Bogeymen and where to find them: Reading Bennabi

Sarah B.

Who can we blame for the ummah’s problems? Muslim governments? Non-Muslim governments? Scholars? Activists? 

Or can we blame events, historical and contemporary — colonisation or the War on Terror?

Or do we blame ourselves? Are our material conditions a reflection of our spiritual state?

The list of culprits is endless, but such attributions of blame rarely serve as a mirror to assess our actions as members of said ummah. Whether from people who kick back, relax, and toss critiques out from the bleachers, or those who do work on solving communal problems and feel dejected when they don’t affect the desired changes, there’s a good deal of misplaced — or, at least, exaggerated — blame going around. Many also point the finger at systemic or ideological problems, from racism, Islamophobia, liberalism, secularism, dredging up more bogeymen as we simultaneously shed the responsibility from our own shoulders.

The preoccupation with blame is not relegated to one end of the ideological spectrum. Take, for example, Muslims who rightfully lament our ummah’s troubles, but excessively attribute the “state of affairs” to the history and remnants of colonialism, or to social systems such as gender distinctions. The former is meant to explain every political, economic, and intellectual failing in the Muslim world, and the latter undergirds the narrative of perennial subjugation of the Muslim woman.

And yet we witness equally one-sided counterclaims to the effect of, “Colonialism has ended and the world has moved on. Whatever problems you face now reflect your own failure to catch up”, and “Muslim women don’t face any oppression; that’s just what Islamophobes say to make us look bad.”  

Bennabi’s colonisibility

To understand the state of our ummah, as well as who is responsible for wrecking or rectifying it, I turn to Malek Bennabi, one of the foremost Algerian and Muslim intellectuals of the 20th century. Having written before and after the revolution, Bennabi is seen as one of the intellectual fathers of modern Algeria and his works span the topics of civilizational cycles, culture, and reformism in Islamic history.

Neatly woven throughout these works is his vision of renaissance in the Muslim world. Underlying the desire for renewal is a recognition of decline, which Bennabi argued began almost immediately after the passing of Rasulullah ﷺ, though it progressed more rapidly later on.

In tracing the decline of the Islamic civilization, Bennabi identifies both the intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Before being subject to colonisation, he crucially notes, Islamic civilization had already taken on a quality he describes as colonisibility. This does not refer to inadequate material resources which made the Muslim world susceptible to physical conquest; rather, colonisibility denotes the Muslim’s susceptibility to mental colonisation once physically conquered, due to having fallen into a period of decadence.

In his book Islam in History and Society (translated from Vocation de l’Islam), he writes:

It is important to note [..] that the inhibiting cause does not come from outside but from within, born of the psychology of men, the ideas, the tastes and usages that constitute the post al-Muwahhid spirit — in a word, from their ‘colonisibility’. [1]

Bennabi identifies the source of this colonisibility as the loss of the “impulsion and living force of the Qur’an” in the hearts of Muslims. This was not a reduction in the iman of Muslims, but in their vision of the Qur’an as the living force that guides both private practice and social organization. He urges us to not “confound the salvation of the individual soul with the evolution of societies”. Indeed, many a Muslim who holds a concrete belief in the shahada lacks the impulse to carry that belief outward and pour the Qur’anic spirit into every relationship and interaction, into every social, political, and economic institution in which they play a hand. 

The effects of colonisibility are seen in the dwindling intellectual, creative, and economic output of the Islamic civilization. The existence of a rich Islamic tradition comprised of giants is undeniable, though our behavior as its inheritors is often questionable. How many who claim to be preserving the tradition are attempting to literally preserve it in stone from whence it can never again be a transformative, living force? How many others seek to deny its existence and disassociate from the past?

In my assessment, colonisibility now manifests in not simply the lack of output by Muslims, but actually in heightened output whose “living force” is other than Islam. The ambitious corporate Muslim is no doubt celebrated, but rarely questioned for working at a company with unethical investments and privacy regulations. The Muslim clothing designer is commended for bringing faith to fashion whilst selling products made in sweatshops — though it may be generous to assume they know where the items they resell are manufactured.

Given enough degrees of separation to obscure your complicity, the Muslim community will pat you on the back for taking capitalism by its reigns (failing to see that capitalism has, in fact, taken you by the horns).

