By Asghar Ali Engineer
September 8, 2011
Western media has systematically created image of Islam as a violent religion which requires believers to fight non-believers and quote some verses out of context to prove their point. In India too the rightwing Hindutva forces do the same. They project Islam as if there is no emphasis in Islam on values and morals and as if Islam is religion of bloodthirsty monsters. They put forward their best foot based on normative humanitarianism and then compare it with what a few extremist Muslims whom west itself had misused for their own interests and conclude that Islam is far from being humane.
Needless to say it is totally unfair comparison. In fact one cannot take values of one religion and compare it with history of other. Values must be compared with values and history must be compared with history. While values are divine, humanitarian and common to all religions, history is full of violence perpetrated by various vested interests, power struggle within or two or more faith communities and often represents worst side of human behaviour. It should not be blamed on religion.
How much blood west has shed in the west? What has been the history of Europe and United States of America? Struggle with the church, burning at stake, killing innocent people in thousands and so on whereas Christian values are highly inspiring. What has been the history of European colonialism? Ruthless exploitation and killing mercilessly of thousands of innocent colonized people. Even during post-colonial period Europe has waged shed much blood in so called third world countries. How many Algerians were killed by France? Why hide all this while attacking Islam as jihadi religion?
What America did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then in Vietnam? Why innocent Vietnamese were killed in thousands while working in their fields? Why were they bombarded? What was crime of Iraqi people, especially children half a million of whom died because essential medicines were not allowed to be imported by Iraq? Many children, men and women died because USA used nuclear tipped weapons.
Similarly Islamic history is no better. Power struggle within and with other communities killed thousands and thousands of innocent people and what was most unfortunate these kings, rulers and their lackeys called these wars as ‘jihad’. Many Central Asian Turks invaded India to fulfill their lust for territories. Also, one Muslim dynasty ruling over India attacked another Muslim dynasty in which hundreds of people were killed. Abbasids killed Umayyads and Umayyads had killed large number of Muslims to crush several rebellions against them. Hajjaj, the Umayyad Governor of Iraq, killed more than a lakh of Muslims and imprisoned more than fifteen thousand women. He was a terror to the people of Iraq. Aurangzeb, killed his three brothers and imprisoned his own father to capture power.
Thus what happens in history should not be taken as representative of religious values or religious norms, much less its cause. These massacres and killings represent nothing but lust for power and wealth by some followers of that religion. It has nothing to do with the teachings of that religion. Every religion gives us certain norms and values to improve our conduct and to make us good or even perfect human beings. It is true religion is misused by all sots of interests and more often than not. It is sought to be misused as it strongly appeals to our emotions and can easily create feeling of ‘we’ versus ‘they’ but nevertheless it is misused and for misuse we cannot blame religion.
Having said this I want to come back to what religion stands for i.e. higher morality and higher morality is expressed through core values it advocates. For example Buddhism stands for compassion and removal of all forms of suffering, Jainism stands for extreme form of non-violence which goes beyond non-killing, Hinduism stands for non-violence too though it does not take the form Jainism takes and Christianity stands for love and peace and so on.
Let us be very clear on one thing that no religion would be acceptable to people just because it allows killing or conversion. A religion is acceptable only if improves morality, controls basic instincts and brings about spiritual and moral change for better. It is extremely knave to believe that a religion would spread by sword. In previous article we have thrown detailed light as to why Islam spread so rapidly within first century of its origin. To believe that Islam spread with sword in one hand and Qur’an in another could be stuff for hostile propaganda but certainly not for serious study.
Islam originated in a society which very badly needed higher morality. In Mecca, the birth place of Islam, there was several material and spiritual problems. Basically it was a tribal society undergoing transformation to a mercantile society and this transitional period created moral and spiritual problems, in addition to material ones. It was a society that was thirsting for higher morality as primitive tribal morality could no longer satisfy people. It is Islam that gave them concept of higher morality.
A tribal society generally goes by age long customs and traditions without any written laws. These customs and traditions are applied rigidly and generally these customs and traditions meet the requirements of a simple and primitive social organization. But when this social organization begins to change these traditions can no more meet the complex problems of new emerging society.
Meccan society was developing complex social structure and had evolved inter-tribal commercial corporations and tribal norms were unable to meet new problems. Also, as agricultural society began to emerge in India the Vedic society with its prescription of elaborate animal sacrifices became a burden and need for higher moral and spiritual norms was strongly felt and it was precisely for this reason that Buddhism with its higher morality and spirituality began to be acceptable widely and became ruling religion until it lost its vigour for reasons not to be analyzed here.
