Samir Kassir (d. 2005) on the Arab Malaise

The following is an excerpt taken from Being Arab by Samir Kassir and was translated from the Arabic by Will Hobson (Verso 2006). Samir Kassir, one of Lebanon’s best-known journalists and historians, was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut in June 2005. Among his books are A History of Beirut and Lebanon: An Unfinished Spring. One of the most prominent voices on the Arab Left, Kassir was an energetic campaigner for the Palestinian cause and vocal critic of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. His thoughts and ideas were immensely powerful and have special relevance for the situation of the Arab world in the current period of turmoil:

“Some people are driven to despair by the Arab malaise. They believe that the Arabs are so profoundly trapped that they will never be able to break free and, in so believing, they only make the deadlock worse. This is the extreme variant of modernism, propounded by liberals, disappointed nationalists and former activists of the left alike. Decline, according to this way of thinking, is so widespread that it damns the very notion of a renaissance: the nahda† did not just end in failure, but it was also by its very nature a historical anomaly, an impossibility right from the outset. Worse still, all attempts to free the Arabs from their predicament, particularly nationalism, are considered to have only made the problem worse. Some of these disappointed souls go so far as to internalize the culturalist distinctions that legitimize imperial domination. Their most affirmative thesis, echoing the American neoconservatives, is that change and democracy can only come from such domination, not realizing that all this will achieve is to aggravate frustrations, exacerbate victimhood and the culture of death, and thereby perpetuate the Arab malaise. For, if they are to overcome their malaise, the Arabs have no choice but to do it themselves.

Then there are those people for whom things are never better than when everything’s wrong. Obviously these are the Islamist jihadists who, as good messianists, see the Arab malaise just as a bad moment to be got through – well, not as bad as all that actually, since it can be a way to gain paradise and the forty houris while waiting for that strange revolution which, unlike its Marxist original, is not seen as a leap into the future, but as a return to an original purity lost in the mists of time.

As a system of thought, jihadist Islamism is far from being the dominant ideology it is often portrayed as in the Western media. Yet it is powerful, no doubt because it is the only ideology that seems to offer relief from the victim status the Arabs delight in claiming (a status that in fact Islamism, jihadist or otherwise, is only too happy to confirm). Arab victimhood goes beyond the ‘Why do they hate us?’ question, which Arabs would be as entitled to ask as the Americans were on the morning of September 11. Inflamed by the West’s attitude to the Palestinian question, it has incorporated other elements, notably the feeling of powerlessness and also a certain crime-novel vision of history.

The cult of the victim claims that Arabs are the West’s primary target, totally disregarding the other peoples of the world, and world history in general. No mention is made of Africa and its systematic pillaging; of the Americas and the genocide of the pre-Columbian populations, perpetuated in the continued marginalization of their cultures, of Indochina and its decimated generations…

Of course I am not denying what we have presupposed, that the Arabs have nothing that might compensate them for their misfortune, and that the Arab world is the only region on earth where the West has continually acted as if it were the master – and still does today, either directly or through Israel. But this doesn’t change the fact that recognizing the threat to the Arab world is not the same as condoning Arab victimhood. None of the major figures of the renaissance showed any signs of indulging such a cult, nor the ideologues or practitioners of nationalism. Victims par excellence, the Palestinians avoided it in the past, and continue in a very large degree to do so, even if their situation fosters a propensity among those who helplessly look on to claim such a status.

Victimhood is the price of the defeat of the universal, rather than a product of the status quo, and its cult, served by the Arab media, in particular the much-lionized Al-Jazeera, has only been able to grow because the ideology of the moment preaches a refusal of the universal. Ideology is in fact a very grand word for the current amalgam of the fossilized remains of Arab nationalism, which, because of their age, have cut themselves off from their original, universalist sources of inspiration, and an ‘Islamic nationalism’ that explicitly sets out to differentiate itself from the universal, if not supplant it. Such a nationalist mishmash is not new. It was around at the end of the nineteenth century, propounded notably by Afghani. The only difference is that Afghani was a reformer of Islam, with a perfect knowledge of, and uninhibited dealings with, Western thought. The same cannot be said of his present-day successors, who abhor nothing so much as talk of religious reform.

