Islam in its social, economic and human approach is most modern religion quite befitting for 21st century. However, the way it is practised by Muslims all over the world make non-Muslims feel it is most conservative and fundamentalist religion in the world. Today fanaticism and fundamentalism is freely being applied to Islam and Muslims. It should make all of us sit up and seriously think what has gone wrong with us Muslims. A religion which is so humane, so liberal towards other faiths and so egalitarian and places so much stress on justice including gender justice - why such a religion is being dubbed as most fanatical of religions? Is it due to conspiracy of enemies of Islam or are some Muslims also responsible for it? It is highly necessary to do some serious introspection on the issue. It will not serve any purpose throwing entire blame on the enemies of Islam. This paper will examine this issue and invite Muslims all over the world to reflect deeply on it.
Islam is the most liberative religion as we understand in 20-21st century. Today the socio-political -philosophy lays great stress on the concept of freedom and particularly the freedom of conscience. It is part of UN's declaration of human rights. The Qur'an, Islam's sacred scripture accepts this right to freedom of conscience in no uncertain words la ikrah fi' al-din (there is no compulsion in religion - 2:256). The word din here is quite comprehensive. It should not be taken only in narrow religious sense. It in fact symbolises freedom of conscience as belief in religion is fundamentally a matter of conscience and in the pre-Islamic era there was no question of anyone enjoying freedom to change ones religion according to ones conscience.
Religion being most sacred and divine system of belief there was no freedom granted to anyone in any other religion to change it. Thus religious freedom was real freedom. Thus one can say without any hesitation that Islam stood for freedom of conscience. In twenty first century right to freedom of conscience is most important right. In fact this right is so fundamental to democracy that no democracy can function without effective implementation of this right. Also, related to freedom of conscience is the concept of human dignity.
The Qur'an promotes the concept of human dignity in ringing words: wa laqad karramna bani Adam (i.e. And surely We have honoured the children of Adam - 17:70). In the pre-Islamic period there was no question of respecting dignity of human person or children of Adam. It would be seen that the words - "children of Adam" are very significant words. The Qur'an does not say that it has accorded dignity only to Muslims but to all human beings - all children of Adam be they Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists or Sikhs or Jains. This is precisely the fundament of modern democracy. Individual dignity irrespective of caste, creed, colour or race is as important for functioning of democracy as the freedom of conscience itself. No democracy can survive without these seminal concepts - i.e. human dignity and freedom of conscience. These are two sides of the same coin.
The Qur'an further makes it clear that no race, caste, language or creed is privileged over the other. This seminal pronouncement of the Qur'an was made centuries before the modern world adopted it. The Qur'an says, "And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Surely there are signs in this for the learned." (30:22) Also, in another verse the Qur'an makes a significant statement, "O mankind, surely We have created you from a male and female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other. Surely Allah is Knowing, Aware." (49:13)
No body can deny the most modern attitude of the Qur'an towards unity of entire humanity without any discrimination. Tribes and families are only matter of identity, not of discrimination. Until recently the tribes and families or race or creed were considered matters of distinctions or discrimination. Even today we have not been able to get rid of racial or tribal discrimination. Racialism, casteism and tribalism are very much rampant in our twenty-first century.
Pluralism is considered a post-modern phenomenon whereas the Qur'an proclaimed its importance fourteen hundred years ago. Thus Qur'an says, "For every one of you We appointed a law and a way. And if Allah had pleased He would have made you a single people but that He might try you in what He gave you. So vie one with another in virtuous deeds." (5:48) This is, as will be seen, very strong statement in favour of pluralism. Allah would have created one community of believers, if He so desired. But He has created different religions and different communities for testing us whether we human beings can live in peace and harmony. It is not proper to fight about our differences but should excel each other in good deeds. This is very significant pronouncement for pluralism in our conflict torn world.
According to the Qur'an one should not quarrel about our religious differences but instead we should try and excel each other in good deeds. This the most important prescription for a pluralist world. However, even today instead of concentrating on good deeds in keeping with the values of our respective religion we would not have witnessed such intense religious conflict.
There is yet another significant verse proclaiming unity of mankind and causes of differences among them. This verse says, "Mankind is a single nation. So Allah raised prophets as bearers of good news and as warners, and He revealed with them the Book with truth, that it might judge between people concerning that in which they differed." (2:213). This again is emphatic about unity of mankind which the Qur'an emphasises. It is something the post-modern world is still struggling with.
All these pronouncements of the Qur'an makes it clear how much importance Islam gives to unity of all human beings. However, the behaviour of the Muslims is far from the Qur'anic standards. The fundamentalists among them particularly adopt very aggressive postures and give an impression as if they promote conflict and disunity with others. The media also exaggerates and highlights the fundamentalists' postures and creates an impression as if Islam is an aggressive religion promoting conflict with other religions. The Muslims also are divided in innumerable sects and each sect adopts exclusivistic attitude towards other sects. Not only that one sect condemns the other as being on the wrong path and promotes sectarian conflict, which often tends to be quite violent. The Shias and Sunnis are killing each other both in Pakistan and in India and also in other countries. Some sectarian leaders even go to the extent of demanding declaring other sects as un-Islamic and persecute them.
