Today the western world looks upon Islam as a hostile religion and Prof. Huntington even made out a case for clash of western and Islamic civilisations. All this after years of de-colonisation and acceptance by western powers of pluralism. The hostility against Islam continues to be a determining factor in western politics. The western scholars too continue to attack Islam and Muslims. If there is no democracy in Islamic countries they blame Islam for this, not the dictators and irony of it is that presidents of USA remain very friendly with these dictators except the ones who do not bow down before America like Saddam Hussain or Ghaddafi or President of Syria.
Mrs. Anie Besant, a theosophist and freedom lover and founder of Theosophist Society of India in nineteenth century India, when India was still a colony of Britain, had much appreciative view of Islam. It is because these politicians view Islam from their political interests rather than as a religion. The Danish cartoon controversy has further aggravated the relations with Muslim countries.
The Danish cartoonists have shown total insensitive to religious feelings. For them hurting religious sentiments is also a part of freedom of press. These cartoons are extremely offensive as they make fun of the Prophet of Islam rather than any Muslim politician as if the Prophet was responsible for all that Osama bin Laden or his followers in Al-Qaeda have been doing. Whose fun do we make? One who is dead 1400 years ago and has nothing to do with contemporary developments in the world of Islam?
On the contrary Mrs. Annie Besant who lived in nineteenth century when there was no democracy and much more prejudice among orientalists against Islam, writes with so much sympathy and understanding abut Islam. I came across her booklet on Islam which she wrote in 1897 in Chennai (Madras) and published it on behalf of Theosophist Society of India that year, when I went to deliver a lecture on "Sufi Way to Peace" in their international conference in Adyar, Chennai, on 27th December, 2005. I was presented with the copy of this booklet which I greatly enjoyed reading. When recently violent controversy about the Swedish cartons broke out I thought I will share some of the observations of Annie Besant on Islam with my readers so that they can understand the difference between those scholars and journalists who write with prejudice and those who write with understanding.
Mrs. Besant writes in the foreword of the booklet, which is very essential to understand a religion: "?an attempt is made to distinguish the essential from no-essential in each religion, and to treat chiefly the former. For every religion, in the course of time, suffers from accretions due to ignorance, to wisdom; to blindness, not to vision." Then she continues, "within the brief compass of a lecture, it was not possible to distinguish in detail, or to point out all the numerous on-essentials. But the following tests may be used by anyone who desires to guide himself practically in discriminating between the permanent and the transitory elements in any religion."
Her tests are as follows: "Is it ancient? Is it to be found in ancient scriptures? Has it the authority of the founder of the religion, or the sages to whom the formulation of the particular religion is due? Is it universal, found under some form in all religions? As regards spiritual truths, any one of these tests is sufficient."
Generally these later accretions Annie Besant refers to, become more important than the universal spiritual truths of any religion. These accretions are derived from local cultures, customs and traditions and hence for people of that area, becomes more fundamental that original scriptural pronouncements. Then there are political needs and arrogance of power, which distorts essential truths and real spirit of that religion. Religion of the ruling class is the political power and it is political power, which determines its contours rather than religion determining the contours and legitimacy of power.
Most of the scholars and journalists have no such basic vision and whatever they see being practiced, take it as the real core of religion and than either start criticising or even ridiculing it. Mrs. Annie Besant, on the other hand, tries to comprehend the essential spiritual truth of Islam, or for that matter of any religion.
Mrs. Besant, in order to understand religion of Islam, tries to first understand he biographical background of the Prophet. After describing his birth, his becoming orphan at a tender age, she continues, " Twenty -four years passed. He has been trading on behalf of a kinswoman, Khadija, far older than himself. She finds him so faithful, so frugal, so trustworthy, that they become man and wife - Muhammad not yet the Prophet, Khadija not yet the first disciple. Young man and older woman they are, but they live together so happily that their union remains one of the ideal marriages of the world, until she leaves him a widower at fifty years of age after twenty-six years of blessed married life."
