CRUCIBLE: Foundational Response to Challenge of the Era

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 19 Jan) – This year – 2017 or 1438 in Hijriyyah Calendar – may not be the birthing of a new era; in fact, it would simply be a continuation of the past depending on how we divide history into periods in relation to what is generally known today as Age of Modernity.

Yet, we could not help but be as enthusiastic not only in developing proper understanding but also in carrying right attitude and values in facing the challenge of the era. It is a period we often refer to as akhiru z-zaman or latter days.

The imperative in engaging such tasks – understanding and having right attitude – in the new era is anchored on the fact that we have been exhorted by the Holy Qur’an to read signs or āyah – to read the āyah of creation and the āyah of time, history, and so on. A very familiar verse in Suratu l-imran reads:

Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of Night and Day – there are indeed signs (āyah) for men of understanding (3: 190).

Āyah is thus an all-encompassing truth with its multitudinous expression in society. It includes all kinds of social vociferation – vivid or otherwise – that may have posed varied impacts (directly or indirectly) on the world and the Muslim ummah (community). They are important sources of qasas (story) and ibra (lesson).

Failure to understand correctly the ummah’s challenge today could embroil us further into a serious quagmire as what is happening in many parts of the Muslim world. In the same manner, by failing to correctly adopt right attitude would, like in many instances in the past and today, create more paradoxes where our acts could in fact become source of our problems and so on and so forth.

In this regard, there is a need, at least, to scan the horizon and know what is the possibility in store for us in the coming months and years; at the same time, we must learn from the past. We could say a lot on these subjects.

In many of our khutbah, we had underscored a critical point regarding the difference between medieval period of the Muslim world vis-à-vis the state we are in these days. We said that the primary feature of the past was that Muslim powers in those times where masters of their fates. There were dynamics in terms of peace, war, and balance of power between and among empires; dynasties against dynasties and so on which often ended with the collapse of one and the rise of another. That was it. That period was like a series of birth and death of dynasties and empires.

Today, it is so different. There is a global superstructure of power that dominates the affairs of the world. It is largely responsible in emboldening and heightening tensions – both internal and external – in the Muslim world accentuating, in fact, varied reverberation and responses while sharpening strands of Islamic thoughts, of Islamic movements, of Muslim nation-states while widening gaps, views and perspectives within the ummah.

On the surface, we may view such varied vociferations as negative as they appear antithetical to the spirit of Islamic Unity and Brotherhood. Yet, such variety and differences should also be viewed as expression how multifaceted and multidimensional truth in history is and how diverse the āyah in society and the world at large impressing, for that matter, varied “faces” of Islam in the modern world.

Having presented these two prisms – unity and multiplicity – including the acts or expression and manifestation of Islamic worldview, politics, engagement and so on; we say, that we may as well develop a perspective that can help us nurture an attitude as our response to the challenge of the era. It is a task gargantuan, but it is necessary if we want to anticipate the future and weather the shock it brings.

Mind you, these challenges are not new. They are as historic or historical as the beginning of Muslim community. In fact, there was no instance in which the Muslim community has been exempted from challenge and threat with varying impacts across space and time.

These were numerous instances where it was almost like a dead-end in the Muslim world. Imagine, for instance, the defeat of early Muslim community in some battles with the Quraysh? If we move farther ahead, imagine the collapse of the Caliphate of Baghdad in 1258; or, the rise of Reconquista and the repulsion of the Moors from Islamic Spain or Andalusia?

Try to use this approach in imagining difficult moments in the Muslim world and consider how time works its own way in healing the pangs of difficulty the ummah has so invariably experienced and how the Muslim community was able to regain its vigor and strength in subsequent periods and so on.

Conversely, consider, too, those moments of victory and success of the ummah in various regions and countries and how after some time, they have become triggers of another problem, of another crisis. Sometimes, also, past success could last long and could degenerate into, or connect with, crisis later or vice-versa. These cases speak of the long experience in struggle, for instance, of the Palestinians, the Kurds, the Moros, and so on.

The point we would like to express is that, each era brings new challenges creating, at times, tension requiring us to develop right understanding and attitude in facing those threats and challenges.

One critical phase in the experience of early Muslim community was when after hijrah or migration, the Prophet and sahabah or companions were besieged in Madinah. The forces of the Qurasyh were so bent in engaging the nascent Muslim community with attacks coming from different fronts. There was even conspiracy among the Jews like the Abu Nadir as their last ditch effort to block off the influence of the Prophet (SAW) in Madinah.

Suratu l-ahzab was precisely revealed to Prophet Muhammad (SAW) to exhort and to remind him and the early believers: to be steadfast and to persevere. This Surah is a series of exhortation both to the Prophet (SAW) and to early believers. It outlines a comprehensive ideological and strategic program in facing the threat.

We have underlined in many instances this subject. Over and above such program is the foundational content of the Surah with particular relevance to community in distress or under siege. Its message is universal with strong primordial undertone applying not only to early Muslim community even to Islamic communities that evolved through time including ours

Essentially, it has something to do with building foundation and developing consciousness that would not only strengthen the Muslim community but to develop a strong relationship not only amongst believers but more importantly a relationship between the Creator and the believers.

This building of consciousness is, in our view, the key in the sustainability of the ummah then and now. This should primarily be the basis in our understanding and developing our attitude in facing the challenge of the era.

The foundation upon which the building of our consciousness must rest is so familiar to all of us as it was very familiar to early sahabah. It involves primarily with dhikr or remembrance of Allah (SWT). The Holy Qur’an exhorts the believers to continuously engage in dhikr:

O ye who believe! Celebrate the praises of God and do this often; and glorify Him morning and evening (41).

