The Question of Islam, ‘Islamists’ and Resistance within

 Motiur Rahman Khan

Post-Enlightenment, Islam has been one of the major
resisting forces against the Western colonialism and their ‘noble mission’ of
civilizing the world. Sometime Muslim resistance became so powerful that it
left its mark on the psyche of the colonial elite and revived bitter memories
of the Crusades.

At one point of time, Islam became nationalist voice against
imperialism and racial oppression. History of nineteenth century saw a series
of ‘Prophets’, ‘revivalists’ and a number of movements against unjust world
equations. At the same time, these ‘revivalists’ in their thrust of challenging
their enemies preached extreme ideologies to gain devout executer of their
ideas and by doing so, somehow they strayed away from their own socio-religious
culture. Such instances further intensified in the twentieth century, when the
world community dealt with the Muslim world differently. The Iraqi aggression
in Gulf was opposed with force and Israeli aggression at the cost of Arab is
supported by the West. And such other events in Balkan states further aggrieved
the situation and feeling of frustration in the Muslim revivalists. The
situation led to rise of many militant groups who preached violence and
targeted innocent peoples. It is highly probable that the origin of such
militant groups lie in nationalistic or politico-economic issues of the region.
But these modern Islamists went further when they started abducting, killing
innocent people and at the same time propagating terror by uploading videos of
their heinous acts on internet. Though, demonization of Islam as a religion
through different websites and creating ‘Islamophobia’ among the non-Muslims is
an ongoing process. (see, for example:, But these Islamists are also using
their heinous acts and its propagation for two purposes; first, for gaining
cheap publicity and creating fear of their presence and second, for instilling
insecurity among common Muslims to get new recruits.

Jo Ghayab Bhi hai Hazir Bhi

I am provoked to write this essay following the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram
and their proclamation that they would sell them in slave markets as this is
what they have been commanded by God. This kind of illusionary and illogical
explanation has been used earlier also.
Islamic God, whatever He had to
say has already revealed in His Book, the Holy Quran.  He is not in contact with any Boko Haram
leader (as the recent video sent by their leader claims) ordering him to stop
people from going to schools or condemning the girls to death or slavery.
Islamic politics (I would prefer, Arab politics of different shades), one may
argue, have always been aggressive and this very aggression had led the Arabs
successfully conquer regions up to Spain. But the voices of dissent
from within the community (umma) have always been there against
Arbo-Islamic politics.

The third Caliph, Othman (r.644-656) was murdered by a
dissenting group. He was charged with favouring people of his own clan in
political and government appointments. He was also blamed for not properly
distributing the income from Swat region among the people of Medina. It was said that Othman’s rule was
not according to the Quranic principle of governance and hence his
murder/killing was justified and needed no revenge. This argument convinced Ali
(d. 661) the fourth Caliph, who was raised to the post by these dissenting
groups. Later on, Ali waged war against the Prophet’s youngest wife, Ayesha and
captured her for her opposition to his elevation as Caliph. When Ali agreed to
resolve the dispute between him and Muawiya by a treaty, he too was charged
with incompetence and later murdered by a group of people known as Kharajites.
All these political events made a large number of ordinary Muslims uneasy and
though, they accepted Muawiya as the political authority; at the same time they
rejected the religious leadership of Muawiya and his successors. Murders of
Husayn and his associates at Karbala
was a shattering event for the common Muslims. Frustrated commoners turned
towards the people who preached love and advocated personal relations to God,
the Sufis, who raised their voices individually. But with the dynastic and
autocratic evolution of Caliphate these individuals started gaining influence
among the masses. Mansur al Hallaj (858-922 CE) preached personal relations
with God above any religious rituals; in doing so he said that the ultimate
goal is to dissolve oneself into the presence of God. He used to say that, “If you do not recognize God, at least
recognize His sign, I am the creative truth —Ana al-Haqq—, because
through the truth, I am eternal truth.” He represented the stage of baqa of
Sufism as propounded by Ali Hajveri. For Al Hallaj, “Love means to stand
next to the Beloved, renouncing oneself entirely and transforming oneself in
accordance to Him.” (Massignon, 74) He spoke of God as his
“Beloved”, “Friend” “You,” and felt that “his
only self was God,” to the point that he could not even remember his own
name.” (Mason, 26)
His ideas were against the Caliphal state and
for them it represented chaos against the order of God. Therefore, he was
accused of heresy and after a trial of 11 years, he was executed. The martyrdom
of Mansur al Hallaj was held in high esteem by the contemporary and near
contemporary poets and sufis. Farid ud Din Attar (1145-1221 CE) says that when
they were taking al Hallaj to court, a Sufi asked him, “What is love?” He
answered, “You will see it today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.” They killed him that day,
burnt him the next day and threw his ashes to the wind the day after that.
“This is love,” Attar says. His legs were cut off, he smiled and
said, “I used to walk the earth with these legs, now there’s only one step
to heaven, cut that if you can.” For Muslims, Al Hallaj, even today is a
celebrated Martyr. His martyrdom is exemplary for spiritual masters as well as
common Muslims even today. Faiz Ahmad Faiz (d.1984) exploits that sentiment
when he says:

Bas Naam rahay ga
Allah ka 

Jo main bhi hun aur tum bhi ho
Jo nazir bhi hai
manzar bhi

(Then only God’s name
will remain
Who is both absent and
Who is both the
observer and the view itself)

Uthay ga Analhaq ka
Jo Main bhi Hun aur
Tumbhi ho

(When the anthem of ‘I
am the Truth’ will be raised
Who I am and you are
as well)

Aur Raaj karay gi

(And the people of God
will reign 
Who I am and you are
as well)

Faiz invoked the utterance of Anal Haque (I am the Truth/God) by
Mansur al Hallaj, which had become a symbol of revolt/resistance in Muslim
societies to remind that it is not new for us to revolt against the established
orders (in his other poem
na unki rasm nayee hai na apni reet nayee). 

          Islam was understood to be a religion
of Arabs and they treated their subjects, even if they were Muslims,
differently. The non-Arabs were organized in patron-client relationship with
the existing Arab tribes. These non-Arabs were called the maula (pl. mawali)
or slave of the Arab tribe which they were tied to for politico-social
reasons. Dissenting Arab groups such as the Kharajites (khariji) were
against this system in their early phase of existence and talked of unity of
the ‘umma. But later on they too changed their position with the
beginning of Mawali Movement, which is well-known for their opposition to the
Arab supremacy. Abbas Saffa exploited the mawali sentiment against the
Arabs and with their help the Ummaiyad rule thrown out and the ‘Abbasid Revolution’
took place, which introduced completely a new system of state modeled on
erstwhile Sassanid’s with some modifications. The Abbasids too betrayed the
non-Arab cause and introduced regressive Arabisation of society, state and
culture. The non-Arab Muslims, particularly Persians resisted this move with
full vigor and they started Shubbiya Movement (shubbiya derived from shub,
Arab., nation) to keep their Persian language and identity intact. The movement
extolled the “Wisdom” of non-Arabs, the Indians, the Greeks, and especially the
Iranians in contrast to the lack of culture of the Arabs. The psyche of the
Persians can be understood in the words of a Persian commander as related to by
Firdausi (c. 1010) of Shahnama fame:

From mere drinkers of
camel’s milk and lizard-eaters,
The Arabs have reached
such a state
That they are aiming at
the Iranian imperial throne
Fie upon thee, fie, O
ever-turning Fortune!

In response to the Persian
criticism of Arab racism in Islam and politics, the Arabs emphasized that they
were the ‘first to produce Islam’ (Irfan Habib 2013). This kind of common Arab
attitude and their notion of Islam, which emphasized on the reward in afterlife
for obeying God in this world, did not impress more cultured Persians; to them
it was a selfish motive. The response to this notion, Rabia of Basra (d.801 CE) gave the idea of
‘disinterested love’ for God. She is reported to have said that, “I am going to
light a fire in paradise and pour water in hell, so that the servants of God
can see him without any object of Hope or motive of fear.” Rabia is much
celebrated women sufi, who has been referred to by several sufis as example for
their own teachings. One such example is narrated by Shaikh Nasiruddin Chiragh
of Delhi (d.
1356) about her:

