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Uhud & Hunayn: Lessons from the Frontline

Arab-Horsemen-by-a-Watering-HoleIn The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien puts these words into the mouth of the brave though modest Faramir (younger brother to the brave but impulsive Boromir): ‘War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I only love that which they defend …’

In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’1 Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following words of the Prophet, peace be upon him: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask God for safety. When you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’2 In other words, pursue the path of peace, with the presence of justice; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently.

War, invariably, can and does throw up immense carnage and destruction, and brings untold human loss and suffering. Yet it is also where some of the profoundest acts of courage, bravery and heroism are found, as well as invaluable lessons for life. In what follows, we shall look at two battles in the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and their core lessons that need internalising:

The first lesson is from the Battle of Uhud. It began at dawn on Friday, March 25th, 2H/624AD, a year on from the Battle of Badr. The Muslims numbered seven hundred against an enemy three-thousand strong. The prestige of the Makkan idolaters was at stake for the crushing defeat they suffered at Badr – including seventy deaths and just as many taken captive. The Prophet, peace be upon him, positioned his men so that Mount Uhud was behind them. The only way the Makkan cavalry could attack them now was from infront, so the Prophet posted fifty archers on a rise with strict orders to stay put, no matter what happened. This would be an excellent strategy, provided the archers obeyed their orders. But by nightfall, and due to the archers abandoning their post (thus leaving the rear of the army unguarded), the fortunes of war changed and disaster befell the Muslims: the Prophet would be wounded and seventy Muslims would be killed. But it didn’t have to be that way.

The Companion, Bara’ b. ‘Azib, recounts: We encountered the pagans on that day [of Uhud]. The Prophet, peace be upon him, positioned a group of archers and appointed ‘Abd Allah [b. Jubayr] as their leader, saying: ‘Do not leave this position. If you should see us defeat them, do not leave this position; if you should see them defeating us, do not come to our aid.’ When we met the enemy they fled on their heels, to the extent that we saw their women fleeing to the mountains, lifting their dresses and revealing their anklets. Some people started saying: ‘The booty, the booty!’ But ‘Abd Allah said: ‘The Prophet took an oath from me to not leave this post.’ His companions, however, disobeyed. So when they disobeyed, Allah confused them, so they did not know where to go, and because of which they suffered seventy deaths.3

Ibn al-Qayyim comments: ‘This calamity that struck them was as a result of their own actions. Allah said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves. Allah is able to do all things.’ [3:165] And He mentioned this very same matter in that which is more general than this, in one of the Makkan chapters: Whatever misfortune befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And He said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] So the good and bad mentioned here refer to blessings and misfortunes: Blessings are what Allah favours you with, while misfortunes occur because of your own selves and your misdeeds. The first is from His grace (fadl); the second, His justice (‘adl).’4

So the single most important lesson to learn from Uhud is that whenever we Muslims suffer defeat – be it on the battlefield of swords, ideas, or hearts and minds – we are to blame ourselves, take account of our souls and repent for our sins. There being no other way to correct our course. For despite the enemy attacking the Muslims from their unprotected rear and being the reason why one believer after another was cut down and killed; and despite the enemy being the reason for Muslim flight turning to full-scale panic as the Prophet, peace be upon him, was knocked down by a crushing blow to the head – the Qur’an still laid the blame for these calamities squarely at the feet of the Muslims: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted losses twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165]

Nor was the defeat the result of the entire army’s disobedience, or even the majority; but because of less than fifty men among a total of seven-hundred! If such can be the consequences of a sin of a tiny minority, what then about the plethora of sins or acts of disobedience committed by a heedless, unrepentant, transgressing majority!

