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The Islamic Movement of Elam

In the Name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

When doing a lecture on the Islamic Movement
in Elam, one of the things I emphasize is the
intellectual heritage of the Movement in the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An
understanding of the issues and environment of
that turbulent period is quite useful in gaining an
appreciation for the dynamic nature of the
Islamic Movement. In the context of Elam, the
name of Abul-Qalam stands out as the major
personality who serves as the central inspiration
for modern Islamic ideas and the Islamic
awakening of the twentieth century. For this
reason, I want to start my lecture by touching on
the life, work and ideas of Abul-Qalam.
Abul-Qalam is actually his pseudonym it
literally means father of the pen - and its no
coincidence that the father of the pen wrote
excessively, perhaps the greatest writer in all of
Elam's history. His real name was Muhammad
Qutbuddin, and was born in 1876. Growing up in
an environment of European colonialism, a time
when the Muslims were weak and enslaved
while the Christian West was ascendant had a

great psychological effect on the mind of AbulQalam. He gave expression to the rancour of his
soul in his masterpiece The Fall of Cordoba. This
book was published in 1908 when he was only
thirty-one or thirty-two years old, but its an
amazing book and actually one of the beautiful
examples of English literature. Strangely
enough, Abul-Qalam was self-educated for the
most part, having studied in a Christian school
only until the age of twelve. He actually left the
school despite his father's stern protest, citing
the fact that he could not reconcile his personal
commitment to Islam with being schooled by
Christian missionaries. So we see quite early on
that Abul-Qalam had a passion for Islam and
was at pains to see the ascent of Christianity
through the missionaries and their schools. The
book Fall of Cordoba really caught the attention
of the Muslim intelligentsia of Elam which at
the tiny was minuscule, perhaps a handful of
Western and English educated lawyers and
professionals. Despite the book's somewhat
misleading title, its not actually an historical
account of the end of Muslim Spain, but rather a
lamentation of the worldwide decline and
weakness of the Ummah. Encouraged by the
positive response to this book, Abul-Qalam
began writing incessantly about the moral,

spiritual, political and social condition of the

Muslims, using the community in Elam as his
main point of reference. Throughout his writings
he is quite critical, to the point of severity, with
almost every section of the Muslims first and
foremost the Ulama, the traditional scholars,
then the Sufi mystics, the wealthy aristocracy,
the Western educated elite, the political parties
and politicians, and even the ordinary people.
His writings also condemn the ills of
sectarianism, obscurity, illiteracy, and political
apathy that were rampant among the Muslims
in those days.
Reading some of Abul-Qalam's early books one
is shocked to learn about the condition in detail
of the Muslims in Elam. I think no reasonable
Muslim today would not be somewhat stupefied
by the description of that generation. We often
speak now as though the Muslims are going
through their darkest phase and that everything
was fine and dandy back in the day, but a
reading of Abul-Qalam will make anyone
conclude otherwise. It's actually in this way we
can see how the Islamic Movement, which owes
its inspiration to Abul-Qalam, has really reformed
and transformed present day Muslim society
and polity. Although we obviously have a long

way to go, the efforts of the Islamic Movement in

the past century have really produced positive
results, and that itself is a proof that the path
which the Islamic Movement has charted out for
itself and has embarked upon is the right path.
Abul-Qalam remained busy with his writing and
did not actively participate in Elaman affairs until
the Khilafah Movement of the 1920s. After the
First World War when the Ottoman Turks were
defeated alongside their German allies, there
was a real possibility that the British would do
away entirely with the caliphate in Istanbul. This
was obviously an alarming development and
deeply concerned not only Abul-Qalam but
practically the entire Sunni Ulama. So despite his
previous, often harsh criticism of the Ulama,
Abul-Qalam found himself side by side with
them in the agitation to preserve the caliphate.
However, when some modernist and nationalist
thinkers criticized the Khilafah Movement on the
grounds that it was a reactionary movement
representing religious fanaticism and was
opposed to the spirit of the times, the spirit of
modernity, Abul-Qalam was compelled to
respond in the best way he could through his
writing. In this connection, his book The
Caliphate: A Question of Life or Death is another

