1: The major stages in the intellectual progress
From Jawdat Said
Q. 1: What are some of the major stages in your intellectual progress?
A. 1: Let me admit at the outset that you succeed in what many have failed to do, by drawing from me answers to your questions. The reason you succeed is the perceptiveness with which you enter my world; you really touch on the finer details of that world. The points you raise do really reveal a mind that can appreciate the issues that keep preoccupying my mind. Thank you for all that.
Now you ask me about the major stages in my intellectual progress. It is an important and critical question, but can I do justice to it? Can one ever remember the circumstances that directed his intellectual growth? I don't think so. Nevertheless, the attempt is worthwhile; one in fact should try to trace such influences. Let me begin with this incident: I once returned home when I was in the second grade, having learned at school how to pray, and what to say in the final sitting position. The textbook we used at school mentioned two versions of the 'testifying supplication' for that position, one reported by Ibn Abbas, a companion of the Prophet's, peace be upon him, and the other reported by Ibn Mas'ud, another companion. Feeling puzzled why two different versions existed, I asked my mother on arriving home what was behind this difference. So she peered long at the comment on the two supplications and then said, pointing out one of them: "This is the right version which you should learn, for it is the one chosen by the chief of jurists, Abu Hanifah [the founder of one of the four schools of Islamic law, madhab in Arabic]; as for the other, it is for the followers of the Shafiite madhhab'." She did not feel the need for any further explanation. As for me, I did not dare to follow the matter up with my teacher or my father: like other children, I dared to ask my mother what I did not dare to ask a teacher or a father; but even with her, I felt too shy to persist any further. But it did occur to me then that if a child happened to be of the Shafiite madhab, and had returned home and asked his mother, she would say: "We are followers of the Great Imam, al-Shafii," and would have pointed out the other version as the more authentic one.
Now I can see that that elementary and childish inquiry is still the philosophical stumbling block which is not yet satisfied by men. The difference of course is that I went on later to inquire what should be one's reference in determining not only the Hanafite from the Shafi'ite madhab; nor even the Sunni from the Shiite position; but what should be one's reference in determining whether the believers or non-believers were nearer the truth. I find that this also relates to your fourth question, in which you ask: How would you place human history in relation to the Qur'an? And how can world history be so indispensable in approaching the Qur'an?
It is really hard work to bring to the reader's notice all the wilderness I had to trudge through until I came to perceive that history should be recognized as a source of knowledge. It took me more than half a century; I was all the time grappling with the question: How do I know that I know what I know? It was like a worshipper who seeks the right direction of 'qibla, or Mecca' to direct his face to while performing his prayer. How to know that there is a truth to seek, that life is not without a North Pole. Now I realize that the ignorant person who says: Thank God that we were born into the true religion; praise be to God that we were not born in the wrong place – that this poor soul is not in much worse position than the proud philosophers in the past and present who feel that their philosophy has brought them face to face with nihilism and nothingness. That man is controlled by his culture is true, and the Prophet, peace be upon him says: "Every human is born ready to follow the straight path. It is his parents who make of him a Christian, a Jew, a Magian, or whatsoever." One's environment is very often a source of knowledge to him; one's family and ancestors are very often his reference for choosing his creed, and this way is condemned in the Qur'an. An individual's social milieu or his ancestors may not be his criterion for knowing right from wrong in the Qur'an. And again I feel that this brings up your eighth question, in which you say: Are you calling to dissociation with the heritage of the past?
Does not this remind you of a line of Persian poetry cited by the previous Iranian president Khatami, which says: "Well, can you, when you bask in the soft breeze, sense the darkness and bewilderment we go through!" I say this in view of the difficulty I went through from one level to the next. As for the level I reached, though I cannot claim I have gone beyond, is breaking free from the control of the fathers. Let met be clear about the authority of ancestors: to hold them up as an intellectual reference is a mistake; but it is another mistake to ignore them. They are human beings, not less and not more; as we recite in the Qur'an: "You are humans, just like the humans He has created;" (5:18). I wish someone would write a whole book focused on this verse, "You are humans, just like the humans He has created;" though I have little hope of myself writing such a book, in the way I have written several books focused on Qur'anic verses. The doubt about following fathers comes from the fact that without the fathers we are nothing. You are quite right when you say: do you not agree that any advance in dissociation with the past is illusive and without any roots? When one is not confined to what he has received from the fathers, he may pick up or devise an idea that is quite revolutionary. I say this here because I remember what Malek Bennabi once wrote, I think in a footnote on his book, The Birth of A Community: History is change; it is development. That is so because a time that passes without bringing forth change and development is a dead time. Then he cited the example of ants and bees, that those species have had no change in millions of years, so that if you eliminate a million years of their history, the latter part can just connect to the earlier part with no loss detected. This is not so in the development of the human species.
Man is a process, for Allah adds to creation as He pleases [ref. to the Qur'an, 30:1]; and He creates things of which we are not aware. How dense is the darkness in which we live, and how heavy the shackles we bear! According to the Qur'an, Allah sends His prophets so that He releases men from their heavy burden, and from the yokes that are upon them [7:157]. But let me move on to another juncture in my progress: One day, late in the nineteen forties, and I was at that time a student at al-Azhar University, it occurred to my mind that our instructors taught us that we were drawing close to the end of the world, that no day but would be worse than the previous day. And so I reasoned, if so, if the faith we believed in was fated to be deteriorating day by day, why should one dedicate himself to serving such a failed doctrine? Indeed, had not man's need for religion been so deep, he would have given up all faith; but it so happens that no matter how badly people disfigure religion, men's need remains deeper than any distortions: man knows deep in his heart that this world is not there for no reason. Man knows deep at heart that truth is to be fulfilled, but because for many of us no justice seems to be realized in this world, some wait to see it realized on the Day of Judgment.
But where, I went on to think, did this idea, that the world was coming to a near end, originate? Did the Qur'an teach this? So I scanned the Qur'an to check, but I found nothing of that. Instead, I saw in the Qur'an, "Anyone who has done an atom's weight of good shall see it;" (99:7) "We will, without doubt, help Our apostles and those who believe, both in this world's life and on the Day when the witnesses stand forth;" (40: 51) "If any think that God will not help him in this world and the Hereafter, let him stretch out a rope to the ceiling, and cut himself off;" (22:15) and I found, "God has promised, to those among you who believe and work righteous deeds, that He will, of a surety, grant them in the land, inheritance of power;" (24:55). All the verses of the Qur'an, however, were not enough. When a society ceases to develop and grow, when it is no longer in a 'process', it will be despondent: there will settle in it the idea of the time coming to an end. Well, Abdul-Jabbar, I do not have the brilliant style that matches the issues I am handling. Hence, I use many words to express so little; and it is not enough that questions are intriguing, and that I try to satisfy you, but I must be fair to the reader and help him.