Islamic nationalism isn’t just a synonym for jihadism. It is defensive in essence, whereas jihadism can in certain lights see itself as a new conquest of the world. But the distinction between the two is nonetheless a tenuous one, and there can be no doubt that Islamic nationalism prepares the ground for jihadism. For while it may not deny the Arab malaise, as jihadism does, it nonetheless predisposes those who complain of the malaise to wallow in it, so much so that they will only replace it with something similar: the culture of death which the union of fossilized Arab nationalism and political Islam calls resistance.

There is undoubtedly an inherent explanation of the culture of death – not that it is an invariant of Islam or an essence of Arabness, but rather that, as a spectacle of endless bloodshed, it instils a self-perpetuating logic of blood for blood. If there can be no victory, then at least there can be the consolation of bloodletting – others’ blood, obviously, but ours as well. This logic may not be an invariant of Islam, but the fact remains that a religious vision of the world is at work here, even a religious vision in the sense of a system of cruelty, as Nietzsche put it. It goes without saying that this has nothing to do with the idea of sacrifice. Sacrifice has been at the root of all human conflict since the dawn of history, for the Arabs as much as anyone else, and this is the real meaning of jihad in the martial sense (there are also peaceful forms of jihad). In the twentieth century, the Palestinian fighters called themselves fedayeen, those ready to sacrifice their lives, like the Egyptian nationalists before them who fought the British at Suez. But in the new jihadism, death has ceased to be a potential, or even probable, price to be paid. Death has become the indispensable means to a desired end, if not an actual end in itself.

This vision of martial jihad incarnated in the figure of the istishhadi, the one who seeks martyrdom (the kamikaze, in other words), has no real antecedent in Arab-Muslim culture apart from the – non-Arab – sect of the Assassins. In the modern era, one has to wait until the Iranian revolution for its return. Shia at first, it emerged on the frontline of the Iraq-Iran war, where unbroken waves of volunteers checked the advance of the Iraqi armored divisions before launching themselves against the Iraqi lines at the start of 1982. It appeared next in Lebanon in the form of individual suicide attacks against Western interests and the Israeli occupying forces. It should be noted that this extreme method may have been effective against the Americans, but traditional guerrilla tactics – ambushes, explosions and so on – were more decisive against the Israelis. Nonetheless other groups, some of them secular, adopted it as a model. Hezbollah gave it up when it became the only method of resistance, but kept the symbolism of blood and the totem of the istishhadi – a symbolism that it reinforces through the observance of Ashura. Originating in Iranian Shiism before passing to Lebanon and now Iraq, the rituals of this festival of redemptive suffering resemble certain bloody celebrations of Good Friday, in Spain for instance or the Philippines.

In principle, an insurmountable obstacle divides the Shia and the Sunni jihadists. Radical Sunni Islamism, as the doctrinal statements that have been coming out of Iraq show, holds Shia to be heretics and rafida, people who reject the true faith. Sunni Qur’anic literalism clearly also has its intellectual origins in South Asian Islam, notably the thought of Mawdudi, which, through the conduit of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, has permeated its takfiri, or apostatizing, strain. None of this matters, however. The martyrdom seekers first appeared in Shia circles, with the shahids recording their last testaments on video (the price of modernity). Furthermore, of the two Palestinian groups that have practised suicide bombing, one, Islamic Jihad, is reputed to be close to Iran, while the other, Hamas, although an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, is on very good terms with Lebanese Hezbollah.

The proliferation of the culture of death and the evening-out of differences between Shias and Sunnis cannot be explained solely by the Islamization of the fight against Israel. Over and above actual events, the media, especially Al-Jazeera, have played a key role in this process, peddling a lowest-common-denominator mix of Arab nationalism and Islamic nationalism. It was doing this before September 11, defending means, justifying ends, claiming Arab victimhood. The Arab public has been systematically primed to accept the thesis of a ‘clash of civilizations’. Nonetheless, we must be able to continue rebutting Huntingdon and remembering Lévi-Strauss. If we could address the protagonists of the ‘war against terror’ or the ‘jihad against the crusaders’ in academic terms, that ought surely to be the watchword of a new universalism.