This is very fundamental. Its universality has been tested exhorting the believers to continuously celebrate praises to Allah (SWT). This is, in our view, the foundation in building that consciousness in facing the challenge of the era. It is a perpetual remembrance on the oneness of Allah (SWT).

The succeeding verse continues and reminds the Muslims.

He it is Who sends blessings on you, as do His Angels, that He may bring you out from the depths of Darkness into Lights: And He is full of Mercy to the Believers.

Whatever the travails, the difficulties, and victories that Muslims faced, truth is that, they have been sent blessings and salutations from Allah (SWT) and His angels.

Try to remember those difficult moments of the Muslim world. A very unique one in our time is the 9/11. Until now, it is being used in spreading Islamophobia. Now, with the Middle East particularly with war in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen brewing, look at how difficult it is the Muslim ummah has been facing. Yet, the guarantee of the Qur’an is clear: “He…brings you from depths of Darkness into Lights.”

What source of optimism one can ask for? Look how the Qur’an arms Muslims especially those in distress with hope and optimism. How severe may be the test the ummah is facing, truth is, we are exhorted to take those difficulties and challenges positively like doors opening toward a brighter future. It is difficult to understand it, but what we once referred to as X-factor in Islamic history has always been on the move where no one has full grasp on how it works.

The Qur’an continues: And He is full of Mercy to the Believers (43).

That time, the early Muslim community was besieged; they were not yet able to liberate Makkah. Yet, the only reciprocal requirement of Divine salutation and exhortation is such that, believers have to continuous engage in remembrance, thanks and gratitude to Allah (SWT).

The verse continues further:

Their salutation on the Day they meet Him will be “peace” and He has prepared for them a generous Reward (44).

The above verses are, more or less, reminders to the believers while the succeeding ones are reminders to the Prophet (SAW) and his role.

O Prophet! Truly We have sent thee as a Witness, a Bearer of Glad Tidings, and a Warner. And as one who invites to God’s (Grace) by His leave, spreading Light (45-46).

It reminds the Prophet (SAW) of his role as a shahid (witness), a mubasshir (bearer of glad tidings), nadir (warner), a da’i (who invites), and as sirājan muneera (a Lamp Spreading Light).

These are the five functions of the Prophet (SAW). These are key principles used by the Prophet (SAW) in exhorting the early Muslim community to hold on in facing the challenges. These must be the same principles that we can apply in facing the challenge of the era.

Sadly though, they are not so, as what has developed these days. There is a dominant projection of Islam that is antithetical to everything; that Islam is geared for a “clash” against the other. And it is exploited by proponents of said superstructure while creating more paradoxes in Muslim societies.

If you would push the “clash” envelope that far, it means Islam aims for global domination whatever means possible regardless of other faiths, civilizations, societies, and so on. It also means antagonizing the other.

If that is so, then who will be the recipient of mercy and compassion? Who will become witness? And to whom would you bring the glad tidings?

Truth is that, Islam restraints in developing a full spectrum of domination and total asymmetry with the other. It always maintains certain balance and recognition by allowing others to flourish so that they would receive mercy and compassion that Islam purports as its primal message.

Unfortunately, the modern era, our time, is such that the Muslim world is pushed to take a radical stance to a high level due to overwhelming presence with what we refer to as global superstructure of power. The foundation of which is essentially material, economic, political and so on and so forth. It opts for global hegemony and control of the world.

The effect in the domination of such superstructure creates a dialectical response from the Muslim world that is diametrically opposed to any dominant structure with its distinct worldviews, values, ideology, and politics. Proponents of such resistance develop distinct discourses and rhetoric whose end is to address the arrogance of such structure.

Rightly or wrongly, one would see rather diffused struggles in many Muslim countries and minorities with various Islamic movements and groups in various colors and orientation struggling on their own.

In the early 20th century, the ummah struggled for decolonization and national liberation. Many Muslim countries were formed out of this. Later on, minorities also struggled for their liberation and self-determination. Due to distinct forces that invariably gripped them, they remained in continuous engagement until these days. The third phase was the rise of so-called Islamic fundamentalism. To say the least, all of these were responses to overwhelming presence of said global superstructure. (We will talk more about it in our future khutbah).

Because of this, the Muslim world is pulled between global domination on one hand and struggle for emancipation on the other. This is where we are hardly able to grip on what path we would take. This is where our right understanding and attitude, as we said, is important so that we won’t be shaken by the challenge of the era.

This subject, however, requires certain creativity in treating Islamic thought. It also needs proper reading of global issues as we are describing distinct signs in akhiru z-zaman that are becoming more unique or what is referred to in the hadith as gharib or strange. As such, it also requires a kind of “strange” people to understand and articulate them. As we’d alluded before, the hadith read: Islam began as something strange and it will return to being strange, so blessed are the strangers.

The “strangement” of the era is, in truth, a normal expression of the āyah. There is nothing unique about it in that case. Human nature remains the same. It is man’s ways that have changed. With such change, social problems the world over have imposed enormous weight on modern man making him befuddled, afraid, and sad. What is needed is certain sophistication of our prism or an evocation of equally “strange” ways in understanding the challenge of the era.

This is a long subject. We have only scratched the surface. If given the time, we would like to explore it further. As we said, these are āyah masquerading as problems and challenges. To men and women of vision, such “strangement” must be viewed as source of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah (with some revision) delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies on 13 January 2017. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]