example of Abul-Qalam's talented writing and

the way in which he presents powerful and
convincing arguments of an existential nature.
The Khilafah Movement was special in the sense
that it was the first real dynamic and popular
religious agitation which reflected upon the pent
up grievances of the Muslims in general, and
those in Elam in particular. Abul-Qalam
essentially argued that the Caliphate in Istanbul,
although symbolic in its authority, was vital for
Muslim cohesion and sense of identity. But when
the caliphate was abolished in 1924, ironically by
the Turks themselves, it had a very deep effect
on Abul-Qalam, and subsequently his writings
became quite pessimistic full of doom and
gloom. It's safe to say that he died a somewhat
dissapointed and depressed man because the
abolition of the caliphate had a very profound
effect on his heart. But shortly before his death
in 1929, Abul-Qalam was already privy to the
next generation of Islamic activists and thinkers
who were developing their own paths to reform
and political awakening. This new generation
took its inspiration from the writings of AbulQalam, and from the spirit of the Khilafah
Movement. It included such notable individuals
as Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, Sa'd Ibrahim, and Ali

Abdullah Hasan. These three can be described

as the trinity of Islamic awakening of the early
and mid-twentieth century.
First let me start with Sa'd Ibrahim. He actually
owes most of his inspiration to the popular
preacher and Qur'an reciter Qari Muhammad
Abdullah. The latter brought forth a message
return to the Qur'an and strongly emphasized
Qur'anic education and study as the only path of
redemption and salvation for the Muslims. While
Abul-Qalam was known for his pen, the Qari
used his voice and travelled the breadth of the
country preaching at the mosques late into the
night. Amazingly, he was illiterate, neither
capable of reading or writing. But the popular
message of the Qari was picked up by his
disciple Sa'd Ibrahim, an English educated
journalist who founded the Al-Iqra Magazine.
This magazine, especially in the early twentieth
century, was a major force for introducing the
public to the Islamic reform and awakening
movement. In its pages, Sa'd Ibrahim and other
contributors, including both Abul-Qalam and Dr.
Mahmud Ahmad, brought to life the essential
message of the Qur'an. While many of the
conservative and traditionalist Ulama
condemned the magazine for the allegedly

heretical ideas it was promoting, the educated

and younger generation was very enthusiastic
about it. With the success of the magazine,
Ibrahim founded the Qur'anic Society with the
aim of providing a modern education to the
young generation of Muslims and opening their
minds to the dynamic and fresh message of the
Qur'an. However, the Qur'anic Society remained
essentially an elitist organization, unable to
attract mass membership. Furthermore, the
Society began to splinter within a few years of its
founding due to the influence of the Ahl alQur'an, or Qur'anist sect. Strictly speaking, Sa'd
Ibrahim was not a Qur'anist the sect which
totally denies the authority of the Sunnah and
Hadith and emphasize following of the Qur'an
only. But both Ibrahim and the Qur'anists had a
major impact on each other. Ibrahim was
gradually convinced that one of the things
holding back the Muslims was their attachment
to medieval and extra-Qur'anic tradition.
While he never clearly defined what he meant
by that tradition, he was greatly skeptical of the
Sunnah and even more so of the Hadith.
Whatever the position of Ibrahim, the fact
remains that the Qur'anist sect was in existence
before him, having come to Elam from India
proper. But the Qur'anist sect, at least before

Ibrahim, did not espouse any political or social

ideology. It had not formulated any dynamic
message apart from a fundamental rejection of
the Sunnah and Hadith. Ibrahim pointed out that
the Qur'anists were lacking a focus on a
particular message that was relevant to the
society and Muslim polity. It was here that
Ibrahim influenced the next generation of
Qur'anists who had been attracted to his
Qur'anic Society.
But where the Qur'anic Society failed, Dr.
Mahmud Ahmad's Jama'ah al-Islamiyah
undoubtedly succeeded.
The major scholar or leader of the Ahl al-Qur'an
before Sa'd Ibrahim came along was Allamah
Zahid Ali (1869-1944). Allamah Zahid was a very
stringent Qur'anist and was highly critical of
Muslim tradition and jurisprudence. He was
accused by virtually all the traditional Ulama of
being not only an apostate, but guilty of
blasphemy. Consequently, there were even a
few attempts on his life. Allamah Zahid was only
able to establish a single center under heavy
guard known as Masjid al-Qur'an. Sa'd Ibrahim
criticized the people of Masjid al-Qur'an for
having taken the form of a sect and for their