Nothing is harder than rebutting Huntington at a time when people are doing their utmost to cultivate difference. On the one hand, politicians and commentators constantly invoke an Eastern essentialism, even if, after long tirades opposing ‘us’ and ‘them’, they see fit to stress that Arabs and Muslims should not all be lumped in with the terrorists. On the other, there is a tendency to qualify, or even justify, the horrors of New York in terms of the evils of American politics, even if people are careful to preface their remarks with the disclaimer that the murder of innocent people goes against every precept of Islam.

We must not forget Lévi-Strauss: ‘civilization’, as he says, is not a category and hence cannot contain ‘natural’ hierarchies; and humanity is one, since it rests on a common anthropological foundation. In other words, it is as meaningless to talk of an ‘attack on civilization’ as it is to classify people according to their adherence to a faith, Muslim or otherwise. I should perhaps point out that supremacy isn’t exclusively white. Some people in Muslim societies may be drawn to radical Islam for defensive reasons, because they feel under threat, but the rhetoric used by the warlords of radical Islamism is intentionally offensive. They justify their triumphalist proselytizing by defining the ‘decadent’ civilization of the Other as inferior.

So it is not just the West that needs to re-examine its stance. The Arab world in particular needs to make a profound effort to eradicate the ambiguities that encourage a logic of cultural confrontation. This means first putting victimhood into perspective. We must replace Arabs’ customary assumption of victim status not by cultivating a logic of power or a spirit of revenge, but by recognizing the fact that, despite bringing defeats, the twentieth century has also brought benefits that can enable Arabs to participate in progress. Equally, we must reject the moral pragmatism lurking in the cult of the victim. If we cannot accept the powerful saying that the ends justify the means, then we can’t let the victims do so either. We must not confuse terrorism with resistance, as the West confuses resistance with terrorism.

But, apart from the effects and means of confrontation, if the Arab world is to reject a clash of civilizations, then we must also give up a negative Arabocentrism (or Islamocentrism) which sees world history purely as a threat to us, and as a ‘cultural’, rather than political or military, threat. By the same token, we must renounce essentialist justifications of the sort that explain the silence surrounding the long affair of the Western hostages in Lebanon in the 1980s, or the indulgent attitudes towards the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. We must accept that democratic values are now part of humanity’s shared heritage.

Such a re-examination could take place. The problem is that the elites that might push for it are caught between non-democratic regimes (frequently supported by the West, despite the ‘democratic crusade’ in the Middle East), on the one hand, and radical Islamism on the other. It goes without saying that the task would be easier if it was accompanied by another renaissance that had as many forms as it did inspirations, a renaissance that is still perfectly possible.”


‘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.

Imperialism, Internationalism, and the United Nations Organization: A Review of Mark Mazower’s “No Enchanted Palace”

The United Nations and the idea of internationalism have, in recent years, become subjects of serious debate. How tenable is the idea of an international peace-keeping body in an increasingly polarized and fragmented world? How relevant is the United Nations in an era in which genocide and other abuses are rampant? Has the United Nations become an instrument for the Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia, China) to exercise their influence in the world and maintain their hegemony? Why should ultimate authority and the right to veto resolutions rest in the hands of a select few? Many have even argued that the UN, dominated as it is by Great Power interests, is hardly representative of the concerns of the General Assembly of Nations (the overwhelming majority of which are Third World countries) and that the absence of an effective enforcement mechanism has made it a counter-productive force in world politics. Regardless of which position one takes or their view on the United Nations, the debate is framed in strictly modern terms, focusing largely on the question of reform rather than reconceptualizing the dominant paradigm. In doing so, the debate takes for granted many of the institutional and ideological facets of internationalism. Indeed, many scholars–on various sides of the debate–have left the idea of internationalism, and its historical foundations, unquestioned. It is as if internationalism, institutionalized in an international organization, is merely the product of the natural progression of human history, untainted by specific historical and ideological factors.

