QUR’AN AND ISMA‘ILI TA’WIL
Asghar Ali Engineer
Qur’an is divine but its interpretation is human and hence there have been different interpretations of various Qur’anic verses. The differences in interpretation of the Qur’anic verses was not a later development but began shortly after the death of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Different prominent companions of the Prophet began to differ from each other and with the passage of time these differences also deepened in their scope. There were various reasons for these differences. First and foremost was of course the differences due to understanding. Any text, and much more so the divine text which also tends to be symbolic, is understood depending on ones own mental and intellectual capacity. Also, the understanding of these verses depends on ones own personal or family background; the tribal background and the community ethos also would play an important role.
The Muslims were also embroiled in political disputes with the passage of time and these disputes also got reflected in interpretation of the Qur’anic verses. The disputing parties tried to legitimise their respective positions through either hadith or interpretation of the Qur’anic verses which suited their position. Also, many sects came into existence in the early period of Islam itself and every sect tried to prove its authenticity by interpreting the Qur’anic verses in keeping with their doctrines. The formation and doctrinal differences of these have been dealt with in various early books like Al-Farq bayn al-Firaq of Baghdadi and others. Each of these sects tried to interpret various Qur’anic verses in their own way. And it became impossible to resolve both political as well as doctrinal differences. There also evolved differences between the jurists (fuqaha’). These jurists also interpreted the Qur’anic verses in keeping with their understanding of juristic issues. Thus within the Sunni Islam there developed four major schools of fiqh (jurisprudence). The same is true of hadith literature with which we will deal with in another paper.
Among other reasons for different interpretations of the Qur’anic verses the sectarian differences play most important and interesting role. In fact it will be no exaggeration to say that among other reasons the sectarian differences played very significant role in differing interpretation of the Qur’anic verses. And among other sectarian differences the differences between Sunnis and Shi‘as assumed much more controversial role. No other two sects of Islam have differed as much as the Sunnis and Shi‘as in understanding and interpretation of certain Qur’anic verses. It was on account of this that the Sunni corpus of hadith developed separately from that of Shi‘as.
The Shi‘as also subsequently sub-divided into number of subsects the main division being between the Ithna Asharis and Isma‘ilis. The Isma‘ilis developed their own independent interpretation of the Qur’anic verses which radically differs from not only the Sunni interpretation but also the mainstream Shi‘a interpretation. It is the Isma‘ili interpretation that we would deal with in this paper. We have broadly referred to the Isma‘ili doctrines in one of our earlier papers. We would briefly summarise it here for ready reference of our readers.
The Isma‘ilis branched off from the Ithna Ashari Shi‘as on the question of succession to the fifth (and according to the Ithna Asharis the sixth) Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq. It should be noted that the doctrine of imamah is very central to the Shi‘a Islam as the doctrine of Khilafah is to the Sunni Islam. According to the Shi‘a belief the imam must belong to the progeny of Fatima and ‘Ali and thus son will always succeed the father. This doctrine remains central whichever the Shi‘a sect. And most of the differences among the Shi‘a sub-sects, though not always, have been on the question of succession as to which son succeeded the previous Imam.
The Hanafiyas believed that It was Ali’s son Muhammad bin Hanifa who succeeded as Imam. Similarly the Zaidi Shi‘as believed that it was Zaid, the son of Imam Zain al-Abidin who succeeded him. The Zaidi Shi‘as are found mostly in the Yemen. Similarly, the Isma‘ili Shi‘as believe that it was Isma‘il who succeeded Imam J‘afar al-Sadiq whereas the Ithna Asharis believe that it was Musa Kazim who became imam after Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq. The chain of imamah as far as the Ithna Asharis are concerned stopped with the seclusion of the 12th imam whose reappearance is awaited by them. And as far as the Isma‘ilis are concerned the office of imama continued in the progeny of Isma‘il and the 21st imam Taiyyib went into seclusion. But unlike the Ithna Asharis the Isma‘ilis do not believe that 21st imam will reappear; they, on the other hand, believe that the imama continues in his progeny and that the imam of the time from his progeny will appear one day. It is also to be noted that the Isma‘ilis also split on the question of succession of imama after Imam Mustansir billah. A section of the Isma‘ilis believed that Mustansir had nominated his younger son Must‘ali as his successor and the other section believed that Nizar, his elder son, was nominated as Mustansir’s successor. And Imam Taiyyib belongs to the Must‘alian stream.
Here in this paper we will be dealing mainly with the interpretation of the Qur’an by the Isma‘ilis before the split between the Musta‘lians and the Nizaris. The Druzes are also basically Isma‘ilis and we will deal with Druzes in a separate paper. The Druzes split off from the Isma‘ilis after the death of Imam Hakim. The Druzes developed their own interpretation of the Qur’an which again radically differs from the mainstream Isma‘ilis.
The Isma‘ilis, like all other Shi‘as believe in the hidden meaning of the Qur’an which they refer to as ta’wil. In the tafsir literature of Sunni Islam the words tafsir and ta’wil are used almost synonymously. But in the Shi‘a Islam both have distinct meaning. Tafsir in Shi‘a Islam refers to the manifest meaning of the Qur’an and ta’wil refers to its hidden meaning. The Sunnis and Shi‘as differ on the meaning of the sixth verse of the chapter three i.e. the chapter on “Ali Imran”. According to the Sunni commentators this verse means that “None knows its interpretation (ta’wil i.e. the hidden meaning) save Allah and the rasikhun fi’ al‘ilm (i.e. those firmly rooted in knowledge) say: We believe in it, it is all from our Lord.” Thus according to the Sunni commentators of the Qur’an Allah alone has the knowledge of ta’wil and the Rasikhun fi’ al-‘ilm (i.e. the great ‘Ulama) do not possess that knowledge and they only believe that it is known only to Allah.
The Shi‘ahs, on the other hand, believe that the knowledge of ta’wil is possessed by the al-rasikhun fi’ al-‘ilm also and these rasikhun in ‘ilm are nothing but the imams from the progeny of Fatima and ‘Ali. Not only Allah but the holy Prophet (PBUH), his legatee (wasi) and imams from his progeny also possess the knowledge of ta’wil. Now the most important question is what is this ta’wil?. In the Isma‘ili literature it is also referred to as ‘ilm al-ladunni which passes orally from Prophet to his wasi and from wasi to imam and from one imam to another.
But if we go historically then one finds the exposition of ta’wil literature much later i.e. during the Abbasid period, in fact, after the controversy about the appointment of Isma‘il and the subsequent split in the Shi‘a community. The hidden meaning of the Qur’anic verses is attempted by the Isma‘ili imams and da‘is (i.e. missionaries and summoners to the Isma‘ili faith) after the spread of Greek knowledge in the Islamic world. We have already written about The Rasa’il Ikhwanus Safa i.e. the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity in a separate paper. These epistles are of great importance in the Isma‘ili literature. These epistles though do not attempt exposition of ta’wil systematically but do contain elements of it and could be taken as the beginning of the exposition of the discipline of ta’wil. Its fifty-third epistle supposedly deals with this.
The Isma‘ili da‘is particularly Saiyyidna Yaqub al-Sijistani, Saiyyidna Ja‘far Mansur al-Yaman, Saiyyidna Qadi al-Nu‘man, Saiyyidna Hamiduddin Kirmani, Saiyyidna Muayyad Shirazi, Saiyyidna Hatim and several others have played great role in developing this unique discipline. It will be no exaggeration to say that ‘ilm al-ta’wil is really unique to the Isma‘ili sect and it was a grand attempt to synthesise the all available knowledge of the time - particularly the Greek knowledge popularised by the Abbasids through translations of the Greek classics into Arabic - with the Islamic teachings.
Of course the Isma‘ilis believe that the ‘ilm of ta’wil did not develop with the popularisation of the Greek knowledge but is part of the ‘ilm al-nubuwwat (i.e. the Prophetic knowledge) passed on from imam to imam as referred to earlier. But historically speaking we do not find its record before the Epistles of Ikhwanus Safa were compiled. One can say that this knowledge of ta’wil among the Isma‘ilis was reduced to writing only when faced with the challenge of the Greek knowledge. Ash‘aris among the Sunnis met this challenge by totally opposing the Greek philosophy (though using its tools to refute it) while the Isma‘ilis among the Shi‘as met this challenge by attempting a creative synthesis of the Greek knowledge including its cosmogony with the basic teachings of Islam. Thus the Ash‘aris and the Isma‘ilis carved out different ways of meeting the challenge of the Greek philosophy and its great impact on the Islamic world. This impact should not be underrated.
The Ismai‘ili ta’wil is based on reason. The word ta’wil in Arabic means to go to the first, primary or basic meaning of the word. According to the Isma‘ilis each and every verse of the Qur’an has basic meaning or hidden meaning apart from the manifest or secondary meaning. According to them a mu’min is one who knows and believes in the hidden or original meaning (batin) of the Qur’anic verses. The Isma‘ilis maintain that there is difference between a Muslim and a Mu’min. One who recites the kalima and performs all the manifest rituals (zahiri) like offering prayers, fasting, giving zakat, performing haj etc. is a Muslim. But a mu’min is more than being a Muslim. A Mu’min is one who not only performs the zahiri rituals but also believes in batin, the real, the original, the intended, meaning of these rituals.
The Isma‘ilis quote the verse 14 of the chapter 49 which reads as follows: “The dwellers of the desert say: We believe (amanna). Say: You believe not, but say, We submit (aslamna); and faith (iman) has not yet entered into your hearts.” Thus this verse, the Isma‘ili theologians point out, clearly makes distinction between Islam and Iman, between those who submit (Muslims) and those who believe Mu’min. Iman, according to them is not mere acceptance of what is manifest zahir but sincere belief in batin (the hidden, the original).
Before we proceed further it is necessary to throw light on what is batin or what is the way ta’wil is done? It is also important to note that ordinary people are not supposed to know the original meaning or the ta’wil. It is only the chosen few or the initiated who are entitled to know. The contents of ta’wil was kept a strictly guided secret even from ordinary believers. The reason was obvious. The Isma‘ilis were looked upon as heretics by the orthodox Muslims. Imam Ghazali also wrote a book on Batinis and condemned them. They were accused of believing in hulul and tanasukh i.e. belief in Imam being God and transmigration of souls though it is not true. Even Dr. Kamil Husain, who was chairman of the department of Isma‘ili Studies, Al-Azhar, Cairo, strongly refuted such allegations. But the Isma‘ilis were greatly misunderstood about their real beliefs.
The Isma‘ilis, for fear of such condemnations had to hide from general Muslims their beliefs in batini theology and reveal it only to the chosen or initiated few. The knowledge of batin was revealed to a person only after ensuring his/her sincerity and faithfulness. Even today the ordinary Bohras do not have any knowledge of ta’wil though there is no such fear as it prevailed in those days from the Sunni orthodox ‘ulama.
According to the Isma‘ilis there is whole ideal system called mathal and here on earth there is a corresponding system called mamthul (representative of the ideal). To understand this it is necessary to know that Allah is a totally transcendent Being who cannot be comprehended by human mind at all. He transcends everything conceivable and is just incomprehensible. He has no attributes whatsoever. He is also not actively involved in creation of the universe. He only created the ‘uqul (intellects made of pure light). The intellects are fine beings made of light. The matter, as opposed to light, is kathif (i.e. heavy and dark) Allah or the Ultimate Being has no role in creation of matter. He is referred to by Saiyyidna Yaqub al-Sijistani as Mubd‘i al-Mubdi‘at (i.e. the Creator of the creators. His role ceased with creation of the ‘Uqul (i.e. the Intellects). Allah created only light, not darkness. One cannot attribute creation of darkness and kathafat (heaviness) to Him.
Matter was created by the tenth Intellect also called ‘ashir-i-mudabbir (i.e. the Tenth Intellect managing the universe). All the matter representing kathafat (heaviness and darkness). Since the Tenth Intellect (‘Ashir-e-Mudabbir) is responsible for creation of matter and this universe it is his responsibility to reconvert this darkness and heaviness into light (nur). The corresponding being on earth to the Tenth Intellect is the Prophet. Thus the Prophet is the mamthul of ‘Ashir-e-Mudabbir on earth. He assists him (i.e. the Tenth Intellect) in transforming the kathafat (darkness and heaviness) into latafat (nur).
The Prophet shows the right path to the people and has been described by the Qur’an as sirajan munirah (i.e. the lighted lamp) for this reason. He transforms the human beings into light (nur). After the Prophet it is the Imam who performs this function. And as there cannot be any Prophet after Muhammad (PBUH), he is succeeded by Imams from the progeny of Fatima, his daughter and ‘Ali, her husband. According to the Isma‘ili beliefs this earth can never remain without Imam, a spiritual guide, an active agent (mamthul of Ashir-e-Mudabbir) on earth. An Isma‘ili da‘i wrote an epistle Ithbat-ul-Imamah to prove this.
Thus Imam on earth is the representative of the Tenth Intellect and hence commands highest respect of the believers. He has all the attributes of the Tenth Intellect and since Allah has no attributes (He transcends all attributes and is beyond them), these attributes apply to the Tenth Intellect. Therefore Imam who is mamthul of the Tenth Intellect on earth also has these attributes on earth. It is this theory of attributes which was misunderstood by the opponents of the Fatimi Imams as the belief in hulul i.e. descent of God into the person of Imam. Dr.Kamil Husain has discussed this in detail in his Muqaddimah (introduction) to the Diwan of Saiyyidna Mua’yyad Shirazi. The person of Imam does not correspond to Allah but to the Tenth Intellect, as pointed out above.
The Isma‘ilis (also referred to as the Fatimids or those following the Fatimi Da‘wah) also believe in the cyclical theory of history. Since it is the duty of the Tenth Intellect to covert total darkness and kathafat in the universe into light in every cycle of history a portion of darkness is reconverted into light and these cycles will continue until entire matter is reconverted into mur (light) and there is no more kathafat in this universe.
In every cycle an Adam is created and the chain of prophethood ends with the last Prophet who is in turn succeeded by imams and lastly, in every cycle there appears what is known as Qa’im al-qiyamah (i.e. one who brings about the Day of Judgement, the Qiyamat). The cycle ends with the Qa’im al-Qiyamah and a definite portion of dark matter is converted into light in that cycle. Thus, according to this theory, these cycles will continue until there is no more matter in this universe and all matter there in is transformed into latafat i.e. light and it is light which will ultimately prevail. This, in short, is the Isma‘ili cyclical theory of history of this universe.
Some of the important books of ta’wil and batini ‘ulum are the Kitab al-Shawahid wa al-Bayan of Saiyyidna Mansur al-Yaman, Ta’wil al-Da‘a’im of Saiyyidna Qadi al-Nu‘man Rahat al-‘Aql by Saiyyidna Hamiduddin Kirmani, Al-Majalis of Saiyyidna Mua’yyad Shirazi etc. These books contain the highest achievements of the Isma‘ili or Fatimi missionaries as far as the knowledge of batin is concerned. We will give some examples of ‘ilm al-ta’wil from these books.
Saiyyidna Qadi al-Nu‘man who compiled the celebrated book of Isma‘ili jurisprudence Al-Da‘a’im al-Islam, also compiled Ta’wil al-Da‘a’im. In this latter work Qadi Nu‘man describes the original meanings of all the elements of shari‘ah and all the related rituals. Qadi N‘uman first emphasises that a true believer has to strike balance between the zahir and batin i.e. what is manifest and what is original intent of the shari‘ah rituals. Qadi Nu’man had to lay this emphasis on the balance between zahir and batin because some extremists among the Isma‘ilis had declared that the shari‘ah is suspended (ta‘til al-shari‘ah) and it is no more necessary to observe the external rituals for those who know ‘ilm al-batin. The Qaramitah, an extremist sect of the Isma‘ilis had ceased to observe the zahiri shari‘ah. The Nizaris later did the same thing.