separation from the Muslim community. Ibrahim

saw the path of the Qur'anists as isolationist and
ultimately destructive.
Ibrahim and Allamah Zahid held many debates,
some of them transcribed in the Al-Iqra
magazine. Commenting on these debates, Dr.
Mahmud Ahmad wrote:
The controversy between Professor Ibrahim
and Allamah Zahid Ali was quite harmful to the
Qur'anic movement. But it revealed a plain fact
that the methodology of the Qur'anists in
completely rejecting every trace and instance of
Islamic tradition opened the doors to greater
confusion rather than less. For now every single
Muslim, no matter his or her level of
comprehension or knowledge could interpret the
Qur'an according to his or her own fancy. Such a
Protestant-like approach to Islam would
inevitably result in nothing but disharmony and
Dr. Mahmud Ahmad wrote a marvelous and very
rational critique of the Qur'anist methodology
entitled The Book and Prophecy Go Side by
Side. In this book he asserts that the essential
flaw of Qur'anism is that it rejects the institution
of Nabuwwah (Prophecy) without which Islam is

not only incomplete by incomprehensible. The

convincing arguments of Dr. Mahmud resulted in
many of the educated members of the Qur'anic
Society deciding to abandon Professor Sa'd and
instead join the Jama'ah al-Islamiyah. Professor
Sa'd, of course, struck back with his own polemic
against the Jama'ah, entitled, The Criterion of
The back and forth polemics between the
Jama'ah and the Qur'anic Society make for some
very interesting reading insofar as it reveals a lot
of the ideological similarities between these two
strains which share a common intellectual
heritage. For example, both sides make appeals
to the writings of Abul-Qalam and to the
sermons of Qari Muhammad Abdullah.
However, Dr. Mahmud Ahmad himself made the
conscious decision to end the dialogue. He
basically said: I have bigger fish to fry.
Professor Ibrahim, of course, pointed to Dr.
Mahmud's ending of the dialogue as proof of his
inability to answer and to maintain the high level
of intellectual and academic arguments.
Annoyed by this accusation, Dr. Mahmud wrote
a comprehensive reply entitled: The Last Word

on the Qur'anist Controversy

The book is quite compelling in a number of
ways. Firstly, it focuses on a philosophical
repudiation of Qur'anism (Qur'an-only) by
emphasizing the historical reality of the Muslims,
especially the very early Muslims the
Companions who were obviously attached to
the sayings and traditions of the Prophet
Muhammad peace be upon him. Dr. Mahmud
essentially asked: If following the Qur'an alone
is the ultimate truth, why was this truth not
recognized by the Prophet's closest companions
and disciples? Dr. Mahmud emphasizes his oftrepeated challenge to the Qur'anists to identify a
single such individual in all the history of Islam
who held a similar interpretation and
understanding of the religion as they did. The
Qur'anists readily admit that no such single
individual existed in all of Islamic history, let
alone an actual group or sect.
Furthermore, Dr. Mahmud Ahmad criticized the
lack of a yardstick by which to judge the
varying and contradictory interpretations of the
Qur'an by the Qur'anists themselves. Rather
then unifying the Muslims the Qur'anists
methdology would only serve to further disunite

