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Islam, Islamism and the West
Rehan Ahmad


(Based on a talk by the author given in Australia)


It is not possible to know with certainty how long the human race has inhabited this world. However, a study of the known history of mankind reveals that it is littered with mutual conflict and bloodshed. It is not possible to go over the entire history of conflict during this short talk however, we are well aware that starting with the clash between Abel and Cain, the mutual differences amongst human beings progressively developed into tribal disputes, and subsequently evolved into a state of perpetual war and conflict between various nations led by ruling families and monarchies. A quick look at modern history also reveals a long list of major and minor conflicts.

Humanity has already gone through two eras of modern history. During the first era, nations were divided on the basis of nation states. During that time, equipped with modern knowledge, skills and technology the Western nations departed from their shores and rapidly established their rule over the entire world. Later on, as a consequence of the First and Second World Wars, the imperialistic nations lost their might and one by one, the colonized states regained freedom. However, the nations of the world were faced with another conflict soon afterwards.

The new conflict was on an ideological basis in which the most important and powerful nations of the new world split into two blocks led by the US and the Soviet Union, on the basis of communism and capitalism. The latter half of the twentieth century was consumed by conflicts between these superpowers. During that time, even the so-called non-aligned countries were forced to align themselves with one or the other superpower to a certain extent. The conflict between these countries was not limited to an ideological struggle; rather, the world also had to deal with the threat of extinction of the human race as a consequence of a nuclear conflict between the opposing nations. Furthermore, bloodshed continued during this period due to proxy wars of the two superpowers and conflicts between other nations. This second era of current history ended with the demise of the Soviet Union.

The downfall of communism led to the end of the Soviet Union, but not to the end of the world. Therefore, some questions began to arise in the thinking minds of the Western victors of the Cold War. These include: On what defining principles should the affairs of the world be now run? On what basis should the nations of the world realign themselves? What should be the foundations of the new World Order? Several opinions were expressed in response to these questions. However, the opinion that captured the attention of intellectuals and thinkers from across the world was that of Samuel P. Huntington expressed in his legendary article titled, “The Clash of Civilizations.” This article was first published in 1993 in a journal called “Foreign Affairs.” He published a book with the same title subsequently, in which he elaborated his views in detail.

It has almost been a quarter of a century since the book was published and during this time, a lot has happened that cannot be undone. Many people believe that a lot of what is currently happening in international politics can be best understood on the basis of the views presented in “The Clash of Civilizations.” The book is quite bulky in terms of the number of pages but as far as its central idea is concerned, it’s quite brief. Its central idea is that after the cold war, the nations of the world will divide on the basis of cultural differences, and this division will be the most important factor in determining future prospects of war and peace.

This book was written in critique of a certain point of view that became quite popular in the Western circles at the end of the cold war, following the victory of the Western world against communism. The proponents of this point of view believed that a free, democratic and capitalist Western society was the epitome of human intellectual development; and that it had become quite evident to the rest of the world that these were indeed the truly indisputable values. They believed that the world had started to accept the capitalist western society’s way of life and values. In their opinion, this acceptance was totally justified. They envisioned that in time this would lead to the creation of a global civilization led by the West. A representative book of this point of view was “The End of History” and “The Last Man” by Francis Fukuyama that was published in 1992. It was based on his original essay titled “The Last Man” published in 1989.

The author of “The Clash of the Civilizations” has rejected the above point of view in his book and tried to explain to the Western readership that after the end of the cold war, the international conflicts have not come to an end, rather, the basis of these conflicts has changed. Previously the conflicts used to take place on the basis of ideological and national issues whereas now the conflicts will be based on cultural issues. The author has predicted that these cultural differences are likely to lead to a clash between the West and China as well as the Muslim world.

