The Qur’an was revealed by the Angel Jibril (Gabriel) to the Prophet ﷺ in the cave of Hira. The Angel Jibril began with the injunction, “Read.” It was this word that would be the very first of the divine revelation revealed to the Prophet ﷺ and one that would define our attitude towards knowledge and excellence in study thereafter. Islamic civilisation prided itself on being the learning centre of the world. For centuries, the libraries of Baghdad were visited by people from as far as China and Cordoba served as Europe’s premier educational hub. It was Arabic, alongside Latin, that was the primary academic language of southern and western Europe in the medieval period.
Our situation today is very different. Although we cite our historical legacy and take pride in what once was, it seems to provide us with no will to emulate the achievements of Islamic civilisation. Muslim youth languish at the bottom of educational scoreboards across the West, regularly outdone by their peers of other minority communities. Barring Iran and Turkey, Muslim countries combined publish fewer books than any single country in the top 20 countries for books published per year. These are but a few facts that underline the intellectual and educational crisis across much of the Muslim world, as well as in its diaspora communities across the West.
Solutions to this ongoing intellectual and educational crisis either ignore or are insufficient in resolving this crisis from its roots. A greater issue than a lack of spirituality or intellectual rigour is the fact that we are psychologically and culturally ill-equipped to persevere and contribute as well as, or better, than others. Calling on youth to pray or fast more implicitly accepts the modern divorce of the spiritual from the worldly and from the psychological and cultural. Calling on youth to read more Qur’an as a stand-alone remedy while they are endure near-constant bombardment by myriad worldly forces is effectively resigning to a steady attrition before inevitable defeat. If we are to call people to Islam, we must demonstrate that it is not a compartmentalised religion, but one that integrates the spiritual with the psychological and cultural. Prayer, fasting, and reading Qur’an are foundational pillars of our individual and communal existence, not just disparate acts of worship.
In seeking a solution to our current condition, we look to the Sahaba (Companions of the Prophet ﷺ) who migrated during the early years of Islam and themselves faced the epic task of civilisation-building. This spirit would be passed down to later generations of Muslims who would go on to found great cities and empires from Transoxania in the east to the the Pyrenees in the west. This is a spirit we have lost, even as we carry the glories of their achievements on our tongues. In seeking to emulate the best of generations, we must adopt their guiding mindset.
Much has been written on why some civilisations prosper and prevail over others. Malik Bennabi offers a diagnosis of the crisis of Islamic civilisation that transcends one-dimensional political analysis. His concept of fa’iliya offers insight into the civilisational disparities evident today.¹ In its literal sense, fa’iliya means to overcome or to persevere, but in this particular context, it entails not only overcoming one’s condition to ensure survival, but pushing forward with purpose and determination. Indeed, as far as Bennabi was concerned, without a profound cultural-psychological transformation, there could be no revival of Islamic civilisation and those that believed in a primarily political solution, without addressing this, would continue to fail in their efforts. This transformation requires Muslims to find their place in the world and work towards a shared goal that is distinctively within our own historical process and eschatology, all while embodying a distinct Muslim personality. These traits mean that “…the Muslim may regain his ability to change the conditions in which he lives and to create and move history.”
For Bennabi, the ambition that characterised the modern westerner was one of the key characteristics that distinguished them from the rest of the world and what enabled them to not only conquer the non-West, but successfully subjugate and sublimate other civilisations into their own. Because they possessed this mindset and personality while many other civilisations had been experiencing decay, a strong and virile group of people dominated and colonised weaker groups of people. If we examine why the Sahaba were able to conquer Persia and most of the eastern Roman Empire, these civilisation-empires had been experiencing a decline for some time. God’s All-Encompassing knowledge and involvement in our affairs manifested in the perfect timing in which the Sahaba rose out of Arabia to conquer the world as they knew it. But the Sahaba themselves did not emerge from obscurity; they went through a process of hardship and proving their devotion to God so that He prepared them for their role in spreading Islam across the world.
Allah prescribed that you do all actions with Ihsan. – Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (Sahih Muslim: 1955)
Previously on Traversing Tradition, I discussed the example of the Muslim and non-Muslim medical student and how their achievements differ not on skill or intellect, but on their ambition and perseverance as defined by fa’iliya. Muslims must ingrain this attitude into our cultural and psychological consciousness, so we are no longer bound while others forge confidently on ahead. This includes delayed gratification, strategic thinking, doing everything with ihsan (excellence and perfection), and ultimately developing an ambitious, yet realistic goal that we can work as a collective towards. In this way, we can create new communities imbued with a spirit for the modern age. Such ideas are necessary to be incorporated in the project of developing a culture imbued with fa’iliya.
