Great thinkers of our time - Maulana Sayyid Abul-Ala Maududi

<strong>Ziauddin Sardar</strong> on Maulana Sayyid Abul-Ala Maududi

I first met Maulana Sayyid Abul-Ala Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, in the winter of 1968. He was in London for medical treatment. Along with thousands of other Muslim students, I went to Heathrow Airport to welcome him. I was 18.

Short and stocky, he wore a pair of thick glasses and had a white, bushy beard, the kind that is required by tradition and law for all aspiring Islamic leaders of Pakistan. He smiled and, in a soft voice, spoke mostly about democracy. Unlike other Muslim reformist thinkers of the 20th century, Maududi was passionate about democracy. He favoured gradual reform and believed social and political change in Muslim societies would arise through individual transformation. But he believed that only pious citizens could produce a pious Islamic state.

Born in 1903 in Aurangabad, in the princely state of Hyderabad in British India, Maududi spent his adolescence working as a freelance journalist. In 1927, he began newspaper serialisation of his first major work, Jihad in Islam. It argued that jihad, which he defined as personal, spiritual, intellectual and social struggle, was an integral part of Islamic law. A few years later, he started his own monthly journal, Tarjuman al-Qur'an, devoted to the translation and exegesis of the Koran, and continued to edit it until his death in 1979.

Maududi claimed an illustrious lineage, tracing his genealogy back to the Prophet Muhammad himself. In his various autobiographical tracts, he alleges to have discovered "meaning and significance" in Islam analogous to an experience of conversion. This gave a distinctive intensity to his writing on the spiritual aspects and meaning of Islam as personal faith. Spiritual intensity provides both a resonance and an ambiguity to his definition of and emphasis on the pious individual, the focus of his social and political thinking. The character of his exposition of faith is a significant and enduring part of his appeal to Muslim readers. This is precisely what attracted me to him.

It was zeal that led him, in 1941, to establish the Jamaat-e-Islami (the Islamic Organisation). It is here that the ambiguity of his concept of the pious individual arises, because, in social terms, pious individuals become vanguard cadres forming a network of cells within a community and acting in concert to seek power and effect change. His organisation is modelled on the pattern of European communist parties. In such a scheme, piety ceases to be an objective and becomes an ascribed status as much confirmed by membership as by personal effort (and often more so). Righteousness of purpose can effortlessly become the assumption of righteousness per se and, as with any driven movement, can lead to suspension of critical scrutiny and foster an authoritarian outlook. So like most communist parties, the Jamaat acquired all the trappings of an authoritarian institution.

The Jamaat opposed the creation of Pakistan. Maududi argued, quite sensibly, that Islam could not be limited by, or equated to, a nation state. But after partition, Maududi moved to Pakistan, where he began a protracted struggle to establish the sharia, or Islamic law. A puritan, he started agitating against the minority sect of Qadiyanis, insisting they should be declared non-Muslims by the state. He was arrested when his 1953 anti-Qadiyani pamphlet led to lawlessness throughout Pakistan. A martial law court sentenced him to death. In prison, he was repeatedly asked to apply for commutation of his death sentence and to appeal for mercy. But Maududi refused and his status as an Islamic icon of the 20th century was sealed. His sentence, in any event, was later commuted and he was released from prison.

Maududi was a deeply reactionary scholar. He was, and still is, regarded by many Muslims as a great intellectual, yet his writings are profoundly anti-intellectual. The most inventive aspect of his thought relates to his unique perspective on Islamic history. From the days of the Prophet Muhammad, he argued, Islamic history has consisted of nothing more than a perpetual struggle between Islam and different kinds of ignorance. Sometimes Islam triumphed; sometimes the forces of ignorance prevailed. At each stage, Islam provided a catalytic process transforming the life of individuals who then developed a community of faith. The community grows into an ideological movement that works to bring about social change in the desired direction. The success of the ideological movement produces a new society and state.

For Maududi, Islam is a "total system" that provides an answer to every conceivable problem. The complete system exists in the sharia. He accepts that the sharia contains many elements that are time-bound and not relevant to modern times. But his deep traditionalism prevents him from accepting that any changes can be made to the sharia. Rather, the sharia is to be applied in its totality, including its most oppressive elements. The devotion and personal faith of the individual will automatically take care of any problems that may arise. There is no provision in Maududi's framework for adjustment, revision or change. Despite his avowed love of democracy, Maududi was a consummate authoritarian. He tolerated no dissent in the Jamaat and demanded complete, unthinking devotion from his followers.

The most obnoxious elements of his thinking - which also illustrate just how anchored he was in oppressive tradition - relate to women and western society. He considered the west to be decadent and immoral. In Birth Control, his attempt at a sociological analysis of western society, Maududi betrays an infantile grasp of western social history and public policy. In Purdah and Status of Women in Islam, his popular primer on how Muslim women should behave, he reveals startling ignorance of western sources. Frequently he cites dubious sources, including German fascists, and uses social Darwinist arguments to justify the suppression of women.

Today, there is hardly a corner of the Muslim world where Maududi and Jamaat-e-Islami are not influential. Pious Muslims love his simplistic diatribes. The intensity of his writing on matters of spirituality and faith, and his confidence in the virtues of Islam as a total system that will reassert itself in history, shift attention from how he conceives that Islam should operate in contemporary times. Unleashed as a political entity, his pious individuals lack self-criticism, humility and, above all, doubt about their possession of unswerving righteousness. Islamic bookshops are stocked full with his books, many of which are misogynistic and aggressively anti-western. The end product of his thought can now be seen in the North-west Frontier Province of Pakistan, where his followers are busy closing down cinemas, banning music, locking women behind four walls, setting up religious police to monitor vice, and generally establishing an ideal Islamic society.

Maulana Sayyid Abul-Ala Maududi Born 1903 in Aurangabad, India. Blamed cultural diversity for the decline of Islam, helped ignite Islamic revivalism and founded Islamist political party. Argued that the Muslim world should purge itself of foreign elements and then wage jihad until all of humanity was under Islamic rule. Wrote introduction Towards Understanding Islam (1932) and translated the Koran into Urdu. Died 1979