The Isma‘ilis, as pointed out in an earlier paper, believe in seven pillars of Islam as opposed to other Muslims who believe in five pillars. The two additional pillars are walayah (the love of the family of the Prophet - ahl al-bayt) and taharah (cleanliness). Taharah really means spiritual cleanliness and removal of all spiritual pollutants. The Qadi describes in his Ta’wil al-Da‘a’im the hidden meaning of all the seven da‘a’im, (pillars) one by one.
The very first pillar according to the Isma‘ilis is walayat (love of the family of the Prophet). According to the Qadi each pillar represents one of the great prophets from Adam to Muhammad. Adam represents walayah. Adam was the first prophet whose walayah was made obligatory on the angels and the angels were made to prostrate before him or perform sajdah before him. Sajdah in reality implies obedience. And this is walayah. Adam is the first of all the prophets and his walayah is the walayah of all the succeeding prophets and imams. Those who do not have love of Adam cannot achieve salvation.
The second pillar, according to the Isma‘ili theology, is taharah (i.e. purity). The second prophet Nuh (Noah) represents taharah. Nuh was sent for purification of mankind. Whatever sins were committed during and after Adma’s time Nuh came to purify them and he is one of the great prophets, a prophet with his own shari‘ah. The flood water which is associated with Nuh, symbolises purity as water is needed for purity from dirt and water in batin means ‘ilm (knowledge of ultimate reality) and it is through knowledge that spiritual purity can be attained.
And the third pillar is Salah (i.e. prayer) and Qadi Nu‘man ascribes it to the Prophet Ibrahim. It is he who constructed Baytullah i.e. the House of Allah in Mecca and Allah made this House the Qiblah (i.e. the direction in which the Muslims turn to pray). Hazrat Ibrahim also has great status among the prophets and he is also described as hanif in the holy Qur’an i.e. one who is inclined towards truth.
And it is the prophet Musa who represents zakat. He is the first prophet who is said to have asked Pharaoh (Fir‘aun) to purify himself (tazakka (see the verse 79:16). Musa was the first prophet whom Allah called upon to preach to Fir‘aun purity of self (tazkiyah). Zakat has essentially to do with purification. It is through zakat that one purifies ones wealth by giving away one portion of it to the needy and poor.
The saum (fasting) is related to the prophet Isa (Christ). Saum in ta’wil actually means keeping silent about the batin (i.e. hidden truth of the injunctions of shari‘ah). It was Isa’s mother Mariyam (Mary) who was asked by Allah to say to her people that “I have vowed a fast to the Beneficient, so I will not speak to any man today.” (19:26). Thus it will be seen that in this verse fasting is directly related to keeping silent (about the knowledge of batin)
Similarly haj is related to the last of the prophets Muhammad (PBUH). It is he who first required Muslims to perform haj and expounded all its related manasik (i.e. rituals pertaining to haj). Though the Arabs used to perform haj before Islam but the manasik appointed by Allah in the Qur’an did not exist. Allah says about the pre-Islamic Arabs and their prayer near the Ka‘bah “And their prayer at the House is nothing but whistling and clapping of hands.” (8:35). And the disbelievers used to circumambulate around Ka‘bah in a state of nakedness. It is the holy Prophet who abolished such abominable practice. They had also installed idols all around Ka‘bah whom they used to worship. It is Prophet Muhammad who demolished these idols. He then appointed the rituals for the haj.
And the last of the pillars of Islam is jihad and it is related to the seventh of the chain of imams. The Isma‘ilis (or the Fatimids) give great importance to every seventh imam in the chain of Fatimi imams. The seventh imam is also called natiq (i.e. Speaker). Thus every seventh imam will speak with the permission of Allah about His injunctions and give them a new interpretation through his exertions or through waging war to purify His religion. The Qa’im al-Qiyamah, referred to above, will also be the seventh of the chain of imams and he will be the last of the seventh imams and through him the ummah will be unified on the shari‘ah of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus Prophet Muhammad has merit over all other prophets in the sense that two pillars of Islam - haj and jihad - have been related to him and his progeny.
Saiyyidna Qadi Al-Nu‘man in his Ta’wil al-Da‘a’im lays great stress on ‘ilm (knowledge). ‘Ilm is very fundamental to the Isma‘ili system. ‘Ilm is wazir (minister) to iman (faith). Faith draws sustenance through ‘ilm (knowledge). The Qadi says that ‘ilm applies to both zahir (manifest) and batin (hidden). Thus a mu’min becomes true person of faith through iman and ‘ilm. As the human body can be purified only by water, the soul of a mu’min can be purified only by knowledge. And as amwal (material wealth) cannot be given to undeserving persons or those weak of understanding (sufaha’ see verse 4:5), knowledge also cannot be imparted to those who do not deserve.
Thus one who has been favoured by Allah through knowledge, he should not impart it to undeserving persons. In other words the knowledge of batin can be imparted only to deserving persons whose iman (faith) is strong and unwavering and it will become even more stronger through such knowledge. But if it is imparted to undeserving person, his faith may be weakened and his doubts might increase. Also, one should not be miserly in imparting knowledge of ta’wil to deserving people and he should not be extravagant with the undeserving.
Prayer system (salah) in its essence means establishing the system of da‘wah. Wherever the Qur’an speaks of salah it does not say ‘read prayer’ but says ‘establish prayer’ (aqim al-salah) which in fact means establish the da‘wah headed by the imam who is, after the Prophet, the highest representative of the community of the faithfuls. As one is required to come to prayers at appropriate time, one is required to devote ones energy is establishing the da‘wah (mission) at suitable times and make all possible efforts for it. As the soul enriches itself through prayers, a faithful enriches one self by his/her efforts to establish the mission for the faithfuls.
In short these are some of the prominent features of the Isma‘ili ta’wil. In this brief essay we cannot do full justice to it. But an attempt has been made here to throw light on its essential features. The Fatimi Da‘is have written hundreds of books on this subject which are available to the scholars. This essay can only initiate those interested into the subject.
ON METHODOLOGY OF UNDERSTANDING QUR’AN
Asghar Ali Engineer
(Islam and Modern Age, May, 2001)
The Qur’an is a revealed scripture of religion of Islam and one of the greatest revealed scriptures. It is in Arabic language and according to the Qur’an itself it is in language easily understandable. Thus the Qur’an says, “ And certainly We have made the Qur’an easy to remember, but is there anyone who will mind?” (54:17). But the Qur’an is easy to understand and also difficult to comprehend in places. The Qur’an itself says, “he it is Who has revealed the Book to thee; some of its verses are decisive (muhkamatun) – they are the basis of the book – and others are allegorical. Then those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part of it which is allegorical (mutashabihat), seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. And none knows its interpretation save Allah, and those firmly rooted in knowledge. They say (those firmly rooted in knowledge) it is all from our Lord. And none mind except men of reason and understanding.” (3:6)
Thus it is clear from above verse of the Holy Qur’an that there are passages which are allegorical and liable to different interpretation. Its true interpretation is known either to Allah or to those who are firmly rooted in knowledge and who believe in revelation from the core of their heart. However, there are those who do not believe in revelation sincerely and uses such allegorical verses for misleading others and for spreading confusion. It is those people who are perverse.
The great revealed book like the Qur’an cannot be without allegorical verses as it deals with complex situations, metaphysical questions, nature of creator and creations and other unknown and unseen realities. In such situations it is very difficult to do without allegories but these allegorical verses too, are pregnant with meaning but also, as the Qur’an says, liable to be misinterpreted by those whose hearts are not straight and who mean mischief. But also, there are those who are not only very sincere in belief but also people of knowledge – al-rasikhun fi’ al-‘ilm who, because of their firm faith in the Book and their depth of knowledge, understand the real import of these verses and explain it to others.
But, despite the firm faith and depth of knowledge al-rasikhun fi’ al-‘ilm are likely to differ with each other in understanding these verses because of differing socio-cultural background on one hand, and, because of differing circumstances and changing social scene and ever going on developments. These could be sincere differences in interpretation. The Qur’an denounces only those who intend to use allegorical verses for misleading others and for spreading confusion.
For revealed books like the Qur’an (or other scriptures too) it is necessary to start with to have faith – what the Qur’an calls iman bi’ al-ghayb. But – and it is also important to note – the Qur’an does not demand blind faith. It speaks of ‘reasoned faith’ which satisfies the people of understanding – u’lil albab. Literally u’lil albab means people of essence and since reason is essence of mind, people of reason are called u’lil albab. Thus Qur’an does not demand from us to accept something just because it is revealed but also because it satisfies human reason. Human reason is also creation of Allah and revelation is also from Him. Some might object that how revelation could be judged by human reason? Apparently this seems to be a valid objection. But little reflection will show that it is not so. Gold is always tested by touchstone but it is no body’s case that touchstone is more important than gold. Without touchstone we cannot make sure that gold is genuine. Similar is the relationship between reason and revelation. Revelation is very important for human guidance from Allah yet human beings must satisfy themselves before accepting the revelation that it is genuine.
The relationship between reason and revelation is, however, little more complex than it appears to us. As gold has its inner worth and its inner worth can be appreciated by only those who have to only understanding but also inner senses to appreciate its inner worth without which it is nothing more than a yellow metal. Similarly, the revealed knowledge also has inner worth which can be appreciated by only those who not only have sensory perceptions but also heart and soul to appreciate its worth. The Qur’an repeatedly refers to this fact.
There are people who have eyes to see and ears to hear but still cannot appreciate the worth of revealed knowledge. In other words mere sensory perceptions, though extremely important in their own way, are not sufficient for judging the worth of revelation. The Qur’an describes them as summun, bukmun, ‘umyun (2:18) i.e. deaf, dumb and blind who return not (to the truth, to the guidance). Thus sense perceptions are necessary but not sufficient for appreciation of true guidance (from Allah). It needs real appreciation from one’s heart and soul. However, the relationship between revelation and its proper appreciation on one hand, and that between revelation and reason, on the other, is so delicate that ordinarily one can be easily deceived by those who mislead people for their own vested interests.
Thus appreciation of true revelation is not possible by ignorant and those without the faculty of intellect. The Qur’an thus lays stress on both reason and revelation and also it says that real interpretation of those verses which are allegorical is possible only by al-rasikhun fi’ al-‘ilm (those firmly rooted in knowledge). Thus knowledge and learning is of utmost importance for proper appreciation of the revelation.
It is also important to note that the Qur’an, though contained highest body of knowledge, was initially addressing those who were either illiterate (either Bedouins of desert or those of town like Mecca though rich and experienced yet intellectually far from accomplished or those who had recently migrated from desert for a settled life in urban areas) or semi-literate but experienced in financial matters. And initially main respondents to the Qur’anic message were mostly poor and illiterates. Thus its message had to be in a language which could be easily understood by these poor and illiterate people both of urban as well as desert areas. And hence the Qur’an says, “And certainly We have made the Qur’an easy to remember” (54:17)
But the Qur’an was not dealing with a static situation; it was dealing with dynamic and changing society which would need knowledge to deal with very complex situations. Hence allegorical verses pregnant with meaning were also needed and such verses could be dealt with only by those who had adequate knowledge and intellectual sophistication and accomplishments. Thus, though the Qur’an was dealing with very simplistic people it was not confining itself only to them. Its guidance had to transcend that situation.
In developing methodology of understanding the Qur’an it is very necessary to understand that a revealed scripture does not only deal with what is given but has to cater to what is to come. A religion (deen) is always spiritually transcendent i.e. going beyond the given situation. The vested interests oppose it precisely because it subverts the status quo. Wherever there are vested interests there are in built injustices what we call in modern politico-economic terminology structural injustices. A revealed scripture like the Qur’an has to address itself to these structural injustices and hence faces stiff opposition from the vested interests.
The pre-Islamic society in Mecca was controlled by rich traders on one hand, and, by priests (kahins) who were in collusion with these traders, on the other. While the rich traders were exploiting the poor of the Mecca and suppressing them by various means including through their illiteracy and superstitions. The kahins of Ka`aba were quite helpful in spreading superstitious beliefs and hence their collusion with rich and powerful tribal chiefs. The Qur’an addressed itself to correcting this ignoble state of affairs. This would not have been possible without spiritual renewal and without demolishing the bastion of tribal power – superstitions and social divisiveness perpetrated through various means one of which was idolatry (each tribe worshipping its own idol and developing set of superstitious beliefs around it).
The spiritual renewal was possible only through attacking ignorance, illiteracy, superstitions, divisiveness and socio-economic injustices. The Qur’an stressed belief in unity of God (tawhid) and thus demolished in one stroke tribal divisiveness. Thus tawhid, if followed in its true spirit, could accomplish many goals at a time – religious as well as social. It was through the concept of and belief in tawhid that all superstitions woven around tribal idols were demolished. It was the concept of tawhid that dealt a fatal blow to divisiveness in the society and brought about a strong sense of unity of all human beings as creatures of one God. Thus the concept of tawhid had great social potentialities which began to unfold themselves once people embraced it.
To empower weaker sections of society was also a very important task without which neither injustices could be removed from social structure nor the goal of social and spiritual renewal could be achieved. And to empower the weaker sections of society and also for their spiritual renewal imparting knowledge was highly necessary and hence the very first revealed verse of the Qur’an begins with the word iqra’ (i.e. recite, read or in other words acquire knowledge). All sociologists know that knowledge is power and it is knowledge, which empowers the weaker sections of the society. The vested interests exploit the weak through their ignorance. It is only through knowledge that they can be empowered. And through knowledge they will be liberated from oppression and exploitation and it is through knowledge that their spiritual renewal will be possible and it is knowledge that will liberate them from superstitions.
Thus the two major themes of the Qur’an, apart from others, are tawheed and ‘ilm (i.e. Unity of God and knowledge). Both these were powerful weapons to unite people and to liberate them from superstitions and oppression. No wonder than that the weaker sections of society and the youth who are eager for change responded to the message of Islam most enthusiastically.
The liberation from all sorts of exploitation and oppression being a major theme of the Qur’an, women’s liberation also became a priority for the Qur’an. Women were among the most oppressed sections of society in the pre-Islamic era. The burial of girl child was most symbolic of this oppression against women. The Qur’an denounces this practice in no uncertain terms. Those who bury the girl child alive will be questioned on the day of judgement. “And when one buried alive is asked? For what sin she was killed?” (81:9) Unfortunately the practice is till there in many parts of the world including certain parts of India.
Women were given same status as men in every respect. If anyone has doubt let him refer to the verse 33:35. Yes, it is true there is also the verse 4:34 which is often quoted by the orthodox as pronouncement of inferiority of women. It is in respect of such verses that the question of methodology of understanding the Qur’an arises. The Qur’an is committed to create a new ethics, a new liberated society transcending the given situation. The Qur’an describes the given situation as well as guides the faithful as to what ought to be. While the verse 4:34 is the narrative of what is in the society 33:35 is about what ought to be. It is unfortunate that the Muslim world by and large has not understood the significance of the verse 4:34.
The situation in the Muslim world reflects status quo rather than the liberative pronouncements of the Qur’an. Women do not enjoy the status the Qur’an has given them in Muslim society today. However, the status quo is also justified by quoting verses like 4:34 instead of verses like 33:35 which represents the transcendent spirit of the Qur’an. But men which include most of the eminent theologians of the Muslim world were unwilling to concede this transcendent status to women and hence they stuck to the status quo in society. Even during the holy Prophet’s time we find companions of the Prophet debating the issue of status of women.
The other proof that the Qur’an treats men and women equally is that it makes it obligatory of both to enforce what is good and prevent what is evil. It is not only men who are charged with this important task but all faithfuls, including women, are required to fulfil this obligation. It is only through fulfilment of this obligation that a society can be completely transformed and women are equally responsible for this transformative project. It is on this basis that eminent jurist like Imam Abu Hanifa opined that a woman can also become qadi.
The Qur’an also describes men and women as each other’s friends. Thus the Qur’an says, “And the believers, men ad women, are friends (awliya`) one of another. They enjoin good and forbid evil and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, and obey Allah and His Messenger. As for these Allah will have mercy on them. One can easily see in this verse that both men and women have been given equal status and equal obligations and both will be equally be entitled to Allah’s mercy, if they fulfil their obligation and obey Allah and His Messenger. This verse is transformative in nature and is not mere narrative of what exists in the society. In evolving methodology of understanding the Qur’an such verses play very important role.