The Muslim World has strayed into the wilderness long enough. It is taking too long to walk out of it: people like you and me we feel that the Muslim World is too slow to awaken; although for those who relish watching our sleep, they feel that the Muslim World is moving too fast towards gaining comprehension. Now to get back to the point of ancestors, without the ancestors' experiences we have got to return to the cave or the forest. At that time man only gathered or hunted his food, before agriculture. It was what we have inherited from the ancestors that put us where we are. Therefore, the right attitude to the ancestors is that expressed in this verse from the Qur'an, "Such are they from whom We shall accept the best of their deeds and pass by their ill deeds;" (46:16). But we are still unable to go beyond our fathers, and I may only turn to God, to pray: "O, Lord! Gant us light! Enable us to see things for what they are, and not as our forefathers saw them!" For fourteen centuries things have, in the hands of our ancestors, gone down and down, and they have walked from one defeat to the next, and each defeat was worse than the previous one. Let me be clear here, that I have as much respect as any other Muslim does: They did their part; they did not have all the history we have to shed light on our way. They should be forgiven their shortcomings, but we are not justified in not getting rid of the negative aspects of our life; we are not justified in failing to comprehend how God keeps expanding creation, for God 'adds to creation as He pleases,' (the Qur'an, 35:1). It is now the others who fulfill this expansion of creation, and it is God's will that any people who endeavor, should reap the fruit of their effort, as the Qur'an says: "Such days of varying fortunes We give to men and men by turns." (3:140) The text, as we use it, works to block our understanding of things in the world and analyzing history: while the right approach is to view history and the revealed text as inseparable partners, for no offspring may be begotten without both parties doing their part.
We need to relate this issue of past generations to another point. Writing, the art of transmitting concepts and experience with symbols, is a new technology in the life of mankind. It is a decisive advance of man over all the other living beings. All other species possess all their abilities and bear their behaviors within their genes; but it is not so in the case of man: when he is born, a human being does not possess within his genes all his behaviors, nor is his future encoded there. A child is born knowing nothing, and from the moment it is born, it begins to learn things about how to behave in life. It is true what the ancients called man, 'a talking animal'; man transmits experience with words. Although we have no way of specifying the exact time when man started to talk, we do have exact knowledge about when man started to read and write; it is so because the written material, in contrast with spoken words, are inscribed on stone, on skin, or on paper; and we have such inscribed texts dating five thousand years back. We need to think of the written text as a great thing, as a sacred achievement, for it is the technique which has helped man to preserve his experience. Before writing, mankind's experience used to vanish and perish – the human brain dies with the death of man, and any experience that it may have acquired is bound to die with its death. For eons of time, man lived in an oral period, and God did not reveal any of His books until man was able to read and write. It is perhaps a reminder of this that the last prophet, Muhammad, was illiterate.
Having a book is a stage beyond that of just assigning names to things around man. Therefore, God does not say about Adam that He had revealed a book to him; he just says, 'And He taught Adam the names 'and nature' of all things;' (2:31) Man was enabled to utter words, and give vocal symbols to concepts; his ability to give names to things indicates his gaining knowledge of things, and of whatever fresh knowledge is revealed to his mind, physical or moral. In this way we understand, 'And He taught Adam the names 'and nature' of all things;' (2:31) not that God taught Adam all the languages of the world. Later, man learned how to inscribe symbols on paper, and was able to write the Qur'an. It was in the Qur'an, too, that the first revealed word, "Read," (96:1) was connected with this technique, the ability to write: the word 'read', which was the first word to be revealed to Prophet Muhammad, refers to this ability to encode words into graphic symbols, and then to decipher the same symbols when reading a text. A symbol is valuable in that it has no independent sense: it is we human beings who relate the sense to the referent by bearing a sense in our mind, and being aware that a specific word refers to something in the world.
This brings us to consider texts: A text is of no value except to the extent it is related to real things; at the same time, what we experience in the real world gets lost unless and until it is recorded in a text, and that shows how essential a text is in the life of man. Texts are invaluable in the life of men; more than that, several techniques are being discovered and applied to give permanence to uttered words, not only words but visual representations of the person who utters the words. It is very laboriously and slowly that we begin to understand the relationship between a text and the real world, or the reference and the referent. This is so vital that Allah uses the real world to testify to the authenticity of His Scripture. In this verse, "We will show them Our Signs in the regions of the earth and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the truth;" (41:53) it is shown that when one goes along in the light of both the text and the actual facts of the world, he will never be deluded. A revealing incident here is that men were disputing and even fighting incessantly about the nature of the sun and earth, about which orbited which; and the revealed text in their hands did not help in putting an end to that disputation. What actually brought that dispute to an end was when men turned their look upwards and saw for themselves how the earth orbited the sun. By exploring God's signs in the world, and exploring the nervous system, the reservoir which stores all the experiences, we can handle the revealed text properly. Unless we perceive and acknowledge that relation between the revealed words (the text), and the reality, (which is discussed in the text), unless we take both, we will go one straying in the wilderness and condemning each other.
