Sunday, November 27, 2016

Reflections on Relations Between Muslims and Others  

Recently, a friend of mine asked me if I could write an article about people of other faiths who might have had a deep impact on my life. He thought—and rightly so—that if we become more aware of how indebted we are, in different ways, to people from other religious communities, it can go a long way in promoting interfaith harmony, which is such a pressing need across the globe today. In asking me to write on the topic that he suggested, my friend probably wanted me to help, in my own small way, promote better relations between Muslims and people of other faiths—which is, of course, a very laudable objective.

For a long time now I have been interested in the issue of relations between Muslims and others. I have written several articles about this issue. And so, when my friend came up with the idea of me doing an article on this subject, I was delighted and gladly agreed to his request. However, when I got down to planning the structure of my article, I suddenly felt that I would not be able to write it. The reason was because I discovered, to own surprise, that there were hardly one or two non-Muslims among my friends and reasonably close acquaintances. In fact, to be more correct, besides this friend of mine who had requested me to write the article, there were no non-Muslims whom I could really call friends in the true sense of the term.
I was quite taken aback at this lamentable discovery.

The fact is that in the environment in which I was born and brought up, Muslims and others regular interacted with each other. It was an everyday thing. Yet, growing up, I did not develop a close friendship with any person from another faith community other than the one I was born into.

This is really tragic. If people of different faith communities live together in the same locality, in the same village, in the same city, or in the same country, there are definitely ample opportunities for them to become friends. And they must become friends if they are to live together in amity. Befriending people from other communities is also a wonderful way to learn good things from other people, from other communities and from other traditions. This is crucial for personal, social, and global progress, I am now convinced.

In my case, one major reason for my not having established close friendships with anyone from another faith community was that I spent many years studying in traditional Muslim madrasas, starting from the primary level. In the past, in some parts of India, children of other faith communities would also study in such madrasas, along with Muslim children. Some non-Muslims also generously financially contributed to madrasas. But today, the tradition of children from other faith communities studying in madrasas is, by and large, no longer there.

Studying in an all-Muslim environment, where all the students in the madrasas I attended were Muslims, I did not get the chance to befriend anyone else. After finishing with madrasa education, I enrolled at the Aligarh Muslim University, and here again, my friends were all Muslims. Later, I taught for two years at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, in Hyderabad. Here, because it was an Urdu university, there were very few students and teachers from other faith communities. Now, however, I teach at the Jamia Millia Islamia, in New Delhi, where I do have more chances to interact with people from other faith communities—which is a very good thing.

This, in brief, is how things have been with me. By and large, it is the same with most other people who have studied in traditional madrasas. There are very few examples of ulama and other madrasa graduates who have close friends among people of other faiths. This is in contrast to many of those Muslims who have studied in government or good quality private schools that have students from different religious backgrounds. This provides such Muslims the opportunity to establish friendships with people from other faith backgrounds, to visit each other’s homes, to join in each other’s joyful and sorrowful occasions, and so on.

In a plural society like India, it is really indispensable for people from different faith backgrounds to enjoy friendly relations with each other. In this regard, it is lamentable that in some parts of India, especially in certain cities, close social interactions between Muslims and others have been steadily declining over the years. There are two major reasons for this growing gap. The first is a certain sort of majoritarian politics, which leads to increasing ghettoisation of, and insularity among, Muslims. The second—and this is the basic focus of this article—is a factor that is internal to Muslims themselves and is a result of misinterpretations of certain Islamic teachings.

Muslims ought to make every effort to bridge the growing divide between them and people of other faiths. This is both a religious as well as a social responsibility on their part. When members of different communities have close, friendly relations, they can share the good things their faiths and traditions with each other. This can be a very beneficial learning experience for everyone concerned. From the spiritual point of view, this can help all involved to grow spiritually. From the social point of view, the importance of such friendly relations is obvious, especially for Muslims, who are a minority in India and who are largely economically poor and illiterate. Their own well-being is crucially linked to having good relations with the majority.

