Monday, February 20, 2017

Reflections on the ‘Conspiracy’ Theory and Muslim Attitudes
Many Muslims think that a fundamental cause of the current problems of Muslims globally is what they decry as a ‘Western conspiracy’ against Islam and Muslims. They think that over the last few centuries Western countries have reduced Muslims to such a state of utter helplessness that the latter can hardly do anything to change their own conditions, try as hard as they might. The ‘hidden hand’ of what they call the ‘enemies of Islam’, will, they argue, simply not allow Muslims to get out of the unenviable situation in which they find themselves today. The Muslim religious and politically-oriented media is replete with stories of what are termed as ‘conspiracies’ of non-Muslims, particularly the West, against Islam and Muslims. This, in fact, is the only topic that a great many self-styled Muslim thinkers and writers can write about.
The simple fact is that this way of thinking only reveals the present-day Muslims’ extreme intellectual crisis. This crisis does not have to do with material resources or the lack thereof. Rather, it is a crisis of thought. Whatever Muslims might have faced, or are facing today, at the hands of others is plain enough to see—but it is all the price of the Muslims’ own weaknesses and wrongdoings, which they try to conceal blaming it on what they brand as the immorality of others. This is despite the fact that the Muslims’ own moral condition is woefully lamentable—this being so obvious a fact that it needs no elaboration at all.
Thinking in terms of the so-called ‘conspiracy theory’ is absolutely un-Islamic. If this theory were accepted as true, it would mean that the collective fate of Muslims is not in their hands but, rather, in the hands of their supposed opponents. It would mean that their supposed opponents, rather than Muslims themselves, are writing the Muslims’ fate. If this absurd claim is accepted, one would have to invent an entirely new meaning of the following Quranic declaration (13:11):
God does not change the condition of a people’s lot, unless they change what is in their hearts.
God does not change the condition of a people’s lot, unless they change what is in their hearts.
It is not completely untrue to say that Muslims have been the victim of some Western conspiracies. But the way that this is sought to be generalized and exaggerated completely out of proportion is utterly nonsensical, being indicative of deep-rooted and widespread intellectual bankruptcy among Muslims.
If you survey the 1400-year history of Islam, you will notice that Muslims have gone through numerous ups and downs. One of the most tragic developments in Muslim history was the enormous devastation wrought by the Tartars in the 13th century, who rampaged through many Muslim lands. They brought widespread slaughter and destruction in their wake, provoking a contemporary historian to comment that it seemed that Islam would be wiped off from the face of the earth. The Tartars seemed so utterly invincible that people thought it impossible that they could ever be defeated. Yet, even in such a trying situation, the ‘conspiracy theory’ did not seem to have had many takers among Muslims of that period. Generally speaking, the Muslims believed that whatever had befallen them was a result of their own misdeeds, in accordance with the Quranic teaching: ‘Whatever misfortune befalls you is of your own doing’ (42:30). This is why not long after the Muslims had been militarily crushed by the Tartars, the latter were won over to Islam.
There are several reasons why the ‘conspiracy theory’ has so many takers among Muslims today. One basic reason is the marked tendency in Muslim intellectual circles to refuse to engage in self-criticism and introspection. A second reason is the failure of movements and parties that arose in the 20th century in the name of defending Muslims and reviving Islam in securing their basic goals. This led to mounting frustration in their ranks, accompanied by extreme emotionalism, fear, suspicion and confusion—all of which made themmore prone to thinking in terms of conspiracy theories.
Thinking in terms of conspiracies is entirely opposed to the teachings of the Quran. It is a result and a symbol of a defeatist mentality, of a destructive, not constructive, mind-set.
