TOP ARTICLE | What Muslims Really Want
28 Mar 2009, 0000 hrs IST, DIPANKAR GUPTA
Seven years later, one cannot spot a veiled Muslim in any of the colonies built for the 2002 riot victims of Ahmedabad. Surely, this should have been the most likely spot for orthodoxy to take root. These people were so devastated by the violence that they would rather live in these ungainly tenements than return home. If burqas should be in evidence anywhere, it should be right here. But they are nowhere to be seen.
Add to this the fact that almost all such resettlement complexes in Ahmedabad have been built, either directly or indirectly, by Islamic institutions. The Jamaat-i-Islami, the Jamaat-i-Ulema-i-Hind, and the Tablighi Jamaat have done the most in this regard, and probably in that order. These faith-based organisations stood by terror-struck Muslims of Ahmedabad from the days when they sought refuge in the Shah Alam camp, and elsewhere. After the camps closed they helped the victims by repairing their homes or giving them shelter in their resettlement colonies. Though Ahmedabad's Muslims, especially the poor ones, are grateful to these religious bodies, they have not turned fundamentalist on that account.
Did the Jamaats, of one kind or the other, place conditions of a religious nature before they let people into these colonies? None, as far as the residents could recall. In fact, their laxity in religious observances has resulted in occasional disputes with some Islamic clerics. But nobody was tested for orthodoxy before they were allowed in. Their everyday life is largely free from any overt or covert subservience to the Jamaat-i-Islami or the Jamaat-i-Ulema-i-Hind.
Even the Tablighi Jamaat, which is punctilious about proper forms of worship, has left little impact on them. As one of the residents in the resettlement colony said, "These maulvis tell us about what is under the ground and above the ground, but not on the ground." In fact, many of them found it unreasonable when some mullahs insisted that they adhere to proper Sunni conduct and stop frequenting dargahs. After all, they argued, who gave them shelter in those terrible days of Hindutva violence? Did they not hide in the shadows of Shah Alam's dargah?
After Gujarat's 2002 violence against Muslims, it was widely believed that Islamic orthodoxy would be an obvious reaction. Many saw signs of this in the first few months following the carnage. This filled them with foreboding. But obviously a lot has changed since then.
Over time the reliance of Muslim victims on Islamic institutions has faded somewhat. This is natural for everyday issues gradually take a hold on one's life and other worldly ones begin to recede. These displaced Muslims need jobs, and they are not easy to come by. They were poor before the carnage, they are poorer now, but even low-paying opportunities are difficult to find. After 2002, many Hindu merchants shut their doors on Muslim artisans and haven't opened them yet. This has hurt Muslim home-based workers the most, particularly the women.
So the shine gradually dims. Time is a great eraser. The Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamaat-i-Ulema-i-Hind want to help, but their capacities fall far short of what is needed. Along with other NGOs they have donated sewing machines, given petty loans, and helped victims get state compensation; but that is just not enough. Further, as these resettlement colonies are often outside the city, residents must travel long distances to work, even as a coolie. This adds to their hardship, but there is nothing more that faith-based organisations can do to steady them economically.
Are these poor Muslims not orthodox because Islamic organisations have not tried hard enough? The truth is that neither Jamaat-i-Islami nor Jamaat-i-Ulema-i-Hind is keen on advocating fundamentalist lifestyles. They have no interest in sponsoring madrassas that teach only Arabic and the Quran. Instead they have set up schools that provide secular education, and there is one such even in Naroda Patiya where Hindu violence was at its worst in 2002. These schools are not a ruse for Islamic organisations, or clerics, to pump religious fervour into Muslim kids.
On the contrary, these Muslim institutions are clear that they want the boys and girls in their care to learn secular sciences and skills and heave themselves out of parental poverty. The curricula in these schools are so designed that they conform to the requirements of the state education board. There would be some religious instructions in these institutions, but they would be on the side, and a minor matter.
Not surprisingly, several schools set up by Muslim trusts in Ahmedabad follow the same pattern. The accent is on turning out successful Muslims who can negotiate confidently in a secular world. Education is probably the only sphere where there is a great degree of concordance between clerics and the poor Muslims of Ahmedabad. The preference in these resettlement colonies is for Gujarati-medium schools, and this is also what the clerics want. It is most important that these children learn flawless Gujarati. Urdu is alright, but as a distant second language.
Where then is that fundamentalism that is supposedly breeding in the smouldering slums of Ahmedabad? In fact, if anything, it is just the reverse. Instead of Islamic terror becoming an election issue, why not this move among Muslims to develop and integrate? Is this not what they are beaming to us from Gujarat?