The Qur’an, in its all-normative pronouncements gives equal status to men and women. It is important to note that the Qur’an does not refer anywhere to creation of Eve (Hawwa) from the rib of the Adam, thus making her secondary to man. According to the Qur’an both man and woman have been created from nafsin wahidatin i.e. from one soul. Thus the Qur’an says, “O people, keep your duty to your Sustainer, Who created you from a single being and created its mate of the same (kind), and spread from these two many men and women. (emphasis added) (4:1)
This is quite an important pronouncement for equality of both the sexes. Both have been created from one nafs (soul, being, entity) and both are each others mates. It is important to note that the word for wife and husband in the Qur’an is zawja and zawj i.e. one of the couple which again is indicative of compete equality. There is no concept of husbanding in the Qur’an. Husband is zawj and wife is zawja, the faminine gender of zawj. There is no question of lording or husbanding over ones own mate. However, unfortunately the Muslims never adopted this culture of sexual equality. They relied more on hadith of doubtful authenticity rather than on clear and normative pronouncements of the holy Qur’an.
One cannot understand the real spirit of the Qur’an unless one understands its transformative spirit. It subverts the given and provides guidelines for what ought to be. It is precisely for this reason that the Qur’an, which is the main source of Islamic ethics lays so much emphasis on justice. Justice is very central to the Qur’anic ethics. Plato and his disciple are unable to reach any consensus on the exact concept of justice. In their society it was the concept of ‘might is right’ that seemed to work. But the Qur’anic concept of justice is just the opposite of this. The Qur’an maintains that justice be done even if it favours ones enemy or goes against ones closest relatives or against ones own self.
Thus the Qur’an uses two words for justice ‘adl and qist both implying balance in the system which is possible through justice. There are several verses in the Qur’an referring to justice. One is imperative: i`idalu (do justice it is closest to being pious,5:8). In another verse, also imperative, says, “Surely Allah enjoins justice and the doing of good (to others)…” (16:90). Yet another verse says, “O you who believe, be maintainers of justice, bearers of witness for Allah, even though it be against your own selves or (your) parents or near relatives – whether he be rich or poor, Allah has a better right over them both. So follow not (your) low desires, lest you deviate. And if you distort or turn away from (truth), surely Allah is ever aware what you do.” (4:135)
From these verses one can easily see how important it is to be just. It is very central to the Qur’anic ethics. However, the society is full of injustices of all kinds, be they distributive injustices or in the form of oppression and exploitation of the weak. Such social system as based on injustices cannot become stable. Oppression and exploitation or concentration of power in few hands will always lead to instability and conflict and conflict leads to violence. Such an unstable system generating causes for conflict is un-Qur’anic and un-Islamic. Justice is possible only when there is inner integrity of character and fearlessness. This fearlessness, in turn is possible only when one does not benefit from the status quo. All of us wink at injustices simply because we benefit from the established order.
Thus the Qur’an lays emphasis on the concept of i’man which, if one goes to the root meaning of the word, implies a feeling of inner security, inner contentedness. This inner contentedness and inner peace is possible if there is only fear of Allah and not fear of any worldly potentate. Worldly rulers are often oppressive, perpetrate injustices and hence are responsible for violence. Islam, which means establishment of peace, desires a social system free of violence by removing all forms of injustices from the world. Thus the Qur’an is basically subversive of all those systems based on injustice, exploitation and violence.
One who has faith in Qur’an can never tolerate any system which perpetrates injustices with the weaker sections of society. But the powerful vested interests resist such attempts to establish a just society with all their might and the result is violence. Thus when the Prophet of Islam and his companions tried to establish a just system and the unbelievers of
Thus there is always tension in the society between those wanting to transform the society and those supporting the status quo. Transformation can hardly be peaceful. But it does not mean that violence is justified on the part of the oppressed. It is the oppressors who use violence. The Qur’an justifies violence only if it is defensive, not offensive. Jihad is nothing more than sincere efforts to promote good and banish evil, not to wage war for transformation. The concept of jihad is being grossly misused by some Muslims. In fact by using the slogan of jihad these Muslims are generating powerful resources to build powerful establishment – something totally anti-jihadic in spirit. Such cry for jihad is itself supportive of status quo. Real jihad is to establish a social system based on justice and free of all forms of exploitation.
Thus without developing such a methodology for understanding the Qur’an it will never be possible to practice Islamic ethics and morality. The Qur’an was revealed to the Messenger of Allah to subvert all those establishments based on exploitation and injustice and to establish a system humane, compassionate and sensitive to all forms of sufferings of humanity.
Unfortunately the powerful vested interests in the Muslim world are suing the Qur’an for reinforcing their own oppressive establishments through misinterpretations against which the Qur’an has clearly warned. Mutashabihati are overriding muhkamat. We must go back to muhkamat
Muhammad (PBUH) as Liberator
Asghar Ali Engineer
(Islam and Modern Age, July, 2000)
hy liberation and from what? are important questions to be answered before we get on about Muhammad (PBUH), the Prophet, (peace be upon him) and his liberation movement.
For any liberation movement the existing social situation, social, political, religious, cultural or economic, is extremely important. Any liberation movement actually takes off from this situations. It is therefore, necessary to take of the socio-cultural and politico-economic situation existing before the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) appears on the social scene of Mecca. Then and only then we can understand
the significance of Muhammad (PBUH) as liberator.
First, let us take the social scene on the eve of Prophet’s appearance on the social scene of Mecca. Illiteracy was widespread. It is thought by the noted historian Tabari and others that there were hardly 17 persons who were literate at the time. The Arabs, in fact, considered it a waste of time to learn to read and write and even took pride in their being ‘illiterate’, they were extremely fond of poetry which was something to be recited and heard, not written, no other genre had developed, except poetry in Arabic literature of the time. It was said of Arabic language that it was sacred to the ears, not to the eyes. Written prose was almost unknown. Arabic was mere a spoken language.
It was not for nothing that the period before Islam was called a period of Jahilliah (i.e. ignorance). It was not mere illiteracy which mattered most. The social outlook was very narrow. In fact they hardly ever saw beyond there own tribe. Their code of conduct too was limited to unwritten tribal customs. There was no written laws. The Arabs at the same time took great pride in their ancestry. If the tribal pride was hurt it would result in prolonged bloodshed, at times lasting over generations.
The religious scene was even worse. Each tribe had its own idol. Historians tell us there were more than 360 idols in K’aba, the holy abode of God. Tribal gods brought about even sharper divisions. There was no concept of humanity beyond ones tribe. The whole existence of an Arab was circumscribed by tribal limits. Superstitions were a great religious force. These superstitions have been referred to in the Quran and condemned. There was no attempt whatsoever to widen the frontier of knowledge. Their whole life was governed by superstition.
The position of women was very unenviable. Though there was no practice of veil like feudal society, they were socially and economically unfree. They could not play independent role in social, economic or political affairs. Their marital status was even worse. They had to live, at times, with more than a dozen co-wives. Also, they were considered a burden and in many cases an attempt was made to bury them alive to which the Quran also refers in a verses (And when the one buried alive is asked. For what sin was she killed, 81: 8-9).
Economic scene as no less depressing. The social woes of the weaker sections were indescribable. Tribal structure was collapsing (in economic sense) and a commercial oligarchy was coming into being. This oligarchy was motivated by material greed and was blatantly disregarding even tribal obligations. As a result the orphans, the widows and the needy (miskin) greatly suffered. Also, there was innumerable slaves and slave girls. They were condemned to work without any reward. The slave girls were compelled to co-habit with there masters. These slaves existed on the periphery of the society. They had no human dignity.
Also, among the free there were many who had been completely marginalised. They were condemned to provide cheap labour. The commercial caravans passed through Mecca. The camels carrying commercial goods had to be loaded and unloaded. This cheap labour was provided by the poor and the needy, those existing on the margin of the society. Neither they could protest of unionised. Such a concept did not exist at that time. The artisans too were condemned to struggle for bare existence. They included tanners, smiths, carpenters and others. The neo-rich, on the other hand led life of luxury.
Politically the situation was less dismal. Arabs were fiercely independent people and jealously guarded their independence. No attempt to subjugate them ever succeeded whether at the hands of Romans or the Sassanids. They thus lived independently in Arabian peninsula. However, as pointed out earlier, there was no unity among the Arabs divided as they were among various tribes fiercely fighting against each other. Moreover, there was no concept of unity beyond ones own tribe. Such a unity was considered blasphemous, to say at least. Only few tribes in Mecca tried to form inter-tribal corporations for commercial purposes. The commercial caravans were oftenly owned by individuals belonging to different tribes.
Muhammad (PBUH) appears on the social scene on Mecca in such despicable conditions. He had no schooling as neither was encouraged (as pointed out earlier) nor it had any functional value (except for commercial contracts, a need which was newly emergent and was met with the help of a few literates in Mecca). He was orphaned at an early age, led life of penury and was steeled through struggles of life. He married a rich widow at the age of 25 and began to lead a life of a recluse in the cave of Hira where he spent time brooding over the social, religious, political and economic situation around him. He than literally burst over the Meccan scene at the age of 40 to liberate his people as well as the whole humanity.
Liberate from what? whom? and why?. Liberation from ignorance, superstition, oppression, slavery and injustice. Liberation to give dignity and freedom of thought and action. These are the noble ideals which not only provide inspiration to live but also encourage creativity and purposeful action. Also, Muhammad worked for the liberation of the oppressed, the poor and the needy and the ignorant. He was, in this project of liberation, not only a teacher and philosopher, but also an activist, participant and fighter. Under his inspiration the Arabs not only liberated themselves but also sought to liberate others by shattering the two greatest oppressive empires of the world then i.e. the Roman and thee Sassaniid. Their stormy victories were ensured as they were scene by the oppressed of these mighty empires as liberators.
We would now discuss the liberative elements and liberative aspects of Muhammad (PBUH) the Prophet’s teachings and actions.
For any liberative praxis knowledge is a must. In fact it is knowledge which provides perspective for liberation and for liberative actions. It is thus not for nothing that the very first revelation (see chapter 96 THE CLOT) came with the word igra i.e.read. The following verses in the chapter also lay stress on acquiring ilm (i.e. knowledge). The verses run as follows: "Read in the name of thy Lord who creates (the implications being one should study and acquire knowledge of creation). creates man from a clot, Read, thy Lord is most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of pen, taught man what he did not know."
It is important to note here that there was no concept even of pen among the Arabs, literacy being very rare. Here the Quran stresses the use of pen as it is through pen that knowledge is transmitted from one place to another and from one generation to the other, thus revelation to the Prophet began with stress on knowledge and its transmission to others. Elsewhere the Quran also likens to knowledge to nur (light). Thus Allah led the Arabs (as they were the immediate people around the Prophet then) from darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge. One can understand what liberative effect this acquisition of knowledge must have had on the minds of the Arabs. The Prophet further reinforced this by his making acquisition of knowledge obligatory (faridat) for both men as well as women. The Prophet also induced his followers to acquire knowledge even if it be in China (Sin).
Undoubtedly these exhortations by the holy and the Prophet had great liberative effect on the Arabs and his other followers. The Arabs who had nothing but abhorrence for knowledge became masters of learning within a century. During the Abbasid period the Arabs and the other Muslims acquired the entire treasure of Break knowledge so much so that they were referred to as its foster father. Not only this they produced great philosophers like Avicena and Avveros and several other philosophers, masters of medicine, chemists, geographers, physicists and mathematicians to whom even the west is indebted. The Muslims could have hardly achieved this excellence in knowledge but for the exhortations of the Quran and the Prophet. The Arabs thus were completely liberated from ignorance.
Liberation from ignorance had deeper consequences in other areas. The Arabs, as pointed out earlier, were greatly constrained by tribal outlook. This outlook was completely shattered by the Quranic teaching that entire human kind has originated from the same man and women and no one has any distinction over the other on the basis of tribe, nation, race or colour. These divisions only serve the purpose of identification. The most honoured is one who is most just and most pious. The Quranic verse runs thus, " o humankind! we have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might recognise one another, verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is one who is most righteous (and just)."
This was most revolutionary concept not only for the Arabs for entire human race. The barriers of colour and race are powerful even today so much so that the UNO had to stress equality of all irrespective of caste, creed and colour in its charter of human rights which is considered most liberative and rightly so. But the Quranic charter anticipated this by several centuries. The Prophet demonstrated this by elevating an emancipated Negro slave Bilal to the status of his muazzin (i.e. caller to the prayer) , an honour converted by many free men among the Arabs. It is after him that some black Muslims in this states have formed a Bilalian society. By elevating a freed Negro slave to this status the Prophet clearly demonstrated human dignity is above all, colour as well as social status. There can’t be more liberative act than this.
The Prophet also fought against superstitions and supernatural beliefs. He refused to perform miracle. He projected himself not as a supernatural being but as a human like any one else. The Quran was very categorical about it. The Quran ridicules any demand for miracles. In chapter 17 there are several verses to this effect (see verses from 90 to 95). The unbelievers demanded miracles like causing a spring to qush forth from earth, or to create garden of palms and grapes among which riverse to flow forth abundantly, or cause heaven to come down upon us in pieces or bring Allah and the angels face to face or you create for yourself a house of gold or thou ascend into heaven and so on. Allah wants people to accept the guidance as it comes to them through the Prophet. Had there been angels living on earth we would have sent down an angel for guidance. Among human beings only a human being would be sent as Prophet. Thus the Quran rejected the demand of unbelievers to perform miracles. The only miracle was the Quran itself.
The Quran’s style was simple, fluent and powerful. It was the first example of a powerful purposeful prose. It’s diction was urban and classical. It’s style and power simply astounded the Arabs who were so proud of their inimitable style and diction. They could not rival its style despite repeated challenge. Still they continue to deny the truth of its message.
A revolutionary, radical and liberative movement stresses reason as reason teaches one to question and critically examine. The Quran revealed to Muhammad (PBUH) lays stress on reason, not on mystery or miracles. The Quran repeatedly calls upon the people to think and addresses them as u’ l ’ il alb b which means of reason. Lubb in Arabic means an essence of a thing and reason is considered as essence of humanity and thus by inference lubb is used for reason, its plural being albab
Also, those who follow ancestral tradition and do not change are called a’ am (blind) and those who think as bas r (i.e. one who can see). It goes on to say, "Say (o Muhammad (PBUH)): I say not to you, I have with me the treasures of Allah, nor do I know the unseen, nor do I say to you that I am an angel; I follow only that which is revealed to me . Say: Are the blind and the seeing alike? do you not them reflect." (6:50)
In this verse once again Muhammad (PBUH) is asked to deny all supernatural powers and preference is given to one who sees and reflects. Thus appeal is to reason, not to tradition. In another verse the Quran says; "Does one of you like to have a garden of palms and vines with streams following in it - he has therein all kinds of fruits - and old age has over taken him and he has weak offspring; when (lo!) a whirlwind with fire in it smites it so it becomes blasted. Thus Allah makes the signs clear to you that you may think." (2: 266)
Here a very earthly example has been given which is often experienced and there is nothing supernatural or superstitious about it and then thee Quran invites us to think and reflect on it. Nowhere the Quran requires us to accept anything blindly, Signs are made clear and then we are urged upon to think over it. Islam was a revolutionary movement which wanted to liberate people from shackles of tradition and irrational conventions perpetrated through ages. Hence it invites its addresses again to reflect and think, not to follow blindly. It had liberative affect on thousands of the Prophet’s followers.
Muhammad(PBUH) was basically engaged in liberating the weaker sections of the society, both those who were sexually weaker and economically weaker. Women, as pointed out earlier, suffered great disabilities in Arabia in particular and in the whole world in general. Muhammad(PBUH), announced through the Quran a charter of rights for women. Quran for the first time gave them rights, never conceded them before in any legal code. Women’s individual existence as a legal entity was accepted without any qualification for the first time. As far as the Quran was concerned she could contract marriage (without any marriage guardian), could divorce her husband without any condition, inherit her father, mother and other relatives, could own property in her own absolute right (neither her father nor her brother or husband could temper with it or deprive her of it), could have custody of her children (upto certain age after which children would exercise their option) and could take her own free decisions.