The internal and external

Whether or not one agrees with the narrative of decline (which is often applied uncritically and weaponized for nefarious ends), all concerned parties can agree that 1) large-scale problems exist in the ummah, and 2) their causes must be identified in order to address them. I hesitate to characterize them as “social” problems — even when referring to poverty, racism, misogyny, and lack of self-determination — because I fear that it will be read as “material” problems. At the root of these injustices are people who lack taqwa of The Most Just — and what greater injustice exists than denial of Him ﷻ?

So, though they are the subject of this piece, I do not believe problems are the defining feature of our ummah in the present, nor do I support a cynical view that doesn’t recognize the ummah’s many successes and blessings and thus fails to be grateful to Allah ﷻ.

We return to the question of responsibility for the problems we do face at present. Are we truly to blame for the havoc colonialism has wreaked in the Muslim world and all that has followed? 

It’s important to note that Bennabi does not attempt to absolve the colonists, nor to minimize the brutality of their crimes. In his chapter on The Chaos of the Western World, he explains how materialism led Europe down the path of moral relativism and the eventual destruction of justice altogether, laying the grounds to justify its colonial atrocities.

The key to Bennabi’s analysis is that it does not end with attributing the chaos of the Muslim world to colonialism, nor does it start with it. Rather, he writes:

“This process does not commence with ‘colonisation’ but with ‘colonisibility’ that provokes it.”

Let us take the self as a microcosm of the society. Of the things that threaten to distance us from our Creator, worldly temptations and the whispers of Shaytan are external to us. Our nafs, however, is perhaps the most insidious enemy we face. Failing to subdue the nafs weakens our ability to make the right decisions when facing external enemies. 

Let’s now extrapolate this to the societal level: the Muslim world has been colonised and invaded, but we are still responsible for the decisions we make in these circumstances. If someone hurts me, I am justifiably upset, but this doesn’t justify me hurting someone else. If a person’s parents teach her something false, she must correct it in herself as an adult.

If a colonising power tries to pollute our deen, strip it from our education systems, and diminish its presence in our lives, we are still responsible for fighting to preserve it. The vestiges of colonialism in the Muslim world are undeniable. If we don’t study its after-effects and identify the guilty parties, we allow it room to tighten its grip.

“Thus colonialism acts, at the same time, as a reality when it effectively inhibits action — and as a myth when it becomes an alibi or a mask for colonisibility.”

Using the West as an alibi for the adoption of liberal and secular values among Muslims only addresses part of the puzzle; we still need a key for solving it, and the solution must come from within. Interestingly, the tendency to blame all of our problems on some looming “Other” is typically attributed to the liberal-leftist-activist trope. Yet, perhaps no one is more guilty of this than the militantly anti-liberal Muslim who is foremost concerned with eradicating “feminism” from the community (often using “feminism” as a euphemism for women seeking justice). When the Qur’an so explicitly places responsibility on men to serve as qawwamun, you’d think it rather obvious that they also shoulder responsibility for the countless Muslim women who are not cared for and thus pushed to seek justice.

It would be an oversimplification to wholly blame Muslim men for Muslim women seeking liberation outside of an Islamic paradigm. That said, we will each be held accountable for the things within our scope of responsibility. We should each be most concerned with those things, including those of us who don’t see ourselves in positions of authority and may not immediately recognize where our responsibilities lie. 

In sum, a solution-oriented attitude pushes us to both identify the structural factors and external challenges, as well as focus on our own shortcomings in facing them. Attacks from the outside will certainly come, and we will have ourselves to blame if we are vulnerable. 

Abu Huraira (RA) reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said,

The strong believer is more beloved to Allah than the weak believer, but there is goodness in both of them. Be eager for what benefits you, seek help from Allah, and do not be frustrated. If something befalls you, then do not say: If only I had done something else. Rather say: Allah has decreed what he wills. Verily, the  phrase ‘if only’ opens the way for the work of Satan.”[2]

The individual and communal

There exists a strange trend that not only fully blames the Muslim world for its shortcomings, but also condemns Muslims’ efforts at political and social revolution to correct them. The recommendation is to instead focus on spiritual reform in order to correct our individual shortcomings, for which we will certainly be held accountable.