And tragically, as frequent as these verses appear in the Qur’an, we still choose not to internalise them or allow them to enter into our hearts. Instead, we allow our souls to be invaded by a false victim mentality and choose to play the blame game. We accuse all and sundry for our political woes and misfortunes – the West, the rulers, bankers, Zionists, along with a whole host of conspiracy theories which plague our minds and cripple our thinking – but we never accuse ourselves. We are keen to hold to account other people – in a way that contains no pity, mercy or leeway – but are not prepared to take ourselves to any serious account. And yet: Allah never changes the condition of a people unless they change what is within themselves. [13:11] Thus while we are clear about the evils of Assad and his crimes of carnage in Syria; and the shameless hypocrisy and tyranny of al-Sisi et al. in Egypt, we tend to steer shy of the all-important question of why such calamities occurred in the first place. The Quranic reply to this is very likely to be: Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] Isn’t it? And while this does not excuse us from raising our hands in prayer, and giving as much humanitarian aid as possible, we still need to sincerely confront the deeper question.

The second lesson we will consider is the Battle of Hunayn. It is Wednesday morning, February 2nd, 8H/630AD. The Muslim army, now twelve thousand strong, marched towards the valley of Hunayn to encounter the Hawazin tribe and their allies, whose number was perhaps a third of that of the Muslims. It is worth noting that two years earlier, when the Prophet came to Makkah for the lesser pilgrimage, or ‘umrah, only 1,400 people were with him. This was the time when the Prophet, peace be upon him, concluded the peace treaty with the Makkans at Hudaybiyah. A few months later, the same number fought alongside him at the Battle of Khaybar. And in previous battles, their numerical strength had been far smaller. But this time, many of the newcomers to Islam felt a sense of euphoria and over confidence as they observed the size of their army. They felt sure that, having previously won battle after battle with much smaller numbers, such large numbers would make victory a sure certainty. But as soon as the Muslims reached the valley, they were met with a fierce, unexpected torrent of arrows from all directions. Caught off guard, confused and overwhelmed, the Muslims were forced into a chaotic and panicked retreat. And though the Muslims would eventually prevail as victors in this battle (for the Prophet, as ever, remained calm in his wisdom, certainty and faith: he eventually rallied a hundred men and inflicted a most crushing defeat on the enemy), it wasn’t without many of them being slain in the ambush first. The Qur’an says: Allah had already helped you on many fields, and on the day of Hunayn, when you delighted in your numerical strength, it availed you nothing. And the earth, vast as it was, narrowed on you, and you turned back in retreat. [9:24]

Ibn al-Qayyim again: ‘Thus from Allah’s wisdom, transcendent is He, is that He first made them taste the bitterness of defeat and of being overcome – despite their large numbers, strength and preparation – so that heads that were raised in the Conquest of Makkah, should be lowered. For they did not enter His city and sanctuary as Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, had done: head bowed upon his horse; to the extent that his head almost touched the saddle out of humility to his Lord, humbleness to His glory, and submission to His might. For Allah had made lawful to him His sacred city [Makkah] and sanctuary, and had not made it lawful to anyone before him nor to anyone after him. [All this occurred] so that He could make it clear to those who said, “We will not be defeated today due to our numbers,” that help and victory come from Him alone; that whomsoever He helps, none can overcome; and that whomsoever He forsakes, none can grant victory to. [And that] it was He who took it upon Himself to give victory to His Messenger and to His religion – not because of their numbers that they revelled in. Such numbers, in fact, were of no avail to them, since they turned and fled. But when their hearts were humbled, Allah sent down the removal of their distress and a foretaste of victory by sending down His tranquility upon His Prophet and upon the believers, and by sending an army unseen. Hence from His wisdom is that He sends down His victory and gifts to them when their hearts become humbled and broken: And We desired to show favour to those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them leaders, and make them inheritors. And to grant them power in the earth, and to show Pharaoh, Haman and their hosts that which they feared. [28:5-6]’5

The core lesson of Hunayn is, undoubtedly, to never overlook the real, most essential reason for victory: Allah. For victory comes from Him, not from numerical strength. (We do, however, have a duty to tie our camel, as one hadith says, and to then trust in Him.) The Muslims were initially given to taste the bitterness of defeat in order that they might remember precisely this. In fact, large numbers – in the absence of hearts feeling humbled before the majesty and might of Allah – are of little use. Having been taught a lesson in humility; having their pretensions of numerical strength shattered; and having presented their broken hearts to Allah, Allah then granted the believers victory at Hunayn at the hands of a small band of courageous, steadfast Muslims who remained dedicated to the Prophet, peace be upon him.

