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A Short History of the Revivalist Movement in Islam
Book Review
Fatima Mumtaz


Author’s Name: Sayyid Abu al A‘la Mawdudi

Translator’s Name: al-Ash‘ari

Publishers: Markazi Maktaba Islami

Place of Publishing:  Delhi

Year of Publishing: 1981



In the book titled A Short History of the Revivalist Movement in Islam (an English translation of Tajdid-u Ihya-i Din), the author not only gives an account of the evolution of the Muslim empire and its zenith and nadir but also elucidates the need for the revival of the true spirit of Islam, how this can be accomplished and who will achieve this goal. The author then goes on explaining his views about how this spirit can be rekindled in current times.

After the demise of Prophet Muhammad (sws), the rightly-guided caliphs established the caliphate which was an epitome of the all-embracing Islamic way of life. However, after thirty years, the forces of ignorance vehemently pounced upon the Muslim society and sapped it of the spirit of Islam- the impetus which had made Muslims conquerors of the world. As a corollary, heredity monarchy in disguise of a caliphate became the political order of the day. Throughout these years, the office of the caliphate remained symbolic wanting any substance, except for the brief period during the times of the Umayyad ruler ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. After him, Greek philosophy permeated and hair-splitting scholastic debates pertaining to religion were sparked by the socio-political milieu. The deterioration in the society now looked inexorable. The monarchy disguised as caliphate changed hands and obtained until the beginning of the 20th century when its last vestiges were effaced by the colonial powers as a consequence of Ottoman Empire’s role in World War I.

Various traditions foretell the coming of a revivalist who will purge religion of all innovations and the summit of his revolutionary, intellectual and reformative movement will be the establishment of a caliphate on the pattern of prophethood. A perusal of such traditions expounds that this revivalist will be the promised mahdi. The author has shed light upon various traits of the promised mahdi and firmly states that he will be a modern revivalist not only well-acquainted with advanced worldly knowledge but will also have deep insight into the esoteric Qur’anic sciences and ancillary fields. He will revolutionize people’s individual lives followed by a revolution on a wider scale which will culminate in the establishment of a caliphate on the pattern of prophethood.

While the Muslim world has yet to witness the ideal Mujadid, history testifies that there have been few Muslim individuals who moiled to reinvigorate the spirit of Islam. These include ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz – the Umayyad ruler whose caliphate was reminiscent of the glorious epoch of the rightly guided caliphs; the four imams of the Sunni school of thought who explored various avenues in the systematic study of Islam and became pioneers of the four major schools of thought; Imam Ghazzali; Ibn Taymiyyah; Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi; Shah Waliullah; Sayyid Ahmad Baraylawi and Shah Isma‘il Shahid, all of whom rendered seminal services in different realms, though for awakening the same spirit.

Despite the services rendered by the aforementioned revivalists, Muslims, in general, remained cloistered from the advanced fields of knowledge which the new era exacted from them and which are deemed pivotal for the survival and glory of any civilization. On the other hand, the British, by making significant breakthroughs in multifarious fields in general, and science and technology in particular, became an industrial juggernaut, thereby bringing a wave of salutary changes in the world and colonizing most parts of the world. In order to reach the pinnacle of civilization, Muslims ought to progress in the fields of science and technology and introduce an intellectual revolution not circumscribed to academic discussions of theology but must also demonstrate predilection for other fields of worldly knowledge which are determinative of a nation’s progress. Besides, the Muslims must have recourse to ijtihad in order to put up with prodigious issues that surface every now and then in this ever-changing world.

The book has contributed positively by rationally dispelling any myths as to belief in the mahdi being a prerequisite for qualifying as Muslim. It explicates in detail that the beliefs on which our salvation depends are exhaustively delineated by God in His Book and were not left to be transmitted by human beings. The author has rationally gauged the achievements on the part of the British that made them rulers of vast swathes of land. He lucidly explains what entails progress of a nation and how certain disciplines of science and technology are cardinal for any nation to reach its acme. Above everything else, the book gainsays the popular belief that the door of ijtihad has been closed for good. Instead, it gives a holistic view of the changing scenarios and stresses on the fact that only the Book of God and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (sws) can cope with the involved issues of all times.  It exhorts frequent recourse to ijtihad to address the world teeming with new and complex issues.

