Since 9/11 the sale of the holy Qur'an and biographies of Prophet Muhammad has gone up in America. Students in colleges and universities are more inclined towards learning Arabic and taking courses to learn about the history and theology of Islam. This has opened up a door for people to pay attention to the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and other Muslim majority countries. As the US troops marched into Afghanistan and Iraq, the two mostly spoken languages of the region became of high interest. Studying Persian in the academia is being more valued more than ever. University of Pennsylvania for example, recently opened a Centre for Persian studies. Scholars are being hired from overseas to teach Persian and Arabic at the university. Pashto has also become increasingly important. American academia is now looking closely and studying the Islamic world and civilisation.
For Americans new insight is necessary to contextualise and justify the recent turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is also necessary for them to learn the language, religion, culture, and history of whom they fight against. As Bankim Chandra Chatterjee pointed out a long time ago, 'knowledge for the West means power, for us it means salvation.' Many scholars argue that the British invasion of India was far more powerful than the previous Muslim rule as the British not only subjugated India economically and politically, but the uniqueness of British invasion lied in their intellectual and moral subjugation of India. When the enemy is morally defeated, half of the battle is already won, and the effects remain long lasting.
The US is using a similar approach in leaming about the Muslim world. What alarms me to no end is: today those who are learning about Islam are those who believe in a fascist rule based on a fractured understanding of Islam. Those of us who are Muslims and do not necessarily feel comfortable with the politicisation of Islam are simply sitting inactive, and worst of all, some of us are denying that the problem exists altogether.
Today, some of us are ashamed to call ourselves Muslims, but is it also fair to just sit idle while others play a tug of war over our faith? Our ignorance of Islam would not be a problem today given we were all atheists. But alas, we are a strange breed of religious creatures that blindly follow a faith without understanding adequately its origin, history and theology. We follow the Qur'an without reading it in Arabic and understanding it for ourselves. Rather, we base our understanding on the preaching of the so called religious scholars, the ulamas, and now the political leaders who speak in Islamic idioms.
Our politicians, secular, fundamentalist, left, right all have used Islam to win their political battles. Bangladeshi people's deep affinity with their spiritual lives and deep rooted faith in Islam had been exploited by the leaders. As a result, whatever that was sacred have been stripped away, leaving us with a religion which is nothing but a skeleton of few rules and rituals. Even whose bones are falling apart with the fractured and deliberately misleading reading of the Qur'an, Hadith and the history of Islam.
If one does a comparative study of religions and looks closely at the history of Islam and the life of the Prophet, it becomes clear that Islam is as liberal as it gets when it comes to 'organised religions.' The revelations of the Qur'an are supposed to be interpreted in light of a particular time and not to be taken on its face value. Qur'anic revelations were sent from Allah 1400 years ago based on the socio-economic-political-cultural framework of Arabia. One simply cannot take those rules on their face value and apply them to Bangladesh 2006, when the socio-economic-political-cultural framework is utterly different. This provision is permitted by ijtihad in the Islamic authorities.
Some people argue that the concept of secularism does not exist in Islam. This statement is misleading because in the West the concept of secularism arose due to the separation of the Church and the State, whereas, in Islam there is no Church, so the concept of secularism does not arise as such in the West. This does not mean that the concept and ideology of secularism does not exist, but it is inherently inadequate to find a literal Arabic translation for the word 'secular.'
Similarly, the concept of orthodoxy and heresy do not exist it Islam, which makes it even more liberating. There is no equivalent to the church in Islam. The mosque only functions as a place of prayers unlike the church which functions with a clergy and pope validating an official truth, deviation from which would then be called heresy. Since there is no church in Islam to promulgate the official truth, there is no orthodoxy, thus there could be no heresy.
There are four separate schools of law (Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, Shafii) from which Sunni Muslims may choose from. The body of Hadith is also multiple. To remain a Muslim one has to only adhere to a tiny core, which is the faith: 'Allah is one and Muhammad is His Prophet.' One would also have to believe in the Qur'an as the revelation from Allah. Apart from that, there are no other elements of Islam disagreeing with, which would disqualify one from being a Muslim. Mughal King Akbar even though initiated a faith called Din-i-ilahi was still not considered a non-Muslim. Even strict Sufi reformer Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (also known as Mujjadid Al-fethani or the renovator of the second millennium) who asserted strongly the Islamic monotheist beliefs did not condemn Akbar.
The Qur'an says, 'there is no compulsion in religion.' A Prophetic Hadith says, 'difference of opinion in my community is a manifestation of divine mercy.' Diversity is celebrated in Islam. Membership of Islam is a matter of "allegiance, not creed." Loyalty to the community is necessary, conversion is not. The Western rendering of Muslim invasion has been iconised by the Muslim riding on a horse with a Qur'an on one hand and sword on the other. Bernard Lewis opens his book 'The Jews of Islam' with a joke that in order for the myth of the horse riding-jihad fighting Muslim to be true, the entire Muslim people had to be left handed because no Muslim would carry the Qur'an on their left hands!
Islam offers endless possibilities for assimilation and that is what lies beneath the Muslim expansion between the seventh and the eleventh century. Islam in South Asia was brought in by the Sufi masters of Perso-Turk region. Their teachings became infused with the local elements and found parallel in Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and devotional practices. It is a historical fact that there would be no Islam in South Asia today, if not for the eclectic Sufism.
It is indeed a pity that belonging to a such a liberating religious past and cultural legacy, we still fall prey to the restrictions put on us by the misleading religious scholars who speak as the spokesmen of politicians who are only interested in getting to the point of power, control, and money by using religion against the uneducated mass.
Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006