Muhammad Abduh had a decisive effect on my progress. So had Muhammad Assad (in his book, Islam at Crossroads.) I began to see that one may come upon new solutions for problems, all problems. What mainly drove me to believe in this was looking again at this verse of the Qur'an: "And He subjected to you, as from Him, all that is in the heavens and on earth;" (45:13) I began to see that the world was there to do our bidding; and when the world does not obey our command, then it is not the world's fault; it is rather ours. I must assert here that my progress was slow; it took ideas such a long time to develop. At the same time I felt that there were moments of insight. About the time I graduated from al-Azhar University, in the mid-fifties of the twentieth century, I was all ears and eyes; always on the alert to hear and see new things, and to analyze what I saw and heard. It was about that time that I came upon a book by Malek Bennabi, Conditions of Revival, and it was such a major juncture in my intellectual progress. I did not understand it well the first time, but I did sense that there was here an unusual approach to things, a singular way of analyzing things. And so I read and read: later I pondered over every word of every book by Malek Bennabi. One of his books, The Afroasian Idea, I read maybe more than thirty times. I would reflect on ideas and bring them together, to analyze and compare. The greatest idea in Malek Bennabi is that of colonisibility, a people's proneness to be victims of imperialism. It is a vital concept, and it is our responsibility to develop the idea and carry it beyond where Bennabi left it. This idea really echoes the Qur'anic verse: "Whatever evil befalls you is from your own soul;" (4:79) What Bennabi was saying was very different from what we used to hear from al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, and even Iqbal. It was such a jolt to me when he refrained from blaming the enemies, the colonizer, the imperialist, the crusader, the Zionist, the freemason, and all the other foes. No other speaker, Islamist or secularist, but charged the others and blamed them for what befell us. In contrast, the speakers would very little and in such a low voice speak, if they spoke at all, of our faults and mistakes, the factors that enabled others to manipulate us. It was such a giant step to turn our attention to our own responsibility. It was also another surprise when he said that whenever Muslims meet in conferences they would put forth the Palestinian problem as being the Muslim World's prime problem, and that, as Malek Bennabi declared, was a mistake – our real malaise was colonisibility, and our backwardness; Palestine, Cashmere, Eritrea, etc. were no more than symptoms of the disease. And it was no little shock when he said: Colonisibility hit us long before the colonizer ever thought of colonizing us. It came to take shape not in Paris, London, Washington or Moscow, but it took shape under the domes of mosques in the Muslim World, in Bukhara, Samarqand, Delhi, Teheran, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Kairawan, along the Tangier – Jakarta axis. I felt the value of the curve he drew of the progress of the Muslim culture, starting with the Angel's call to the Prophet, at Hira Cave, a first phase which came to an end at Siffeen Battle; a second phase which came to an end with Ibn Khaldoun; and then a descending phase which resulted in the retrogression and colonization. It was such an eye-opener to me when he said: A person who speaks now without being conscious of what additions were brought forth to human knowledge in the twentieth century must be the object of derision and mockery. Do you see, Abdul-Jabbar, how slow we are to come to understand things? We not only are averse to analyzing the factors of our backwardness, but we camouflage those factors with the best appearance, and we are very often prepared to die in defending them rather than change. Another juncture is that of Muhammad Arkoun. Arkoun has the distinction of having freed himself of that tendency, prevalent in the Muslim World, to take things to be either faultless or worthless, where, as Malek Bennabi explains, things can be too easily shifted from one to the other category: how easily would a freedom-fighter be in a minute stigmatized as a traitor, or a believer as a heretic or apostate.
My experience with Iqbal was very unlike that with Malek Bennabi, for Iqbal was a sufi (mystic) poet, who soared in the sky, debating with men, jinn, satans, imperialism and Redwan, Paradise's guard. Iqbal showed great insight in comprehending the truth, and he knew it. He said: My eyes can perceive the pulse of the stars/and the flow of the blood in the moon's vessels. He knew much about the world and about man, far above other Muslims. He said, in his poetic style: Man is a limb of God's will. It was Iqbal who awakened us to the fact that though the Qur'an and Islam emerged before the age of science, it was the Qur'an which heralded the age of science. It was Iqbal, too, who alerted us to the importance of the facts of the real world and human experience (the signs in Qur'anic diction): in his words, the Qur'an takes the observable world, and man's inner world, as sources of knowledge. He pointed this out through a verse from the Qur'an which states: "We will show them Our Signs in the regions of the earth and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the truth;" (41:53). He shed on this verse a light that shines more and more with the passage of time. Iqbal acknowledged that it was Jalal al-Deen al-Rumi who transformed him, from being an ordinary person into a new being. I also learned something else from the story he recounts about al-Rumi, who searched and searched for a certain man who inspired him, Shams al-Deen al-Tabreezee; but after his long search he realized that the inspiration that he sought was inside his soul.
It was Iqbal, too, who appreciated the significance of the 'seal of prophethood', the fact that Muhammad, peace be upon him, was the last apostle of Allah's. I think we do not yet appreciate the full significance of this fact; but history will reveal its full weight. We do say that Muhammad, peace be upon him, is the seal (last) of prophets, but how important is this fact? Now, the whole phenomenon of prophethood, from Noah until Muhammad, lasted just less than five thousand years; so how will the situation of mankind be after a million years? Iqbal notes in this connection: It was right that the prophethood should come to an end, because the signs (facts) of the world and the signs in our own souls have become a source of learning the truth.
It was Iqbal who helped me know right from wrong when considering that old question about the Hanafite and Shafiite madhabs, schools of Islamic law. He said: the way to knowing the truth about doctrines, philosophies, religions, and cultures, is to observe the kind of man which any of these doctrines, etc. produces.
Iqbal was physiologically short-sighted, but he proved to have such a far-reaching intellect when he helped me solve the problem of shari'ah, God's law – it was such a giant idea when he said: Allah's shari'ah is realized when justice is realized; whatever comes closer to justice is closer to Allah's shari'ah. As for the details of the law, they will vary depending on the age, the objective always being the realization of justice and beautiful dealings. I am not saying that there are no other first rate thinkers, but I'm saying that the above are the greatest thinkers I knew of. The common factor in all these thinkers is their giving first place to man and appreciating man. But Oh! In what darkness we grope, when we kill each other! Where is the light! Where is the paradigm, as Heidegger says?
