Monday, December 1, 2014


Very many Egyptian, Iranian and Indonesian Muslims identify with and appreciate their Pharonoic, Zoroashtrian and Hindu heritage respectively. While there is indeed no dearth of Indian Muslims who are staunch Indian nationalists, there is indeed a section that tends to identify with a global pan-Muslim fraternity more than India (like there are some Indian Tamils who identify more with Sri Lankan Tamils than with India, and there are some Indian Jews identifying more with Israel than with India, joining the Israeli army rather than its Indian counterpart) and do not identify with India’s composite culture, instead portraying the arrival of Islam in India as the onset of civilization in India. In doing so, they are being as biased as the extreme Hindu rightist historiographers who try to portray India’s “Hindu past” as civilized and Muslims as barbaric foreigners, and neither narrative should be acceptable in a country that claims to reject Jinnah’s two-nation theory (interestingly, Muslim rightist historical narratives of the subcontinent and even Jinnah’s two-nation theory have been questioned and rebutted even by liberal Pakistani Muslim intellectuals). The fact is that the one who manned Shivaji’s artillery was a Muslim, Ibrahim Khan Gardi was a Muslim from the Maratha camp and fought Ahmad Shah Abdali, and Man Singh and Jai Singh respectively fought Rana Pratap and Chatrapati Shivaji at the behest of the Mughals, other than Jahangir and Shah Jahan having Hindu mothers. The global pan-Muslim line of thinking is anachronistic, and I can prove my case on this point, even employing Islamic theology as a valid touchstone, and even the idea of having to delink oneself from one’s non-Islamic heritage is not Islamic. Those time and again talking of a Muslim ummah or global pan-Muslim fraternity cite the following verse of the Quran-

“The believers are to live as nothing else but brothers.” (49:10)

However, in this process of heavily emphasizing a global pan-Muslim identity, such Muslims are providing an anachronistic interpretation. During Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, Islam was largely confined to the Arab world and Muslims were under threat, since Islam had emerged as a challenge to the existing social order; thus, in that context, the emphasis on a religion-based fraternity meant something else (even Buddhism, which was a challenge to the existing order, emphasized the sangh in addition to Gautam Buddha and the dhamma, and even Christianity talks of a community of believers). However, with the passage of time, and especially now with the rise of nation-states (accommodating people of multiple religions) with a defined sovereignty that ought to be respected and global human rights activism (there were people of diverse faiths and nationalities, including people of Israeli origin, aboard the Gaza Flotilla), the concept hardly remains relevant in the same form. In fact, the fundamental message in the Quran is one of humanism. Verse 49:13, cited earlier and which comes after verse 49:10 (and later verses are believed to supersede earlier ones), illustrates this spirit and is stated hereunder-

“O mankind, indeed we have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.”

The above verse, while emphasizing human unity, also acknowledges nature’s law of diversity that makes the world beautiful, explaining the multiplicity of nations and tribes (without any religious connotation). This verse makes it clear that embracing Islam should not come in the way of being loyal to your nation, even if the majority there isn’t of Muslims, nor does following Islam imply a need to culturally or politically delink yourself from your country. In fact, Prophet Muhammad reportedly even explicitly stated that a true Muslim must love his/her country (Hub al-Watan e min al-Iman). Moreover, the term ‘ummah’ appears in the Quran only twice and has been used to refer to nations, without any religious connotation, and it was also used in the constitution of Medina drafted by Prophet Muhammad to connote a nation where Muslims and non-Muslims coexisted harmoniously. In this connection, I’d like to quote some excerpts from Tariq Ramadan’s book ‘The Messenger – The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad’-

“Abdullah ibn Judan, the chief of the Taym tribe and a member of one of the two great alliances of Meccan tribes (known as the People of the Perfume), decided to invite to his home all those who wanted to put an end to the conflicts and establish a pact of honor and justice that would bind the tribes beyond alliances based merely on tribal, political, or commercial interests.

Chiefs and members of numerous tribes this pledged that it was their collective duty to intervene in conflicts and side with the oppressed against the oppressors, whoever they might be and whatever alliances might link them to other tribes. This alliance, known as hilf al-fudul (the Pact of the Virtuous), was special in that it placed respect for the principles of justice and support of the oppressed above all other considerations of kinship or power. Young Muhammad, like Abu Bakr, who was to become his lifelong friend, took part in that historic meeting.

Long after Revelation has begun, Muhammad was to remember the terms of that pact and say: ‘I was present in Abdullah ibn Judan’s house when a pact was concluded, so excellent that I would not exchange my part in it even for a herd of red camels; and if now, in Islam, I was asked to take part in it, I would be glad to accept.’ Not only did the Prophet stress the excellence of the terms of the pact as opposed to the perverted tribal alliances prevailing at the time, but he added that even as the bearer of the message of Islam - even as a Muslim - he still accepted its substance and would not hesitate to participate again. That statement is of particular significance for Muslims, and at least three major teachings can be derived from it. We have seen that the Prophet had been advised to make good use of his past, but here the reflection goes even further: Muhammad acknowledges a pact that was established before the beginning of Revelation and which pledges to defend justice imperatively and to oppose the oppression of those who were destitute and powerless. This implies acknowledging that the act of laying out those principles is prior to and transcends belonging to Islam, because in fact Islam and its message came to confirm the substance of a treaty that human conscience had already independently formulated. Here, the Prophet clearly acknowledges the validity of a principle of justice and defense of the oppressed stipulated in a pact of the pre-Islamic era.”

“From the very start, the Prophet did not conceive the content of his message as the expression of pure otherness versus what the Arabs or the other societies of his time were producing. Islam does not establish a closed universe of reference but rather relies on a set of universal principles that can coincide with the fundamentals and values of other beliefs and religious traditions (those produced by a polytheistic society such as that of Mecca at the time). Islam is a message of justice that entails resisting oppression and protecting the dignity of the oppressed and the poor, and Muslims must recognize the moral value of a law or contract stipulating the requirement, whoever its authors and whatever the society, Muslim or not. Far from building an allegiance to Islam in which recognition and loyalty are exclusive to the community of faith, the Prophet strove to develop the believer’s conscience through adherence to principles transcending closed allegiances in the name of a primary loyalty to universal principles themselves. The last message brings nothing new to the affirmation of the principles of human dignity, justice, and equality: it merely recalls and confirms them. As regards moral values, the same intuition is present when the Prophet speaks of the qualities of individuals before and in Islam: ‘The best among you [as to their human and moral qualities] during the era before Islam [al-jahiliyyah] are the best in Islam, provided they understand it [Islam].’ The moral value of a human being reaches far beyond belonging to a particular universe of reference; within Islam, it requires added knowledge and understanding in order to grasp properly what Islam confirms (the principle of justice) and what it demands should be reformed.”

Thus, Muslims in their respective countries, following their religious edicts, should be humanistic nationalists of their respective countries devoted to the truth. To defend the wrong actions of Muslims is not in line with Islam. Prophet Muhammad himself said that Muslims must stop fellow Muslims from oppressing anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. To quote the relevant Hadith (Shahi Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 43, Hadith Number 624)-

“Narated By Anas : Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one.’ People asked, ‘O Allah’s Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?’ The Prophet said, ‘By preventing him from oppressing others’.”

I know that some Muslims would question whether I, as not being a Muslim, can give my own interpretation of Islam. But if non-Muslims are not expected to study and analyze Islam, how do Muslims expect non-Muslims to possibly embrace Islam, or at the very least, not misunderstand it?

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