Closed World Of Islam. A Civilisation In Trouble by Girilal Jain

The ghazi with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other may well be dismissed as a caricature invented by some Chris­tians and accepted by some Hind­us. But no student of Muslim history can deny the symbiotic relationship between the Koran and the sword.

This is not to suggest that the sword has been the principal instrument for the spread of Islam. That controversy is not pertinent to my view of the state of the Muslim world of which Indian Islam is part. In my scheme, power is an integral part of life. Not to speak of Christianity and Islam, the votaries of non-prophetic re­ligions too have not shunned the cause of power for upholding what Hindus call dharma.

Bitter Struggle

Christ’s saying “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” is quoted as evidence that from its very start Christianity has admitted of separ­ation between the church and the state. Historically this is not true. The history of the Roman Catholic church speaks of bitter struggles by Popes for supremacy.

It is the revival of the pre-Chris­tian Graeco-Roman heritage which accounts for the rise of the secular state in Europe. Indeed, even today the church remains a significant factor in the public realm in the Western world. Christianity is, however, different from Islam in that it has no counterpart of the shariat which the ruler is expected to respect and the Hadith which defines the parameters and the ideal for the devout.

From the Muslim point of view, however, one of the main problems Islam faces is not that it does not admit of separation of the secular from the religious realm but that Muslims have lost control over the secular part. In Chinese terminology, they walk on one leg. The story can be dated back to 1683 when the Hapsburgs beat back the Turks from the gate of Vienna, or even earlier when the Portuguese and the Spaniards gradually deprived them of the control over the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean and of the trade between these regions.

After the demise of the Abbasid caliphate in the 13th century, the Ottoman empire was the most im­portant Muslim power. Unlike the Abbasids, the Sultan was not the controlling centre but he served well enough as the protective shield against western encroach­ments. Its decline and its final dissolution at the end of World War I marked, in a fundamental sense, the closure of the era that opened with the establishment by the Prophet of the first Muslim state in Medina. However bitter and devastating the struggles within it and however painful the setbacks such as the sack of Bagh­dad in 1258 by Mongols, the ummah, the community of the faithful, was in control of its for­tunes from Mohammad’s Medina period up to the time of the decline of the Ottoman empire.

Since the beginning of the 18th century, Muslim thinkers and men of action have tried to inaugurate a new era in their history. Their failure to do so is obvious. At various places, beginning with the seat of Ottoman power in Anatolia itself and at various times, begin­ning possibly with Shah Waliullah in Delhi at the beginning of the 18th century, they have tried different strategies – modernisation of the armed forces and ad­ministration, western-style educa­tion, reinterpretation of the Koran, return to pristine Islam, western ideologies from liberalism to Marxism to fascism, pan-Islamism and pan-Arabism. Nothing has worked. The reasons for the failures do not concern us here.

In view of the rise and fall of a number of Muslim dynasties, it is tempting to dismiss the ummah as a myth. This temptation must be resisted. Despite the absence of central political control since the Abbasid caliphate, the ummah has been a potent reality and it remains so today. The well-known five pillars remain as much a reality today as ever before. In addition, there is the obligation for all Muslims to accept literally the Koran as the immutable word of God and the Shariat as the basic law, to memorise and recite the Koran in Arabic and seek legitimacy for present actions in the Hadith. The Muslim personality is a reality despite regional and ethnic differences.

No Period


It needs to be noted that there has been no period in Muslim history when ideas and movements arising in one corner have not re­verberated throughout the Muslim worlds. Non-Arab and non- Per­sian thinkers have written in Arabic and Persian because they have seen themselves as part of the larger Islamic community of which these have been the languages of discourse. In our own century, Maulana Maudoomi is without doubt the father of what is called Islamic fundamentalism.

Indeed, it is precisely because the ummah is a powerful reality that it has not been possible for indepen­dent political communities to emerge as legitimate entities. That so ancient a people as Egyptians should have abolished the very name of their country at one stage speaks for itself. So does the fact that Iranians are ready to put their future at risk in search of leader­ship of the ummah.


It is commonplace that the ummah cannot have and does not have a fatherland or motherland. What is not equally well known is that this is as much the result of the persistence of tribalism as of universalism in Islam. Its re­markable military victories validated its universalism but they preserved the earlier tribalism of Arabs as well as of Turks. The implications are horrendous for Muslims – no political com­munities, governments dominated by tribal and clannish consider­ations, no possibility of fair gov­ernments, democracy out of the question. Mr David Pryce-Jones has spelt it out in his book The Closed Circle (Paladin).

Inevitably the ummah hankers after a saviour and return to pristine Islam in the Medinan period of the prophet and the first four caliphs, three of whom in­cidentally were murdered. Though a Shia and an Iranian, Muslims were ready to hail Ayatollah Kho­meini. The war with Iraq cut him down to size. Saddam Hussein would have been a Muslim hero if he had followed the invasion of Kuwait with that of Saudi Arabia and thereby blocked a Western riposte. He is again trying to recap­ture the imagination of fellow Muslims by his defiance of the US and the UN and he may well succeed.

Fundamentalist groups have arisen in several Muslim lands. Whatever its rationale in terms of corrupt and tyrannical rulers and betrayed hopes, this upsurge is an exercise in self- destruction, though others cannot escape the fallout if only because two-thirds of the world’s proven oil resources are located in the Gulf region. All in all, Islam as a civilisation is at bay. It is not encircled; it is closed from within. It cannot escape from the closed circle.

This is the background against which a meaningful discussion of Indian Islam has to proceed.

The Times of India, 28 January 1993

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