By A. Faizur Rahman
A resolution passed by the Mahmood Madani faction of the Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind (JUH) at a meeting of its managing committee held in New Delhi on March 7 says that “Muslims should be convinced for regular practice of namaz and keeping fasts during the month of Ramadan. Youths should be persuaded to practise salam, don their Islamic identity and create a religious atmosphere at home.” The Jamiat also proposed the setting up social reform committees in villages and towns to ensure that Muslim residents live by “Islamic rules and social values.”
Of course Namaz and fasting are important institutions in Islam. But should they be treated as mere rituals? Or is there a wider meaning to them? Unfortunately, the JUH pronouncements seem to reinforce the centuries old ritualistic notion that restricts Islam to a mere belief in “five pillars” namely, faith in Allah and Prophet Muhammad, the five times prayers, the Ramazan fasting, the Hajj and the concept of Zakat. Identity markers such as a long untrimmed beard for men and the hijab or burqa for women also form part of this superficial characterisation.
The question is: could this have been the Islam that was propagated by our beloved Prophet? An in-depth study of the Quranic thought would reveal that Islam is not the name of a personal god-based ritualistic religion. It is actually a system of moral and legal codes which proposes to regulate society on the universal principles (termed maroof by the Quran) of justice, fairness and equity through the institutions of prayers (salaat or namaz), fasting (saum), Hajj and zakat (compulsory tax). If understood in their originality it would be realised that there is nothing ritualistic about these concepts.
For instance, during salaat the message of the Quran is read out five times a day to people standing shoulder to shoulder in the mosque irrespective of their social or financial status. This negates the doctrine of untouchability and inculcates a sense of communal equality. Saum, the thirty-day Ramazan fasting, focuses attention on hunger, and zakat underscores the importance of equitable distribution of wealth, and through it the eradication of poverty. Hajj is more of an annual international conference to discuss global issues for the benefit of mankind as implied by the Quran (22: 27-28) than a mere pilgrimage to perform certain rites. It is also the world’s biggest display of unity in diversity where men and women of different nationalities congregate for a common cause.
But unfortunately the Muslims have been wrongly made to believe that these “rituals” are an end in themselves as the JUH resolution proves. This has resulted in their spirit being completely lost. Thus we see today Muslims mechanically praying five times a day, regularly fasting in Ramazan, frequently visiting Mecca for Hajj and even paying nominal zakat, all without making any difference to the quality of their lives, or in any way reducing the poverty and illiteracy around them.
The Quran highlights this malady in a subtle verse saying, “It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards East or West,… but to spend from your wealth… for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, the wayfarer, for those who ask and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in salaat and zakat, to fulfill the contracts which you have made, and to be firm and patient in pain and adversity throughout all periods of panic…” (2: 177)
The Prophet further emphasized this saying;” One who strives for the widows and the poor is like the one who strives in the way of God. I shall regard him as one who stands up for prayer without rest and as one who fasts without break” (Bukhari)
The emphasis on ritualism among Muslims today is a result of the misinterpretation of the Quranic term Deen which has been wrongly equated with Mazhab (religion). The truth is that while religion exemplifies a set of dogmas revolving around a personal god who needs to be appeased through superstitious rituals, Deen is about abiding by certain rules and regulations for the common good of society.
Deen is analogous with the constitution of a country which once adopted is bound to be respected by every citizen whether he likes it or not. For instance, a high caste Hindu who disagrees with Article 17 of our constitution which makes the practice of “untouchability” a punishable offence would still have to conform to it. In the same way, a “Muslim” is a peaceful person who submits willingly or unwillingly (tau’an wa karhan) to a body of humanitarian precepts promoted by the Quran. However, such laws are governed by the concept of laa ikraaha fid deen (there is no compulsion in deen) and cannot be enacted unless a majority favours it.
Surprisingly, some Muslim jurists have restricted the meaning of the laa ikraaha injunction to ban forced conversions when it should also include the de-legitmisation of the coercive imposition of Islam on an unwilling nation. In other words, a handful of extremists cannot force their brand of Shariah on any group of people just because they have the power to do so. Islam is against any form of imperialism, and the Quran on two occasions (3:159 & 42:38) has instructed the Muslims to take decisions only after a democratic consensus has been reached.
This is the true meaning of Islam which needs to be widely propagated through “social reform committees” and not resolutions that propose to take the Muslims back to the medieval age.
The author is Secretary General of Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought among Muslims.