“FALSE ULAMA VERSUS SECULARISTS”
AN EXTENDED COMMENTARY
By Kassim Ahmad
6 July, 2006
Although the word ‘ulama’ occurs in the Quran, the word means what it was desired to mean – “scholars”. However, the word in its plural form today has come to mean something different, i.e. a class of clerics who has authority to speak on religious matters and who are accepted by the majority of society as such. Such a class of religious people did not originate in the early Muslim society of Prophet Muhammad’s time. The Prophet and his companions were never known as such. The Prophet was their leader in both secular and religious matters. There was in fact no division between the two spheres of life, both existing in perfect harmony and unity.
This division came much later, as a result of Muslim interaction with the Christian and Jewish communities as well as internal developments within the Muslim community. The Christians and the Jewish communities had their own priesthoods and the young Muslim community took over this practice, although their religion clearly forbade them from doing so. The internal developments they were going through at this time – the emergence of a powerful financial and feudal power elite around the Muawiyah familiy – broke the democratic republican tradition of governance begun by Prophet Muhammad right to the fourth Caliph Ali, ending what has come to be known as the Righteous Caliphate. That led to a new feudalism, fracturing the Community into two distinct though inter-related powers, the secular and the religious. This pattern continue until today, even though the Caliphate was dismantled by the revolutionary Turkish nationalist leader, Mustafa Kamal Attaturk, after the First World War. Attempts by the religious elite to take over state power completely in Muslim countries succeeded only in Iran in 1997 with the so-called Iranian Islamic Revolution.
Europe, after the 30 Year-long Religious War that ended with the landmark Treaty of Westphalia (24 October, 1648), and having gone through what is known as the Enlightenment – the triumph of reason and science over religion – has taken the road of completely relegating religion to a personal sphere and rendering man’s life to be completely secular. Thus the spiritual and the moral sides of man have been pushed to the sideline of his being, and he became the animal par excellence, the predator.
The IKIM writer of the Tuesday column (The Star, 4 July, p. 30), Md. Asham Ahmad, referred to this development when he said, “It is a phenomenon we may call natural to the West considering the long bitter experience that they have had with the church, leading ultimately to the marginalization of religion and secularization of the philosophical programme.”
This early and fatal turning of the Western road explains much of Western history: economic and political philosophy based on private greed; the eastward and the westward push of European colonialism; the World Wars resulting from the clash of competing colonialisms; the foisting of the colonial-settler state of Israel in the midst of the Muslim-Arab world; and now the so-called worldwide War on Terrorism camouflaging as a new Crusade against Islam and bent on hegemony and domination. It is a self-destructive course, but who except God, can divert these American-led criminal gangs of power-crazy fascists, brandishing weapons of mass destruction, launching wars of aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq and would ever be ready to launch them at whoever they choose as their enemy, and bringing chaos and destruction upon themselves and the world?
The Muslims, on the other hand, went into reverse gear. Instead of progressing up the ladder of success (Arabic ‘falah’ meaning ‘to succeed’) where they had assimilated and carried forward world existing science, philosophy and culture (Greek, Indian, Persian and Chinese), which Europe now took over, they developed a “self-sufficient” theology and jurisprudence, not excluding the retreat into quietist “spiritualist” refuge of Sufism, to keep the Community “united, happy, complacent and self-righteous”. This Community became formed around the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries and it stayed there in cold storage until the beginning of the Nineteenth Century when it had to deal seriously and as a matter-of-life-and-death practice with the West. At this point, the problems begin: the orthodox stances of anti-Orientalism, anti-secularism, anti-modernism, anti-Liberalism, and the elevation of the Ulama (i.e. the priesthood) into position of power and influence as “Guardians of the Faith”.
The ideological weapon (“The ulama are the heirs of the prophets.”), a so-called prophetic saying, is brought into full, strident aggressive display. I have termed it “so-called” as a matter of scientific accuracy, not to denigrate it. One of the great tragedies of the Muslim community is that its members read their Quran in Arabic (which is not the mother-tongue for most) without understanding its meaning. Their religious educational system puts the learning of the Hadith as more important than the understanding of the teachings of the Quran. So, in the case of this so-called hadith, as in the case of very many hadith that contradict the teachings of the Quran, they are quite unaware of. The clear Quranic teaching on this matter of Quranic inheritance is that it is being handed over to those of God’s servants whom He chooses (note that God does not even use the word ‘believers’, implying that God’s choice may not square up with our idea of people who should inherit the Quran). (See Quran, 35: 32:) It is clear from this verse that no particular group of people, including the ulama, has been appointed by God to inherit and carry forward His message to the world.
When the Quran states that it is the learned who truly fears God, it is pointing to the fact, because these learned people truly know the comprehensive and awesome power of God by their studies of the planets and of nature.
There seems to be a misunderstanding among many of us, believers in various religions, as to who should protect God’s religion, minding that every religious group claims that theirs is the true religion. In the first place, such people must be quite presumptuous to think that they have been given the task of protecting God’s truth, for God’s religion is surely God’s Truth. No, there is no such task assigned to men in the Quran. The highest task given to him is to struggle, body and soul, in the course of God, i.e. in the course of truth, justice and goodness. (See Quran, 9: 111). No one is entrusted with the protection of God’s religion, as no one except He can do it. So it is the height of folly and presumption for Md. Asham Ahmad to claim in that article that “Without the ulama, who inherited the teachings of the Prophet and who preserved those teachings and then conveyed them to the rest of mankind and who protected these teachings from alteration, corruption and false interpretations, there would be no Islam.” It is surely truer to say that had it not been for God’s miraculous intervention in the case of the Quran, Islam would have been completely corrupted by men, including their ulama! It has happened before with Christianity and Judaism, and, by extension, in all religions. The saving grace of Islam is its-divinely protected Quran.
True believers, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, should rest assured that God’s truth, including God’s religion (which I have designated in another location as the “Islam of the Prophets”, to distinguish it from the “Islam of the Theologians”) will triumph in the end. I believe that time is not far off. I can say that it is almost here.
However, we bear God’s trust as being His vicegerent on Earth, the earth meaning the entire Universe. What does this vicegerent role actually mean? Looking at men’s past history as well at the words of the Quran on the matter, it means men’s freely re-making and re-ordering it in accordance to God’s law of a truthful and lawful Universe, to be the lasting Abode of Felicity or Paradise for God’s righteous servants, and the temporary Abode of Hell – temporary for the cleansing up process – for the sinners.
What a grand finale! God be praised, then, in the Heavens and on Earth!
Kassim Ahmad is a Malaysian free-lance writer, based in Penang. He can be contacted at email@example.com. His website is at www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com