Allah is with the broken-hearted and will call overconfident, self-assured Muslims to account if they exult in their numbers or their material achievements – as He will call proud establishments and arrogant religiousness to account.

W’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Ibn Hajr al-Haytami citing al-Zarkashi, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj bi Sharh al-Minhaj (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1972), 9:211.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.2991. For comparisons between Jihad theory and Western Just War theory, consult: Kelsay & Johnson (eds.), Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions (New York, Westport & London: Greenwood Press, 1991).

3. Al-Bukhari, no.4043.

4. Zad al-Ma’ad fi Hady Khayr al-‘Ibad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 3:214.

5. ibid., 3:418-9.

The Arab Spring & the Need for Change

89530AEB-7794-43EA-8B75-DCDDBD0C285A_mw1024_n_sThe following article was first published at and is reposted here with kind permission and addition.

Wherever we look in the world today, particularly in what is called the Arab world, it’s all about people wanting change: change that brings about better governance, social justice, individual freedom, better job prospects, brighter future. Decades of tyranny, repression and authoritarian rule – something had to eventually buckle. Bewildering social changes, fast-track modernisation, rapid population growth and urbanisation, legions of jobless youths with no say in their future; all this without a corresponding evolution in politics – the human spirit cannot be indefinitely stifled. In 2011, those once stifled voices, with the benefit of social media, crescendoed into a mass protest movement; the Arab spring. Whether republics or monarchies, the bulk of the world’s 350 million Arabs, across the world’s nineteen predominantly Arabic-speaking states, demanded change!

In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen change, in the form of the collapse of decades-old dictatorships, came surprisingly quick. Other Arab states, through popular pressure, announced political reforms. Yet other states, specifically the oil-rich ones, offered an increase in public spending and other monetary concessions, in the bid to appease the restless masses. Currently, no Arab country has emerged as a paradigm or model for others, in terms of achieving the mass protests’ goals: alleviating the social problems that spawned the uprisings in the first place and a transition to becoming a stable and peaceful democracy. Instead, the jubilant optimism of 2011 has been replaced with a harsh and stark realism. The road to political change has proven to be highly chaotic and messy; even violent and bloody.

Change (taghayyur, tabdil) is, as one would expect, a central theme of the Qur’an too. There are many verses in it that speak about change (less about political, more about spiritual and social change). The following three verses of the Qur’an outline how the divine hand lends itself to societal change. It says about those who show ingratitude to God for the countless blessings He confers upon them, choosing disobedience to Him over obedience: That is because God never changes the blessings He bestows upon a people until they first change what is within themselves. [8:53] And similarly: God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is within themselves. [13:11] It also lays down a clear method to attract divine blessings and to keep them tethered: And when your Lord proclaimed: ‘If you are thankful [for my blessings], I shall give you more. But if you are ungrateful, My punishment is indeed severe.’ [14:7] Thus gratitude, made manifest in terms of obedience to God, begets an increase in blessings upon a people; ingratitude, on the other hand, professed thorough acts of disobedience to God, necessitates their withdrawal. And without the blessings of divine guidance, help and facilitation, how are things ever to improve for believers?

The much sought after political change in Muslim majority lands pretty much follows the same contours: God has promised to those among you who believe and do righteous deeds that He will surely make them successors in the land, as He made those before them successors, and that He will establish for them their religion which He has chosen for them, and that He will change their state of fear to one of security; provided they worship Me and ascribe no partner to Me. [24:55]

Therefore, those who wish to see God’s help and blessings manifest themselves in the collective lives of believers risk ignoring the above Quranic method of change at their own peril. Likewise, Muslim political analysis and activism that does not put this method at the very heart of its programme for change, is likely to be doomed from the outset. In fact, any and every political program that ignores this fundamental Quranic principle, or pays it scant attention, may in no way portray itself as “Islamic politics.” Such naivety would beggar belief!

