By Javed Anand
26 January, 2012
The Deobandis, Barelvis (Raza Academy included) and the Owaisis are welcome to their view that Islam demands burning or a ban on offending words, and banishment of blasphemous authors. (Ideally, according to them, the likes of Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen should be greeted with sticks and stones). But I have two issues to settle with them.
One, while they are entitled to their view, they must get used to the fact that India is a non-theocratic, secular country (Thank you, Allah, for granting such wisdom to the founding fathers of our republic) where there is punishment for crimes but none for “sins”. If you are aggrieved, take recourse to Sections 153 A and 295 of the Indian Penal Code. Please remember that where “hurt religious sentiments” take precedence over the rule of law, human lives will be at stake. India is a good example of a democracy-in-progress where governments (whether Congress or BJP) that fail to protect the freedom to write and paint also fail to protect human lives: Delhi 1984, Bombay (Mumbai now) 1992-93, Gujarat 2002. (Conversely, the literary and the artistic classes too should perhaps recognise that in a polity where human life itself is not held sacred, little else will.)
Two, as stated at the outset, I would have no quarrel with Muslims who subscribe to “their Islam” that prescribes burning, bans, banishment, even “virtuous murder” of the sinner so long as they refrain from instigating, preaching, precipitating violence. But then they should have no quarrels with other Muslims whose Islam is radically different from and staunchly opposed to fossilised faith.
Nearly 150 years ago, “Sir Syed”, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, argued against book-burning and ban-seeking. In his biography, Hayaat-e-Javed, of the then reviled and now revered man, Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali approvingly wrote that Syed Ahmed Khan consistently held the view that words must only be fought with words. Khan would go out of his way to procure controversial writings. His advice to fellow Muslims: Must read anti-Islam, anti-Prophet literature. If the content is scurrilous, ignore them. However, if the criticisms are of a serious nature, the only option is to place your response in the marketplace of ideas. By burning books or demanding a ban, you only create the impression that Islam has no answers to offer.
That was then. Closer to our time, it’s well to remember that though Salman Rushdie was severely criticised for what was seen as a deliberate attempt to inflame Muslim sentiments, almost the entire Arab world opposed or ignored Ayatollah Khomeini’s kill-Rushdie fatwa. Months after India had issued a ban on The Satanic Verses (the first country in the world to do so), at its March 1989 meet, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) limited itself to a call to member states to ban the book.
Also significant is the case of Sudan’s controversial Islamist, Dr Hasan ‘Abd Allah al-Turabi. In an article published in the prestigious US journal, Foreign Affairs, in 1995, al-Turabi was quoted as saying: “I don’t accept the condemnation of Salman Rushdie. If a Muslim wakes up in the morning and says he doesn’t believe any more, that’s his business. There has never been any question of inhibiting people’s freedom to express any understanding of Islam”.
Many Muslims across the globe today question the received wisdom on blasphemy, apostasy and heresy. Through much of Islamic history, all these were seen as inter-linked sins deserving of death. No doubt, the muftis and maulvis from Darul Uloom or wherever can cite the fatwas of numerous heavyweights from Islam’s classical juristic tradition. But Muslims today who refuse to treat the learned Imams and Maulanas as omniscient (there can be no greater sin in Islam than this) and insist on seeing the fatwas in the context of their times, point to the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet himself in their support.
A good example is that of the UK-based Ziauddin Sardar of Pakistani origin whose recent book, Reading the Quran, should be considered essential reading for all students of Islam. “I find the whole idea of blasphemy irrelevant to Islam,” he argues. “If there is no compulsion in religion (a verse from the Quran says so categorically) then all opinions can be expressed freely, including those which cause offence to religious people. Of course, we, the believers, have the right to be offended. But we have no right to silence our critics”.
Sardar laces his arguments in support of freedom of conscience and expression quoting verse after verse from the Quran and the life of the Prophet. “If the Prophet himself did not penalise those who uttered profanities against him, who are we to act on his behalf?” he asks. Good question. Who are we to act on behalf of the Prophet or on behalf of Allah, for that matter?
The writer is general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy, and co-editor, ‘Communalism Combat’.
Source: Indian Express