By Hasan Suroor
January 09, 2020
What is Islam?
I know Islam’s critics will be dying to answer this question, but it is more important to hear it from Muslims themselves because, after all, it is their conflicting interpretations of Islam which are behind so much of the confusion and mayhem around the world. Islam is a religion of peace, a religion which is said to accord dignity, respect and equality to women; yet a religion which is being misrepresented by some of its followers. A religion which exhorts its followers to gain knowledge even if it means ‘going to China’. Islam is a religion which preaches tolerance and coexistence; yet which has become a topic of everyday discussion for those who are against it. So, what is Islam really about?
In his book ‘What Is History?’ E.H. Carr urges people to read the historian before they read his or her history in order to get a sense of where that historian is coming from. Many Muslims will say that the same analogy applies to Islam: its interpretation depends on who is interpreting it. So, extremists will interpret it to suit their own agenda while moderate Muslims would offer a different interpretation. This claim itself then takes a knock when we hear so many bewilderingly different interpretations that, let alone non-Muslims, even ordinary Muslims are left confused and frustrated. A healthy internal debate is one thing, but tawdry public disputes over the fundamentals of Islam—jihad, sharia, caliphate—is quite another.
What Then Is The Problem?
To be fair, it is not entirely the fault of interpreters, and in this I include those who wilfully misinterpret it to promote their sectarian or extremist ideas. The potential for misinterpretation and misunderstanding lies in the crude understanding of Islam. By allowing people to cherry-pick Quranic verses to back their argument is a vicious disservice to this religion of peace. Similarly, some people try to manipulate Hadith (a compilation of Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) sayings and teachings) to justify their biased mindset. Hadiths are another major source of legitimacy for Islamic acts after Holy Quran, they are too numerous, were pronounced in vastly different situations, and compiled many years after Prophets (PBUH) death. Sometimes they were quoted outside the original context. They are plucked out of context to support bizarre claims. Then there is the problem of “inauthentic” Hadith—sayings attributed to the Prophet which he may or may not have uttered. Even many authentic Hadith have been found to be flawed because of misinterpretation or contextual errors.
We have seen a great deal of quibbling over the meaning of jihad. Muslims insist that the “real” concept of jihad does not involve violence and bears no resemblance to Islamists’ interpretation of it. The “real” or “greater” jihad, they say, means a peaceful inner spiritual struggle. An armed struggle against an external enemy is regarded as “lesser” jihad and permitted only in specific circumstances—for example, in self-defense. Theoretically true. Yet, it is also true that around the dining table in Muslim households, the term jihad is invariably used in its extreme sense due to lack of knowledge of the original text. I grew up in an extremely liberal environment, but I don’t recall, in private conversations, jihad ever being referred to in its philosophical sense. In Indian Muslim discourse, the term normally used for personal struggles, whether social, economic or emotional, is “Jaddo Jehad” derived from Urdu.
Extremists can be accused of inventing circumstances that, in their opinion, would justify violence, or of targeting the wrong “enemy,” and using appallingly brutal methods of executing their plans. But that is not the point. All religions, especially those which set out to gain followers through proselytisation and to conquer empires, have violent histories. Campaigns to “Christianise” Pagan Europe in the Middle Ages were not always peaceful, and then, of course, there is the bloody history of Inquisition and the Crusades.
To a large extent, Islam is often wrongly and willfully portrayed as being somehow unique in having a violent history. But what is unique about Islam is that while other religious movements, particularly Christianity, got over their early violent origins, it continued to move on and update its precepts within the ambit of Holy Quran. There has been no Islamic equivalent of Enlightenment and Renaissance, and the true Islamic mindset remains a torch bearer with historical progress, and therefore with modern times. But to return to the question, “what is Islam?” ask any Muslim and they will solemnly enumerate all its nobler aspects: its emphasis on community and oneness which has made it the world’s fastest growing religion; its rejection of caste or class; the spirit of inquiry it fosters; its command not to bow to any temporal authority (thumbs down for authoritarianism and dictatorship); its stress on simple and Spartan living; a unique system of zakat to prevent concentration of wealth in a few individual hands; a complete “no, no” to social and economic exploitation; and its egalitarianism. Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) personally oversaw huge reforms in the pre-Islamic slavery practices in Arabia and appointed a former Ethiopian slave, Bilal Ibn Ribah as the first Muezzin in Islam after helping him gain freedom.
Faces of Islam
Muslims will cite Quranic verses and Hadith to underline Islamic injunctions against violence; its command to treat women with respect and accord them equality; its message of tolerance, love, brotherhood, and its exhortation that we treat even our enemies with respect and try to win them over through love and persuasion rather than force. But this is one face of Islam. It also has another, less pleasant, face. For, the Islam preached by the extremists and their fellow travelers is also Islam; and if you ask them, they will also cite Quranic verses and Hadith to back their claims. Their methods may be extreme but their philosophy does derive legitimacy from their limited understanding of the Islamic text and Muslims must stop being in denial about it. Learned Islamic scholars need to put their heads together and present basic scriptures in a manner that the meaning and context of every Quranic verse and every Hadith is made unambiguously clear, leaving no room for misinterpretation or misrepresentation. This annotated text should then be declared as the authorized version of Islamic beliefs. Otherwise, we will continue to struggle to understand what real Islam is while leaving the field open for fanatics to distort it at will.
Original Headline: Islam and its interpretations
Source: The Rising Kashmir