She describes the Prophet as kind man leading a quiet outward life but engaged in terrible inward struggle, not satisfied with what he sees around him, poverty, slavery, suffering of the weaker sections of society. His wise counsels are forever for the poor and the distressed. He always keeps his word and is known as al-ameen, the trustworthy, surely the most honourable title a man can win.
As for his prophethood, Annie Besant describes it as follows: "Thus the years pass - years of struggle that few can measure and then on one night of nights as he lies there on the ground in his agony, a light from heaven shines around him, and a glorious form stands before him: 'Rise, thou art the Prophet of God; go forth and cry in the name of thy Lord.' 'What shall I cry?' 'Cry,' the angel says; and then he teaches him how the worlds were made, and how man was created. He teaches him of the unity of God, and the mystery of angles. He tells him of the work that lies before him. He, the most solitary of men, is to go forth and cry in the name of his Lord."
This story of the prophet is known to most of the Muslims but what is important is how sympathetically Mrs. Annie Besant, a Christian herself, narrates it with great sympathy and understanding. She perfectly understands the inner spiritual struggle, which the Prophet had to undergo before attaining prophet hood. All those who are not satisfied with the given society and its condition undergo such inner struggle before in their quest for the truth. The Prophet also underwent such inner spiritual struggle and spent days and days in the cave of Hira reflecting over the spiritual and material condition of Meccan society and it was in this cave that Truth was revealed to him, as Muslims believe, through Archangel Jibraeel.
The Prophet (PBUH), on being revealed this truth proclaims it to his fellow humans in Mecca. Mrs. Besant observes, "Among the many creeds of man there is none that is more earnestly believed, more passionately followed, than that spoken by the mouth of the Arabian Prophet and if the proof of belief be in conduct, then watch his followers and see how his word rules still the actions of their lives."
Mrs. Besant thinks that if a person has disciples from among his near and dear ones, that is the best proof of his sincerity and truthfulness as who knows a person from close quarters than his wife or sons or parents or daughters. Thus Mrs. Besant observes, The Prophet's first disciple was his wife, his next disciples were is nearest relatives. That says something about the man. It is easy to gain disciples from among those who do not know you, who see you only on the platform, who hear you only in a set speech. But to a Prophet to your close relatives is to be a prophet indeed."
Another genuine test of the truth of a great soul is how people not only love him but are ready to sacrifice everything including their lives for the sake of that truth. Without genuine conviction about the truth of the message no will stand utmost tortures and all conceivable troubles and even court death for its sake. The Prophet of Islam and the truth proclaimed by him won hearts and souls of his followers who were ready to face all troubles to protect and promote brought by him.
Mrs. Besant thus observes, " Some more gather round him, touched by his inspired words. But now fierce persecution breaks out, and his followers are called upon to endure terrible torture. His followers are torn to pieces; they are thrust through with stakes; they are exposed on the burning sand with faces upturned to the Arabian sun and with heavy rocks upon their chests; they are bidden to deny God and his Prophet; but they die murmuring: There is but one God and Muhammad is his Prophet.'
The people would not bear all such tortures without strong conviction in the truth of the message of Prophet. A pretender, a man of selfishness and violence to achieve his self designated goals as many western scholars project Muhammad to be, can never inspire ones followers to stand such unimaginable hardships. Only when one finds the message genuine, one will bear such unprecedented hardships.
The chiefs of Mecca even conspired to kill the Prophet but he manages to escape through the window of his small house and his cousin Ali, is ready to sacrifice himself by sleeping in his bed. The Prophet and his companion Abu Bakr, who chooses to accompany the Prophet (PBUH), are pursued and price is put on the head of the Prophet. The enemy does not remain silent. It pursues the Prophet and engages him and his followers at the battle of Badr. Prophet's own band is small while enemy is in much larger number and overawing indeed. They thus confront each other in the battle of Badr. It is not the Prophet who chooses to inflict war, it is enemy who is keen to defeat the prophet once and for all. Prophet wants peace but is forced into war. A small band of truth seekers vis-୶is a mighty horde of enemy bent upon protecting its powerful interests. They clash - truth with interests and Mrs. Besant continues: The Prophet cries, 'O Lord! If this little band were to perish, there will be none to offer unto Thee pure worship.'
