A Report by New Age Islam News Bureau
November 8, 2013
Islam and Peace in the Context of the Composite Culture of India: a Seminar held at JNU on This Subject in Collaboration with New Age Islam Foundation
Islam is universally acknowledged as a religion of peace and total surrender to the Divine essence but why it is constantly conflated in the media today with terrorism, violence, extremism and intolerance. This has baffled many. An attempt was made to reflect on this at a seminar in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi on November 8, 2013. The seminar was titled “Islam and Peace in the Context of Composite Culture of India”. It was organized by the School of Social Sciences, JNU, in collaboration with the Delhi-based New Age Islam Foundation.
Keynote Address by the Renowned Author and Scholar of History from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, Professor Rizwan Qaisar
Among the panellists who presented their papers and participated in a lively discussion on the pertinent subjects were: (1) The renowned author and scholar of history from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, Professor Rizwan Qaisar. (2) The Founder President of New Age Islam Foundation and the Editor of the multi-lingual Islamic website NewAgeIslam.com, a veteran journalist, Mr Sultan Shahin who has acquired an expertise in Islamic theology, politics and culture as well as an empirical knowledge of the impact of religion and ideology over radicalism. (3) Professor Anand Kumar, an eminent professor of Sociology at JNU who has lately been elected as the president of Indian Sociological Society (ISS), a prestigious association of sociologists from all over India.
The seminar was focused on a holistic analysis of the key verses of the holy Quran that widely disseminate the core Islamic principles such as peace, tolerance, inclusiveness and pluralism while at the same time dispelling the doubts arising out of the militant verses of the holy Quran confined to a specific context and era. Moreover, the social, political, economic and religious drives that have the potential to radicalize some Muslims, particularly in India, were also among the main themes of the seminar.
The programme opened with the brief and concise introductory words by Mr. Rajiv, a doctoral research scholar at the School of Social Sciences (JNU).
Editor, New Age Islam, Mr. Sultan Shahin focussed on the composite culture of India with the following remarks: "Hinduism and Islam have lived in India together for almost 14 centuries. The first 13 as excellent neighbours. "Love thy neighbour, for he is yourself." said the Vedas. The Holy Quran agreed: "Do good - to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer." (An-Nisa 4.36).
"Hinduism is known for the catholicity of spirit, broadmindedness and a holistic approach, but many Muslims merely dismiss it now as a byword for superstition. Part of the blame lies with the rise of obscurantist fundamentalists and their exclusivist approach in recent years, though Islam was spread in India largely by Sufi saints who considered all religions to be merely different paths to God.
"It seems to me, however, that a symbiotic spiritual relationship exists between the two great religions. It is a realization of this spiritual symbiosis, though largely unconscious, that I believe helped sustain this harmonious relationship despite the invading Central Asian hordes led by Ghaznis and Ghoris, who called themselves Muslim, and the British colonialists with their massive effort at divide and rule using all possible propaganda tools.
"Islam's encounter with other religions was quite violent. The history of Crusades launched by Christian powers is well known. It was Hinduism alone that provided Islam with a fertile ground for growth. Muslims' treatment of Hindus, too, was quite considerate and in keeping with the Islamic spirit of Lakum Deenakum Waleya Deen (For you your religion, for me mine, the Quran -109:5).
"As Hindus had the reputation of being polytheists and idolaters, Muslims could have treated them as Kuffar and Mushrekeen (religious deviants). Instead, the very first Muslim to conquer parts of India - Sind and Multan in 711 AD - Mohammad bin Qasim, accorded them the special status of Ahl-e-Kitab (people who follow divine books brought by messengers of God before the Prophet Mohammed) that was at first thought to be meant for Christians and Jews alone. (Muslims are permitted to have the best of social, including marital relations, with Ahl-e-Kitab).
"Even the Central Asian bandits who invaded and looted India could not disturb the growing and deepening spiritual ties. A number of Sufi saints spent their lifetime in India, spreading the message of Islam that literally means peace that comes with total surrender to God. The Prophet Mohammed, too, is believed to have felt an attraction for India.
"The Indian sub-continent's pre-eminent poet-philosopher Allama Iqbal wrote:
Meer-e-Arab Ko Aaee Thandi Hawa Jahan Se,
Mera Watan Wohi Hai, Mera Watan Wohi Hai.
