Sunday, February 28, 2010

My Perception of Islam

February 25, 2010
Dallas, Texas
My Perception of Islam
By Saeed Qureshi
Let us at least admit that Islam is a religion just like Christianity and Judaism; that it is a monotheistic religion like Judaism. That it shares its divine ancestry with Judaism and Christianity, even if the latter two religions don’t accept it, because they claim to be the forerunners of Islam. It is in the same way that Judaism doesn’t accept Christianity which came much after Judaism.
Let us also acknowledge that Islam has a culture like other faiths. Islamic culture teaches how to dress up especially the women, what to eat (meals from legitimate income and in case of meat, the animals to be slaughter in a religiously defined way). The Islamic culture also spells out the ways to celebrate the religious days and to host feasts. It also includes the circumcision and the marriage ceremonies. Islam does not encourage music and channels of entertainment that arouse sexual, carnal and lecherous sentiments.
Islam like other religions has symbols also. These, inter alia are the mosque, rosary, holy water (Zam Zam), beard, moon, black stone placed in one of the walls of the House of the Lord( Khan Kaaba), the green color, the curved sword, minarets and turban. They have a holy book Qur’an like many other religions including the Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Christianity. This religion sprouted from the Arab land like the Christianity and the Jewish faith.
Islam has a package of beliefs like other religions. These are: belief in one God, belief in angles, belief in Holy Scriptures (Torah, and Bible), belief in the apostles or messengers of God, belief that goodness and badness are from God and the belief in the life after death.
Islam has rituals too, which are essentially five: declaration of faith in One God, pilgrimage to Mecca, to give the religious tax (Zakat), observance of prayers five times a day and on Islamic festive days, and fasting for a whole month of lunar calendar.
Then comes the constitution or the code that covers and encompasses domains such as legal, economic, social, poltical, governance, war, as well as humans’ collective and individual lives, their rights, and the obligations et al. The body of rules and regulations that govern the entire spectrum of Islamic society and individuals is named Sharia. Sharia is composed of two sources. One is the life of the prophet Mohammad (his deeds, decisions, saying and edicts etc). The other is the book Qur’an that gives general or broad instructions on behalf of God, how to live like a virtuous Muslim. This book narrates parables and stories of the ancient prophets, nations, societies and civilizations with instructions as to why they prospered and why they received divine wrath and vanished. It gives vivid and detailed information about the life after death, the Day of Judgment and the final destinations of the Heaven and the Hell.
Islam judges or evaluates the temporal and the ecclesiastical matters and the deeds of a faithful through five parameters: absolute duty, (Fard), commendable (Mustajab), permissible (Mubah) reprehensible but without punishment (Makruh) and forbidden (Haram).These five criteria also fall under the canon law known as Sharia. As already explained, the Sharia that governs the conduct of a person or group is derived from the text of Qur’an and also from the practical life of the prophet.
The Islamic state was headed by Prophet Muhammad in the city of Medina in 622 - 632 A. D. This was that actual period when the fundamental contours of a Muslim state were laid down. Since prophet himself was the finally authority on all temporal and divine affairs, his words, decisions and verdicts were unquestionably accepted as the commandments of God.
But when the Muslims through their conquests and preaching ventures came into contacts with other civilizations and religions, they faced enormous doctrinal and administrative challenges that had to be resolved rationally if these did not have the precedents within the Quran or the life of the founder of Islam. It is in the wake of such intellectual and doctrinal dilemmas that several schools of jurisprudence for elucidation of Sharia to the outside world and even to the inquisitive Muslim came into being.
The four such orthodox schools primarily deal with the application and expansion of Sharia in the subsequent situations and emerging issues. Besides, the Muslim philosophers tried to answer many philosophical contradictions through intellectual scrutiny and rational explanations. Such questions were about the predestination, the free will, mysticism, religious truths and intellectual truths, role of reason in relation to the theological truths and so on.
Apart from these intellectual and religious debates ranging since the passing away of the prophet till now, the simple principles on which the entire Islamic religious philosophy and ethos boils down is that man should be like a servant of God and accept him as the only creator that not only governs the universe and all the existence but also watches the faithful in the light of their good and bad deeds or intentions. Based upon the nature of a deed in this world, God on the judgment day will give reward and punishment accordingly. The obedience to God has not only to be professed verbally but practically demonstrated through five times daily and one time weekly prayers. A faithful’s virtuous life and personal good conduct is also a testimony to his submission to God as his subject.