This issue needs to be understood in the light of the teachings of the Quran. The Quran mentions conspiracies (secret planning) against Muslims on the part of their enemies. The Quran relates:
And they schemed but God also schemed and God is the Best of Schemers.(3:54)
Remember how those who bent on denying the truth plotted against you to imprison you or kill you or expel you: they schemed—but God also schemed. God is the best of schemers (8:30)
They are planning a scheme, and so am I (86:15-16)
From these Quranic verses one learns that for one’s enemies to make conspiracies or secret plans against one is to be expected .But since conspiring against others is an act against nature, it cannot be so decisive as to overturn someone’s fate. Therefore, the misfortune of Muslims today is an outcome of their own handiwork. Another important point that emerges from these Quranic verses is that God has made a natural arrangement to cause the conspiracies of one’s foes to fail. No party, community can subordinate or destroy Islam or its followers on the basis of a conspiracy.  This is why in numerous hadiths reports that foretell about the weakness and disgrace of Muslims, the responsibility for this is placed on Muslims themselves. For instance, it is related that the Prophet said: "The nations are about to call each other and set upon you, just as diners set upon food." It was said: "Will it be because of our small number that day?" He said: "Rather, on that day you will be many, but you will be like foam, like the foam on the river. And Allah will remove the fear of you from the hearts of your enemies and will throw wahn (weakness) into your hearts." Someone said: "O Messenger of Allah! What is wahn?" He said: "Love of the world and the hatred for death." (Source: Abu Daud, hadith no.4297).
The notion that other communities have reduced Muslims to a state of utter helplessness and weakness through their ‘conspiracies’ and that they have, as it were, sealed the Muslims’ fate, is nothing but absurd escapism and an excuse for Muslims not to do anything positive and practical to help improve the situation that they find themselves in. For instance, vast numbers of Muslims rant and rave against the West’s conspiracies, but a huge proportion of these very same people pines to get to live in those countries and lead a life of luxury! I have met numerous Muslims who never tire of expressing hatred for the West, but who, with the very same passion, also long to get an American ‘green card’ or British passport for themselves or their children! This is a very obvious and regrettable case of double-standards.
By constantly harping on their perceived victimhood, weakness and vulnerability at the hands of others such Muslims are certainly not helping themselves. This attitude does nothing to get them out of the situation they find themselves in, at the same time as it makes others also believe that Muslims are a spent people, a people who are capable only of agitating, protesting, wailing and shrieking and of nothing good and positive.
The fact of the matter is that in this world, an individual or community’s progress or regress, prosperity or degeneration, victory or defeat, rise or fall are all linked to the laws of Nature. The principles on which these laws are based are one and the same for all people. They are unchangeable. As the Quran (35:43) says:
You will never find any change in the ways of God’.
 These principles and laws apply in exactly the same way to Muslims as they do to other people. There are simply no short-cuts especially for Muslims, and nor can any exceptions be made for them.

The conspiracies of one community simply cannot block the path of another community. If, as a result of a conspiracy, a person or community finds one door closed to it, there will be other doors that remain, at the same time, open to it. But one needs to look for these doors and then set out on the path that these doors lead to, instead of banging against the one blocked door and destroying oneself in the process.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Islamophobia and Terror in the Name of Islam Feed on Each Other

What is called ‘Islamophobia’ has become an almost universal phenomenon today. The media is awash with stories of hate-crimes and prejudice directed against Muslims. In this regard, Muslims must ask themselves, ‘What is it that makes so many people fear Islam and think of Muslims as monsters? How far are Muslims themselves responsible for this?’
If we approach the issue dispassionately, in a spirit of genuine introspection, Muslims are bound to realize their own culpability in creating and sustaining Islamopbhobia. This stems from our wrong religious and political views and actions based on them. We will be forced to recognize that many aspects of traditional Muslim thought that are based on human ijtihad or independent reasoning have lost their significance in today’s context and that they require fresh thinking. However, a large and influential section of Muslims continues to refuse to consider rethinking these issues in the light of changing contexts and demands, in the process creating ever more problems for Muslims themselves.
In this regard, one central issue that needs to be urgently addressed are some dominant and conventional understandings of jihad, which some self-styled Islam ideologues deploy to give sanction to almost every sort of violence. Because of the unbridled violence in the name of Islam unleashed by some so-called Islamic groups in various countries, many people have come to think of Islam as an inherently violent and cruel religion. This is definitely one of the major factors for contemporary Islamophobia.
