In the first part of this article, we defined the concept of “Intellectual” as we understand it and mentioned the work of some prominent non-Muslim and Muslim intellectuals. We highlighted how Noam Chomsky, Betrand Russell, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Malek Bennabi, and Ali Shariati represented different types, or should we say facets, of intellectuals. We adopted the definition of the intellectual as one who espouses the concerns of his/her society and becomes an active participant in the social change he/she longs for!
Imam: the Muslim scholar-intellectual
One privileged type of intellectual in the Muslim world is the Imam! This term is actually used to refer to the person in charge of leading the 5 daily prayers in the mosque and/or the weekly Friday prayer, as well as the very few scholars in Islamic Jurisprudence who have been recognised for their deeper knowledge and superior spiritual qualities. Throughout the Islamic history a number of prominent Imams/scholars have come to the forefront of their societies, teaching the common people and students alike the fundamentals as well as the more advanced knowledge of Islam. They were deeply involved in the day-to-day matters of their societies, correcting any deviations from righteousness and Justice. They have also voiced the anger of their people against the oppressors and against external invasions.
To name but a few, one could mention Ahmed Ibn Hanbal (2nd Hijri century; 8th century A.D.) who stood fast by what he believed was a correct understanding of the nature of the Qur’an even if this view angered the Abbasside ruler, Al-Ma’moun (Haroun Al-Rashid), a stance that drove him to prison and torture. Ibn Hanbal did not adopt the “official” view that was defended by Al-Ma’moun as did various other “scholars” to avoid the anger of the ruler. Another well known figure is Ibn Taymiyah (8th Hijri century; 13th century A.D.) who did not manage any effort, urging the Muslims to finance the Muslim army and fight against the Mongol invasion. He even participated in the battle of Shaqhab in (702 H, 1303 A.D.), probably the most important battle against the Mongols after that of Hitteen. Yet another “Imam” we can mention here was Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani (19th century A.D.) who was a virulent critic of the British occupation of Muslim land and India. With his student and friend, Muhammad Abdu, he worked hard to develop a new framework of Islamic political thought which is anti-imperialistic at the core. His thought also emphasised ways of reforming the Muslim societies on the basis of a strict adherence to the Islamic teachings and developing the nation through technical and scientific education. He was a political activist wherever he travelled and lived, in Afghanistan, India, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, often expelled from there by the British occupation or the Muslim ruler.
Ibn Badis, one of a kind!
If the aforementioned Imams (Muslim intellectuals) have illustrated various facets of engagement in the battle for changing the state of their societies, hence the Muslim nation, one particular Imam stands out in our opinion from the lot in terms of the depth of the change he has contributed to start in his society. It is Sheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis, the father of the Islamic reform movement in Algeria. Born in 1889, he memorized the Qur’an at the age of 13 and studied the fundamentals of Islamic sciences before he moved on to study at Al-Zaytouna mosque in Tunisia. He was privileged to be the student of some illustrious scholars like Mohammad Al-Nakhli Al-Qayraouani and Mohammad Al-Tahir Ben Achour. He also got acquainted with the various intellectual movements that were developing in the Arabo-Islamic world at the time. In 1913, Ibn Badis went for Hajj and used the opportunity to stay a few months in Medina. There he spent months discussing with Al-Bachir Al-Ibrahimi, another key figure of the Islamic reform movement they were to build in Algeria, ways of getting the Algerians out of their long sleep. The strong ties they have built during that period helped them plan for decades to come and develop a vision that was to span the whole future of Algeria.
Ibn Badis was tireless in his commitment to the freedom of his people. Back in Algeria, he started teaching young people and older ones, males and females. The fact that his main activities were based in the mosque did not prevent him from getting involved in journalism, launching various weekly and monthly newspapers, like Al-Moutaqid, Al-Shihab, and Al-Basair, starting a new one each time the French administration would ban one. In 1931, Ibn Badis, Al-Ibrahimi and a group of bright Islamic scholars launched the Association of Muslim Scholars which played a major role in the education and awakening of a good section of the Algerian people. Indeed, this association had three major centres of learning, the one in Constantine, East of Algeria, led by Ibn Badis, Dar Al-Hadith in Tlemcen, West of Algeria, led by Al-Ibrahimi and the cultural center, Nadi Al-Taraqqi in Algiers, led by Tayeb Al-Okbi. The association also started hundreds of schools throughout the country to educate boys and girls alike. This was in the 1930s and 1940s!!