"This is Muhammad's first bloodshed", observes Mrs. Besant and proceeds, 'repelling an attack. He had ever been tender, compassionate, 'the womanish', as his enemies called him. But now he is no longer a private individual free to forgive all wrongs done to himself; he is ruler of a State, the general of an army, with duties to his followers who trust him. The days are coming when crimes that as a man he would have forgiven, as a ruler he must punish, and Muhammad the Prophet is no weak sentimentalist."
Though Mrs. Beasant is defending the Prophet as a head of the State, if one reads the Qur'an, the moral dimension cannot be lost sight of. The Qur'an repeatedly asserts Allah is Forgiving, Allah is Compassionate and Allah is benevolent. Thus throughout Qur'an one finds a palpable tension between the real and moral, political and ethical. Qur'an always gives precedence to moral over real and provides a transcendent vision. Transcendence is most fundamental to Qur'an and Qur'anic ethics.
Thus Mrs. Besant points out that "After the victory of Badr only two men were executed and, contrary to Arab usage, the prisoners were, by the Prophet's order treated with the greatest kindness, the Muslims giving them bread and keeping only dates for themselves."
Thus as far as the Prophet (PBUH) is concerned he was very kind and compassionate to the suffering of others. He is described by the Qur'an also as Rahmat lil 'Alamin i.e. Mercy of the worlds. However, there was violence everywhere in Arabia. It was way of life. One tribe attacking the other and killing in revenge (qisas) was considered normal. It was the Qur'an which portrayed Allah as Merciful and Compassionate and made 'afw (pardon) as morally superior to qisas (revenge)
The Prophet was so sensitive to suffering that even at the time of his death he asks his followers to pardon him if he has done anything wrong to them or to take qisas for that. Thus Annie Besant says, "And so things went on for ten years, and ten comes the end. And when prayers were over, they lift him up in the mosque, too weak to stand, Ali and Fazl on either side to hold him up, and he raises his feeble voice and cries: 'Muslims! If I have wronged any one of you, here I am to answer for it; if I owe aught to anyone, all I may happened to possess belongs to you.' One man says that he owes him three Dirhams and the coins are paid, the last debt to be discharged on earth."
Then Annie Besant comments (on the death of the prophet) "A noble life, a marvellous life; verily a Prophet of the Lord. And yet so simple, frugal, humble, patching his own worn out cloak, mending his own shoes, when thousands were bowing to him as Prophet - and gentle all around. 'Ten years', said Anas his servant, 'was I about the prophet, and he never said so much as "uff" to me.'"
Can we then portray the Prophet a "terrorist" as the Danish cartoonist did in the name of freedom of opinion and press? Does it show ignorance or prejudice or both? It is unfortunate that entire west today is reproducing these offensive cartoons and justifying them in the name of freedom of press. It is not only the question of freedom but also of proper knowledge about a person you portray. Where is the conscience where there is no knowledge?
Anie Beasant also defends the Prophet against charges of needless violence and slaying of kafirs. She writes, "But, they say, he preached war and extermination, and brutal bloody slaying of the unbeliever. It has ever been held, and laid down by Muslim legislators that when there are two commands, one of which is absolute, such as: 'Slay the infidel when he attacks you and will not let you practise your religion', that the condition, the limitation, is to be added to every such absolute command. This ruling is borne out over and over again by the practice of the Prophet. Concerning the infidel he says: 'that if they desist from opposing thee, what is already past shall be forgiven them; but if they return to attack thee, the exemplary punishment of the former opposers of the Prophets is already past, and the like shall be inflicted on them. Therefore fight against them, until there be no opposition in favour of idolatry, and the religion be wholly God's. If they desist, verily God seeth which they do; but if they turn back, know that God is your patron; he is the best patron and the best helper."