Yet, despite this, from the Muslim side itself there are major obstacles to building good relations between Muslims and others. The biggest obstacle in this regard are certain ‘religious’ views that are a result of wrong interpretations of Islamic teachings. It is a lamentable fact that some Muslim ‘religious scholars’ have very negative views of many people of other faiths, wrongly thinking them to be najis (‘impure) and paleed (‘dirty’). They wrongly claim sanction for this stance from the scriptures. The fact, however, is that the impurity of the mushrikeen (polytheists or those who associate others with God) that the Quran talks about is with reference to certain beliefs of theirs, and not to their very person or being as such. That is why, for instance, Abu Hanifa (founder of the Hanafi school of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence, with which the vast majority of the Muslims of South Asia are formally affiliated) was of the opinion that they could even enter the Kaaba if their bodies were free from external impurities. In the same way, when the Quran refers to the enmity of the mushrikeen, it relates to the mushrikeen of Arabia at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and not to all the mushrikeen of the whole world. Moreover, it relates specifically only to those mushrikeen of seventh century Arabia of the Prophet’s times who were fighting against the Muslims, and not to those mushrikeen who had cordial relations with the Muslims. Had it referred to all mushrikeen, how could it be that in promoting and spreading the message of Islam in Mecca itself many non-Muslims played a very important role? For instance, the Prophet’s own paternal uncle, Abu Talib (according to the Sunni view, he had not accepted Islam), by virtue of whose protection and unprecedented support in the early phase of Islam the Prophet was able to fearlessly devote himself to preach Islam to people in Mecca. Or, Mut’imbin Adi, who, when the disbelievers of Mecca boycotted the Hashmi clan (to which the Prophet belonged), played a major role in ending the boycott and gave the Prophet shelter, because of which the Prophet entered Mecca and engaged in inviting people to God. Or, Abdullah bin Uraiqit, who guided the Prophet on his migration (hijrat) to Medina because the Prophet and his companion Abu Bakr (who was accompanying him on this journey) were not familiar with the routes from Mecca to Medina. It definitely cannot be at all reasonable to put the Prophet’s uncles Abu Talib and Abu Lahab in the same category just because Abu Lahab was not a Muslim and, according to the Sunnis, nor was Abu Talib. In contrast to Abu Talib, Abu Lahab vociferously opposed the Prophet and left no stone unturned in stopping him from calling the people to God’s path.

In the same way, some Prophetic hadiths, according to which after the commandment was revealed to the Prophet to migrate to Medina, Muslims were stopped from living amidst mushrikeen, have been wrongly interpreted by some self-styled ‘Islamic scholars’ to wrongly argue that Muslims should not live along with people of other faiths in the same areas. Such inane and ignorant claims of some self-styled ulama are themselves a source of great strife or fitna, which needs to be countered. Another such erroneous view relates to friendship or muwalat with non-Muslims. Interpreting certain Quranic verses in a very wrong way, several so-called ulama wrongly argue that Muslims must not have friendly love in their hearts for people of other faiths. This is a really very wrong claim and has no sanction in the Quran, if the Quran is understood properly. How, one must ask here, can people with such utterly erroneous views have good relations with others?
There is an urgent need for Muslims all over the world, including India, to reach out to people of other faiths and persuasions and try to build close friendships with them. This is for their mutual benefit, and for the collective benefit of the whole world. In this regard, there are many practical things that Muslims could do, including:

·        Teaching, in an empathetic and objective manner, madrasa students about other religions and the traditions, cultures and histories of other communities.

·        Including as many people of other faiths as possible as beneficiaries in the social services provided by Muslim organizations (Unfortunately, reflecting a rather widespread mindset prevalent among Muslims, most Muslim organizations cater to Muslims alone. In this regard, they should learn from the noble example of many Christian organizations).

·        Promoting interfaith initiatives. Muslim organizations, including madrasas, should promote interfaith dialogue in the same way as, for instance, some Christian organizations are doing.

·        Rethink many issues related to other communities (including about their status and relations between Muslims and them) contained in the corpus of traditional fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence that are a big obstacle to establishing friendly relations between Muslims and others. There is a need to develop new understandings of fiqh that reflect the contemporary context and the imperative for harmonious and mutually-beneficial friendly relations between Muslims and others.
·        Improving relations between Muslims and others is a very urgent necessity in India (and elsewhere) today, much more important than launching political drives and insisting on political demands. Good relations with others are indispensable for the well-being of all people, including Muslims themselves.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Questions About Prayer
People have many questions about salaat or namaz, the Islamic form of prayer. Some of them are: What is adhan or azan (the call to prayer)? What is its significance? Why does one direct his or her face towards the Kaaba while praying? What is the purpose of intention (niyyah or niyyat) in prayer? Is it compulsory to say prayers only in Arabic? What is the wisdom in the fixed number of rakahs (prescribed units of prayer) for each of the five time daily prayers?

I have tried to answer these questions in the following paragraphs.
Azanliterally means “to call’’. It informs people when it is time for prayers so that they can gather at the mosque to pray. The purpose of iqamah (the second call to prayer, which is uttered immediately before the beginning of the obligatory prayer) is similar to this, and is meant to summon the people who are already in the mosque to come together and join the prayer in congregation.

The azan functions similarly to the practice in some Christian communities where church bells are rung for the same purpose, i.e. summoning the faithful to prayer. It is analogous, in a way, to the custom at some schools or students’ camps,where a bell is rung to call the students to assemble in a certain area or to announce that class time hasstarted or finished.

The objective of azan may look very ordinary or simple, but it has to be achieved through a form of worship that contains the praise and glorification of God. And that, indeed, is the spirit of worship.

