The purported danger to Islam is once again widely proclaimed by those who practice or set out to justify contemporary Islamist terrorism under the guise of a 'resistance' against the alleged global machinations of 'crusaders, Jews and Hindus'. With this fragile justification, a small group of extremists has declared a jihad against, it would appear, everything and everyone with whom they have the slightest disagreement, and these lunatics derive an illusion of great power from acts of wanton slaughter which can and will achieve nothing beyond a transient sense of shock in the victim communities.
There is, however, a very real sense in which Islam is, in fact, in grave - possibly existential - danger. Indeed, Islam may already long have succumbed to this danger; and what is being propagated today, particularly by the most vocal of Islamists, is no more than a parody of the teachings of the Prophet. Islamist fundamentalism and extremism are, today, above all, a war within and against Islam, though they may thrive on an anti-Western or (in the South Asian context) anti-Hindu rhetoric. A new 'priesthood' - essentially self-appointed, but immensely powerful - has now appropriated the 'right' to interpret Islam for the entire community, seeking to impose its will on all the 'faithful', and to punish all whom they label 'apostates', deviationists, sinners or unbelievers, with the use of extreme and arbitrary force.
This arrogation of the right to interpret Islam for all its adherents is, simply put, a violation of the most fundamental tenets of the Quranic creed. The 'priesthood' of Mullahs and Muftis and Ayotollahs is an un-Islamic and unlawful 'innovation' - a bida'at - that militates directly against the Prophet's teachings. The Prophet Mohammed was, in fact, a revolutionary who fought against the fundamentalist priesthood of his age and categorically rejected the very possibility of priestly intercession in the interpretation of the Faith. Jinnah - after he had exploited Islamist polarisation and the mullahs to the hilt - articulated the Islamic ideal: "Every person will be his own priest for there is no priesthood in Islam. There is no theocracy in Islam."
And yet, almost every Muslim majority country in the world is, today, veering towards theocracy. This is not surprising. Through history, priests have conspired with tyrants to perpetuate oppression - and contemporary Islamists are no different in their conspiracy to hold the large mass of Muslims in thraldom, where possible, directly, and otherwise, in collusion with a range of odious authoritarian regimes that secure their power overwhelmingly through the use of excessive and lawless force.
The rise of the Taliban and of various fundamentalist-extremist-terrorist formations such as the Jamaat-ud-Daawa / Lashkar-e-Tayyeba or the Khuddam-ul-Islam / Jaish-e-Mohammed, with the support of a succession of military dictatorships and pseudo-democratic regimes in the militarised state of Pakistan are obvious examples, and the disastrous consequences of this fundamentalist-authoritarian conspiracy in that ill-fated country are manifest. The hatred between Sunnis and Shias, between Deobandis and Barelvis and the multitude of other schools and sects within Islam, as well as against the entire 'other' world of the kafirs, is tearing the Muslim world apart, dragging it into a new 'dark age'.
I am no scholar of Islam, but I have read the Quran with interest. I also often watch the Quran Channel, as well as religious programmes on Pakistan TV - the cadences of the recitations from the Quran are most agreeable. But I am almost uniformly appalled by advisory programmes in which a mullah - and sometimes three mullahs - sit and declaim on the problems of the Faithful who write in to them, prescribing rituals and magical remedies to rid the unfortunate of the effects of 'jadu' or for diseases, and deriving some of the most absurd 'solutions' for social and psychological problems from doubtful 'traditions', most of which reflect nothing beyond prejudice, superstition and a range of values derived from the local culture, and that have little to do with the teachings of the Prophet. As with all priesthoods, submission is the one value that is emphasised above everything else - submission to patriarchal institutions, to an authoritarian state, and, above all, to religious authority - all, of course, cast into the language of 'submission to the will of Allah'.
For 400 years after the Prophet, Islam experienced a tremendous efflorescence, producing some of the great intellectual and scientific advances of human history. In the centuries thereafter, it has been in relentless decline. The ferment we witness today is not a sign of revival or reinvigoration, but a violent culmination of this long process of decline. It is the manifestation of a great faith fallen into sterility and self-destruction. It is the failure of the contemporary Muslim world to produce anything of great worth that feeds into its aggression and sense of 'victimhood', and these are compounded by the perversity of education and the general backwardness of the community. Islamist terrorism is not a war against America, against 'Western hegemony' or against 'Hindu expansionism', it is an act of suicide - much akin to the suicide bombers who have come to represent, in the popular mind, the worst of contemporary Islamism. This is a mad rush towards the abyss, the tragic denouement of a great religion being destroyed by the bigotry and petty-mindedness of its leaders and its priesthood. Despite the horror of individual deaths that terrorism naturally evokes, this should not frighten the world; it should, rather, evoke sympathy, if not pity, in us.
The traditions of the Prophet emphasised knowledge, above all else. "Worship, without knowledge," it is said, "has no goodness in it, and knowledge without understanding has no goodness in it." And further, "Acquire knowledge: It enables its possessor to distinguish right from the wrong, it lights the way to heaven; it is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when friendless - it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in misery; it is an ornament among friends and an armour against enemies." These - and not the tyranny of the mullahs - were the values that produced Islam's golden age in history. Unless contemporary Islam rediscovers these essentials of the faith and is reformed at the most fundamental level, its decline will continue to its logical, inevitable and unfortunate conclusion.
K.P.S.Gill is a former DGP, Punjab. This piece originally appeared in The Pioneer