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Islam in a Benign Light

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    Islam in a Benign Light

    Islam in a Benign Light

    Communal Rage in Secular India
    by Rafiq Zakaria;
    Popular Prakashan,
    Mumbai, 2002;
    pp 248, Rs 350;

    Islam and Jihad
    by A G Noorani;
    Left Word,
    New Delhi, 2002;
    pp 115, Rs 75;

    Rational Approach to Islam
    by Asghar Ali Engineer;
    Gyan Publishing House,
    New Delhi; pp 300.
    S H Deshpande

    Each of the three books under review shows that Islam is not only a religion of peace but much more. They refute every conceivable charge against Islam, quoting chapter and verse. The impression one receives, especially from Engineer’s book, is that almost every modern value – be it secularism, pluralism, freedom of religion, democracy or socialism – is imbedded in Islam. Noorani quotes Maulana Azad as saying that “Islam constitutes a perfected system of freedom and democracy” (Noorani 95). He quotes Qamaruddin Khan who swears by the “driving democratic force of ancient Islam” (ibid 65). Noorani himself is of the opinion that “Islam has a vision of equality, social justice, individual freedom, liberation of the oppressed and equality of men and women” (ibid 94). “The concept of liberation from oppression is very sharply defined in Islam” (ibid 84). Zakaria feels that in its ‘true pristine colour’ Islam is a “dynamic progressive force which teaches its followers to move forward, never backward” (Zakaria 206). Referring to Sir Sayyid Ahmad and Allama Iqbal he says, “Both reformers believed that the Quran embodied an essentially dynamic outlook on life and encouraged each generation to chalk out its course of action, unhampered by the past” (ibid 209). I do not contest these views. I have nothing to say about the authors’ interpretation of Islam. I shall confine myself to their general approach to the subject and express my unease on a few points. In the first place, one notes that none of them is ready to depart from the Holy Texts.

    Rafiq Zakaria wants Muslims to change, but within Quranic limits. “They must, without compromising the Quranic injunctions, agree to the introduction of certain much-needed, essential changes in their Personal Law …” (ibid 207) (emphasis added). “There is, in fact, enough scope under the Sharia to amend the laws relating to marriage, divorce” etc (ibid 708) (emphasis added). About singing Vande Mataram he reports Jinnah having said that the song violated a tenet of Islam, “as it calls upon people to prostrate before the mother (land)”. Zakaria’s comment is: “But it does not; the Sanskrit word means ‘bow’ and not ‘prostrate’”. In fact ‘vande’ is the verb form (first person, singular, present tense) of the root ‘rand’ which means ‘to salute’, ‘to greet respectfully’, etc, and not ‘to bow’ (ibid 211). Thus, the national song must be sanctioned by Islam! Even then he advises Muslims: ‘Those Muslims who do not want to sing it, may not but they must stand up when it is sung…” (ibid 211). Referring to Quranic laws regarding inheritance he says, “no substantial change is possible (because it is against the Quran?), nor is it necessary because the Muslim law of inheritance is quite progressive” (ibid 209, Query in bracket added.) Even if a reform in inheritance law is necessary it should not be undertaken if it goes against the Quran. The logic is interesting: “As I had explained to the late Indira Gandhi, why should anyone bother about inheritance when 95 per cent of the Muslims in India die as paupers. The remaining 5 per cent can do what they like with their inherited assets; why ask them to violate the Quranic injunction?” (ibid 209) (emphasis added).

    A G Noorani approvingly quotes Islamic authorities who say, “…there must be a return to the text…” (Noorani 86); “…The original thrust of Islam – of the Quran and Muhammad…must be resurrected.” (ibid 93); there must be an attempt at “rediscovering the old Islam, not…inventing a new heresy” (ibid 93). Noorani himself also wants to “recapture the essence of Islam” (ibid 76). Now, any religious text, be it the Bible, the Manusmriti or the Quran cannot meet the requirements and values of modern life. Taking the opposite stand would be ahistorical and against common sense. Most of the values which we all, including the authors of these books, cherish are of a much later origin and they have slowly evolved over time. Religious texts necessarily reflect the local social and cultural environment in which they were composed. This is because they are human creations and human beings are, as everyone knows, liable to err. However, all these authors are believers in the sense that they look upon religious texts, not as composed by men but as ‘Revelations’ – ‘Words of God’ to wit. In this sense they are not different from orthodox Muslims. Only, the meanings they cull out of the Sacred Word are different.

    However, all our authors, steeped in western liberal influences, also feel obliged to pay respect to ‘Reason’ and claim to have used it. So they invite comment. The authorities whom Noorani quotes emphasise reason and intelligence. They ask for ‘rereading with new intelligence’ (Noorani 86) and ‘modernisation of old Islamic learning’ (ibid 93). Among them is Shabbir Akhtar whose principal aim was “to counsel Muslims to be reflective, to be intellectually honest enough to face frankly and conscientiously the tribunal of secular reason…” And yet all these authorities want reason in the service of faith. Akhtar wants reason to act “within faithful parameters”. He describes his attempt as ‘reverent scepticism’ (ibid 93), whatever that may mean.

    Engineer castigates orthodox Muslims who “look down upon critical reason” (Engineer 8). However, in his own case, reason is not his only guide; he also seeks the guidance of faith. An interesting chapter on ‘What I Believe’ describes Engineer’s spiritual Odyssey and says that it was, principally, Islamic studies which gave him “a new vision of life and its meaning” (ibid 252). Further it says, “I came to the conclusion that reason is very crucial for human intellectual development, but not sufficient. Revelation is also a very important source of guidance and inner development. Reason…has obvious limits and cannot answer the ultimate questions regarding the ultimate meaning and direction of life. …I also came to believe that revelation cannot be contradictory to reason as many would like to believe. Revelation can and does go beyond reason but does not contradict it” (ibid 252-53).

    Revelation, thus, has to do with matters of what is called ‘spirit’. What is spirituality for Engineer? “I believe any act, which leads to the general good of the human beings is a spiritual act”. (ibid 255). This spirituality, born of Revelation, expressed in Islamic Scriptures, bred in him anti-sectarianism, anti-authoritarianism, compassion, a sense of social justice, non-violence, pluralism, an understanding of ‘essential unity of all religions’, a catholicity of outlook regarding religious diversity and so on, as he later tells us. And thus finally back to the Quran. The concluding sentences are, “The Quran has described Allah as sustainer of entire universe. …and hence, it is our duty to submit humbly to the will of Allah and be His humble servant in maintaining and sustaining integrity of His Creation” (ibid 259).