In the Quran, God declares:
‘It is He who hath sent His Messenger with Guidance and the Religion of Truth, to cause it to prevail over all religion’ (9:33).
What exactly does this verse mean when it talks about establishing the supremacy of Islam over other religions? Numerous ulema, including leading Quranic commentators, have interpreted this verse in different ways. The vast majority of the ulema regard the Arabic word izhar that is used in the sense of ‘prevail’ in this verse (which is translated as ghalba in Urdu) to mean the establishment of the intellectual superiority of Islam over other religions because, being in accordance with reason and providing sufficient arguments for its claims, Islam is indeed superior to them.
In his al-Jami‘ al-Ahkam al-Quran, the noted classical Islamic scholar Imam Abu Abdullah Muhammad al-Qurtubi comments on the word izhar used in this verse as follows:
‘To prevail means to establish [Islam’s] superiority through proofs and evidence.’
In contrast, some scholars have taken the above-quoted Quranic verse as indicating the establishment of the superiority of, or domination by, Islam on the political plane at the global level, but they argue that this will happen only at the hands of Jesus when he returns to the world again, just before the Day of Judgment. This was the opinion of Abu Hurairah, a noted companion of the Prophet and narrator of numerous Hadith reports, and is mentioned in most of the important Quranic commentaries.
One of the leading classical scholars, Abdullah Ibn Abbas, who was a close companion of the Prophet, was of the opinion that the word izhar used in the above-quoted Quranic verse does not mean any form of domination. Rather, he translated the term to mean ‘to inform’. In other words, he opined that what is meant by this Quranic verse is that God had informed the prophet Muhammad of the truths and the details of all the religions of the world. Such an important Quranic commentator such as Imam Qurtubi mentions this explanation first while discussing this verse, which indicates that he possibly agreed with this argument or considered it to be more correct.
Another group of ulema argue that this Quranic verse is restricted in its geographical application and that it actually refers to the establishment of the supremacy of Islam over all other religions only in the Arabian peninsula, a domination that was secured by the Prophet Muhammad himself.
In contrast to these various explanations and theories, some influential modern-day Islamic political movements sought to give a political interpretation to this verse, arguing that it indicates the political supremacy or domination of Islam over other faiths and their adherents. Hence, in accordance with this political interpretation, they made the capture of political power as their main target. The key figure in this regard was the founder of the Jamaat-e Islami, Maulana Syed Abul ‘Ala Maududi (d.1979).
Maududi was of the opinion that Islam demands that Muslims should engage in constant struggle in order to establish an Islamic government that would encompass the entire globe. This capture of political power, he argued, was the principle objective of the Islamic movement. Indeed, he regarded this as a fundamental duty and as the basic mission of all Muslims. In his book Islami Nizam-e Zindagi Aur Uske Buniyadi Tasavvurat (‘The Islamic System of Life and its Basic Conceptions’), he wrote:
‘Islam is a revolutionary ideology and creed that seeks to transform the entire global social order and to build it on the basis of its ideology and creed. Muslims are members of this international revolutionary party that Islam organizes in order to bring into effect its revolutionary programme.’
Further, Maulana Maududi added:
‘The objective [of Islam] is to establish government based on its ideology and creed, irrespective of who takes its flag and unfurls it and whose governance it causes damage to. It demands land—not just a small bit of land, but, in fact, the entire world [to govern].’
In accordance with his particular political understanding of Islam, which he elaborated upon in many of his works, in his widely-read Quranic commentary Tafhim al-Quran, Maududi interpreted the above-mentioned Quranic verse as follows:
‘The aim of sending the Prophet, this verse explains, is to establish the supremacy of the religion of truth, which he brought from God, over all religions, ways of life and systems. In other words, the Prophet was not sent so that the system of life that he brought with him be made subservient to or dominated by any other system of life or that it be permitted to remain confined to the extent that other systems of life permitted it to be. Rather [the Prophet] comes as the representative of the Lord of the lands and the heavens and desires that the true system of the Lord be made dominant. And, if any other system of life be [allowed to] remain in existence, it must remain confined to the extent that the divine system permits, as in the case of the system of the zimmis [protected, non-Muslim subjects] on payment of the jizyah.’
This passage clearly indicates that Maulana Maududi understood the term izhar, as used in the above-mentioned Quranic verse, to mean Islamic political hegemony so that the entire world comes under, and subservient to, what he regarded as Islamic rule. In other words, he understood this Quranic verse to mean that the whole world be brought under the rule of Islam and Muslims. This political interpretation of this verse, indeed of the entire Quran, of Maulana Maududi today enjoys particular favour with Islamist ideologues and activists. Numerous anti-imperialist revolutionary Muslim movements have made this political vision of Islam their motto.
Yet, this interpretation of the verse is open to serious questioning. Is it at all possible, feasible or realistic for the whole world to come under the political rule of Islam? Is this not in clear contradiction of the Quran, which clearly states: ‘On no soul doth Allah place a burden greater than it can bear’ (2:286). It must also be asked that when the Quran, in the above-mentioned verse, speaks of the reason why God sent the Prophet, does it mean what Maulana Maududi argues it does: to establish the political rule or political supremacy of Islam over the entire globe?
