Public Comment

The Factious and Insular Nature of the Muslim World

By Rizwan Rahmani
Tuesday August 10, 2010 - 11:53:00 AM

There are roughly one and a half billion Muslims living on this planet, and it is a very heterogeneous group. It is fragmented and disparate, communal and even tribal in some parts of the Middle East, Pakistan, Africa, and Afghanistan. I know of no other community of this proportion that is politically so disorganized, and communally this incoherent.  

The most glaring chasm in this community is that of the Shiites and the Sunnis, which I will address in detail later. For a community as large as this, it is disquietingly silent against its slanderers who are harming its image. It has been made to cower in a crouch by its detractors, and it has little or no commanding platform on the world stage. There are some oil-rich countries with a modicum of control over the petroleum spigot empowered by OPEC, but the cartel can also be rather ingratiating. This complete lack of cultural cohesiveness and a tendency to puerile political babbling has resulted in a loss of the public relations war around the globe, and subsequently its goodwill. As a cultural bloc, this group has not been able to further any secular agenda for its community: they have allowed fringe groups to set the tenor of their cultural ideology. This passivity has let the media – who swim the waters of news like ravenous sharks ready to feed on any item Muslim and negative – define them through crude extrapolations and brazen hearsay. The media has caricatured this group, and portrayed their religion and culture as synonymous with terrorism. While the percentage of Muslims who align themselves with terrorists is probably a fraction of one percent, the larger Muslim community has not provided an alternative portrait. 

Some of this lack of unity arises from the fact that it is a huge group both geographically and culturally, stretching from the Philippines to Northwest Africa and northward to the central Asia (not taking into account the recent migrations). The differences between Muslims aren’t just skin deep: they are quite stark—even between the Muslims of India and Pakistan. These differences are economical, cultural, and sociological. Yet invariably all Muslims look to the Middle East with awe for their spiritual and cultural inspiration: the Middle East, which is now, and has been for some time, devoid of any exemplary nation, intellectual figure, philosopher, or political stalwart. The last political figure of some caliber in the region was Gamal Abdel Nasser, and even he wasn’t selected democratically the first time. But he was an anti-royalist, anti-colonialist, and a secularist who had some insight into what it took to build a modern state. He founded the short-lived United Arab Republic, and was an avid advocate of Pan-Arabism. He defied the British, French, and Israelis by blockading them in Suez Canal: eventually they had to cede control of the Canal. Nasser brought Egypt out of its colonial shackles, and changed much of its old laissez-faire economic practices, educational institutions, and archaic justice system. He changed Al-Azhar University’s age old policy of Sunni only enrollment. Despite his foibles, he certainly had more fortitude than the current assortment of tyrants and royalists, who are of the invertebrate ilk, busily leeching riches off their countries or exploiting their immigrant populations: their vision of the Muslim world is myopic and effectively confined within their own borders. 

A lack of oversight and hierarchy in Islamic religious structure leaves the Ulamas (religious scholars) and Imams free to spout their own ideologies. Sharia (Islamic Laws) and Hadith (a collection of instructive anecdotes of the prophet’s life) get reinterpreted frequently and are often regional, but always within the confines of its original text, leaving little or no consideration for the modern culture or sensibilities which are evolving at breakneck speed in an increasingly shrinking world. There are six accepted versions of the Hadith (incidentally the Shiites have four books of their own), each claiming to be the most definitive, which are interpreted by religious scholars, who are often culturally isolated older men completely out of touch with the concept of ‘greater Muslim community’ (Ummah). The imams usually regurgitate these interpretations, sometimes adulterated, from their high ‘Manbars’ (the sermon pulpit of the mosque) unscathed. These imams cannot even decide when to commence or end the month of Ramadan because by an archaic religious ‘law’ the new moon must be sighted by the naked eye—a practice which may have been the best option fourteen hundred years ago but is largely moot since an Arab astronomer and mathematician (Al Battani, after whom the moon crater Albategnius is named) calculated the solar year to the accuracy of a few seconds over nine hundred years ago! As a result of this often arbitrary but more fallible decision by humans (while a higher truth in the heavens exists) when there is no sighting possible (cloudy skies, e.g.), the most important lunar month for the Muslim world (Ramadan) doesn’t commence or end on the same date globally: this hardly fosters greater unity among Muslim people around the world. 

