A historian’s view of the west, politics, the war and unity

By Kalim Siddiqui.

(Crescent International, 16-31 January, 1987. Reprinted in Issues in the Islamic movement, Vol. 7, 1986-87 (1405-06), pp. 139-143.)

Whenever there is a world ‘crisis’ involving Iran, the volume of my mail increases significantly. Brothers and sisters from many parts of the world ring up asking to be reassured that Iran was not really buying arms from Israel. A few restless souls come in person to ask searching questions about the Islamic Revolution, about Iran’s domestic and foreign policies, about Shi‘i beliefs and what they have read in books now being distributed by Saudi Arabia. Most recently a Muslim historian now teaching in a western university came to my house.

‘History is not my subject,’ I said cautiously. My visitor was not convinced. ‘You are nevertheless a historian,’ he said. ‘You don’t need a degree in history to be a historian.’

After these initial exchanges we settled down to a rambling discussion. He referred to my most recent paper, on Muslim political thought during the colonial period. He agreed with its central thesis: that all Muslim political thought in the colonial period, including that of the major Islamic parties, was essentially European political thought dressed up in Islamic clothes. He said he now understood the Islamic parties better. He could now see that the political ideas of the Revolution were entirely from within Islam. No other political event in the Muslim world has been so free of the intellectual legacy of the west. This was because the leadership was in the hands of the ulama! He said he now understood why there was so much emphasis on the leadership of the ulama in all my writings since the Revolution.

‘You hate the west, don’t you?’ he said accusingly, pulling at his pipe. ‘No, no, no. I don’t,’ I protested. ‘I don’t hate western man as such. I have a great deal of sympathy for the human being who is trapped in the west. But the culture and civilization here is nauseating.’ He agreed it was. We then talked about the west generally. He felt the west’s contribution to history had been ‘outstanding.’ He also used such adjectives as ‘marvellous’ and ‘splendid.’ He volunteered the information that he was westernized. Having said that he sat back thinking. I said nothing for fear of interfering with his thought processes.

Then he added: ‘I am going to cut back on my lifestyle. I like the Islamic way of life better!’ ‘What in particular?’ I asked. ‘This business of hijab is very necessary. Good idea. Splendid!’ he said. He then went on to tell me that he had two grown up daughters at college. They had come in contact with Iranian female students at Manchester University. His daughters had taken to hijab and were now offering salat regularly. ‘To tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘my daughters brought your books home and showed them to me.’

‘Splendid books, those four books of the Issues in the Islamic Movement. Splendid raw material for future historians. So well written, too,’ he said. We agreed that the modern desire for ‘instant history’ was unhealthy. Too many people did things these days with an eye on history. I tried to defend myself by saying I was only a journalist describing the contemporary scene and recording it, a sort of historian in a hurry. He liked the phrase and laughed. ‘But you are not in a hurry,’ he said in an accusatory tone, ‘you want a global Islamic movement and Islamic Revolutions everywhere. That is hardly a man in a hurry! Very basic, long term thinking.’ I acknowledged that I did not believe in short cuts.

We agreed that there would have to be new Islamic Revolutions in other countries soon. We also agreed that these were now inevitable. We talked a good deal about where the next Islamic Revolution was likely to come. We considered many countries, but then agreed that such speculation did not really help. What is important is that we should be ready to support and help the new Revolution whenever it occurs.

The trouble with long-term thinking is that it does not concentrate the mind on immediate goals, he said. I acknowledged that this was a difficulty, but it could be overcome. Every long-term goal is achieved by a number of short-term actions. Take walking, for instance: a man on his feet is a slow moving creature, but every step takes him closer to where he wants to go. Transport, or faster ways of walking, can be developed on the way. But if the ultimate goal is not clear there is always the temptation to settle for less, or even far less.

This is what is wrong with modern politics. It is called the art of the possible. If something appears to be ‘impossible’ it cannot be part of ‘politics.’ Again, modern politics is about very short-term goals. Harold Wilson, when he was prime minister of Britain, once said ‘a week in politics is a long time.’ This one quotation of his has become part of the common political culture of the west Politicians, for whom a week is a long time, can never be men of commitment to morals or principles. The end of the week, or at most the date of the next election, is the limit of their vision. On this basis no Islamic movement, Islamic Revolution or jihad is possible. This is a problem with all behaviour in a secular world.

