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Islam and Pluralism ( 30 Nov 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Indian Muslim orthodoxy's response to demands of modernity: Can Muslims co-exist with other religious communities in plural societies?

Sultan Shahin, Founder-Editor, New Age Islam

16 November 2015

What kind of reform does modernity demand from the orthodoxy?  Essentially, it asks Muslims to come out of the insidious trap of supremacism, the dream of making Islam the sole religion of the world, ruling over the world through an Islamic caliph. It demands that Muslims coexist with other religious communities, respect other religions and cultures, grant equal rights to all citizens, practice gender equality and justice for all, in short, follow the UN human rights charter,  etc. Each one of these goals is supported by the foundational scripture of Islam, the Holy Quran, if only we Muslims were to go by the Qur'anic dictum of finding the best meaning of Qur'anic verses (as exhorted in Chapter 39: verse 55, 39: 18; 39: 55; 38: 29; 2: 121; 47: 24, etc). They would also do well to follow the recent advise of His Holiness Pope Francis to find an "adequate interpretation" of the Qur'anic verses. So the Quran and Pope Francis are both saying that Muslims should not follow the verses literally but seek to interpret it in the best or most adequate way possible.

Historically, Islam has produced a galaxy of thinkers, philosophers, mystics, theologians, Quran exegetes and experts in Hadith Studies. Debates and discussions called Kalam have been the norm rather than an exception in Islamic tradition, whether the rulers were intolerant tyrants or broadminded liberals. Even the rationalist Mu`tazila flourished for a time during the 8th - 10th centuries. Many of the greatest Islamic thinkers spent years in prison, went to the gallows, but never flinched from exercising their right to free thinking and expression.

 It's only Salafi-Wahhabi Islam that prohibits discussion and debates on theological issues. Saudi Arabia has been spending tens of billions of dollars to spread this rigid, desiccated, desert version of Islam, called "puritan" in the West. Islamism is a variation of this interpretation which calls for spreading Islam by force. Jihadism is another offshoot that actually seeks to implement it with the force of arms and terrorism.

Under Salafism's widespread impact, contemporary Indian Islam presents a rather dismal picture. There is an almost complete stagnation in conversation on issues of vital concern. The very mention of religion or theology in the context of Islamist terrorism, for instance, is frowned upon. Muslim societies around the world are producing armies of Islamist, Jihadi, suicide bombers wherever required by motivated groups, while suicide is considered one of the most heinous crimes in Islam. But Indian ulema are almost completely silent.  This silence became deafening when the self-declared Khalifa al-Baghdadi said on 13 May 2015 that "Islam has never been a religion of peace, not even for a day, and that it has always been a religion of war." Not one alim (scholar) in India protested or condemned it.

A 2013 PEW poll conducted in eleven Muslim-majority countries showed that support for suicide bombing against civilians in defence of Islam has declined in recent years. Nevertheless, the numbers of people who still think that this form of violence against non-combatants is “often” or “sometimes” justified are sobering: Egypt (25 percent), Indonesia (6 percent), Jordan (12 percent), Lebanon (33 percent), Malaysia (27 percent), Nigeria (8 percent), Pakistan (3 percent), the Palestinian territories (62 percent), Senegal (18 percent), Tunisia (12 percent), and Turkey (16 percent). There are 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide. If even 10 percent support suicide bombing against civilians in defence of the faith, that’s 160 million supporters of terrorism. (

Indian Muslim clerics or even intelligentsia do not seem bothered by such studies. An argument is made, even by our strategic thinkers, that no Indian Muslims joined al-Qaeda and few have gone to fight for ISIS, and so it can be concluded that Indian Islam is immune to the lure of Jihadism. But joining ISIS cannot be the measure of the extent of radicalisation. If anything, Indian Muslim society is even more conservative or fundamentalist than say, neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Before Partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, Indian Muslim community had an iniquitous Muslim personal law, promulgated by the British.  Thirteen years after Partition Pakistan reformed these Anglo-Mohammedan laws to make them more gender equitable. Promulgated by Gen. Ayyub Khan in 1961, these reforms are working in Pakistan and Bangladesh for half a century, acceptable to all schools of thought. But no government in India has had the guts to bring about similar changes in India's Muslim Personal Law due to determined opposition from our fundamentalist ulema, silently supported by the Muslim intelligentsia. Indeed, if anything, these laws have been made more stringent and iniquitous.