April 23, 2009
Islam, Virgins and Grapes
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
In Afghanistan, 300 brave women marched to demand a measure of equal rights, defying a furious mob of about 1,000 people who spat, threw stones and called the women “whores.” The marchers asserted that a woman should not need her husband’s consent to go to school or work outside the home.
In Pakistan, the Taliban flogged a teenage girl in front of a crowd, as two men held her face down in the dirt. A video shows the girl, whose “crime” may have been to go out of her house alone, crying piteously that she will never break the rules again.
Muslim fundamentalists damage Islam far more than any number of Danish cartoonists ever could, for it’s inevitably the extremists who capture the world’s attention. But there is the beginning of an intellectual reform movement in the Islamic world, and one window into this awakening was an international conference this week at the University of Notre Dame on the latest scholarship about the Koran.
“We’re experiencing right now in Koranic studies a rise of interest analogous to the rise of critical Bible studies in the 19th century,” said Gabriel Said Reynolds, a Notre Dame professor and organizer of the conference.
The Notre Dame conference probably could not have occurred in a Muslim country, for the rigorous application of historical analysis to the Koran is as controversial today in the Muslim world as its application to the Bible was in the 1800s. For some literal-minded Christians, it was traumatic to discover that the ending of the Gospel of Mark, describing encounters with the resurrected Jesus, is stylistically different from the rest of Mark and is widely regarded by scholars as a later addition.
Likewise, Biblical scholars distressed the faithful by focusing on inconsistencies among the gospels. The Gospel of Matthew says that Judas hanged himself, while Acts describes him falling down in a field and dying; the Gospel of John disagrees with other gospels about whether the crucifixion occurred on Passover or the day before. For those who considered every word of the Bible literally God’s word, this kind of scholarship felt sacrilegious.
Now those same discomfiting analytical tools are being applied to the Koran. At Notre Dame, scholars analyzed ancient texts of the Koran that show signs of writing that was erased and rewritten. Other scholars challenged traditional interpretations of the Koran such as the notion that some other person (perhaps Judas or Peter) was transformed to look like Jesus and crucified in his place, while Jesus himself escaped to heaven.
One scholar at the Notre Dame conference, who uses the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg for safety, has raised eyebrows and hackles by suggesting that the “houri” promised to martyrs when they reach Heaven doesn’t actually mean “virgin” after all. He argues that instead it means “grapes,” and since conceptions of paradise involved bounteous fruit, that might make sense. But suicide bombers presumably would be in for a disappointment if they reached the pearly gates and were presented 72 grapes.
One of the scholars at the Notre Dame conference whom I particularly admire is Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, an Egyptian Muslim who argues eloquently that if the Koran is interpreted sensibly in context then it carries a strong message of social justice and women’s rights.
Dr. Abu Zayd’s own career underscores the challenges that scholars face in the Muslim world. When he declared that keeping slave girls and taxing non-Muslims were contrary to Islam, he infuriated conservative judges. An Egyptian court declared that he couldn’t be a real Muslim and thus divorced him from his wife (who, as a Muslim woman, was not eligible to be married to a non-Muslim). The couple fled to Europe, and Dr. Abu Zayd is helping the LibForAll Foundation, which promotes moderate interpretations throughout the Islamic world.
“The Islamic reformation started as early as the 19th century,” notes Dr. Abu Zayd, and, of course, it has even earlier roots as well. One important school of Koranic scholarship, Mutazilism, held 1,000 years ago that the Koran need not be interpreted literally, and even today Iranian scholars are surprisingly open to critical scholarship and interpretations.
If the Islamic world is going to enjoy a revival, if fundamentalists are to be tamed, if women are to be employed more productively, then moderate interpretations of the Koran will have to gain ascendancy. There are signs of that, including a brand of “feminist Islam” that cites verses and traditions suggesting that the Prophet Muhammad favored women’s rights.
Professor Reynolds says that Muslim scholars have asked that conference papers be translated into Arabic so that they can get a broader hearing. If the great intellectual fires are reawakening within Islam, after centuries of torpor, then that will be the best weapon yet against extremism.
How would you respond to radical Muslim clerics in northwest Pakistan -- now under Islamic law -- who are calling for expansion of Islamic law across the entire federal republic of Pakistan. Should any nation be governed by religious rules.
We hear a lot about "firebrand" Muslim clerics calling for the installation of Shariah law. It conjures images of women being stoned and forced into hiding behind burkas and denied educations. We think of beheadings and amputations as a form of justice. And we cringe.