A slightly different note, Ramadan tends to bring about radical change in Muslims; both as individuals and as communities or societies. In it, there is a heightened sense of God-conciousness and piety. A tabdil or change takes hold of the faithful, by which they find it easier to turn their gazes towards Heaven and their hearts towards God’s remembrance (dhikr). The blessed month nurtures a commitment to prayer, fasting, charity, contemplation and reciting the Qur’an. For many, the changes to the soul and the senses that Ramadan frequently wroughts, becomes the springboard for profound and lasting transformation for countless individuals, even after the month ends.

For others, the story is not so respectable. Rather than attempting to keep the spirit of Ramadan alive after the month’s end, the very first day of the new month – the day of Eid – brings with it another kind of tabdil. Prayers that were prayed fully and on time, are now missed and overlooked. Tongues which were guarded from lying, backbiting, swearing and cursing, are now unchained and their ugliness and vulgarity unleashed. And egos that were being tamed, trained and kept in check, are now given free reign. Such tabdil only distances us from our Generous Lord and draws us closer to the Fire. Those caught in this deadly, downward spiral of tabdil must make every effort to tear themselves away from it. With a firm resolve, keeping the right company and seeking God’s help, all is possible.

Returning to the Arab uprisings and tabdil. The scorecard for the Arab spring thus far does look bleak. Two-and-a-half years after ousting their dictators, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen are still struggling. A tragic experiment with democracy in Egypt has deposed an elected president via a military intervention (alternatively read, coup), landed him behind bars, and thrown the country into conflict and violence. While Syria is awash with the blood and carnage of civil war.

Does that mean the Arab spring has failed to deliver? As world revolutions and protest movements go, not really. The revolutions which swept across Europe, in 1848; or the mass protests in the United States and Europe, in 1968; or the revolution against the former Soviet empire, in 1989, were such that the initial uprisings did not bring about immediate change. What they did do was to sow the seeds of change that would reach fruition decades (or a generation) later. Perhaps the Arab spring is destined to follow a similar trajectory. Alternatively, the uprisings may end up replacing one authoritarian rule with another. Worse still, it could see the rule of tyrants replaced with decades of political violence and anarchy, and the complete collapse of public security. Whatever be the outcome(s), it seems too early to talk about success or failure.

Amidst all this uncertainty and anticipation, three key question must be asked: one of them to the West, the other two to the Muslim-Arab world.

The first: When the West speaks of pluralism and diversity, does it truly mean it? Can the West accept that there may be places in the world where the social environment is significantly different? Or is diversity reduced to differences in what one may wear or eat, or the lifestyle choices we can adopt, but with respect to the public space – public morality – it is a case of one size must fit all? Is Western-style modernity totalising, incapable of allowing for any true diversity in the public space? Can it allow the public expression of other peoples’ dreams – their right to self-determination – even if such dreams can only be themselves if they are given public expression? The Muslim world still awaits a clear response.

The second is a question of theology: Is it allowed in Islam to rebel against tyrannical leadership? If not, why not? And if so, what are the actual conditions? As foundational as this question is, it will have to be left for a future post to address.

Thirdly, while freedom from tyranny is undeniably good and necessary, we Muslims must not loose sight of an even greater freedom: freedom from the dictates of the ego (nafs). Received wisdom informs us: ma wasala ila sarihil-huriyyah man baqiyah ‘alayhi min nafsihi baqiyyah – “No one attains true freedom, as long as he remains under even the slightest influence of his own ego.” This then begs the question: If political tabdil weakens peoples’ awareness of the divine presence, or blurs the distinction between what is halal and haram, or it erodes public morality, of what benefit is such tabdil? For change is not sought for the sake of itself, and the politically astute are only those who keep the end in mind.

No doubt, the Arab spring is work in progress. Yet one can’t forget that pious Muslim sentiment, often expressed in the form of a heartfelt plea: wa’Llahu’l-mustaan – “And God’s help is sought!”

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