Islam through the looking glass
by Sandhya Jain on 14 Jun 2016 17 Comments
In recent times, two books have captured the essence of the dilemmas and challenges facing the contemporary Muslim world, viz., The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State by Tarek Fatah (2015) and Jihadist Threat to India by Tufail Ahmad (2016). By a strange coincidence, both authors are sub-continental Muslims who have, with unemotional academic rigour, traced the problems faced by Muslim societies back to the community, its history, and its attitudes towards the past and the present.


Tarek Fatah is a Pakistan-born Canadian columnist-activist who insists that Muslims cannot blindly follow clerics or literal interpretations of their scriptures, but must invoke reason and common sense while adhering to their faith. Tufail Ahmad is an India-born British journalist who says that Islam as taught in his village madrasa in Bihar was never at odds with other faiths and cultures. He has investigated Islamic fundamentalism in our neighbourhood and currently heads the South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, D.C. Both men are prolific writers.


Those who have tried to comprehend the faith born in the Arabian desert fourteen centuries ago will be familiar with Tarek Fatah’s arguments; to others he is the best introduction to the subject because he gives a straight narrative, obfuscating nothing, and respecting chronology. This is the skeleton on which true history hangs, which is why our Marxist brethren take so much trouble to demolish chronology in the teaching of Indian history.


Fatah demolishes the central premise of Islamists, namely, that the period following the Prophet’s demise was the golden era of Islam and Muslims must recreate that caliphate to achieve the perfect condition promised by their faith. Instead, he counters, when Muslims buried the Prophet, they buried with him many of the universal values of Islam that he had preached.


Those who know that the Prophet, founder of one of the most powerful faiths in the world, was buried single-handedly by his son-in-law Ali – without a funeral procession and final prayers – because the coterie around him gave precedence to manipulating the succession, will appreciate this plain speaking. These painful beginnings (three of the first four ‘pious caliphs’ were murdered, by believers) explain why the history of Islam evolved as the history of an unending power struggle, in which men killed each other to claim ‘true succession’ to Muhammad. The book is an invaluable education for those interested in understanding Islam in the light of current events.


Tufail Ahmad’s book is a compilation of articles of the past few years, wherein he argues for an Islamic Reformation on the lines of the Reformation in Christianity. Ahmad is a mature critic of the Indian state which he feels has abdicated the responsibility to educate Muslim children to madrassas (seminaries), when the need is for students to be taught mathematics, economics and physics, right from Grade 1 onwards, equally for boys and girls.


Ahmad calls a spade a spade, pointing out that though Osama bin Laden has been dead four years, al-Qaeda remains a potent threat, despite claims that its organisation has been degraded. Worse, a more vicious killing machine, Islamic State, nurtured by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to counter Iran’s growing influence in the Gulf, has captured the imagination of Muslim youth from Morocco to Pakistan, Africa (Boko Haram) to Central Asia (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan). The worst aspect of this nightmare, which Ahmad does not mention, is the shameful sexual jihad which lures young Muslim women to sneak off to IS territory and offer themselves to jihadis fighting to overthrow the Syrian regime.


Media has carried reports of clerics exhorting women to serve the jihadis. That many were so enticed became public in 2013 when several Tunisian girls returned from Syria pregnant, to the dismay of their families and country. After a statement to the National Constituent Assembly, Tunisia and other nations maintained grim silence on this matter, so deep is the shame accompanying this episode. Women are still detained trying to enter rebel strongholds, while young Kurds are butchered for resisting sexual slavery.


Each article in the book deserves careful reading. “Lone-Wolf Attacks in British Colonial India” is especially enlightening. As the Muslim League movement for the Partition of India was waged solely on territory that remained in India and there was no activity in what became West and East Pakistan, the Hindu Holocaust in these two wings after Partition was inexplicable.


Scrutinising articles published in a leading Pakistani daily, Roznama Ummat (Urdu), Ahmad exposes some historical incidents in undivided India and from Pakistan after its creation as an Islamic state in 1947. This point is important as Indians like to pretend that Pakistan was not carved out to be an Islam nation in 1947. Ahmad punctures this balloon, adding that radicalisation is not a new phenomenon in Muslim societies, and mosques, clerics (including Barelvis) and published literature on Islam have been central to this process.


An article in Roznama Ummat rants against Arya Samaj leader Swami Shraddhanand (murdered 1926) and the sect’s principal text, Satyarth Prakash, as anti-Muslim. Its publisher, Rajpal, also published a book against the Prophet, which caused consternation in Lahore and inspired an uneducated youth, Ilmuddin, to murder Rajpal. The article reveals that Ilmuddin shared his feelings with his father, who approved, and with friends. He acted on April 19, 1929, and when later sentenced to death and hanged, thousands attended his funeral. Significantly, Muhammad Iqbal passed a resolution in favour of ‘Ghazi Ilmuddin’ and Muhammad Ali Jinnah agreed to represent him in his appeal against the death sentence. 


Ahmad cites several instances of Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadis being murdered by ordinary citizens for allegedly blaspheming Islam or the Prophet (an allegation that today dogs the tiny Christian community in Pakistan); the culprits earn rich accolades from society. This thread of continuity can be seen from the fact that Pakistani-Canadian cleric, Maulana Tahir ul-Qadri, lauded for his fatwa against jihad, refused to condemn the killer of Punjab governor, Salman Taseer (d. January 2011).


Taseer was killed for advocating reforms in Pakistan’s blasphemy law. His killer and security guard, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, was praised by Pakistani lawyers when he appeared in court and Khwaja Muhammad Sharif, former chief justice of the Lahore High Court, appeared as defence counsel. No surprise that Qadri’s funeral procession (like that of jihadis in India) was so awesome; the wonder is that he was hanged so swiftly. Ahmad rightly concludes that the need to de-radicalise Islam must begin with reform in madrasa curriculum. 

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