It is also laid down in the Quran that her male relatives cannot coerce her in anyway even in matters of marriage. No legal charter before Islam gave these rights to women. In Europe women could not even own property in their own right even upto late nineteenth century. In fact the Quran announced in clear words that in her rights and obligations she is equal to man (see the Quran 2: 228). It was nothing short of revolution for her. For the first time in history she was given legal status equal that of man and she was liberated from the clutches of male domination.
The only stigma she can be said to have suffered was permission given to man to marry more than one wife (upto four). This no doubt detracts from her status of equality with man. However, one has to take a historical view of the matter. The Arabs married any number of wives; Islam restricted it to four. Earlier multiple marriages were just for the sake of pleasures and without any reason. Islam put strict conditions. The marriages were not to be allowed just for pleasure. It was permitted strictly in case of orphans and widows, to take care of such unprotected women (both the Quranic verses on polygamy are with reference to the orphans and widows and their properties. Also, the Quran lays down a strict condition of equal treatment in all matters including in the matter of love. Thus the Quran says, "And if you fear that you cannot do justice to orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, or three, or four, but if you fear that you will not do justice, then (marry) only one or that which your right hands posses." (4:3)
Thus it would be seen that it is not a general license to marry more than one wife for pleasure. Also, it was historical necessity. It is no more necessary. As it militates against more cardinal principle of justice, there would be nothing un-Islamic to either ban it or severely restrict it and permit only in exceptional cases. Many Islamic countries have done it. Also there is no concept of purdah (veil) in Quran. Quran had only prescribed pulling down a bit the head gear in order to discriminate free women from slave-girls as unbelievers used to tease Muslims women and when caught used to get away by saying "we thought she was a slave-girl". The Quran no here requires women to cover their faces or hide themselves.
These mild disabilities on women should also be seen in sociological context. If the society, or sociological context changes these disabilities should no longer be imposed. It is important to note that the Quran first accepts the concepts of freedom and individual dignity of women and then, in view of the historical and sociological context. proceeds to impose these mild disabilities referred to above. Basic principle of freedom and individual dignity is more important then the sociological disabilities. The earlier concept would have precedence over the later as it is fundamental, not contingent.
The Quran lays great emphasis on distributive justice. It is totally against accumulation and hoarding of wealth. It condemns accumulated wealth as strongly as possible. It also exhorts the people to spend to take care of orphans, widows, needy and the poor.
It does not want the wealth to circulate only among the rich (59:7). Also, it warns the people that wealth should not be counted again and again nor one should think it can give eternal life. One who accumulates and counts again and will certainly be hurled into crushing disaster and what is this crushing disaster? It is hell fire, which rises over the heart (see chapter 104). Again in chapter 9, verse 34 it gives severe warning to those who accumulate wealth and do not spend it in the way of Allah. The Quran also exhorts the believers to spend whatever is surplus (after fulfilling basic needs) (2:219).
The practice of usury in Mecca was back-breaking and a great many people were in debtrap. The Quran strongly denounced usury and warned those who perpetrates it to be prepared for a war with Allah and His Messenger (see verses 275 to 278 in chapter 2 and verse 39 of chapter 30). Many scholars strongly feel that riba means not only usury but exploitation in general and include exploitative profit.
The Prophet also disapproved of share-cropping (mukhabira, muhaqila) which again is an exploitative practice. He also banned speculation in every form to prevent exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich and powerful. For example, he banned buying of unripened standing crop as it often results in exploitation of the needy peasant. He approved of only legitimate margin of profit (as a reward for ones work and entrepreneurship) and strongly disapproves of hoarding, black-marketing etc. he not only permits hungry to snatch food from one who has excess of it but also declares him a martyr if he dies in the process of procuring it.
Also, the Quran strongly denounces zulm (injustice, oppression) and permits the oppressed to fight against oppression. It says, "And what reason have you not to fight in the way of Allah, and of the weak among the men and the women and the children, who say: Our Lord, take us out of this town, whose people are oppressors, and grant us from Thee a friend, and grant us from Thee a helper." (4:75). Thus one who fights for the weak is the helper and freund of the Lord. the Quran not only includes believers to fight for the weak and oppressed, but promises that the oppressed would lead and inherit this earth (28:5).
Thus it would be seen that the Quran is a charter of liberation for the oppressed. Islam exercises its option for the poor and the oppressed and has no kind words for mutrifun (i.e. those live in luxury). When we wish to destroy a town, The Quran says, we induce its rich to transgress all limits and we destroy that town with utter destruction (17:16). Thus it is clear that when the rich become insensitive to the sufferings of the poor and needy the whole social structure becomes topsy-turvy and is ultimately destroyed at the hands of the revolution.
Attitude Towards other Religions
Openness, tolerance and respect for other religions is another important liberative element. The Quran makes it clear there is no compulsion in religion (2:256) and that for you is your religion, for me is my religion (109:6). Quran also exhorts Muslims not to abuse those who call upon besides Allah lest they abuse Allah through ignorance (6:1090. Also, Quran teaches that a believer should show equal respect to all the prophets) They all believe in Allah and his angels and His books and His messengers. We make no distinctions (4:150-51).
That is why a Muslim shows equal respect to all the Prophets right upto Muhammad whether named or not in the Quran. The Quran also declares unequivocally that paradise is not that the monopoly of any religious group. whosoever submits himself entirely to Allah and he is a doer of good (muhsin), he has his reward from his Lord (2:112).
Thus the Quran did not condemn any religion as false but stressed that the priests have corrupted the teachings for their own interest. All the prophets had brought Allah’s message. Quran never preached disrespect, let alone hatred or violence against any religion.
However, within three decades after the death of the Prophet, Islam lost its liberative and democratic character and became part of monarchical establishment under the Umayyads. Prophet had gathered the poor, the oppressed and the slaves around him and never hesitated to suffer alongwith them. Now the Umayyad emperors gathered powerful tyrants and oppressors around them and ruthlessly suppressed all those who challenged their oppressive rule. Number of slaves multiplied, women subjugated and confined to harems, female slaves sexually abused, non-Arabs discriminated against and liberative teachings of Islam replaced by fatalistic outlook. Dogma of Jabr (determinism fatalism) was actively propagated and that of gadr (freedom to act) was suppressed. After development of monarchy feudal values became supreme. Power hierarchy developed, socio-political equality was lost and equality confined only to the lines of prayers in the mosque, women came to be completely subjugated and their social status was very much eroded and Arab domination established firmly.
It was steep decline down and Islam lost all its liberative thrust (except in dissident movements and rebellions) and could never recapture its earlier spirit when Muhammad (peace be upon him) preached and practiced.
ON DEVELOPING THEOLOGY OF PEACE IN ISLAM
Asghar Ali Engineer
(Islam and Modern Age, October, 2001)
Islam is being associated with violence and jihad in the minds of not only non-Muslims but also of many Muslims. The slogans of jihad are being raised by frustrated youth unable to find any other way and also by those who are fighting for national liberation and regional autonomy. Such slogans create strong images of holy war being ordained by Islam and Islam being religion of violence. And now what has happened in New York on 11th September 2001 and in Pentagon i.e. attacks on World Trade Centre with the help of hijacked planes will greatly strengthen this stereotype in the minds of people of the world in general and in the minds of Americans, in particular. The attack on WTC in New York and Pentagon in Washington is, to say the least, horrific and must be condemned in strongest possible and unambiguous terms.
It should be remembered that there is no relation between religion and violence, neither in Islam, nor in any religion for that matter. Violence is a social and political phenomenon. It is true that there is mention of war in scriptures like Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Qura’n. But this mention is not to establish any integral link between religion and violence but to portray certain social and political situation that prevailed at that time. It can be called integral only if these scriptures mandate violence as a desirable solution.
It is important to distinguish between what is empirical and ideological. The Twain do not always meet. While violence is empirical, peace is ideological. All scriptures, particularly the Qur’an while permitting violence in some inevitable situations, ordain peace as a norm. The great religions of the world came to establish justice and peace, not to perpetrate revenge and violence. Revenge and violence can never become part of any religion, much less that of Islam. Allah has created both in human beings – tendency for aggression and violence and exalted feeling for serenity of peace. Allah, according to the Qur’an, created human person in the best of mould (ahsan-i-taqwim) and then rendered him lowest of the low (95:4-5)
In fact it is this dynamics of human personality i.e. being created in the best of the mould and then being reduced to the lowest of the low that we have to understand the dynamics of peace and violence also. Allah desires peace and created us, for that purpose, in the best of the mould but our greed, greed for both wealth and power reduced us to an instrument of aggression and violence. For a human being there will always be an internal jihad, an internal struggle to rise to the level of ahsan-i-taqwim (best of the mould) and continuously resist the temptations of wealth and power.
The Qur’an strengthens the social roots of peace by emphasising the role of need based economy and resolutely opposing greed based one. The roots of violence, as pointed out above, lie in human greed. Thus we find in the Qur’an, “They ask thee what should we spend. Say what is surplus.” (2:219) It is obvious from this verse that you spend on yourself according to your personal needs and give away the surplus with you to other needy people. Similarly the Qur’an prescribes in yet another context that the wealth should not circulate among the rich only. (59:7). And it also exhorts Muslims that those who hoard gold and silver and do not give them away in the way of Allah announce to them the painful chastisement.(9:34)
Thus the Qur’an wants to establish peace not superficially by exhorting the believers to love peace but tries to tackle the very socio-economic roots of conflict. If few people or countries grab largest part of the resources of the world and live in all comfort and deny other people even their basic needs violence and conflict will result whatever the pleadings for peace. Or, if some people commit aggression unjustifiable against others to keep their own dominance and deny others their very basic rights, it will be impossible to maintain peace is such unjust political order.
The Qur’an draws our attention to such a situation also as the Prophet and his followers were persecuted by the powerful and the rich chiefs of Mecca to maintain their own hegemony and were forced to flee from that town which was rightfully theirs. It is such persecution by the powerful, in order to maintain their hegemony that violence results. The Qur'an is opposed to an unjust order and domination by few powerful whom it calls mustakbirun (i.e. arrogant and powerful). They persecute the weak (mustad`ifun). If such an unjust order persists violence will result, however undesirable it may be.
Allah thus says in the Qur’an, “And what reason have you not to fight in the way of Allah, and of the weak (mustad`ifin) among the men and the women and the children, who say: Our Lord, take us out of the town, whose people are oppressors, and grant us from Thee a friend and grant us from Thee a helper.” This verse in the Qur’an combines both what is empirical and what is ideological. The weak when oppressed are more likely to fight and resist an unjust order. This is empirical. But the above verse also makes an ideological statement when it says that the weak among men, women and children pray that our Lord take us out of this town (Mecca) whose people are oppressors and grant us from Thee a friend and a helper. Thus the Qur’an makes it clear that one must not live in an unjust order and seek helper from Allah to relive them of injustice.
It is also important that the Qur’an more then once focuses our attention on the on going conflict between mustakbirun and mustad`ifun i.e. between the arrogant and powerful and the weak and the oppressed. The arrogant and powerful is represented by Nimrod and Pharoa and the weak and oppressed by Abraham and Moses. Both Abraham and Moses were liberators. But they liberated their oppressed people not through violence but through struggle leading them out of the unjust order, unjust situation.
There will always be struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed, the powerful and the weak but this struggle need not be violent. It much depends on situation. The Prophet (PBUH) himself prefers peace at Hudaybia (sulh-i-Hudaybia) than war even at the cost of pride of Muslims. The peace conditions (I need not go into details of those conditions here, which are quite well known) were far from favourable to Muslims but the Prophet of Islam accepted those conditions in order to avoid bloodshed. However, the Prophet could do so as the other side also, due to certain constraints, accepted peace on their own terms.
If the other side was bent upon war there would have been no choice for the Prophet but to accept the situation and fight the war. It much depends what situation you are facing. One cannot talk of war and peace quite in an abstract manner. Thus socio-political and socio-economic context plays great role in deciding whether peace will prevail or not.
One thing is sure: Islam does not even indirectly hint at coercion, let alone violence, when it comes to any religious or spiritual question. Thus it becomes quite clear that Islam being religion does not approve of violence at all in any religious matter. However, if Muslims are put in a particular situation which is unjust (not only for them but for humanity as such) they may have to struggle peacefully (and if violence is thrust on them, reluctantly through violence) to remove the cause of injustice.
It is quite important to note that liberative struggle should never be confined to Muslims alone. It is quite significant for theology of peace in Islam that throughout the text of the Qur’an we find the words mustakbirun and mustad`ifun i.e. arrogant and the weak or oppressors and the oppressed without an qualification of being Muslim or not. Thus even if arrogant and oppressor is a Muslim, one will have to struggle against him and even if an oppressed and persecuted is non-Muslim Muslims will have to wage struggle against him.
Thus the struggle nowhere involves Islam as a religion but Muslims as upholders of peace and justice. Yes, it is true justice and peace (and for that matter compassion) are also Islamic values but they are also universal values applicable not only to Muslims but to all whether they be Muslims or not. Thus, as far as justice and peace is concerned the clash is not between Islam and any other religion but it is primarily between oppressors and the oppressed. It is wrong to implicate Islam if some Muslims choose to adopt violent means to achieve their goal. Islam does not automatically approve of violent means if any injustice or exploitation is to be fought.
The Qur’an does not permit use of violence as a norm at all. All the verses involving permission to use violence is preceded by the words “if they commit violence against you….”. Thus we find in verse 2:190 “And fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you but be not aggressive. Surely Allah does not love aggressors.” (emphasis added)
Thus it is very clear from this verse that Qur’an does not permit unconditional war and aggression and Allah does not love aggressors. But permits fighting in the way of Allah only if war is imposed by others. The words in the way of Allah are also very important here. Fighting in the way of Allah would restrain Muslims from committing aggression and excesses. Fighting in the way of Allah would mean fighting only for a just cause, not for power and wealth, fighting only if war is imposed on them and not involving personal or collective feeling of revenge. When Ali the son-in-law of the Prophet (PBUH) defeated a powerful foe in the battle and was about to kill him that he spat on his face. Ali immediately got off his chaste and let him go. The defeated foe was greatly surprised as he expected greater violence from Ali after he spat on him. Ali told hi if I had killed you after you spat on me it would have been an act of revenge. Thus Islam does not permit killing for revenge. Revenge killing is not a religious act; its main reason is human tendency to retaliate. Arabs used to call it qisas and Qur’an permits it in keeping with the prevailing tradition as it tolerated slavery as a concession to the prevailing system. But as it makes clear that human dignity and equality is the norm, not slavery. Similarly while it permits qisas it makes it clear that one should not be revengeful and should suppress anger. One who suppresses anger (kazim al-ghayz) is a person of great merit.
The Qur’an says, “Those who spend in ease as well as in adversity and those who restrain (their) anger and pardon men.” And Allah loves the doers of good (to others).” (3:133). Thus it becomes clear from above verse that to restrain ones anger and to pardon is an act of merit, a religious act. Thus one should not use violence even as an act of revenge. To restrain anger and to pardon are great acts of merit. Violence in any form, except in defence, is most deplorable. Humanity cannot flower in an atmosphere of violence.
The pre-Islamic Arab society was highly violent society. Various tribes fought against each other for decades on end. Thus before the Holy Prophet migrated to Medina the two principal pagan tribes of Medina Khazraj and Aus had been fighting against each other for more than four decades. The Prophet was invited there by the members of these two tribes as peace maker and the Prophet did bring peace between these two tribes and old enmity was happily resolved. But to stamp out violence from the Arab psychology and Arab society was not an easy project. Many Arab tribes had economically survived through raids on other tribes (it was called ghazw)
The pre-Islamic Arabs, as pointed out, not only indulged in qisas but were used to settle all questions through use of violence and thus violence continued in the society. There was no concept of spirituality and higher morality. It is Islam, which brought, for the first time, the concept of higher morality to the Arab society. Peace (salam) was part of this higher morality. It was in view of the violence in the Arab society that even greeting between two Muslims was made as Al-salam-u-‘alaykum (i.e. peace be upon you) and it is the principal form of greeting among the Muslims.