Here was similar situation in Mecca. The tribal morality of pre-Islamic society was no more enough to meet spiritual and moral requirements of people of increasingly complex society. Also, the Meccan Arabs had to deal with Roman society for their trade and Roman society was much more complex in structure and with elaborate moral and spiritual concepts. It made them acutely aware of such needs.
The highest concept of morality in pre-Islamic Arabia was what Arabs called muruwwah, (to be manly) i.e. best qualities of man which included to be pleasant, brave, generous and good in behaviour. These qualities were more social rather than moral and spiritual and could hardly meet the moral and spiritual needs of more complex society like that of Mecca which was international centre of trade and finance on the eve of emergence of Islam. This moral and spiritual vaccum was filled by Islam. It is Islam which gave the Arab society and, through it, to the whole world, new higher moral and spiritual values.
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) was quite contemplative in nature, came from a poor family of Hashimites which was highly respected. The Prophet was an orphan and hence knew the woes of poor and exploited and had deep sympathy with the oppressed of the society. He used to retire to a cave known as Hira outside the town of Mecca. It was in this cave that he received his first revelation.
Initially the Meccan society was faced with social malaise of exploitation of the poor and oppressed and material greed for money. It comes out strongly in surahs like 104 and 107 which vividly describes malaise of concentration of wealth on one hand, and, fate of poor and oppressed on the other. The Prophet (PBUH) had suffered himself and had firsthand knowledge of this social malaise.
As for the spiritual malaise, the very opening chapter of Qur’an called surah Fatihah addresses it. Among Arabs of pre-Islamic society, there was no concept of one God even on higher philosophical level. They just worshipped idols and prayed to them for solving their problems. Like other tribal society, there was no surplus available and for generations they had not produced any philosopher or great thinker which is possible in an agricultural society as there is enough surplus available to meet the needs of such an intellectual class.
After commercial revolution Muhammad (PBUH) was the first thinker, intellectual, philosopher and spiritual guide produced by that society. Muhammad (PBUH) who had to go through great struggle in life as a poor orphan, could afford to meditate and reflect on moral and spiritual needs as he could be sustained through profit earned through trade on behalf of Hazrat Khadija, a rich trader whom he married when he was 25 and she was 40 years old.
Though it was not opening chapter of the Qur’an with which revelation began, it considered of great significance as it summarizes, in a way the moral and spiritual approach of Qur’an. It was revealed at the earliest period in Mecca and was recited in the beginning of every prayer Muslims offer. It begins with Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim i.e. I begin with the name of Allah, the Compassionate and Merciful. It is believed that as the opening chapter is the quintessential of Qur’an, Bismillah is quintessential of Surah Fatihah.
These four words are very significant as they give concept of essential spirituality and best of moral values i.e. concept of one God who is Compassionate and Merciful. Compassion is essential value of Buddhism also as without compassion one cannot remove material or spiritual suffering of human beings. Thus with the revelation of this surah compassion and Mercy became central values and this was highly necessary as in transitional society of Mecca weaker sections which included poor, slaves, women, orphans and widows constituted these weaker sections.
The inter-tribal corporations were totally absorbed in pursuit of profit and had no compassion or mercy for these weaker sections which suffered most. For them wealth was the sole goal. It is described vividly in chapter 102:
“You are obsessed by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves.
Nay in time you will come to understand!
And once again; Nay, in time you will come to understand!
Nay, if you could but understand (it) with an understanding (born) of certainty, you would indeed most surely, behold the blazing fire (of hell)….(102:1-6)
The traders of Mecca, as pointed out, in pursuit of profit, had neglected even their customary tribal practices of taking care of their co-tribals and thus weaker sections were greatly suffering in Mecca. Qur’an came to their rescue by giving stern warning, as in above verses, to business leaders and reminding them of their duty. However, they were so obsessed with pursuit of profit that they neglected these warnings as well and instead turned against the Prophet (PBUH) himself and began persecuting him.
The Surah Fatihah, referred to above, describes Allah, not only Compassionate and Merciful but also as Rabb al-‘Alamin i.e. one who is sustainer and perfector of all his creation i.e. all the worlds (entire universe). He sustains all without any discrimination, even for those who do not obey Him and those who follow this or that faith. The Allah does not impose any restriction of faith. Deen is one and has been sent in different forms to different nations and no faith tradition is thus superior to the other. This is a universal approach which leads to acceptance of all religions as all of them emanate from Allah.
