By Asif Merchant, New Age Islam
16 August, 2015
This is an attempt to understand The Holy Prophet’s mission, viewing him as an idealistic human wanting to reform the society of which he was a part. The Prophet, himself, repeatedly emphasized that, apart from receiving regular inspirations from The Lord, he was a human like anyone else.
Arabia, in the days of The Prophet was going through a period of prosperity. Earlier, when things were not so good, it was natural for the Arabs to help one another, as all were more or less in the same boat. Now there was excessive prosperity for some, which meant excessive poverty for others. A class division was emerging. The haves, no longer thought it necessary to help the downtrodden. This probably played on the mind of the ‘still to become Prophet’, and pushed his thoughts towards social reform.
Comparing other social reformers, before and after the Prophet, like The Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Mahatma Gandhi, there is one thing common. All these reformers opposed the established practices. This resulted in opposition from the ‘Establishment’. Christ and Gandhi both gave their lives for their beliefs. As far as the ‘establishment’ is concerned, it is usually only a matter of time before the revolutionary wave ebbs, the ideas of the reformers are venerated, but ignored in practice, and the establishment takes over.
This has happened with the followers of Jesus Christ, who were soon incorporated into the Roman Empire, which began calling itself ‘The Holy Roman Empire’. Bishops, Archbishops, and Popes, all present themselves as representatives of Christ, but, as part of the Establishment, live luxurious lives, far from those whose development had been Christ’s mission.
As far as Mahatma Gandhi is concerned, despite there being many so-called ‘Gandhians’, there is nothing left of Gandhi except lip-service on his anniversaries. Even those who celebrated when he was assassinated, now take his name to justify their own agenda.
The Buddha emphasized the value of a life devoted to justice. He declared that the existence or non-existence of God is not worth worrying about, what is important is to live a just life. His followers turned him into a God – ‘Bhagwan Buddha’. Rituals became more important than his philosophy.
It is natural for something similar to have happened in the case of The Holy Prophet. What started with three followers – His wife Khadija, the first Muslim; His young cousin Ali, the first male follower; and His friend Abu Bakr, the first adult male follower – grew in numbers as the movement gained popularity. As is normal in such cases, there would have been opportunists who joined sensing personal benefits and a chance to come up in life. Those who were his bitter opponents initially later swore loyalty to him. The Prophet has called these people ‘hypocrites’. They would usually make a big show of piety to impress others. Significantly, in some modern Muslim sects, a show of piety is recommended, and considered necessary in order to be a good Muslim.
When the Prophet began his Mission, in Mecca, he was bitterly opposed by the vested interests who realized that if he succeeded, their powers would be diminished. So powerful was their opposition that the Prophet had to leave Mecca and relocate himself in Medina, which was not so prosperous, and did not have a powerful aristocracy. The number of dedicated followers increased, and in time, the Meccans had to come to terms with him.
At the time of his death, the Prophet had a considerable spiritual following, but, in addition, he also had considerable political power. Most of the Arabian sub-continent was under his rule. The tragedy is that none of his close companions were anywhere near his spiritual stature. For three days, they kept denying that he had died. A power struggle was underway. This ended with the announcement of Abu Bakar as the first Caliph – the successor of the Holy Prophet.
This sort of thing happens when a dictator dies. One has seen this whenever the Supreme leader of the erstwhile Soviet Union died.
Since the decision in favour of Abu Bakar was not acceptable to a significant section of the population, a split in the religion occurred. The historic Shia-Sunni divide. Later, each of these underwent further splits, resulting in the vast number of sects, each claiming to be the rightful version of Islam.
With a little thought, we can realize that the Holy Prophet has been left far behind, and our Muslims are actually followers of certain leaders, ruling in his name.
To further add to the confusion, the third Caliph, Usman, ordered a rearrangement of the Quran. This has resulted in a jumble that is difficult to decipher. Most likely the calendar was also altered around this time, omitting the extra month every three years, which would have resulted in a correct anticipation of the seasons in the year. Now, the Muslim calendar is useless as a measuring device.
Concerning the state of women, the Prophet was far ahead of his time. Under his guidance women were able to achieve parity with men in many fields. This was in sharp contrast to the traditional attitudes of the Arabs of his day. After the Prophet passed away, it didn't take long for the women to be relegated to the previous inferior status.
Of all religions, Islam was the only one which had no place for a clergy. This meant that Muslims were free to work out for themselves how to live a just life. After all, with the first command being to “Read in the Name of The Lord, who teaches by the pen”, it was expected that all Muslims would eventually be able to work things out for themselves unaided by anyone else. This was not to be. Influential people managed to appoint their own representatives to lead the prayers, where originally anyone was allowed to do so. In time, these same people came to be considered authorities on the religion, even though they had no concept of the ‘Spirit of Islam’. They were religious professionals. For them, the rituals associated with the religion were most important. New rituals were invented to maintain their authority. These people call themselves, Hafiz, Qari, Aalim, Ayatollah etc. All are in the employ of the State or under the patronage of some wealthy folk. Some are even the rulers of their country. It is in their interest that the people should remain docile. How can they raise their voices for Justice when it is the State that is exploiting the people? Surely, this is not what the Holy Prophet intended.
Since civilisational values like justice, women’s rights, education etc., could not have a place in their teachings, these clerics concentrated on rituals, dress code, and other such frivolous matters, and called it religion. In other words, A Muslim is merely one who follows certain rituals and practices as recommended by leaders who claim to be guided by the Prophet.
It is claimed that the earlier Prophets were actually Muslims. There is no record of this in their books, and it is unlikely that they recited the Kalma. If they are to be accepted as Muslims, and all of us are required to accept them as Muslims, then what are the implications? First of all, it follows that the recitation of the Kalma is not necessary for one to be a Muslim. Also, it is not necessary to claim to be a Muslim. From this, it is obvious that to be a Muslim, one has to live a life devoted to justice and righteousness. In fact, ALL such people have to be accepted as Muslims, regardless of the rituals they follow, or what name they give to their own religion.
By this reasoning, Mahatma Gandhi has to be accepted as a Muslim who followed Hindu rituals. Bhimrao Ambedkar as a Muslim who first followed Hindu rituals, and later, Buddhist rituals Mother Theresa as a Muslim who followed Christian rituals, and Nelson Mandela as a Muslim who followed Christian rituals.
Rituals have no importance in judging a person. If we look around us, we can spot many people who are Muslims, regardless of the rituals they practice. It would be foolish to go up to them and try to make them accept that they are, in fact Muslims. Being a Muslim is not part of a numbers game.
Asif Merchant is an independent thinker, based near Panchgani, Maharashtra, India He writes an occasional column for New Age Islam.