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Islamic Ideology ( 10 May 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Confusion in Contemporary Islamic Thought

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand

A major problem confronting contemporary Islamic scholars is the desperate need for the reconstruction of some crucial aspects of traditional Islamic thought in the light of contemporary conditions. By this I mean the application of Islamic principles to emerging political and civilisational issues and problems. Not enough has been done in this regard, because of which tremendous confusion reigns on a range of contemporary issues in Islamic scholarly and activist circles. This, in some sense, has assumed the form of a serious crisis, besides providing ample ammunition to forces inimical to Islam and Muslims for their anti-Islamic propaganda.

The twentieth century, particularly the aftermath of the Second World War, witnessed the establishment of a new global political order. New international organizations emerged, which formulated new international laws, regulations and treaties. Yet, our Islamic scholars failed to properly study and relate to these new realities and to develop adequate Islamic intellectual responses to them. This is the fundamental cause of the confusion that continues to persist on such issues—among the ulema and other Muslim intellectuals, as well as the Muslim masses. This is a very vast subject, and in this article I can only touch upon some major aspects of this phenomenon.

In the years leading up to the Partition of India, the Indian ulema were divided between those who supported a united India and united Indian nationalism and those who believed in the ‘two nation’ theory and advocated the formation of a separate Muslim state of Pakistan. The former group was led by Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, rector of the Dar ul-Ulum Deoband. Unfortunately, after Independence and his demise his great legacy and work was not carried forward and further developed on the intellectual and political planes as it should have. This task is particularly vital for Muslims in the present-day Indian context of pluralism, secularism and democracy.

Secularism is a concept about which confusion abounds in Islamic circles. Some Muslim scholars translate it to mean ‘irreligiousness’ (la-diniyat), which is completely wrong, and creates tremendous misunderstanding. In its practical sense, secularism, understood as the state’s neutrality vis-à-vis different religions or non-intervention by the state in religious matters, is a great blessing for Islam and Muslims in countries like India. To declare it as anti-Islamic, as some self-styled Islamists do, is entirely incorrect and, from the point of view of Islam and its adherents, counter-productive. This stance of theirs has been justifiably criticized by many non-Muslims as well as some Muslims themselves. They highlight the double-standards in the arguments of those Muslims who argue that in Muslim majority states secularism is a ‘threat’ while secularism in Muslim-minority countries as a blessing. These double-standards lead to what can be called intellectual hypocrisy.

Another issue about which much confusion exists in Muslim circles and that urgently needs to be addressed is the division of the world into dar ul-islam (‘abode of Islam’) and dar ul-harb (‘abode of war’), an invention of medieval Muslim jurists. Some Muslims apply these terms to relate to present-day non-Muslim governments and non-Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries. They use these medieval terms and concepts to derive rules for international and inter-community relations, peace and jihad and so on in the present-day. It is striking to note in this regard that these terms are not mentioned in the Quran and are actually an invention of Muslim scholars who appeared long after the demise of the Prophet. Yet, they continue to be employed by many Islamic scholars today, creating much confusion and leading to no consensus whatsoever.

A third issue about which confusion is rife in Islamic circles is the permissibility or otherwise in Islam of friendly relations (muwalat) with non-Muslims. Ignoring the context in which certain Quranic verses were revealed that forbade friendship with certain groups of non-Muslims, some Islamic scholars wrongly argue that Muslims are prohibited by their faith to be friendly with others. This claim, which is wholly erroneous, has given rise to much controversy, confusion and misunderstanding. Similar is the case with the equating of the Hindus of today with the pagan Arab enemies of the Prophet, on the basis of which some people erroneously argue that the rules that applied to the latter must be extended to the former. Unfortunately, this issue and the problems that it raises have not been properly dealt with by Indian Islamic scholars.

