CRUCIBLE: Framing Progression and Discontent in the Ummah

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/15 December) – Three or four days ago, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held its 35th Summit Meeting at Doha, Qatar raising the need to intensify regional security among its six-member countries.

For those like us who live in the margin of the Muslim world, it is felt that as today’s meetings and conferences amongst countries are organized almost like a ritual, such an event about the GCC appears quite insignificant since it hardly creates ripples and cascades significantly into the wider circle of the ummah or Islamic community.


On the contrary, we cannot just dismiss any attempt to evolve a more defined regional system of cohesion given that the journey of the ummah should be viewed as a continuing, cumulative process. The Muslim world has long been in transition toward – well, hopefully – a higher formation of global polity.

Our aim in our khutbah (discourse) is, as always, to learn lessons (ibra) from events how insignificant they may be. This is the way with which we are able to properly assess our condition and allow us to craft better ways in addressing the travails of the ummah.

Moreover, we are interested in organization like the GCC because it shows a significant layer of regional development into which certain projection is made. We thought this phenomenon and its attendant development and seemingly counter-trend in the Arab world should be captured objectively so that we develop a broader understanding as to where the ummah is in now.

During the Summit, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa “called upon the international community to intensify its effects to confront terrorism and tackle its roots and causes.”

The Emir also said: “The phenomenon of terrorism throughout the world, and in the Arab region in particular, and the grave challenges it poses to the security, stability, and development, requires us, and the international community in general, to intensify the collective effort and take all necessary measures to confront it, tackle its roots as well its political, social, and economic causes.”

It is not unusual in every meeting of wealthy countries like those in GCC to call and address issues and concerns facing the ummah or some of its quarters like the GCC’s member countries.  There is a unique context in GCC’s need today to intensify regional security given the rise of new radicals like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that affects the vital interest of many countries in the Middle East.

Dialectical progression

When we are interested to highlight precisely such trend like the GCC’s, it is to provide us a view of development in the context of dialectical progression in the ummah that tries to evolve a higher aggrupation of polities beyond the nation-states or by using nation-state as an organizing unit in working for more regional cohesion how marginal or limited it may be. In fact, the GCC is just one of such aggrupation.

As you know, there are equally important aggrupation in the Middle East like the Arab League that was organized much earlier followed by the formation of the Organization of Islamic Conference referred to these days as Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

This progression is reflective of development in the international community as many countries also organized along regional and international lines. Like the European Union, they institute mechanism and processes to effect stronger regional cohesion. For instance, the EU tries to organize a more unified Europe by coming up with Common Market while harmonizing domestic and foreign policies and so on. The same trend is shown in the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) and many regional organizations. Thus, the Muslim world and the Arab world in particular is not an exception to this trend.

There is a strong difference however with regional development in the Islamic world given that there is also a counter-trend that tries to pull the ummah into another direction. It is a trend advanced by proponents of politicized or ideological groups of Muslim radicals. These two contrasting trends are tearing apart the Muslim world.

We thought this trend and counter-trend is a classic repertoire how the ummah has long been experiencing a difficult ajal or challenge then and now. Seeing this development, we in the margin, would be quite unconvinced by simply reading mono-linear trend of development. We need to deepen our understanding on structural contradiction that plagued the ummah and the strenuous dialectic of unity and diversity therein.

Unity and diversity

If we look at the repertoire from the prism of the Qur’an, the idea of unity has been the source of the ummah’s ideal given that they are conceived to belong to a single brotherhood or ummah wahidah. The Holy Qur’an says:

“Verily, this Brotherhood of yours is a single Brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher: therefore serve Me (and no other). But (later generations) out of their affair (of unity), one from another: (yet) will they all return to Us (Al-anbiyah: 92-93).”     

This verse in Suratu l-anbiyah is reflected with almost the same tone in Suratu l-mu’minun reiterating the same notion of ummah wahidah except that the latter’s characterization of the ummah is connected to the “Brotherhood of the Prophets.” Incidentally, we said previously, that there are two phases of history: the period during the time of the prophets; and that part of history after the time of prophets.

To say the least, the Muslim ummah is enjoined to reflect on the same notion of ummah wahidah; that they indeed belong to single brotherhood. However, like the other verse in Suratu l-anbiyah, the call for unity is always followed with a description that says: “But people have cut-off their affair (of unity), between them into sects: Each party rejoices in that which is with itself (Mu’minuun: 53).”

It can thus be said that Islam’s call for unity and what we previously referred to as its chimera or shadow of unity, if you may, diversity has been a continuing feature of history since the time of prophets until the post-prophetic periods; so that, the dialectic between unity and diversity remains a perpetual feature of history since then until our time.

Thus, when we look at the ummah as seemingly polarized as it is being pulled by two relatively distinct progressions – one toward a higher formation of polity that comes in regional and even international organizations like the Arab League, GCC, and OIC; and on the other side, it is pulled by equally potent force from Islamic radicals like the Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, and others; it only means that we are in this state of our time where we are experiencing new form of paradoxical or enigmatic yet evolutionary clash in the ummah between unity and disunity or diversity.