(From where the Prophet Mohammed received a cool breeze,
That is my motherland that is my motherland.)
"According to the Holy Quran, there is not one nation in the world in which a prophet has not been raised up:
"There are not a people but a prophet has gone among them" (35:24). And again: "Every nation has had a prophet" (10:47). And again: "And we did not send before thee any but men to whom we sent revelation [Divine Book]" (21:7).
Taking from here, Mr. Shahin made the point that there is plenty of room for deepening of ties between the two communities. He went on:
"Thus a Muslim must accept the great luminaries who are recognized by other religions as having brought light to them, regardless of the terminology used to describe them, as the prophets that were sent to those nations.
"The Quran, however, not only establishes a theory that prophets have appeared in all nations; it goes further and renders it necessary that a Muslim should believe in all those prophets. In the very beginning we are told that a Muslim must "believe in that which has been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Issac and Jacob and the tribes, and in that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and in that which was given to the prophets from their Lord, we do not make distinction between any of them" (2:136).
"The word "prophets" in this verse from the Quran clearly refers to the prophets of other nations.
"Again and again, and in different contexts, the Holy Quran speaks of Muslims as believing in all the prophets of God and not in the Holy Prophet Mohammad alone:
Talking about the composite culture of India, Mr. Sultan Shahin also spoke of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's concept of Wahdat-e-Deen, explaining this from a quotation from one of the greatest Islamic scholars and mystics, Ibn Arabi, who affirmed in his masterpiece al-Fusoos his belief in the unity of all religions: "Beware of restricting yourself to one particular religion and disbelieving in everything else, so that great good would be missed by you, indeed you would miss attainment of knowledge of the affair in the form he is following. Rather be ready to accept all forms of belief. This is because Allah is higher and greater than to be comprehended by one belief to the exclusion of others. Rather all are correct, and everyone who is correct receives award, and everyone who is rewarded is fortunate, and everyone who is fortunate is one with Whom He is pleased."
A View of the Audience in the Seminar
Many Sufi saints in India, Mr. Shahin said, among them prominent names like Mazhar Jan-i-Janan accepted Hazrat Ram Chandra and Hazrat Krishna as Prophets of God as Allah has stated in the Qur'an that He has sent prophets to all nations in all ages who preached to their Ummah in the local languages. Allama Iqbal, as is well-known, called Hazrat Ram Chandra Imam ul Hind. No wonder students of comparative religion have discovered passages in Hindu and Islamic literature corresponding to each other almost word for word.
Mr. Shahin spoke at great length of Swami Vivekanand who On June 19, 1898, wrote: “I see in my mind’s eye the future perfect India rising out of this chaos and strife, glorious and invincible, with Vedanta brain and Islam body.” (Letters of Swami Vivekananda, p. 380). He regretted that neither the Swami himself nor Hindus and Muslims later took up this intuitive idea and take it further. He said, "had we Hindus and Muslims done so, perhaps we would have been spared the horrors of partition and many other tragedies in the last century."
However, his emphasis in the second part of his speech was entirely on asking Muslims to introspect and disassociate themselves with extremist and radical elements among them that seem to be growing fast and capturing the imagination of the educated youth and professionals. He said Islam-supremacism was the biggest evil sapping our energy as well as disturbing our relations with other people. If we are to live in 21st century, we just have to live in harmony with other societies. Giving the example of Meesaaq-e-Medina, the secular constitution that Prophet Mohammad had set up, he said that constitution should be our ideal, not the monarchies ruling Muslim countries.
He said the fact that two alleged terrorists involved in Patna blasts were found to belong to ahl-e-Hadeesi sect. Time has come for Muslims to learn more about ahl-e-Hadeesis, Wahhabis and their ideologues like Ibn-e-Taimiya who would order people being killed at the drop of a hat. But the link with ideology is now out in the open. These Ranchi boys, according to reports in Indian Express and Sunday Guardian, were facing social boycott from other Muslims on account of their affiliation with ahl-e-Hadeesism.
Audience during the Question-Answer Session
He explained the methodology the extremist elements, the Taliban ideologues, for instance, who get hold of our youth and use them for nefarious purposes. Muslims killings Muslims day after day in their worship places is creating a great deal of genuine Islamophobia in the non-Muslim population everywhere, indeed, Muslims themselves have begun to fear for their life particularly in Af-Pak region, Middle East and Africa as to a certain extent even elsewhere.