Today, we live in the third era of the modern world. Many of Huntington’s contemporaries did not agree with his opinion and they have remained unconvinced up to the present time. Nevertheless, one approach to understanding world affairs is to base it on idealistic and principled notions while an alternative approach is to have a realistic perspective, founded on ground realities. If we use the former approach, none of us will like to agree with Huntington; however, if we look at the post-9/11 world with the latter perspective, it is difficult to disagree with him. When one looks at the important milestones of recent history starting with Al-Qaeda’s 23rd February 1998 fatwa issued in Afghanistan that authorized indiscriminate, armed jihad against the soldiers and civilians of the United States and its allies, and the events of 9/11 afterwards; followed by US attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, the subsequent international “war on terror” and now, the unending warfare of the Taliban and ISIS against the Western powers, it becomes evident that even if not in their entirety at least in part, the Western and Muslim civilizations are in a state of war.

This partial war-like state has resulted in an increase in distance between people. Hatred against the West is visibly on the rise in the Muslim world while in the West, the ban on the burqini and head scarf in some states, the increase in Islamophobia and popularity of Islamophobic politicians, and the rejection of legitimate visa requests of travellers from the Muslim world are all indications that a gulf is increasing between the two sides. The current state of affairs makes it obvious that unless responsible people on both sides play an active part to improve the situation, the on-going partial conflict between Islam and the West may turn into an all out confrontation. I want to present Islam’s view on this situation, in my role as a representative and a humble student of Islam. I will endeavour to clarify that the real teachings of Islam have the potential to resolve this global conflict. Islam is a message of peace for the individual, the society and entire humanity.

In the view of this humble student of Islam, this war is not between Islam and the West. The real parties to this conflict are, on the one side, the followers of the so-called Political Islam or Islamism, which is a 20th century political interpretation of Islam, and on the other side, certain political groups in the West that benefit from war and conflict. It may be conceded that the traditional interpretation of jihad in Islam has remained a potential source of this conflict. Yet what has fueled this conflict to the present degree is indeed this political Islam.

The doctrine of Islamism was first introduced by Hasan al-Banna and Abu al-A‘la Mawdudi in the first quarter of the 20th Century in Egypt and pre-partition India respectively. Subsequently, Sayyid Qutab from Egypt promoted it further through his writings.

The fundamental premise of this doctrine was that Islam was revealed so that it could dominate the entire world; therefore, it was the responsibility of Muslims to establish political domination of Islam, initially in their respective societies and subsequently, over the entire world. The proponents of this doctrine believed that the ruling elites in the Muslim world not only championed secularism, they were also awestruck by the Western civilization and protected their interests. Hence, it was a fundamental priority to try to take over political leadership from such a ruling class. Consequently, right at the onset, the followers of political Islam had confrontation with their respective ruling elites; Egypt and the Arab world turned out to be the initial frontlines of this confrontation. Fortunately, in Pakistan, Abu al-A‘la Mawdudi adopted a democratic path to achieve his objectives; therefore, this confrontation remained confined to political and ideological battlegrounds. A constitutional struggle to enforce Islamic laws at the State level resulted in various constitutional reforms and amendments. Therefore, before the onset of the recent wave of terrorism, this struggle remained restricted within constitutional boundaries.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the alliance of the Muslim and Western countries led by the U.S.A. not only promoted the Islamist doctrine but also provided them all sorts of help including military training, weapons and financial backing in aid of their proxy war against the USSR. I wonder how the Western political leadership became oblivious to the fact that it was not sending mercenaries to Afghanistan but instead providing a nursery for the Islamist doctrine, of which the ultimate objective was to establish political domination of Islam over the entire world. From their perspective, regardless of whether the system of governance was based on Western secularism, Muslim autocracy or democracy, all deserved to be toppled. Therefore, their support to the Islamists was not simply a case of aiding a few conventional freedom fighters; in fact, it equated to nurturing and strengthening the followers of a movement with ambitions of global political dominance. The proxy war in Afghanistan ended following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union. However, the Islamist doctrine lived on. Consequently, it is the same doctrine that continues to appear time and again in the form of one or the other Islamist organization or leader.

