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‘Asabiyya: The Role of Muslims in the Decline of Islamic Civilization

The outbreak of ethnic violence between Uzbek and Kyrgz residents of the Central Asian Kyrgyz Republic in October 2010 shocked the world. The violence, which left over 2000 killed, tens of thousands wounded, and over 275,000 displaced was an inevitable consequence of modern nationalism and racial hatred, and was all the more saddening given the ethno-linguistic affinity between the two groups—both of whom are Turkic—and, more importantly, the fact that they are both Muslim. The Uzbek-Kyrgyz violence was merely a symptom of a deeper problem in the Ummah, namely that of the deviation from the Islamic principle of unity and the revival of the ‘asabiyya of jahiliyya. As Muslims, we must constantly remind ourselves of the centrality of unity in Islam and the danger which disunity possesses to the very existence of our Ummah.

Unity is a concept which lies at the very heart of Islam. Unity of God is the basis of Islamic theology, unity of the (Muslim) community is the primary social concern of Islam, and the unity of humanity greatly informs the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. In the Qur’an, it is stated: “O mankind! We created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you.” (Q. 49:13). This verse, among the most widely cited from the Qur’an, establishes that although humanity is undeniably divided into nations and tribes, these various groups should strive to unite and interact with one another. By referring back to the common ancestry of humankind—the fact that we are all descended from a single male and female—the Qur’an emphasizes the inseparability of humanity, and asserts that the only criteria for the superiority of one individual over another is righteousness. This message, although it may seem familiar to us today, was revolutionary in the 7th century and shattered the Late Antique worldview, in which there were clear demarcations and hierarchies, and notions of equality were seen as subversive. Islam emerged in a world rife with divisions. Politically, the pre-Islamic Near East was divided into Roman and Persian spheres of influence, each civilization perceiving the other to be barbaric. Ethnically, the Arabs of the Peninsula differentiated themselves from the non-Arab peoples beyond the desert with each society viewing the other with disdain. Socially, Arab society was fragmented into tribes and clans, each asserting itself to be superior to the other. It was in this divisive socio-political context that the Prophet Muhammad (May the peace and blessings of God be upon him) preached a message of uncompromising unity. Not surprisingly, in a world where differentiation was the basis of identity, there was strong opposition to this egalitarian message which threatened to overturn the established social and political order. Indeed, nearly 1400 years later, aside from the brief lifetime of the Prophet, the realization of this message has not yet been fulfilled to its fullest extent. The obstacles faced by the Prophet are similar in many ways to the obstacles we face today as we struggle to implement this message.

One of the main challenges to the Prophet’s mission was ‘asabiyya. ‘Asabiyya is a complex term to explain, but is usually defined as group partisanship or tribalism. ‘Asabiyya is the attitude in which the individual’s absolute loyalty and allegiance is with the group (ethnicity, nation, tribe, etc.) to which he or she may belong. Naturally, this leads individuals to refuse any affiliation with individuals or groups beyond their own. As such, ‘asabiyya is a key force which facilitates the fragmentation of society into petty groups, each bitterly hostile to the other. It is for this very reason that Islam completely abhors ‘asabiyya and urges the believers to distance themselves from it. This is clear from the Prophetic hadith, preserved by Abu Dawud: “He is not one of us who calls for ‘asabiyya, or who fights for ‘asabiyya or who dies for ‘asabiyya.‘Asabiyya is thus clearly repudiated as one of the vices of jahilyya which has no place in Islam. Adherence to ‘asabiyya, in any shape or form, is a deviation from the essential message of Islam, and something which risks the exclusion of the individual from the Muslim Ummah altogether. There are countless other ahadith which implore the believers to distance themselves from notions of tribalism and ethnic partisanship and work towards establishing a unified Ummah. The Qur’an itself clearly states that “Verily this Ummah of yours is a single Ummah” (Q. 23:52) and urges the believers to “hold fast, all together, by the rope which God (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude God’s favor on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren” (Q. 3:103). This a clear call to all Muslims for the maintenance of unity and to avoid division—in all its form—which is the very essence of jahiliyya. Only the bond created by Islam can successfully join the hearts of individuals who had formerly been enemies due to their ‘asabiyya and unify them into a single Ummah unlike any in history, a nation which transcends tribal, national, linguistic, and ethnic boundaries. In a society where lineage was prided and ethnic purity safeguarded, the Prophet opposed the standard and made it explicit that there was to be no distinction between Arabs and non-Arabs. The mere fact that Bilal ibn Rabah, an Abyssinian, and Salman al-Farsi, a Persian, were among the closest and dearest companions of the Prophet Muhammad, an Arab, clearly demonstrate this notion. Islam views the cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of humankind as a mercy from God rather than an obstacle to unity. As stated in the Qur’an:  “And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colors: verily in that are Signs for those who know” (Q. 30:22).