So far, I think I have somehow attended to your first two questions, 1, the intellectual junctures, and 2, the intellectual elements. I was once a follower of the 'salafi' trend (following the example of the first generations of Islam), then I drew my inspiration from al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, and then it was Iqbal. Then I discovered Muhammad Arkoun, and that was a more demanding stage than any other, for when you are dealing with the West, it is not easy to see your way, and to detect the pitfalls. But I drew from Iqbal some strength. He used to say: Your civilization will keep tumbling and slipping, for a nest that is built on a fragile bough will not stay long; your fire does not dazzle my eyes, for I have chosen to follow Abraham's faith. Can we ever when dealing with the West adhere to the rule of "Such are they from whom We shall accept the best of their deeds and pass by their ill deeds;" (the Qur'an, 46:16)? Why should some of us see nothing of the West but its worst delusions and aberrations, while others see nothing but the opposite? It is right to say here that it is not only the means of transportation that the Westerners have invented, but they have invented a way of transferring rule without spilling blood: this latter innovation is far more worthy than the means of transportation. And while we are anxious to buy and buy vehicles ( buy rather than manufacture), we are not at all anxious to learn the transfer in politics and rule, the way rule can be transferred from person to person without spilling blood: not many of us believe in the power of the idea, that people can be persuaded rather than coerced; neither the secularist nor the pious believe in this. Though in the Western democracy the transfer of rule is tarnished by some deception and fraud to manipulate the voters, it is still not gained through intimidating people with the whip and iron and fire. Democracy is quite a new thing in the world, despite all the elementary forms that had appeared at various times in the past. Muslims had a certain form of free opinion at the time of the Upright Caliphs, and when they lost that Muslims felt in a vague way that something right was slipping away, and therefore some said, when Mu'awiyah was planning to have his son forced on people as ruler after him: "What are trying to do? Are you adopting the method of the czars, who when a czar dies, he is succeeded by a czar!" Muslims did feel that something great was being wasted, thought they did not quite understand the proper way. But mankind went beyond that, for as the Qur'an teaches us, and as I quoted above, God adds to creation as He pleases, and so how freedom and representation should be translated into an applied reality was developed and elaborated. Things do change. Modernity appeared in people's view of the universe, for at one time, and for so many centuries, men asserted that the sun orbited the earth, and when some declared that it was the other way round, that we were not at the center of the universe, many people were extremely alarmed and outraged: they felt something terrible would happen if man, and man's earth, were not at the center of the universe. Indeed, some people were prepared to die, or to send others to death, to keep the old idea intact. But the change was taking place in astronomy, and modernity was starting to take root, and our view of the universe was changing. Other things were happening, the steam engine, the combustion engine. Instead of the horse, the camel and the donkey, new means of transportation were introduced that the older generations had not dreamed of. The telescope enabled people to see what they never dreamed of seeing before; on the other hand the microscope showed people tiny particles that were never seen before: germs were seen that enabled men to discover the causes of epidemics; in this way cures for many diseases were discovered. And ever so much more sophistication is taking place. All started from Copernicus, and people can comprehend this; but the other revolution, that in the social, political, and human spheres is not yet appreciated.
From observing history, one can notice a certain very curious phenomenon. In the past, kings seemed to be of huge stature, apparently there to stay for ever; and if a king was eliminated by assassination, then it was only his person who was eliminated. His same prestige was transferred to his successor. Also, the public in the past were taken to be an ignorant, worthless, a homogeneous mass; with no claim to any part at all in public affairs, apart from prostrating themselves before their monarch. And then, the astronomical revolution was followed by a social revolution, when kings dwindled and dwindled, until they are in the developed societies no more than relics from the past, physically preserved, but without any authority whatsoever. Power was being transferred to the people, very slowly, but very surely. This really is a move towards modernity, social modernity. Man is growing in stature; by which we mean that man's consciousness is growing, the more so as he learns more about history. One can recall the time when men offered human sacrifices, and how, when Abraham appeared, a stop was put to this offering of human sacrifices. It is right to see in the Islamic practices of offering an animal sacrifice during al-Adha Bairam, a declaration of the end of offering human sacrifices. It announces that humankind is developing and advancing. That with the advent of Islam a new epoch was arriving, and was being proclaimed in many ways. There is in the Qur'an the debate between Abraham and the tyrannical ruler, whom Abraham challenged to show any control over universe's laws (2:258.) That the unbeliever was nonplused is a reminder that the world is shocked when a new stage comes forth. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, announced during his 'farewell pilgrimage' the experience of Abraham, and he announced to all human beings: "You all descend from Adam, and Adam was created from dust. No Arab is to be favored over a non-Arab, no white is to be favored over a black – except in piety." He added: Do not regress into wild life, spilling each other's blood." He also exhorted his audience to be kind to women, who were [at that time] confined at homes and wholly controlled by men. It was a new epoch of equity and the elimination of privileges, announced at least in theory. But the scientific transformation was slow, so slow, to take place.
Am I straying away from the questions? Well, my justification is that the points are within the Islamic dilemma, and the human dilemma. I feel that the facts of the world are regaining to the texts their significance after they have been vitiated of it. It is relevant here to assert that the message of all the prophets is one and the same. No matter how we brand Christianity or Judaism as polytheistic or chauvinistic, the essence of all the divine religions is one and the same: they all revolve on monotheism which, as long as it remains intact, all other sins may be forgiven; but if it is marred, no act of devotion is accepted. We may read about that in the Qur'an: "For We assuredly sent amongst every people an apostles with the command, 'Serve God and eschew taghoot [the trespasser beyond all limits, the tyrant]' " (16:36) So let's remember the one message which was conveyed by each and every apostle, 'Serve God and eschew the taghhot'. Now in all the comments and exegeses on the Qur'an, I have never seen any adequate explanation of the word 'taghoot'. They merely render it as 'evil', 'Satan', or 'the idols'; while, if we do a little search about the derivatives of the word, for its root 'tagha', we find the Qur'an uses the word differently from what the commentators have taken it to be. We find for instance that God directs Moses to go to Pharaoh with these words, 'Go thou to Pharaoh, for he has indeed tagha [i.e. transgressed beyond all bounds.]' (76:17;) and we find, "[Seest thou not how thy Lord dealt with …, and with …, ] And with Pharaoh, lord of stakes? All these taghau [transgressed beyond bounds] in the land, and heaped therein mischief on mischief. Therefore did thy Lord pour on them a scourge of diverse penalties: For thy Lord is like a guardian on a watch-tower." (89:10-14) No tyrant is held up in the Qur'an as the prototype of transgression and tyranny more than Pharaoh; not any name – apart from that of Allah – is mentioned in the Qur'an more often than that of Moses, the man who stood in the face of Pharaoh; and that in the greatest civilization of the ancient world. The Qur'an lets Pharaoh utter all he feels about the attitudes and nuances of the feelings of the oppressors, all that is publicly and privately uttered by this category as represented by their foremost archetype is recorded in the Qur'an. Moses is equally the model for challenging the tyrant; he keeps reminding his people of all they need to do to rid themselves of the submissive state to the transgressor. It must be revealing that the story of Moses and Pharaoh has been repeated in the Qur'an more than any other story, with varying details and lengths. It has definitely been given less than justice of investigation and analysis.
