By Ghulam Mohiyuddin, New Age Islam
It is regrettable that unnecessary controversies and obfuscation have tended to becloud the otherwise clear message of Islam. Many people believe that our ulama have done more harm to Islam than our familiar enemies.
What our Prophet brought to us was a religion for the masses. It is a religion of common sense. It builds on our innate sense of what is right and what is good. Getting such a simple and pure religion wafted about by ‘scholarly’, long-winded and futile disputations is unfortunate. Particularly problematic are statements of many Islamic leaders expressing their insistence on establishing ‘Sharia Laws’, and their opposition to democratic and secular forms of government. Our ulama and scholars should instead expound on what the Quran has to say about issues such as the following: (1) Getting along with our non-Muslim neighbors. (2) Respecting the religions and beliefs of non-Muslims. (3) Equality of men and women. (4) Freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom to dissent. (5) Using only humane forms of punishments for criminals. (6) Democratic forms of government. (7) Secularism, separation of state from religion, and equal rights for minorities. (8) Avoiding violence and considering murder of innocent civilians to be an abominable act. (9) Resolving problems through reconciliation and compromise. (10) Not being spiteful or vindictive and (11) upholding the dignity of men and women.
The Quran does have enlightened, sensible and useful things to say regarding all of the above points, but unfortunately these are seldom elucidated in Friday mosque sermons, lectures or newspaper articles. Even some progressive Muslims advocate “Islamic democracy” as something that they consider to be desirable and wholesome. It reduces members of religious minorities to second class citizenship. The plight of Hindus, Sikhs and Ahhmadiyas in Pakistan, Bahais in Iran and Tamils in Malaysia is cautionary. The state and the government are there to serve all citizens and not to delve into matters of religious belief. A clean separation between state and religion is necessary in all countries which want to be considered civilized. Would Muslims in India or the United States be happy if their countries became a “Hindu democracy” or a “Christian democracy”? If such a state of affairs is not good for us, it is not good for religious minorities in Muslim majority countries either.
In Germany, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats are both secular parties. Many West European countries are nominally Christian, e.g. the Queen of England is the official head of the Church of England, but in practice these countries are secular. However in countries which call themselves ‘Islamic’ such a mature and moderate attitude is usually not seen. The laws and the constitutions in ’Islamic countries’ tend to gravitate towards religiosity and intolerance. Indonesia has a secular constitution, yet in 2003 Aceh province was allowed to have partial Sharia laws. In Turkey the Army has to watch like a hawk to make sure that secularism is not jeopardized. The best thing for Muslim majority countries would be to have a constitutional dispensation such as the First Amendment to the American Constitution which flatly states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.
Ideally political parties should not be based on any religion. They should distinguish themselves from each other by the economic, social, defense or health services programs that they offer as well as by the character of their leaders. But at this time religion based political parties are a fact of life. Consequently people may have the choice of voting for either a secular or a religious party, but even so it is imperative that the state has no religion and the government is neither for nor against any religion. The simple point is that “Islamic democracy” is just not true democracy. If religion and state are not kept apart from each other they are both likely to be diminished. Religion flourishes best in the private non-governmental sphere.
Both Iran and Pakistan have made a mockery of Islam, and their governments are not too successful either. Paradoxical though it may seem, Islam and Sharia may have the best prospect to adapt, reform and flourish in India and the United States rather than in any Muslim majority country. Sharia basically requires that our laws be fair, just, equitable and sensible. Current American laws and the amended Hindu laws are in many respects more Islamic than Sharia laws as practiced in many communities. I find the distinction between deen (“way of life”) and mazhab (religion) to be not very useful.
Deen and mazhab are the same as far as I am concerned. Trying to distinguish one from the other introduces complexities in what is supposed to be a simple faith for the masses. Islam for me is a matter of faith (imaan) in the unity of God and His expectation that we shall be moral and righteous creatures. Having a rigid code setting up a comprehensive system or “way of life” that extends to all aspects of human existence sounds like a prescription for totalitarian or authoritarian oppression. It is not possible or necessary to have such a system that would impose uniformity and discourage freedoms of self-expression and creativity that are so vital to healthy societies. God has given us intelligence as well as conscience so that we can sculpt our “way of life” within the broad parameters of our faith.
Ghulam Mohiyuddin is a retired physician of Indian origin based in the US.