However, the post-Islamic Arab society did not easily imbibe the higher Islamic morality. It required inner struggle to control oneself and it was for this reason that many Muslim thinkers, particularly the Sufi thinkers called this inner struggle to control ones desires and raw passions as jihad-e-akbar (i.e. the great jihad and real jihad) and described war with sword as jihad-e-asghar (i.e. small jihad). The Sufis were the pacifists of Islam and those who kept themselves away from the violent struggle for power and also practised great restraint. They thus could imbibe the higher morality of Islam.
One can understand the nature of Arab society and the deep stamp of violence on it from the fact that after the depth of the Holy Prophet his successors – Caliphs hardly got time to promote higher Islamic morality akhlaq-i-karim. The holy Prophet himself was described as uswa-i-hasanah (best examplar) by the Qur’an. Thus Qur’an says, “Certainly you have in the Messenger of Allah an excellent examplar for him who hopes in Allah and the Latter day, and remembers Allah much.” (33:21)
But the Arabs with few honourable exceptions hardly followed this best examplar in the true spirit. Civil war broke out soon after his death (war of riddah) as many tribes wanted to return to their ancestral religion and refused to pay zakah the Islamic tax. Four of the three Khulufa-i-Rashidun (the rightly guided caliphs) were murdered. The third and fourth caliphs (Uthman and Ali) had to face tumultuous times and rebellions resulting in more than one hundred thousand deaths.
Thus one can understand the great gap between what was ideological – peace – and what was empirical – violence. The great tragedy of Karbala on 10th of Muharram when the grand son of the Prophet was martyred by the forces of evil as he tried to revive the higher Islamic morality. The Umayyads usurped power and indulged in violence and terror to retain it. Yusuf al-Hajjaj, governor of Iraq, during the Umayyad period, was a great terror and was quite ruthless in eliminating his enemies. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs with some exceptions had no compunctions in resorting to violence. The founder of the Abbasid dynasty was known as al-Saffah, which means one who sheds blood.
Before Islam there was inter-tribal violence. After Islam the social and political scenario changed. All tribes embraced Islam and the very nature of their economic sustenance through inter-tribal raids changed but inter-tribal rivalries persisted. One more factor was added to this. Now centralised state came into existence, which did not exist before Islam and inter-tribal struggle for power to capture the state began often resulting in great blood bath. Thus when the Abbasids captured power from Umayyads the Abbasids hunted down all Umayyads including their children and killed them. This violence was direct result of struggle for power.
All inter-tribal violence in the post-Islamic period was result of struggle for power and had nothing to do with Islam. In other words it was empirical rather than ideological. There is hardly any evidence in history of violence for spreading of Islam. As far as spreading of Islam was concerned the Qur’anic directive was very clear that “call people to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation and argue with them in the best manner.” (16:125) One can argue that this again is an ideological statement and that empirical reality was different in the sense that Islam spread through sword. This is simply not true. Firstly, no religion can spread through bloodshed and terror and secondly there is hardly any evidence of this in history.
Islam either spread through Sufi saints who were good examplars of Islamic morality rather than the rulers who were any way seen as tyrants. It was sufi saints who were carriers of real message of Islam and peace by keeping their distance from the power centres. Also, many people adopted Islam simply because it was religion of the rulers and had many advantages. Also, once a prominent member of the community or a tribal chef adopted Islam other members of the community or tribe followed. Thus it is not borne out even empirically that Islam spread through violence. There is even the instance of the Umayyad caliphs stopping conversion to Islam as their treasury was getting depleted as the converts stopped giving jizyah
ISLAM AND PEACE
The Qur’an, as pointed out above, tried to spread higher morality of which peace was the most important component. In fact the word Islam itself is derived from the root slm which is the root letters for peace. Islam means establishing peace as well as surrendering to the Will of Allah. One of the Allah’s name is Salam i.e. peace. Many Muslims are named as Abdus Salam i.e. servant of peace which also means servant of Allah as Allah is peace.
In Qur’an there are repeated references to the concept of peace. Significantly the Qur’an calls upon Muslims, “O you who believe, enter into complete peace and follow not the footsteps of the devil. Surely he is your open enemy.” (2:208) Entering into complete peace here means entering into peace whole-heartedly. It would also imply surrendering to Allah whole-heartedly. Acceptance of violence as the other part of the verse says is like following in the footsteps of devil. Violence is devil and devil is violence.
In the verse 2:131 Allah says submit and reply is given I submit myself to my Rabb of the worlds. Now rabb in Arabic means one who is sustainer or one who takes us step by step from one stage of perfection to another stage of perfection. Thus submitting to Allah, or accepting His authority means dedicating oneself to the cause of peace so that this universe reaches perfection. Perfection is possible only if there is peace, not otherwise. In fact violence destroys all the achievements of culture and civilisation. Since Allah is Rabb i.e. the Sustainer and Perfecter, he ordains peace and those who surrender to His Will have to work for peace so that perfection could be reached.
We find in the Qur’an (14:23) “And those who believe and do good are made to enter Gardens, wherein flow rivers, abiding by their Lord’s permission. Their greeting therein is Peace!”. Thus it will be observed that jannah (Garden) is so as there is peace therein. Thus the main quality of jannah for which all Muslims aspire is peace. This world can become like jannah only if there is peace in the world. For entering the jannah Allah says, “ Enter it (i.e. jannah) in peace and security.” (15:46) Thus peace and security are the main attributes of paradise.
Muslims invoke peace for all Allah’s messengers because they brought the message of peace for entire humanity. Thus Muslims always write peace be upon him after the name of the Prophet, in fact all prophets of Allah. All Messengers of Allah are messengers of peace as Allah Himself, as pointed out above, is Peace. Again in the verse 56:25-26 we read "They hear therein (i.e. Paradise) no vain or sinful talk but only the saying, Peace! Peace.”
Thus peace is so vital for converting this world into paradise. Its opposite i.e. violence is sin. Sin is nothing if not selfish behaviour. We have converted this earth into a violent place because of our interest-oriented behaviour. The harmony of interests is possible only in need based economy. Clash of interests result from greed-based economy. Our world today is full of violence as we clash with each other for our greed. Islam wanted to establish peace on this earth and hence it emphasised need-based economy and condemned accumulation of wealth, circulation of wealth among the rich. The chapter 104 clearly says that obsession with wealth results in fire kindled by Allah.
Same thing happens if we are obsessed with power. Thus this earth can enjoy peace only if some people are not obsessed with wealth and power. Islam laid equal emphasis on justice (Allah’s name is also Just ‘Adil along with Peace, Salam). Thus justice and peace go together. There cannot be peace without justice. Today there is no peace on earth as there is no justice. We are living in a violent world because we live in an unjust world. The Muslim world is also full of injustices and hence of violence. Islam did its best to emphasise justice and peace but a section of Muslims, particularly Muslim rulers remained obsessed with wealth and power and perpetrated injustices and violence. Thus the blame for violence lay on the doors of some Muslims not on Islam. As far as Islam is concerned justice and peace are integral parts of its teachings.
Moreover for millions of Muslims Islam is a deep spiritual experience. They pray, fast, perform Hajj and all other spiritual practices and feel deeply satisfied. They pray for peace. Such Muslims are in overwhelming majority. They have nothing to do with politics, violence or use of Islam for ones interests. It is these Muslims who seek deep spiritual fulfilment who matter and not the few who use or misuse it for political purposes. For millions of Muslims Islam, like any other religion, is a great source of inner peace.
Some countries like
Institute of Islamic Studies,
ON THE CONCEPT OF COMPASSION IN ISLAM
Asghar Ali Engineer
Is compassion central to Islam? Many people think jihad is more central to it than compassion. At least this is the general impression of people including of course Muslims. But this is not so. Compassion is far more central to Islam than jihad. It is certain happenings in history of Islam and also in contemporary world that this impression about jihad goes round.
In fact compassion represents the true spirit of Islam and compassion is far more vital to Islamic teachings than any thing else. In fact compassion in Islam, after the concepts of unity of God (tawhid) and risalah (messengership of Muhammad) is as central to Islam as it is to Buddhism. We will throw light on compassion in Islam in the following pages.
There are certain key words in the Qur’an which are greatly stressed of which four are very often repeated i.e. rahmah, ihsan ‘adl, and hikmah (compassion, benevolence, justice and wisdom). Rahmah (compassion, mercy) and its roots abound in the Holy Qur’an. Among Allah’s own names are Rahman and Rahim (compassionate and Merciful). A Muslim begins everything by reciting Bi Ism-i- Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim (i.e. begin in the name of Allah Who is Compassionate and Merciful). Thus a Muslim is supposed to invoke Allah the Compassionate and Merciful at every step. He does not invoke Allah’s other names (Allah has 99 names according to the Islamic belief) as he invokes Him as Merciful and Compassionate.
The very first chapter of the Qur’an has the second verse as Al-Rehman al-Rahim (The Compassionate, the Merciful). The first verse too carries the sense of compassion when it describes Allah as Rabb al-‘Alamin (i.e. Sustainer of the whole world). The concept of sustenance of the whole world itself is based on His Mercy and Compassion for every thing He has created. In fact rahmah is so central to Allah’s existence that it embraces all that exists in the universe (wasi`at kulla shayin) see verse 40:7.
In fact He sent His Messenger Muhammad also as the Mercy of the World (21:107). Thus the Prophet of Islam also represents universal mercy. As the Messenger of Allah he is representative of His Mercy and hence the Prophet himself is known as rahmatan lil `alamin (mercy of the worlds). Thus a true follower of the Prophet (PBUH) has to be merciful and compassionate to the extent humanly possible. Any one who is cruel and has no sensitivity towards sufferings of others cannot be Prophet’s true follower in any sense.
This is a great pity that Muslims themselves except the sufis and their followers have forgotten the emphasis of the Holy Qur’an on the quality of compassion. The Sufis lay tremendous stress on compassion. Their very fundamental doctrine is what is called sulh-i-kul i.e. peace with all which means no violence and no aggressiveness. The majority of Muslims of course follow sufi approach. It is only some frustrated fringe groups of Muslims who keep on talking of jihad and power.
It is important to note that in Qur’an there is no concept of war of aggression and no concept of permissiveness of violence. Even where permission of war has been given it has been given to defend and protect rights of the oppressed and exploited, and not for achieving power. There is no verse in the Qur’an which permits violence for conquering territory or for achieving power. In fact war has been qualified in the Qur’an by the words fi’ sabilillah i.e. in the way of Allah. Thus a war can be fought, if at all necessary, not for any personal ambitions or for grabbing territory or not for personal animosity or for revenge but only in the way of Allah.
And what is the way of Allah? Allah’s way is of justice, Allah’s way is of protecting the rights of the poor and exploited. In fact the very first verse in the Qur’an permitting the use of violence reflects this very well. It says: “And what reason you have not to fight in the way of Allah, and of the weak among the men and the women and the children, who say: Our Lord, take us out of this town, whose people are oppressors, and grant us from Thee a friend, and grant us from Thee a helper.” (4:75) (emphasis added).
Thus explaining the import of this verse, a noted commentator Maulana Muhammad Ali says in his The Holy Qur’an (Lahore, 1973, pp-211) “ This verse explains what is meant by fighting in the way of Allah. While most of the believers who had the means had escaped from Makkah, which is here spoken of as the city whose people are oppressors, there remained those who were weak and unable to undertake a journey. These were still persecuted and oppressed by the Makkans, as is clearly shown by the words of the verse, and not only men, but even women and young children, were persecuted. Fighting to deliver them from the persecution of the oppressors was really fighting in the way of Allah. …”
Since any fighting has been permitted only in the way of Allah it cannot be a war of aggression in any case. It has to be only on compassionate grounds, not on any ground and hence the doctrine of compassion remains central. If there is no other way to liberate the oppressed except through use of force only then use of force will be justified otherwise not.
The Qur’an again and again shows its sympathy for the weaker sections of the society in which it includes, among others, the orphans, the widows, the poor and the exploited, the slaves and other politically or socially and economically oppressed people. It emphasises different ways of helping them. This is all on the grounds of compassion. Compassion really means sensitivity to others suffering. A person cannot be compassionate unless he/she is sensitive to others suffering. And this suffering includes, as we will show, not only human beings but also animals and plants.
First, let us take suffering human beings. The Qur’an shows great compassion to orphans, the widows, the poor and the slaves. It wants to liberate these poorer and oppressed sections from their situation. Zakah, a toll tax, has been made obligatory on all believing Muslims, men or women to help these sections. Thus the Qur’an says, “(Zakat) charity is only for the poor and the needy and those employed to administer it, and those whose hearts are made to incline, and (to free) the captives, and those in debt, and in the way of Allah and for the wayfarer – an ordinance from Allah. And Allah is Knowing, Wise.” (9:60)
Thus all the categories indicated in the above verse except two i.e. those who administer it (i.e. collect the zakah on behalf of the Islamic state or bayt al-mal (state treasury) and ‘those whose hearts are to be inclined or won over (by Muslims for their help) all other categories are of weaker sections of society – those who suffer i.e. the poor, the needy, the captives (in war), those indebted (who but the poor are indebted), the slaves and the wayfarers. They all stand in need of help. A believer who is well off must be sensitive to the needs of these categories and must help them financially to remove their sufferings on the compassionate grounds. Thus even for the payment of zakat compassion remains central.
Not only that the Qur’an wants to remove those who are arrogant because of their wealth and power and empower the weak so that there is no suffering in the world. It says clearly and unambiguously “And We desired to bestow a favour upon those who were deemed weak in the land, and to make them the leaders, and to make them the inheritors.” (28:5) Thus the Qur’an favours the mustad`ifin (the weaker sections) to the mustakbirin (those powerful and arrogant).
The powerful and the arrogant people are insensitive to others suffering and want to grab as much as they can – be it wealth, be it territory or be it symbols of power. In the Qur’anic approach the powerful are most insensitive and hence most un-compassionate. They are overpowered by the greed and hence can never understand others needs. Therefore, the Qur’an says that “And those who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in Allah’s way – announce to them a painful chastisement.” (9:34)
In several verses of the Qur’an one finds strong denunciation of the accumulation of wealth. The chapters 104 sand 107 are devoted to denunciation of accumulation of wealth and not helping the poor and sufferers. Thus compassion becomes quite an important concept in all these verses. It is important to note that suffering could be both spiritual and material. Spiritual suffering certainly follows material suffering. It is also reflected in the Holy Prophet’s famous saying al-kalam ba`d al-ta`am (i.e. first eating and then prayers. If one is starving one cannot pray with complete absorption.
Even fasting during the month of Ramadan can be interpreted both spiritually and materially. Fasting in spiritual sense is a form of `ibadah i.e. a form of prayer and an attempt to shun consumerism for cultivating one's spiritual potentialities. But it also helps make one sensitive to others pangs of hunger and develop sensitivity to others suffering and this develop compassion towards the poor.
Compassion towards the poor is so important that the Prophet used to say that even if one person remains hungry in a locality no angel will descend in that locality until that hungry person is fed. Also the Prophet is reported to have said that it is more meritorious to feed an hungry widow than to pray whole night.
Thus one can see the intensity of the Prophet’s compassion towards others suffering, particularly those of the weaker sections of society. It was for this reason that even for expiation of one's sins the Qur’an as well as the Holy Prophet requires to feed the hungry or to liberate the slaves.
The Prophet not only asked people to treat their slaves in a humane way and give them to eat what they eat and give them to wear what they themselves wear but also encouraged them to liberate them and set example by liberating his own slave Zaid and adopted him as his son and treated him most affectionately. Zaid became so attached to him that when his father came to take him away after the Prophet liberated him he refused to go with him and chose, instead, to stay with the Prophet. Not only this, the Holy Prophet married him to his close relative Zainab. But unfortunately it did not prove to be a successful marriage. But that is not our concern here.