Ideally Islam teaches tolerance and respect towards other religions. The Qur'an even lays stress on different ways and directions of worship and requires believers not to quarrel about these different ways. Thus the Qur'an says: "And every one has a direction to which he turns (himself to pray), so vie with one another in good deeds." (2:148). So again the stress is on good deeds and value-oriented behaviour. It is such behaviour, which would transform this earth into a paradise. There are different ways of life, different directions in which people pray, different languages, different races, different nationalities, different tribes and different cultures. These all have been created by Allah and add colour to life. We must respect these different cultures and different ways of life rather than quarrelling about them and establishing superiority of one over the other. This will only lead to violence and conflict.
Qur'an makes another significant statement which again shows its deep concern about ethical conduct more than anything else. It says: "It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West, but righteousness is the one who believes in Allah, and the Last Day, and the angels and the Book and the prophets, and gives away wealth outy of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask and to set slaves free and keeps up prayer and pays the zakah (poor rate); and the performers of their promise when they make a promise and patient in distress and affliction and the time of conflict; and these are they who are God-fearing (muttaqun). (2:177)
But today Muslims fight on small differences about this or that ritual and pronounce the other to be kafir. The fatwah about kufr (unbelief) are thrown at each other without realising its deeper consequences. The Qur'an on the other hand stresses the right conduct, service to humanity, steadfastness in distress and spending generously on the weaker sections of the society like orphans and needy and setting slaves free besides believing in Allah, in the Day of Judgement, His Book and His prophets. The Muslims hardly if ever reflect seriously on the teachings of the Qur'an. The Prophet (PBUH) on the other hand says that a moment's reflection is more meritorious than sixty years prayers. Our 'ulama are busy fighting each other rather than reflecting seriously on issues and on creations of Allah all around us. There is so much to reflect upon.
Intellectual culture and ethical conduct are two most important indicators of people being alive and leading meaningful life. It is intellectual culture, which enables us to meet challenges of life successfully. It is intellectual culture, which enables us to critically evaluate our shortcomings. The rulers in the Islamic world today are anything but tolerant of such a culture. The Qur'an invites us repeatedly to reflect and to comprehend (2:219, 2:266, 6:50 etc.) The verse 6:50 says that "can a blind and one who sees can be equated, why don't you reflect." Thus who reflect are like ones who can see and those who do not are like those who are blind. Most of the Muslims today befit the description of being blind. They simply follow blindly rather than reflect critically using their intellect, which is the most precious gift of Allah. Their rulers are preventing democratic culture from taking roots and their `ulama encourage them to follow blindly and denounce all those who want to use their intellect. They even go further - they issue fatwas for killing those who deviate a little from the fixed path i.e. from blind following. They have never known the culture of tolerance which is so basic to the Qur'anic teaching.
No wonder then that Islamic countries, though some of them are so rich - are far behind in information technology and world of knowledge. Despite our rich heritage of scientific discoveries in the past we are pitiably intellectually backward today in the modern world. The Islamic world has not cared to adopt democracy and frowns upon every form of dissent be it political or social. We even frown upon the concept of human rights and refuse to accept human dignity though the Qur'an is the first book to declare dignity of all children of Adam. How can we ensure their dignity if we deny them right to think, right to use their intellect and right to differ from others? Conformity with the status quoits has become the most acceptable part of our stagnant culture. It is so because conformity strengthens status quo and right to differ weakens it, if not subvert it.
The Islamic society unfortunately has become a status quoist society and a status quoist society cannot be truly religious society. A religious society has to be an intellectually dynamic society. It was intellectual dynamism that revolutionised the Arab society of 6th and 7th century A.D. The pre-Islamic Arab society was most stagnant and most conformist before Islam; tribal traditions were far more important, imitation and following age-old customs was far more important than anything else. No intellectual culture prevailed and no body could challenge those practices.
The Qur'anic revelations changed all that. It subverted the tribal status quo, laid foundation for 'ilm (knowledge) and ancestral practices were desanctified. A new outlook, a new society was created based on intellectual dynamism. They were invited to reflect deeply on this universe, on Allah's creation and never to accept anything by way of passive imitation. A new code of ethics was given by the Qur'an which laid stress on truthfulness and spirit of sacrifice for social causes and those who attained martyrdom for these causes were described as living eternally. Thus the Qur'an says, "And think not of those who are killed in Allah's ways as dead. Nay they are alive being provided sustenance from their Lord." (3:168)
When status quo is subverted martyrs are needed and it is these martyrs who help bring change by fighting against vested interests controlling the status quo. Every status quo has its own Abu Lahab and as long as Abu Lahabs are powerful martyrs will be needed. Islam created this spirit of martyrdom among the believers and made martyrdom the highest virtue. No revolutionary change can come without this spirit of martyrdom. The early Muslims happily courted martyrdom for the sake of a new society, new revolutionary morality and truthfulness.
