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In Need Of A Renaissance

Jehad is both holy war and inner spiritual struggle in the Quran. Its followers have to learn to read it right.

In Need Of A Renaissance
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In Need Of A Renaissance
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Who’s Who Of Islamist Terror

  • Boko Haram: Jamaatu-Ahli is-Sunnah lid-Da‘watiwal-Jehad or People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jehad, usually translated as “Western education is forbidden”. Killed more than 5,000 civilians and  abducted hundreds,  including 200 schoolgirls.
  • Islamic State or Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS): Al Qaeda offshoot. Seeks to establish military autho­rity over Muslims across the world. Controls large territory in Iraq and Syria where it’s imposed strict Sharia laws. Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared himself Caliph.
  • Al Qaeda: Founded by Osama bin Laden in Peshawar between 1988-89 and responsible for 9/11 attacks in the US. Propagates Salafism—an austere form of Islam. Seeks to restore Islam to its “original” roots. Remains the fountainhead of 20th century Islamist militancy.
  • The Taliban: Inspired by the Deobandi school of Islamic theology, established Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996 with repressive Sharia laws. Opposes women’s education. Toppled by US forces in 2001 post 9/11. Operates in Afghanistan, with offshoots in Pakistan.
  • Lashkar-e-Toiba: Founded by Hafiz Saeed in 1990 in Afghanistan with the aim of setting up an Islamic state in South Asia. Operates from Pakistan. Responsible for 2001 attack on Indian Parliament and the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Runs terror training camps across Pakistan.

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After every Islamist terror outrage, Muslims rush to disown its perpetrators saying they are not “true” Muslims and their Islam is not the “real” Islam. Islam, they insist, is a religion of peace and abhors violence. And they cite Quranic verses and the Hadith (compilation of Prophet Mohammed’s sayings and teachings) to highlight Islamic injunctions against violence.

In the wake of the massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, we are hearing the same “but-this-is-not-the-real Islam” narrative once again. Never mind that the gunmen were Muslim and they did it in the name of Islam calling out ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ as they carried out their ruthless mission to avenge Prophet Mohammed’s “honour”. Tariq Ramadan, one of Europe’s leading moderate Muslim thinkers and grandson of Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, denounced the killings as a “betrayal” of “Islamic principles”. And Saudi Arabia, ironically the progenitor of Wahabi Islam which is invoked by Islamist extremists, called it a “cowardly” attack that had no basis in “the true Islamic religion”.

It will be unfair to rubbish this narrative altogether. For it is a fact that millions of ordinary Muslims around the world live peacefully. They may grumble about real or imaginary “inju­stices”, nurse prejudice against other faiths, refuse to integ­rate with the mainstream of the societies they live in, but they don’t go about killing those they don’t like. And, like other religions, Islam does not preach violence. Even though Fox News struggled to find enough Muslims who condemned the Paris killings, the fact is they evoked almost universal Muslim condemnation, and unequivocally, a steep change in the Muslim attitude from the days not too long ago when such denunciations almost always came with riders.

Yet, the number of Muslims who, we are told, are not “true Muslims” and don’t represent “real Islam” is growing steadily. And they have a presence in almost every corner of the globe, from West Asia and Africa to South Asia, Europe and America. Why, even Indian Muslim youth have started to head for “jehad”. At the time of 9/11, there was just one Al Qaeda—and back then it acted not so much in the name of Islam as in “defence” of Muslims against Western policies.

Today, the world is crawling with Islamist outfits—Boko Haram, Al Shabab, Islamic State, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Taliban of various hues, a variety of Lashkars, brigades and fronts—each deadlier than the other. Just in the past one month, there has been a wave of atrocities linked to Muslim extremist groups: the killing of 132 innocent schoolchildren in Peshawar; the Sydney cafe hostage siege; a string of suicide attacks in Yemen and Iraq; a bus bombing in the Philippines; and a series of mass killings by Boko Haram in the Nigerian town of Baga in which more than 2,000 people were reported killed or “unaccounted for”. Meanwhile, the ISIS-sponsored mayhem in Iraq and Syria continues.