She also quotes an important verse from the Qur'an from chapter 17 'invite men unto the way of thy Lord, by wisdom and mild exhortation; and dispute with them in the most condescending manner, for thy Lord well knoweth him who strayed from his path, and he well knoweth those who are rightly directed. If ye take vengeance on any, take a vengeance proportional to the wrong which hath been done to you; but if ye suffer wrong patiently, verily this will be better for the patient. Wherefore do thou bear opposition with patience, but thy patience shall not be practicable unless with God's assistance. And be not thou grieved on account of the unbelievers; neither be thou troubled for that which they subtly devise; for God is with those who fear him and are upright."
Mrs. Besant has quoted an important verse, which summarises Qur'anic ethics. If one takes revenge, if should be proportional to the wrong inflicted and if one bears with patience (instead of taking revenge) it is always better and patience can be observed only with the help of God. Here we see that Qur'an permits revenge only as a matter of given reality but provides a transcendent dimension by asserting significance of patience (sabr). Sabr is a superior quality to revenge. Thus sabr is always preferable but if one wishes to take revenge it should be strictly proportional to the injury inflicted, not more. Thus the Qur'an makes us aware of superiority of oral over real.
However, if some Muslim violates the Qur'anic injunction and resort to violence out of all proportion to real, it is these Muslims to be blamed not the Qur'anic teachings. But the ignorant or those bearing malice towards other religion, will express opinion not based on real teachings of that religion but on the conduct of some of its followers and that too in the name of freedom of _expression. Freedom of _expression is by all means fundamental, even sacred, but has to be exercised with utmost sense of responsibility. There is no freedom without responsibility.
Mrs. Annie Besant held the Prophet of Islam in very high esteem and was well informed about the Prophet and his teachings. Throwing light on the conduct of the Prophet (PBUH) she says, "And look at his own conduct as illustrating his teaching. Never a wrong done him that he did not forgive; never an injury that he was not ready to pardon. There are faults in every faith; there are errors in the practice of all men. Ignorant followers often act wrongly, where prophets speak the truth. Judge a religion by its noblest, not by its worst, then we shall learn to love one another as brothers, and not hate one another as bigots and as fanatics."
If only we could follow this advice of Annie Besant, world will be very different. The Danish cartoonists created worldwide problem because they kept the worst examples of few Muslims before them totally ignoring what is the best in Islamic teachings. Freedom of _expression does not always mean writing or drawing anything expressing ones worst prejudices in its name. Many hate campaigners do precisely this. And even then they want to defend their right to freedom.
Throwing light on the teachings of the Qur'an, she observes quoting the verse from chapter 5, 'Who is better in point of religion than he who resigneth himself unto God, and is a worker of righteousness, and followeth the law of Abraham for the orthodox? Since God took Abraham for his friend."
She then says, "In that sense only is Islam the one religion; all men of every faith who surrender themselves to God are truly children of Islam. It is not the fault of the Prophet if his followers have narrowed it in later days. I appeal to the Prophet against his followers; as I have often appealed to the Christ against the Christians, and to the rishi-s against the modern Hindus."
It is important to note that when we dispute with each other we are guided by human ego rather than divine light and higher purpose. Those who understand and have knowledge will never quarrel on inter-faith differences. They will, on the other hand, live with these differences with proper understanding as human beings and leave it to God to finally judge who is right and who is wrong. What is wrong is due to human ego and what is right is due to divine light and higher purpose in life. That should be our approach to inter-faith problems.
I have tried to summarise here what Annie Besant has written in her booklet on Islam. She herself is not a Muslim but has truly understood the essence of Qur'an and Islam, more than many Muslims do.