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Islam and the Muslims

16 Feb 2002


By Iqbal Jafar

What Islam means, or is made to mean, to the Muslims around the world, is one of the great issues of our times, unsurpassed in the interest that it evokes, the intensity of the feelings that it generates, and in its unforeseeable future ramifications for the world at large.

Since the meaning and purpose of Islam has been politicized by both the Muslims and the non-Muslims, the debate has quietly shifted from the domain of religious and spiritual discourse to that of the political. It is, like any other political debate, being conducted through the media, rather than the academia, where the audience is to be counted in millions rather than hundreds or thousands, and where truth is less interesting than the sensational, the bizarre, and the scandalous.

No wonder, then, that the debate is becoming more and more acrimonious, and Islam is now beginning to be seen as the cause of a powerful divide between the Muslims and non-Muslims, and even amongst the Muslims themselves. There is need, therefore, to understand what Islam means to the Muslims, and whether it is, in fact, a divisive and inhumane ideology that breeds fanatics with morbid obsession for the extermination of the non-believers, and mutilation of the malefactors.

In the contemporary context there are five different kinds of claimants to the Islamic ideology: one, the jihadis, such as the Al Qaeda, who would like to wage war against those whom they perceive as the enemies of Islam; two, the sectarians, such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba, who wish to dominate the religious domain to the exclusion, even elimination, of other sects that in their view are misguided; three, the relegio-political activists, such as the Taliban, who would like to get hold of the state apparatus, peacefully or otherwise, to establish an Islamic state, though invariably of a narrow sectarian dispensation; four, the proselytizers, such as the Tablighi Jamaat, who would like to convert non-Muslims to the Islamic faith, and the Muslims to their version of Islam; and five, the reformers, such as Allama Iqbal and Ali Shariati, who would like to reconstruct the Islamic thought to evolve a worldview consistent with the spirit of Islam and also with the imperatives of the present stage of the evolution of human society.

The last two, the proselytizers and the reformers, are of great religious significance but do not occupy much space on the mental screen of the Muslim or non-Muslim observers of the Muslim societies. The proselytizers are so far peaceful and non-political, and since they have their focus on the individual rather than the community they are not a party to any national or international conflict or even discourse.

The reformers, for the present, are leaderless, scattered, and least able or prepared to participate in the on-going struggle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses. They are of least consequence, and their worldview of no practical relevance.

In the minds of the people everywhere Islam is, therefore, represented today by the jihadis, the sectarians, and the religio-political activists. Each one of these three groups has made its own peculiar contribution to the present image of Islam that confuses the scholars, worries a vast majority of Muslims, and pleases the detractors of religion generally and of Islam particularly. Their contribution can be summed up easily.

The jihadis have, by their word and deed, shown that direct targeting of innocent people (not merely as 'collateral damage') is justified in Islam as, according to them, there are no innocent people on the other side of the ideological divide. In fact, persons involved in such acts of indiscriminate violence expect to be rewarded in life hereafter.

The sectarians, on their part, have shown that Muslims cannot tolerate even internal theological differences, and are prone to deal with such differences by violent means. The religio-political activists have shown that an Islamic political order is excessively authoritarian in its mode of governance, and is far from being humane in the administration of justice. This is true of Afghanistan under the Taliban, and also of other states that claim to have enforced Islamic mode of governance.

It is true that what the jihadis and the activists stand for is a minority view, and that it has been conditioned by the excesses committed against the Muslim communities in many parts of the world. It is also true that critical and even scandalous views of Islam and the Muslims (V.S.Naipaul, Salman Rushdie) have been encouraged in the West at the highest level, with insensitive disregard for the feelings of the Muslims. But we should also recognize the truth that the Muslim societies are out of sync with the modern world inasmuch as they continue to hold on to a culture that is intolerant and anti-democratic.

We need to recognize the truth that those who have so far tried to create an Islamic state have been obsessed more with punishments, thought control, and social regimentation (from dress to the length of beards) than with the welfare and intellectual flowering of their people. They have acted as vengeful enforcers of what they insist is Islam, not as humble servants of the 'most gracious, most merciful' God, for such are His first attributes, repeated twice, in the very first and very short Sura (al Fateha) that has been called the Essence of the Book. A good Muslim is required to recite this Sura repeatedly (at least 20 times a day) in his daily prayers. The enforcers of Islam, thus, lost sight of nothing but the essence.

Time has come for the Muslim communities around the world to undertake that long overdue 'reconstruction of religious thought' to produce a blueprint for a tolerant, democratic and humane society, at peace with itself, with the rest of the world, and with the pristine spirit of Islam. The task of reconstruction should have two basic objectives: first, formulation of a legal structure to bring about harmony between the internal constituents, and with the external entities; second, harmonizing the sectarian elements within Muslim communities. The task, as we shall presently see, is not beyond the realm of ideological feasibility.

First, the legal structure. This task is not as arduous as it may appear to be, for its foundations have already been laid. Most, if not all, of the Muslim states are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that contains a universally accepted guideline for a legal structure that encourages and ensures the growth of a tolerant and democratic culture. Since practically all the Muslim states are signatories to the Declaration one assumes that there are no insurmountable ideological barriers to harmonizing any of the 30 articles of the Declaration with the requirements of an Islamic state.

There can be some problem about a few severe forms of punishment like stoning to death and amputation of hand, often used to discredit the entire Islamic legal code, but these are controversial matters even among the Islamic jurists. According to one view, the punishment of stoning to death, for example, can be reviewed as it is not mandated by the Holy Quran.

It was, in fact, sanctified by the Torah. Similarly, there is a view, on the authority of the Fourth Caliph, that the requirement of amputation of hand can be met by amputing a finger. There is, thus, good reason to believe that a legal order that is tolerant, democratic, humane, and in harmony with the universally accepted norms, as codified in the Declaration, is quite consistent with the spirit of Islam.

Next, the task of harmonizing the sectarian elements of the Muslim societies. This is an important task as the sectarian differences are not merely of academic and theological interest, but have been a cause of much bloodshed in the past and in recent times. Since an effort to bring about a merger between two or more sects can only succeed in creating yet another sect, the aim should be only to remove mutual hostility, rather than a massive revision of beliefs to eliminate the sects.

That a major review of sectarian beliefs of secondary importance is possible was demonstrated by Imam Khomeini when he wrote ('Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations by Imam Khomeini' p.155) that the first three caliphs did follow in the footsteps of the Holy Prophet in their personal lives. In the sectarian context even this is nothing short of a revolutionary shift, and should be used as a starting point for a dialogue between the two major sects: Sunni and Shia. If ever there was need for such a dialogue it is now.

Finally, some of us do not feel much enthused over the effort to create a tolerant, democratic, and humane society as the purpose, it is assumed, is to please the West. I see no reason why the West shouldn't feel pleased about it but, surely, the purpose is not to please the West so much as to reconstruct our own society. The reason is simple. A tolerant, democratic and humane society is located at a higher level of socio-political evolution than a society dedicated to the proposition that individual freedom is immoral, knowledge dangerous, and tolerance fatal. And a society that does not evolve must, in time, decay and crumble, as many have in the past. The choice before the Muslim societies is obvious: Move up the ladder of evolution, or slide down into the dustbin of history. For the present the latter seems more likely. This too may please the West.

The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail

20 May 2006

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