There can be two views about Britain’s decision to honour Salman Rushdie with knighthood. Some consider the knighthood deliberate provocation. Others justify it because of Rushdie’s talent. Actually, the knighthood was avoidable. Can Britain’s terrorist attacks last week be traced to it? Rushdie could have been honoured otherwise. His literary talent could have been distilled from religious controversy.
Whatever the merits or demerits of Britain’s decision, there cannot be two views about the response to it by Pakistan’s clerics. It was shameful. The silent majority of Muslims worldwide must be squirming. The clerics gave the precise response that reinforced the popular, prejudiced and ill-informed view of Islam. In the process, they insulted Islam.
This should have caused little surprise. Priests are conspicuously unqualified to react sensibly to political events. This is one compelling reason why religion should be divorced from politics. The explosive mixture of religion and politics is perhaps most prevalent in South Asia. Invariably, the results are tragic.
Generally priests of all faiths are vulnerable to human frailty. They are after all human-appointed men of God. We do not know what God thinks of them. We do not even know what the inspirer of their religion would have thought of them. We do know that too often priests slip into dogma and ritual to acquire misplaced arrogance. They presume to act as middlemen between God and humanity.
The path to heaven is indicated by one who inspires others to follow him. He does not create religion. His followers create it in his memory. Neither Jesus nor Mohammed nor Nanak nor any other messiah or saint organized a new religion. They all profoundly influenced the people they encountered during their unique lives. Their disciples believed them to be manifestations of God, or his messengers. Their influence therefore was spiritual. The priests who spread their teachings could only propagate ethics based on the values imparted by their inspiration. Ethics are very important. The priests did a commendable job. But with time religious organizations grew into vast bureaucracies. Religion became organized like government. Interference in politics followed inevitably. Temporal power inexorably subverted ethical intent. There is a Hindustani saying: pahle peer, phir fakeer, phir ameer. Meaning, first comes the Messiah, then the apostles, and then the rich priests.
So, in the circumstances, how did the clerics of Pakistan respond to Rushdie’s knighthood? To get even with Britain they honoured Osama bin Laden by conferring on him the title of Saif-ul-Allah, the Sword of Islam. The Al Qaeda leader is for them the Sword of Islam! One had thought such high honour could be awarded only to a true warrior, inspired by Hazrat Mohammed or Hazrat Ali. Consider the new "Sword of Islam".
There are several conspiracy theories which suggest that actually hidden forces in the West were responsible for 9/11 – blamed on Osama bin Laden – to further their political agenda. If these theories are true Osama is a spurious fraud. If these theories are false Osama is a depraved psychopath. The conspiracy theories became irrelevant after Osama boasted that he masterminded and directed the 9/11 terrorist attack. Subsequently, Osama never stopped taunting America with his video broadcasts.
However, when America invaded Afghanistan where Osama was based, he fled like a rat with his entire family on a motorcade to undisclosed safe havens in Pakistan. He has remained in hiding. But he continues goading America to unleash further havoc against the people he claims to lead. The terrorists he funds bomb and kill for the most part defenceless, uninvolved and innocent civilians. Very often the victims are women and children. The terrorists associated with Osama have not hesitated even to exploit unwitting children for use as human bombs. One case surfaced last week of a six year old child who escaped after a live bomb was strapped to him. Is this jihad? Is this how the "Sword of Islam" wages battle? By using innocents for terrorist blasts to kill innocents, in irrational visceral hatred? Have not the clerics of Pakistan denigrated their faith by honouring Osama in the name of Islam?
Recall Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, the great warrior saint. Legend has it that once in battle he pinned an adversary to the ground and was about to kill him when his enemy spat on him. Ali held back his sword and spared him. After the battle his puzzled enemy asked: "Why did you not kill me?" Ali replied: "After you spat on me I hated you. So I could not kill you." That is, to kill for personal cause or gain would have violated Islam. This parallels closely the advice that Krishna gave to Arjuna in the Gita: All action must be dispassionate and in pursuit of dharma, or duty.
Clearly, the messiahs and saints who inspired the creation of religions would have got on very well with each other. They spread the same message. It is those who claim to follow them and spread their teachings that fight among themselves to spread religious intolerance and hatred. It is ironical that this should happen in South Asia. The subcontinent has a galaxy of innumerable saints and mystics belonging to the Bhakti and Sufi tradition. They hailed from almost every caste and community to become living examples of spirituality, of total tolerance for all faiths. They are South Asia’s richest untapped legacy. They do not represent a mythical past. They are recorded history.
Farid and Chishti were Muslim saints, Sarmad was a Jew. Nanak, Tukaram, Namdev were Hindus. Ravidas was a Chamaar, Kabir a Muslim weaver. They attracted disciples from all castes, all communities. They never sought their religious conversion. Rajput princes became ardent disciples of Ravidas, the Chamaar saint. Nanak’s closest lifelong disciple was Mardana, a Muslim. Ibrahim Awal, the ruler of Tashkent, became Kabir’s close disciple. These saints imparted teaching that transcended religious affiliation and ritual.
These saints invited opposition only from priests, Muslim as well as Hindu. The priests resented people flocking to saints who respected all religions and sought no conversion. As the mystic poet from Punjab, Baba Farid in a couplet (Couplets of Baba Farid, translated by Maqbool Elahi and published by Majlis Shah Hussai, Lahore, 1967) wrote:
"Rambling through the thorny jungle
Seekest thou the Lord?
Vain is the quest of thine, for sure
Dwells in hearts the Lord."
Another mystic poet, Bulleh Shah, who perhaps had the widest following in undivided Punjab, wrote (in translation here):
"Demolish the mosque, demolish the temple,
Demolish what you can.
But never demolish a person’s heart
For God resides in man."
How do the clerics of Pakistan react to this?
(Puri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)