Is there a comparable example of people of any other faith acting in such a manner in the name of their faith?

Might not be out of place then to ask: what is it about Islam that it produces so many rogue followers?

“It’s time for us to break, once and for all, with the Leninist reasoning that has been served up for so long by the useful idiots of a radical Islam immersed in sociology of poverty and frustrations,” wrote noted French intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy in The Sunday Times.

The Quran is a minefield for a lay person with equivocal and contradictory injunctions appearing in different places.

Arguably, BHL is too sweeping in his rejection of “poverty and frustrations” as among the reasons for Muslim radicalisation. They are not entirely a “Leninist” invention. Just look at the background of the two brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo murders. But, of course, it doesn’t explain everything and ignores the role of religion. The inescapable reality is that the followers of Islam do justify violence in the name of Allah. ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ has become a familiar war cry. There may be poor or angry Hindus, Christians and Jews who also find religious motivation, if not scriptural sanction, for violence. But Muslims must face up to the stark truth that what is happening is very much a Muslim and Islamic problem.

“Whether we like it or not, these terrorists call themselves Muslims. It’s no good for people to say they are not Muslims: that’s what they call themselves,” Sajid Javid, Britain’s secretary of state for culture, has said.

And that brings us to what lies at the heart of the issue: is Islamist terrorism simply the fault of a clutch of misguided individual Muslims? Or has it something to do with Islam? As the liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked: “Is there something about Islam that leads inexorably to violence, terrorism and subjugation of women?”

So, let’s try and nail the problem and ask: what is Islam? For there’s no point pretending that the likes of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph of ISIS, are not Muslims—and not inspired by a strain of Islam which derives its legitimacy from the same Islamic sources that inspire the rest of the mostly peace-loving global ummah. Both “good” and “bad” Muslims draw on the same Islamic fundamentals—the Quran and Hadith. The difference is of interpretation; the roots of the problem lie in the ambiguity of its sacred texts.

To quote Kristof, while “some read the Quran and blow up girls’ schools, others read the Quran and build girls’ schools”. If the Taliban represent one face of Islam, Malala Yousafzai does the “polar opposite”.

The Quran is a potential minefield for a lay person with seemingly equivocal and often contradictory injunctions on the same subject appearing in different places. This allows people to cherry-pick what suits them in a particular situation. Thus jehad, one of the most contested terms, is mentioned both in the sense of a “holy war” or an armed struggle against infidels and wrongdoers, and as a peaceful inner spiritual struggle or resistance.

So, jehadis are not literally wrong when they claim they are doing what Islam allows them to do. And those who insist on using it in its spiritual sense are also right. But both are also guilty of selective interpretation, missing the context in which the Quran offers two divergent definitions. The claim that Islam extends equal courtesy to followers of all faiths doesn’t quite gel with, for instance, what is said in Sura (chapter) Al-Baqarah which makes a clear distinction bet­ween believers and non-believers and the latter are repeatedly admonished that great punishment awaits them on the Day of Judgement. But it also says god alone has the power to decide who or who not to punish, it’s not for ordinary mortals to judge others. This allows both sides in the deb­ate—the literalist extremists and moderates who take a more nuanced approach—to interpret it to suit their argument.

Likewise, regarding the status of women in Islam, there are verses in Sura Al-Nisa that lay great stress on treating women with “fairness” but then, interspersed with all that, are injunctions that clearly cast women as subordinate to men. They get the lesser share of inheritance, the weight assigned to a woman’s testimony is less compared to a man’s and harsher punishment is prescribed for women who commit adultery than for men.

Actually, the problem lies in the way the Quranic verses are arranged—sans context and without relation to other verses in the same chapter. So, when read in isolation, as they routinely are, they allow room for contradictory interpretations.

“The truth of the matter is that the Quran was not revealed in the complete form in which it exists today. It was revealed from time to time, according to the circumstances, over a time-span of 23 years,” explains Maulana Wahi­duddin Khan, one of India’s foremost liberal Islamic thinkers, in the introduction to his English translation of the Quran (Goodword Books, 2009).

