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)

African Americans and Progressive Islam

September/October 2004

An Africana View of Progressive American Islam
by A.S. Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad

The humanist and multicultural battle for the soul of Islam

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Sudanese scholar and Emory University professor of law, puts it very clearly: the need for peace in the global community is a humanist message that Muslims must recover as a banner under which modernist transformation can proceed (Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/13/2002).For Muslim Americans, the events of 9/11 contributed to heightened focus on the age-old tensions and political struggles within Islam between the forces of puritanical reaction, non-imaginative orthodoxy, and entrenched tradition and the more liberating tendencies in Muslim philosophical theology, theosophy, and religious practice—historical tendencies that have all along had a contentious relationship with both extremist and conventional variants in Islam.Yet black American Muslims have long formed a sturdy backbone of Islamic dissent.Non-indigenous, newly arrived, or second generation Muslim public intellectuals have just been waking up, over the past twenty-odd years, to a critical consciousness of American realities. Black American Muslims have been well aware of them for a long time. (It's estimated that upwards of thirty percent of the Native Africans whose bodies and labor were stolen to build this country were in fact Muslims.)

Thus while Africana Muslim intellectuals with a progressive bent join with their non-black Muslim counterparts in advancing a liberationist project to get free of the control mechanisms of a reactionary and all too frequently puritanical Islamic hegemony, it must never be forgotten that black American Islamic dissent is a lot more than two decades old, and much deeper than a knee-jerk response to the aftermath of 9/11.It is African-American Muslims who are historically situated as the moral voice of the voiceless and weak within the American system. It is this same cultural Islam that has been the vanguard of oppressed peoples' struggles for years—years in which Muslim immigrants in their collective and individual presence remained curiously quiet and reclusive, except when US policy positions affected their mother countries. Yet however early or late, progressive American Muslims as a group are now ascertaining how we can actively struggle against dangerous backwardness in religion using a historicist, liberation oriented and faith informed orthro-praxy and critical methodology. Let me summarize this project as follows.

Toward a Progressive Reformation of Faith

Progressive Islam:
* Understands that the Qur'anic message is essentially universalist regarding salvation, while it remains unitarian regarding the Oneness of God. The string of prophets mentioned in the Holy Qur'an up through Jesus and Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon them) is a short list pointing toward thousands of others who have brought God's revelations to humankind. The divine message has remained essentially the same, with degrees of cosmetic modification fashioned for differing cultures, languages, needs, and times. And in the post-Muhammadan period, according to the experiential insights of the great illuminationist philosophers, Sufi saints, and mystics, God's infinite self-revealing continues in extra-scriptural forms.
* Distinguishes the unconditional faith in Allah's Oneness and the voluntary submission of self to God's sovereignty from historically- and politically-conditioned beliefs, and practices informed by such beliefs. These remain open to rational investigation and possible change in the context of hard-fought social struggles.
* Emphasizes free will as a gift to humankind from God, rather than fatalism in religion.
* Declares white supremacist ideology and its twin, Christian triumphalism, along with their strategies of violence-based domestic social control, imperialism, and militarism, as manifestations of spiritually darkened hearts in need of social and political repentance and a long process of religio-psychological rehabilitation. Reparations in some form are an essential element of this rehabilitation.
* Takes into thoughtful consideration the idea that religious experience has an ideological basis in material reality. The class-, race-, gender- and authority-based ideological underpinnings of all religions must constantly be exposed and assessed.
* Insists on a historically conscious praxis. For progressive African-American Muslim thinkers especially, it is never enough to merely project logically consistent religious thoughts, beautifully articulated in some abstract way. Critically informed and organized action is paramount for qualitative social change.
* Respects the Jeffersonian dictum of church-state separation as promoting religious pluralism, and liberal religious tolerance as in keeping with an authentic and liberative Qur'anic hermeneutic.
* Lifts up the meditative and theosophical Islamic sciences/practices. The works of the Muslim spiritual masters are voluminous and hold out much hope for religious universalism based on a grasp of the oneness of reality.
* Advocates nonviolent resistance to oppression as the morally superior equivalent of the militarist notion of jihad. Shaykh Amadou Bamba of Senegal and Abdul Ghaffar Khan of India have credentials equal to those of M. Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Malcolm X's politically righteous slogan of "by any means necessary" must be read in an ethically consistent way that does no violence to the exhortations and limits of sacred scripture.
* Advances the spirit of internationalism and regionalism by use of the ideas in human rights conventions.
* Enters into coalitions with other progressive religious and/or secular activists in support of civil liberties and qualitative social change.
* Uplifts Islamic philosophical inquiry and the unrestricted use of reason in the practice of ijtihad (personal judgment of religious matters). This point assumes that a narrowly conceived traditionalist orthodoxy is problematic.