Quoting from the history of Islam and Seerat of Rasullullah (saw), at some length, Mr. Shahin lamented that the peaceful religion of Islam was being misinterpreted and misused by vested elements for their own political and other purposes while in the process defaming Islam greatly.
Mr. Shahin give a clear and categorical explanation of the cornerstone Islamic concepts such as Jihad, Qital, Farz-E-Ain (individual obligation), Farz-e-Kifaya, Al-Amr Bir Maaroof Wa Nahin Anil Munkir, Al-Ala W'al Bara, etc. that are abhorrently misused and misinterpreted not only by the Islamophobes but also by almost all the militant Islamic groups whose aim is to drag the gullible Muslim youth towards religious fanaticism.
Mr. Shahin made the following fervent plea at the end:
"In order to be ready to become a part of the Vivekanand project, however, the Islam body will have to rid itself of the many viruses it is harbouring in its system today.
"Clearly there are diverse possibilities in the interpretation of Islam. The overwhelming majority of mainstream Muslims believe in and practice Islam as a religion of peace, the very word Islam being synonymous with peace. But the activities of some people based on their understanding of the religion as well as a deliberate misinterpretation on the part of some, in some circles it has also become synonymous with terrorism.
"As in the past Muslims today are interpreting our religion both as a spiritual path to salvation and as a fascist, supremacist, exclusivist, totalitarian philosophy out to conquer the world. It is for each one of us Muslims to make an informed choice according to his proclivities. So I would urge all of you, particularly the youth, to engage themselves fervently with the debate that is going on in various fora, particularly New Age Islam on various issues connected to the theme we have discussed today. We allow all strains of thought to be represented. Anyone of you would be welcome to contribute to our debates on these very burning issues of our times. "
In the vibrant question and answer session that followed, Mr. Shahin was asked if he considered Taliban and other Islamist terrorists as outside the pale of Islam. His reply came as a surprise to many in the audience. He said he was not a Wahhabi follower of Ibn-e-Taimiyya and did not believe in the practice of Takfirism. If Taliban consider themselves Muslims, and say that God is one and Muhammad is his prophet, who is he to call them Kafir. God has not given him this power. God has not given this power to anyone, though some people, among them Ulema of great scholarship, somehow arrogate this power to themselves and as a result there is hardly any Muslim left today who is not a Kafir in the eyes of some other Muslim. So I do not wash my hands off the Islamist terrorists by claiming they are not in the fold of Islam. I am nobody to throw them out of Islam howsoever evil their work and nefarious their designs. I try to engage with them on an ideological level. Some of their ideologues do argue with us and present their points of view on our website. We hope we will be able to show them the right and straight path with the help of God and they might accept that if God so wills.
Another very important question was asked by a lady student who wanted to know if Mr. Shahin did not consider the Holy Quran a timeless book. Mr. Shahin's answer was brief, pithy and yet comprehensive, providing a lot of room of fresh thought to those interested in the subject. He said: "All those verses in the Quran that are reiterating and revalidating the messages and teachings sent by God through previous prophets in the last five to seven thousand years are of a timeless nature. But since, understandably, there has been much change, accretion and deletion, in these last books of God, we will have to find most of the messages of timeless nature from Quran itself."
He suggested a benchmark: "All those teachings of Quran that do not require a context to be understood are of a timeless, universal nature." This revolutionary thought appears to have created much churning in the audience and people are wondering what to make of it, as every madrasa teaches that Quran is an uncreated book in the same fashion as God who is uncreated and hence is forever and ever and every word in it is of timeless nature. Now if Muslims are asked to start distinguishing verses from verses, seeking which ones are of universal significance and provide guidance for all time to come and which ones were meant only for the prophet's time which is no more, thus rendering them practically obsolete, this might lead to chaos. Mr. Shahin is, of course, aware of this chaos but thinks it is out of this chaos that will emerge a clarity that will sort out our issues of extremist radicalism.