In seeking to understand and counter growing Islamophobia, Muslims bear in mind that the misinterpretation of the concept of jihad by some self-styled Islamic groups is definitely one of the major causes of anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim sentiments. The fact of the matter is that in traditional Muslim jurisprudence or fiqh, as developed by Muslim scholars down the centuries, the concept of jihad has not been fully or satisfactorily clarified and continues to be characterized by several weaknesses and limitations. Many Muslim scholars today acutely feel this problem. Certain conventional notions of jihad are rooted in the fiqh tradition that goes back to the period of Muslim political dominance, which impacted on all aspects of Muslim political jurisprudence. With the passage of time, the fuqaha or scholars of Muslim jurisprudence, could not give the same sort of focus to Islamic politics as they did to other branches of Muslim jurisprudence. Consequently, many aspects of Islamic political jurisprudence that were in need of rethinking in the light of changes in the spatio-temporal context, were not rethought. This is one reason why some of these conventional understandings of jihad failed to be re-thought in the light of changing contexts.
The term ‘jihad’ has a very wide connotation. The noted scholar, Imam Raghib, explains in his Al-Mufradat fi Gharib al-Quran, that jihad relates to making strenuous efforts in any matter. He outlines three types of jihad: jihad against external enemies; jihad against Satan; and jihad with one’s nafs or baser self. It is crucial to note that in present times, the notion of jihad has wrongly come to be seen exclusively in the sense of qital, or physical jihad against external opponents, although qital is actually just an exceptional form of jihad. Furthermore, qital is permitted only in defence, and, that too in last resort, when there is no option left.
It must be remembered that jihad in the sense of qital is allowed only in defence, and not in offence or aggression. Further, there does not seem to be any justification—from the point of view of reason, religious belief and the Shariah—to engage in jihad in the sense of qital just to end kufr or denial of Truth. The Quran (2:190) says:
And fight in God’s cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression—for surely, God does not love aggressors.
However, despite this, the notion of offensive jihad emerged as Muslims became politically dominant, reflecting the mind-set of the medieval period as well as certain political interests. It soon became deeply-entrenched, so much so that it became such a seemingly inseparable part of Muslim jurisprudence that, sadly, Muslim scholars ignored the need to review or rethink it. Needless to say, those Muslims who wrongly consider the concept of offensive jihad in traditional fiqh to be legitimate and regard that even in the absence of any aggression on its part, a non-Muslim government can be targetted in order to expand the domain of an ‘Islamic’ government, and to bring lands ruled by others under the sway of an Islamic polity are a major cause of horrific violence that the world is today witnessing and a major threat to the possibility of Muslims living together peacefully with people of other faiths.
It can hardly be denied that in order to address the problem of Islamophobia, there is an urgent need for rethinking certain aspects of conventional Muslim religious and political thought. Without the terror and turmoil unleashed in the name of jihad by self-styled Islamic groups being clearly condemned by the ulema and other Muslim intellectuals, it is simply not possible for Islamophobia to be effectively countered. After all, Islamophobia, based on hatred for Muslims, and the violent, terror-driven activities in the name of jihad in many countries, which are a complete violation of Islamic principles, feed on each other. The one cannot exist without the other.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Benefiting from Other Religious Traditions: A Muslim Perspective

In a well-known verse in the Quran, God says:
“O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and   have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.”

This Quranic verse mentions that all human beings are children of the same set of primal parents. Thus, they all have, by birth itself, an equal status. They also possess a similar nature (fitrah), the nature on which God has created every human being. In the Islamic understanding, as we learn from this verse, the only criterion for distinguishing between people in terms of their nobility is their level of taqwa, i.e. God-consciousness. Taqwa is the only source of dignity and superiority in the sight of God.
Another fact that this Quranic verse highlights is that God has divided the whole of humanity into groups and tribes, and this is with the purpose that they should know each other.

The question here arises as to what it means ‘to know each other’?
