There is all round criticism today that Islamic world is stagnant and incapable of change. It does not admit of democracy, pluralism and human rights. It suppresses women's rights and confines them to household in addition to imposing hjab on them. Muslims take to terrorism and violence and are dying to court martyrdom. It is also said that Muslim intellectuals remain silent and lack courage to speak out or to stand out and be counted. And above all that Islam is responsible for all this.
There is great deal of truth in this criticism. But more important question is: Is world of Islam stagnant and will never change? Some scholar's reply in the affirmative and for them since Islam is the cause for all this stagnation, the world of Islam will never change. To them Islam does not admit democracy, human man rights and pluralism and also suppresses women's rights and hence all that is happening in the world of Islam is coterminous with Islam. Either leave Islam, they argue or modernity.
This view of Islam, in fact of any religion, I have repeatedly argued, is lope sided. It totally ignores social universe in which a religion thrives. For some it is religion, which creates a social universe whereas for others it is social universe, which determines direction of religious theology. Perhaps both are simplistic and straight- jacketed views. Reality is much more complex. Religion influences society and likewise society too influences the course of religion.
Religion is borne and brought up in a given social milieu though it inspires its followers to go beyond the given reality. However, society constantly pulls back transcending theology as gravity pulls back anyone who strives to go skywards. Islam, as gleaned from Qur'an is most dynamic, change oriented and pluralistic in nature. It in no way obstructs women's rights; in fact it is fervent advocate of it and promotes human dignity and freedom of conscience. Anyone who has studied Qur'an in depth is well aware of it.
But Islam thrived in a tribal and later in a feudal society and Muslim theologians borne and brought up in feudal societies found various ways to reverse the Islamic message. They pulled it back to suit their social universe. Islam now tended to be more otherworldly then this worldly, imbibed values of feudal social universe, began to suppress women's rights, became arrogant and supremacist devaluing pluralist message of the Qur'an and lost its democratic character in the feudal universe.
The entire Islamic theology as well as resultant jurisprudence has to be historically situated, in order to understand its ideal universe. Without making distinction between ideal transcendent universe and historical social universe one cannot appreciate role of religion vis-a-vis given society. Religion as much grows from below as it descends from high on. It is as much historical response to prevailing situation as transcendent. How much it will remain mired in the given social universe and how much it will assert its transcendence will depend on several social, political factors as well as on several human actors.
In the given social universe in the Muslim world Islam has lost much of its transcendent dimension. However, the world of Islam is far from totally stagnant. It is changing though the rate of change is different in different Islamic countries. In some countries it is faster while in some other it is incremental. Today in the globalised world no country can resist change. Pressures from all around will not permit stagnation.
The wind of change is blowing throughout the Islamic world, even in Saudi Arabia, the doyen of most 'purist' Wahabi Islam. More about it later. First I would like to throw some light on the conference of Arab writers and intellectuals held in Morocco from August 12 to 14 this year. The discussions were about Islam and developments in the Islamic world. There were eminent writers, academics, diplomats and media persons from Syria, Alegeria, Tunisia, Kuwait, the Sudan, Lebanon, from U.K., from Palestine, from UAE and from Morocco. I was invited from India. This conference was convened on "Islam - How do Muslims and Others View It" by Foreign Minister of Morocco Mohammad Isa who is very liberal and open minded in outlook and stands for reform and change.
Prof. Taiyib of Syria maintained that today extremism is the main problem. One has to find ways to contain extremism. Mr. Rachid emphasised that there is need for deconstructing various discourses on Islam today. Legal verses are few and far between in the Qur'an whereas name of Allah has been mentioned thousand times. Allah represents values like compassion, justice, wisdom and so on. The entire Islamic discourse today has become legal oriented- centred around the Shari'ah laws developed centuries ago. A new Islamic discourse centred around modern developments is greatly needed.
Mr. Abdulwahab said that every group claims to be talking on behalf of Islam. Whose voice is authentic? There is also struggle for identity, especially for those Muslims who are in minority in non-Muslim countries. We cannot ignore their problems either. Muslims in U.K., for example, are facing great odds. They are insulted and humiliated. This is also part of reality today. A Muslim journalist from India told me that she has to prove again and again that she has nothing to do with terrorism. Muslims are one ummah (community) and yet are so different from each other. Culture, language and problems differ greatly. This has to be kept in mind.
Muhammad Salih from London observed that we Muslims accuse all the Jews all the time. If one Jews does something we blame the entire community of Jews. This is not fair. Same thing applies to Christians. We cannot blame all Christians for the wrong done by a few. We must be objective and dispassionate. Muslims should follow the middle path and wisdom as emphasised in the Qur'an.
Some southern Sudanese went on rampage and the northern Sudanese retaliated and held all southern Sudanese responsible. This is certainly not fair. One has to use great tact in handling complex situations exercising restraints. The Qur'an advises believers to suppress their anger.
Abdul Hadi from Kuwait said that Muslims should constantly interact with others i.e. non-Muslims. Then only they will develop a balanced view and would realise the importance of today's pluralist society. One must fight ones own self-centredness. It breeds narrow-mindedness. Today one cannot live in isolation from others. We must widen our horizons through interactions from others.
