Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Virtue in Strength, and Vice Versa

Maryam Sakeenah

“The purpose of the Muslim’s existence is to tolerate”, said the presenter confidently in one of his lectures on Islamic values on T.V this Ramazan. The entire series was a dedicated discourse on the values of tolerance, moderation, and the whole crop, very predictably.
It is one thing to take an aspect of Islam and exemplify it, and it is another to take just this bit and drill it in exclusively, making sure the other dimension that makes it whole is not only eclipsed but made to seem ill-fitting, redundant, contradictory, even anathematic.
Why is it that we never hear verses and instances from Sunnah about firmness against the machinations of the enemy, the readiness to defend oneself and the exhortation for Jihad ever being quoted in the same frequency on the television? It distorts the beauty and purity of unadulterated Islam.
This has created a confusion in our minds. The Muslim mind, fed on state-sponsored lectures on tolerance, unconditional forgiveness and passive acceptance of wrong, is shocked at the very clear exhortation to physical Jihad we find in Surah Taubah, Surah Anfal and other parts of the Quran, and its implementation in letter and spirit that we see in the Sunnah. Certainly, these Words of Allah don’t seem like the Islam of invariably dove-like virtues we were grown up knowing. We only knew Islam to be a toothless, meditative spirituality_ where on earth does this come from?
The end result is a confused, messed up mishmash of an understanding of Islam we are left with_ a sharp dichotomy between the dove-like and the hawk-like, so that the ideal of the Dove-Hawk who is a dove all over, but can slip into the hawk’s skin to guard its nest is lost somewhere. Islam is besieged by a tragic ideological dichotomy.
Where lie the answers? It always helps to turn back to the roots. The ethos of Islam sees virtue in strength, and strength in that virtue. That is one big reason why Islam stands out of the whole array of spiritual doctrines. It is the only religion whose founder was a ruler, jurist, soldier and lived all these roles to the fullest. It is the only religion that makes social activism and the willingness to physically struggle for it a part of its very fundamentals. It is the only religion that can see the role of religion not in the hermit’s humble hut and the cave-dwelling of a sage or a Church altar, but in such secular arenas as the battlefield as well.
This, I believe, is Islam’s Realism. Historical perspective asserts it. Students of history know that the most dynamic force that has shaped events and ideologies, and written the very fate of men_ is strength. It is the defining force, its is the last word. It is strength or the absence of it that writes History, determines the Rise and Fall of empires and ideologies. For better or for worse, strength counts. That is why no ideology that aims to matter to the world in a meaningful, definitive sense, can afford not to have it.
Yet strength in itself is not virtuous. It is morally neutral. It translates into activism or makes dominant whatever it accompanies. If it accompanies the good, morality blossoms and evil is pushed into its little dark corner. For a morally ordered world where a spade is called a spade, strength must fall in line to back the powers of good. That is why moral ideologies need to fortify themselves with strength. Goodness cannot passively sit and watch evil rule the roost and become irrelevant. The believers in values and moral ideologies simply cannot ‘let it be’, for it undermines the good they believe in, and reduces it to a romantic, Utopian notion.
For, force is by all means a moral necessity. If Salahuddin Ayubi had sat back and watched the Crusaders have their day, refusing to take to the battlefield as ‘evil must not be resisted with (the) evil (of warfare)’, Muslim civilization would have been rooted out way back then, given the hate-filled, blind passion of those who took up the battlecry of ‘Christendom in danger.’ Such a logic is clearly ludicrous, as it cannot withstand in a world where strength rules.
Realizing this, perhaps, the Christian world shunned the pacifism it professed. For purposes of physical self-defence and to expand and exert its power, it threw off the pretence and jumped so wholeheartedly into the melee, as the ability to demonstrate and exercise strength is a necessity in a world where power talks. It was the Roman Catholic Church which, long believing that ‘He who takes up the sword must perish with the sword’, sponsored relentless warfare in the Crusades. In 1099 when Palestine fell to the Crusaders, the victorious holy armies brutally attacked non-combatants who had taken refuge in the holy places, not leaving even a single hostage alive. We all know how the Spanish clergy, monitoring planned genocide, ‘purged’ remnants of Muslim civilization from Spain.
