Kabir Das, a 14th century poet, believed to be born Brahmin and raised as julaha, (literally, a weaver; a lower caste Hindu) seriously admonished Hindus and Muslims for the way they seemed to understand their respective faiths. He was neither a scholar on Islam nor an authority on Hinduism, but he could see the missing ingredient -- love, something he did not see in the practice of Hinduism or Islam. He says:
pothi padhi padhi jag muva, pandit bhaya na koy
dhaee aakhar prem ka, padhe so pandit hoy
(roughly -- no one became wise by reading volumes of books; for that, one must learn the alphabet of Love.)
So profound, so simple and so true.
It shows that in understanding causality, or the cause and effect relationship concerning human issues, such as religion, one does not always need a complete factor analysis. A few major pointers often can result in a reasonably good analysis of the events, or the society. Imagine, what would Kabir, if he were alive today, have said about the Islamic world from what we see today.
One thing that he would have said without hesitation is that there are few "wise" amongst the followers of Islam today. And they need to learn to love and respect not just other Muslims, but every human being, regardless of his or her religious belief. One could hardly disagree.
Nearly a quarter of the world population is Muslim, which suggests Islam is not without strength. All its followers are treated equally -- there is no discrimination amongst them and this equality is one of the biggest strengths of Islam. It is this which has been largely responsible in bringing the oppressed and exploited people of the world into the world of Islam.
But beyond that, the present world of Islam needs more such "strengths" for which reforms are essential. Meaningful reforms can not be brought about by sweeping the deficiencies under the carpet, which has often been tried. We need to bring them out, understand their genesis and eliminate the root cause.
It would be better if it is done with internal recognition for this crying need rather than external pressures. Though, admittedly, meaningful reforms become difficult in the face of harsh criticisms and assaults on the religion, or its tenets, without providing the followers a way out.
The biggest criticism of Islam is that it is intolerant of other faiths. The Quran puts great emphasis on "human duty" and little on "human rights". Based on circumstantial evidence and a few statements in the Quran, that charge does seem to have some merit. Taken at its face value, the Quran does ask for killing infidels; the Quran does ask for subjugating women; the Quran does ask for capital, inhumane punishments; and the Quran does allow slavery.
These practices, however justified may have been 1500 years ago, are totally inconsistent in the present times. They need to be changed. The excuse of the Muslim clergy and the charge of the critics of Islam has been that the Quran provides no mechanism to effect changes in its message. But that is not true.
The Quran does provide a way out through suitable interpretations. It says (Sura 3, verse 7):
"He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of Its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity, they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation, but none knows its interpretation except Allah and those who are firmly rooted in the knowledge..."
Most scriptures are written in a manner that eliminates the factor controlling the age and thus make the message applicable for all times to come. It is clear from the above-mentioned Surah that the Quran possesses that timelessness of its message as well. That means, we need not blame the Quran to be at fault, but only its present interpretation. It is the Muslim leadership that has used the guidance in the Quran for its own selfish interests, with its own selfish interpretation.
Every time I see the children in a madrasa bobbing their heads back and forth as they read and memorize the Quran, it sends a shiver down my spine. I see the future of those children clearly in the future of so many Muslims all over the world who have missed the scientific revolution and who are wasting their lives only in order to destroy others. All in the name of Islam.
This has to change. No question about that. But the trouble with the present day critics of Islam, fortunately a lot of whom are Muslims as it should be, is that they adopt a tone which is harsh, over critical, or overtly confrontational. That approach often loses the message and so the impact.
It should be remembered that Islam is perhaps the youngest of all the major religions. It has to mature. With a possible exception of Hinduism, the concept of Human Rights did not evolve until only a couple of centuries ago. It is still in the process of global acceptance. Americans gave up slavery, in practice, only a few decades ago. We need to show some patience and some restraint as we work for the desired changes in a community that is deliberately and systematically been misled by none other than its own leadership.
In the light of the above-mentioned Sura, the question of changing the Quran, which is tantamount to kufr does not arise. Beside Allah, the Qur’an has already given the control of interpretation to those
"who are firmly rooted in the knowledge".
That is further confirmed in Surah 4, verse 59:
"O you who believe, obey God and obey the messenger, and those of you who are in authority."
Note that it does not say "that, who is in authority", but says "those of you, who are in authority". That can easily be interpreted to mean a body, a constitution, a democracy, which can be the authority. It need not necessarily be a Caliph, or somebody with a big stick as presumed and practiced.
Moving the world of Islam from the one that is human-duty-oriented to the one that is human-rights-oriented is neither prohibited by the Quran, nor made impossible by its message. Muslim intellectuals have been given the liberty to find an interpretation, and a way.
It’s about time they did.
The good news is that the movement of reforming the practices of Islam has begun. There are a large number of Muslims around the world who are revolting against the inhumane and anti human-right practices of Islam, demanding for changes in the understanding, interpretations and Islamic practices.
The Khomeini experiment to Talibanize Iran by bringing in the Caliphate failed. Iran has come out from that painful era and has proceeded to establish a Republic with popular elections, a constituent assembly, a parliament, a president, a council of ministers, and everything else that go with it. Salman Rashdie does not have to live under the fear of fatwa any more.
Turkey has been a secular democracy since the time that Mustafa Kemal abolished the Caliphate by separating the state and the church, soon after the first World War.
With their moderation, education and progress, Indian Muslims have been the model for the world of Islam for decades. Of course, there is still a long way, very long way, to go. But there are positive indications that given a few more decades, if not years, Islam will join the mainstream of progress and development through much-needed social reforms, provided the growth of Muslim intelligentsia is encouraged and enhanced rather than attacked.
As for the "decisive" and "allegorical" statements in the Quran, again it is mostly left to the interpretation of the intellectuals, who the Quran directs to remain in authority. The Quran is a book written in good faith for those with good faith. It has put a big charge and the responsibility on the intellectuals. But the trouble is that the real intellectuals have shied away from assuming that charge, which has pushed the selfish lot in power controlling the destiny of the Muslim world.
That would only change when the intellectuals wake up from their slumber and take charge -- not just in Islam, but in other religions of the world as well. A proper identification of "decisive" and "allegorical" the in Quran by the Muslim intellectuals, followed by an interpretation, which is consistent with the present day state-of-the-art knowledge and human rights, when brought into practice, will eliminate many of the deficiencies, or evils if you will, of today's Muslim world.
Muslims will not need to cry for secularism when in minority and Sharia when in majority, when Sharia becomes totally secular.
Those focused on meaningful reforms, must focus on the question "How did we get here?", which could lead to a true introspection and give honest answers facilitating a change. But often, looking at our ills and the challenges we face, the question we end up asking ourselves is -- "Who did this to us?"
The result? We come up with answers full of conspiracy theories and consequently fail to understand the root-cause of the ill, and fail to bring about much-needed reforms. It is time we avoid that easy but the low road and adopt a relatively difficult but the high way.
One does not need to be a rocket scientist, or a factor analyst to understand this, or suggest it. A person as simple as Kabir could suggest it too.
Dr. Najid Hussain, is the president of a small consultancy specializing in radiation services. He was earlier a Professor at the University of Delaware. He is also the son-in-law of the late M.P. Ahsan Jafri.
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