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Muslim Political Thought During the Colonial Period (1)
Political Issues
Saeed Malik

There has been a universal consensus among the Muslims that a genuine Islamic State cannot be established and maintained, on the pattern of the one brought into being by the Prophet (sws) and preserved by the Khulafaa-i-Raashideen, without proper indoctrination and character building work as required by Islamic teachings. The Prophet (sws) gave to mankind guidance in the form of a complete code of life as enunciated in the Qur’ān, the word of God and his Sunnah. He did not restrict his work to giving verbal sermons and to propounding a utopian system, but actually infused a clear concept of the fundamentals and details of Islam in the minds of his followers. He did the character building work on a large scale and established an ideological state. Like his personality, his state has no parallel in world history.

His and Islam’s grip on the individual and corporate lives of the citizens was complete. At the same time they enjoyed full freedom. The Khulafaa-i-Raashideen considered themselves answerable to every citizen in public. History bears witness to the fact that this achievement was the fruit of a very hard, sincere, systematic and well planned labour. All this work of giving an ideology and implementing it in the form of a state was accomplished in a short span of twenty-three years.

After the Khilaafat-i-Raashidah, this work could not be done on the lines pursued by the Prophet (sws) and on the needed scale and magnitude in face of, and proportionate to, the geographical expansion of Islam, and therefore a true Islamic State did not come into existence later on. But Muslims never relinquished and lost interest in the establishment of the institution of Khilaafat. In fact, they hated and disapproved kingship. Prominent Muslim scholars, who were respected by the Muslim intelligentsia and masses, never maintained links with the courts of the kings as a symbol of their disapproval of this institution. They never hesitated to point out the weaknesses and faulty political behavior of the rulers against the principles enunciated by Islam. For this they welcomed all sorts of tortures, difficulties and even gave their lives.

This does not mean that after the Khilaafat-i-Raashidah the Muslim society ceased to follow Islam. One aspect of the matter is that apparently there was only a change from the Shurai system of Khilaafat to hereditary kingship in the political sector. But repercussions of this change were far reaching. The damage done was not compensated by the fact that the kings used to declare themselves as servants of Islam and used to encourage and patronize the efforts of the ulema.

The other aspect is that the tempo of progress in the Muslim Society was accelerated by intellectual personalities and research scholars of high acumen who continued to appear in such a large number as had never been witnessed in human history before. Activities of Muslims in the field of knowledge brought humanity out of the age of ignorance and darkness. The righteous ulema guarded the ideological frontiers of Islam, not merely through sermons, but by hard labour and undergoing all sorts of terrible tortures as in the cases of Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam Ahmad Bin Hambal and so many others.

The Muslim Society in general had faith in and observed the principles and dictates of the Shariah based on the Qur’ān and Sunnah. The message of Islam was being carried to the nooks and corners of the world. Barriers of language, age old pagan values and non-existence of transport facilities were no hindrances.

For many centuries Muslims enjoyed the status of the leaders of the known world in the fields of knowledge as well as in the spiritual and mundane sectors of human life. During these intense intellectual and mental activities, inspite of agreement on fundamentals, various schools of thought on details appeared among the Muslims. This was natural and contributive to research and evolutionary tendencies. Moreover, the Imams to whom some schools of thought are imputed and rigidity has been adopted, had never intended to be founders of any sectarian group. Unfortunately, what was a sign of progress and dynamism in the fields of thought and action became a source of stagnation.

This stagnation in thought and the giving up of Ijtihad together with the penetration of extraneous views gave currency to such cults as sufism, which though began as a powerful source of spiritual strength conducive to action, began to be understood as tantamount to refusal to face the realities of this world. This attitude weakened the capacity of the Muslims to think and act in a big way. Inspite of all this, even a partial attachment of the Muslims to Islam saved them for a number of centuries against foreign onslaughts in the domain of thought, and made them survive the devastating physical attacks such as that of the Mongol hordes.

