By Dr. Katherine Bullock
One idea that is prominent in some Muslim circles today is the concept of the vanguard.
The vanguards, as defined by these Muslims, are meant to be the pious individuals who are on the straight path and whose job it is to bring their society back to the true Islam.
They believe that their society has left Islam, becoming a modern-day equivalent of jahiliyya, traditionally the pre-Islamic era of ignorance.
So the vanguard must separate themselves from the ignorance around them and live aloof as true Muslims whose job it is to be an example and guide their society back to the straight path.
The concept is deceptively alluring.
It has also been harmful to the development of the Muslim community in the 21st century, and in the end, harmful for the entire world.
A vanguard looks back to see the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) leading a small group of companions that lived detached from a hostile Meccan society that was able to hold its own against persecution, and finally triumph and expand into an empire that controlled large portions of Arabia, North Africa, Europe, and Asia.
Imagining themselves to be a similar small band of righteous followers, surrounded by a sea of ignorance and anti-Islamic persecutors, even in their own “Muslim” societies, the vanguard are super-human believers, who have conquered their own jahiliyya and graduated from unbeliever to believer.
They see the faults of others and see themselves as faultless.
Anyone who adopts their point of view can transcend their own selves and join the righteous on the right path.
The analogy to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is beguiling.
It offers a promise of certitude in a troubled world.
Except that it is wrong. The Sahaba were not a vanguard.
The Sahaba were individuals who for various reasons embraced Islam.
They believed in Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) message of the oneness of God, and accepted the teachings of the Qur’an as God’s final message to humanity.
The closest people to the Sahaba today are those embracing Islam: Canadian, Australian, British, American, Indian, Japanese, Chinese.
Former Jews, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, agnostics and atheists, who hear the Qur’an, learn of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and accept them as God’s word: a call for all time to all humanity; new Muslims who then strive to the best of their ability to change their lifestyles and implement Qur’anic teachings in their lives.
Ironically, given their claim to be following ‘true Islam’ while all others are lost, the concept of the “vanguard” is not an originally Qur’anic concept.
It entered modern Islamic thought as another European import: an idea that has been part of most modern revolutionary movements from the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, to the Baader-Meinhof gang.
Unfortunately there can logically be only one vanguard, whereas human beings “will not cease to dispute (Qur’an, 11: 118).”
Difference of opinion and competition in thought is usually healthy for the development of ideas and brainstorming solutions for the challenges facing humanity today; in the case of the vanguard it can be tragic.
Puffed with arrogance that theirs is The Vanguard, and the rest is lost, the vanguards develop a righteous anger: each group becomes willing to use violence against the non-vanguard.
Rather than looking to a group seeking arrogantly to isolate themselves with the claim that only they are true Muslims, we should look for inspiration to those converts who stumble across Islam exclaiming, “why that is what I’ve believed my whole life!” being Muslim without knowing of Islam.
They, not the “vanguard,” are the true heirs of the Sahaba, who were men and women who were doing their best to implement Islamic teachings; men and women who made mistakes, and were corrected often by the Prophet (pbuh); a small and growing community of believers who attempted to follow the guidance of the Prophet (pbuh).
There was no vanguard amongst the Sabaha convinced that they were the only Muslims to understand the message while the other Muslims amongst them were false Muslims.
There was no vanguard believing that only they practised “true Islam,” while their family and friends had strayed back into ignorance, in spite of their testimony of the shahada.
The Sahaba understood themselves as people trying to be believers, but afraid they would come up short on the Day of Judgment.
Arrogance and pride were condemned.
The willingness to listen to others and admit their own mistakes was practiced, even by the men who became Caliphs – rulers after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had passed away.
Pluralism in thought and practice was a part and parcel of the growing Islamic community, just as it is today.
The stories of our modern day Sahaba – the converts – reminds us of the value of pluralism and the dangers of self-righteousness.