A recent study indicates that 92.1 percent of Muslim women in India want a total ban on instant oral divorce, also known as triple talaq. But our governments are unable to do even this much, while Pakistani and Bangladeshi laws ensure that divorce is effective only after it has been approved by the court, marriages and divorces are registered, permission is sought from the court for second and subsequent marriage(s), etc. Our courts have tried to intervene and provide justice to Muslim women on the premise that Islam is a religion of compassion, but our scholars reject that proposition, just as they reject the proposition that Islam is a religion of peace by remaining silent when self-declared Khalifa Baghdadi says that Islam is a religion of war and strife.

Some fatwas do occasionally come making a general claim that Islam is a religion of peace, which, of course, it is. But the ulema's claim is absolutely suspect and hypocritical in the absence of any disavowal of the theology of violence, supremacism, exclusivism and xenophobia on the basis of which terrorism is pursued.  Is it any wonder that the country is faced today with an unprecedented challenge. Radicalisation among Muslim youth is deepening by the day. Faced with a fierce onslaught of Wahhabi-Salafi-Ahl-e-Hadeesi campaign of what they call real, true, pure Islam, many Muslims, particularly educated youth are succumbing to the lure. While hundreds of Salafi-Jihadi websites, blogs, television channels, newspapers, magazines, etc  promote an extremist interpretation of Islam, there is hardly any counter-narrative other than on New Age Islam that consistently, systematically refutes this ideology.

The reason for the Jihadi ideology's success in attracting Muslim youth is simple. For hundreds of years now, Muslim theologians have been engaged in creating a coherent theology of xenophobia and violence in order to expand the Islamic reach. Classical luminaries of Islam such as Imam Ghazali, Ibn-e-Taimiya, Sheikh Sarhandi, Abdul Wahhab, and Shah Wali Allah to 20th century theologians such as Syed Qutb, Hasan Al-Banna and Maulana Maududi have worked out a theology which promotes the view that Islam must conquer the world. Genuine Sufis like Mansour al-Hallaj and Ibn-e-Arabi had a very different view, and looked at Islam as a spiritual path to salvation. But, in their times, Sufis did not feel the need to evolve a coherent theology of peace and pluralism. The Sufis who did engage in theology focussed on making Islam more acceptable and respectable to orthodoxy. The greatest Sufi theologian Imam Ghazali (died: December 19, 1111), for instance, said that Muslims should go for Jihad at least once a year. He was quoting from and outlining Imam Shafi's legal tradition. Another Sufi who engaged in theology, Imam Ibn-e-Taimiyya (died: September 26, 1328), the inspiration behind Mohammad Abdul Wahhab's eighteenth century Salafi movement, actually became the original founder of modern violent extremism.

The result is that today while a theology of violence, evolved over centuries, is being spread with all the impact that an investment of tens of billions of dollars can ensure, there is no parallel, comprehensive, coherent theology of peace and pluralism available to oppose it. This is because the so-called moderate theologians too swear by essentially the same core beliefs. For instance, the main basis of the theology of violence is contextual verses of Quran that appear to be militant and xenophobic and some narrations of Hadith concerning the wars waged during the Prophet's time, even though these were collected hundreds of years after the Prophet's demise.  But no alim is prepared to say in clear terms that these militant, contextual verses of Quran and narrations of hadith do not apply to Muslims today. Indeed, they all swear even by the divinity of Shariah, though it was first codified 120 years after God declared in Surah 5 verse 3 that the religion of Islam had been completed.