It is a fact of history that the attacks of such barbarian hordes wrecked and carried away with their tempestuous march civilizations, cultures and empires like pieces of straw. But the Muslims, because of the high ideals and the cementing force of Islam, have always survived. Unprecedented devastation took place at Baghdad in 1258 AD, and in addition to human and political losses Muslims sustained a great setback in the field of knowledge. But still they, due to the invigorating influence of Islam, had the inherent strength to remain alive. They absorbed the Tartars, who embraced Islam and founded new empires.

While the Muslim world was just carrying on and had actually lost their pristine vigour with divided loyalty to Islam and the forces of evil in their polity, a new danger was raising its head in Europe. This region of the world was immersed deep into barbarism and paganism to such and extent that, today, they are ignorant of even their history of those times. Muslims of Spain roused them from sleep, as Europe took full advantage of the torch of knowledge kindled by Muslims through their universities and learned men. I have termed the intellectual awakening of the West as a danger because after their awakening, instead of adopting a philosophy of life which might have proved beneficial for humanity they developed a materialistic concept of life and a mechanistic view of the universe. As a result, they embarked upon destroying moral values and of imposing a very damaging colonial system on whichever area of the globe they could lay their hands on. Thus Europe’s lopsided advancement, of which the main stress was on the sector of technology with the moral aspect of human life completely ignored, initiated an era of plunder, loot and exploitation which resulted in an acute misery and pain for the majority of the human race.

Muslims on account of their political importance, geographically strategic position, historical role as well as ideological commitment were the major hurdle in the expansionary designs of the West. They were, therefore, the main target of aggression, conspiracies and imperialistic machinations of the Western colonial powers.

They began to establish their footholds in various Muslim lands in the garb of traders. Then they commenced interfering in local political affairs, taking advantage of the anarchical conditions because of the weakening of central authority in some lands, and embarked upon the policy of keeping some armed forces by declaring that it was being done in self-defence. Farsighted Muslims did not fail to see through their game. Among such people most conspicuous in the governing class in, for instance, the Indo-Pakistan sub-continent, were Siraj-ud-Daula of Bengal, Tipu Sultan and his father Hyder Ali of Mysore. All the three of them saw through the game of the English and put in their best efforts to stem the tide of their advance. But the internal forces of disintegration were so preponderant that patriotic and pro-Islamic elements in the higher circles became helpless. Diplomatic skill and technologically superior methods of warfare complimented by ‘everyone-himself’ attitude of the local rulers who mattered, and the sabotaging role played by their courtiers, who were secretly purchased by the British, aided the latter to establish themselves politically in one area after the other during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Tipu Sultan was brave, adventurous and a ruler of guts. His political thought was that since the English had entrenched themselves in India, where anarchic conditions were prevailing and the central power at Dehli was almost non-existent, a united front of whichever local rulers were available should be set up. But, unfortunately every ruler was thinking of his immediate prospects. While trying to enlist the support of the other local rulers, Tipu Sultan at the same time approached the Khalifa at Constantinople for help. But there was no response. Salim the third who was the Ottoman ruler at that time, was engrossed in his internal problems. He was also under pressure and threat from European powers and from Catherine of Russia who was very keen to conquer Constantinople. Napoleon had also appeared on the coasts of Egypt in 1798 AD. In such circumstances Turkish help for Tipu was out of the question. So Tipu fought single-handedly against the British forces who had the support of the Marhattas and the Nizam. He gave his life like a mujaahid in 1799 and left a brilliant mark in History.

The fact was that the Muslims had not tolerated and witnessed any outside dominance for the last eleven centuries. Moreover, they were conscious of possessing their own civilizational and cultural values. They resented foreign influence and over lordship, but it was very late.