Mark Mazower, in his book No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton University Press, 2009), makes uncovering the ideological origins of the United Nations and the idea of internationalism itself his primary concern. The work is a magnificent accomplishment and very timely. As a distinguished historian of 20th-century Europe, Mazower is well-placed to analyze the diplomatic, intellectual, and political trends in (Western) Europe and the British Empire which led to the rise of internationalism. Many will find his analyses and conclusions especially troubling. Mazower strongly and effectively argues in favor of the notion that the UN, as an ideological and institutional successor of the League of Nations, owes much of its origins to European imperialism. This deep-rooted liberal imperialism, he notes, sought to remake the world in its image and maintain the dominance of the self-proclaimed “white race” (read: Euro-American) over the “black, red, yellow, and brown races” (read: everyone else!) of the globe. Moreover, as Mazower demonstrates, this imperialism was refashioned in the inter-war period into an ideal of “internationalism,” which, among other things, sought to proliferate liberalism (firmly rooted in democratic ideals and Christian ethics) globally, freeze the international political status quo, and suppress the aspirations of the indigenous people of the world by legitimizing their domination and marginalization by the traditionally dominant powers of the world (namely the British).


Mazower thus asserts that the institution of the United Nations, like its League of Nations predecessor, merely sought to ensure and legitimize the domination of the world by European liberal imperialism. Nowhere in the origins of the United Nations, he emphasizes, does one find a concern for indigenous peoples, their aspirations, or their rights. Even the principle of national self-determination was intended above all for European peoples. There was no possibility for “Oriental” and “African” peoples, on the other hand, to exercise this right. They would simply need to be placed under mandates and/or trusteeships until they were instructed by “civilized nations” in the craft of “enlightened government.” For the modern observer, however, this is very troubling. Surely, the ideological and institutional origins of the United Nations, an organization based on such sublime and lofty ideals as “world peace” (read: maintaining the status quo) and “human rights” (read: European Christian values) do not lie in such imperial and racist notions as the mission civilisatrice ? Surely, one may assert, the idea of internationalism is not the brainchild of such ideologues as Jan Smuts (architect of South African apartheid), Winston Churchill (ardent proponent of the British Empire), Joseph Schetmann (Revisionist Zionist in favor of ethnic cleansing in Europe and the Middle East) and Alfred Zimmern (defender of liberal imperialism), figures who sought to preserve the status quo of Western European (“white”) hegemony around the globe? In fact, this is precisely the well-supported and compelling conclusion which Mazower arrives at. More troubling still is his demonstration that this imperial-internationalism was undertaken consciously and overtly, and was in some cases so explicit that many contemporary observers commented on the sheer hypocrisy of the project, especially in light of the struggle against Nazi fascism in Europe. To cite one example, Mazower quotes the American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois criticizing the basis and motivation of the new internationalism:

We have conquered Germany…but not their ideas. We still believe in white supremacy, keeping Negroes in their place and lying about democracy when we mean imperial control of 750 millions of human beings in colonies

Although Mazower is not a complete cynic, he does believe that the “original sin” of internationalism and the United Nations needs to be acknowledged and amended before any meaningful reform of the organization can be undertaken. In the meantime, as Mazower reminds us, we have a lot to think about, since the convergence of imperialism and internationalism remains a reality even in an allegedly post-imperial world.

I recommend this book in particular to those whose confidence in the international system remains absolutely unshaken, because it will definitely challenge your views and invite you to look at things in new ways. I also hope students of modern history, politics, and international relations would be able to give it a read as it would help frame many of the problems we all deal with in our own work.


Islam and Egalitarianism by Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq

When General Colin Powell, an African-American of rather humble origins, was appointed as the Joint Chief of Staff of U.S. military, the appointing president rejoiced by stating that such rise of a minority was possible “only in America.” Gen. Powell’s selection was no small feat by any standard. Also, despite the past history of slavery in America and suffering of so many people, it shows pluralistic strength and dynamism for the society to move ahead. However, “only in America”? Is the example of Gen. Powell unique?

Long before this American experiment and experience, leveling many an artificial bases for discriminating against people, came the final prophet and messenger of Islam – in succession, according to Islam, to Abraham, Moses, Jesus and so on – with a clarion call for the humanity to advance on the path of equality. Despite the subsequent historical experience, Islam has been categorical in its pristine principle of egalitarianism and set critical milestones in that direction.