Let me give you a concrete example. Among the Indian ulema, the most important campaigner for moderate, peaceful Islam is Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. As a commentator on the Islamic website New Age Islam pointed out, in his book, “Islam – creator of the modern world," the Maulana says (on p.17-18), “It was God’s decree that he ( Prophet Muhammad) be a da’i (missionary) as well as ma’hi (eradicator). He was entrusted by God with the mission of not only proclaiming to the world that superstitious beliefs were based on falsehood, but also of resorting to military action, if the need arose, to eliminate that system for all time.” Then he goes on to buttress his view with a  verse from the Holy Quran which in my view does not  in any way support his conclusion. Then he quotes a Hadith, which he considers akin to revelation. He says: "One hadith in particular is quite direct in its wording, 'I am the eradicator through whom God will obliterate unbelief.' Thus the prophet was not just a dai, but also a mahi. He was the caller to the faith but he had also to compel people to answer his call. The Quran clearly states that besides human beings God's angels would also help him in accomplishing his mission." 

If this is the position of a moderate Indian Muslim cleric, justly renowned for his tireless efforts at building peace and pluralism, what is stopping Jihadis from saying that since that false system still exists, it is the duty of the Muslim Ummah to pursue Prophet Muhammad's unfinished mission and use military means to enforce what they consider to be the only correct system. Why should they not claim that God's angels are also with them, supporting their cause, as they were with the Prophet, since they are only carrying forward the Prophet's unfinished mission of eradicating superstition, idolatry, unbelief?  It is such erroneous interpretations of Quran and misplaced faith in concocted ahadith, that have justified throughout Islamic history, episodes of compulsion and coercion, leading to violence, starting from the ridda (apostasy) wars, immediately after the demise of the Prophet (pbuh), led by the first caliph Hazrat Abu Bakr (r.a), to the present-day violence and mayhem caused by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, the Deobandi madrasa products called the Taliban, the Wahhabi-Salafi Boko Haram and the so-called Islamic State led by self-declared Khalifa Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, etc.

The response of moderate Muslim scholars, the ulema, representing the global Muslim community is no different. As many as 120 ulema from around the world belonging to most schools of thought sent an Open Letter to self-declared Khalifa Al-Baghdadi’, of the ‘Islamic State’ in August 2015. Written in over 14, 000 words, this is a valuable document. It shows what is wrong with self-styled Khalifa Baghdadi's rulings. But, more importantly, it also shows what is wrong with moderate Islam at the present juncture; why this refutation will not work, why other such refutations do not work; and why our children will keep running away to ISIS and other terror centres. In fact, read between the lines, this moderate fatwa does not leave any leg for moderate Islam to stand on. In one place it says:

"... everything in the Qur’an is the Truth, and everything in authentic Hadith is Divinely inspired."

This is confirmation from moderate ulema that what terrorist ideologues have been telling their pupils is correct. This is precisely the Jihadi argument. No difference between Quran and Hadees; they are both divinely inspired. All immutable, universal, eternal guidance for all time to come. Similarly on many other issues moderate ulema from around the world show their ideological compatibility with the terrorist ideologues.

The same thread runs through the entire 14,000 word-fatwa. The moderate fatwa puts into question whether even the well-known Qur'anic verse (La Ikraha fid Deen: There is no compulsion in religion) has been abrogated. It accepts the basic premise of terrorist ideologues that peaceful Meccan verses revealed in Mecca have been abrogated, and it is the militant verses relating to war that should now prevail. 

In point 16 of the Open Letter. moderate ulema accept that "Hudud punishments (codified in Sharia) are fixed in the Qur’an and Hadith and are unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law." Having accepted the basic premise of the Baghdadi tribe it goes on to criticise its cruel implementation in the so-called Islamic State. But once the ulema have accepted the basic premise of  Hudud (Punishment) based on 7th century Bedouin tribal Arab mores being "unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law" what difference does actually remain between moderation and extremism. Then in point 20, moderate ulema seem to be justifying the destruction of idols and are merely critical of destruction of "the graves of Prophets or Companions," of Prophet Mohammad.
 In point 22 of the Open Letter, titled, The Caliphate, the moderate ulema again concur with the basic proposition of the Baghdadi clique: "There is agreement (Ittifaq) among scholars that a caliphate is an obligation upon the Ummah. The Ummah has lacked a caliphate since 1924 CE." Then it goes on to criticise Bghdadi for  lack of consensus from Muslims, etc. and accusing him of sedition, fitna, etc in fairly strong language. But the problem is the same. Moderate ulema agree with Baghdadi on the basic premise of the so-called obligation of the umma to have a Caliphate. This is absurd in this day and age. Clearly both Baghdadi group and moderate ulema are equally outdated, seemingly continuing to live in the 7th century CE. 