One thing should not be ignored at this stage of our deliberations. It was a historical coincidence that the cultural and political effervescence in Europe and the all round decadence of the Muslims occurred simultaneously. So the weak defensive capacity of the Muslims was no match for the upsurge of vigour and  energy of the colonial powers. This resulted in an offensive of the latter on a very long front. The French raided and occupied Algeria and Tunis; the English made India the target of their colonial policy and subdued Egypt as well; the Dutch overpowered Indonesia; the Russians expanded their territorial jurisdiction so as to assimilate Central Asian Muslim areas. Enfeebled Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan remained apparently independent, but not immune to the intervention and machinations of the colonial powers

We have to consider, weigh and analyze the Muslim political thought and reaction by keeping in view the Muslim system of values and thought spread over the last eleven centuries to which I have briefly alluded earlier. Without keeping this background in mind the rationale of Muslim thought in the colonial period will be difficult to comprehend. The political conditions prevailing in the Muslim world in the colonial period were so complex that they lacked any homogeneity. It stood divided in many political units, every one of which had its own political set-up. In such a condition, complete unity of political thought could not be expected in the political sphere, nor could it be defined as a unified phenomenon can be.

Firstly, various areas of the Muslim world had come under the sway of various colonial power. Each colonial power tried to enforce its own political policies on its subjugated area and the latter’s reaction was shaped accordingly.

Secondly, the degree of subjugation of different Muslim countries was different. Some were directly occupied as was the case of the British in India and Sudan, some were kept under complete control but the local rulers were retained as show boys, such as in Malaysia and Egypt by the British, and Indonesia by the Dutch.

Thirdly, in some colonies resistance movements started from the very early days of the occupation as in Algeria, Tunisia, etc, and in others elements who wanted to fight for independence took some time to muster their strength.

Fourthly, there were countries such as Afghanistan which were the bone of contention between the imperialist powers. Russia in the days of the Czars as well as of Communism had the identical policy of expansion towards the South. The Czar occupied Khiva and Merv in 1881 and 1884 respectively, and his armies marched into a province of Afghanistan as well. But since the British were apprehensive about this southward advance of Russia due to their stake in India, in 1887 they brought Russia round to sign an agreement under which the latter undertook not to advance further southwards and retreat from Afghanistan. But Russia, ignoring the agreement intervened militarily in Wakhan in 1889. However, under another Anglo-Russian agreement in 1895 the Russians again retreated.

Similarly in 1878-79 the British attacked Afghanistan to occupy it, but were driven out by the Afghans who valiantly put up a great resistance. So, such a resourceless Muslim country like Afghanistan had sufficient political consciousness to defend itself, although it was sandwiched between two imperialist powers.

Realistically speaking, at this juncture of history, Muslims were flabbergasted by the stunning blow which they received from the Western colonial nations due to their unexpected and forceful onslaught on various levels---political, military, economic as well as ideological. The success and glamour of the West, and human weakness to attribute qualitative superiority to power impelled a section, especially of the elite among the Muslims, to be overawed and impressed by the dominant culture. This attitude engendered in them a tendency to adopt whatever came from these sources: This was but natural.

So far as the Muslims in general were concerned, they considered the Islamic polity as repugnant to the views imported from the West. According to their traditional attachment to Islam, the victims of feelings of superiority of European thought were a handful of elite. They no doubt commanded political influence disproportionately in excess of their numbers, but never exerted an overwhelming input on Muslim minds. After a short time Muslims began to mentally recover from the effects of the first blow after getting timely guidance from some powerful Muslim personalities about whom I shall talk later. They embarked upon the task of thinking about the ailment from which their body-politic was suffering, and which had brought them so low from the pedestal of high status which they once enjoyed.

But the main hindrances were the magnitude of the problem and paucity of competent human and other resources. Western onslaught against Muslims was a tremendous challenge. It was undermining the very values which they held. Under its impact the political life and thought of the Ummah was tending to become the victim of disintegration and confusion. When this attack came Muslims were already in the throes of decadence. So their defensive capacity and capability were at a low ebb.

Without rehabilitating themselves morally and ideologically, no initiative for political reconstruction could be taken. This needed a revival of Islamic thought and action in the Muslim world which involved an area spread from Morocco to Indonesia, and with circumstances differing from place to place.