It is kind of indigestible. The saintly Christian cleric harping on peace, piling corpses in his backyard. The root of this inherent contradiction runs deep. The pacifist understands the need for strength and the readiness to exercise it in the kind of world ours is. However, the ‘secularization’ of physical strength and its ouster from religious doctrines leaves him at a loss. He is stuck between loyalty to his faith, the desire to make it prevail (which necessitates activism), and his inability to do so following the dictates of pacifism that declare physical strength ‘unholy.’ On the other hand, the call of the real world and its exigencies is irresistible, and he succumbs to the necessity of displaying strength in order to prevail. Yet in so doing, he diverges or parts from his religious edicts, and knows it. Therefore, in this Christian’s psyche, a sharp disconnection between religion and the world is created. War, which is a wholly secular concept to him, has to be taken to out of necessity. But it has to be dealt with irreligiously, as it is not within the precincts of sanctity. It is an unholy weapon, used for no nobler reason than that he cannot help it. Religion becomes only the triggering factor that fuels the hatred, his methods have nothing to do with it. War becomes a tool of necessity. As he fights these unholy wars, with the ethical orientation and the elevation of aim and objective religion provides gone, his methods and motives turn ‘unholy’ as well. Thus with the bulwark gone, the excesses and brutalities, the mean, low and lustfully selfish trivia fuelling confrontations become wholly justifiable. War is Caesar’s domain, it has to be fought Caesar Borgias’ way.
Perhaps that is why we see the Western civilization, with all the thrust on peace and pacifism that Christianity has, at the head of all major confrontations and man-made devastation the world has witnessed. The Crusades, the World Wars, the ruthless colonization of ‘lesser people’, the wiping out of an entire race of American aborigines, and now the Holy War on Terror. The parting from the pacifist Christian spirit these confrontations necessitate demeans the concept, motive, ideology and ethic of warfare. Religion is reduced to the vile force that fires the hatred that is at the heart of such warfare, and no more. War comes to be used merely as a means to subjugate, to possess and acquire, and to impose. Therefore, force becomes ‘unholy’ and is seen by the generality of men as an unholy weapon of tyranny and illegitimate hegemony.
This is very unfortunate. For, in thinking this, we stop seeing the effective use of strength as a means to a greater end_ to stay the hand of the oppressor, to make a better world, to liberate, to uphold the good and fortify it, to resist the evil. We tend to see the whole concept of warfare as invariably unjustifiable, as yet another dimension of Terror. Certainly, the ‘unholy’ war disconnected from a high moral aim and fired by greed and base desire is just that. But this misuse of strength ought not to undermine the whole utility of strength altogether.
For, strength serves importantly. If used for a higher moral purpose, strength can decisively give it the edge and effectively quell evil. It is what translates theory and sterile moral doctrine into active, meaningful implementation. It makes morality happen_ and stay. Strength counts.
It is this vision that Islam incorporates in its realistic outlook. That if goodness, no matter how ethereally angelic, is passive, it will be rooted out. That if the good don’t win power for themselves, it will fall to the lot of the evil, and evil will dominate, rule, pervade. The good then will be cornered and enfeebled, unable to make its presence felt. Humanity will dwindle into bestiality, goodness being too weak to stop the descent into blackness. When the saint lets the dogs have their day, the world goes to the dogs. This is the humungous crime that the goodness that doesn’t seek strength commits to the world. The sage and priest, with all his sermons on peace, his rosaries and meditation, who has never killed even so much as a fly, is a cruel man.
The essence of the Islamic Jihadic philosophy is that it sees force and strength as a weapon to resist and diminish the influence of evil, and to uphold and stand up for the good and true. When you have something valuable and worthwhile, when you have the Elixir and the panacea for the world with you, you are morally bound to share it, to spread its cult in order to beckon mankind towards the progression ‘out of darkness towards the light.’ You cannot sit and watch vicious, malevolent attempts to snuff it out and dampen it down, because you see its beauty, believe in it, love it, value it. Therefore, the readiness to defend it and expound it is a natural part of being ‘Muslim.’ Therefore, Jihad.
By making this concept of physical struggle for the most worthy cause a part of its religious fundamentals, Islam recognizes the relationship between ideology / morality and strength, and sanctifies it. Infact, it elevates this struggle to the highest virtue, thus instilling the desire and the readiness for absolute sacrifice for the worthiest cause. This is what creates the values of selflessness and sacrifice, courage and conviction that engender true, meaningful and enduring greatness and heroism_ the impregnable spirit of the selfless believer. This creation of the ‘mujahid’ character is the formula for change for the better. It is this creation of heroism and the readiness to prove it through acts of sacrifice that makes human effort change the Old Order and makes the peace of the Moral Order prevail.