Azan is a method to call people to come together in congregation to worship God. Apart from this, the azan serves to remind the Muslims, five times a day, of certain basic Islamic beliefs, such as the Oneness and greatness of God and the prophethood of the Prophet Muhammad. But azan is not a precondition for prayer. Prayer can be performed at any place without calling azan or iqamah. Prayer can be offered in a wilderness or jungle even without azan or iqamah. The Eid prayers require neither azan nor iqamah because Muslim individuals already impatiently look forward to these prayers.

The Kaaba in Makkah is the qiblah, or direction in which prayers are offered for Muslims. Facing this qiblah is a prerequisite for performing prayers in Islam. In the early phase of Islam, Muslims were ordered,according to some scholars, to offer prayers directing their face towards the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, with the aim of winning the hearts of Jews and to express solidarity with them (in the sense that Muslims and Jews share many basic religious beliefs, including worshipping the same God’),but,as the Quran(2:144) suggests, the Prophet was keen that the Kaaba, the symbolic House of God, should be approved as  qiblah for Muslims.
Nonetheless,the Quran says:‘The East and the West belong to God. Whichever way you turn, there is the Face of God. God is all pervading and all knowing.’(2:115) According to Islamic scholars, this verse was revealed before the verse which commands: ‘turn your face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque’(2:149), or else that it applies to a person offering his prayers in the darkest night when he is not sure of the qiblah, the proper direction of prayer, or is riding a vehicle which changes its direction rapidly, in which case even if he faces a direction other than the qiblah, his prayer would be considered proper. This indicates that the qiblah is not attached to the core of the prayer, even though it is considered necessary.

What, then, is the purpose of the qiblah? It is an intrinsic demand ofhuman nature that if someone loves or bows down to some entity, he wants it to be present and visible before him. But with regard to God, this is entirely impossible in this physical world.That is why in place of Him, His symbolic house, the Kaaba, was declared as the qiblah.
The qiblah is the central point of the worshipper’s attention towards God while in prayer. It is a way to put one’s whole concentration on God, feeling as if Godis watching us while we pray, as the Prophet has asked his followers to do.
Making the intention (niyyah or niyyat) to pray is a precondition for prayer—that is, making the intention, in one’s heart, of offering prayer. Uttering the intention of offering prayers by one’s tongue is not necessary. Every act requires an intention by heart. No work can be accomplished in proper manner without it. Any act not done with a proper intention can be only hypothetically attributed to the related person. Making the intention for prayer means that one is devoting oneself to God for some time, while cutting oneself off from the whole world for that period. This helps in building concentration and focussing on God while one is engaged in prayer.
With regard to the language in which prayer is to be offered, some Muslim theologians, such as Abu Hanifa, the founder of Hanafi school of jurisprudence, opined that the prayer could be performed in other languages, like Persian. Later, Abu Hanifa changed his opinion and adopted the common view of the Muslim scholars. But from this pointit might be inferred that language has a secondary role in prayer. Primarily, what is required in prayer is submissiveness (khushu) and the awareness that God is watching one always. In principle,it seems logical and in keeping with spirit of the religion that a person should remember his/her Creator in his/her own language, comprehending what he/she recites or utters in the prayer. Prior to the Prophet Muhammad, different prophets and their communities used different languages in worshipping God. They glorified God in their own languages, not necessarily the same as what Muslims use in their worship and supplication to Him. For instance, in the Jewish and Christian traditions ‘Jehovah’ and ‘Eli’ were used as names of God respectively. According to the Quran (35:24), there is no community to which a prophet has not been sent. In the light of this, it means that God must have sent one or more prophets to India too, who must have worshiped and glorified God in an ancient Indian language or languages. There is not a single verse in the Quran or any Prophetic tradition that makes the Arabic language obligatory for prayers and supplications. It can be deduced from this that Arabic language is not a basic precondition for prayer. Yet, in spite of this, it is required that the prayer be offered in the language used by the concerned prophets because along with the spirit, the words and form in which the prophet used to perform worship are also required to be followed.
The form is also an inevitable part of religion because religious belief reflects itself through certain forms and practices. Without a particular form, the religion will become a mess. That is why in almost every religion, the key words that are part of the rituals and chants are pronounced in the very same language used by and inherited from their founder or key figure.