There have been some very authoritative and scholarly criticisms of the Islamism ideology in the Muslim world however, on account of certain ground realities, and despite their strong credentials, they have not managed to gain a lot of acceptance amongst the intellectual leadership of the Muslim world. One reason for this is the history of the Western colonization of the Muslim world during the previous two centuries. In addition, the political conflicts over Kashmir and Palestine have complicated matters, as they play an important role in increasing hatred towards the West amongst the Muslim masses.

It is imperative that Western leaders appreciate their responsibility as leaders of the modern world and endeavour to help resolve these political conflicts on an urgent basis. On the other hand, it is vital that the real message of Islam be delivered to the common man in the light of the Qur’an and the exemplary life of Prophet Muhammad (sws) so that the peaceful and loving face of Islam becomes apparent to everyone.

According to the Qur’an, God created this worldly life in order to test human beings. The nature of the test is to see which people believe in an unseen God and follow his commands willingly. Though He may be unseen but there are many testimonies in human nature and in the heavens and the earth that attest to His existence. Every human being here has the freedom to accept or reject them. The Qur’an clarifies further that there is no compulsion in religion. From this perspective, Islam is an invitation, and not a compulsion. It is nothing but willingly surrendering oneself to the will of God. In other words, it is submission to God despite not being able to see him. It is about giving up one’s free will despite having the freedom not to do so. Islam is not about imposing a religion on others. Islam is about passing the message of God to other human beings, for the sake of their betterment, in the true spirit of humanity. For those people who accept its call, the Qur’an asks of them to seek to purify their inner selves. It gives glad tidings that people who take the path of self-purification will be rewarded with an eternal life in Paradise; whereas, those who pollute their inner selves with unfavourable traits will be deeply disappointed.

The path to self-purification described by Islam is nothing but a few demands related to faith and good deeds, as mentioned in the Qur’an. The essence of these demands is that a person needs to establish his relationship with God and the creations of God on solid foundations. These foundations are justice, compassion and altruism. The Qur’an requires one to adopt the above three attributes while it forbids three types of deeds: infidelity, injustice and oppression. Hence, at a personal level, the teachings of Islam give glad tidings of success in the Hereafter, while at the collective level they are a source of welfare and prosperity for all humanity. This is because the main source of disorder in this world has always been the fact that people are not just, compassionate and supportive of others, and instead elect to take the path of infidelity, oppression and injustice.

The demands that Islam expects its followers to comply with mostly concern their personal lives. They concern the purification and cleansing of one’s body as well as the food that it consumes. They also concern the worship of God and formation of correct beliefs about God. To fulfill the requirements of justice and compassion in one’s dealings with fellow human beings is also amongst these demands. They also concern the promotion of chastity and avoidance of infidelity. Furthermore, as man by nature is also a social animal, the Holy Qur’an has put forward certain demands that relate to his role in the society. Therefore, when a man takes on the role of a husband, Islam places certain responsibilities on his shoulders. Certain demands are placed in front of individuals when they take on roles of parents and offspring. Similarly, responsibilities have been placed on individuals concerning their dealings with relatives.

The state is a politically organized form of the society. Therefore, when an individual takes on the role of the head of a state, Islam also places some responsibilities on his or her shoulders. For example, to take appropriate decisions if there is a necessity to wage war or jihad; to implement sentences for certain offences in order to suppress crimes; to establish collective Friday prayers; to play a due role in the promotion of good values and discouragement of evil values; to establish a system for the collection of the obligatory zakah charity, etc.

Similarly, in order to preserve the awareness of good and evil in the society and to support the spread of Islam, it asks its followers to promote universally agreed upon good values such as justice, honesty, kindness etc. and it requires of them to help stop people from committing universally accepted evils like wrongdoing, bribery, fraud etc.