Ibn Badis’ vision was far-reaching! He and his fellows helped in the launching of various sections of the Algerian Islamic Scouting. As these spread throughout the country, the leaders of the movement decided to create an umbrella for all the existing sections, which was done during an impressive ceremony under the honorary presidency of none else but Sheikh Abdelhamid Ibn Badis himself! This shows the extent to which he cared for the youth and understood the importance of allowing them to grow in a healthy, educational environment and nurture them with the nationalistic and Islamic fundamentals. He also encouraged, organized and oversaw the emergence of many music, theatrical and sports clubs across the country.
Ibn Badis undoubtedly represents in our understanding the model of the Muslim intellectual, one who is deeply rooted in his society and who tirelessly works towards the betterment of the status of his people. By realising the importance of educating girls and women, he greatly contributed to elevating the level of social and political awareness of the Algerian nation. It is no wonder therefore that large numbers of the Mujahideen of the Algerian war for independences graduated from schools run by the Association of Muslim Scholars! The seeds that this association has planted in the Algerian soil have born their fruits and the values it was calling for are strongly present today in the hearts and minds of millions of (not to say almost all) Algerians.
The Failure of the Imams!
If all the above Imams have given shining examples of what an Imam should be like, our sad reality today is that most of the Imams are failing badly to play their role in the society. The Imams, be they leaders in the daily and Friday prayers or Islamic scholars, are select people in the sense that they are supposed, by the very definition of their duty, to have a major impact on their people. The Muslims look at them to find role models since they are supposed to translate the Islamic principles and directives into practice. Muslims turn to them also for orientation with respect to their day-today matters, whether directly relating to their worship (prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, Zakat, etc.) or to more general dealings within the society. This may include advice/directives relating to cleanliness, neighbourhoods, hard work, prohibitions, corruption, drugs, political correctness, etc. Since Islam is a religion that spans all aspects of a human’s life, so are the Imams meant to play a major role in all of this human’s life!
The reality is unfortunately a bitter one! One often sees mosque leaders (Imams) who are completely disconnected from their neighbourhood and society. Their role is strictly limited to leading the prayers and giving sermons. They might, if they are “active enough”, teach some kids how to memorise the Qur’an. Rare are those Imams who realise the full extent of their duties even if within their district. At a time when the youth are falling prey to drugs and even alcohol, some of them even coming to the mosque while consuming drugs… At a time when some basic Islamic values within the society have been blown up, clothing getting less and less Islamic, and young men and women mixing in indecent ways in public places… At a time when our neighbourhoods are getting dirtier and dirtier… At a time when the youth have lost hope in their political and religious leaders and dream only of travelling away from their countries… At a time when corruption is spreading at all levels of the society like fire in a mound of hay, so much so that one wonders where are the people who are still unshaken in their upholding of the Islamic teachings… At such a time, the responsibility of every intellectual, especially of the Imams, becomes very heavy indeed!
What is to be done?
Each Imam (and each intellectual, more generally) must first realise that he must be a new Ibn Badis, if not with his knowledge, at least with his spirit! In our opinion, change must start uniformly from the very local level (unless the conditions differ and global change becomes possible at the same time). Is it not striking that Muslims are to pray as a community five times a day and have a congregational prayer once a week? This clearly means in our understanding that the mosque is meant to be the nucleus of a cell (the neighbourhood or district), producing for it all the needed energy and ideas. It is also meant to strengthen the immunity of this cell against all the viruses and bacteria!
What we see nowadays, in most cases, are mosques to which people go to accomplish a formality rather than as a place of peace, spirituality, and energy renewal; a place of hope, love, and mutual support. Analysing the hundreds of Friday Prayers a Muslim listens to, he/she often forgets which century and location he/she is in. During these sermons, a Muslim is invited to a journey through time and space, where no milestones in the sermon are kept that would tell him/her which era and place he/she is in. This is not at all what the Friday sermon, or any others for that matter, are supposed to be!
If the youth feel lost today and without any landmarks, it is largely because mosques, hence the Imams, no longer care about them in practical ways. Rich and varied lectures, sports activities, environmental concerns, neighbourhood cleaning days, scientific and book clubs, computer literacy courses, communication skills and self development trainings, etc. All these activities can easily be organised under the leadership of clairvoyant Imams and the commitment of scores of intellectuals and other members of the society/neighbourhood who can help carry out such activities.
If, God forbid, we continue failing as we have been, the deluge of dislocation of the society will sweep away anything that remains from the fruits we still pick from the trees that Ibn Badis and his peers planted more than two to three generations ago!
Ahmed Guessoum is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Science and Technology Houari Boumediene (USTHB) in Algiers.
 We exclude here the meaning of Imam, which has sometimes been used in our history to refer to the political leader, and the very specific meaning given to the term “Imam” in some Shi’ah schools.