Another important point to consider in this regard is that translation, no matter how good, cannot be a substitute for the words of the original text,especially when the text is a revealed scripture, because the original words of the text have, apart from its meaning, a certain spiritual significance, efficacy and blessing (barakah) as well, as religious experience and human intuition suggest.
As for the fixed number of rakahs in the Islamic prayer, this is entirely in accordance with what was revealed to the Prophet from God. Human beings cannot satisfactorily perceive the wisdom behind this provision. The Prophet was taught by the angel Gabriel the manner and method of prayers, and that is what he asked his followers to do. He said: ‘Offer the prayer as you have seen me offering it.’ (Sahih al-Bukhari)

Reflections on Prayer

God made this beautiful planet Earth and settled human beings on it as His heirs.Scientific research tells us that it took millions of years for the Earth to become habitable for plant, animal and human life. This clearly indicates that there is definitely some grand purpose behind human beings having been placed on Earth. In the Quran (51:56), God tells us that this purpose is to worship God:
          I created the jinn and mankind only so that they might worship Me
The question then arises as to what the purpose of worship itself is?
The basic purpose of worship is to remember God, to express our love for Him and to come closer to Him. Thus, in the Quran (20:14), God says:
I am God. There is no deity save Me; so worship Me alone, and say your prayers in My remembrance.
According to a hadith report, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
Love God for what He nourishes you with of His Blessings (at-Tirmidhi)
According to another hadith report, the Prophet said:
 “Whenever anyone of you offers his prayer he is speaking in private to his Lord” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
This indicates the closeness that we acquire to God through prayer and other forms and acts of worship.

In Islam, the different forms of worship (prayer, fasting, Zakat, Haj) that have been made obligatory are not an end in themselves. This is because from the Prophet Adam to the Prophet Muhammad, the external forms of worship kept changing. The actual purpose of these means of worship is the strengthening of our relationship with God and so that the distance between God and us, His servants, is overcome. That is why in the Quran (2:186) God says:
When My servants ask you about Me, say that I am near. I respond to the call of one who calls, whenever he calls to Me: let them, then, respond to Me, and believe in Me, so that they may be rightly guided.
Further, God says (50:16):
We created man -- We know the promptings of his soul, and are closer to him than his jugular vein
While worship is a means to strengthen our relationship with God, it is also a means to strengthen our relationships with our fellow human beings. And so, Zakat, an action that entails transfer of material wealth to those in need, is also included in the category of worship.

According to a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is said to have remarked that all creatures are like a family of God and that God loves the most those who are the most beneficent to His family. From this we learn that in order to have a good relationship with God it is necessary for us to have good relations with His creatures. It is precisely because of this that in many cases where the commandment of prayer is mentioned in the Quran, Zakat is also mentioned as a commandment. Prayer is the most significant symbolic expression of our relationship with and love for God, while Zakat symbolizes our relationship with fellow human beings, our concern for their well-being and our sharing in their sorrows and difficulties.

Prayer is one of the pillars of the Islamic way of life. Prayer is a hallmark of a person of faith. By bowing down to God in prayer, we express our submission to Him.
Regular prayer has many benefits, for both our individual life and our collective life. Prayer is basic to our spiritual life and growth. It signifies and expresses our consciousness of our being slaves of God. The Prophet Muhammad said that between disbelief and faith is abandoning the Salat (at-Tirmidhi). He is also reported to have said: “If a person had a stream outside his door and he bathed in it five times a day, do you think he would have any filth left on him?" The people said, "No filth would remain on him whatsoever." The Prophet (peace be upon him) then said, "That is like the five daily prayers: God wipes away the sins by them." (Sahih al-Bukhari)

Prayer also has immense emotional and psychological benefits. It provides the heart with peace and comfort. In prayer, you appear before your Creator, who knows all your sorrows and who has the solution to all your problems. When you offer Dua or supplication to God, sometimes with tears rolling down your face, the heavy burden that lies on your heart is lifted. The Quran (2:45) tells us:  
Seek help with patience and prayer; this is indeed an exacting discipline, but not to the humble
Prayer teaches us humility and helps remove pride from our hearts.
Regular prayer helps us develop duty-consciousness as well as punctuality. It also helps us to be time-consciousness and to use our time in a proper manner. The Muslim form of prayer also has great physical benefits. It helps us become more particular about the cleanliness of our clothes, while the various postures in this form of prayer also provide our body with physical exercise. Performing ablutions before prayers removes accumulated physical dirt and provides freshness.
The Quran tells us (29:45):
Recite what has been revealed to you of the book, and pray regularly. Surely prayer restrains one from indecency and evil and remembrance of God is greater.
From this we learn the benefits of prayer at the social (in addition to the individual) level, for immorality and wrongdoing lead to social breakdown and are a huge obstacle to social progress. Praying together with others, in a congregation, helps foster the feeling of brotherhood and fraternity.

While prayer in a prescribed manner is one of the pillars of Islam, prayer itself is not something that God ordained only for Muslims. Rather, God prescribed prayer for different communities even before the advent of the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran tells us that prophets were sent to all the nations of the world. Different prophets, it says, called on their communities to worship God. The structure and form of their method of worship were different from those practiced by Muslims, but their spirit was the same—and that is, the praise of God, the remembrance of God, and Dua, or beseeching God for help.