“Rabia of Basra possessed much beauty
and grace. The principal men of Basra,
consisting of scholars and mystics resolved unanimously that this woman, while
traversing the path of God, was not to behave like men; it might not happen
that Satan led her astray. Thereupon they assembled together and went to Rabia.
They told her, a woman however pious must have a husband. She asked the most
learned of them to come forward. Upon Khwaja Hasan Basri doing so, she asked
him: How was wisdom (aql) divided, at Creation? He replied, “Nine parts
were given to men, one to women”. And how, she went
on, was lust (shahwat) divided. He said, contrary to that, nine parts of
it were given to women, and just one to men. Rabia thereupon countered:
One-tenth of wisdom that I possess prevails over nine-tenth of lust that I have
got, while the nine-tenths of wisdom that you people have cannot prevail over
just one-tenth of lust!” (Hamid Qalandar. 1959, 200-201 c.f. Irfan Habib. 2013)

            Rabia’s story, here, became the
voice for challenging inherent patriarchy in the Muslim societies, perhaps, of Delhi if not of Basra.
Although, Razia Sultan almost a century ago had challenged the patriarchal
nobility by becoming an independent Sultan with the help of common Muslims, to
whom she requested for help after Friday prayers in Delhi, but unfortunately, she could not hold
her position in a hostile environment for long. It was perhaps Razia, who
caused the beginning of the debate around patriarchy among the Muslim elites of

             Exposition of Sharia law in itself
is a story of different politico-intellectual conflicts prevalent in the early umma
(Muslim brotherhood).  The succession
of early caliphs depended on claimant’s nearness to the Prophet and his piety
as described by the companions (of the Prophet). By the time Marwanid Ummaiyads
came to power, no one from the companions was alive, therefore the caliphs
started patronizing writing of Hadith (traditions), which was related through a
chain of proofs. The Quran and the Hadith became the basis of Islamic law and
its interpretation became a leading science to be studied. Intellectual pursuit
of this kind was also accompanied with philosophical studies. Soon after the
conquest of Syria
the Arabs started translating Hellenistic literatures into Arabic. These
translations crept into the philosophical understanding of the Arabs and
influenced religious thought as well. Mutazallite movement is an example of
these influences on Islamic thought, which not only tried to understand the
cosmology of Islam with reasons but also challenged very basic belief system.
They said that the Quran is a part of creature and like any other creature of
God has a life-span, thus the Quran can also become irrelevant in future. For
some time the Mutazallites had a great influence over some of the caliphs who
also unleashed mihna (inquisition) on the people who refused to accept
the Mutazallite view.

These influences were not restricted to religious philosophy and
theology but it influenced many individuals who did not hesitate in recording
their dissent against established orders. Muqaddasi, one of great geographers
of Islam, while writing in c. 985 wonders, whether it would not ‘have
been better if the vast sums of money spent on mosques had been spent on roads
and carvanserais (rest-houses) and frontier fortresses’ (Irfan Habib.
2013).  Abu Raihan Alberuni, the writer
of Kitab ul Hind (c. 1035) is well-known for his open mindedness
and the liberal attitude had been very frank in asserting that “To offer to him who has beaten your cheek, the other
cheek, also to bless your enemy and to pray for him: Upon my life, this is a
noble philosophy.” It is impossible that Alberuni was unaware of that this is
not what Muslim theology preaches. His admiration of Bhagvatgita and
Vyasa is an exemplary in itself.

           The brief survey of history, which I
intentionally kept restricted to first five centuries of Islam, narrates the
stories of Arabo-Islamic politics and commoners’ response to it. The driving
force of Islam, as it is preached, was its emphasis on egalitarianism at least,
among the umma. But, throughout the period of caliphate one notices, the
principle hardly been followed. However, it is quite interesting to see that
the orthodoxy always faced challenge from one quarter or the other. In the
present scenario of Nigerian crisis and their likes, one has to resist and come
out against their design to push the society backward.
The history remembers those who resist against tyranny.

Na unki rasm nayee hai na
apni reet nayee

“Perspective Transhistorique sur la vie de Hallaj”. Parole donnée (Paris:
Seuil): 73–97. 

MASON, HERBERT (1983). Memoir of a Friend: Louis Massignon.
Notre Dame: University
of Notre Dame Press

HABIB (2013). “
Questionings within Religious Thought:The Experience of Islam”,
K. M. Ashraf Memorial Lecture at Kirori
Mal College,
University of Delhi in 2013.

HAMID QALANDAR (1959), Khairul Majalis, ed. Khaliq Ahmad
Nizami. Aligarh

The author teaches
Medieval Indian History at PGDAV College (Eve), University of Delhi