallen behind because they had abandoned Islam, which was the cause of their rise in the first place. Men like Shah Waliullah Dehlavi and Mohammad bin Abdul Wahab Najadi pleaded a return to Islam way back in the 18th century. Both were disciples of an aalim in Madinah Munawwarah together before Shah Waliullah came back to Delhi. Shah Saheb was a fierce opponent of Western colonial dominance.
After the middle of the 19th century two distinct types of revivalist responses began in Muslim lands, based on two distinctly different diagnoses of the malaise. The Muslim leaders exposed to Western education and culture asserted that the Muslim backwardness in scientific and technological knowledge had resulted in their defeat and loss of freedom to European colonisers. Hence their salvation lay in acquisition of Western science and technology. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, was a prime example in what are today India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. His idea was cooperation, not conflict, with the British overlords for Muslims to be able to learn their science and technology from them.
The opposite view, that of struggle against the British, was held by the ulema who were around in the 1857 uprising against the British. The founder of Darul Uloom Deoband, Maulana Qasim Nanautawi, represented this view. Maulana Nanautawi had fought against British troops in the uprising of 1857 at Shamli in western Uttar Pradesh. Internationally, one of the early, and among the best known “Islamists”, Jamaluddin Afghani, supported the line of struggle and denounced Sir Syed’s pacifism. However, Sir Syed chose peace and reconstruction rather than agitation, turmoil and further slide into chaos and destruction. More than a century and a half later Sir Syed has been proven right even though the opposite camp too has made its contribution to revival of Islam and the struggle for India’s independence. Earlier, these two streams were placed opposite each other, but they largely came together in 1912 when the direct disciple of Maulana Nanautawi, Maulana Mahmood Hasan, visited AMU and initiated the Jamia Millia movement (along with other leaders). Jamia Millia Islamia (New Delhi) began as a counterpoint to AMU, a British loyalist institution. Jamia, which is a full-fledged university today, began as the “lusty child of freedom movement” in Nehru’s word. It was the darling of Gandhi, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Zakir Husein and other freedom fighters.
In India, and globally, several streams of Muslim thought and action have come together like Darul Uloom, AMU and Jamia as several others have drifted apart. The idea is to seek common ground on which we stand together, rather than blow our differences beyond proportion and drive ourselves apart. It is interesting to note that a major stream in Islam began internationally during the time of Sir Syed and Maulana Nanautawi, as represented by Jamaluddin Afghani, Mohammad Abduh and his disciple, Rashid Rida. This stream was less focused on theology, madaris, sufi hospices (khanqahs) and what is today understood as traditional Islam. The West knew it as “political Islam,” or Islamism (also, Islamicism). This stream has been politically and militarily targeted by the West and pro-West regimes lately. This was not always the case. At the height of the Cold War, this group was backed by the West and pro-West regimes as a bulwark against the spread of the influence of communism and Soviet Union. A leading figure of the Islamist persuasion in the Sub-continent with deep influence on Arab leaders like Syed Qutb, Maulana Abul Ala Mawdudi, was ordered by President Ayub Khan of Pakistan to be hanged. On the request of the Saudi King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, US President Lyndon Baines Johnson intervened with Khan to let him off. Neither the Americans nor the Saudis are kindly disposed towards Islamists today. After the Soviet Union was chased out of Afghanistan, all Islamists - militant and peaceful - were targeted by the West and pro-West regimes. That phase continues till date. The West and pro-West regimes are far less hostile to the traditional Islam of pious ulema and most schools of sufism.
It is important to note that the Arab world has experimented with different “isms” without much success. They have not succeeded in even getting a Palestinian state as envisaged by the Balfour Declaration, or the United Nations.
Instead, almost on a daily basis, the Israelis have been capturing Palestinian lands since the last seven decades. The continuous building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands has been a major roadblock to peace. Even the last ten US presidents have officially opposed (and unofficially backed) the building of these settlements. The UN has always opposed the building of such settlements, without effect.
It is interesting to see how over the last seven decades no Arab movement has ever been able to make any dent in the Western-Israeli dominance over West Asia and beyond. The most powerful movement to emerge after Mohammad Abduh and Rashid Rida’s Islamist movement was that of Arab nationalism, which was secular in character, socialist in pretension and a strong counterpoint to the idea of Ummah, which emphasises Islam as a rallying force, not region or race, nation or ethnicity.
The rise of Arab nationalism and Arab socialism got a new boost with the dethroning of King Farouk of Egypt in a military coup by Gamal Abdel Nasser and his group of army officers. Farouk was a Western stooge of Albanian origin. The generation of Islamist leaders after the pioneering generation of Abduh and Rida, Syed Qutb, Hasan al-Bannah and others, initially supported Nasser and his colleagues. However, when they wanted their own leader to be the Murshid-e-Aala (religious guide) of the regime they were sidelined. When they tried to assert themselves they were imprisoned and, later, executed. Thus the top Islamist leadership of the Arab world was decapitated and their organisation, Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan-al-Muslimeen), was shunned by the Arab nationalist leadership.
The Arab world came heavily under the influence of the secular, socialist Arab nationalism when, in 1955, Britain, France and Israel invaded the Suez Canal. They were sternly chided by the US President Dwight Eisenhower and ordered to leave. Meanwhile, the Egyptian forces were engaging with the invaders. This gave the impression to the Arabs that Nasser, the new saviour of the Arabs, had driven them out. That this was not the case was proven in 1967 when Israeli forces routed the combined Arab forces and captured Jerusalem (from Jordan), Sinai (from Egypt), West Bank and Gaza strip (from Jordan) and Golan Heights and Sheba Farms (from Syria). With these captured lands Israel grew four times bigger in size compared to its original area.
With this defeat Arab nationalism lost face, but soon a new generation of Arab leaders, inspired by Nasser’s image, came up: Hafez al-Assad in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Anwar Sadat in Egypt, Jaffer al-Numeri in Sudan, Benali in Tunisia, besides Ahmad bin Billah in Algeria and some smaller figures in Arabic-speaking lands. Virtually all of them failed and brought great disaster on their countries. This almost buried Arab nationalism and Arab socialism forever.
Political Islam, too, did greater harm than good. Egypt was politically divided because of it. Some of the extremist Islamists were executed. Others like al-Zawahiri and Omar the blind were exiled. Because of these groups hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed in civil war in post-Soviet Uzbekistan and the government abolished newly announced Islamic freedoms. In Afghanistan, CIA and Pakistan’s ISI trained the Taliban in madrasahs on Af-Pak border. The Taliban chased away and killed an entire generation of Afghanistan’s Islamic fighters, the Mujahideen. Later the West destroyed the Taliban themselves, with ISI help. The caliphate of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) killed thousands of Muslims before Khalifa Baghdadi was killed and the “caliphate” largely disintegrated. Before that, the one-eyed Taliban leader, Mullah Omar had declared himself caliph by reportedly appearing in public in the Prophet’s (PBUH) gown.
Now is the moment for the Ummah to decide what it should do with itself, which course to take, which to avoid. We have seen far too many false dawns, run after far too many false messiahs. In this series of four articles I have pointed briefly at several issues that can be discussed in detail to clarify where we stand today and where we should be headed in days ahead.