The Quran, he acknowledges, “does not follow the pattern of the traditional didactic book” and appears on the face of it to be a “collection of fragmentary statements”. But he justifies this arrangement of the Quran on grounds that it was meant to retain its original form “in order to fulfil its purpose of conveying the message of truth to the readers who may, in his forays into the scriptures, read only one page, one verse or one line at a time”.

“The Quran was not revealed in the complete form it exists in today. It was revealed from time to time over 23 years.”

There is the same problem with the other main source of Islamic beliefs—the Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet. They are too numerous, were pronounced in wholly different contexts and compiled many years after his death. Their precise meaning was frequently lost in translation. Yet, they are glibly quoted out of context to back contentious claims. There are also a number of “inauthentic” Hadith attributed to the Prophet.

The short point is that once we leave aside their motives, the extremists cannot be accused of inventing a new brand of Islam which they then invoke to justify their actions. Elements of their brand of Islam already existed. All they have done is to select the bits that suit their agenda and present it as the “real” Islam. Just as the other side insists that their interpretation constitutes real Islam.

Muslims acknowledge this is a problem but then hasten to add that the Quran is immutable and no interference is permitted. The Quranic injunction is very clear and unambiguous on this aspect. It says: “Those whom We have given this Book follow as it ought to be followed; it is they who (truly) believe in it; those who deny it will be the losers.”

In the face of such firm admonition, any suggestion about rearranging and contextualising Quranic verses is promptly denounced as heresy. When I wrote an article recently exp­loring the need for an Islamic version of the New Testa­ment, I was warned that if I had said this in an Islamic country I might have been sued for blasphemy. Such orthodoxy and its violent expressions are not unique to Islam. Christianity went through a similar phase. Campaigns to “Christianise” Pagan Europe in the Middle Ages were not always peaceful, and then, of course, there is the bloody history of Inquisition and the Crusades. But while Christianity grappled with the problem, Islam has failed to do so. There has been no modern Islamic equivalent of Enlightenment and Renaissance, and it remains awkwardly out of step with modern times.

Attempts to encourage debate such as through the Mu’tazilah movement, which advocated rational thought, were shot down by fundamentalists who came to hold sway. One of the key doctrines of Mu’tazilah was that the Quran must be approached as a living text responding to present-day realities rather than an immutable book frozen in time.

“We are not living in the 3rd or 4th century of Islam and human mind and power of reason has greatly advanced and we are in a much better position to use our god-given mental faculty to take another objective look into this question,” writes Islamic scholar Muhammad Yunus in New Age Islam, a progressive Delhi-based website.

Meanwhile, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has called for a “religious revolution” to purge Islam of extremist tendencies. In an emotional speech to clerics at Al-Azhar University, the highest seat of Sunni learning, he said: “I say and repeat that we are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before god. The entire world is wat­ching...the Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost by our own hands.”

Ironically, even as he was saying this, an Egyptian court sentenced a university student, Karim al-Banna, to three years’ imprisonment for “contempt of Islam” after he wrote on Facebook that he was an atheist; Fatima Naoot, a writer, is on trial for criticising slaughter of sheep during Id; and a poet, Karim Sabre, is in jail for writing a story, ‘Where’s God?’

To cut to the chase, the time has come for Muslims to confront the crisis facing Islam head-on if we don’t want the likes of the Paris murderers to “walk away with the show”, as the Canadian writer Irshad Manji warned in her book, The Tro­uble with Islam Today, way back in 2003 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. She challenged “fellow Muslims” to “come clean about the Islam you reflexively defend”. “By insisting there’s nothing the matter with Islam today, we’re sweeping the reality...under the rug,” she argued, urging “fellow Mus­lims” to “snap out of our denial”. For posing these uncomfortable questions, she was denounced as “Salman Rushdie in skirts”.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo episode, Muslims do realise that it cannot remain business as usual for too long, but there is still a reluctance to speak up; and the longer this reluctance lasts the more damage it does to Islam. An Islamic Renaissance anyone?


(Hasan Suroor is the author of India’s Muslim Spring.)

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