While Catholics have the Vatican, Protestants have Synod, Anglicans have Canterbury, and eastern orthodoxies have their patriarch, Muslims really don’t have any such central institution that oversees their smaller local chapters: the chief imam of the grand mosque in Mecca isn’t followed universally among the Muslims. Islam is somewhat akin to Quakers or Presbyterians (though even they have elders) in this regard, and Quakers have a system of quasi-democratic debate before any action is undertaken: even a single dissenter can veto a decision. Local mosques are the only institutions that faintly resemble a community center, but their scope is provincial, dogmatic, and limited. The mosque is not a community-based chapter of a greater organization, but rather an independent entity, managed mostly by community-appointed imams who run their own show under a religious mandate: their decisions are seldom challenged. They are not answerable to any sort of district center or higher organizational head that overseas the local chapters. This lack of hierarchical organization by its very nature leads to a general state of chaos and disunity, and subsequently renders the Muslim community weak and less coalesced. 

The tribal gestalt of pre-Islamic early Meccan society pervades the Arabian Peninsula. This mindset also permeates other parts of the Muslim world as well: Afghanistan is a prime example, where inter-tribe enmities are widespread and inter-generational. I am leery about giving any credence to David Lean and his writing team for insight into the Arab psyche, but when Omar Sharif’s character kills T.E. Lawrence’s guide, and upon protest Sharif Ali says, “He was nothing, the well is everything; the Hazimi may not drink at our well, he knew that”, it is not too far fetched judging from the rural Arabia I saw in and around Oman thirty five years ago. The Arabia of today is indeed more modernized, but much of the modernization is superficial. Islam tried to do away with tribalism by advocating the concept of Ummah (the greater Muslim community as one): unfortunately this concept never really took deep root. The failure of this became apparent after the third Caliph, Uthman Bin Affan, took the reigns: after a decent run, towards the end of his caliphate he faced a rebellion which ended him and his reign because of his questionable management style and nepotism. His death caused further problems to follow. 

Disunity worsened into civil war during the reign of the fourth Caliph, Ali Bin Abu Talib. Today, the tribal makeup of Arabia manifests in a different form: the smaller sheikhdoms, emirates, and monarchies of Arabia are feudalistic and self-serving despite all the riches they have acquired from petroleum – at least it is true of the peninsular nations (Yemen being the poorest nation among these). They treat other Muslims, from poorer countries, disdainfully while proffering reverential treatment on their colonial masters: yet the very people they discriminate against are culturally and religiously much more like them. A white western citizen with the same qualification as a Muslim from the subcontinent or North Africa stands to earn twice or thrice the salary, and in some cases several times more. Hypocritically, Arab nations bewail the plight of the Palestinians but they do politically and financially (lip service and token monies are paid) little to ameliorate their anguish; Palestinians are not treated very well in some of these nations and are often treated as second class citizens. While Jordan has integrated its Palestinian population quite well, after sixty years Lebanon still treats its Palestinian refugees as just that: refugees. 

Despite these atrocities perpetrated against Muslims by rich Arab countries, there exists an inexplicable fascination with these Arabian nations among Muslim communities around the globe due simply to the custodial role of Arabia as the geographic location of some holy Muslim sites. The reason for this misplaced obsequiousness to the Arabian Peninsula is obvious: the prophet was from there, and the four holiest sites for Muslims are in Middle East (including Karbala, one of the holiest sites for Shiites). 

