Understanding Islam: A religion of mercy and forgiveness

  • Smita Bellur
  • Updated: Dec 09, 2015 15:17 IST
Muslim devotees offer Jummat-Ul-Vida prayers on the last Friday of the month of Ramzan ahead of the Eid ul-Fitr at Jama Masjid. (AFP File Photo)

As a Hindustani khayal and Sufi singer, it pains me to see the growing religious intolerance in the country. Music shows the path to harmony. Khayal music is replete with Sufi-flavoured bandishes and wisdom from mystic saints such as Kabir, Guru Nanak and Raidas, whose works propagate human values. That gives me hope.

Often, misunderstanding comes from overlooking the core values of a religion, and its context. Recently, a controversy has arisen in the wake of some incidents over whether saluting the national flag is at variance with Islamic practices. The debate may be linked to worship in Islam, but in no way need be construed as disrespect to the nation or a lack of patriotism, as it has been clarified by scholars. In Islam, the only unpardonable sin is associating God with anything else (called shirk). That God is Unique, the only One worthy of worship, and doesn’t beget children (nor is born) is key. He, being Infinite, cannot be represented in finite forms visually.

By the same principle, Sajda (prostrating) is reserved for God alone (especially in the action when one touches the head to the ground), and in theruku (bowing action) — where one’s body bends down.

The Indian vandana pose or namaste (folded hands) may be treated as just a cultural expression by some, whereas others may view the namaste as leaning towards shirk.

In sharp contrast, namaste/vandana (folding hands/bowing) is almost involuntary in Hindu culture, and adopted in many secular practices, because the belief is that one is offering salutation to the Divine spark in the human, and that one is being egoless by acknowledging it — though Islam also attaches great importance to egolessness.

Mufti Shahabuddin Sahab draws from the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and explains how we can learn patriotism and love-of-the motherland from him, and further adds that love of the motherland is a pre-requisite to serving the country. When asked if love for the ‘ummah’ (Islamic fraternity) overrides love for the country, he states that they are not mutually exclusive.

The chancellor of the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, businessman and philanthropist Zafar Sareshwala, says, “Respecting the national anthem is mandatory” as he quotes the 16th century Islamic jurist Mujadid Alf Saani (Ahmad Sirhind), who endorsed the view that love of the motherland is part of eeman (faith on Islam).

Religious scholar Karen Armstrong rues in her ‘Mohammed — Prophet for our time,’ that Islamophobia dates back to the Crusades and speaks of how from the 12t century, the West has distorted his life, overlooking his context when injustice and arrogance were rife in war-torn Arabia.

“We cannot understand his achievement unless we appreciate what he was up against,” she writes.

The word “mercy” appears in 79 places in the Quran and “forgiveness” 234 times. Islam itself as a word comes from the same root word for “peace” in Arabic and jihad means not “holy war” but a spiritual struggle to desist from sin. Arabia’s historical background and socio-economic conditions are critical to a clearer perspective on Islam.

It would be wise, therefore, to understand Islam through the words of the Vedic tradition: ‘Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti’ (Truth is one, the wise call it by different names)

Smita Bellur is a Sufi and classical singer. The views expressed are personal.

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