Those who, based on an erroneous interpretation of the above-mentioned Quranic verse, claim that the basic aim of the advent of the Prophet was to establish Islamic political supremacy are oblivious to the fact that by arguing in this fashion they make Islam appear as an imperialist power, making the mission of the Prophet seem as no different from that of any other imperialist power. It is obvious, and needs no explanation, that, contrary to what Maulana Maududi insisted, establishing Islamic political rule over the entire world today is simply impossible. That is why the ulema generally believe that this can only happen in the distant future, towards the advent of the Day of Judgment. Further in contrast to Maududi, who regarded the struggle for establishing global Islamic political rule a fundamental duty of every Muslim, many ulema regard it as the task and responsibility of Jesus in his Second Coming, who, they believe, will come strengthened with the special protection, assistance and miraculous powers bestowed by God. Other ulema believe that the domination or superiority that the above-mentioned Quranic verse refers to is not at all political, and does not refer to the establishment of Islamic government. Rather, it simply means the establishment of the intellectual superiority of Islam over other religions, and in this task, they argue, ordinary Muslims must play a key role by conveying the truth of Islam to others.
Those who, like Maududi, believe the basic aim of Islam is to establish Islamic or Muslim political supremacy also refer to a statement attributed to the Prophet, according to which he is said to have declared: ‘Islam is dominant, not dominated’ (al-islam yalu wa la yula aleih).They argue that this statement also indicates that Islam has come to rule as a political force and that it must be politically dominant, indeed hegemonic, throughout the world.
In my view, this interpretation is completely off the mark, for several reasons. Firstly, this statement is not to be found in any of the six authoritative collections of Hadith, nor in other such important Hadith collections such as the Musnad of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal and the Muwatta of Imam Malik. Rather, it is contained in Baihaqi, and its status, in terms of its chain of narrators, is recognized as weak. Secondly, there are no other Hadith reports that speak of or indicate Islamic political supremacy. Rather, like the above-mentioned Quranic verse, this report simply indicates the establishment of the intellectual, in contrast to the political, supremacy of Islam over other religions.
This firm conviction in the intellectual supremacy of Islam should not be regarded as tantamount to imperialism. It is natural, and but to be expected, that a believer in any religion or ideology regards it as superior to other religions or ideologies. That is why Muslims, like people of other religions, think that their religion is the best. This does not, however, mean that establishing the superiority of any religion or ideology, including Islam, through force or by capturing power and political dominance is permissible.
It must be recognized that this political interpretation of Islam is a recent development, invented by modern-day Islamist ideologues. This is a product of their seeking to interpret Islam on their own (tafsir bi‘l ray), in reaction, in particular, to certain modern political developments, particularly Western colonialism. This political interpretation of Islam is deeply tainted by feelings of revenge and a strong streak of emotionalism. The most pathetic and extreme case in this regard is that of the founder of the Jamaat-e Islami, Maulana Maududi, as evidenced in his one of the most controversial book Quran ki Char Buniyadi Istilahen (‘Four Basic Terms of the Quran’), wherein he provided a political twist to the notion of God’s sovereignty and where he argued that later generations of Muslims had completely forgotten the basic intention of the Quran, which, he claimed, was to establish Islamic political rule over the entire world. He went to the extent of claiming that this book of his was an attempt to revive consciousness of this supposedly long-forgotten basic intention of the Quran.
In contrast to Maududi, the ulema almost unanimously agree that the basic aim of the Islamic invitation or da‘wah is not the capture of political power, but, rather, to call all human beings, across the world, to the path of God. This is indicated in the following Quranic verse:
‘Thus have We made of you an ummah justly balanced. That you may be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves’ (2:143)
This duty of inviting others to the path of Islam was the basic duty of the Prophet, and is also the basic responsibility of his followers.
As is evident from numerous Hadith reports, God Himself has arranged for the establishment of ideological supremacy of Islam. According to one such report, in every century God sends to the world a reviver of the faith (mujaddid). Over the centuries numerous mujaddids have appeared, about whom there is a consensus among the ulema. It is vital to note that most of these mujdaddids stayed away from politics and, instead, concentrated on the revival of Islam and the reform of the community. They believed that their mission was the revival of Islam, and not the establishment of Islamic or Muslim political supremacy.
According to another Hadith report, the Prophet is said to have remarked that God has arranged for His religion to be protected from the corruptions of the extremists, from the wrong interpretations of the ignorant, and from deceit of the lovers of falsehood. This statement also indicates the divine plan of preserving the intellectual supremacy of Islam. In contrast, it is important to note, there is no Hadith report that clearly talks of divine promise to arrange for the political supremacy of Islam.
Loud slogans of ‘Islamic awakening’ and ‘Islamic Renaissance’ emanate and echo from Islamic circles today. Many leaders and activists in these circles take these slogans to represent existing reality, which, of course, is not really the case. If at all there is any truth in these slogans it is simply that, as compared to the recent past, there is a greater degree of religious awareness among Muslims today.
Organisations of ulema, Islamic preachers and scholars are today engaged all over the world in da‘wah or missionary work. Today, there is certainly much more scholarly and intellectual work being done in Islamic circles than in the recent past. This is an indication of God’s help in strengthening the intellectual supremacy of Islam.
On the other hand are those elements who regard Islamic awakening as synonymous with, or, at least inseparable from, establishing Islamic political supremacy at the global level. However, they have no basis from within the Islamic scriptural tradition to back their stance. The whole world is witness to the fact that, despite their efforts, rather than acquiring political power, Muslims are on the path of political decline or, at the very least, have proven unable to make any significant dent in their subjugation that is now over three centuries old.
This should make it obvious to present-day Islamic movements that they need to shift their focus from their obsession with the capture of political power so that they can work in a more effective manner for the cause of Islam and its adherents. If this does not happen, it is very likely that the work of Islamic da‘wah or inviting others to the path of God, which is the basic aim of Islam, would be faced with even greater hurdles than today.