Without downplaying the positive influence this book wields, it must be borne in mind that the term Revivalist/ mujaddid is a relative term and not absolute by any means. Whether those whom the author has eulogized as revivalists in the passed eons were actually revivalists is in itself contentious. There has been no consensus as to the aforementioned persons being revivalists. For example, the armed struggle of Ibn Taymiyyah or the rebellion fomented by Sayyid Ahmad and Shah Isma‘il cannot be termed as jihad and many scholars have deemed such acts to be manifestations of khuruj.  In fact, such efforts, later, served as a premise for having recourse to an armed struggle for the establishment of the Islamic state, without first putting in efforts for moral edification of its denizens and addressing the citizenry at the individual level.

Whether the four imams of Sunni Muslims were revivalists is also debatable. As much revered as these imams are, the truth is that their followers, blinded by the superiority of their school, played a major role in making Muslims take recourse to secondary sources, thereby giving them the importance that should have been attached to primary sources. For centuries, Muslims remained preoccupied with books of fiqh and confined their understanding of religion to fiqh, overlooking the Qur’an. Thus keeping in view this background, it will be irrational to discount the efforts of those scholars who endeavored to awaken the Muslims impressed by secondary texts, thereby exhorting them to consult the Book of the Lord and rekindling the true spirit of Islam in recent times. Also, there were many other scholars in each discipline who were pundits in their fields. The mere fact that they were not mujtahids should not belittle the invaluable services they rendered and the path fraught with difficulties they trod. Each one of such scholars did his part to serve the cause of Islam and eulogizing only the four jurists as revivalists, while overlooking the scholars in fields upon which the lofty edifice of jurisprudence stands, defies reason.

Despite the fact that the extant traditions and the consequent  belief pertaining to the mahdi have been scathingly criticized by many scholars, the author still makes the tradition, whose authenticity he cannot testify to, a premise for his conclusion that a promised mahdi will come; purge Islam of evil forces and establish a Caliphate on the pattern of prophethood. Since each belief must have its basis in the Qur’an, the foundation, upon which the whole notion of a revivalist has been erected, is quite fragile. Leafing through the pages of history, the fact that becomes crystal clear is that many fabricators, capitalizing on the power tussles that ensued between the Umayyads and the Abbasids, churned out and spread such traditions pertaining to end times, caliphate and  the mahdi, to reap political gains.

What is more important is the fact that anyone throwing a cursory glance at this work can figure out the paramount significance that the author attaches to the caliphate. The author states that one of the signs of the promised mahdi will be that he will establish a caliphate on the pattern of prophethood. At times explicitly and at times obliquely, he has not only made a case for the establishment of a caliphate but also declared jihad legal for it. The term jihad is an exhaustive term in itself, nonetheless, the meaning that is implied from the context is pretty parochial and does not appear to be anything other than an armed struggle or qital. The institution of Caliphate, after ‘Ali’s assassination, was symbolic rather than a model of righteousness. Yet until the last Ottoman Caliph, it united Muslims. Arabs welcomed the end of the Ottoman caliphate, because of its strong Turkish, rather than Arab identity. The writer’s ingenuousness as to the socio-religious and ethnic differences amongst Muslims, and his firm belief that a single Caliphate with no borders will be akin to a land of milk and honey sounds rhetorical. 

In reality, since no system of government has been explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah, it is all open for discussion. Such things have been left out in the Qur’an and Sunnah so that they can be adapted according to the time, place, occasion and culture. It can be a presidential system, a parliamentary democracy or some other from of democratic system out of dozens that are in place around the world. There is no way one could claim seat of caliphate and expect or force others to join. This might have worked a thousand years ago, this will not work now. The fact whether caliphate is a religious term or merely a term of Muslim socio-political thought is another subject of debate. In recent times, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi has significantly dispelled the myth that the word has any religious connotation and asserts that it is more a terminology of Muslim socio-political thought that has been wrongly attributed to Islam for centuries.

To sum up, while the book has logically evaluated the reasons why belief in the mahdi is not an essential constituent of faith and why ijtihad must be continued to be exercised, it builds a premise for armed struggle for a caliphate and reinforces that a promised mahdi has yet to come – both of which cannot be supported by any primary text.




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