It is to be noted that the issue of monotheism and polytheism does not focus on the divine aspect but on the attitude of individuals and communities: it is a human-social-political issue: it is concerned with putting right the relations among people – that God is One was not unknown to the Quraysh tribe which the Prophet, peace be on him, first addressed, exactly as now we say about God He is One. But still they rejected the message borne by the Messenger: the point of their dispute with the Messenger was that in that society some individuals were granted privileges not granted to the rest of society; some individuals were held to be above the law. The sort of community the Prophet, peace be upon him, was introducing, a society in which the law is applied to Fatimah, the Prophet's daughter, in the same way as to any other man or woman, that was an unheard of society. Theirs was the same as the societies in our own time: we just need to cite the Veto Right in the foremost of all the organizations of our world to see that societies not only keep silent when this great transgression is committed, but those who are not endowed the Veto Right crave it bitterly. It shows that polytheism is still true of our time at the highest level in the world; the transgressors are the biggest powers in the world, and their transgression is endorsed by the smaller and smallest transgressors. Nobody stands up to denounce the Veto Right.
It is for the above reason that Iqbal used to say that monotheism was not the opposite of multiple gods, but the opposite of 'shirk, i.e. taking some people to be above the law, not applying the law to some individuals.' When Pharaoh said: "I am your Lord, most high," (79:24), he meant that it was he, and no other person, who had the right to enact law, and to be himself exempt from the law. He said to his people, as the Qur'an reports: "I but point out to you that which I see myself, nor do I guide you but to the path of right;" (40:29); he said to his people: "No god do I know for you but myself!" (28:38); he said to Moses: "If thou dost put forward any god other than me, I will certainly put thee in prison!" (26:29) and he said to his magicians, when they declared their converting to the new faith: "Believe ye in him before I give you permission? Surely he is your leader, who has taught you sorcery! But soon shall ye know! Be sure I will cut off your hands and your feet on opposite sides, and I will cause you all to die on the cross!" (26:49-50).These events of history should teach us laws, in the same way as the chemist observes and experiments and draws out laws. The events of history point out how man builds up and destroys, that man is equal to establishing intelligent life, and is prone to ruin it: that was true in the past, and it is true at present. It is man's responsibility to do right: "Truly he succeeds that purifies [his soul], and he fails that corrupts it!" (91:9-10). If Pharaoh's sorcerers' ropes and rods seemed on account of their magic to be in lively motion (20:66), there is similar magic now, when men now use the war-heads and missiles, assuming that they have control; they are indeed not better than Pharaoh's sorcerers. And we let ourselves be led into believing in the magic when we take those weapons to indicate that those who use them have control. Why do not we notice that all the atomic power of the former Soviet Union did not help in saving it from collapse? One lesson that we should have drawn is that as long as you give muscles rather than intellect your confidence, you are bound to fall, for you become a victim of your muscles.
The prophets did better when they taught humankind a more extraordinary and revolutionary way of change in human relationships, a way of conducting human, social and political affairs in the most economical way, indeed without any cost to any party. The prophets reversed the equation adopted by many quarters: instead of a relationship based on muscular power, and on the threat of killing the other, instead of bragging: "I give life and death;" (the Qur'an, 2:258), it is in the prophets' way giving life and not death; instead of a relationship based on killing and counter-killing, it is a relationship based on holding back from killing. It is a radically different way of viewing things; it reverses matters completely; it utterly transforms the situation. That is so because instead of man being slave to man, he becomes a slave to the Lord of men. That is why the Qur'an does not say: "Kill the taghoot (the transgressor, the oppressor, the despot)"; but it rather says: "Those who eschew the taghoot and fall not into its worship, and turn to God in repentance, for them is good news: so announce the good news to My Servants;" (39:17) and it says: "God is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depth of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith the patrons are taghoots: from light they lead them forth into the depths of darkness;" (2:257).
Modernity first appeared in astronomy, and then it appeared in the social sphere. When someone started to write about 'Chosen Slavery', he meant that no one could enslave us without our consent; it meant that as long as we refused to be slaves no one could force slavery on us. And that is more true of great multitudes of people: no one can subject a great number of people to be enslaved without exercising some kind of magic or jugglery over them, exactly as the Pharaoh's magicians exercised it, when their ropes and rods seemed on account of their magic to be in lively motion (20:66). Do you not see how a myriad of people are threatened with death, and they believe it! A magic no better than Pharaoh's magicians'. It is our responsibility to help people have consciousness enough to be freed from magic, any magic, not just one form of it. Our present writings bind people further to our chosen slavery.
In view of ideas like the above I sometimes say that what the prophets taught, though it descended from heaven, has not yet reached the earth. What they taught was not killing people, and not killing the despot or the oppressor: it is rather to disobey the tyrant, if he commands you to kill; it is to hold back your hand in that case. Why has this point remained ignored and undiscussed; in the modern terminology, as used by Arkoun, it would be called unthought of, or even unthinkable. There was a time when it was impossible to think about an earth orbiting the sun: that was so according to the culture of a certain period, according to accepted concepts. Similarly, it is at this moment unthinkable that one refrains from killing if commanded to kill. How long will it take us to get out of our darkness? Bilal, Ammar, Sumayyah and Yaser, four companions of the Prophet, peace be upon him, succeeded in getting out of obeying the oppressor and doing what he dictated; they simply held their hand back. And that is the real kernel of belief in the One God: to get out of being enslaved to the taghoot. That is why I say: instead of seeing the young Islamists being imprisoned or put to death or tortured for attempting to kill someone, I would prefer that they are tortured, put to death, or imprisoned because they have refused to kill. It is strange how we do not teach a Muslim youth not to kill Muslims! It is strange how we inspire him to kill the tyrant! How often in our history have we killed the tyrants, and the result has only been that their assassins turned themselves into tyrants. Will this simple fact be learned one day?