During his Farewell pilgrimage, his address carried a decidedly universal tone–one final time. “O PEOPLE, your lives and your property shall be inviolate until you meet your Lord.” It is unfortunate that many Muslims have forgotten this important principle and guidance, even though they are not supposed to be self-centered (i.e., concerned about only the Muslim community); rather they are supposed to have been “created for mankind” [3/Ale Imran/110]

Even though he himself was from Arab background and the initial recipients of his message were the Arabs, once and for all, he demolished the artificial bases for any ethnic or racial pride by proclaiming that the Arabs had no superiority over the non-Arabs, or vice versa. The Qur’an is unequivocal in this regard as it addresses not the Arabs, the Muslims or the believers, but the mankind (an-nas) in the following verse: “O mankind! reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, his mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women;- reverence God, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you): for God ever watches over you.” [4/ale Imran/1] Notably, as indicated in this verse, the Qur’an does not subscribe to or endorses such views that the fall of mankind from the heavenly favor was due to women’s evil transgression, as exemplified, according to some, in Hawa (Eve).


Islam also repudiates vulgar forms of nationalism that artificially aggrandize one’s own people over others on no moral basis. Various demarcations of people based on groups, tribes, ethnicities or nationalities are quite alright, as it is natural for the humanity as a social entity. However, that is primarily to know each other in terms of our lineage, not to aggrandize oneself. Islam further reinforces this universality on the basis of not a man (Adam), but a man and a woman (Adam and Eve) and educates us that there is no virtue based on race, color, language, geographical location, wealth, or gender. Islam offers only one criterion for assessing ourselves: Taqwa (God-consciousness that makes people humble, caring and morally upright). “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you (atqakum). And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). [49/al-Hujurat/13]

After shattering the false and unjust foundation of the hierarchical society of the Arabs by embracing people together under one faith, irrespective of their color, race, gender, language, age, wealth, status, even at his death, the Prophet Muhammad left a remarkable and noble challenge and legacy for those that came after him.


The last military dispatch of the Prophet’s life involved a story relevant to the Colin Powell-type case. For that specific expedition, the Prophet ordered a mobilization of a large army and commanded it to march toward al-Sham (Syria). This mobilization included many elders of that period, the earliest among Muhajirun, such as Abu Bakr and Umar. But to the utter dismay and shock of many, he appointed Usamah ibn Zayd ibn Harithah as their commander. Usamah was a young person, hardly twenty years of age, and more notably, the son of a slave. The hierarchical Arab society that took a great deal of pride in its aristocratic demarcations between the Ashraf (the nobles) and the Atraf (the non-nobles) saw their social structure, culture and environment turned upside down right before their own eyes. Not due to the struggle of the slaves and their progenies and not over centuries, rather within a short span of 23 years of the Prophetic leadership, the principle of human equality took firm root, as exemplified by the case of Usamah. Therefore, in a direction similar to the achievement of Gen. Powell, Islam set important milestones and guidance for the humanity – almost fifteen centuries earlier.


It is a sad reality that the trajectory of egalitarianism to which Islam and the Prophet Mohammad projected the people was undone within a century after his death, as the constitutional, accountable and participatory system under the Khulafa-i-Rashidoon (the rightly guided Caliphs) was subverted by the counter-revolution leading to authoritarian, hereditary dynasties.


Today the contemporary Muslim world has hardly any resemblance with the vision, ideals and principles Islam represents. The prevailing factionalism, parochialism, obscurantism, or nationalism makes it difficult to understand and appreciate Islam, as most people see things from the prism of their own experience.

The pathetic way the poor workers from South Asia are treated in oil rich sheikhdoms vis-à-vis the red carpet worshipping of the westerners exposes this harsh and sad reality. The widespread poverty and deprivation in the Muslim world vis-à-vis concentration of wealth in a few powerful oil-rich hands of the Middle East or privileged wealthy few in other Muslim countries also illustrates the grave deviation from the ideals and principles of Islam. The attitude and treatment African-American Muslims in North America often encounter from the immigrant Muslims are also very disheartening and betray the egalitarian values of Islam. The way women are confined and marginalized in the Muslim world is another sad reality in this context. Treatment of religious minorities remains another major challenge. I should note that this self-critical approach from an Islamic perspective should not be misunderstood as a general or blanket endorsement of the western examples.