them. Professor Ibrahim himself agreed that the

major impediment to the progress of the
Muslims was sectarianism and disunity on the
basis of theological controversies. Of course,
Professor Ibrahim responded that the variation of
interpretation of the Qur'an by the Qur'anists
themselves did not necessarily lead to disunity
or social fragmentation. He pointed out that the
variance in interpretation was only restricted to
subsidiary matters but not the essential
message of the Qur'an. Dr. Mahmud Ahmad
typically fired back by citing the old controversy
of Professor Ibrahim with the founder of the
Qur'anists in Elam Allamah Zahid Ali as a
perfect example of even major ideological
differences among the Qur'anists as a result of
differing interpretation of the Sacred Text.
Professor Ibrahim wrote:
Dr. Mahmud says again and again that we have
no cohesion and that since every individual
Muslim is free to understand the Qur'an through
his own effort the result is that no two students
of the Qur'an can agree on a single
interpretation of even a single verse! Surely, that
is a much exaggerated allegation against our
movement. But the truth is that Dr. Mahmud has

revealed about himself that he cannot tolerate

anything less that absolute uniformity when
such rigid uniformity, even in religious matters,
goes against fundamental human nature. The
Qur'an is a Book which is meant to be studied as
a lifelong endeavor. Almighty Allah by no means
meant for every student of the Qur'an to arrive
at the same conclusion. If anything, the Qur'an
itself points to celebrates the diversity that
comes about because the way in which the
human mind works. Nevertheless, as far as the
essential message of the Qur'an, which no true
student of the Qur'an can contest, and that is
the message of obedience to God alone and the
establishment of a unique Qur'anic system and
society governed by the principles of justice,
equality, and friendship then this is a message
which I say with utmost confidence that the
members of our movement hold firmly onto and
propagate with utmost zeal. The problem with
Dr. Mahmud and his Jama'ah is that, while they
accept the Qur'anic principles and message in
theory, in practice, due to their being tainted
with medieval Islamic tradition and hearsay,
they oppose those very principles and I have
written extensively about this. For now, I point to
a number of issues, such as the draconian penal
code of the Jama'ah; the capital punishment for

apostasy, the restriction on religious liberty, and

the social marginalization of women under the
pretext of modesty.
It is interesting that after Elam achieved
statehood in 1948, the Jama'ah actually began
to politically agitate against the Qur'anists and
clamored for the state to declare them as a nonMuslim minority. The Jama'ah saw the Qur'anists
as not only a rival and an intellectual threat, but
as a opportunistic target through which they
could whip up popular sentiment and ignite the
fires of religious frenzy among the common
people. By doing so, they would be indirectly
challenging and even weakening the institutions
of the State. Dr. Mahmud had made this policy
clear as early as 1949, when he said:
The present state and administration is a
reality, but we intend to change that reality.
Independence is a change of circumstances, but
it does not change our objective and purpose.
We seek the establishment of a purely Islamic
society and state. Despite our recent freedom
from British rule, nothing has essentially
changed except the fact that the administration
of the state has passed from the hands of

Christians to the so called Muslims. Our demand

is that since the right to rule and govern is the
exclusive domain of God Himself, therefore, the
practical administration of this infant state is the
prerogative of the Islamic vanguard alone, and
not any so called Muslims.
He further stated: Now the policy of the
Jama'ah must be to challenge each and every
action of the present administration because we
say, without any hesitation, that the current
state is illegitimate and that it has no right or
authority to govern. In other words, we shall
agitate with all our might, in the way which we
have agreed upon and formulated through our
Islamic methodology, for the implementation of
Islamic laws and policies.
Among such Islamic policies was the demand
for the Qur'anist sect to be declared as a nonMuslim minority. Dr. Mahmud stated: Certain
anti-Islamic movements which seek to
undermine the correct understanding and
practice of the Religion are right now the
greatest threats to the work and progress of the
Jama'ah even more so than the State itself. The
Ahmadiyah, the Qur'anists, the Baha'i
movement, and the followers of Hamza Asad are

all determined to mislead the Muslim Ummah.