It was his compassion for the weaker sections of society that he not only got Bilal Habashi manumitted but gave him the highest honour of giving azan i.e. calling the faithfuls to prayer five times. This honour was denied even to his closest colleagues who intensely desired it. If it was not compassion for the weaker section what was it? It is this compassion which is most desirable aspect of Islamic teachings.
Prophet was equally kind to animals. When a woman of disrepute came to him and said that she saved a thirsty cat from dying by fetching water from a pit with the help of her socks, the Prophet said Allah will pardon all your sins and you will go to paradise. The Prophet, according to one hadith described entire creation (including humans, animals and trees and plants) as family of Allah (‘ayal Allah) and all should be treated with compassion and sensitivity.
We find a hadith in Bukhari and also in Sahih Muslim that the Prophet (PBUH) told his companions that one previous prophet burnt an anthill because an ant bit him. Allah reprimanded the prophet for destroying the anthill as these ants also sang His praises. We are also reminded here of the story of a sufi saint (Zubayr) who became restless when he saw an ant crawling in his room. He feared that someone will tread on it and kill. He then gently picked up the ant and put it in a box containing wheat floor as he thought it would be safe there.
We find in Imam Malik’s Al-Muwatta that the Prophet once was seen gently wiping the face and mane of his horse with his gown. On being asked by his companions he explained that he was admonished by Allah for neglecting his horse. Hazrat `Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law used to admonish the Muslims not to eat too much meat and make their stomachs graveyards for animals.
Prof. Iqbal Ansari, in his paper “Religion and Animal Welfare – The Islamic View” says, “A large number of Prophet’s traditions dealing with kindness and compassion to animals are included in the authentic hadith literature. Cruelty to and torturing of animals. Even the obnoxious ones in any form is forbidden. This criterion is so absolute that even when for valid reasons man is permitted to kill any animal for food or to save himself from its venom or other harm, he is enjoined to do so without causing avoidable pain or torture.”
The Qur’an itself, as pointed out earlier, uses the word rahm (mercy, compassion) repeatedly. This word and its various derivatives has been used more than 326 times. According to Mufradat al-Qur’an by Imam Raghib, an authentic dictionary of the Qur’anic terms rahmah means softening of heart towards one who deserves our mercy and induces us to do good to him/her. It is interesting to note that the womb of mother is also called rahm. Mother is always very soft towards her children (raqiq) and showers love and affection on them. Thus anyone who does to others qualifies for rahm. Thus to cultivate rahm is to be faithful to ones mother.
The Qur’an also says that the believers (mu’minin) are merciful to each other. Allah is named by the Qur’an as Rahim and Rahman. And according to Mufradat of Imam Raghib Rahman is one whose mercy encompasses all, not all human beings but also entire creation. Thus only Allah can be Rahman, no one else. We human beings have our own limitations. We love our fellow religionists more than those belonging to other religious groups; we love those speaking our own tongue more than those speaking other tongues and we love human beings more than the animals.
But it is not so with Allah. Allah loves and showers His Mercy equally on all. And if we are really worshippers of Allah we too should not make such distinctions. We should love all human beings equally whether they belong to our religion or not, whether they speak our tongue or not and whether they have same colour of skin as we have or not. If Allah is Rahman (Compassionate) to all we, His servants too should try to imitate Him as much as we can. True ‘ibadah (worshipping) can be claimed only when we try to imbibe elements of His attributes.
Thus a real Muslim is one who despite being firm in his/her faith tradition shows equal love and compassion for all human beings whether they belong to his faith tradition or not. Every faith tradition is unique and should be recognised as such but it should not become a tool of discrimination. The Qur’an itself declares that all human beings, all children of Adam have been honoured equally (17:70). Thus there is no justification in showing any discrimination on the basis of faith as far as the Qur’an is concerned.
Many prominent `Ulama have argued that Allah is Rahman (Compassionate) in the sense that he provides for even kafirs. There is an important Sufi lore which is pointer to this compassion of Allah. It is said that the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) would not eat unless there was some guest on his table. Once it so happened that there did not come any guest and Prophet Abraham was hungry.
Abraham then went out in search of a guest and he found one very old man in the nearby forest. He invited the old man to dine with him and the man agreed and started out with Abraham. On the way Abraham asked him about his religion and he said I am an atheist. Prophet Abraham was angry and cancelled his invitation. When he did so he heard a voice from above: O Abraham We tolerated him (the old man) for seventy years despite his disbelief and you could not tolerate him for seven minutes. Abraham repented and took the old man home for dining.
The lesson is clear what to believe and who is right and who is wrong should be left to Allah rather than our weak judgement. Our judgement is often influenced by several factors including our ego, our interests, our beliefs, colour of our skin and our ethnicity. Allah alone can judge most impartially. Thus our respect for others and our compassion should not be meant for limited number of groups. It should be as wide in sweep as possible.
When the Qur’an refers to weaker sections (musta`ifun) it does not qualify it with Muslim. It uses mustad`ifun as inclusive of all human beings. And all of them are equally entitled to our compassion and Allah’s mercy, no less, no more. The Qur’an no where uses words like Muslim orphans, Muslim widows or Muslim slaves. It uses these words in general without any qualification whatsoever. Similarly the Qur’an does not use any qualification for the powerful and arrogant mustakbirun. They can belong to any religion, race or ethnicity. Arrogance is condemnable found anywhere.
The Qur’an’s attitude is so compassionate towards all human beings that even in the matter of wasiyyah (i.e. making a will) it advises that if apart from your relatives, some one needy is present at that time, make some provision for them also. Also, the Qur’an uses the word sadaqah for charity which is derived from the root sidq which means truthfulness. Real charity (sadaqah) is one which is done with sincerity and truthfulness. Anything which is given to show off, or not with sincere and compassionate intention, will not quality as sadaqah.
Only that feeling qualifies for compassion, which moves our heart for suffering of others and that motivates us to help others. Thus the use of the word sadaqah for charity is very significant. It is the condition of a human person, rather than his/her religion that should move us to help. Compassion is the best quality one can have towards other creatures, particularly towards other human beings and animals. It is suffering which is most fundamental not one's religion, language or race.
A Qur’anic verse which describes some of the qualities of a good believer says, “ Those who spend in ease as well as in adversity and those who restrain (their) anger and pardon men. And Allah loves doers of good (to others).” (3:133).
Thus it will be seen that those who control their anger and pardon others and do good to others are those whom Allah loves. And these qualities are very much the basis of compassion. Anger and violence are always denounced by Allah. They are just opposite of compassion. One of Allah’s name is Ghafur i.e. one who pardons, one who is not revengeful. A compassionate person can never be revengeful.
Thus one can conclude from closer study of Qur'an and hadith that compassion is the best human quality and no one deserves to be human unless he is compassionate. Thus it is quite central to the teachings of Islam.
Reconstruction Of Islam Thought
By Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer
Institute of Islamic Studies, India
How do we look at a religion? As a set of rituals, dogmas and institutions? Or as values and thought system? Some emphasise the former and others the latter. Generally the masses of people are more concerned with rituals, dogmas and institutions whereas the intellectuals lay more emphasis on thought system and values, particulary on the thought system. For the masses, religion is nothing but performance of certain rituals as laid down and to have belief in certain dogmas formulated by the learned scholars. For them anyone who deviates from performance of these rituals or questions any of these dogmas is a 'heretic' worthy of condemnation.
The intellectuals may lay more emphasis on the thought system of a religion but there are those who accept the thought system as inherited and there are those who are intellectually quite active and consider it necessary to rethink the thought system of the religion they have inherited. In a dynamic society , there are much greater possibilities of rethinking the thought system. In a stagnant or a closed society such possibilities are smothered. The early Islamic society was highly dynamic and full of vitalities. Islam was a great revolution, not only religious but also social and economic. It had upturned all old ideas and ideologies. It gave human society a new value system and heightened the human sensitivity for change for the better. Islam put greater emphasis on change and called everything old into question. It encouraged people to rethink the beliefs of their ancestors. All that ancestors believed in was not necessarily right and beneficial.
Thus in early Islam change was never thought to be a 'sin'. The Qur'an laid great emphasis on 'ilm as well as 'amal (knowledge and practice). The Arab peninsula was an area of darkness in many ways. Only poetry was their passion. The other area of information they were proud of was what they called ansab i.e. the family tree. For them the nobility (sharf) of ancestors was more important than their own. They were greatly proud of their ancestry. Islam changed all this. It brought about complete revolution in the Arab mind set which spread to other areas conquered by the Arabs. The emphasis was on present and future, not on the past. The Individual was brought at the centre, not the tribe. The individual was made responsible for everything, not the tribe one belonged to.
Knowledge and practice:
There was no quest for knowledge in the pre-Islamic Arabia. In fact any knowledge except that of ones tribal ancestry was derided upon. The Qur'an, on the other hand, put all the emphasis on 'ilm (knowledge) which is a very comprehensive word in Arabic. 'Ilm is used for science as well. It includes knowledge of everything created by Allah including the knowledge of creator himself. Allah invites human beings to think, to brood and to reflect on the whole universe, on the creation of Allah, the stars, the earth, the plants and the animals. Also, the Qur'an lays great emphasis on induction rather than deduction. The former leads to objective knowledge of the universe and latter to speculation. Modern science is based on induction rather than deduction.
Also, knowledge was given further practical orientation by laying equal emphasis on 'amal (practice). 'Ilm without 'amal was projected as bereft of any benefit to humanity. Correct knowledge ('ilm al-yaqin) and healthy practice ('amal salih) is the most desirable synthesis. The word 'ilm al-yaqin (i.e. knowledge with conviction) is of great value. It is thus clear that the Qur'an neither encourages superficial knowledge nor allows its instrumentalisation. Qur'an has been described as hudan lil muttaqin i.e. a guide for the God fearing or the pious. Thus the term 'ilm is not only comprehensive but also value-oriented. Knowledge must not only be true but should also be based on conviction; it should not only advance the state of information about the universe but should also serve the humanity.
Similarly 'amal (practice) as pointed out above, has to be nothing but salih (healthy). The practice, based on knowledge and conviction, must promote the health of society. What kind of revolution it was in a stagnant society of Arabian peninsula whose whole universe was its own tribe cannot be easily imagined by us today. It was nothing short of a total break from the past; a break which changed the whole quality of social life and brought about tremendous advancement in knowledge. The ritual system of Islam - 'ibadat - was also not devoid of value-system.
Islam does not accord any priority whatsoever to race, tribe, language, creed or colour. The Qur'an makes categorical statement to this effect (see 49:13 and 30:22). It also strictly forbade the Muslims from making any distinction between an Arab and non-Arab and a white and a black. The Prophet, in order to effectively demolish any such hierarchical distinctions, appointed a black liberated slave from Ethiopia, Bilal Habshi, to give azan ( i.e. call Muslims to prayer), a distinction, many Arabs close to the Prophet, intensely desired. But the Prophet accorded this distinction to a black slave to emphasise the importance of equality of all human beings.
As anthropologists tell us, in a tribal society the main fulcrum of knowledge is knowledge of received traditions and tribal customs. Any other knowledge which is not related to the tribe is totally meaningless. The ideas of cosmos, creation and all related notions originate from the tribal practices. The frontiers of knowledge, in other words, cannot transcend the boundaries of the tribal universe. Islam, however, broke these tribal boundaries and made knowledge coterminous with the universe i.e. the entire creation of Allah.
It is also very interesting to note that the Arab world which had never known beyond tribal customs and traditions, became the fore-runner in the world of jurisprudence. We may have several problems today with the Shari'ah formulations. But, the juris corpus of Islam, was a highly progressive body of laws in those days.
The notion of justice is very central to Islam (5:8). And it is justice in its absolute and varied sense. The Qur'anic notion of justice is quite comprehensive. No Muslim jurist could ever ignore the significance of justice in his legal formulations. But how justice was understood to have been done has of course been debatable. There may be arguments about how justice was thought to have been done in medieval ages and what is modern notion of justice. But that does not reduce the significance of justice as a Qur'anic doctrine. The relativity of medieval notion of justice and its modern notion is understandable.
The Qur'anic notion of justice was not tribal but universal. And this made all the difference. The Qur'anic notion of justice is so universal that it laid down that even the enmity with any one else should not come in the way of dispensing justice (5:8). In a tribal society justice was confined to within the tribal limits. There was no question of justice vis a vis other tribes. Islam, on the other hand, lays down that justice be done even to an enemy. The Qur'an gives the principle of justice as a norm; the legal doctors applied it to various issues which arose from time to time, according to their own ability, understanding and socio-cultural background.
It is necessary to understand that it is justice which has to be rigorously applied to all the issues in framing laws. It is the very foundation of the juris corpus of Islam. It is more central than the corpus of laws inherited by us. As the legal doctors applied the notion of justice in keeping with their own circumstances we must rethink the issues in Shari'ah laws based on the notion of centrality of justice particularly in the sphere of family laws.
Here we would like to point out that the position of women in the Qur'an is not subordinate to that of man. Certain verses (like 4:34) are used selectively, and out of context, to project subordination of woman to man ignoring several other verses (like 2:228, 9:71, 33:35 and others) which clearly indicate equality of man and woman. The verses 9:71 and 33:35 are quite central in this respect. In verse 9:71 men and women are not only shown each others friends but also charged with equal responsibilities of enjoining good and forbidding evil, keeping up prayer and paying the poor-rate (zakat). How could then women be inferior to men?
Thus we should not hesitate in having a second look at the Shari'ah laws which have in built medieval biases towards women. The Qur'an was the first scripture in the world to accord equal dignity to man and woman. Prior to Islam even great Greek philosophers thought that animal and women have no soul and hence women deserve no legal rights. Women could not inherit, let alone holding property in her own right, even in Roman law, prior to Islam.
The spirit of the Qur'an is more important than the opinions of medieval legal doctors and hence entire corpus of Shari'ah laws in this regard should be re-examined and re-thought. Also, as pointed out in some of my books (Rights of Women in Islam, The Qur'an, Women and Modern Society and Status of Women in Islam) there never was unanimity on these issues among the legal doctors themselves. The opinions differed from one legal doctor to another and on several issues even the disciples differed from their masters. While some legal doctors do not even admit women's evidence on hudud matters, others, like Imam Abu Hanifa, maintain that a woman can even become qadi on the basis of verse 9:71. The Shari'ah laws as formulated by early Muslim fuqaha' (i.e. legal doctors) need to be thoroughly reviewed. The centrality of justice must be asserted.
Knowledge, as pointed out above, was quite central to Islam. Some of the 'ulama, however, confined knowledge to knowledge of din (i.e. religion of Islam). But there is no strong evidence in the Qur'an or sunna in this respect. It is product of theologians' own mind. Since theologians were primarily concerned with religious or theological matters, they tried to confine knowledge to theological issues alone. Imitating these theologians many people still argue that 'ilm should be confined to the 'ilm al-din and reject other spheres of knowledge. But this view is no more a central view in the world of Islam today.
In fact this view that knowledge in the Qur'an is confined to the knowledge of din did not go uncontested even in the early history of Islam. Knowledge from different sources and from different fields was not only accepted by early Muslims but was also creatively advanced by them. The entire corpus of Greek knowledge in various sciences, mathematics and philosophy was transferred into Arabic language and passed on to Europe. No wonder than that H.G.Wells, the noted British historian, has described Arabs as foster father of knowledge. The Europe had lost contact with the Greek treasure of knowledge and they re-established contact with it only through the agency of Arabs. The House of Wisdom (Dar al-Hikmah) established by the Abbasids fulfilled this task.
The Muslims assimilated this knowledge and also enriched it immensely. Their own contribution in enriching the Greek knowledge acquired by them was no mean contribution. Also, they imbibed knowledge from other sources as well i.e. Persian and Indian sources, besides their own Islamic sources. The Mu'tazila were a party of rationalists who gave primacy to reason. For them reason was the test of faith and not vice versa. Thus if reason holds something good, Shari'ah will also hold it good. The Asha'irah, on the other hand, held something good because Shari'ah held it good even if reason contradicted it.
