Let us now return to the story of Islam. It is a story anchored in the memories of the first generation of Muslims and catalogued by Muhammad’s earliest biographers, ibn Ishaq (d. 768), ibn Hisham (d. 833), al-Baladhuri (d. 892) and at-Tabari (d. 922). At the heart of this story is the Quran – the divine revelation to Muhammad which he received during a span of some twenty-three years in Mecca and Medina. While it reveals very little about Muhammad’s life, it established the ideology of the Muslim faith in its infancy: that is, before the faith became a religion, before the religion became an institution.
In its own history, Islam was born in Mecca at a time of jahiliyah (age of ignorance: the term given to pre-Islamic society) to deride the idolatry that occurs within the Kaabah, being viewed as paganistic – as opposed to the common understanding that it was born as a response to polytheism. This is so because clearly there already exists Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism – all being monotheistic religion. Muhammad’s initial ministry was focused on “cleansing” the Kaabah of the three hundred and sixty idols surrounding it. This mission creates historical consistency to both the Islamic and pre-Islamic era, and re-established the worship of that one god which can be traced to Abraham who was acknowledged to have built the Kaabah with Ishmael, hence the common reference to the Abrahamic faiths. It is also interesting to note that the Kaabah has a striking physical resemblance to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem – particularly being cube-like, one door and no windows.
Apart from the religious aspect, Muhammad’s establishment of Islam has a social dimension akin to the Abrahamic way of life. He appeared at a time of social upheaval, religious dilution and the arrival of a new social order in Mecca and Medina. The Quran became the lens and pillar in which the new establishment and ministry was shaped. The Quran, coupled with the physical territories of Mecca and Medina, became an important constitution of Islamic law. A careful study of Islam will reveal that it is not merely based on Quranic laws, but that a large component of its laws are based on the contextual application in these two cities through the hadith and the sunnah, being the second most important source of law after the Quran. Naturally, all queries and clarifications of law were referred to Muhammad – who acts as a final arbiter in its interpretation. When he passed on, the responsibilities of determining the correct interpretation of those laws rests with his four succeeding caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) who were known as the khulafah ar-rashidin, the rightly guided caliphs. They were not prophets, nor are they intimate with the knowledge of God as Muhammad was, but their intimacy with and rigorous trainings by Muhammad placed them in that special position.
Fast-forward this scenario to the present day. The role performed by Muhammad or the four rightly guided caliphs rests on jurists, who through their mastery of the language of the Quran placed them in this special position. After all, the understanding of religion, as in many other aspects of life as discussed earlier in this paper, revolves around translations: be it language, symbols, myths or rituals. A new dimension has also evolved through time in translating these laws: jurists are performing translations behind the backdrop of significant historical events – the loss of Jerusalem, the Crusades, the collapse of the Umayyads, Abbasids, Seljuks and Ottoman Empires, imperialism, colonialism, Zionism, middle-east conflicts, loss of Palestine and the creation of Israel, loss of territorial lands and political influence, the political and economical influence of powerful nations over it, secularism, terrorism and the like. Understandably, Muslims are careful to limit the jurists’ authority subject to human frailty, bias and individual agendas.
From that initial historically consolidated and powerful position, Islam’s identity has also disintegrated and Muslims are in a state of diaspora. Recent world events led to this situation, to mention just a few: birth of the Republic of Turkey (1923), Treaty of Balfour (1946), invasion of the Suez Canal (1956), Year of the Catastrophe (1967), the Yom Kippur war (1976), Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), invasion of Lebanon (1982), invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and the invasion of Iraq (2003). These historical events were not only caused by non-Muslim countries, but by Muslim ones.
By the 20th century, all notions of an Islamic empire have collapsed. Israel, to many Muslims, represented a dividing point to the issue of Islamic identity, as it was an organic state positioned in the middle of Arab lands. That becomes a sore point for Muslims, as their Islamic identity was very tied to the land of Palestine – firstly, it represented Islamic rule for hundred of years, and secondly, it was where Muhammad was believed to have been raised to heaven. At the same time, the Muslim world was also broken up: the French took over Algeria, the British took over India whilst Iraq and the Arab world (particularly Egypt) were dominated by the British and French empires. It was only in 1947 that the first nation state tried to re-establish some form of Islamic identity: Pakistan. That experiment, as we know it, was not highly successful. Then, there was the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which we are currently seeing its disintegration even amongst Iranians.
All these historical stories formed an important element in understanding the present Muslims and their state of “wilderness”: they experimented themselves as an ethnic identity devoid of any religious feature and this pan-arabism move was headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s establishment of the United Arab Republic (1973) between Egypt and Syria, on the notion that since Islam originates from the Arabs, Muslims should unite under the identity of the Arabs. This philosophy naturally collapsed as it failed to take into account the millions of Muslims who were not of Arab descent and cannot identify with that forged identity.
It was Sayyid Qutb’s formation of the Muslim Brotherhood whose ideology influenced and takes advantage of the many angry and identity-less Muslims: that Arab identity is insufficient to galvanize Muslims, instead it is the return to the Islamic identity that should prevail. However, there is one distinct component to Qutb’s ideology which was different from before: that Islam is now still living in the period of jahiliyah. As a result, he declared that it is religiously valid to not only engage war against non-Muslims, but to Muslims who are not living a pious life or who are closely associated with the Western non-Islamic way of life. For the first time since Muhammad established his ministry, that distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims became meaningless. Qutb set up an institutional system where the re-establishment of the Muslim identity can be advanced through militant means, irrespective of religious categories. This is the ideology adopted by bin Laden and his deputy, az-Zahiri in establishing the terrorist group al-Qaeda, which interestingly means “the method”. Qutb’s ideology is a powerful one and gained ground because it binds all Muslims together, irrespective of race and religious sects within Islam, coupled with the diasporic condition of Muslims and the search for an identity that it seeks to reckon with.
The questions that beset Muslims are fundamental: what does it mean to be a Muslim? What does it take to have a Muslim identity? Reza Aslan’s No God But God argues that this is the reformation that Islam is undergoing at the present moment: finding itself and re-establishing its identity after experiencing various failures in its earlier experiments the past two centuries. The real question is hence, whether that reformation would occur fast enough to counter the disastrous repercussions of these fast growing radical movements.