Leaders and followers

In my last article I wrote about the need for moral courage, to stand up for what is right regardless of the political situation that confronts us. This month, I want to continue that line of thinking and touch upon a related issue that has been bothering me for a while. How often do we hear scholars and leaders say in private, “yes this is true, but the community is not ready for it”?

This begs at least two questions: firstly is there such a thing as a single monolithic community? And secondly if scholars are beholden to such a constituency, then what is their role? Who is the leader and who is being led?

Of course, there is some profound pragmatism in the teachings of the Prophet (p), we can see from the way he lived his life that he was a master at dealing with people at their individual level of competency. If a Bedouin and a learned person were to ask him the same question, rarely would they receive exactly the same answer. At one time he even acknowledged that he wished to re-build the Ka’ba on its Abrahamic foundations, but abandoned the idea fearing that this would be too radical a step for the Muslims as they had only recently come into faith. But amidst this pragmatism the Prophet was no passive follower of ‘the community’. If this were the case, the treaty of Hudaybiyah, for example, would not have happened. This was a very unpopular move at the time and yet one endorsed by the Qur’an as a ‘clear victory’.

No doubt, our times are difficult, and sometimes caution is necessary. But caution seems to have become the norm for us. Erring on the side of caution, playing it safe, we have ensured that the most conservative views have become mainstreamed. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”.

If the great scholars of our history had been limited by fear of new and unfamiliar things, few of the advancement in science, philosophy, culture, arts, etc. that we so proudly hail would ever have been possible. What of the days when giants like Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazali differed widely on matters and argued publicly? The public was allowed to see both perspectives in well-argued texts, which opened their minds to new and broader possibilities of how to see the world.

The sad reality today seems to be that Islamic scholarship is playing catch-up with not only the world around it, but even with its own constituents. Fatawa about mortgages come after people start taking mortgages; fatawa about migration and settlement come after people have settled in the West; fatawa about the value of democratic rights and citizenship come after people experience these realities. This approval of lived reality in hindsight is a natural consequence of simply following what ‘the community’ is doing and abdicating the position of really leading that community. It also means that too much of our scholarly endeavour is rendered irrelevant, or at best out of date, to be of any substantial utility.

In any case, there is no single ‘community’ of opinion or constituency – for every person that feels angered by a move away from the conservative status quo, many others who currently feel that Muslim scholarship, or even the faith itself, is irrelevant to them may actually take inspiration. And if scholars don’t just want to ‘preach to the converted’ reaching new constituencies should be a priority anyway. This is not to suggest that leaders should be reckless, but balancing a dose of caution, with strong and visionary leadership is not beyond the realms of the possible.

Of course, this takes a great deal of courage. Thomas Carlyle said that the “history of the world is but the biography of great men”. We need great people, men and women, who will earn the respect of the people that follow them, not purely by the passion of their faith, but also by the power of their persuasion. People that will stick their necks out, provide leadership and give others direction. Just like that man 1400 years ago who entered into an unpopular treaty that later transpired to be a victory.


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