The Mu'tazila also gave primacy to justice along with reason. this is what the modern rationalists also plead. Thus the Mu'tazilah were as fervent advocates of reason and justice as the modern rationalists are. But the modern rationalists tend to be atheists which Mu'tazilah were not. Mu'tazilah were also known as the party of tawhid wa al-'adl i.e. party of unity of Godhood and justice. Thus Mu'tazilah were essentially theists but also rationalists.
Islam, as all of us know, had arisen in Arabian peninsula and had its vitality and practicability. Practical rationality remained quite central to it. But when it spread to the ancient centres of great cultures like parts of Eastern Byzantian empire, or Persian empire and India, it was confronted with entirely different mind set. These great civilizations were based, as pointed out before, on speculative reason and sophisticated intellectual achievements. This had both positive and negative impact on Islamic thought.
Resisting outdated cultures:
The Islamic thought became inward looking on one hand, and, lost some of its most fundamental concerns like justice for weaker sections of society. These centres of civilization were centres of feudal culture and along with feudal sophistication, feudal values were also imbibed. Thus what Islamic thought gained in swing, lost in its sweep. Islam spread with great rapidity because of its great concern with justice for weaker sections of society but now it became an integral part of a huge Islamic empire and nearly lost its sensitivity towards suffering of the downtrodden of the society.
The Qur'an which was so direct and simple in its teachings, became a target for exercises in sophisticated inner meanings justifying hierarchical values which came to be acquired through feudal cultures of Roman and Persian empires. Monarchy became an acceptable institution and blind and uncritical obedience to the ruling monarch on one hand, and religious establishment of the time, on the other, became very common. Disobedience to them was construed to be disobedience to Allah and His Book. The earlier critical faculty and concern for justice was totally lost. It was in this atmosphere that Islamic thought became totally stagnant and part of oppressive establishment. There is great need to recapture its earlier vitality, dynamism and sensitivity. Critical evaluation and not blind obedience, is closer to the Islamic spirit. What predominates today, however, is Islamic theological thought, on one hand, and, age-old shari'ah formulation, on the other. It has made Islamic thought totally stagnant.
What is to be noted is that what goes in the name of theology is human construct and divine commandments as understood by human agency under a set of socio-cultural influences. For example, 'Ilm al-Kalam (Islamic dialectics) came into existence as a reaction to the widening influence of Greek philosophy and Greek sciences during the Abbasid period. This became an integral part of Islamic theology. Kalam, undoubtedly influenced the great minds of Islamic world of the time and also the succeeding generation for several centuries. But now Kalam cannot be treated as unchangeable. There is urgent need for a new ilm al-kalam in the light of modern corpus of scientific knowledge.
Advocating a change culture:
A religion consists of several sub-systems like ritual system ('ibadat), institutional system (like zakat, etc.), thought system and value system (like equality, justice, compassion etc.). Of these ritual and value- system are permanent and cannot be changed under any circumstances. But the thought system could and must change, if religion has to keep pace with time, its thought system should change. There is misconception among Muslims about the Qur'anic verse 5:3 (i.e. This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed My favour to you...). They think that now what we have inherited is perfect in every respect and there is no need for re-thinking in any sense at all. Our din is perfect. The din is undoubtedly perfect but the meaning and significance of din should be understood properly. One cannot include the kalam, for example, in din. The Islamic thought system has been evolved by theologians who are human beings and no human person can ever be perfect. Human beings think under certain influences which they cannot transcend as human beings. All Divine commands are sought to be understood by human agents under certain socio-cultural influences and these influences are reflected in the religious-thought system. Once we understand this there will be no resistance to change in the thought system. This will bring about a great revolution.
The Islamic Shari'ah is also an embodiment of Islamic values. Islamic Shari'ah is nothing but a sincere attempt by the fuqaha' (Islamic jurists) to apply divine commands and the Islamic values to a number of issues like marriage, divorce, inheritance, nature of evidence, crimes like theft, rape, adultery, division of property etc. This attempt to approach these issues in the light of Islamic values and divine commands was also influenced by the socio-cultural circumstances of the time. They could not have applied Islamic values and divine commands to these issues in vacuum. There is great deal of change in these external influences and hence many of these shari'ah formulations stand in need of change. This change does not amount to tempering with the divine commands but making yet another human attempt in the light of our own experiences and our own circumstances.
If we evolve this understanding of religion the dynamics of problem changes and religion will be even greater force to bring about spiritual transformation for the better. Naturally there will be differences in opinion while bringing about these changes. We should not be afraid of differences. These differences, if honest and sincere, provide greater vigour to human thought. The founders of the different schools of jurisprudence during the second and third centuries of Islam were not afraid of differences. Why should we be?
MEANING OF ISLAMIC WORSHIP
Asghar Ali Engineer
(Islam and Modern Age, April, 2000)
Every religion prescribes its own prayer system, Islam also does. Every religion has its own unique system and it is this uniqueness which is precious. Islam prescribes its prayer system without challenging prayer systems of other religions as it recognises the uniqueness of prayer systems of other religions. It puts it succinctly as under: “And everyone has direction to which he turns (himself), so vie with one another in good works.” (2:148). Thus it is clear that everyone has ones own way of worshipping and one should not denounce each others way of worship. According to Imam Raghib the word wijhat is more comprehensive. It means not only direction but also entire shari`ah. Thus according to Raghib what Qur’an states in the above verse is that each religion has its own shari`ah which has its own uniqueness.
There are different words used by the Qur’an for worship, the most frequent being ‘ibadah. The word ‘ibadah is also used in senses more than one. It is derived from the word ‘ubudiyyah which means to express ones humility and humbleness. But the word ‘ibadah carries in it even greater sense of humility; it, in fact, carries the utter sense of humility. Thus the first requirement of worship in Islam is to feel utterly humble before the Greatest Being and Most Powerful Allah. Human beings are created by All Mighty Allah and to worship Him they must develop within themselves the utter sense of humility. Thus the Islamic concept of worship implies humility. Thus by implication it also becomes an essential part of Islamic ethic. Thus arrogance is unethical. No wonder than that Qur’an repeatedly denounces arrogance and calls it istikbar. Its opposite is both ‘istid`af (to be weak) and ‘ubudiyyat.
Pharaoh (Fir`aun) has been described in the Qur’an as mustakbir (having arrogance of power) as also the Satan. The direct implication is that those who are arrogant are like Pharaoh or Satan. The true servant of Allah has a sense of utter humility and believes that only Allah is the Greatest – Allahu Akbar. This is very basic formula of Islamic worship. Anyone who is arrogant and has a feeling of powerful cannot be true worshipper of Allah. A true worshipper of Allah is one who has no trace of arrogance, of ananiyyah or egotism. This has another important implication. It negates the very concept of one being ruler over the other and thus creates democratic ethos and human dignity. Elsewhere also the Qur’an lays emphasis on dignity of entire humanity – children of Adam when it says: “And surely, We have honoured the children of Adam, and We carry them in the land and the sea, and We provide them with good things, and We have made them to excel highly most of those whom We have created.” (17:70)
Thus once we accept Allah as the Greatest by implication all human beings are His humble servant without any distinction of caste, colour, creed or race and all are equal before Him and no one is superior to the other. The Qur’an clearly sates that “O mankind, surely We have created you from a male and a female, and made your tribes and families that you may know each other. Surely the noblest of you with Allah is the most pious (God-conscious) of you.” (49:13).
It will be seen that it is very important statement of the Qur’an and is quite fundamental to the concept of worship in Islam. All human beings are equal in the sight of Allah and distinction of tribes, families etc. are only to know each other and not to take pride – leading to arrogance in ones belonging to one nation or the other, or one tribe or family or other. The real distinction could be only of piety, honesty and integrity of character and most honoured in the eyes of Allah is one who is most pious. Any Muslim who feels superior to the other on the basis of tribe or family or nation or colour cannot be true worshipper of Allah as this air of superiority leads to arrogance which is quite contrary to the very concept of ‘ibadah and ‘ubudiyyah. One who worships Allah must intrinsically subscribe to the concept of equality of all human beings. There is no place in Islam of ‘lowly’ or ‘high’ status at all.
This is further symbolised by the congregational prayer in Islam. All have to stand in one line in Islamic congregational prayer. A true worshipper of Allah would show equal respect to all human beings irrespective of their origin, their identity and their status. Any worshiper who apparently stands in one line but carries the feeling of superiority over others in his heart, cannot be construed as true and free worshipper. Such a person is not bondsman of Allah but of his vain desire. He who is bondsman of his own desire cannot be a free person and can never claim to enjoy the pleasure of a free man’s worship. Thus a false sense of superiority is the very negation of true worship. A free man's worship is based on passionate belief in freedom and dignity of all human beings as Allah alone is creator of all and He alone is real object of worship.
Thus a passionate belief in one God also assumes great significance in Islamic tradition. Because only such belief in oneness of God leads to the negation of worshipping lesser beings. It can lead to worship of human being by another human being and thus deifying some among us or deifying some other objects. This would also lead to superiority of some over others negating the concept of equal dignity for all children of Adam as stated in the Qur’an. The Sufis – the mystics of Islam – base their concept of wahdat al-wujud (unity of Being) on this concept of tawhid (unity of Godhood) and it is this concept of unity of Being which demolishes all distinctions. The concept of Absolute Being is possible only if we believe in the concept of absolute unity of humankind. And sufis made no such distinctions. Distinctions invariably lead to a sense of superiority and hence go against the concept of worship of a True Being.
In Islam an act of worship is a means, not a goal. The goal is a true moral and ethical conduct. The Qur’an says “Surely prayer keeps (one) away from indecency and evil; and certainly the remembrance of Allah is the greatest (act).” (29:45) Many treat prayer salah as a goal, not a means as stated in the above Qur’anic verse. A real worshipper would never indulge in any indecent act (fahsha) or would never go near an evil. The important question is what is evil? The word used for evil here is munkar i.e. anything which is rejected by the society as harmful. Anything which is harmful to human society must be rejected and must be desisted from. There are some evils which are absolute in nature and must be avoided irrespective of time and place. Injustice and falsehood are such evils. The greatest evil thus is being untruthful.
One of the names of Allah is Haq i.e.truth. Thus truthfulness becomes the important element of Allah’s worship. Anyone who deviates from the path of truth cannot claim to be worshipper of Allah. A true worshipper of Allah will never compromise on the question of truth. He will gladly sacrifice his own interests to uphold the cause of truth. Those who sacrifice everything including their own lives deserve to be true worshiper of Allah. A true worshiper would not entertain falsehood in any form. A true worshiper’s tongue will speak nothing but truth. He will never utter anything which is not truth. One has to be fearless to be truthful. Only one who fears Allah and no one else can speak truth and avoid falsehood.
Also, Allah is Just and one who worships Allah cannot be but just. Justice is part of worship and one who works tirelessly for establishing justice in the society is real worshiper of Allah. The path of truth and justice is paved with difficulties and sacrifices and a true worshiper does not mind in the least to face these difficulties and make sacrifices for the cause of justice and truth. To court martyrdom for the cause of truth and justice is the highest form of worship one can think of. Thus the Qur’an describes true worshiper as follows: “The patient and the truthful, and the obedient, and those who spend and those who ask Divine protection in the morning times.” (3:16). Truth requires inexhaustible degree of patience and hence the above verse refers to the quality of patience along with truthfulness.
Allah has been described as Rabb al-`Alamin in the Qur’an i.e. Sustainer of the universe. Rabb, according to Imam Raghib, is one who takes a thing from one stage of perfection to another stage until it reaches the final stage of perfection. Allah is Rabb in this sense and any of His worshiper has to work tirelessly for achieving this objective. He or she will do nothing which will obstruct this path of perfection. This also includes the protection of environment and ecological balance. For the perfection of our world its ecological balance is very vital. The greed for consumption leads to destruction of ecological balance. Thus a worshiper cannot be insensitive to the destruction of environment.
The quality of rububiyyat (sustaining) will be incomplete without mercy and compassion. Thus in the very first chapter of the Qur’an Allah is described as Rabb, Merciful and Compassionate. Only one who is merciful and compassionate can take this universe from one stage of perfection to another stage until it reaches the ultimate stage of perfection. And one who engages oneself in this work on human plane has to have qualities of mercy and compassion for all i.e. for entire humanity on one hand, and, for all the creation of Allah, on the other. A person who is compassionate will not wantonly destroy anything and would show feeling of loving care for all creatures. Thus a worshiper has to be compassionate and merciful towards all.
The Qur’an also makes it clear that the act of prayer is not merely a ritual to be performed. It is an act which transforms ones inner being and makes him or her a perfect person. Perfection of inner being is very important aspect of act of worship. Thus Qur’an describes the act of worship as under: “It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and West, but righteous is one who believes in Allah, and the Last
Day, and the angels and the Book and the prophets, and gives away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask and to set slaves free and keeps up prayer and pays the poor rate; and the performers of their promise when they make a promise, and the patient in distress and affliction and in the time of conflict; and these are they who keep their duty.” (2:177)
This is very seminal verse which describes the basic features of worship. Thus worship is not a mere physical act of bowing and prostrating; it is much more than that. The Islamic concept of ‘ibadah is as much social as spiritual. Thus among ‘ibadat are included fasting, zakat and Hajj. These have their own significance. Fasting (saum) again is not mere an act of going hungry from sunrise to sun set. It is to learn to control ones desires and make ones soul pure by removing all impurities. Controlling ones desires (what the Qur’an calls nafs ammarah) is very important element of fasting. It amounts in fact to developing a spirit of renunciation in the midst of having and developing sensitivity towards others suffering. To be sensitive is very important element of ‘ibadah. And fasting is meant to sensitize the people. Only a sensitive soul can stand up and fight against untruth and injustice. Thus the real significance of fasting is to develop sensitivity towards misery and suffering and devote oneself to eradication of all forms of suffering and misery.
Thus in the above verse (2:177) describing the act of true worship emphasis is laid on spending ones wealth out of love for Him for the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask and to set slaves free. In those days of slavery Islam talked of dignity of all human beings and repeatedly laid emphasis on setting the slaves free. Here in the above verse setting slaves free has been described as an act of worship. Slaves suffer intensely and slavery deprives human beings of their human dignity and hence setting slaves free is an important ingredient of act of worship. A believer or a worshiper would not tolerate any act of indignity to any human being. Thus he has to be passionately committed to human freedom and dignity and has to work to abolish all forms of human unfreedom, slavery being the most abominable for of human indignity.
The above verse also emphasises the need for spending for the poor, the orphans, the widows and the wayfarers. This is precisely what the payment of zakat (poor rate) is meant for. Thus the Qur’an says: “Zakat (charity) is only for the poor and the needy, and those employed to administer it, and those whose hearts are made to incline (to truth ), and (to free) the captives, and those in debt, and in the way of Allah and for the wayfarer – an ordinance from Allah.” (9:60).
Thus it will be seen that zakat is basically meant for the weaker sections of society so that their sufferings could be minimised. Zakat is also required to be spent on paying off the debts of indebted. It is poor who are indebted. The poor are generally indebted and they must be freed of it if their sufferings are to be eliminated. Again, it is for this reason that the Qur’an prohibits interest. It is the poor who have to pay high rates of interest for fulfilling their basic needs. Those who charge high rates of interest on consumption loans are real blood suckers and they can never qualify for worship. On the other hand, Qur’an warns them to be prepared for war with Allah if they do not waive off interest on such loans. In fact war against interest is war against poverty and suffering. Thus it will be seen that establishing social justice is as important part of act of worship as an act of praying. It also has a macro dimension. Entire third world is poor and indebted today. It is the rich countries of the West who exploit the people of the third world and put burden of indebtedness on them. There is need for setting up funds on the line of zakat to waive off debts of third world countries and interest thereon. This would greatly relieve the third world of its suffering and for the West it will be an act of worship. But all of us know that Western countries are not going to oblige the third world. This socio-economic dimension should not be lost sight of.
