Thursday, April 07, 2005

Religion vs. Politics in Islam

Muhammad: Prophet and Politician
Published: 4/9/2004

I am, here, using simple terminology. I want to call Muhammad a prophet and a politician as well. In his 23 year career, Muhammad showed a moral reformation through his prophetic career, and led a social and political reformation in Medina.
By: Ulil Abshar-Abdalla

This article was published in the daily Media Indonesia, Tuesday 4th May 2004The advantage of Islam as a religion is this: unlike Christianity, Islam found ‘Constantine” within itself. Muhammad was not merely a prophet, but also a figure who struggled hard to bring his teaching down to earth so that it would not be only a ‘white cloud’ drifting in the air. In Christianity, Jesus had three years to convey his message. Afterward, Jesus came into conflict with the ‘political structure’ of the great Roman Empire and was ultimately crucified. At that time, Christianity was exactly like plants that sprout after being cut. If Constantine the Great had not embraced Christianity in the third century and made it a religion of the state, what would have happened to this religion that now has the most disciples in the world. Without ‘political’ power, would this religion have progressed rapidly and become a universal religion? We’ll never know.

Islam, in sloppy comparison, is a case of Muhammad being Jesus and Constantine at once. Compare the history of Jesus and Muhammad. The years of Muhammad’s life in Mecca (610 AD when Muhammad attained first revelation up to 622 AD when he migrated to Medina) can be seen as the period of ‘The Sermon on the Mount’, the period when the prophet propagated his teachings. This period went on for 13 years. The Medina period, from 622 AD up to 632 AD when he died, was the period of political and social institutionalization. I want to call it the ‘Constantine period’.An important phase which is symbolically considered as reflecting the mission of Muhammad is his meditation in a cave outside Mecca. After he attained the revelation in 610 AD, in spite of staying in the cave, enjoying solitary meditation, and staying away from society, he returned to the city to propagate the teachings, and directed a ‘social transformation’.

In Islam there is a difference between a Nabi (prophet) and a Rasul (messenger). A Nabi is the one who attained revelation, and who is not required to disseminate it to society. While a Rasul, on the contrary, attained revelation and had to propagate it. Muhammad was both a Nabi (prophet) as well as a Rasul (messenger). I am, here, using simple terminology. I want to call Muhammad a prophet and a politician as well. In his 23 year career, Muhammad showed a moral reformation through his prophetic career, and led a social and political reformation in Medina.

One of the advantages of the Prophet was that he did not live in the Roman or in the Sassanian empires in Persia. This is a historical advantage which Christianity did not posses. Christianity was born in the Roman Empire and within the stable local ‘religious power’ of Judaism. Islam, on the contrary, was born within –let’s say— a ‘terra incognita,’ vacant space with no power. Mecca, where Muhammad was born and started his mission, was a distant city from the Roman and Persian Empires. Using Ben Anderson’s analysis about the concept of political rule in Java, I think what has been conveyed by Anderson is typical of pre-modern kingdoms in which power is declining which was the condition at that time. The influence of both great empires of the day was not great in Mecca. This condition benefited the new religion and community developed by the Prophet. If Islam had appeared in Turkey, the journey of this religion would have been different.

An Egyptian scholar, Ali Abdul Raziq, in his controversial message, al-Islam wa Ushul al-Hukm (Islam and principles of governance), conveyed that Muhammad was only a prophet and a messenger, not a leader of the state. Although I agree with his objective of writing this message – to repudiate the claim of Muslims to reestablish the caliphate, his illustration of Muhammad is unfair. Muhammad was truly a messenger, but he was also leader of a real community which was the ‘embryo’ of a state in Medina. Therefore, it is acceptable for modern Muslim intellectuals to search for inspiration for managing modern society through the example of the Prophet in Medina. One policy of Muhammad’s ('Abqariyyat Muhammad), was to initiate a ‘political contract’ between the Muslim community and other social groups in Medina.

In Islamic history, this contract is known as 'Mitsaq al-Madinah' or the Medina Concord or Charter. An Egyptian writer, Muhammad Husen Haikal, in Hayat Muhammad (The Life of Muhammad), considers this as a 'watsiqah siyasiyyah' or political document guaranteeing the freedom of faith, freedom of opinion, the protection of the country, the right to live, and the right to own property.I agree that Medina was an embryo state. The Prophet was the leader. As a politician leading a state, he succeeded in establishing the first political entity in Arabia. In that new entity, Arab society from various tribes and clans was united: a great achievement which never been achieved by an Arab leader before Muhammad. Like Constantine, the Prophet made Islam a ‘cement of civilization’ tying Arab and later non Arabs together.

What I don’t agree with is whether the Prophet’s entire policy in Medina must be copied for the current time because the example of the Prophet in Medina belonged to a specific social and historical context. The model of Medina can be an inspiration to search for forms of management of Muslim society, but it is not a ‘blueprint’ which must be copied in detail. Muslim society must formulate new models in accordance with current challenges.

Allahumma shalli 'ala sayyidina Muhammad wa 'ala ali Sayyidina Muhammad.***(Translated by Lanny Octavia, edited by Jonathan Zilberg)

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