Ahmad al-Rabai of Kuwait was of the opinion that Muslims must do hard thinking. They should see in their own mirror. What is the situation to day? How do we behave with our own minorities when we complain against treatment of Muslim minorities? How do we treat our women? We have extremists in our midst. What are we doing about that? Are we raising our voice? Poverty among Muslims is a time bomb. It breeds extremism and militancy. It can create 50 more Ladens. What are we doing about it? What is happening in Sudan? Why we do not talk about it. If America does something we cry foul and call them murderers.
Let us have hard look at Afghanistan. It is Arabs who created Taliban. Interestingly Mr. Ahmad also observed who reduced Muslims in India to a minority? Creation of Pakistan for which some Muslims are responsible. Let Muslims look into the mirror and recognise their own faults. Constructive self-criticism is urgently needed among Muslims today. Complaining against others and blaming others all the time will not help. We should also recognise our own blames first before we point fingers at others.
Mr. Ahmed Maher from Lebanon maintained that terrorists are criminals and we are not innocents either if we keep quiet. The problem is with we Muslims, not with Islam. On the Eid al-Adhah we slaughter sheep on the streets, of U.K, which creates bad image of Islam. Why we Muslims do not speak out against that. We should. They claim to be religious, which is not true. The fundamentalists amongst us have created very bad image of Islam. Unfortunately all Muslims are seen in that light.
Another participant said do we invite others to speak about us so that we know our faults? He also felt some Jews are doing violence against Palestinians, not all Jews. We should not adopt anti-Semitic stance. There are so many Jews who work for peace in Palestine. What about them? Are they not friends? Islam is not interpreted in monolithic way. There are several interpretations. Islam cannot be responsible how people interpret it. We should reform ourselves and bring about change. That is the only proper way. That is the only way to get rid of corruption - moral, religious, economic and social.
Another participant said that middle path is not enough. We have to be daring and take initiative in bringing about change and fight terrorism. Democracy means diversity and tolerance. We have to develop a culture of tolerance. We have to recognise diversity. Democracy also means how to manage changes taking place around us. Yet another participant from Sudan said we face problems, as we do not listen to others. We do not tolerate criticism.
He also said that we should recognise that extremists are not successful simply because they resort to extremism. They are successful because of their social services, helping the poor, providing medical and health care. They have developed successful network. What are we moderates doing? Sitting and discussing in the conference room. How can we succeed? Our voice is not heard by the poor. The Islamic discourse is intolerant today. It does not encourage dialogue. Islamic discourse is also impacted by the culture of the country concerned. Each country has its problems and these create their impact on Islamic discourse. There is, what he termed as 'oil Islam and non-oil Islam'. Oil rich countries have their problems and their own Islamic discourse and non-oil Islamic countries have their own Islamic discourse. He also maintained that the Qur'an and hadith should not be rigidly interpreted.
An Egyptian participant felt that we need scholars like Muhammad Abduh. Muhammad Abduh was great Islamic thinker of nineteenth century and early twentieth century. He had spent number of years in exile in France and he listened to others in Europe. I believe Muslims cannot build their identity without others. We need others to shape our identity. Thus Muslims should listen to others. We cannot be ourselves without others. Also, we should look at ourselves in others mirror. And today our identity is getting globalised. How can hen we keep ourselves isolated from others. Ours is totally interdependent world today.
We do not believe in clash of civilization. We believe in dialogue of civilization. Civilizations are treasures of values. Civilizations are resource for ideas. And if they are resource for ideas, we must accept ideas.
D.R. Musa said what is important is to respect all human beings, whatever their religious beliefs. The Prophet's son-in-law once passed through a church and his companion said they (Christians) do not believe in Allah. Ali reprimanded him and said as long as they worship they are believers. We have to change our past to build our future. We always look to the past at the cost of our future.
Many others, besides these spoke at the conference. All were against extremism, militancy and violence. It was very refreshing to listen to these critical voices from the world of Islam, particularly from the Arab world. Very frequently we hear that there are no saner voices among Muslims. This is not true. I did not hear any participant supporting terrorism and killing of innocent people. No one described it as jihad, let alone even justifying it.
The media in the Arab world is also getting critical of those legal scholars who either encourage violent attacks or keep silent. An Arab intellectual in a Kuwait daily Al-Siyasiysah Dr. Shaker Al-Nabulsi from Jordan demanded why Islamic religious scholars haven't issued a fatwa against Bin Laden. He says that perhaps the reason for the intensification of terrorism in the Arab world, in the form to which we are witness today, was first and foremost the encouragement it received from Islamic legal scholars, under a mantle of religion that is in most cases false, hijacked and defective. If the legal scholars - who have encouraged terrorism by means of these vocal religious fatwas - were acting properly, they would be issuing a fatwa calling to kill bin laden, Ayan Al-Zawahiri, Al-Zarqawi, and all Al-Qaeda leaders everywhere.
