Muslims will hold Islam accountable when Islamic revivalists promise utopia but deliver chaos and human rights abuses.
By Mark Durie:
In What Went Wrong, Bernard Lewis charted the decline of Islam in the modern era and the resulting theological crisis for the Muslim world.
Now Islam is going through a second crisis, caused by the repeated failures of revivalist responses to the first crisis. This second crisis, combined with the cumulative effect of the first crisis, which remains unresolved, will lead to a long drawn-out period of political and social instability for Muslim societies.
The first millennium of Islam was a period of expansion through conquest. However for five centuries from around 1500, Western powers were pushing back Islamic rule. There were numerous landmarks of the ascendancy of the West (which includes Russia), such as:
- the conquest of Goa in India by the Portuguese in 1510;
- the liberation of Christian Ethiopia in 1543 with the aid of the Portuguese soldiers;
- the defeat of the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna in 1683 and
- the ensuing liberation of Hungary and Transylvania;
- Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798;
- the USA-Barbary State Wars of 1801-1815, which put an end to tribute payments by the US to the north African states to prevent piracy and the enslavement of US citizens;
- a long series of defeats for the Ottomans in Russo-Turkish wars stretching across four centuries and culminating in the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war,
- which led to the independence of Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria;
- the overthrow of Muslim principalities in Southeast Asia by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English;
- the final destruction of Mughal rule in India at the hands by the British in 1857;
- the defeat and dismantling of the Ottoman Empire as a result of WWI;
- and finally, the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948, in territory formerly ruled by Islam, which was considered by many Muslims to be the crowning humiliation in this long line of defeats.
We are not just talking about Western colonialism. Some of the victories over Muslim principalities involved the occupation or colonisation of primarily Muslim lands, but many involved the liberation of non-Muslim peoples from the yoke of Muslim rule, such as in Ethiopia, Hungary and India, and some were defensive responses to Islamic aggression, such as the defeat of the Ottomans at the gates of Vienna.
While the external borders of Islam kept shrinking, its position of dominance within its own borders was also being challenged. During this same period there were in many places improvements in the conditions experienced by non-Muslims under Islamic rule – a weakening of the dhimmi system – which communicated to Muslims an impression of their own faith’s loss of dominance and its loss of ‘success’. A landmark in this long process was the Paris Peace Treaty of 1856, which settled the Crimean War. As part of this settlement the Ottomans were compelled to grant equal rights to Christians throughout their empire.
The gradual process of improvement of conditions for Christians and Jews under Islam was regretted by Muslim scholars, who saw it as evidence of Islam’s decline. For example a request for a fatwa from a Egyptian Muslim judge in 1772 lamented the ‘deplorable innovations’ of Christians and Jews, who were daring to make themselves equal to Muslims by their manner of dress and behavior, all in violation of Islamic law.
In a similar vein, the Baghdad Quranic commentator Al-Alusi complained that non-Muslims in Syria during the first half of the 19th century were being permitted to make annual tribute payments by means of an agent, thus escaping the personal ritual degradations prescribed by Islamic law. He concluded: “All this is caused by the weakness of Islam.”
Why would Islam’s lack of dominance be evidence of weakness?
Islamic doctrine promises falah ‘success’ to the religion’s followers, symbolized by the daily call to prayer which rings out from minarets: ‘come to success, come to success’. The success promised by Islam has always been understood to be both spiritual and material: conquest and rule this life, and paradise in the next. The Qur’an states that Allah has sent Muhammad “with the guidance and the religion of truth, that He may cause it to triumph over all (other) religions” (Sura 48:28).
Islam’s theology of success meant that the global failure of Islamic armies and states at the hands of ‘Christian’ states constituted a profound spiritual challenge to Islam’s core claims. Just as Muslim scholars had always pointed to the military victories of Islam as proof of its divine authority, this litany of defeats testified to its failure as the religion of the successful ones.
The urgency of the question ‘What went wrong?’ drove the Islamic revival, an interconnected network of renewal movements which have as their central tenet that Muslims will once again be ‘successful’ – achieving political and military domination over non-Muslims – if they are truly devoted to Allah and implement Islamic laws faithfully. These are reformation movements in the original (medieval) sense of the Latin word reformatio, for they seek to restore Islam to its former glory by returning to first principles.