With all these contemporary limitations, how in the world is Islam the fastest growing faith, not just anywhere else, but in the very West itself? What attracts people like Malcolm X (an African-American radical), Cat Stevens (a former rock superstar), Wilfried Murad Hoffman (a German social scientist and diplomat), or Yvonne Ridley (a female British journalist with Sunday Express) to Islam? To understand and appreciate this reality one needs to objectively recognize the principle of equality Islam stands for, even though the societies that claim to be its adherents are doing worse than just giving lip service to those ideals and principles. If there are people who in this modern world still turn toward Islam, it is possibly because they can cut through the maze surrounding the decadent Muslim societies and cultures and identify with the ideals, visions and principles of Islam.

When, based on competence, the Prophet Muhammad appoints a twenty year old son of a former slave as the military commander over others, including the elders, such as Abu Bakr and Umar, the discerning people do see the principle of Islam at work. When the Prophet proclaims that everyone is equal before the law by making it categorical that even if his own daughter committed theft (or a crime), she would be meted out the penalty in a non-partisan manner, it set a new milestone for the rule of law.

Once Umar, the second of the rightly guided caliphs, was giving the Jumuah (Friday) sermon, an ordinary person rose and interrupted by saying, O the leader of the believers, I won’t listen to your sermon until you explain how did you come up with your long dress (Arabian robe). Apparently, there was some distribution of fabric to the people and given the measure of distribution and the height of Umar, he could not have made a dress out of his share. So, a vigilant voice of egalitarianism unhesitatingly challenged Umar, the leader of a vast caliphate. Umar’s son stood up, explaining that he gave his share to his father, so that a Umar-size dress could be made. The vigilant voice then expressed his appreciation and sat down, and Umar resumed his sermon.

It is this same Umar whose austere egalitarianism confounded the gatekeeping elders of Jerusalem. When Jerusalem fell to Muslim hands, the elders said that they would come out of the besiegement and would offer the city to the Muslims without further delay or resistance, if Umar himself would come and take charge of this holy city. Umar set out for this long journey with just one attendant and one horse. As unbelievable as it may sound in our over-indulgent and spoiled generations, yet as Taqwa or God-consciousness would dictate, Umar shared the mount with his attendant taking turns all the way to Jerusalem. It just happened that just before reaching Jerusalem, it was the attendant’s turn to ride on the horse, while Umar was pulling the horse. As they reached the gate of the city, the elders came forward to greet Umar, whose greatness they have heard so much. But they all approached the rider on the horse. It was only when the rider apologetically explained that he was not the caliph, but the one pulling the horse, an unparalleled standard of egalitarianism was experienced in human history.


While the decadent Muslim society has shut out the voices of women and marginalized them in the society, Umar as a Caliph was confronted by a woman right inside the mosque about one of the proposals of Umar about limiting Mahr (dowry – from men to women, not the other way around). When the woman charged Umar that he had no right to fix or limit something regarding women’s rights that the Qur’an has not limited, Umar publicly admitted that he was wrong and that the woman was right.


Ali, the fourth of the rightly guided caliphs, once had his armor stolen and he found it with a member of one of the Jewish tribes. Ali confronted him about the armor. However, from the earliest days of Caliphate, Islam separated judiciary from the executive and therefore, even though he was the caliph, his only recourse was to take the accused to the Qadi (judge). In the hearing, it was the words of Ali and his servant, a witness, against the accused. Having no independent witness, the Qadi dismissed the case and Ali was denied the opportunity to get his favorite armor back. There was a serendipitous outcome, however. Seeing the Islamic example, the thief not just returned the armor to the caliph, but also embraced Islam.

Of course, since the counter-revolution under Mu’awiya, the original egalitarian spirit and vision were fundamentally undermined and the slippery slope has brought about conditions where the Muslims are disoriented from within and without. Even in Hajj (pilgrimage) that brings people of various backgrounds from all corners of the world, now there are royal or elitist treatments and privileges for some, while the ordinary people are neglected, exploited or even abused. Professor Louis Marlow argues that while Islam’s initial orientation was markedly egalitarian, the social aspect of this egalitarianism was soon undermined in the aftermath of shifting of political powers in the hands of those who did not take such egalitarianism seriously, and as hierarchical social ideas from older cultures in the Middle East were incorporated into the new polity. [Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Islamic Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1997]


Despite the deviations, the principle of egalitarianism remains an inalienable part of the vision of Muslims who cherish Islam as a source of guidance for the society. This is not nostalgia for dates, camels, turbans or robes of the seventh century. Rather it is a desire for that pristine principle of egalitarianism to be articulated and integrated in the context of freedom and human dignity in our modern and contemporary time.

