Vol. 5 Num 295 Sun. March 27, 2005  

Jihad against partisan political use of Islam
Struggle of a Bangladeshi Muslim

Fatemolla is a familiar name, mainly among internet users/readers interested in the critique of political Islam, especially among Bangladeshi Muslim freethinkers. He is one of the leading crusaders against persecution of women, minorities and others in the name of Islam. While sections of liberal-democrat-secular Bangladeshis adore him for his maverick views and bold ideas, some conservative and traditional Muslims have already declared him an iblees or devil and a murtad or apostate.

However, despite being fully aware of the implications of getting branded as a murtad, Fatemolla has remained unstoppable. He has been hitting hard the core of obscurantist mullahs and the so-called Islamic thinkers and philosophers like Hasan Banna, Sayyid Qutb, Abul Al'aa Mawdudi and their modern adherents. The most interesting aspect of his writing is his unique way of hitting political Islam, not with atheism or secular philosophy, but with Islamic texts, mainly the Quran and some authentic hadises or sayings of Prophet Muhammad in the light of history. Islamic dogmatism and the mindless conformity of the ultra-orthodox Muslim clerics, who lack both the ability and understanding for the need for changing the Shariah law in accordance with the changed circumstances of our age, have been the main targets of Fatemolla's blitzkrieg.

This highly misunderstood, prolific writer has been running a web page called jamatepislami since mid-2004, posting his own thoughtful essays, poems, and satiric writings and a few relevant news items from newspapers and journals. The web page has become quite popular among a large number of Bangladeshis. Some of his postings came out in Bangladeshi newspapers and his satiric play depicting the plight of Muslim divorcees is being turned into a feature film in Canada.

This diligent and self-taught, sincere and honest "Islamic Modernist" of the internet age lives in the West and devotes his spare time solely to research and writing on the abuse of Islam both by Muslim clerics, village elders and their counterparts in urban Bangladesh. His prose is lucid, style is modern and the approach is very convincing and argumentative. The text is garnished with scores of contextual and relevant Quranic verses, historical facts and anecdotes from the lives of the Holy Prophet, his companions and the various Muslim jurists and theologians.

Unlike what the Islam-bashers do, attack Islamits Prophet and scripturefor the violation of human rights and all the prevalent vices present among Muslims, Fatemolla has consistently defended the Quran and the Prophet. The main thrust of his argument is that the Quranic verses and the authentic sayings of the Prophet should be taken contextually and that the Muslims in our times should apply common sense and reasoning (aqel and ijtihad) to get the right meaning and message of the Quran. He has argued that nothing short of an Islamic Reformation can salvage the downtrodden Muslims who have been one of the most backward, illiterate, superstitious, poor and stigmatized communities in the world. He thinks that Muslim orthodoxy and stubborn mullahs' obduracy to reform and re-interpret the teachings of Islam in the light of new knowledge and changed circumstances are mainly responsible for the appalling image of Islam and its adherents throughout the world.

The title, jamatepislami (literally stands for "the slimy jamaat"), might be misleading, as it rhymes with "Jamaat-e-Islami", an Islam-oriented ultra-rightist political party of Bangladesh (and Pakistan and India), which is stigmatized among the average Bangladeshi for its active collaboration with the Pakistani occupation army during the Liberation War in 1971. Some readers might consider it only as an anti-Jamaat platform of Fatemolla, who has been campaigning against "political Islam" for quite some time. Once they have gone through his various well-written essays on the inherent dangers posed by "political Islam," they would appreciate its real value.

Although some peripheral discussions about the Shariah-based autocracies are there in jamatepislami, yet Fatemolla's main focus is on the ludicrous idea of Shariah as a universal code for all Muslims for all times everywhere. He has skilfully pinpointed the ambivalence of the Shariah code by exposing its contradictions with the teachings of the Quran and the Holy Prophet. He is dead against the literal interpretations and out of context citing of some Quranic verses, which might justify polygamy, slavery and cohabitation with slave girls, wife beating, killing of non-Muslims and other inhuman practices. In short, this is an attempt to re-open the doors of ijtihad both qias and ijma (individual and collective re-interpretations of the scripture) -- by shunning the Shariah as much as possible. He has exposed many un-Islamic teachings of the so-called hadises and the reactionary Shariah law, created in the medieval era by agents of patriarchy, monarchy and autocracy in the name of Islam.

Some of the very interesting essays and articles by Fatemolla are: Mukh Khola (To Open One's Mouth), Khamba (Pillar), Pislami Syllabus (A Critique of Al-Azhar University's Reactionary Syllabi) and Ke Murtad? (Who is a Murtad?) . The other pieces on female leadership, honour killing, polygamy, female testimony, arbitrary issuance of fatwas (religious decrees) by the mullah to the detriment of women and minorities are thought provoking, very well argued and reflective of his missionary zeal to save Islam as well as the victims of "political Islam." While on the one hand he is critical of some of the modern stalwarts of "political Islam" for their denial to separate religion from politics; he on the other hand takes certain Islamic groups like the Al-Mohajeroon of Britain to task for considering those Muslims who take part in the British Parliamentary elections as apostates, as the Parliament enacts secular laws, which often go against the tenets of Islam.

Contesting the legitimacy of the "sixth pillar" of Islam, as espoused by Baana-Qutb-Mawdudi type Islamist thinkers (vide Khamba), which does not separate religion from politics, Fatemolla reiterates his point quite convincingly that the prophets did not come as politicians or administrators but guides for mankind. He thinks it is high time that Bangladeshi Muslims stop "Jamaat" or "political Islam," the "dangerous transgressor of the teachings of the Quran, Islam's enemy number one."