In order to demonstrate the Islamic vision of social unity and our failure to live up to the ideal, it would be fitting to provide a short story from Islamic history. Shortly after the arrival of the Muslims in Syria, around 638 A.D., the formerly Byzantine Christian Arab tribes, including the Banu Ghassan, residing in those regions embraced Islam. Muslim historians found it necessary to record a particular incident involving Jabalah ibn Ayham, emir of the Banu Ghassan tribe, and a Persian convert to Islam during this period. In the course of the altercation between them, Jabalah, in his rage, inflicted serious physical harm on the Persian, wounding him in the eye. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, learning of the event, ordered that Jabalah be punished due to his assault on a fellow believer, at which point Jabalah expressed disbelief exclaiming “Is his eye like my eye!?” whereby ‘Umar stated “Islam has made you both equal.” This further outraged Jabalah, whose ‘asabiyya led him to abandon Islam and flee with his followers to the Byzantine Empire, which was untainted by notions of equity or egalitarianism. For Jabalah, like many of his contemporaries, the idea that individuals, regardless of tribe or ethnicity, were inherently equal, or that Arabs were on par with non-Arabs was an absurdity. Yet this is the very concept which forms the foundation of the Islamic principle of unity. Jabalah, like many Muslims in the Ummah today, failed to grasp this essential message. Despite the clear message of unity in Islam, Muslims in the Ummah remain deeply divided amongst themselves. The jahili vice of ‘asabiyya has been resurrected in the Ummah, manifested in the division of the Islamic world into 57 petty nation-states and the (false) dichotomy between Arab and non-Arab, white and black, immigrant and native. We are all preoccupied with our loyalty towards our own ethnic, national, or linguistic community that we have failed to realize our deviation from the key principle of Islamic unity. Until we abandon our ‘asabiyya and remember the inherent equality of mankind, the absolute unity which binds believers together, and treasure the diversity which allowed Islamic civilization to achieve its greatness, we shall be no better than Jabalah ibn Ayham, and the Ummah will continue down its dangerous and tragic decline into oblivion.


3 Comments

  1. shahid khan says:

    not all 57 countries sir! Pakistan was not founded on asabiyya rather people of different races, colors and languages united under the ideology of La Ilaha illal lah mohammad ur rasool Allah. All muslim ummah needs to unite under that ideology under that constitution which is described by LA ILAHA ILLAL LAH MOHAMMAD UR RASOOL ALLAH.

  2. Faraaz Saiduzzaman says:

    This is a very serious piece. It’s very true. And people need to realize that the social and political problems of the world are always in their hands. Their very attitudes will be represented inevitably on a macro-scale. Muslims need to face the fact that many of their social problems were caused by their adopted, un-Islamic attitudes and beliefs. I can’t seem to locate a Muslim nation-state on a map that did not have problematic beginnings.

    Simply speaking of “unity” does not unite anyone. Some vague, ideal ‘constitution’ in which an Islamic precept is the basis will not change anything. If there are two problems that serve as the destroyers of any solution to these problems, they are:

    1. Denial, and
    2. Oversimplification

    It seems like both are present in the comment above.

  3. Faraaz Saiduzzaman says:

    Reblogged this on mechacontext and commented:
    This is a very serious piece. It’s very true. And people need to realize that the social and political problems of the world are always in their hands. Their very attitudes will be represented inevitably on a macro-scale. Muslims need to face the fact that many of their social problems were caused by their adopted, un-Islamic attitudes and beliefs. I can’t seem to locate a Muslim nation-state on a map that did not have problematic beginnings.

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