Remember the rebel poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, who proclaimed:

“Say, Valiant,
Say: High is my head! …

I the Great Rebel, shall be quiet on that day
When the oppressed people’s wail on the sky and air will not resound
The tyrant’s dreadful sword will not flash on the battle ground
I, the Rebel, tired of battle, shall be quiet on that day.”


Where did he derive his rebellious inspiration from? In the following excerpt, Nazrul addresses the youth of Bengal in the context of the colonial period in British India, but the message, in the universal perspective of Islam, is applicable to all Muslims. In his words: “We have to shed all fear, weakness and cowardice. We have to live demanding the right of justice, not begging for it. We won’t bow our head before anyone – we will mend shoes at street sides, we will live modest life based on our own earnings, but we won’t turn to others for pity or charity. This awakening spirit of freedom and dignity is what I want to see in the Muslim youth …. This is the essence of Islam’s teachings. I invite all to embrace this teaching. In my life I have embraced this very teaching. I have suffered pain, I have embraced all the hurt with smile, but I have never bowed before humiliation of my spirit. I have never surrendered my freedom. “Say O Valiant! Ever high and upright is my head” – I found this song from the realization of that very same message. I want to see the rebirth of that free-spirit. This is the supreme message of Islam – the essence of Islam.” [“Shwadhin-chittotar Jagoron” (The Awakening of the Spirit of Freedom). Nazrul Rochonaboli, 1996 ed., Bangla Academy, Vol. 4, pp. 114-116]

In his poem, Shammyobadi (Egalitarian), in referring to all religions and philosophies, Nazrul made many types of connections. However, when it came to the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an, it is noticeable that he uniquely linked the theme of equality to the Qur’an.

“At this altar the desert’s prince
Used to hear the divine call,
From this throne, he also sang
Quran’s message of equality of all.”

Today’s human civilization is inflicted with various forms of racism and prejudice that stand as a fundamental threat to human equality. The resulting hatred and animosity have engulfed so many people, pitting one against the other in the most inhuman manner. Islam is very relevant in this context, as it took a very divisive, violent and hierarchical society of Arabia and set an important example by reforming that society and guiding it to a new height of human civilization. As one of the foremost historians observes: “The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue…” [Arnold J. Toynbee, Civilization on Trial, New York, p. 205]


Egalitarianism and racial equality relate to an area where even the West may need to take inspiration from Islam, according to Sir H.A.R. Gibb, twentieth century’s one of the most eminent western, non-Muslim scholars. “But Islam has a still further service to render to the cause of humanity. It stands after all nearer to the real East than Europe does, and it possesses a magnificent tradition of inter-racial understanding and cooperation. No other society has such a record of success uniting in an equality of status, of opportunity, and of endeavors so many and so various races of mankind. The great Muslim communities of Africa, India and Indonesia, perhaps also the small community in Japan, show that Islam has still the power to reconcile apparently irreconcilable elements of race and tradition. If ever the opposition of the great societies of East and West is to be replaced by cooperation, the mediation of Islam is an indispensable condition. In its hands lies very largely the solution of the problem with which Europe is faced in its relation with East. If they unite, the hope of a peaceful issue is immeasurably enhanced. But if Europe, by rejecting the cooperation of Islam, throws it into the arms of its rivals, the issue can only be disastrous for both.” [H.A.R. Gibb, WHITHER ISLAM, London, 1932, p. 379.]

However, just as Gibb posed the question “Whither Islam?”, Muslims need to ask themselves where are they going? Do they really understand and care about upholding this pristine and universal principle of equality – for and among themselves, and also for the rest of the humanity? If they take up the challenge and join their hands with the rest of humanity, then the collective pursuit of humanity in the path of equality can be further and critically enhanced.