Many of us have been placing great hope in the ability of Sufi institutions to take us out of this quagmire of Islamism and growing radicalisation. But there has been a deep Wahhabisation of Indian Sufism too. Most Sufi shrines across the country are now practising gender segregation and discrimination. They have started issuing fatwas of apostasy against musicians like A R Rahman. Sufi literature has been gradually removed from Sufi madrasas and even replaced by literary books of Syed Qutb, the father of modern terrorism in the Middle East. They no longer teach books by Rumi, Ibn ul Arabi, Shaikh Saadi, Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, Baba Fareed, Ameer Khusro, etc. Even Sufism's basic spiritual philosophy, Wahdatul Wujood (unity of existence, advaita), has been practically replaced by Wahdatul Shuhud (unity of appearance, apparentism), to make it acceptable in the present Salafi-Wahhabi milieu and to distinguish Islam from Advaita Vedanta.

The concept of Islam as a spiritual path is clearly giving way in India to the totalitarianism of political Islam.

How can we retrieve the situation and maintain peace and social harmony? The first requirement in my view is to evolve a theology of peace and pluralism, rationality and modernity, on the basis of values that are now considered universal and which Muslim-majority countries have already accepted by signing The UN Charter and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Muslims do have the resources to evolve this theology, both in terms of classical literature and contemporary scholarship. All that needs to be done is to mobilise these resources in a systematic, organised manner.

While the evolution of this comprehensive and coherent theology of peace and pluralism will remain a continuing process, the already available essential elements of this theology should be brought to the Muslim masses. Since support for such a venture cannot be expected from clerics, of any hue,  popular acceptance of this theology should be gained through the use of media as well as genuine grassroots movements.

Essentially, Jihadism is a Muslim problem and Muslims must tackle it. But the societies in non-Muslim majority countries can help kick-start the debate.  It must be understood that a madrasa graduate who has been brainwashed into believing, as most are, that "life begins in the grave," is a ticking time bomb that should be defused with the same urgency as other bombs are. A secular government should not allow anyone to spread the poison of intolerance and xenophobia either in mosques or in madrasas. A study of what is taught in Indian madrasas, and the content of sermons delivered in mosques, is urgently required. If found intolerant, supremacist, exclusivist and xenophobic, the ulema, madrasas and imams should be confronted with them and asked to change.

Also, the least the government of India can do to ameliorate the plight of Muslim women today is to promulgate a law similar to Pakistan's  Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961, with just one difference, fixing the age of marriage of girls at 18, instead of 14, as in the Ordinance. This should have been done along with reforms in Hindu personal laws in the 1950s, or at least immediately after reforms in Muslim laws in Pakistan. But better half a century late than never. Male chauvinist Indian Muslim ulema will still howl in protest. But they will not have much to say as these reforms have been acceptable to their counterparts in Pakistan and Bangladesh for over half a century. Even President General Zia's Nizam-e-Mustafa accepted these reforms. Reforms that bring Indian Muslim Personal law akin to Muslim personal laws in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh will bring a lot of solace to Muslim women and sensible Muslim men. Moreover, this will breach the stagnation in Islamic theological discourse. Muslims have to start reclaiming the Islam that the Prophet had brought and rethinking how it can be lived and practised in the vastly changed circumstances of the 21st century.

[An abridged version of this essay was presented at India Ideas Conclave organised by India Foundation at Goa (Nov. 15--17, 2015)