We also discussed the possibility that major short-term goals can sometimes obscure more important long-term goals. An example we discussed is the Iraqi imposed wars. The short-term goal of winning the war has so diverted the attention of everyone in Iran that almost nobody now wants to talk about the ‘export’ of the Revolution. The war has taken up the attention of the key figures in Iran, as well as all Iran’s material resources. And because the war is territorial, the Islamic global revolutionary vision has been diverted to the defence of the territory. The war may have given a new lease of life to Iranian nationalism. The justifiable pride of winning the war could also reinforce the nationalist emotion. The leadership in Iran should recognize this danger. The early years after the Islamic Revolution, when the new system was still trying to find its feet while dealing with grave problems of survival, were bound to cause such difficulties. By now, with the war nearing its end and the US suitably humbled, the leadership should have more confidence and maturity to return to the global dimensions and ideals of the Islamic Revolution. When they do, they will find a large body of opinion in the Ummah, waiting for them.

My visitor then turned to Shi‘i beliefs. I had a feeling all along that this was what he really wanted to talk about. He asked me if I had read a recent book by Maulana Manzoor Naumani of Lucknow. I said I had ‘seen’ the book. He looked at the shelf behind me. ‘There it is,’ he said. He said he was very disturbed by the book. I said that that was precisely the purpose of the book, to make Sunni opinion turn against the Shi‘i school of thought. He did not like the phrase ‘school of thought in Islam.’ He kept referring to ‘sects.’ He said Shi‘as had a ‘different Qur’an.’ I asked him if he had seen a Shi‘i Qur’an. He said he hadn’t. If such a ‘different Qur’an’ does exist it must be available somewhere, I said. I asked him to bring me a copy, or tell me where one is available, and I promised to go and have a look at it. I told him that I had heard about this ‘different Qur’an’ from many people, but no one has ever come back with a copy. He conceded that he had not seen one either.

‘They also believe that the Qur’an would be completed by Imam Mahdi,’ he said. This is another of those assertions that no-one has ever substantiated. We talked about it for a long time. Most of his assertions were of this type. He finally agreed with me that many ulama down the centuries have examined Shi‘i positions and come to the conclusion that they are Muslims and a ‘school of thought’ in Islam. I showed him a copy of Shaikh Shaltoot’s fatwa. This pacified him. He also began to realize that Manzoor Naumani’s book is most probably written as part of the Saudi propaganda campaign against Iran.

We then talked about the unity (wahdah) of the Ummah. He dismissed the whole idea of wahdah between Shi‘i and Sunni Muslims as ‘impossible’ and an ‘unrealistic dream.’ I then went over the arguments on unity that I have developed over many years. He heard me out in silence and then said, ‘You are an optimist, but you will not succeed.’

He walked over to the shelf where the books published by the Muslim Institute stand together. ‘Great contribution, very original,’ he said. He repeated his view that I was an optimist. He reminded me that optimists had fared badly throughout history. I said I did not share his assessment of optimists in history. History, he said, is not kind to people who try to push it in one direction too fast, too soon. Time is the very essence of history.

‘How do you assess the role of power?’ I asked. Power, he said, was transient. It was possible to use military, political, economic, and other varieties of power to achieve short-term goals. Major goals achieved by the use of power rarely consolidate into long term gains. Real power is the power of ideas. If powerful ideas are not allowed to make history, they act as a drag on history. Military power is useless against the power of ideas. Political power, State power and other forms of physical power are transient. They usually try to achieve more than their actual capability. There is therefore a self-defeating quality in the use of physical power.

‘What is influence?’ I asked. ‘You tell me,’ he retorted, ‘you seem to have plenty of it!’ l decided there was no point in arguing about whether or not I had influence. We discussed influence for a long time. He sat down and had another cup of tea. We agreed that influence has similarities with power, but whereas power can coerce and force the issue, influence has to be voluntary and persuasive. If those who are influenced also feel threatened, then this is not influence. Any element of fear converts it into a power relationship. Influence creates mutual respect between me influenced and the influential, whereas power creates distrust and fear. The power of ideas usually leads to influence.

‘Take this idea of the global Islamic movement,’ he said. ‘This idea has become the single most influential idea in the Islamic world today.’ He doubted, however, the practicality of the ‘global Islamic movement.’ To him the more practical approach was to aim for an Islamic Revolution in one country at a time. When I insisted on ‘unity’ in the movement before further Islamic Revolutions, he called me an ‘idealist’ and a ‘dreamer.’ In his view, no Islamic State would lead the Islamic movement. There will always be tension between the State and the movement. ‘Some Islamic States will not even tolerate the Islamic movement,’ he said finally as he got up to go.

He said he would invite me to speak to his ‘hard nosed’ students of history. ‘A little bit of idealism will do them good,’ he said.