The responsibility of Islamic religious scholars is to engage all segments of the society in indhar, that is, to help keep alive the realization that one day, everyone will be accountable to God for his deeds; and to remind people to follow the commands of God in order to save them from culpability in the Hereafter. Even if the leaders of the state do not fulfill their obligations, the responsibility of religious scholars is confined to advice and exhortation. The aforementioned is the true role of religious scholars.

A study of Islamic teachings reveals that God Almighty has not limited the free will of human beings in any manner. Just as there is no compulsion in accepting or rejecting the message of Islam, a Muslim also has complete freedom to decide whether or not to follow religious obligations. Islam is not interested in creating hypocrites who are outwardly righteous but deniers of the truth on the inside. Therefore, the sanctity of free will has been kept fully intact in all aspects of religious directives too. At an individual level, a person enjoys complete freedom to decide whether or not to follow religious obligations. However, the Qur’an does inform the individual that the reward for obeying the unseen God is eternal Paradise while the consequence of neglecting Him is imprisonment in Hell. The eternal success and salvation of man hinges on leading a life in accordance with the will of God, however, human beings are completely free to decide if they wish to live a life of servitude or not. They are free to choose whether or not to embrace innate teachings that promote positive attributes like justice, compassion and altruism and discourage negative qualities like infidelity, injustice and oppression. This whole scheme of things is devoid of any compulsion or coercion.

However, in a society governed by Islamic teachings, what is wrong will be clearly labeled as such and people will be encouraged to refrain from it. A just cause or action will be clearly stated to be just and right, and citizens will be encouraged to adopt and support it. They will be provided sincere advice and reminders. The reasons for declaring something good or evil will be clearly explained but everyone’s free will, will be respected. However, people in positions of authority at the level of the state or in the society in general, will have the obligation to comply with religious obligations that apply to their positions of authority. Hence, the rulers will be required to take necessary actions to promote virtuous behaviour and deeds in the society. It will be expected of them to enact necessary legislation to help stop injustice and oppression. They will have to undertake the responsibilities of the Executive related to administration of penal laws related to crimes like murder and various forms of theft. They will have to implement laws related to adultery and spreading disorder in the land.

However, the rulers in such a society will not have the right or authority to, for example, make people fast by force or to punish people who elect not to fast. They will not have the right to prohibit women from driving or to order them to cover themselves up in veils or to force men to grow beards. These examples fall within the personal domains of people in which our religion assures them complete freedom. Such issues fall within the ambit of personal relationships between a human being and his or her creator. A Muslim has the right to consult a scholar if he fails to understand any religious directive. He has the right to accept and follow the opinion of any scholar that seems to him to be the nearest to the teachings of the Qur’an and the exemplary teachings of the last Prophet (sws). However, no one has the right to impose anything on him.

Similarly, it must be remembered that the basis of the relationship between a Muslim and a non-Muslims is not one of hatred or conflict. In fact, this relationship is that of a preacher and his addressee. Since the cessation of prophethood after the passing of the last Prophet (sws), the only course available to Muslims for propagating their religion is by sharing Islamic teachings with the non-Muslims and by becoming living examples of those teachings in their personal lives. They do not have the authority to try to impose political dominance of Muslims over the world or to subjugate the power of non-Muslim rulers of the world.

The reason for the misconception in this matter is related to certain exceptional Laws mentioned in the Qur’an that concern the Messengers of God and their immediate and direct addressees. According to the Qur’an, when God sends a Messenger to a nation, the fate of that nation is decided in this very world. The Almighty states in the Qur’an: 

And for every nation, there is a Messenger. When their Messenger comes, the matter is judged between them with justice, and they are not wronged. (10:47) 

Hence, it was on the basis of this Law, that the Nations of Noah (sws), ‘Ād, Thamud, Pharaohs, Lot (sws), Shu‘ayb (sws), etc. were destroyed. In the case of our Messenger and Prophet, Muhammad (sws), since he managed to get the support of a significant number of companions, the Almighty decided that the rejecters of his message would be punished by the swords of his companions. The Almighty states in the Qur’an:


Fight them; God will punish them by your hands … (9:14)


It was on the basis of this principle that the leadership of the tribe of Quraysh was killed in the battle of Badr. However, the rest of the Arabs embraced Islam. The Almighty had promised that he would give political power to the believers among the direct addressees of the Messenger; therefore he fulfilled his promise and created such favourable circumstances that after victory in the Arab lands, the companions of the Messenger also conquered the Romans and Iranians. This was the manifestation of God’s promise that is recorded in the Qur’an in the following words: 

God has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth, as he granted it to those before them and that he will surely establish for them [therein] their religion. (24:55)

 Looking at history, we can see that after that event, the rule of the righteous caliphs was as if the Kingdom of Heaven had been established in this world. In this Kingdom of Heaven, the ruling caliph was like a humble public servant, while all citizens enjoyed equal rights. Justice was easily accessible to all in the society. There was abundance of wealth. Everyone enjoyed peace and security. These were the blessings of following the teachings of Islam which became manifest in this very world.

According to the Qur’an, the punishments and rewards given to the direct addressees of the Messengers in this world are living testimony and proof that there is going to be a Day of Judgement. It is a proof that the creator of this world is not aloof from the events of this world. Instead, he has sent messengers from time to time to punish and reward their direct addressees so that human beings do not have any excuse to refute the existence of accountability that awaits them in the Hereafter.

The last time this event of worldly reward and punishment took place in Arabia. Its details were saved both in the Qur’an as well as in known historical records, which show how a lone man proclaimed faith (in one God while standing in the midst of idol worshippers) and announced the judgment of the Almighty that the rejecters of his message will eventually be killed. On the other hand, it was proclaimed that the believers would be bestowed with authority on this earth. Within a short span of a quarter of a century, both these predictions proved to be true. The entire leadership of the Arab world was eliminated while the poor and helpless believers became the biggest superpower of that era by the blessings of Almighty God.

This event proved to the last degree that the Almighty God who manifested this miracle will also bring about the Day of Judgement. It is now the responsibility of Muslims to not only follow the teachings of Islam in their personal lives but to also bear witness to its veracity in front of the rest of the humanity while continuing to share with them the message of the true religion. They need to do this so that on the Day of Judgement, the servants of God inhabiting this planet cannot say to him that they were not aware of the grand scheme of Almighty for this world. This is the real responsibility of the Muslims and this is the duty that the companions of the Prophet (sws) discharged so well. The Almighty declares in the Qur’an: 

And thus we have appointed you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses against mankind and the Messenger may be a witness against you. (Qur’an 2:143)

 In summary, Islam has brought a message of success for humanity. The success is for everlasting life in the hereafter as well as this world. Islam does not desire to use compulsion on its subjects. If the Almighty wished to do so, it would not have been possible for anyone to go against divine will. If the Almighty had desired to so, he could have made human beings subservient to His wishes in the same way he had made the rest of the universe obey him. However, He is testing human beings in order to select the people who do virtuous deeds despite being unable to see him. Islam is all about inviting and convincing others with their free will. Islam is not a compulsion. This invitation is given to fellow humans with the premise that they have the complete freedom to decide their course of action in response to it. The crux of the invitation is to agree to limit one’s personal freedom to a certain extent in order to be subservient to God. The reward for this subservience is life in eternal paradise. The same applies to Islamic injunctions regardless of whether they relate to an individual or to the society at large.

The way to Islam is limited to warnings of accountability and glad tidings of rewards in the Hereafter. The Islamic way is to promote good and forbid evil. Islam is not about compulsion or hatred. Islam is love. Islam is an invitation.

This is the summary of Islam. This is the road towards peace.


 (Translated by Mr Bashir Nazir)



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