All the armies of the world teach their soldiers to act on what they are commanded and to do so without objection: it is the commanding authority which bears the responsibility for the command. This is man's law; but Allah's law, belief in the One God, does not allow you to obey anyone when their command is contrary to God's command. From the first sura (chapter) that was revealed to the Prophet we learn to disobey an unjust command: "Seest thou one who forbids a votary when he turns to pray? … Nay, heed him not: but bow down in adoration, and bring thyself the closer to God!" (96:9-19)
It has been heartening to hear recently how more than thirty senior officers in the Turkish army were expelled for their 'indiscipline': they dared to perform their prayers in their barracks in public. When you insist on doing your prayer in defiance of the taghoot, you will learn, and you will inspire others to learn, to disobey him when he commands you to kill Muslims. Others are waiting for you to lead the way, so do not let them down: be the first to disobey the tyrant.
Will we not learn when to disobey tyrants? They will go on commanding their soldiers to kill as long as they find soldiers who say: "Yes, Sir!" But Bilal, who technically was considered a slave, did better. He was owned by a master, but he learned that there was another Master, who had more right to be obeyed. As long his earthly master commanded that which did not contradict his Divine Master, he obeyed him; but when his earthly master commanded that which contradicted the commands of his Divine Master, then no obedience was due to the former. He challenged them in the same way Pharaoh's magicians said to their master: "decree whatever thou desirest to decree: for thou canst only decree touching the life of this world;" (the Qur'an, 20:72).
The issue of monotheism and polytheism is at present vague and dim: how can it be otherwise when we ourselves, not having had matured in relation to this issue, do not bear it to people in the proper way? I did quote above the prophets' message, one and all, as the Qur'an reports: "Serve Allah, and eschew the taghoot 'the transgressor beyond all bounds'!" (16:36) About this message, the Qur'an also says, addressing Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him: "it has already been revealed to thee – as it was to those before thee – 'if thou were to join gods with God, truly fruitless will be thy work in life, and thou wilt surely be in the ranks of those who lose all good' " (39:65). It is the easiest thing to observe, in connection with the last verse, how we, Muslims, are losers – who indeed is a bigger loser than we are in the whole world! How, when no day passes but we have poured on our heads severe catastrophes that humiliate us, so that we no longer can raise our head, neither before others, nor even in private.
I know that I view the world and understand it in a way different from what many view and understand. But this helps me see the light of the Qur'an. I feel that my conception helps me confront the world and announce what I have to say. I feel this approach makes the laws of the world match the verses of the Qur'an. We realize that the laws of the world and the verses of the Qur'an proceed from the same Source, and when they work together there is great light, and they will give man a great peace.
Take for instance the Qur'anic verse, "Let there be no compulsion in religion:" (2:256). It neutralizes the use of power over man's heart and mind. Allah allows no material power to control man's heart and mind. He protects man's conscience from compulsion. It is so because belief that is the result of compulsion is not belief, nor is disbelief: that is why, if Muslims conquer an unbeliever physically, he has the right to adhere to his disbelief, and Muslims are bound to respect that and to let him be. One achievement of modernity has been its declaration of the freedom of faith; it is an article that is included in all modern constitutions. It asserts that man's faith is protected, that he may not be made to change his faith by force, but rather by persuasion. Now this principle, that force may not be the means to changing people's faith took root when some nations' physical strength reached a point where it could destroy the earth and all life upon it. This maximization of strength led to important and obvious results, although people's adhering to old habits, and the long tradition of yielding to force, continues to be operative, although their hold keeps weakening. Since the first atomic bomb was detonated more than fifty years back, a new state of things has started to take place, although the world does not seem to fully appreciate it, as the old language of threats is still in use: it is a language that is obsolete in practice, but is still in theory, opposite to many situations in which we assert an idea in theory, but do not act upon it in practice. Now after force has lost its theoretical basis, it has become a killing crime. That is why the big powers no longer fight among themselves and it has ceased to be an option among them: they know this well, and abide by it, too. Among the big powers, violence and fighting are no longer in use; but they are still the policy when they deal with the less fortunate parts of the world. In these other parts of the world, to which we belong, people still believe in force, that real change can be effected through compulsion. Let it be remembered, however, that once we, small powers, engage in violence, as we often do, the benefiting party will be the big powers. This is such a true rule that anyone, among the small powers, who tries to solve his problem by resorting to violence, will have sold his case to the big enemies; and that is so no matter if one happens to be the initiator of violence or not.
As for the big powers, some do fall to be sure, but not through fighting, as happened to the former Soviet Union. It collapsed from within, not because of any external enemy who intervened in their life and brought about their collapse.
We may also look at the other side of the coin: what happened to Japan, a nation that surrendered unconditionally as a result of the two atomic bombs dropped on it during the Second World War. And then, not long after that, you see the Japanese sitting, without possessing atomic weaponry, on a footing with the seven big powers of the world. There must be in this a lesson to learn how this happened without destructive weapons: the Japanese are human beings like us, and without even a Divine Book, not being Jews, Christians, or Muslims; and in this there is more reason to reflect and try to understand how it happened.
Therefore we may say, Abdul-Jabbar, that when the Qur'an commands us to have ready against our enemy all the strength we can (8:60), the strength we need to take care of is no longer that of physical weaponry; we do know that, in the above verse Muslims were commanded to have steeds of war ready, but of course nobody would now consider having horses in stables in preparation for war, nor having spears and swords. Likewise, we no longer do we need to have ready tanks, atomic bombs nor Teton bombs. They are all obsolete. As long as man has the skill to control and to think can adopt other alternatives. For man is enabled by God to corrupt his soul, or to purify it; he is also enabled to control things.
One effect of the obsolescence of the physical power's control of the intellect is the coming into existence of the European Union. It was not imposed with force – on the contrary, it came into existence in response to the elimination of physical conflict, the physical conflict which had long been adopted for the gaining of advantage and prestige. Modern Europe was not united by a Napoleon or a Hitler, though each had reached Russia and the Arab World: but one died by committing suicide, while the other died in exile. And now, when Europe unites, it is not on the basis of Germany above all, or France above all; it is rather on the basis of Germany is equal to any other member of the Union. It is on the basis of getting over all the arrogant boastfulness; it is by getting over the stinking chauvinism that the Messenger, peace be upon him, cautioned against: "Abandon that ethnic arrogance, for it stinks."
I am not unaware of some of the objections to these ideas. Some will cite Israel, which adopts force, and has used it in establishing itself, in maintaining its existence and in guaranteeing its survival. Malek Bennabi used to compare Israel to the red cloth which is carried by a matador: a red cloth is carried to infuriate the bull, and the bull will butt at the cloth, unaware of the man who holds the cloth; in this way the matador can at the right time stab it.