This article maintains that "The Al-Qaeda leaders have killed thousands of innocent people Arabs and non-Arabs, children, women, and the elderly - who have nothing to do with the conflict in the Middle East?Is it [really the conflict that] prevents the legal scholars from issuing fatwas condemning these murderers and permitting killing them, and getting rid of their evil? Or is that those legal scholars think it sufficient to condemn, and to cite slogans abut tolerance, love, and cooperation and other utopian slogans, that in reality are not worth the ink used to write them and the considerable funds necessary to convene the festivals of the religious exhibitionism that lack decisive resolution?"
The tone of the article is very bitter indeed and this strong condemnation of silence on the part of some ulama shows that the Arab intellectuals are now boldly, forthrightly and courageously expressing their views. This is also very welcome development. Yes, still there must be man who approve of Al-Qaeda violence and seek its justification. But then in every society there are different viewpoints and complex processes. We cannot expect single point of view to prevail. Such bold views being expressed are indicative of new changing trends.
The situation in Islamic world is certainly not static. Even before 9/11 disaster things were changing and post 9/11 it is moving at a faster pace. In a way 9/11 is proving a blessing in disguise. It particularly jolted the people of Saudi Arabia as most of the alleged terrorists in 9/11 incidents were from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis realised that there is too much of intolerance in our education system. Not only towards non-Muslims but even towards Muslims of other persuasions. The educationists in Saudi Arabia are suggesting change in the course material and inculcating tolerance through education. This is very hopeful sign.
Even women in Saudi Arabia are demanding attitudinal changes towards women. In recently held municipal elections in the Saudi Kingdom women protested against their exclusion from electoral process. Modern education is fast spreading among women. More than 50 per cent graduates today in Saudi Arabia are women. The Government was compelled to hold several rounds of dialogue with women.
And it is not only in Saudi Arabia that new winds of change are blowing. It is true of almost all Muslim countries though there may be difference of degrees. Every conservative stand is progressively coming under challenge. There is increasing demand for democratising of polity and acceptance of pluralism. The Qur'an had encouraged religious pluralism by accepting other prophets and scriptures as divine and in fact posed pluralism as test of believers to live in harmony with others.
But centuries of wielding political power made the Muslim ruling classes and the ulama arrogant and intolerant of other faiths. This intolerance had nothing to do with the Qur'anic teachings. Now again there is great need to rediscover this religious pluralism and tolerance. The human arrogance disregarded the divine will. The past feudal societies also usurped the human right to freedom of conscience and concept of human dignity. Authoritarianism cannot survive longer in the face of fast spreading modern education. Moreover accountability is very fundamental to Qur'an. Qur'an lays emphasis on the doctrine of accountability in the form of belief in the Day of Judgement (Qiyamah) i.e. everyone has to stand up and account for his/her deeds.
This concept of accountability applies, above all, to rulers and this accountability is both before Allah as well as before people. This can best be realised only through democratic and transparent governance. And transparency cannot be ensured in an authoritarian form of society. And according to the Qur'an final arbiter is only Allah. It is not for human beings to judge beliefs as human beings do not know the contents of human conscience. Only Allah does.
This leads to the attitude of tolerance towards others' beliefs. No one has right to issue fatwas who is right and who is wrong. It will be finally judged by Allah on the Day of Judgement. It is noting but human arrogance when someone declares someone else as 'kafir and someone else is true believer. One who does good (ma'ruf), must be acceptable whatever his/her beliefs and whosever does evil (munkar) should be condemned whatever his/her beliefs.
And violence against innocent persons is munkar (evil) and must be strongly condemned. Aggression and excesses can never qualify as religious or Islamic act. Not a single innocent person can be killed as per Qur'an. It amounts to killing whole humanity. This should be rigorously practiced. Non-violence and compassion and so tolerance are most praiseworthy Islamic acts.
In a pluralist society power cannot be wielded by members of one community alone. It has to be wielded conjointly in the democratic spirit. Today one must accept the fact that Islamic world woefully lacks democratic and transparent governance. This cannot be justified in any way much less by the Qur'anic injunctions. On the contrary it is totally violative of Qura'nic sprit. Unfortunately our ulama have very warped views in this respect based on the opinions of those jurists who lived in an authoritarian and feudal age.
There is great need today to develop a new theology and new jurisprudence. There is nothing sacred about the jurisprudence developed during medieval ages, which tends to be violative of human and democratic rights. If we talk of Islamic concept of human rights how can we justify jurisprudence, which rejects the concept of human rights and human dignity. They condemn anyone who does not agree with their injunctions as 'kafir' and assign him/her to hell. What then about freedom of conscience and human rights?
Thus all this has to change and in view of the doctrine of accountability it is individual who is ultimately responsible for his beliefs and deeds, not anyone else. Thus old ways of issuing fatwas should change. Emphasis should be on educating people and leaving everything else to their conscience. This will result in democracy, pluralist values and tolerance. This is most essential reform needed today in the Islamic world.
A new culture, culture of democracy, tolerance and pluralism is slowly emerging in the Islamic world. These trends need to be strengthened more and more.