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Community service

Muslim intellectuals in Europe and North America have a fine tradition of reflection on living up to the verities of Islam, writes AG Noorani.

india Updated: Oct 09, 2007 21:22 IST
AG Noorani

In the last 60 years of Independence, no madrasa, including the great Dar ul Uloom at Deoband, has produced a single scholar, SA Siddiqui, Chairman of the National Commission of Minority Educational Institutions and former Delhi High Court judge, said recently. Modernisation of madrasas “would also help prevent the recurrence of a Lal Masjid-type incident in India”, he said. Religious bigotry and ignorance drive people to use violence in the name of Islam.

Professor Syed Iqbal Hasnain, former Vice-Chancellor, University of Calicut, has written: “The time has come for the believers of Islam to take a closer look at the original teachings of the Quran and the Prophet and to identify the point where matters took their own turn to fuel radicalism and extension. It has been observed that the senseless interpretation of Islamic concepts and terms by radical Islamists and imams is acting as the ‘theological’ inspiration to violence.” Jehad is one of them.

Muslim intellectuals in Europe and North America have a fine tradition of erudition and reflection on living up to the verities of Islam in modern, especially non-Muslim, societies. It is the South Asian, especially Indian, Muslim who has been woefully remiss in this regard.

The noted British scholar, Ziauddin Sardar, holds, “It is true that the vast majority of Muslims abhor violence and terrorism, and that the Quran and various schools of Islamic law forbid the killing of innocent civilians. It is true, as the vast majority of Muslims believe, that the main message of Islam is peace.” It is equally true that “terrorists are a product of a specific mindset that has deep roots in Islamic history”and are “provided solace and spiritual comfort by scholars who use the Quran and Islamic law to justify their actions and fan the hatred... It is the case in all religious and all ideologies down through every age”.
This does not absolve Muslims of their responsibility. In discharging it, they should not be inhibited by the fact that hate groups hostile to them would exploit their critiques of fellow Muslims.

Sardar recalls the puritanical Kharijites, who were responsible for the murder of Ali, the fourth Caliph and the Prophet’s son-in-law. They believed that history had come to an end with the Quran and pronounced everyone who disagreed with them as infidel. This tradition has three characteristics — it is ahistoric, devoid of any notion of progress or human evolution; it is monolithic, disclaiming diversity and dissent; and it is aggressively self-righteous and claims a right “to do good and prevent evil deeds”..
Violence flows naturally.

We now have neo-Kharijites on our hands. US President George W Bush’s ‘war on terror’ only wins them support. They belong to a ruinous strand in Muslim tradition based on a false conception of Islam. Sardar is, therefore, right when he asserts that “the fight against terrorism is also an internal Muslim struggle within Islam. Indeed, it is a struggle for the very soul of Islam”.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of the Aligarh Muslim University, realised this and propounded a rational interpretation of the Quran. His colleague Chiragh Ali was bolder still. His neglected classic, Jihad (1885), asserts that “the Muhammadan Common Law is by no means divine or superhuman. It mostly consists of uncertain traditions. Arabian usages and customs, some frivolous and fortuitous analogical deductions from the Quran and a multitudinous array of casuistical sophistry of the canonical legists.”
Whatever happened to disrupt this trend? It was explained by the poet-philosopher Iqbal to Akbar Shah Mujibabadi in the late 1930s. “The influence of the professional maulvis had greatly decreased owing to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s movement. But the Khilafat Committee, for the sake of political fatwas, had restored their influence among Indian Muslims.”

In his presidential address to the Muslim League on December 29, 1930, Iqbal had urged Indian Muslims “to rid” Islam “of the stamp that Arabian imperialism was forced to give it to mobilise its laws, its education, its culture, and to bring them into closer contact with its [Islam’s] own original spirit and with the spirit of modern times.”

Iqbal held that “the claim of the present generation of Muslim liberals to re-interpret the foundational legal principles, in the light of their own experience and the altered conditions of modern life, is, in my opinion, perfectly justified. The teaching of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems... In view of the intense conservatism of the Muslims in India, Indian judges cannot but stick to what are called standard works”.

However, Islam also has a strong reformist tradition, of which the Mutazilites were pioneers. They made reason the very criterion of religious law. Nicholas D. Kristof rightly points out that “while the thread of fundamentalism is real in Islam, so is the thread of reform. The 21st century may become to Islam what the 16th was to Christianity, for even in hardline States like Iran, you meet Martin Luthers who are pushing for an Islamic Reformation. One of the most surprising elements of this push for reform has to do with the emergence of a school called ‘feminist Islam’”.

Tunisian scholar Mohamed Charf’s book, Islam and Liberty, exposes “the historical misunderstanding” that led to a theological junta monopolising the discourse. Intellectual stagnation preceded revivalism and its offspring, fundamentalism.

An articulate, erudite brand of Muslim scholars are giving battle to these forces — Leila Ahmed (Egypt and the US), Nasr Abu Zaid (Egypt), Mohammed Arkoun (Algeria and France), Hsna Hanafi (Egypt), Fethullah Gulen (Turkey), Mohsen Kadivar (Iran), Fatima Mernissi (Morocco), Tariq Ramadan (Switzerland), Muhammad Shahrour (Syria), Abdolkarim Soroush (Iran), Mohamed Talbi (Tunisia) and Amina Wadud (US). They are little noticed in South Asia. The mullah, inferior in learning and integrity, monopolises discourse.
One thinker deserves particular attention. Shabbir Akhtar writes, “After developing a great rational philosophical tradition, the adherents of Islam have lapsed into an intellectual lethargy that has already lasted half a millennium.”

He counsels Muslims to be “reflective, to be intellectually honest enough to face frankly and conscientiously the tribunal of secular reason and to do so within faithful parameters”.

The terrorist challenge is but part of a wider challenge. Muslims must face it for their own good. As the Quran says, “Verily never will God change the conditions of a people until they change it themselves.”