Thus Islam wants man to be an embodiment of all positive and good virtues such as humility, charity, peace, chastity, kindness, tolerance, love for fellow believers, respect for elders, and women. The crux of all these noble traits is defined in one phrase that, “a good Muslim is that whose tongue and actions are not harmful to others”. Islam means submission and Muslim means who pratices Islam and is unconditionally obedient to God.
Prophet’s Muhammad period of leadership is deemed by the Muslims as the ideal model both from mundane and spiritual angles. To a lesser degree, the caliphs’ life of piety, self denial and untainted dispensation of justice is also taken and followed as models for Muslims. The Shia sect in Islam believes only in the spiritual leadership of the fourth caliph who was the son in law of the prophet also.
The ideological cleavage between the Shias and the Sunnis is the incurable wound on the body politic of Islam. Although, they share major common elements of faith, yet the Muslim nation is irredeemably and rather irreconcilably divided into two distinct factions forever. Their mutual antagonism is as deep rooted and bitter as the religious animosity between the Muslims and the non-Muslims. This festering fissure resulted from the claim of the fourth caliph as the rightful successor of the prophet to the caliphate.
As for fundamental beliefs, Islam brooks no compromise, nor tolerance nor any deviation. As for the rituals these are subject to certain conditions that apply keeping in view the physical, social and financial status of a faithful. For instance pilgrimage is essential for those who can afford it monetarily. The religious tax (Zakat) is also contingent upon the economic position of a member of Islamic fraternity. The fasting is also not strictly applicable to those with infirm health, or pregnant women or for similar reasons.
Islamic culture goads moderation, sanctity, piety and sobriety. It shuns or discourages the indecent extravaganza, the morbid exhibitionism, or lewd show off. For instance Islam allows feasts on weddings and merry making on joyful occasions but exhorts serenity and no lavish spending. In matter of dresses or costumes, it is not necessary to dress up like Arabs by wearing a big long rob. The purpose is to maintain sanctity of your body which is more rigid in case of women for their being an object of amorous eyes from the impious or sexually pervert people. Understandably, such conditions can be met by wearing even western, Chinese or African dresses if these can cover the body.
Mindful that the religious teachings and dogmas would not remain rigid for all times and in different societies, the prophet kept the door for amendments and changes open in Sharia. This is called Ijtehad( literally means exertion). So all the interpretations or alterations in the Sharia worked out by the succeeding Muslim philosophers and religious scholars were done in the light of that provision.
When we compare the western democracy with the Islamic poltical system and the choosing of the leaders in the primitive Islamic societies with that of the modern times, we tend to forget that it was only after the Renaissance and Reformation that the Europe started embarking upon the democratic path. Otherwise, the Christendom was afflicted with bloodletting conflicts between old Roman church and the proponents of reforms throughout the Middle Ages. So to paint only Islam as undemocratic is not a pragmatic or truthful approach to the Islamic system of government.
Democracy functions in a fast communication world as we have in the modern times. Otherwise the Greek democracy that was prevalent even before Christ was confined to the cities. Beyond the city states, it could not be expanded because an integrated system of voting or conducting elections in the length and breadth of the vast empires was not possible. Moreover, those were not the ages of enlightenment and therefore the democratic culture even if conceived could not be practically followed like the present times.
The Sharia that was prevalent during the time of Prophet Muhammad and four caliphs (632-661) can still be applicable if it is suitably modified to bring it in conformity with the phenomenally different world of today. The consensus can be brought about, if the narrow concepts and changes affected by sects and denominations, contrary to the age of prophet, are set aside. Or at best these sects can still function but the main consensus code should remain supreme.
Which means that the symbols are just a window dressing and have no pronounced bearing on the life of a Muslim faithful? The rituals are relative and are strictly obligatory for those who have the capacity to observe them. The beliefs are confined to the individual and are personal. What matters most is the resolution or dealing with the crimes, anti-social practices and destructive actions of the citizens. Islam presents a general framework for dispensation of justice. It means that the punishment to the convict is imperative but the choice of the punishment and the mode of dispensation can be improved or reformed for such punishments as beheading with a sword. The theologians and Islamic jurists must acknowledge and therefore, incorporate in a new Islamic code that covering of veil was not possible for women now as was done in tribal or feudal societies in the past and even now.
It is also essential to change through an agreed Ijtehad process that a rape female victim instead of being further victimized and brutalized by the religious laws must be helped against the male rapists. So such incredible or impracticable conditions as to the production of three witnesses must be discarded because in the present times, the occurrence of rape and the identity of the rapist can be verified by scientific means.