Those who attach their hopes to weapons are really doing what Israel was established for: It was established to distract our attention from our real woes. As I said, it was Malek Bennabi who gave me such a jolt when he rated Israel as not a primary but a secondary problem. From then, my understanding was improving, until the Second Gulf War came, and that was the last straw. It was an event that exposed all the shortcomings of Arabs and Muslims: in a minute, we forgot Israel, and turned against our own brethren. All the pre-Islamic culture came to the forefront, for the Arabs used then to attack their own kin with all their might. We suddenly thought that one Arab state was more dangerous for Arabs than Israel and its allies.
Considerations like the above show that the Islamist's culture is the same as the secularist's, despite all their superficial differences. They are the same in their blind allegiances to a past that we have not brought under analysis, or to foreign systems that we do not comprehend, to systems that are really on their way to decadence and disintegration. The Islamists are not more perceptive than the secularists, nor are they more capable of conducting an investigation into things, but let us hope that the new generation will learn more as more experiences are accumulating. If the events of Afghanistan and Algeria are deplorable, the events in Turkey and Iran give us hopes that come rather as a surprise.
We need to look sharp at the events in Iran and Turkey, and to interpret them in a mature way, and I personally have my own reading of those events. What happened in Iran is something new, unprecedented in the Muslim World. Until it happened, all the political changes in the Muslim World used to take place through an internal coup, through tribal or familial rivalry. The public, the common people were absent from the scenes. In some cases it was the military commanders who led the coup d'état. Iran's revolution was unlike any of the above: it was the masses' revolution, and the woman's before the man's. That was a major shift in perspective, a most radical change of events. It was such a great event that its greatness was perhaps why we did not appreciate it! Some merely said it was miraculous, some said it was a Divine act, that it cannot be analyzed with reference to the laws of this world. When the Shah issued his edicts of curfew, Khomeini commanded people to defy the Shah's command and go out into the streets, men and women. They had nothing in their hands but flowers to offer to soldiers. Women are more efficient in such a situation than men; nor does such procedure require any military training, nor any weapons: the only condition is that each individual announces that he/she is free in practicing his/her faith: I'll hold on to my faith, and I disbelieve in that other doctrine, so kill me if you like. And big numbers were actually killed, but there was always someone ready to replace the martyr. In that way, the Shah was expelled without any shot against him; no one was trying to assassinate him. That was the way for transferring the authority to the masses. They realized that no power could resist the people's power. That was a new discovery, a new power in the full sense of newness. It was not in need for the polling box as in Algeria; nor was it like Afghanistan, where they sought to isolate the woman at home. No internal or external power was able to stop the Iranian revolution.
When people have consciousness no external power can suppress their power. And so, despite all the hue and cry, it was not possible to frustrate the Iranian revolution. It remained steadfast and assertive, despite all the deplorable experience with Iraq. Let me dream here, and let Abdul-Jabbar and the readers forgive me, that the Iranians were capable of dominating Iraq, if they had adhered to the same way they had used with the Shah, but they did not use the same way. But they will learn. The budding democracy of Iran will take root, God willing.
The democratic challenge of Iran is picking speed; they prove that they are capable of conducting free elections, that two different candidates can compete, and that one can be chosen in a peaceful democratic way. The world had thought that though the Khomeini revolution succeeded, Iran would not succeed in its second test, a democratic transfer of authority, but it did succeed. Their progress towards democracy is remarkable, and it is replete with significance. The Iranian nation has enjoyed the sweet taste of success, and will not give up its democracy; the masses are determining their own destiny, and one only can wish them success. It is setting the mode for an Islamic community that its neighbors feel safe with: this is a capital that is invaluable, no money and no treasure are equal to this, to make your neighbor feel safe with you, that your neighbor is sure you will not stab him in the back, even if he does you a mischief, that you only work for his good. This is a new relationship that no troublemakers can spoil, and we hope that there are enough wise people to maintain it, in spite of the discordant voices.
Similarly, the Turks, who had been the first Muslims to throw off Islamic rule, [though really a corrupt caliphate] – it is they themselves who now go ahead of other Muslim nations in challenging secularism with democracy. They proceed in steady steps, and that is a proof that the Almighty God will have His light grow into perfection, and what happens at a local scale will spread to a regional and international scale. Those who uphold isolation and war are becoming less and less, and those who oppose isolation and war are growing in number, and getting more steadfast. Allah did hint to the angels that man would get over mischief and spilling blood (the Qur'an, 2:30), and we have reason to believe that this is coming to be realized. Problems which seemed to have no solution are solvable now, without human sacrifices. I say that not only because I believe in the unseen, but on the basis of actual signs in the real world.
And now, let's get back to the problem of Israel, a phenomenon that did its part in full, by distracting Muslims from their real obligations, from dealing with the huge problems that they have inherited over the centuries. One of the things that are not thought about, for instance, is that Arabs often talk about peace with Israel, although Israel does not have the bases for survival; they harp on peace with Israel, while they ignore the pressing issue of peace among ourselves. It is here that the work lies. Malek Bennabi used to say: When we begin to talk about colonisibility more than we talk about colonialism, then we are on the way to solving our problems. That the problem lies in us is asserted by God, by His Prophet, peace be upon him, by Adam, and even by the Devil – Allah says, as we recite in the Qur'an: "What! When a single disaster smites you, although ye smote your enemies with one twice as great, do you say: 'Whence is this?' Say to them: 'It is from yourselves;' " (3:165). Incidentally, the Qur'an is the only book that blames the victim more than it blames the oppressor or aggressor; it is so for the oppressor cannot inflict his oppression without our giving him the chance to do so; should we stop giving him the chance, he will just fall. As for the Prophet, peace be upon him, he says, in the course of a long tradition: "Let him who encounters a good outcome praise God for it; and let him who encounters an adverse outcome blame no one but himself." But we are still prepared to blame everyone and anyone, except ourselves.
Adam, peace be upon him, having eaten, together with his wife, from the forbidden tree, and after Allah had reprimanded them: "Did I not forbid you that tree?" he replied, together with his wife: "Our Lord! We have wronged our own souls;" (7:22-23) They accepted to take the responsibility for their mistake, and therefore merited to be appointed viceroys in the earth. As for Satan, he will say to his followers on the Day of Judgment, as the Qur'an reports: "I had no authority over you except to call you, but ye listened to me: then reproach not me, but reproach your own souls;" (14:22)
In this connection, the historian Toynbee summed up history by saying that civilizations did not die like martyrs, but like suicide committers: it is only after civilizations have died that vultures and eagles, come upon the corpses of those civilizations and eat them.