Speaking at the very outset of the seminar, Professor Anand Kumar asserted that the theme of the day was of utmost importance and keen interest to the JNU multi-faith and pluralistic community. He said that religion cannot be put into denial at a time when topics such as ‘religion and peace’, ‘religion and democracy’, ‘religion and modernity’ and ‘religion and pluralism’ are seriously debated. As substantial evidence on the contemporary relevance of religion, he gave the instance of flourishing Buddhism and growing influence of Dalai Lama in China, a country where religion has been vehemently opposed for almost 70 years.
With a special reference to Islam and Muslims, he emphasized that there seems to be a world of conflict between Islam and its adherents today. This growing phenomenon, he avers, gives rise to many baffling problems and puzzling questions that Islamic forums like New Age Islam should debate and offer credible answers to. He expressed his deep concern over the globally widening demonization of Islam as a result of both Islamophobes’ pernicious mission and inhumane practices prevalent in Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia. However, he said that defamation of Islam is an old-age and unceasing conspiracy of its antagonists, therefore, he suggested, we should not give any credence to it, though it refuses to die down.
Pointing out to the pernicious efforts linking Islam with terrorism, he spelled out that terrorism has nothing to do with any particular ideology, though it has a lot to do with the politics creeping in every religious community. He also touched upon the subject of “Iconography” (a branch of art history) employing its secondary meaning and application (the production of religious images, called icons, as in the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian tradition) with regard to the present day Muslim community. Indian Muslims today are seriously suffering the crisis of icon, though they have great ideals, historical figures and religious icons like the freedom fighter Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad and national hero Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, he affirmed. But unfortunately, he regretted, while extremists choose people like Osama Bin Laden as their heroes, ordinary and common Muslims in India are confined to look up to Muslim film stars like Shahrukh Khan as their icons, with very few Muslims following the ideals of Maulana Azad. He went on saying that we need Islamic scholars like Mr. Sultan Shahin to reinvigorate the missing moderate religious ideals in the modern Indian Muslim society.
The Chair and Key Note speaker of the Seminar was Professor Rizwan Qaisar. He is known for his extensive writings on the questions of Muslims in relation to Indian politics, communalism, and nationalism, especially for his study of the role and contributions of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to modern India in his book: Maulana Azad and the Making of the Indian Nation, Manohar, 2011. He put a question mark on the very theme of the seminar, however. Surprisingly enough, he was greatly worried as to why the theme of the day was, as usual, “Islam and Peace”. Deeply pained and distressed at the subject being still debated and disputed, he wondered: “why are we still debating “Islam and Peace”, and why not now ‘Buddhism and Peace’ or 'Christianity and Peace’, 'Hinduism and Peace?” He did not seem to realise that Muslim terrorists alone, among all terrorists who may belong to different religions, quote their scriptures and say that they are doing Jihad fi Sabilillah (Jihad in the way of God) and killing fellow Muslims in mosques and Sufi shrines and Moharram processions, etc so as to please God and go to heaven.
Professor Qaisar says that when Islam and Muslims are two different entities, like any other religions and their followers, we should not project Muslims as the true picture of Islam. He added that Islam sees to the whole mankind as Ummah (a single community with common bonds) and that is why the Quran calls Allah “Rabb ul Aalameen” (the Lord of all worlds). Despite this beautiful attribute of God in Islam, he regrets, some of our Muslim fellows not only distance themselves from other religious communities, rather they launch deadly attacks on their own Muslim brethren in their sectarian strifes. The worst victims of extremist Islamist organizations like Taliban and Al Qaida are Muslims themselves in every part of the world. He largely blamed imperialist policies of the west, their Islamophobic projects, starting from books such as “Divine Comedy” for the present state of affairs.
But Muslims in India are quite a different community as compared to other Muslim countries, he says. Here, he averred, it is wrong to say that they are guided by only their theological narratives, but, rather, they are also known for their distinguishing cultural practices and characteristics. He opined that one needs to develop wider understanding of Islam to know Muslims in India in the context of Indian composite culture.
However, he concluded saying that it will bring no gain to organize seminars on Islam and peace or do books on the topics like Islam and Jihad, until and unless Muslims look at the world as an Ummah and engage in Jihad Akbar (greater jihad, i.e. fighting baser instincts of oneself). However, in response to a question from Mr. Ghulam Rasool of New Age Islam, he did admit that it takes two hands to clap and that Muslims do need to introspect and imperialism and external factors alone cannot be held responsible for the present state of affairs.
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