Notable historical events have fragmented Islam in its infancy—most damaging among them, the friction over the right to the caliphate which ensued after the death of the prophet. By not designating a clear successor—at least in writing or by a call for a committee to appoint one—the prophet left the door wide open for Machiavellian maneuvering and political infighting in the future: an extreme political obtuseness that sabotaged Muslim unity forever after, in my humble opinion. Shiites disagree with the assertion that a successor wasn’t named, as they believe the prophet did name Ali Bin Abu Talib, if not explicitly, to be his successor. This different interpretation of his intent is the main cause for the great rift between the two factions (Shia & Sunni). Shias only believe in Caliphs from the prophet’s true blood lineage or ‘sang real’ (and in Arabic, Ahl Al-Bayt): they prefer to call these leaders imams. Abu Bakr Al-Siddiq, who was the prophet’s father-in-law, managed to corral enough support from the prophet’s closest cohorts to be chosen the next caliph: these cohorts (Majlis Al-Shura) didn’t even consider Ali Bin Abu Talib’s candidacy. Ali Bin Abu Talib was the cousin of the Prophet, grew up in the same household, was his confidante, son-in-law, and was alongside him in almost all the campaigns: naturally he should have been one of the candidates for caliph in spite of the final choice, and he himself believed that to be the case. After this event, there was a marked estrangement of Ali Bin Abu Talib from the greater Islamic cause: inglorious treatment at the hands of the new caliphate didn’t help to mend the bridges. Ali Bin Abu Talib withdrew from political life and devoted much of his time to his family and social work, digging wells around Medina. He would eventually relent and return to the Islamic cause after the death of his wife Fatima Bint Muhammad (Prophet’s daughter), and pledge his allegiance. 

Despite these contentions, Muslims did garner a huge empire in a very short time. But by the time Ali Bin Abu Talib finally became caliph (fourth in succession after Abu Bakr, Omar, and Uthman), the damage was done. There were already disagreements over the legitimacy of his caliph status by the Bani Umayya branch of Quraish clan—a different branch than that of Ali and the prophet. But the most notable opposition came from the prophet’s widow Aisha Bint Abu Bakr and her supporters, whose coalition army was defeated by the caliph Ali. She was put under a sort of a house arrest: she was escorted back to Medina by her own brother. His most fierce fight was against Mu’awiyah Bin Abu Sufiyan and his allies (one of the caliphs most despised by Shiites) who was the governor of Syria with a sizable army. He used the death of his cousin (the 3rd caliph) to launch an attack of his own aspirations: the fight ended up in a stalemate with neither side a clear winner. Mu'awiyah Ibn Abu Sufiyan was a staunch enemy of early Islamic groups: he was dealt a defeat at the Battle of Badr, and Mecca fell to the Muslims. He later converted to Islam, and became part of this early Islamic movement (a conversion Shias question). 

He was later appointed the governor of Syria by caliph Umar Bin Khattab. The third Caliph Uthman Bin Affan allotted more territories under his control: they were from the same tribe and related. He became quite powerful during his governorship in true Julian fashion by fighting the Byzantines, and as a result he came to command a huge army. His power and his army became a threat to Ali’s caliphate. He wanted to contain Mu’awiyah’s power and force his allegiance when he assumed the caliphate. After the long Battle of Siffin interestingly across the Euphrates River, some of Ali bin Abu Talib’s army were tricked with a deceptive prop and refused to take up the fight against Mu’awiyah who was on the verge of defeat. Ali Bin Abu Talib agreed to arbitration by independently appointed persons, but this caused more problems for him as some of his followers were angered. They abandoned him for this compromise and deemed him unfit to rule. He now had a new rebellion at hand, and had to quell them as well: this small group of people (the Kharijites) later plotted against him and others, but succeeded in assassinated him. His son Hasan Bin Ali took over the caliphate but was also opposed by Mu’awiyah. They were a few inconclusive skirmishes, and finally Hasan Ibn Ali agreed to a peace treaty whereby he would give up the caliphate for the greater good of the Ummah, and Mu’awiyah would relinquish his caliphate back to the Ummah, and Hasan would regain the caliphate in the event that Mu’awiyah died. Mu’awiyah Ibn Abu Sufiyan gained the caliphate by military might against the prophet’s grandson, and he also appointed his own son as his successor by breaking a treaty he had forged with Hasan Bin Ali. After the death of Hasan Bin Ali by poison (something by most accounts Mu’awiyah had a hand in, seeing Hasan Bin Ali as an obstacle to his caliphate), the Sunni/Shia divide became more deeply furrowed. But it fractured completely after the killing of Ali’s second son Hussein Ibn Ali at the Battle of Karbala by the army of Yazid bin Mu’awiyah (Mu’awiyah’s son). The bifurcation of these groups will be non-convergent from here on, with no love lost between them. 