It is worth our while to reflect on what prevents us from considering peace among ourselves. We really have to look into that! There is a long history of wrangling and squabbling among us that blocks our considering the other alternative. I have personally often questioned people about that, and have always found it is merely that people are unable to imagine that we are capable of realizing peace among ourselves, a peace in which there is no loser, in which everyone is a winner: kings, presidents, princes, financiers, land-owners. No one will lose anything; indeed they will all gain. It is something that people in our part of the world cannot imagine, because they have a presupposition that problems may not be solved without eliminating the other, or grabbing what he has. The truth, however, is that in this new alternative no one will be a loser; all will be winners; and we can actually observe how this is happening on the earth, not in a remote galaxy. History is the best witness to the outcome of peaceful dealings and aggressive dealings. Therefore, the more Israel impedes peaceful efforts, the more we should solidify peace among ourselves, and blame ourselves for our mistakes, not blame each other.
I address this not to politicians and statesmen, who are preoccupied with their immediate problems. I address the ordinary person, the ordinary man and woman. To them I say there is a solution in which there is no loser, all are winners. We have a presupposition inculcated in us, even before we learn to talk, that we need to eliminate some party to unite the Muslims. In this way we condone the stabbing in the back, and we extol the conduct of those who betray: the implication of our behavior is that to get over treason, the only way is to do further treason. The truth is that the right approach to eliminating wrongdoing is not to commit more wrongdoing, but to behave righteously. When I speak of peace among ourselves, I do not call to this in secret, but publicly. Is it a sin to call to this peace among ourselves? Only a guilty conscience may stand in the way to this objective. This is not even a call to democracy, for democracy is still a far cry, but at least let us begin with something within our reach. If we proceed with this, people will feel that there is room for an idea other than what is prevalent so far, that there are some who believe in this other option, who discuss it, and who meet to affirm it. It is a simple thing that I am calling to, so let us repeat it frequently enough until it becomes familiar to the ears of everybody. At present people say what many peoples used to say to the prophets as the Qur'an reports: "Never did we hear such a thing as he says among our ancestors of old;" (23:24). We should repeat until it becomes a quite familiar thing to people, and until they themselves say it. At least in this way it will settle into people's hearts that there can be peace and safety among Muslims and believers. How else can peace be realized? If that settles into our consciousness, then we shall hail those who contribute to the peace and safety among Arabs and Muslims, not those who want to unite the Arabs or Muslims with the sword.
Let us remember how with a minimum of cooperation among Arabs during the 1973 war, they accomplished something: they felt that their oil belonged to them, and they felt the confidence of crossing the fear barrier. Let us remember on the other hand that when two Arab countries fell apart in the Gulf war, they lost their dignity and their money. Not after more than ten years can we sit together amicably. The road to peace is still open, but we need to have the concepts right in our minds and then to talk; we need to talk with full understanding and consciousness. At the moment, the way to peace is not evident even in theory, let alone its realization in practice. We need to explore the way of peace, and to pave that way, so that people may go along that way with confidence.
People have certain preconceptions which are not voiced, but which are more operative than any written and signed contract: they have implicitly conspired that since the time Muslims lost the right guided state, and since they fell into a state of compulsion in politics (with the coming of the Umayyads), it was right for regaining that upright state to resort to compulsion and treachery. No one said that, as it is not right to be announced, but everyone had it in mind, and it was transmitted to everyone, until it has settled down as the most natural thing. Not until now can we dare face that implicit complicity; we do not recall it to consciousness to be healed of it, or to start to be healed of it. But we have really to get back to that right guided approach in understanding the words of the Lord when He says: "Let there be no compulsion in religion: uprightness stands out clear from error: whoever rejects taghoot 'the tyrannical transgressor' and believes in God hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks;" (2:256). In the above verse when Allah says: 'Let there be no compulsion in religion,' this directive is indicative of what distinguishes uprightness from error or misguidance; that compulsion IS misguidance. That becomes more manifest when we go to the third clause, 'whoever rejects taghoot and believes in God …', for the taghoot believes in compulsion; indeed his life, survival, and very existence are based on compulsion. To reject that taghoot, and to believe in Allah, that is in Allah's religion, and to believe in His command to abstain from compulsion – that is grasping the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks.
Another aspect of that implicit and misguided complicity, something that has spread until it is taken to be for granted is that if truth and falsehood are given equal chance, falsehood will have the better of truth, that truth will be defeated, and people will choose falsehood, rather than truth. Now first of all this is mistrusting God; it is about an attitude like this that the Qur'an says: "moved by wrong suspicions of God – suspicions due to ignorance;" (3:154) and it says: "But this thought of yours which ye did entertain concerning your Lord, hath brought you to destruction, and now have ye become of those utterly lost;" (41:23) And secondly, God says about truth and falsehood, that "truth has now arrived, and falsehood perished: for falsehood is by its nature bound to perish;" (17:81) The Qur'an never says that once falsehood arrives, truth will perish, but it is settled in our hearts that it is so. Somehow it has been inspired into our hearts over the centuries to dread falsehood in an unnatural and unwarranted degree. The Qur'an says: "Say: 'the truth has arrived, and falsehood neither creates anything new, nor restores anything;" (34:49). And it says: "Nay, we hurl the truth against falsehood, and it knocks out its brain, and behold, falsehood doth perish;" (21:18)
It is mistrusting God; it is also mistrusting truth and Islam, when we suppose that if people are given the choice, they will abandon truth and Islam. It is in the third place mistrusting man, when we think that he is more inclined to evil than to goodness. But man does not have peace of heart except when he chooses goodness; it is when men sink into ignorance that their bad deeds will seem good in their eyes. Therefore, it is our duty to deliver the message in the clearest way. When things are quite manifest, then those who insist on adhering to falsehood, the condemned, will be a small minority. It is God's law that the majority of people will choose truth once it is made absolutely clear.
[Translator's note: Mr. Sa'eed has skipped the reply to Question Two, without explicitly saying why. It seems that he assumed that he had said enough about it in the course of his answer to Question One.]