Sunday, July 17, 2016

Saif Mahmood - It is not enough for Muslims to say that terrorists misinterpret Islam

I am amused when I am often asked to present a “liberal Muslim viewpoint” on an issue. Why am I considered a “liberal Muslim” ? I was born a Muslim. As a child, I was made to read the Quran in Arabic – a language I do not understand – by rote. I was tutored in the essentials of faith by a neighbourhood maulavi through a book written for young Muslim boys in the early years of the last century on the correct methods of performing ablutions, praying, fasting, and compensating for doing all or any of this in an impermissible way.
But I also attended English medium schools, participated in Diwali pujasat the neighbours, celebrated Raksha Bandhan in school, earned a number of degrees, joined the bar, made English my language of communication, travelled the world wearing western suits and wrote and spoke extensively on ‘non-religious’ matters. So perhaps this makes me a “liberal”. Together, these attributes perhaps make me a “liberal Muslim” – a favourite commodity for TV channels debating anything from Triple Talaq to Ramzan terrorism.

As Television Rating Points enthusiasts rejoice in this discovery, I ask myself : Is it possible to be a liberal and a Muslim at the same time? That this question can be asked for a religion that came as an egalitarian social reform movement itself bears testimony to the fact that something is fundamentally and terribly wrong.

My Islam vs theirs
Even as hundreds are being killed in the name of religion, apologists continue chanting the corroded mantra – terrorists have no religion – and to back their defence, explain that if they did, they would not be killing fellow-Muslims or bombing the Prophet’s city. Yes, there are Islamic injunctions against violence. There are verses that give the message of tolerance and universal brotherhood. There are exhortations for treating even enemies with deference. But that is not the only side of Islam and cannot be overstretched to cloak the other side that has been successfully usurped by ISIS and the like.

In covering themselves with this Oedipus blind, these apologists are deliberately disregarding the fact that the killers involved in each of these incidents (including the one in Medina) also swore by one or the other Quranic verse to justify their acts as part of an essential religious duty. For them, what they were doing was as Islamic as for me or you it is un-Islamic. After the recent Medina bombing, Muslims all over the world are busy declaring that the bomber had nothing to do with Islam since the Prophet had reportedly said: “Anyone who harms (the people of) Medina, Allah will make him melt in fire like iron or like salt in water”.

In making these declarations, they conveniently forget that, probably, it is the self-same hadith that made the bomber unleash terror on Medina in the first place. It seems that the man was convinced that some religious practices being followed there were “harming” true Islam and to save Medina from these harms, decided to “melt people in fire”. What does it result in then - their Islam against mine?

What must Muslims do?
It is this philosophy of everyone claiming ownership of his own brand of Islam that has led to Islam being at war not only with the rest of the world but also with itself, leading to dreadful instances of bloodbath in Syria and Iraq. In these circumstances, is it enough for Muslims to say that terrorists “misinterpret” the scriptures ? Are our scriptures and theological texts beyond misconstruction ? I am afraid, the answer is an emphatic “no”.

In fact, both the Quran and the Hadith (Prophet’s teachings) are, what journalist Hasan Suroor calls “a minefield of ambiguity allowing people to cherry-pick” verses and sayings to defend their case. The hundreds of translations and the dozens of authoritative commentaries of these texts are not only vulnerable to but, in fact, invite manipulation – and portions from both are routinely quote-mined to defend outlandish opinions. After all, why does no one misinterpret Newton’s law of gravity?

The question that naturally follows is: what should, then, a “liberal” Muslim do if not say that that his religion and its teachings are being misinterpreted? This question needs to be answered at various levels. To begin with, it is not only the “liberal” Muslim but every Muslim who must do something about this – and that “something” is to stop living in denial. Instead of being defensive, we must acknowledge the problem – this itself will lead to a serious change.

Among other things, Muslim parents need to create an environment, not only of passive tolerance but of active harmony. Ordinary Muslims need to mobilise a mass movement and come out on streets against extremism, as they do – and rightly so – against Israel’s excesses on Palestine. The ordinary Indian Muslim on the street is a formalist who makes it to the local mosque, at least every Friday. The neighbourhood Imam should, therefore, instead of reading an incomprehensible sermon in Arabic and advising people on the length of their pyjamas while praying, publicly denounce and slam violence in his weekly sermons and declare it anti-Islamic from the pulpit without any “ifs” and “buts”. The message should be loud and clear – irrespective of the cause, violence shall not be tolerated in any form.

Finally, Islamic scholars must recognise the fundamental need of Islam – Islam is in need of a Renaissance. Like every other religion that has grown by proselytisation, Islam too has had a violent history which, in those times, was defensible. However, much as the advent of Islam was all about progressivism, unlike their proselytising predecessors, Muslim theologists have failed to inform their beliefs and attitudes with contemporary standards and demands of inclusivity.

There is a pressing need to present Islamic texts unambiguously and in consonance with present-day realities, leaving no room for misconstruction by anyone. If they keep their political differences and selfish interests aside, this is an exercise that can stem from faith itself rather than through an artificial compromise with a phenomenon from outside.

This is what Muslims – “liberal” and others – must do.

But what about non-Muslims?
But are Muslims alone required to take the entire burden of solving this mess? Is the onus of arresting radicalisation solely on them? Again, the answer must be an equally emphatic “no”. Societal and political attitudes towards Muslims need a drastic change. Expecting the common Muslim to apologise for a terrorist attack in Paris or circulating jokes on how everyone must keep a Quranic verse handy to save oneself from unexpected murders after Dhaka only adds fuel to the communal fire in which the oppressed and mistreated Muslim community has been burning for ages.

And, in India, what certainly does not help is the demand of selectively banning an obnoxious pinheaded Muslim evangelist while ministers who unabashedly hurl the filthiest of abuses on the Muslim community not only go scot-free but are accorded official protocol.

Muslims must set their house in order but what will they build on if every now and then someone keeps perforating the foundation on which their house stands? As we try to answer such bewildering questions, the “liberal Muslim” in me must seek refuge in Iqbal who has best explained the dilemma of every “liberal Muslim”:

Zaahid-e-tang-nazar ne mujhe kafir jaana
aur kafir ye samjhta hai, muslmaan hoon maiyn
While the narrow-minded mullah considers me an infidel
the infidel thinks I am Muslim

Saif Mahmood is PhD (law), Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Founder, South Asian Alliance for Literature, Art & Culture


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