Unfortunately this universal approach of Qur’an is not accepted as universally as it should be. Had it been accepted there would have been no conflict in the world. Religion becomes more of an identity than spiritual doctrine and identity leads to competitive spirit resulting in conflict. Thus Qur’an promotes not only inclusive approach but also acceptance of all religions with equal respect. Thus Qur’anic morality goes beyond tolerance to respect and inclusivity. This inclusivity and universality leads one to high morality. Intolerance which one finds in practice has nothing to do with Qur’anic teachings.
Also, Qur’an repeatedly asserts that faith (iman) is not complete without what it calls ‘amal salih (i.e. good deeds that keep society healthy and conflict-free) and even encourages Muslims and believers in other faiths to excel each other in good deeds). Good deeds are key to a society free of all evils, injustice and oppression. Truth is highest among moral values and it is name of ALLAH i.e. His name is Haq.
To help others and to do good to others (ihsan) is another higher value and of course one must be just and Allah is justest of just and justice must be done even if it goes against oneself, ones parents and ones own people (4:135). This was necessary in a commercial society where lies, frauds and cheating were common and also in a tribal society generally co-tribals are favored over others, even if injustice is done to others. Thus Qur’an laid down the rigorous norm for justice.
To persevere for truth requires tremendous patience and hence a true believer, according to the Qur’an is one who remains patient and steadfast and performs good deeds and true believers exhort each other for truth and for patience (103).Love and justice are obligatory for ones spouse also so that marriage lasts on higher values and does not become relationship of lust and selfishness.
Also, Qur’an and hadith advises believers repeatedly not to thirst for revenge as in tribal society qisas (retaliation, revenge) was the norm. Islam transcends all boundaries – tribal, ethnic and geographical. Reconciliation and pardoning are higher virtues and Allah’s names are Ghafoor al-Rahim i.e. Pardoner and Merciful. Worst sinner will be pardoned by Allah if sinner sincerely repents (taubat al-nusuh).
Also, a believer must suppress her/his anger (kazim alghayz) and if one successfully suppresses ones anger much conflict can be avoided. Thus Qur’an stresses all universal virtues and considers whole humanity as one family. The well known hadith says that whole humanity is children of Allah (‘ayalullah) Also a good believer is one who comes to the rescue of others from oppression and exploitation and any other form of tribulation.
This has been put very forcefully by a Sufi saint as follows: If a human being (Muslim or not) is drowning and a believer is passing by carrying all his savings for hajj and ticket for Mecca in his packet and is fasting and there is fear of his fast being broken, even then he must jump into the water to save the life of drowning person because as per Qur’an to save one life amounts to saving whole humanity.
In the light of all that we have said above who can say that a Muslim is blood-thirsty killer of non-Muslims and his only obligation is to convert non-Muslims to Islam, be it with threats of sword? This is only in the minds of those who are ignorant or hostile to Islam. If someone ever does that it is not for sake of Allah but for his/her own selfish reasons. One should not pick up such examples and generalize them but instead study them to find the real reasons.
Let alone converting by force Qur’an advises believers not to argue aggressively but persuasively and with best possible manner. Thus we find in Qur’an how to invite others to way of Allah and how to argue:
“Call to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation and argue with them in the best manner” (16:125)
Thus the Qur’anic ethic is very different from what some extremist or selfish Muslims do. They do it not because they are followers of Qur’an but do it for their own selfish or political agenda. We must seek reasons for their actions not in Qur’an or hadith but in their own selfishness or their politics. And let us remember extremists in all religions are alike. It is not peculiar to any one religion. If one thinks so, one is either ignorant or bears malice against that religion.
Thus a good Muslim is one who is truthful, humble, compassionate, ever ready to help others, considers whole humanity as one family, never seeks revenge, is just and merciful, is tolerant and respectful to other religions, is persuasive and patient, does not discriminate against others and considers ethnic, tribal, national, linguistic and racial differences as signs of Allah and accepts them as will of Allah.
This is what Qur’an prescribes and anyone who violates these teachings will be answerable to Allah for his/her deeds.
Asghar Ali Engineer is a prominent Islamic scholar. He heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.