The point we would like to raise is to impress that we should stare the phenomenon at its face than be easily swayed by certain position how dominant it may be; or to easily carry dismissive attitude implying that social contradiction in the ummah is wholly negative and could not engender lessons or ibra. To say the least, in fact, such contradictions are sourced of immense understanding as they also display certain “truth” even if they reveal their attendant chimera or shadows.

This view will then allow us to remain confident in our understanding that we cannot be easily swayed to carry dismissive or pessimistic attitude on things amid glaring contradictory development before our eyes how difficult they are to harmonize. Efforts for more regional aggrupation like the GCC’s and the like is as important as the rise of equally phenomenal movement like the ISIS; they are both important sources of our analysis and understanding.

A verse we raised frequently is the Qur’anic imperative or description about varied sources and manifold evocation of truth. As readers of ayah or signs, we must be guided with the view that there are no insignificant phenomena. Everything is significant in the canvas of truth. The Qur’an says: “Soon will We show them our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth (Fussilat: 53).”

Thus, events happening before our eyes should be rather viewed positively and objectively as we take new learning, new wisdom from them.

Broader perspective

When we emphasize the need to understand the journey of the ummah toward what we refer to as dialectical progression, it only means that we should be aware of their strides and their attendant limitations.

For all we know, what maybe conceived as the ummah’s source of ideal and source of political unity like the Caliphate of old could be a product of certain historical development that had self-destructed through time and, by reason of imperial exigency or otherwise, became a source of disunity and diversity at certain points.

Similarly, after realizing the limits of diversity, then today’s efforts towards chiseling regionalism beyond nation-states while envisioning “Islamic solidarity” through the OIC has now generated new dialectic that has to be recognized as real trend in the Muslim world. Thus, we should be alert in reading pattern and nuances in Islamic history as the ummah continues to evolve higher aggrupation even if we feel that we are just going in a circle.

When we emphasized this rather contradictory yet evolutionary progression of the ummah, it means allowing us to view in broader frame our condition. This view is important, as there is a tendency especially from the source and counter-source of power to monopolize dominant interpretation; hence, leaving us bewildered as to what perspective we should take.

For instance, if we take the words of the Emir of Qatar, emphasizing the need to combat terrorism while calling on the need to address the root cause of the ummah’s problem, then we ask: what precisely is the cause referred to?

We have to note that the rise of politicized groups in the Muslim world is generally a response to contradictions in Muslim society including how status quo has been fossilized and had been utilized by those in power to advance their vested interest that generally alienates the masses.

Thus, in the reading of those coming from the other fence, the cause would include not only the violence perpetrated by militant groups, for instance, but even by the source of structural, social and political contradictions in society including those contradictions engendered from protectors of status quo and so on.

We therefore need to take some distance from such interpretation and take a broader perspective and see not only particular problem caused by some particular groups, but to include in our purview structural and political contradictions in the Muslim world.

It’s not clear what progression the ummah is heading to given the polarized and contradictory politics that it has been in. What we are saying is, if the formation of regional organization like the Arab League, GCC, and for that matter, the OIC, and many others is viewed as continuing evolution of the ummah toward a higher and global polity, then, we say that, at least, there is a movement happening in the Islamic world in trying to organize or re-organize the nation-states as alternative (even if it comes simply in trickles) since, for a very long time, the nation-states as imposed by Western powers had been a source of major social and economic problems of the ummah.

Caliphate and Islamic State

What is glaringly missing in the polarization of development including the dialectical progression is the absence of consensus amongst major players as to what direction they should take and how they resolve their problem.

The forging of consensus should include the points raised by proponents of politicized, ideological Islamic radicalism if we want to bravely stare the problem at its face. Since who suffers from contradictory politics that the two camps engender are not other regions, are not other organizations, but the Arab world and the ummah in general.

This lack of consensus reflects, in our view, the poverty in Islamic thought particularly the absence of relevant discourses about modern vision and ideals of Islam in terms of their political, social and economic underpinnings; so that, those groups that could not accept a perceived development along modern and regional lines like Arab states organizing into higher level of aggrupation would rather go back to old political paradigm like the Caliphate. As it is pushed fanatically and violently by groups like the ISIS, the danger they posed and the destruction they wrought are felt globally even endangering the more rational, modern line of development in the Arab world.

In our understanding, the last scholar who wrote extensively about the Caliphate was the late Muhammad Rashid Rida who was born in the mid or latter part of 19th century and who, by the way, was born in Syria, although he migrated to Egypt years later.

In his work, “Al-Khilafah Awi l-imama l-uzma” (The Caliphate or Supreme Imamate), Rashid Rida tried to conceptualize a Caliphate appropriate for modern society. Although the tone of conservatism is still very obvious in his thought, at least, he tried to theorize a new political paradigm for the ummah that is both reflective of their tradition while sensitive with their modern needs.