Knowing each other is a means for people from diverse backgrounds, including religious backgrounds, to come closer to each other and assist one another to achieve common goals. This verse can also be read, then, as a call for interfaith and inter-community understanding and cooperation.
By underscoring the fact that human diversity is a God-given phenomenon, the Quran teaches us about the importance of ‘unity in diversity’. Nature dislikes uniformity because the universe that God has created is characterized by diversity and pluralism. The Quran very beautifully says:
Did you not see how God sent down water from the sky with which We bring forth fruit of diverse colours. In the mountains there are streaks of various shades of white and red, and jet-black rocks; in like manner, men, beasts, and cattle have their diverse hues too. Only those of His servants, who possess knowledge, fear God. God is almighty and most forgiving (35:27-28).
Taking a cue from Nature, which displays incredible harmony amidst immense diversity, human beings are required to act in accordance with the principle of respecting the unity of human beings amidst diversity, which is only truly possible if we consider all of humankind as one vast family of  God.
In my view, when the above-quoted Quranic verse talks about people from different social groups getting to know one another, this is to be understood not simply in the sense of gaining information about one another—or information just for information sake. Rather, it could also include learning about and from each other’s religious, spiritual, social and cultural traditions in order to benefit from them.
In this regard, it is instructive to note that the Quran says that the Torah contains ‘guidance and light’ (5:44). Those who have read the Quran would know that it refers to the Bible in several places. Many famous commentators on the Quran draw on the Bible in explaining several Quranic verses. Likewise, it is worth mentioning here that the Quran (26:196) talk about zubur al-awwaleen, which means ancient books.Some Muslim scholars point out that this might also include Hindu scriptures, which according to Hindu belief contain Divinely-revealed knowledge and are called in sruti in Vedic terminology. Like the Bible and other religious books, the Vedas and Upanishads also contain many teachings similar to those in the Quran.
These similarities in different scriptures speak of the same Divine Source. It has been explained in several verses in the Quran that to every community God has sent a ‘guide’ (hadin) and a ‘warner’ (nazeer), who received revelations from God. Many of these revelations may have not have been protected from corruption over time, but one cannot over look the wisdom and insight they still contain. This treasure of wisdom is a collective or universal human inheritance, which every human being deserves to avail of. And that is in accordance with the Islamic spirit. In this regard, it is instructive to recall a well-known hadith, reported by Abu Huraira:

The Messenger of God said, “The wise saying is the lost property of the believer, so wherever he finds it then he has a right to it.”(Source: Tirmidhi)
This is a very valuable and insightful tradition. It implies that no community has a monopoly over wisdom and that everyone is entitled to wisdom wherever he or she may find it.
In this regard, it is striking to consider the tendency among many religionists to benefit as much as they can from other communities’ worldly knowledge and experiments but to avoid doing the same when it comes to their spiritual experiences and wisdom. This lamentable tendency can be overcome if we train our minds to realise that the essence of every religion is ethics and moral values and hence that they are not as different from each other as many people sadly think. If almost every religion stresses ethical values and moral character, there is really no reason why people of different faiths should think of religions other than the one they claim to follow as something totally contrary to their own.
A number of verses in the Quran and many hadith reports talk about ‘wisdom’ (hikmah). Now, what exactly does this word mean? Can we, Muslims, attempt to discover hikmah in the other religious and spiritual traditions as well? Can we spiritually benefit from this wisdom and insight that is found in other religious traditions? Some sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, irrespective of how reliable they may be,do not allow Muslims to come into touch with scriptures of other religions. But here it needs to be considered that even the traditionalist ulema are unanimous on the point that this relates to some specific circumstances when the revelation of the Quran had not been completed and the first generation of Muslim community was yet to be fully educated and trained. In this phase of early Islamic history, even Muslims were asked not to gift or carry the Quran to people of other faiths. This was similar to the prohibition on writing down of hadith reports for a certain period of time, for fear that they may be mixed with the Quranic revelations that were so far not compiled. The prohibition on reading scriptures of other religions at this time must be seen in that particular context, because those who had become Muslims had only recently embraced the faith and needed to grow fully in it. The restriction must then be seen as contextual, not as a general rule for all times.
