The following article was first published at www.islamicate.co.uk 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-musta‘an – “And God’s help is sought!”