The Qur’an is so sensitive to various dimensions of suffering that it specially mentions the problem of wayfarers also. In those days the wayfarers had to face number of difficult problems while traveling. No basic facilities were available on the long and arduous course of journey. The Qur’an thus required a part of the zakat fund be spent on alleviating the sufferings of these wayfarers. It indicates the degree of sensitivity Qur’an desires to create in us. It is, therefore, highly necessary that a worshiper be hyper sensitive to others sufferings in every form. He should work tirelessly for the welfare of an entire humanity.
Hajj is also included in the act of Islamic worship. It is desirable that Muslims should go, if he has means, for Hajj once in life time. What is its significance as an act of worship? What is its social dimension? As pointed out earlier Islam teaches equality of all human beings irrespective of tribe, nation or family. When one meets other human being one should meet him/her on plane of equality. Hajj provides this opportunity to a Muslim. Muslims from all over the world congregate for Hajj in
Thus it will be seen that an act of worship is not merely a ritual as it has come to be widely practiced. A real act of worship is much more than mere physical act of bowing and prostrating, or fasting mechanically as a ritual or performing hajj by merely going to
A NEW APPROACH FOR ISLAMIC WORLD NEEDED
Asghar Ali Engineer
(Secular Perspective Jan 16 - 31, 2002)
The world of Islam is in turmoil today. The events of 11th September in New York have given it a new jolt. The Muslim world was far from stable even before that. It had experienced many crises, conflicts and revolution. The post-colonial phase in whole of Africa and Asia that way has not seen long lasting stability. There have been frequent changes of regimes and revolutions. Most of it has been due to post-colonial problems, lack of economic development and widespread discontent. The Islamic world, particularly the West Asian region, has been more conflict prone due to its sensitivity because of oil.
It is oil politics, which has caused much turmoil in this region and from Islamic point of view it is the core area of Islam. It is this core area of Islam, which has been much in turmoil. The western powers prop up in the countries of this region either puppet rulers or support dictators, monarchs and shiekhs who have no popular political base. Iraq, Iran and other countries in the region have witnessed several revolutions or political turmoil. And it being the core area of Islam, the political developments are foisted on it. Islam, thus becomes the cause of dictatorships and it is argued that Islam does not admit of democracy.
These monarchical or dictatorial regimes often survive by enforcing medieval theological formulations, which are based not on core teachings of the Qur’an but on medieval theological formulations and term it Islamisation of politics. Thus this legitimisation game by unpopular rulers has serious social and political repercussions of their own. These rulers then enforce measures which look anti-modern, anti-secular and anti-women and bring upon harsh criticism on Islam.
The media also has its own anti-Islamic prejudices, which make media comments on Islam even harsher. Instead of looking at things in political and social perspective every thing is blamed on Islam and its bigotry. Or madrasa system of education comes under attack. It is not madrasa system per se which is responsible for social bigotry. On the other hand, madrasas are themselves reflection of political manoeuvrings by the undemocratic rulers.
The madrasas, which produced Taliban were dominated by people with political aspirations. In fact these madrasas were created for producing students who would wage jihad against Soviet occupation in Afghanistan. These madrasas with jihadi- orientation were financed by CIA and Saudis to meet their political needs. Madrasas by themselves do not produce bigoted students. Madrasas are basically meant for religious education. Pakistani politicians, particularly Zia-ul-Haq, was instrumental in promoting Islamic orthodoxy for his own purposes. His entire Islamisation project was inspired by his political needs. He promoted Islamic orthodoxy and jihadi mentality in Pakistani army also. The ISI was nothing if not political instrument of military rulers. All these had no popular sanction of Pakistani people. There has been no truly democratic regime in Pakistan. During so called democratic spells in between military rules in Pakistan it has always been a controlled or rather authoritarian democracy.
The Taliban regime, which was ultra-orthodox regime in Afghanistan, was backed up by Pakistan, not because it was religiously needed, but because it was political necessity to perpetuate Pakistani hegemony in the region. And jihad has been nothing but legitimisation of political violence in the region.
It is also true that the Saudis have financed extremist Wahabi groups in South Asia region, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight other political influences, particularly Soviet influence during the Soviet period and Iranian influence during the post-Soviet period. The Saudi rulers were shaken by the Islamic revolution in Iran and wanted to counter it by financing extremist Sunni outfits in the region. The Sipah-e-Sahabah and similar other groups depended for their finance, apart from internal sources (ISI or donations from people) on sources such as Saudi.
Also, the Pakistani politicians directly or indirectly incited feelings in Kashmir, not because they really wanted it ‘liberated’ but it paid rich political dividends internally. And this also could be legitimised through the Islamic idiom of jihad. It does not mean there is no discontent among the Kashmiri people and their grievances are not to be redressed. It is a different issue altogether. The Kashmiri Islam, being sufistic Islam, has no place for jihadi mentality. Its outlook is sulh-i-kul (peace with all). But jihadi outfits were created and financed to suit political requirements of the Pakistani rulers. The jihadi idiom caught on easily among the educated unemployed youth that could let out their frustrations through armed fight.
It is also important to note that there is potential for violence in all societies, including industrially highly developed societies. In American societies too one finds great deal of internal violence as witnessed from time to time. As pointed out by Khaled Al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, there are many instances of inhuman violence in the American society. He writes, “Before advising Saudi Arabia on how to monitor its Islamic seminaries, the US should take stock of its own schools, a breeding ground for scandals.” He points out that Charles Whitman, the University student who climbed up the university tower in Texas in 1966 with an arsenal of weapons, and then killed 17 of his fellow students and teachers and followers of Charles Manson, who believed the latter was God and blindly obeyed his orders to go on killing spree were not product of any Islamic madrasa.
Or violence in Palestine particularly by Hamas is not product of Islamic madrasa system. It is product of Israeli policies in Palestine. The media after every suicide bombing rushes to denounce Islamic militancy but hardly says a word about Israeli ruthlessness and overuse of violence against Palestinians in the name of its security. Some papers even go to the extent of saying that the state of Israel is surrounded by number of militant Arab states out to destroy it and it has to take steps to ensure its security. No one points out that Israel alone has capacity to destroy all those states put together and has powerful backing of American arms.
Having said all this it is necessary to urge upon the Muslims to reflect deeply about the state of affairs in Islamic world today. May be the world media over-projects its anti-Islamic biases. Also, it is true that instability in the region is more because of oil politics and western interest but Muslims themselves also cannot escape all responsibilities for promoting peace and development-oriented politics in Muslim countries.
The times are changing fast and there is great deal of necessity for re-thinking the issues. The rulers have their own interests but the Muslims have to work for their own political and social liberation through modern education, on one hand, and, ushering in democratic culture, on the other. It is not enough to say Islam stands for peace, one also has to promote peace in Muslim societies. The jihadi discourse will have to be countered by discourse of peace and democracy. Islam itself was a revolution against injustices and ignorance in the Arab society of the time. The Islamic revolution gave values of justice, peace, human dignity and wisdom.
It is thus duty of all Muslims today to create societies in keeping with these fundamental values of Islam and fight, through democratic struggles, for realising these values. The jihadi discourse must be replaced by democratic discourse. Violence will not solve any problems of modern society. Industrial and technological development can take place only through education and proper developmental perspective.
In critical periods the societies have thrown up leadership with future vision. Militancy and extremism must be completely shunned and Muslim youth must be inspired by these fundamental values for its struggles for better and more just societies. To raise cry for jihad is to play in the hands of vested interests that oppose any structural changes to perpetuate their own rule.
Persons like Osama bin Laden are not going to liberate Islamic countries. They will bring only more destruction and war. Frustration cannot be equated with change. What Osama and his supporters represent is anger and frustration. Jihad is not use of violence in the state of anger and frustration. Such violence is totally destructive not of ones enemy but of oneself. Real jihad will be against ignorance and vested interest using all available democratic space in ones society. Medieval theological idiom with an air of finality and dogmatism will not be an effective weapon. Such theological discourse will only breed stagnation.
The whole sprit of Qur’an is dynamic as pointed out by so many great Islamic thinkers like Jamaluddin Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Sir Syed and Muhammad Iqbal. They waged real jihad against stagnation, dogmatism, ignorance and superstition in the name of Islam. It is highly necessary to revive the spirit of these great Islamic thinkers and activists. Their jihad was real jihad. Their main weapons were knowledge, understanding and constant efforts to change. Iqbal represented this spirit in his much quoted verse which says Firm conviction, constant efforts and overpowering universal love are the weapons of men in jihad of life. This is a challenge for us all Muslims. We must turn into a great opportunity and change the image of Islam in the modern world.
Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
Mumbai:- 400 055.
SANT YATRA OR ELECTION YATRA?
Asghar Ali Engineer
(Secular Perspective Feb. 1-15, 2002)
Come election and Ayodhya issue is right on agenda again. The BJP had promised its bhaktas (Ram bhakts or BJP bhakts? to construct a grand Ram temple at the site of Babri Masjd in Ayodhya once it came to power. However, it came to power with the support of NDA (National Democratic Alliance) and had to pay the price by renouncing the Ram Mandir issue to be in power. Since BJP’s main objective was to come to power and not to construct Ram Mandir, it gladly agreed to renounce the issue to the great disappointment of its bhaktas.
However, it could not wash its hands off the issue completely. Not only the RSS and VHP it has to please the Sants also who supported BJP during election campaigns from time to time in return for promise for a grand Ram temple. Even the Prime Minister Shri Vajpayee kept on obfuscating over the issue – sometimes saying it is in the national spirit to construct the temple and sometimes musing that it best be forgotten in the spirit of communal harmony in the country. Shri L.K. Advani, however, persisted in his view in favour of Ram temple though, as Home Minister, he could not obviously insist on constructing it, like the VHP Sants (and not Ram Sants), right away.
But whenever any election is near at hand the BJP and VHP leaders spend sleepless nights as the hard core BJP supporters demand concrete proof of BJP’s sincerity to fulfil its promise to construct the promised temple. The U.P. elections were expected near about February-March and hence the VHP sants announced their intention to take out a chetawani yatra (i.e. a warning march) from Ayodhya to Delhi for expediting the construction of Ram temple in Ayodhya. And when the Election Commission announced the dates of U.P. election the VHP immediately organised the Yatra ahead of election schedule. This is to please its hard core voters. It is another story that it did not evoke any enthusiasm among those it was meant for.
There are two things that we should be mainly concerned with. Though it is true that the Yatra failed to arouse any enthusiasm (so much so that one paper editorially said that it is chtawani to sants themselves rather than to the Government that people are no more interested in such ‘road shows’) still we, the people of India, should be warned that such gross misuse of religion for electoral purposes amounts to a corrupt practice. The BJP uses cover of VHP to raise this issue again and again for the Hindu votes as VHP is supposedly not a political party. But this is only a technical cover. The Election Commission should take note of the fact that the BJP and VHP are closely related and BJP cannot disown responsibility for what the VHP does.
The involvement of the BJP M.P. from Faizabad Mr. Vinay Katyar also shows that the BJP approves of such Sant Yatras for electoral benefits. The U.P. Chief Minister Shri Rajnath Singh also said that individual BJP M.Ps are free to take part in the Chetawani Yatra, if they so desire. How can a party M.P. take part in obviously a political move like construction of a Ram temple albeit as an individual. Will BJP allow its M.P's to vote as individuals on any important national issue? Obviously not. How can then it allow its M.P's to take part in the Chetawani Yatra of VHP Sants as individuals. After the end of the Yatra the BJP has also announced that no action will be taken against those M.Ps who participated in the Yatra.
Mr. Vinay Katyar went to the extent of saying that those who believed that the BJP had abandoned the temple issue did not understand the gravity of the matter. He said the temple was a matter of national pride and faith, and there was no question of ignoring it. Can there be greater proof of involvement of BJP or at least its approval in the matter? According to the news paper reports from Lucknow not only the RSS-VHP combine is putting in all its energies into yatra, the BJP-head quarters too indicate the level of excitement sporting banners asking people to attend the Sadhus' conference in Lucknow on Monday. The Dharam Sansad called upon the sadhus to fight for the temple.
Should Election Commission not take notice of the matter. Use of religion is obviously a corrupt practice as per the Representation of the People’s Act. When the Maharashtra State Election Commissioner did not allow even the Mumbai Mayor to hoist the tricolour on 26th January on the eve of Mumbai Municipal Corporation election (though ultimately he relaxed) which is comparatively a minor matter and does not leave any impact on voters’ mind, should its U.P. counterpart act on such a major issue? It is strange that it has not. In the interest of free and fair election, which is a must in a democracy the Election Commission should be highly vigilant and misuse of religion cannot be condoned in any case.
The second major concern in this connection is protection and promotion of our secular democracy. Our country is united thanks to our secularism. The neighbouring Pakistan did not stay united even for 25 years despite the Islamic bond, and disintegrated in 1971. Thus it proves that religious unity is not sufficient condition to ensure political unity. Secular democracy does provide a better alternative to ensure political unity. The Kashmiri Muslims in 1947 had also decided to throw their lot with India because it had opted for secular democracy. Kashmiri Muslims also felt alienated subsequently as we did not fulfil their aspirations as real secular democracy ought to have. Thus non-implementation of the political ideals associated with secular democracy caused discontent in Kashmir, and our constituency there was considerably weakened.
The case of Babri Masjid-Ramjanambhoomi controversy is even worse. It did bring BJP to power (though not to absolute power) but at what cost? It not only weakened our secular democracy but also spilled lot of innocent people’s blood. Thousands of people died during the campaign. Religious fundamentalism or fanaticism is not healthy event or a religious society, much less for a secular democracy.
The BJP swore by patriotism and nationalism. The RSS even talks of what it calls akhand Bharat. But what it has been doing in practice? It is polarising India on communal lines and weakening its unity. How can it be construed as genuine patriotism. One must distinguish between national chauvinism and genuine patriotism. In fact the former is antidote of later. The RSS Sar -Sanghchalaks right from Guru Golwalkar to Shri Sudershan idealise Hitler as the role model of true nationalism whereas whole world has rejected Hitler including Germany as an evil influence on democracy.
The post-modern west also has embraced diversity, diversity even without shared cultural past. In the western countries diversity is not rooted in history whereas in India it is firmly rooted in our long shared past. In western countries diversity is of very recent origin and is mainly due to migration of people from colonised countries after their liberation from metropolitan countries. Thus diverse people in western countries today have no cultural roots in metropolitan societies and yet western countries have given them all political rights without in anyway insisting that they adopt western culture. Interestingly in Canada while giving citizenship oath to a migrant, he or she is asked to solemnly affirm that he or she will preserve his or her language and culture.
In India ironically the RSS insists that Islam and Christianity are alien religions and doubts their patriotic credentials as they originated outside India and hence their followers, though linguistically and culturally as old as Aryans (and in some cases in South as old as Dravidians) can never be loyal to this country. It keeps on launching tirades against them and making them feel insecure. Recently the RSS has distributed more than a crore pamphlets saying that the Hindus have faced Islamic terrorism for more than a thousand years since Muslim rule was established in India.
The RSS has become much stronger today since the BJP has come to power as leading coalition partner in the NDA. Now it has both political as well as economic resources to carry on powerful propaganda against minorities, particularly targeting the Christians and Muslims. The country’s political health is in danger indeed. The ‘secular’ partners in the NDA have come to power at the Centre but at the cost of political health of the country.
This brings us to another grave concern and that is absolutely power-oriented democratic processes. This has led to complete fragmentation of our society along caste and communal lines. Votes are demanded and given only on the basis of caste and community. There were community-based parties since freedom struggle and now in independent
But both caste and community-based politics as well as religious chauvinism have done great harm to our secular democracy. The election process must be rid of such influences by reforming our electoral law suitably. One of the suggestions could be to make it obligatory for the winning candidate to obtain at least 51% votes. First past the pole was suitable for a mono-religious and mono-cultural society like that of
It is argued that it will be a costly affair. Though financially more costly politically, it will be much less. It will restore the political health of the country and strengthen its unity and solidarity.