Patient deliberation is from Allah and hastiness is from Satan. – Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (Sunan al-Tirmidhi: 2012)
Europe is one of the smallest continents on Earth and has historically possessed less wealth and population than either India or China. Yet, by the early 20th century, half a dozen European states controlled over nearly 80% of the globe between them. The reasons for this are many: conducive agricultural conditions, superior statecraft, technological innovation, and so on. But there is one distinct trait observable in the European adventurer: his burning desire to explore, conquer, and cultivate. Stories of turning arid basins into fertile valleys, caravans of hardy folk embarking on the coast and travelling far westwards to establish great metropolises in land formerly uninhabitable. The cultural-psychological character of the European people propelled them to conquering everything before them, although in light of the numerous ethically questionable aspects of this history, we must turn to better ethical examples to emulate.
The early generations of Muslims exemplified this pioneer spirit, beginning with the first migration to Abyssinia (613-615 CE) and continuing with the second Prophetic migration from Makkah to Madina in 622 CE (1 Hijri). Migration to establish Islam continued during the Rashidun, Umayyad, and Abbasid Caliphates. The believers were willing to uproot their lives, leave their homes and businesses and establish new communities, cities and empires as far as their footprints took them. They could do this not only because they had the promise of God and His Messenger ﷺ, but also because they possessed the necessary moral-cultural-psychological nexus of guiding traits.
The story of Abdul-Rahman ibn ‘Awf in this regard is exemplary. When he arrived in Madina during the period of Hijra, he was met with offers of homes and marriage potentials but declined them all, asking instead for a small loan so that he could begin trading and selling in the marketplace to build his own fortune. This he did and soon became one of the wealthiest men in the city. This self-reliance, borne from the cultural and psychological sturdiness of the early Muslim, is almost anathema to the generation of today. We could not imagine beginning with absolutely nothing and relying on our own nascent talents, interpersonal skills, and brute will to succeed, overcome, and build something great.
Abd al-Rahman I, founder of the Ummayad dynasty in Cordoba, after fleeing the Abbasid takeover of the Ummayad empire, escaped, largely by himself and with the aid of a few loyalists, across North Africa with a burning desire to have his own kingdom and found his own dynasty. The Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur described Abd al-Rahman I thus,
The falcon of Quraysh is Abd al-Rahman, who escaped by his cunning the spearheads of the lances and the blades of the swords, who after wandering solitary through the deserts of Asia and Africa, had the boldness to seek his fortune without an army, in lands unknown to him beyond the sea. Having naught to rely upon save his own wits and perseverance, he nonetheless humiliated his proud foes, exterminated rebels, organised cities, mobilised armies, secured his frontiers against the Christians, founded a great empire and reunited under his scepter a realm that seemed already parcelled out among others. No man before him ever did such deeds. Mu’awiya rose to his stature through the support of Umar and Uthman, whose backing allowed him to overcome difficulties; Abd al-Malik, because of previous appointment; and the Commander of the Faithful [al-Mansur himself] through the struggle of his kin and the solidarity of his partisans. But Abd al-Rahman did it alone, with the support of none other than his own judgment, depending on no one but his own resolve.²
Both of these early Muslims possessed fa’iliya – a persevering and innovative mindset – that propelled them to world-conquering heights and they resisted divorcing the spiritual from the cultural and psychological. Islam was not delivered instantaneously: its ayat (revelations and proofs) came dispersed across 23 years and the Sahaba went through great personal development in their journey to Islam. The struggles they faced with the psychological and cultural traits they possessed made them great men and women destined to do great things. There is no reason we cannot emulate them and do the same.
If you are a young Muslim, whatever your current occupation, be it university, an apprenticeship, or work, excel at it. Do not be content with second-rate work. Reject mediocrity. You must implement the mindset of fa’iliya in your life and to overcome all obstacles as far as your intellect and strength can carry you. Conduct your studies or work with ihsan and desire to dominate your field. It does not matter whether you are a doctor, student of history, or a plumber – you must work in all of these fields with total dedication, with an eye for service to a higher aim, and with a fanatical fervour for perfection. This is a sacred obligation upon you and something immediately implementable in your lives. In doing so, each one of us are building blocks for a newer and stronger Islamic civilisation.
God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves. (13:11)
- Bennabi, Malik. Problem of Ideas in Muslim World, and Islam in History and Society. Print.
- Safi, L. (1995) “Leadership and Subordination: An Islamic Perspective”. The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, pp. 2-12
About the author: Dimashqee is a student of history and politics, focusing on statecraft, geopolitics, and world history.