This new morality had greatest regard for the weaker sections of society. The Qur'an declared, "And We desired to bestow a favour upon those who were deemed weak in the land, and to make them the leaders and to make them the heirs. And to grant them power in the land, and to make Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts see from them what they feared." (28:5-6)
This new Islamic morality to favour the weak and to challenge the mighty who control status quo was very refreshing and empowering for the weaker sections of society. Islam thus became the option for the poor and the weak. The Pharaohs and Abu Lahabs of the system must be destroyed if the true servants of Allah are to be empowered. The removal of idols form Holy Ka'ba was a symbolic act. The real idols of that society were Abu Lahabs. The real battle was between the mustakbirun (the powerful, the mighty like Pharaoh who exploited and enslaved fellow human beings and mustad'ifin (the weak, the oppressed) who were oppressed and helpless.
This new morality, this new social structure, could not be ushered in without knowledge, without culture of dissent and without subverting the status quo, which suppressed the right to dissent. In that society the greatest sin is to disobey the dictates of the system and to favour the oppressed. Those who controlled the status quo denied human dignity but the Qur'an declared that all children of Adam were endowed with dignity. A Muslim is one who will never surrendered before any tyrant but will readily surrender before Almighty who is real source of power and it is He who really controls and is Just. The concept of justice was very central to the concept of new empowering morality for the oppressed and the exploited. Thus a Muslim will surrender only before the One who is Just, not before a tyrant.
Thus the right to dissent became most important right and most empowering right. It sent the tyrants like Abu Lahabs into uncontrollable fury and they tried all forms of oppression on these dissenters of the system, of the status quo, but did not succeed. The concept of the only and the Just Power of Allah was so empowering for these mustad'ifin that they could stand any degree of physical torture but would not surrender.
Islam was harbinger of this new morality, which has again been forsaken by status quo. It is these status quoits and supporters of establishment who do not allow real intellectual culture, culture of knowledge to flower in the Islamic world. Knowledge always empowers the weak and the oppressed. Ignorance always favours the strong and the oppressors. Knowledge is power, knowledge is empowering, knowledge is subversive and knowledge is the most potent weapon to fight injustices. And this knowledge is not knowledge of manipulation and manoeuvrings, but knowledge of justice and morality, of truth and wisdom.
In this status quoits Muslim world women are also suffering. They are being denied their Islamic rights by those men who control the status quo in this male-dominated world. Islam was most empowering for women and women had played very significant role in early Islamic society. They were fountain of knowledge for the world in early Islam and great source of support for the Prophet (PBUH) be it Khadija, Fatima or Umm Ammarah. It was Islam, which restored to women their human dignity. They were also among children of Adam who were honoured and dignified. No wonder then that many women became believers before their husbands or fathers did. Many of them were among early migrants to Ethopia or Mecca.
The Qur'an gave them equal status with the ringing declaration "And women have rights similar to those against them in a just manner" (2:228). It was a revolutionary declaration for empowerment of women. Islam accepted their individual dignity and gave them status of legal entity, which no legal system had done until then. They won all the rights from Islam be it right to marriage, divorce, inheritance or custody of children. Islam liberated them from all pre-Islamic customs and traditions.
However, later feudal influences severely restricted their role in the society and women unfortunately experienced the throwback effect to pre-Islamic societal values. The Muslim world has not yet liberated itself from feudal values and influences. There is great need today to restore those Islamic rights to women and give them their dignity which was taken away from them by the feudal society. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), it would not be an exaggeration to say, was great champion of women's rights. He did not forget women's cause even in his last sermon, which he delivered after the last Hajj performed by him.
It is highly regrettable that the Muslim men have taken away what was given to women by the Qur'an by even inventing dubious hadiths which directly contradict the Qur'anic teachings. They are being treated as less intelligent than men, which is an insult to Allah's creation. It is something which the Qur'an has never stated. The Qur'an, on the other hand says that, "Surely the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and obeying women, and the truthful men and truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women, and the humble men and the humble women, and the charitable men and the charitable women, and fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard, and the men who remember Allah and the women who remember - Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a mighty reward." (33:35)
It will be seen from above Qur'anic verse that women are equipped in equal degree with all the moral virtues that men are equipped with and both will be equally rewarded for these virtues and yet our society dubs them as less intelligent and more emotional. Such an attitude is a direct challenge to the Qur'anic teachings. Women, in a truly Islamic society must be given equal status and all the rights that men enjoy. Differences in biological functions do not make them less equal. In fact their biological functions, their reproductive role should make them more privileged and deserving of more rights. And hence Qur'an gives great importance to mother in this spirit (see 31:14).
Thus we see that Muslims through their behaviour are perpetrating what the revolutionary Islamic morality tried to do away with. Should we not reflect deeply on this state of affairs in the Muslim world today?