By Muhammad Yunus
The points raised in the later part of the article regarding the classical Islamic law’s insistence on fasting and even praying five ‘fixed’ times in a mosque, covering the entire body of women, physical sighting of moon etc. are indeed becoming too taxing for a vast majority of Muslims in today’s fast-paced world, and anachronistic in historical context. Moreover, the focus on these ritualistic and symbolic aspects of Islam is reducing this ‘glorious faith’ that, in its early centuries, swept the world and earned the admiration even of its enemies to a cult that is being increasingly despised, isolated and marginalize this day. It is also relegating the Muslims to a cultural ghetto dictated by rituals and symbolism that is alienating it from the rest of the world.
The problem lies with the Muslim intelligentsia. They ask the orthodoxy and the Ulama to deconstruct ritualism and symbolism in Islam without realizing that they will never do it being the architects and sole custodians and beneficiaries of these theological developments. If they want a ‘reform’, they must challenge the orthodoxy and ulama on their own turf by taking the trouble to make in-depth study of the Qur’an. They will then realize that it has limited and elastic space for rituals and symbolism and expounds a wide range of social, moral, ethical and universal paradigms that can enable them to cope with the challenges of 21st century realities.
Having appreciated the concern of the writer, I am constrained to make the following comments in relation to some of the sweeping statements of the article, that taken out of context, can cause utter confusion in religion, confuse the posterity and strengthen the hands of Islamohobes.
1. “Prophet Muhammad taught his followers, namely nomadic Arab tribes, how best they could put into practice the five pillars of faith, namely…”
i. It purports to shrink the role of the Prophet Muhammad, who brought an all-embracing message to humanity for all time – the Qur’an, the scope of which is far outreaching than the pillars of faith. Thus, for example, the Qur’an lays profound emphasis on good deeds, justice, fair business practices, sharing wealth with the needy, social responsibility towards one’s relatives and those with whom we have dealings (that includes employees), good interfaith relations, tolerance, use of reason, striving for excellence in lawful pursuits, empowerment of women, abolition of slavery – for example.
ii. The Prophet’s only task was to convey the message (5:99, 7:158, 13:40, 42:48) with clarity (5:92, 16:82, 24:54). The Qur’an asks the Muslims for all time to emulate his exemplary moral conduct and behavior (30:21) which is to be found in the Qur’anic glimpses on his mission. But to project him as a ‘teacher’ for ‘nomadic Arab tribes’ fixes Islamic teaching to his historical point, and undermines the Qur’an’s universalism.
iii. It undermines the personal qualities and credentials of his followers. People like Abu Bakr, Uthman ibn Affan Umar ibn al-Khattab, Ali ibn Abi Talib, ‘Amr ibn al ‘As, Abdullah ibn Abu Rabiah, who were among the Prophet’s close companions were NOT nomads. Moreover, the Prophet had among his followers, people who later became governors, administrators and Caliphs of the rapidly expanding Islamic empire, that within a hundred years of his death had stretched from the shore of Atlantic (Spain) to the shore of the Pacific (China) and had won countless converts from the diverse religions and cultures it encountered. Anyone who has a rudimentary knowledge of the Qur’an would know that the Qur’an describes some of the nomadic Arabs as weak in faith (48:11) and some intense in hypocrisy (9:95-97). To describe the followers of the Prophet as nomads is distortion of both the Qur’anic message of history.
2. “Most major practices were originally designed by the Prophet of Islam and were later expanded by various Islamic scholars (imams) such as Abu Hanifa..
i. The statement reduces Islam to a regime of practices and obscures its outreaching social, moral and ethical reforms and universal paradigms. Islam is not a ‘religion’ in the traditional sense of worshipping a deity/ deities or honoring saints through a set of practices and rituals. Islam is a ‘deen’ or ‘a way of life’ that is modeled after its all-embracing message (1.i above).
ii. It grossly exaggerates the role of the Prophet Muhammad as the architect of the major ‘practices,’ and adds a historical dimension to the practices by contending that the later imams ‘expanded’ the ‘practices that the Prophet designed. As the Qur’an testifies, the Prophet had the singular role of conveying God’s message that came down in the form of revelation. The revelation has reference to the postures of prayer, method of ‘wadu’, key rituals of pilgrimage (hajj) and fasting. Only those who think the Prophet authored the Qur’an would make the above statement. Any Muslim can never willfully or knowingly make the above statement.
3. “We have been told that fasting makes us realize the suffering of a starving person.”
The Qur’an never says so. As far as the Qur’anic message is concerned, fasting is prescribed as a means to acquiring taqwa: cultivating oneself to restrain the gross appetites of life and heed one’s conscience (2:183, 2:187). There is no penalty or punishment clause and one who is too stretched by a fast can skip it by feeding a poor, at the least (2:183). Fasting is also described as way to glorify God and expressing one’s gratitude to Him for his guidance (2:185). The Qur’an further declares that God desires ease for people and does not desire hardship for them (2:185), and therefore, depending upon the nature of job, those who find it too hard can decide whether to fast or not – though the Qur’an does say that it is better that one fasts (2:183). So the author’s quoted statement is misleading.
A distinguished chemical engineer by profession, now retired, Muhammad Yunus is probing the essentials of the Qur'anic message since early 90's. He co-authored and produced a gender neutral, historical critical reading of the Holy Qur'an [Essential Message of Islam]. The work employs the Qur'anic vocabulary to explain its key words and phrases, assisted by a computer data base, is approved by al-Azhar al-Sharif (2001) authenticated and endorsed by Dr. Abu El Fadl, Professor of Law, UCLA, America, and published by Amana Publications USA (2009).
Related article: Need to Modify Various Islamic Rituals & Practices