“For Allah will never change the grace which He has bestowed on a people until they change what is in themselves: and verily Allah is He Who hears and knows (all things).” [Sûrah al-Anfâl: 53]

The phrase “until they change what is within themselves” is found in two places in the Qur’ân. The first is in the chapter entitled al-Anfâl and discusses a change from better to worse. It expresses that Allah will not remove a blessing that He has bestowed on a people until they change what is within themselves. The second place the phrase is to be found is in the chapter of the Qur’ân entitled al-Ra`d. Allah mentions the misdeeds of the disbelievers, then says: “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves. But once Allah wills to punish a people, there can be no turning it back, nor will they find besides Him any protector.”

The scholars of Qur’anic commentary explain these verses to mean that Allah will not take away the blessings that He has bestowed upon a people until they change within themselves and fall into disobedience.

There is no doubt that if a negative change can be effected by a change in a people’s inward condition, then a positive change can also take place. The two verses speak about a change for the worse, possibly to show just how much easier and more frequently negative changes have occurred throughout human history. For this reason, the famous Algerian intellectual Mālik b. Nabī once said: “History obeys the law of desire.”

Many Muslims, even some who are educated, recite these verses merely for their blessings, but they disregard the social implications of their meanings. Muslim history has been witness to a number of reform movements, and a number of programs have been enacted to bring about change and progress from the second century A.H. up to today. Some of these movements sought political reform, some sought scientific reform, and still others sought social reform. All of these movements stayed within the context of Islam.

In recent years, Muslim societies have had a number of reform movements imposed upon them from outside that were completely alien to their historical contexts, like socialism, secularism, and nationalism. These reform movements and programs have no doubt produced some effects, but they were never able to achieve what was hoped of them.

Is the reason for this some defect in their ideological and practical assumptions? This is possibly the case with respect to the Western reform movements that have been applied to an Islamic context that has its own distinctive history and culture. It is also possibly true for those movements that focused on partial reform and were successful in reaching their limited goals but failed to make any real change to Muslim society as a whole.

In my opinion, however, these partial reform movements might be seen as successes in a way. They had clear, well-defined, and realistic goals, even if those goals were limited to one aspect of life or restricted to one region of the world. The fact that these movements were able to fulfill their goals shows clearly that they were successful. History does not always allow people to realize all of their aspirations, and different forces have a way of canceling out each other’s effects. One person might build something while at the same time someone else is tearing it down. This makes us ask: “When will the building ever be done?

Let us look at the comprehensive reform efforts that have been enacted to see how they fell short of their goals and how their failures had to be dressed up in sentimentality, inspiring rhetoric, and eternally postponed promises. It cannot be denied, however, that some of these reform efforts managed to achieve some of their peripheral social or educational goals. I believe that the problem did not lie in the reform programs that were advanced, but in the inability of the people to accept them. Those who propose a program of unity, for example, will often find that the people have been divided amongst themselves for so long that trying to bring them together is extremely difficult and is met with stiff resistance. Those who present a program of change through jihâd often find themselves in direct confrontation with the people, with their weapons aimed at their bosoms.

For any treatment to have a curative effect, the body must be able to respond to it. The effects of the treatment will always be proportionate to the responsiveness of the recipient. Comprehensive reform efforts may often be too idealistic and unrealistic due to the weakness of the recipients of such reforms. This is the meaning behind the following statements that have been authentically related from the Prophet (peace be upon him):

• He said that Islam would be at its utmost strength for 5 years.
• The Caliphate that would follow him would last for 30 years.
• Islam would remain powerful during the reign of the first twelve Caliphs.
• Whenever a door is broken down, it would never again be closed.

These are but a few of the authentic prophecies that offer little consolation. Therefore, focusing too much on political reform may actually weaken the effectiveness of the Islamic message in other areas, like the propagation of the religion, social reform, and economic development. It has produced circumstances that are very difficult to rectify or overcome. This excessive focus on one thing might just be another symptom of the Sufi mindset that focuses on seclusion and slowly takes people away from their lives and daily experiences and pulls them into an unreal, idealized world.

Nevertheless, the sacred texts confirm the existence and continued relevance of many other religious activities, like that of inviting others to Islam, personal reform, and preserving social integrity. Among these texts are the numerous narrations that refer to the “successful group.”

This is an important lesson to be learned from the Prophetic Sunnah. It gives a realistic perspective to those who wish to work for reform. In this way, they can avoid going about in a fantasy that will forever defy implementation or falling into despair and hopelessness. There is, in fact, a proper course between these two extremes. Many programs end right where they began. They raise the banner of restoring Islamic brotherhood and values to the entire Muslim world, and often look down upon programs with a limited, particular focus.

In cases like these, it is true what they say: that the people involved in reform movements may not bring about anything while those who do not subscribe to any reform program bring about real change in society, even if such change comes slowly. The strange thing is that despite their desire for comprehensive change, most reform movements start outside the level of the individual, so that people become accustomed to impose their light upon the environment surrounding them.

In contrast to this, the Qur’ān clearly guides us to the fact that the true beginning of any reform must come from within. A person must start by reforming himself, and then he can turn his attention to reforming others. This is the way the change will be a “change within ourselves”, which is what is stipulated by the verse.

Reform starts deep within the individual and then stretches out to the vastness surrounding him. Many people, contrary to this fact, target their surroundings without dealing with themselves first. Their feelings of historical power and glory continue to be an obstacle to their understanding, defining, and determining their priorities.