The Shiites have a quasi hierarchical religious structure which culminates in the Ayatollah (literally ‘the sign of god’) who is supposed to be an authority on religious matter and jurisprudence. These Ayatollahs have lower ranking leaders who are allowed to talk on religious matters to the general public. There are a few sub-factions of Islam that do have community centers that serve both a sacred and secular role. The Ismailis have Jama’at Khana, and the Baha’i’s have their religious temples which are very active in their community at both religious and secular level, with a system of financial support and scholarship programs. Muslim community has no entities like the B’nai B’rith International, which is a cultural and political entity for the promulgation of Jewish cause. They have no watchdog agency like the Anti Defamation League, which is quick to push back vociferously at anything anti-Semitic or perceived to be so. They also don’t have powerful lobbying PAC (MPAC hardly has any meaningful weight) or any strong representation at the United Nations. Though it is quite unrealistic to expect any Muslim nation to be part of the permanent member of the Security Council, there have been two minor changes since its inception (China 1971: Russia 1991). But not one Muslim nation has the slightest idea on to how to curry favor with the most powerful member of this elite group. 

The Muslim community, despite being so haplessly disorganized, does have a critical mass of religiosity that doesn’t allow safe harbor (laissez-passer) for moderates or secularists. Unlike in other religious institutions which often play a ‘community center’ role, hosting events, lectures, performances, and activities from all parts of the community, secularists in the Muslim community have no similar alternative: all social activities in and around mosques are strictly non-secular (the much maligned Mosque proposed in New York is a step in the right direction). Everything conducted in or organized by the mosque has an overt religious theme or is adulterated with religion in some form. There are no secular activities promoted or undertaken by the mosque except charitable outreach funded by tithing. Unless you attend the mosque for Friday prayers or other daily prayer calls, there isn’t another local venue for the Muslim community to come together, such as at a social center or club, to share or promote other aspects of their identity, whether cultural, artistic, literary, philosophical, or musical: and thus the voice of moderation—if there is any—is drowned under a voluminous religious chorus. 

Diversity in the Muslim world is not something I am against: diversity can be the source of immense potential strength, if it avoids the trap of factious tribalism and instead uses it as a great reservoir of resources. As W.H. Auden said, “Civilizations should be measured by the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained”. The acceptance of diversity during its inception was one of the main reasons Islam gained widespread acceptance in a very short time. It was Umar Bin Khattab who allowed the Jews to come back to Jerusalem to practice their faith in peace after being banished from the city for centuries. He also signed a treaty with Christians to protect their churches and let them practice their faith under Arab rule. After the conquest of Jerusalem by the Crusaders, the Muslim and Jewish populations were massacred en masse, and they fled the city. When Salahuddin Ayyubi defeated the Crusaders and took back Jerusalem, the Jewish population was allowed back to the city along with the Muslims. 

But with diversity pulling today’s Muslim community in opposing directions like some medieval public capital punishment spectacle, the community is weakened, each part of its whole left lifelessly isolated. Ummah (‘greater Muslim community’) is more than an idealized vision: it is incumbent on the community to strive towards this greater goal for its survival. Without some sort of non-sectarian politically organized and stratified global body to oversee the affairs of this large community, it will never better its status in a diverse world that must, with a rainbow of religions, interact secularly.