Hamza Asad was a charismatic preacher and
writer who questioned the Islamic tradition and
many established and recognized facets of
Islam. He was declared an apostate by the
traditionalist Ulama. Among the heresies of
Hamza Asad:
1. He claimed that he was the Mahdi who
had come to lead and guide the Muslims
back to the true path of Islam.
2. He preached a materialistic and
scientific approach to religion which
rejected all supernatural miracles or
3. He was essentially a naturalist and
materialist rejecting supernatural
miracles and the like.
4. He claimed that Angels were forces of
nature and that the Qur'an had referred to
them in an anthropomorphic sense only
because of the literary style of the Qur'an.
5. He claimed that the Qur'an was not a direct
revelation, but more like an inspiration to
the mind of the Prophet (peace be upon
him) based on his reflection on nature. That
is, the Prophet (peace be upon him) by

deeply reflecting on nature and his heart

was inspired to dictate the text of the
6. According to Hamza Asad, there is no such
thing as the dead coming back to life
physically or the resurrection, or heaven
and hell. This is only the Qur'anic literary
style in how it refers to political and social
conditions of the world.
7. According to Hamza Asad, Islam did not
contain any rituals of worship (Salat, Sawm,
Hajj, etc.) but these were only literary
expressions and so forth.
Dr. Mahmud felt compelled to respond to the
movement of Hamza Asad since he was
regarded as an intellectual in Elam. He wrote a
short tract entitled: Mr. Asad and His Ideas
Here is an excerpt from that book:
I was compelled to write this short book only
because Hamza Asad has acquired considerable
influence thanks to the covert support he is
receiving from the present administration. Mr.
Asad is essentially a manifestation of the State's
experimentation with religious movements and
controversies with the aim of dividing and

weaking the ordinary Muslims. I have pointed

out repeatedly that the worst enemy of the
Islamic Movement is internal dissension and
disunity, especially in the form of religious and
theological controversies.
There is absolutely no question about the
apostasy of Hamza Asad, even if he claims to be
a Muslim. His doctrines are simply beyond the
pale. This is nothing like the classical SunniShi'ite schism or the differences between the
traditional Islamic schools of thought (Hanafi,
Maliki, Shafi'ie, Hanbali, Ja'fari etc.).
All of the Ulama are agreed upon the apostasy of
Mr. Hamza Asad. The Jama'ah has in its
possession the Fatawa (legal edicts) of dozens of
major Islamic schools and academies across the
spectrum of Islamic thought and jurisprudence
clearly pronouncing Mr. Asad as an apostate.
Both Sunni and Shi'ite, including Hanafi, Maliki,
Shafi'ie, Hanbali, Ja'fari, Zahiri, and other legal
schools of thought. Religious leaders and guides
of the Salafi movement as well as those of the
various Sufi orders. There are edicts from the
Shams al-Islam academy, the Nur al-Iman
academy, the Ulum al-Din academy, the Anwar
ul-Qur'an, the Sunniyah movement, the Majlis al-

Ulama, the Jamiyat al-Ahnaf, the Al-Madaniyah

movement, the Ahl al-Hadith sect, the Ashari
Ulama, the Muwahhidin, the Ibadiyah, and even
the Jama'ah at-Tabligh.
We have twenty handwritten and signed fatawa
from independent and freelance clerics, such as
Allamah Muhsin Abdul Wadud, Allamah Yasir
Ahmad, Allamah Salim al-Malik, Allamah Abdul
Khallaq, Allamah Ya'qub Uthman, and Prof. Dr.
Zaid Mustafa of the Elam University's
Department of Islamic Studies.
Dr. Zaid Mustafa's fatwa states:
Mr. Hamza Asad has been judged an apostate
by every single Islamic scholar asked about him.
There is no room for any discussion or excuse in
his matter that could delay, for even a split
second, the ruling of apostasy in his case. His
controversial beliefs in summary are his rejection
of the Qiyamah (resurrection), his rejection of the
Angels, his rejection of Paradise and Hell, and
even his rejection of Allah as an imminent
Mr. Hamza Asad was asked to respond to the
overwhelming opposition he faced. He wrote in

his defense a book entitled Islam the Straight

Reviewing some of the Fatawa which have
been printed against me, there are so many
outright lies and fabrications which one cannot
even begin to address. Take for example the
allegation that I have claimed to be a Prophet.
Where have I ever made such a claim? Nor have
I ever entertained the idea that I am the Mahdi
as the position is traditionally understood by the