As you know, Rashid Rida is a colleague of Muhammad Abduh who together with Jamaluddin al-Afghani was amongst the Muslim progressives in the Arab world. They were a rare breed of modern ideologues and Arab political theoreticians of their time. They tasked upon themselves to articulate political and moral precepts as a requirement of modern polity for the ummah.

Rashid Rida was prodded to re-articulate a new vision of the Caliphate as a response to Kemal Ataturk’s abolition of the Caliphate in Turkey in the 1920s. In other words, like any other attempt in the Muslim world, Rashid Rida tried to envision a polity for the ummah that is not necessarily divorced from its tradition since the imposition of nation-states is new; and thus, is viewed detrimental into the interest of the ummah. But there were no major works of the same caliber after it; so that, reformists that advance certain vision that refuse to wholly take conventional nation-state as their ideological and political tract are groping because they do not have any modern model to use.

It was quite a long time before the concept of “Islamic state” was advanced prior to the rise of the ISIS and its neo-fundamentalist, violent version.  As you know, even the concept of Islamic state is a hybrid of modern conception of state with that of early notion of state or dawla islamiyyah in Madinah in the 7th century. Anyhow, at least, there was an attempt to conceptualize a vision of what or where the ummah goes.

As we have witnessed, there are difficulties experienced by many Muslim countries that advanced pre-ISIS “Islamic state” model except for Iran, and to some extent Pakistan. Obviously, other countries refused to tread the tract of Islamic state agenda as the hold of monarchical, authoritarian, nationalist, and secular agenda remained dominant in the Muslim world.

To say the least, the immense contradiction in the Muslim world and the inability of proponents of Islamic state model before the rise of the ISIS to advance new direction and provide leadership into the ummah, then proponents of radical Islam could easily resurrect a concept that is archaic and medieval like the ISIS’s version of Caliphate. On both camps, therefore, there are limitations to their acts and development going on.

Beyond simply condemning the ISIS or praising regional trend like the GCC’s, the “cause” that the Emir of Qatar identified may probably constitute broader factors and forces that need further examination so that a new frame, a new understanding could be crafted in addressing the travails of the ummah in our time.

This is, in our view, an urgency to be done: we should not simply follow a bandwagon of dominant perspectives and become mere partisans of those who are in power or those who oppose it. We have to see with clarity the ummah’s unique way of progression.

Trans-local ummah

Ironically, creative minds are generally not coming from traditional gatekeepers of Islamic thought, except for some progressive Ulama (Muslim scholars) who had already seen certain trend.

As noted by Peter Mandaville, sometime in 1990, a group of Muslim scholars convened in a conference in France and came up with a recommendation on the need to highlight the notion of dar al-ahad (Domain of treaty) as that space into which the Muslim world and the “other” could work together.

Moreover, the dichotomy of daru l-Islam (Land of Peace) and daru l-harb (Land of war) model is unable to address the problem and inapplicable as a prism of the Islamic world in relation to the international community. Thus, they called for greater dialogue and engagement within and between the ummah with the other.

Mandaville also noted that it was also the time when Islamic Banking and Islamic Finance are beginning to be advanced by international companies like Citicorp so much so that an intersection of trends is happening. In his work, “Transnational Muslim Polity,” Mandaville writes:

“The symbolic images – the West adjusting its economic practices to account for Islam, and Islam changing the boundaries of its political community to enable dialogue with the West – are, in part, the product of various global sociocultural transformations which are currently modifying conventional conceptions both of world politics and of what it means to “relate internationally.” Unprecedented global flows of peoples and cultures, transnational social movements, the rise of world cities, supranational political forces and globalizing media technologies: all are calling into question the hegemony of national and statist forms of political identity, and also giving rise to discrepant visions of non-Western politics and polities (p. 1).”

What Mandaville is saying is that, there are developments (e.g., trans-locality) in the ummah happening beyond regional and global development where new strides are gaining ground. It means there are many ways in looking at our condition away from the seeming polarization of the two camps that we mentioned. What is needed is to identify more nuances in our condition including those proposed by Muslim scholars on daru l-ahad as an arena or space for engagement within and between Islam and international community.

Through this way of nuancing we would not be constricted to view events happening in the Muslim world along traditional prism or through the lens of pure negativism. Rather, we look at them as part or component of that dialectical progression of the ummah toward a higher form of polity visioning.

It only means that the challenge of having a vision of unity and working within a diverse environment is perpetual. The ideals of unity are present in many traditions, religions, and organizations and so on. What is important is for them to be able to harmonize, at least, within a diverse space; and, by becoming more creative, they would be able to advance their cause, their interest in one way or another.

Finally, when we view the recent GCC Summit with both negative and also positive slants, it is to provide us, at least, a mature perspective about the unique progression of the ummah. More fundamentally, what we need is a prism, a way of understanding into which we fully grasp major phenomena while creative in viewing them so that we’ll gain new thought and have more realization. [MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah (with revision) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 12 December 2014. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].