His Pislami Syllabus is another eye-opener for the ordinary Muslims who are awe-stricken by the sanctity of the famous Al-Azhar University of Egypt. This article reveals the obscurantist and pre-modern syllabi of the university, which among other things justify: a) conversion of non-Muslims by force, death being the other option for them; b) jihad against the non-Muslims as obligatory; c) treating the non-Muslim subjects as dhimmis or "protected people," forcing them to cut their fringe on the forehead as their symbol of identity, denying them the use of horse but donkeys instead; and e) the ban on music and musical instruments. Fatemolla has rightly compared these draconian rules with the edicts of Mullah Umar of Afghanistan under the Taliban.

The moral of the story is that unless Bangladeshi Muslims are saved from the hands of the obscurantist mullah, a replication of the Al-Azhar dogma of hate and violence is possible in Bangladeshi madrassas or Islamic seminaries. Fatemolla has pointed out (vide Ke Murtad?) how very similar to Al-Azhar mullahs, who never stop from issuing fatwas-to-kill Egyptian "murtads" Nagib Mahfouz, Nawal Sadawi, Nasr Zaid and their likes, Bangladeshi mullahs have been issuing such fatwas against several prominent poets and writers for alleged blasphemy and apostasy. He has cited Quranic verses, including 4:137 (Sura Nissa), in buttressing his argument that the Quran does not prescribe death penalty for apostasy at all. His logical justification for female leadership in Islam, rejection of polygamy as un-Islamic, and advocacy of equal rights and opportunities for women and minorities in Muslim countries are too difficult to demolish by the conformist, traditional Muslims. The ulama are simply not equipped with enough of an arsenal to confront Fatemolla, unless they resort to take cover behind the corpus of the problematic hadis literature and the obsolete Shariah.

The latest addition in the list of Fatemolla's tirade against obscurantism and un-Islamic preaching and practices by the mullahs is the series of commentary on retired bureaucrat, Shah Abdul Hannan's recent book, Bidhibaddho Islami Ain (The Prescribed Islamic Law or Shariah). This monster of a book, 2300 pages in several volumes, published by the Islamic Foundation in Dhaka (this autonomous body like the Bangla Academy is very generous to the authors whose remunerations depend on the length of their respective worksmore pages simply mean more money) is another example of what closed minds can produce and do to the detriment of human progress and knowledge.

The blind followers of the Shariah, including people like Shah Abdul Hannan, neither apply reason nor the teachings of the Quran to evaluate (accept and reject) the man-made Shariah law. Fatemolla has skilfully exposed this flaw in the Islami Ain.

He has correctly pointed out the main flaw in Hannan's exposition that Imam Abu Hanifa and his companions not only codified the Shariah for their age but for the Muslims everywhere in all ages. He has buttressed his argument that Shariah is obsolete in our times and has no eternity like the Holy Quran by citing several Islamic scholars of our time. They include Hashim Kamali, Abdur Rahman Doi, Abdul Aziz Sachedina, Fazlur Rahman and others who have all rejected the divinity of Shariah law. While Hashim Kamali has pointed out the inadequacies of the Shariah in meeting the needs of modern Muslims, and has suggested drastic changes and modifications in the so-called Islamic code, Sachedina has succinctly stated that the needs of the past and present are very different.

What we get in this interesting web page is that:

a) Shariah or the predominantly hadis-based code often goes against the teaching and spirit of the Quran, protects the institutions of slavery, absolute monarchy, patriarchy and misogyny, concubinage and illicit sex with slave girls and many other revolting and inhuman institutions and practices.

b) The fundamental problem with both the hadis literature and the Shariah is their being equated with the Holy Quran as divine and eternal by the bulk of the ulama throughout the Muslim world. It is a pity that Muslim theologians, jurists and philosophers during the heyday of the Abbasid and Ottoman dynasties, as subservient employees of the autocratic rulers (also known as caliphs), justified autocracy, patriarchy, polygamy, slavery and other vices through the so-called sayings of the Prophet or hadises and the Shariah. Thus the compilers of the hadises: Imams Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood, Tirmizi and others as well as the Muslim jurists like Abu Hanifa and Shafi have occupied the stature of saints, almost with the infallibility of the Holy Prophet. Meanwhile, Sufis and saints like Abdul Qadir Jeelani, Mansoor Hallaj, Rabiya Basri, Muinuddin Chishti, Bahauddin Zakariya Multani, Nizamuddin Aulia and many others tried in vain to stage an Islamic Reformation, promoting anti-feudal, liberal doctrine of love and peaceful co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims, believers, agnostics and non-believers in the true spirit of Islam.

c) Unless the Muslims learn about the flaws of the hadis literature, including the unreliability of many sahih or "authentic" hadises, and the limitations of the man-made Shariah, there is no way out for them towards freedomfreedom from the clutches of autocracy, terrorism and "mullahcracy"almost everywhere in the Muslim world, including Bangladesh.

In sum, although Fatemolla's jamatepislami is not a comprehensive, flawless compendium of ideas to eradicate terrorism and inhuman laws created and nourished in the name of Islam, through his incisive writing he has taken a bold step towards reason and rationalism, always inculcated by Islam.

Taj Hashmi writes from York University, Toronto.