Some of the main formative strands of Islamic revivalism have been:
- the Wahhabi movement which originated in the 18th century;
- the Deobandi movement in India and Pakistan which dates from 1866;
- Jamaat e-Islami, which was founded 1941 in India;
- the Muslim Brotherhood, founded 1928;
- and the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Out of these have come a myriad of offshoots and branches such as the Taliban (from the Deobandi movement); Al Qaida (a product of the ideology of Muslim Brotherhood theologian Said Qutb); the missionary movementTablighi Jamaat; and Hizb Ut-Tahrir.
Even the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the ‘United Nations’ of the Muslim world, is a revivalist organization: this is reflected in its Charter which states that it exists “to work for revitalizing Islam’s pioneering role in the world”, a euphemism for reestablishing Islam’s dominant place in world affairs.
In essence, Islamic revivalist movements aim to restore the greatness of Islam and make it ‘successful’ again. This hope is embodied, for example, in the Muslim Brotherhood’s slogan “Islam is the solution”. This implies that when Islam is truly implemented all the problems human beings face – such as poverty, lack of education, corruption, and injustice – will be solved. The flip-side of this slogan is the thesis that all the problems of the Muslim world have been caused through want of genuine Islamic observance: Allah allowed his people to fall into disarray because they were not faithful in obeying his laws. The correction to this spiritual problem should therefore be more sharia compliance. This is the reason why headscarves and burqas have been appearing on Muslim women’s heads with increasing frequency all around the world.
For a time it appeared to many Muslims that the revivalist program was working. The Iranian Islamic revolution, and the later victory of jihadis in Afghanistan and the break-up of the Soviet Union was considered to be evidence of the success of the revivalist program. This was the certainly view of the translator of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam’s jihadi tract Join the Caravan:
“The struggle, which he [Sheikh Azzam] stood for, continues, despite the enemies of Islam. ‘They seek to extinguish the light of Allah by their mouths. But Allah refuses save to perfect His light, even if the Disbelievers are averse. It is He who has sent His messenger with the guidance and the true religion, in order that He may make it prevail over all religions, even if the pagans are averse.’ [Qur'an, 9:32-33] Since the book was written, the Soviets have been expelled from Afghanistan, by Allah’s grace, and the entire Soviet Union has disintegrated.”
Utopian claims are risky, because they open up the possibility for even greater failure, and amplified cognitive dissonance as the gap between one’s faith and reality widens. The first crisis of Islam was the rise of West through superior technological, economic and military prowess. The second crisis is the failure of Islamic revivalism as a response to the first crisis. The second crisis could prove even more painful and profound in its effects on Islam than the first.
The manifestations of revivalism’s failures are as diverse as the Islamist movements which generated them. One could point to:
- the atrocities and backwardness of the Taliban;
- the corruption and cruelty after the 1979 Iranian Revolution;
- the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to govern for the benefit of the Egyptian people, leading to a wildly popular military coup in 2013;
- the present-day economic collapse of Turkey under big-talking Islamist Prime Minister Erdogan;
- the genocidal campaigns of Khartoum’s military campaigns against its own citizens, causing more than a million casualties;
- and the ongoing Iraqi and Syrian jihad-driven bloodbaths.
Everywhere one looks there are good reasons for Muslims to question the Islamic revivalist creed. The outcomes of more than two centuries of theological fervor are not looking good. Muslim states are not realizing the utopian goals set by these movements. Indeed the opposite is the case: again and again, wherever revivalist movements have gained the ascendancy, human misery has only increased. Too many Muslim states continue to be models of poverty and economic failure, despite all those female heads being covered up.
One inevitable consequence of this trend is disenchantment with Islam, and a growing sense of alienation from the religion. The manifest failure of the revivalist creed creates a sense of anxiety that Islam is under threat, not from the infidel West, but from reputational damage caused by the revivalists themselves. It is a case of the cure being worse than the disease.
Fasten your seat-belts: the world will be in for quite a ride in the years to come, as Muslims – who constitute around a quarter of the world’s population – struggle to make theological sense of the trashing of their religion’s utopian vision. It is one thing to blame the infidels for this – or the proxy tyrants which revivalists claim the West has foisted on the Muslim world – what is more threatening by far is the damage being done to Islam’s name by revivalist Muslims themselves.
Dr Mark Durie is a theologian, human rights activist, Anglican pastor, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and Adjunct Research Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology. He has published many articles and books on the language and culture of the Acehnese, Christian-Muslim relations and religious freedom. A graduate of the Australian National University and the Australian College of Theology, he has held visiting appointments at the University of Leiden, MIT, UCLA and Stanford, and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1992.