Even whilst urging us to recognize the colonisibility within, Bennabi does not advocate turning completely inward and focusing exclusively on private worship, thereby absolving oneself of society’s problems. Retreating into spiritual seclusion when there is still change to be made on the ground is an example of lacking the Qur’anic life force Bennabi describes. Jihad in the path of Allah being a deed of the highest calibre is a clear indication of the status of one who ventures out to be an active, transformative force in the world.

Allamah Muhammad Iqbal affirms this in his lecture on “The Spirit of Muslim Culture”, found in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. He quotes Abdul Quddus al-Gangohi’s words regarding the Mi’raj:

“Muhammad of Arabia ascended the highest Heaven and returned. I swear by God that if I had reached that point, I should never have returned.”[3]

Iqbal notes the contrast between the mystic, who wishes only for this “unitary experience”, and Rasulullah ﷺ, who returned to fulfill his role as a creative agent in the dunya. This is the spirit of Muslim culture: to see ourselves as khulafaa’ on Earth with clear directives from Allah ﷻ, and for which we will one day answer to Him. 

With this in mind, we must remember to be proactive and productive — individually and collectively — and not squander the opportunities Allah ﷻ grants us to fulfill our role as khulafaa’:

Ibn Abbas (RA) reported: The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said,

“Take advantage of five before five: your youth before your old age, your health before your illness, your riches before your poverty, your free time before your work, and your life before your death.”[4]

Those keen to dismiss this attitude as ignoring the need for individual spiritual reform as a prerequisite to social reform will be happy (or sad) to know that micro-reform was very much part of not only Bennabi’s theoretical expounding, but his actual practice as well. In Marseille, Bennabi took up a post at a club for Algerian workers, giving courses on basic subjects such as reading and writing. At the same time, he sought to teach his students Islamic values as applicable to their daily lives, emphasizing cleanliness and encouraging them to look after their appearance. After several years spent in political asylum in Egypt, Bennabi finally returned to a newly independent Algeria and was appointed as the Director of Higher Education. He established multiple centers of learning and a national press, and passed away on October 31, 1973.

May Allah ﷻ have mercy on the soul of Malek Bennabi, and may his works contribute to his scale of deeds as a sadaqa jariya.


In order to understand the problems our ummah faces, we must distinguish between what Allah ﷻ decrees and what He wants us to do in response. When challenges arise, accepting Allah’s will doesn’t look like sitting idly while injustice abounds. Patience isn’t inertia; rather, it is action driven by a heart content with The Most High ﷻ.

Anyone who is concerned with the well-being of the collective should look at herself. Anyone who is unconcerned with the collective should also look at herself, if not more critically. When asked whether we enjoined good and forbade wrong, I pray that Allah ﷻ is satisfied with our answer.

Sarah B. completed her undergraduate studies in Political Economy with a concentration in development in the Middle East & North Africa. Her interests include political theory and development economics, and she is currently based in California.

References

[1] Bennabi, Malek. Islam in History and Society. Translated by Asma Rashid. New Delhi, India: Kitab Bhavan, 1999. Originally published in 1954.

[2] https://abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2012/04/20/allah-loves-strong-weak-believers/

[3] Iqbal, Muhammad. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2013. Originally published in 1930.

[4] https://abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2012/08/15/advantage-five-before-khams/

3 thoughts on “Bogeymen and where to find them: Reading Bennabi

  1. Seems like this smart woman doesn’t want us googling her last name so we fan storm her with follows and like. May God empower you with the knowledge of political theory on our behalf.

    And thank you for validating an abandoned project in the freezer titled “On Feminism: Towards becoming responsible Qawwamun”. I gave up because I saw no one willing to listen across aisles. Am glad aging helps because a God replaces the old with new worshippers in his path.

    Like

  2. My two favorite lines from this piece!

    1) “Given enough degrees of separation to obscure your complicity, the Muslim community will pat you on the back for taking capitalism by its reigns (failing to see that capitalism has, in fact, taken you by the horns).”

    2) “Patience isn’t inertia; rather, it is action driven by a heart content with The Most High”

    Like

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