Agenda: thinking outside the box
It follows from these principles that progressive Islamic thought must ever regard its doings in the world as tentative and subject to change. God's plan, and the guidance we receive as creatures of the Universal One, are not to be boxed into some neat and tidy or permanent explanation and practice. The only real and lasting thing is submission of self to divine guidance. This is unavoidable. All creation must, at some point in its journey or evolving, submit to its Creator's Will. But we, in our limitations, may not in this life ever comprehend that Will.
If this sounds heterodox, that's a function of history. Theological and jurisprudential orthodoxy in Islam were not established without protracted political and ideological struggles fairly similar to Christianity's own wars of establishment.. The only "Inquisition" in Islamic history was initiated, not by conservative traditionalists, but rather by "free-thinking" rationalists (the Mu'tazilah, encouraged by the 9th century caliph al-Ma'mun). However, at most other points in Islamic history it has been the puritans and/or traditionalists who have wielded the greater power.

The brute social power of organized traditionalist schools of thought and their influence on particular Muslim rulers were used to compel discipline in the rank and file. Rebel movements too, such as the very early Kharijites, set themselves up as judges and executioners of other Muslims who disagreed with their ideas on right governance and the political succession to the Prophet. Spiritually intoxicated Sufi mystics and critical Islamic philosophers alike have been hounded and killed (and after their deaths, often celebrated) as the power of "orthodoxy" grew or subsided.

This association of religious orthodoxy with brute force and frequently the police power of the caliphs is informative. Medieval Islamic history demonstrates that Muslims who get obsessed with "being right" are not above employing compulsion in religion, no matter what the Qur'an may teach. If we want to take Qur'anic teaching seriously, we have first of all got to let compulsion go. And that means there can be no enforceable orthodoxy.

Secondly, Muslim women leaders, many of whom are highly engaged in academic and professional discourse, must not be consigned to a religious space exclusively reserved for mothers and children: their expert voices are needed in the public square. The decades-old movement among African-American Muslims to elevate women to public religious leadership roles is exemplary, yet still unheard of in most other sects and/or schools of Islamic thought. Elsewhere, at the popular religious level, there has been a long tradition of Sufi women saints being venerated equally with male saints. And the contemporary liberationist writings of Fatima Mernissi, Niamo Mu'id and Riffat Hassan, among many others, are impressive here as counters to male domination.

Thirdly, we would do well to follow the examples of leaders like Imam W.D. Muhammad and Minister Louis Farrakhan: more interfaith dialogue with progressive partners in the other faith traditions is requisite for the success of our project.

Fourthly, we must embrace the findings of science, yet insist on its ethical and non-racist practice. An uncritical appropriation of modern science and technology would be a disaster for the faithful, who rely on Muslim thinkers to think and not merely react to Western gadgetry. Some forms of postmodern and deconstructionist philosophy are very well suited to progressive Muslim intellectual inquiry, while a deepened critical theory of the anti-democratic technocratic state, a là Herbert Marcuse and Jergen Habermas, also works well for the struggle to overcome the fetters of "scientifically generated forms of unfreedom."Finally, more emphasis is due on the arts, music, poetry, sport, play—and the spirituality of cooperative physical work as a unifying, self-affirming, and economically productive strategy. Black jazz masters like Pharoah Saunders can put our minds and hearts into a reflective mode and draw us toward a deeper apprehension of the sublime. Here, again, the masters in Islamic theosophy, gnosticism, and mysticism can be called upon to demonstrate that there is a different way for us to be.Jalaluddin Rumi said it: "Philosophers' legs are made of wood; legs of wood are infirm indeed."The progressive Muslim movement ought to be able to dance.

A.S. Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad, Ph.D., is chair of the Africana Islamic Institute and co-chair of the Philadelphia Area Black Radical Congress. He is an ecumenist and longtime religio-political theorist, concerned about world peace and restorative justice. A former member of the executive committee of the National Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, disarmament coordinator of Clergy and Laity Concerned, and peace activist within the Rainbow Coalition, Ibn-Ziyad is currently an adjunct professor of Islamic and Africana philosophy and criminal justice at Rutgers University's Camden, New Jersey campus, and a world history teacher at the high school level.

Re-posted on
Monday, March 07, 2005

Welcome to the APM site

Amherst Progressive Muslims is a core group of concerned Muslims who want to bring up the true social justice face of Islam that has been hijacked by right-wing conservatives for centuries.

Islam has become on the hands of these people a symbol of oppression in our time. This was not the story when Islam revealed to the Prophet Mohamed in 610 A.D.

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