The Islamic caveat concerning the interest has to be modified because the complexion of the societies and the nature of interest have undergone a radically change. The Arabian society in the 6th or 7th centuries was primarily agrarian. The usury or the interest was charged on cash given to a needful. Now the concept of interest is not like those societies. The interest bearing economy is now profit making economy because the money remains in circulation. That is how the wealth increases and the economic grows. The old interest concept which now is rather reinvestment for profit has to be modified. Similarly another issue relating to patrimony or inheritance and alimony (allowance paid by the husband to divorced wife) has to redefined in the modern societies when the civil laws enshrined in the modern jurisprudence, treat these issues better than the antiquated customs that were derived from the tribal system.
If a reinterpretation is not thought about, still the parallel legal or economic system cannot be ignored or ruled out. The world today is interdependent. The Muslims cannot live in isolation.
The cardinal principle that Islam lays down is the strict fair play, absolute justice in complete disregard of someone being poor or rich, influential or obscure, a common man or a man of authority. It should be acknowledged that the modern judicial system fulfils all these conditions if applied by such a government that would respect and sincerely promote law and justice. So it depends upon the governments to apply and enforce laws, otherwise even the best of rules and caveats fail and remain ineffective. The example is the multitudinous Islamic caliphates that used Islam to justify their illegitimate hold on power. They fought each other for power and decimated their rivals to the last man as exemplified by the power struggle between Ummyad and Abbasids.
The religion of Islam is patently secular in nature, not in the religious sense but in terms of its openness, liberalism and accommodation for all opposing creeds and cultures. The incontrovertible shining example of that is the Muslim rule in Spain (756-1492), when the Christians and the Jews lived with ruling Muslims, enjoying equal rights and in peace and dignity. In the contemporary times, Malaysia, Indonesia and Tunis offer examples of enlightened, accommodating, progressive Islamic polities where minorities live in peace and harmony along with the Muslim majority. In these countries, the Islamic laws have been enforced in such a way that these not only fulfill the pristine spirit of Islamic Sharia, but also meet the requirements of a modern state.
Although polygamy is practically nonexistent for the majority of the Muslims, yet it is one of the stigmas imposed by the detractors on Islam. The polygamy is prevalent in the tribal, feudal and religious circles and that too sparingly. But for outsiders this has invariably been used as a slanderous tool against the Muslims to prove that the women folks were lesser equal and inferior to the males. That is true to a degree. In order to deal with this contentious issue, it is necessary that the Muslim jurists and theologians should sit together and hammer out a formula that should aim at discouraging the polygamous tendencies and practices in the Muslim societies.
But I strongly reckon that as the societies tend to be more progressive, the Muslims would themselves abandon the polygamy. As a result, though, as in the western societies, the divorce rate would soar. Even now the educated and independent women do not like to marry a person who would be already married. So the modernization of the Islamic conservative societies would neutralize this social slur heaped on Muslims. The domestic violence should be sternly dealt by the Islamic governments but it would also stand outstripped and fade with the passage of time.
Modernism, liberalism and secularism is the answer to the backwardness, indolence, underdevelopment and decadence of the Islamic world. The Jews had to hammer out a historic compromise in 18th century when they imbibed and adopted the western ways of life at the behest of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Moses exhorted the Jews to abandon their rigid fanaticism and conform to western culture. Through a political movement aided by the capitalist Europe and America the establishment of the state of Israel was made possible in 1948. In the same way, the Islamic religious fervor has got to be rational and aided by the political and reformative spirit if the Muslims want to be reckoned with as a nation.
The first constitution is always exposed to further alterations and amendments. Likewise, the original Islamic ideologies and dogmas that became controeversial should be overhauled while keeping intact the spirit and philosophy of Islam. If Ijtehad started barely 80 years after the demise of the prophet of Islam by the renewed Muslim reformers theologians, philosophers and scholars, then such an endeavor is indispensible in the modern times when the Islamic teachings are targeted for their irrationality, obscurantism, subjectivity, inconsistencies and for being out of sync with the imperatives of modern times.
In Christendom, after prolonged controversies, debates and bloodsheds, the state finally managed to relieve itself from the influence of papal supremacy. Every denomination and country established its own church in Europe and elsewhere. But that proved to be a blessing in disguise both for the church and the state. Similarly, in Muslim countries a gigantic effort is needed to harmoniously blend the Islamic beliefs and religious creed with the dynamics and progressive spirit of the modern societies without compromising the essential teachings. In Islamic states, the state and religion have to function without mutual conflict and contradiction. There should be no place, for fundamentalism, sectarianism, fanaticism, or rigid adherence to a specific latter day creed or elements of belief that were never part of Islam and are ruinous to the cosmopolitan nature of Islam. An enlightened and updated fundamentalism( the age of prophet) is the need of the hour for Islamic societies to move forward.

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