While talking about the responsibilities of the prophets of God, the Quran (2:129) specially states that they teach people the Book and wisdom (hikmah). Commentators on the Quran have defined the word hikmah in many ways. I firmly believe that this word also includes the spiritual insights and wisdom that are contained in other religious scriptural traditions and transmitted through the generations. They nurture the human soul, illuminate the human mind and expand our spiritual experiences. They are a common human legacy and we should not remain deprived of it. In this regard, it is important to note that some commentators on the Quran suggest that hikmah includes, among other things, the Jewish and Christian scriptures—or what are conventionally called the Old and the New Testaments. In further support of our argument, it is also interesting to note that Ali bin Abi Talib, the forth Caliph, has been quoted as saying that one should seek knowledge even though it is from polytheists (Source: Jame Bayan ul-Ilm).
Some Muslim scholars expound the view that anything not found in established Islamic tradition is mere ‘ignorance’ (jahiliyyah) and hence, that there is no need for Muslims to study or benefit from it. I do not agree with this. Here the concept of jahiliyyah requires to be understood in proper sense.It is not right to think that every single thing related to the pre-Islamic period is absolutely wrong and the Prophetic mission was aimed at putting an end to it entirely, as is widely interpreted. The fact is that many social and cultural traditions in the jahiliyyah period possessed common human and moral value, which, instead of being eliminated, was promoted by Islam. One saying of the Prophet appropriately proves this fact. The Prophet said: “People are like gold and silver; those who were best in Jahiliyyah [the pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance)] are best in Islam, if they have religious understanding”(Source: Bukhari).
A story related to the Prophet make this point even more clear and visible. Once, a group of people called on the Prophet and informed him that they had learned five moral teachings in the jahiliyyah period. When the Prophet asked them to elaborate, they said: “Expressing thanks to God when hope for achieving something is fulfilled, exercising patience in the time of tribulation, firmness in front of fighting enemies, reliance on destiny and exercising patience with regard to enemies (not taking revenge) and rejoicing in grief and misfortune.” It was so amazing for the Prophet that he said: “How much wise and knowledgeable they are! They are talking like a prophet’’. (Source: Jame ul-Masaneed wa al-Sunan).

It can be inferred from this Prophetic report that wisdom and virtue are definitely not a monopoly of a certain religion or community.
Something being good does not inevitably need to be proved to be so from a religious text if it is not incompatible with reason and human nature and is not harmful to human society. If something promotes human causes and proves useful for social and human welfare, it can be availed of by everyone, irrespective of where it is found and who finds it. The Prophet is reported to have said that the best of people are those who benefit humankind (Source: Kanz ul-Ummal). This clearly indicates that what Islam teaches is not odd and unusual. Apart from a set of beliefs, it is essentially the same moral teachings and guidance of all the prophets, religious leaders and sages (rishi munis) who have appeared among the human race ever since it came to this planet. That said, it is also important to keep in mind that not everything in every culture or religious tradition is good, laudable or worthy of emulation. Benefiting from others does not mean blindly imitating them. In learning and imbibing from others one must make sure the norms and teachings of one’s own faith are preserved. 
It is a well-established fact that what is called the ‘Muslim Golden Age’ was indebted to several religious and cultural traditions, including the Greek, Iranian, Indian, Coptic, Nestorian etc..This clearly shows how willingness to learn good things from other peoples and cultures is itself a good thing and is not something banned in Islam. The Sufistic tradition is the best example of bringing the best human values together in itself, for it has borrowed from several religious, non-religious and philosophical traditions, combining them with the spirit of Islam. Authentic Sufism reflects this inclusive nature of Islam and its true teachings of love for the whole of humanity.
Muslims believe that Islam embodies Truth. But that does not necessarily mean that everything pertaining to any other religion is false or ‘un-Islamic’. We should not deny the goodness in them and their great contributions to human society. Rather, we should readily acknowledge this goodness. I believe Islam, far from preventing its followers from benefiting from it, actually encourages it.