An intensive shaking and instability in the domain of thought was clearly visible. To bring about a cohesion in this field, which was the only factor which could prove most contributive to forcefulness in action, was no easy job. But in this all pervading darkness there was one ray of hope. Muslims were, no doubt, feeling demoralized because of their own failures, yet had faith in the efficacy of Islam as a code of life and basis of solid political thought. This aspect lent them considerable strength and saved them from a state of permanent disintegration. The colonial powers felt very uneasy on this account and devoted a major part of their anti-Muslim propaganda energy to fight and eliminate this trend among the Muslims. For this they coined terms like ‘Waahabism’, ‘Pan-Islamism’ etc, and presented them before Europe as a great threat and before the general Muslims as perverted conceptions of Islam.

No sane person with even a scanty knowledge of history and the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures would expect that in the world, the Muslim Ummah, which occupies a substantial part of the globe would go unaffected,, or will be able to completely wipe out and efface its influence. In some form or the other Western dominance during this period will have to be taken into account while writing history or analyzing and assessing the position of different entities. But since what has happened cannot be reversed, what actually matters and should be pondered now is as to which ideology emerged unstained, and how, despite passing through the ordeal of political and ideological dominance of the West. It is hoped, and the present resurgence and trend of thought among the Ummah and the exasperation of imperialist powers at the rekindling of the Islamic spark in the hearts of Muslims are clear indications of the fact that it is only Islam which has retained its pristine purity and has come out of this ideological holocaust intact.

In my humble opinion, Islam and the Muslim are not exactly identical so long as the latter do not follow the DIN exactly as is required of them. To Islam cannot be attributed the responsibility of the bad deeds of the Muslims. It can be said without fear of contradiction that Islam is the only religion as others call it, and the only DIN as Allah and the Muslims call it, which has been able to maintain its ideological purity inspite of facing all types of vicissitudes through out its history.

We insist that Islam is a DIN which means code of spiritual principles and of mundance life, and not a religion in the sense it is understood by people other then Muslims. In the colonial period the imperialist powers attempted by all means of propaganda, political victimization and demoralizing tactics to reduce Islam to the status of a private religion. They wanted the Muslims to desist from bringing in Islam as a basis of justification and a driving force for the struggle for their emancipation from the colonial rule.

It is a matter of common knowledge that except the DIN of Islam all other religions and their related philosophies of life, if any, accepted defeat in the temporal sphere of human life under economic and political pressures and receded into oblivion. Even Christianity, which once claimed overlordship of the mundane affairs of Europe during the ascendancy of the West, has officially acquisced in the position of the private affairs of man.

So far as Muslims are concerned the spell of the  Western influence on the thinking of a sector of their society during the colonial period did not last long. Even some orientalists who are capable of objective analysis have admitted that the West had failed to create a lasting effect on the Muslims. This is because Islam enjoys total grip on Muslim thought and provides full guidance with regard to metaphysical and worldly affairs. Muslims do not feel the need to look to any other source for guidance in the ideological field. It was due to this that in all parts of the Muslim world the fight for liberation from colonial rule was conducted under the inspiration of Islam and on the political front Islamic parties were organized.

To start with, nowhere did nationalism on the basis of colour, race, language or geography act as a driving force behind these struggles as I shall show by presenting brief sketches of the motivating forces operating behind freedom movements in various parts of the Muslim world. It was in the concluding stages of these struggles that Western educated nationalist minded personalities reaped the harvest for which the basic labour had been put in by the Muslim ideologists.

We should not lose sight of the fact that colonial powers did not plan to perpetuate their rule on the basis of mere force. But in order to facilitate the attainment of their objective, they also tried their utmost to make the Muslims forgo their Islamic values and system of thought in political and other spheres. They enforced an educational system which along with brainwashing the local population aimed at inculcating in them materialistic views which were in direct opposition to those of Islam. An American orientalist named Charles F. Gallangher writes in a book entitled “State and Society in Independent North Africa”:

“A methodical policy of deracination and deculturization was followed in Algeria in the nineteenth century, was repeated to a lesser extent in Morocco over a shorter period, and carried out most slightly in Tunisia...the main effort was to destroy the colonized by a complete denigration of their fundamental values.” (Page 76-77)

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