And it is this realistic, active moral vision of Islam that creates the idea of the ‘Holy War’_ a far cry from secular warfare that destroys and oppresses, subjugates and terribly exacts. Islam makes strength a means to a greater end, ennobling it, elevating it. Strength thus becomes virtue, as it aims at creating moral order, stemming chaos, anarchy and suppression, recovering human values out of the quagmire of amoral chaos, reinstating respect for human life that comes with a belief in One God (tauhid). This is the ‘Holy War’ that does not sit and watch human blood being lost in vain to vile, mean primordial instincts; that waters the flowering of a new era with its own life and blood.
It is this higher objective Islam gives to the use of strength that makes the ‘Holy War’_ the ‘holy war’ that does not make its end justify all means; that respects its liberating ideology by purging away the unholy from its methods; that has its own set of ethics and laws for the legitimate use of force, delegitimizing all excesses. For, what aims to free, respect and elevate humanity cannot trample human rights. That is Holy War.
A comparison is eye-opening. Hold in the balance the Crusader-mentality that cannot even draw a line between combatant and non-combatant as opposed to the Prophet (SAWW)’s army who fought war as an act of faith, careful not to blemish their cause with unfair excesses. The Prophet (SAWW) specifically commanded Muslim armies not to be unfair, excessive or cruel, and to distinguish between the combatant and non-combatant at a time when the Roman, Persian and the Byzantine armies were committing atrocious acts of barbarism to make their presence felt.
It was this spirit at the heart of the Muslim ideology that made the struggles Muslim armies waged throughout their history so outstandingly shorn of these practices of war. In the second Khalifah’s time (Umar R.A), when Christian areas fell to the Muslims, Umar (R.A) wrote a public declaration: “This is the safety that Allah’s humble slave Umar R.A has granted to the natives of this city. This guarantee of safety and honour is for their lives, properties, Church and Cross, for the healthy and the sick, and the followers of all religions. Their churches will not be infringed upon, nor will they be demolished; their crosses will not be banned, nor will their properties be confiscated. In matters of religion, there will be no compulsion on them.”
When, in Umar (R.A)’s tenure, Muslims in Syria had to leave under pressure of the Romans, the Christian citizens came out into the streets in mourning, shedding tears of sorrow. The Bishop swore on the Bible saying, “I swear by this Sacred Book, if we are ever given a chance to choose our own leaders, we will choose these Arabs.”
On the contrary, ideologies and systems that outlaw the use of force show the gaping loophole of such an approach in the arena of implementation. It doesn’t work, leaving people scot-free to use whatever means can guarantee an easy victory. It is this silence about the right use of force that leads to all becoming ‘fair in love and war’, as religion has not defined the motives and parameters for you. A Western War officer writes on effective war strategies: “When bombing, the victims must necessarily include women and children and other non-combatants, for, the strategy of warfare dictates that only then can the enemy be intimidated, pressurized and forced to surrender as soon as possible.”
The distinction is clearer than can ever be explained. The concept of ‘Holy War’, when seen unbiased in its purity is sacred. It is a moral vision translated effectively into practical terms. When the prefix ‘holy’ is removed, war is reduced to the brute-force, naked barbarism, hegemony per force, imposition of injustice, subjugation, tyranny, oppression, greed, lust, devouring fanaticism for ‘lebensraum’ and an unholy mission for the extinction of the lesser and the unwanted. It is this degeneration of the concept of strength as a moral imperative into uncouth display of muscle that has made the world what it is. It is when those entrusted with the task of safeguarding and fortifying the good and true give up the mission that strength degenerates into an unholy mission of dominating and subjugating. To stop this from happening, the sanctity of strength and the necessity to use it for a higher purpose must be recognized.
Jihad must not be disowned simply because we, with our narrowness of vision can no more see it for what it is. Disassociating oneself from it is dangerous, cruel, blind, foolish, careless, criminal. For the nature of life is such that power will be won by the one willing to be strong, and leadership will fall to his lot. It will be exercised over the weaker in any case. If we wish the world to make sense, power has to fall where it ought to be, it has to back goodness and give it authority. If the good do not win it, it is grabbed by the unworthy, and misused. Because, if the saint won’t have it, the devil must_ and God save the world then! If you are not ready to win it, you let it be abused, you let the world go to the dogs, you connive in the greatest sin_ the sin of letting it be. Comfortably numb.

"And what is wrong with you that you fight not in the Cause of Allâh, and for those weak, ill-treated and oppressed among men, women, and children, whose cry is: "Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from You one who will protect, and raise for us from You the one who will help.”” Al Quran, 4: 75.