In my view, it is wholly unacceptable to, as some Muslims do, to equate the Hindus of today with the pagan Arabs of the Prophet’s time and thereby condemn them as allegedly the most inveterate enemies of the Muslims, while at the same time hypocritically speak about the need for inter-community harmony and love. In my view, the entire controversy about the status of Hindus in the shariah must be put an end to by accepting them in the category of, to use a fiqh term, ‘those who are similar to the “People of the Book”’ (shibh-e ahl-e kitab). Numerous Indian Muslim scholars, starting from the period of the first Muslim invader of India, Muhammad Ibn Qasim, advocated precisely this, and provided arguments and proofs for their stance. By finally accepting the Hindus as akin or similar to the ‘People of the Book’ we will be preventing emotionally-driven, half-baked religious preachers and self-styled champions of ‘Islamic government’ from adding fuel to the fires stoked by viscerally anti-Muslim Hindu supremacists.

The vexed issue of Islamic political thought in countries such as India is another question that needs far more attention than it has received. Let me clarify this matter with the help of an example. Some time ago, the controversial Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, who perhaps considers herself no longer a Muslim, was attacked by a group of Muslims while on a visit to India. The intention of the attackers was probably to kill her. The question was then raised and intensely discussed in some Muslim circles if this sort of attack was Islamically permissible in an officially secular country like India. A large number of ulema insisted that Taslima deserved to be killed. Some even went to the extent of announcing a huge reward to her would-be assassin. A few level-headed ulema tried to intervene in the debate to counter this extremist behaviour, but they were shouted down by other ulema who invoked the case of numerous previous traducers of the Prophet in India who had been, as they said, ‘dispatched to hell’ by what they termed as ‘brave Islamic warriors’. Were the actions of these men ‘un-Islamic’, they demanded to know? Were they not in accordance with the rules of the shariah?

This, to my mind, was certainly not the right way to approach the issue. The penal laws of the shariah are not implemented in most Muslim countries themselves, and so to clamour that they be imposed in a non-Muslim majority country like India is simply unrealistic. To demand that Islamic penal law be applied in India to punish Taslima was absolutely stupid, and was bound to alienate even those Hindus with a soft corner for Muslims.

The pathetic state of intellectual discourse among our Islamic circles with regard to major issues of contemporary import need not be further elaborated upon as it is common knowledge. Muslim bookshops are full of fat volumes that discuss the nitty-gritty of minor details of fiqh and fatwas thereon. Seminars and conferences are regularly held by ulema groups across the country to discuss precisely the same issues. On the other hand, a ghostly silence prevails in these circles on vital present-day issues related to political and social and other such matters. This confusion is made even more distressing with the absurd utterances that are emitted from time to time by men who have little awareness about the complexities of the contemporary world but yet who see themselves as great scholars and leaders. To cite just one example, among many, some years ago, in an interview to a Muslim journalist working with one of India’s leading newspapers, a responsible Islamic scholar attached to a well-known Muslim institution declared India to still be dar ul-harb. This statement was published with bold letters on the front page of the newspaper. Not surprisingly, this led to a great furore, causing considerable embarrassment to many Muslims who did not agree at all with the claims of this scholar.

Promoting contextually-relevant understandings of Islam is an urgent task before us today, one that has hardly begun. This can only be taken up by well-recognised ulema. If the ulema continue to remain aloof from this responsibility, unqualified self-styled Islamic scholars will step in to take their place, which is bound to have an extremely deleterious impact not just on Muslim thought but on the Muslims themselves. This is no empty threat. In fact, some such unqualified people are already seeking to worm their way in to do precisely this.

A contextually-relevant understanding of Islam demands that we adopt a balanced and creative approach to a wide range of issues of contemporary import—political, social, economic, civilisational and so on. These issues, and what our responses to them should be from within the broader Islamic paradigm, must also be taught to madrasa students, our would-be ulema. The madrasas have a central role to play in this regard. But this can happen only if they come out of their shells and assume the task of the contemporary application of Islamic thought to modern issues with the utmost seriousness that it deserves. 

Maulana Waris Mazhari is the editor of the New Delhi-based monthly Tarjuman Dar ul-Uloom, the official organ of the Graduates’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on 

Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.