But it is important that we understand what is meant by Shariah law. Islamic law is about God's law, and it is not that far from what we read in the Declaration of Independence about "the Laws of Nature and Nature's God." The Declaration says "men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
At the core of Shariah law are God's commandments, revealed in the Old Testament and revised in the New Testament and the Quran. The principles behind American secular law are similar to Shariah law - that we protect life, liberty and property, that we provide for the common welfare, that we maintain a certain amount of modesty. What Muslims want is to ensure that their secular laws are not in conflict with the Quran or the Hadith, the sayings of Muhammad.
Where there is a conflict, it is not with Shariah law itself but more often with the way the penal code is sometimes applied. Some aspects of this penal code and its laws pertaining to women flow out of the cultural context. The religious imperative is about justice and fairness. If you strive for justice and fairness in the penal code, then you are in keeping with moral imperative of the Shariah.
In America, we have a Constitution that created a three-branch form of government - legislative, executive and judiciary. The role of the judiciary is to ensure that the other two branches comply with the Constitution. What Muslims want is a judiciary that ensures that the laws are not in conflict with the Qur'an and the Hadith. Just as the Constitution has gone through interpretations, so does Shariah law.
The two pieces of unfinished business in Muslim countries are to revise the penal code so that it is responsive to modern realities and to ensure that the balance between the three branches of government is not out of kilter.
Rather than fear Shariah law, we should understand what it actually is. Then we can encourage Muslim countries to make the changes that achieve the essence of fairness and justice that are at the root of Islam.
By Asghar Ali Engineer
Friday, 15 May, 2009 | 08:36 AM PST |
A cleric who was arrested for performing a marriage between a 4 year old girl and a 7 year old boy in Pakistan - Reuters/File photo Pakistan
Where are their rights? RECENTLY I read a news item datelined Riyadh that said that Saudi Arabia was contemplating banning the marriage of girls under 18. This became necessary because a case of a girl aged eight years came to light.
She was married off to a man over 40 years her senior. Many Saudi jurists and ulema, however, uphold such marriages. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh endorses the practice of marrying underage girls, arguing that in doing so they avoid spinsterhood or the temptation engaging in relationships outside wedlock. According to other reports many young girls in Arab countries that observe tribal traditions are married to older husbands but not before puberty. Such marriages are also driven by poverty in countries like Yemen, one of the poorest countries outside Africa.
But in countries like Saudi Arabia it is more of a tribal tradition which is practised in the name of Islam. Here the main question is: does Islam permit child marriage? If you ask any traditional jurist he would say ‘yes.’ But it was more of a pre-Islamic tradition which became part of Islam and our jurists and theologians generally justify it on the basis of the Prophet (PBUH) having married Hazrat Aisha when she was seven. It is doubtful if the Prophet of Islam would marry such a young child.
Modern researchers have established that the hadith regarding Hazrat Aisha’s marriage appeared some 300 years after the death of the Holy Prophet. It cannot be relied upon. Moreover, the Quran describes marriage as mithaqan ghaliza (strong covenant) and if marriage is a contract, how can one enter into one with a child who is hardly conscious of the implications of the contract?
It was for this reason that Hanafi jurisprudence has made provisions for what is called khiyar al-bulugh (i.e. option of puberty). According to this provision, if a child is married at a young age (below puberty) she has the option of accepting or repudiating the marriage on achieving puberty. The contractual nature of marriage cannot be altered.
In our traditional culture various pressures work on a girl’s mind and once she is married off it is very difficult for her to repudiate that marriage. Thus the Quranic principle is very sound and must not be sidelined in order to uphold traditional practices. Most Muslim communities give priority to their own respective traditions than Islamic principles and jurists, also coming from the same traditional cultures, and find ways to justify such practices. And then these acquire the halo of Sharia law.
Since many jurists insist on following such traditions, the faith becomes a laughing stock for the world media. The minor girl who was married to a man of 50 years of age in Saudi Arabia was finally divorced by her husband only after coming under pressure from the media. And only because of such pressure Saudi authorities are now considering banning the marriage of girls below 18 years of age. If put into effect, the measure will be quite in keeping with Islamic principles.
The need is to understand that what we call Sharia today includes a number of pre-Islamic Arab traditions and customary practices known as aadat (literally practices). Since the Quran was revealed among the Arabs and they were the first to embrace Islam their practices were accepted as part of Sharia law and Islamic principles had to be applied to the body of these aadat. But when Islam spread to other areas local customary laws also continued to be practised. Islamic principles as contained in the Quran are universal and surprisingly modern. It is unfortunate that our jurists and ulema are not ready to rethink our present laws which are a mixture of Islamic principles and aadat. For them Sharia law once formulated becomes eternal, though no student of classical Islamic jurisprudence will agree with such an approach. Whatever was formulated in the past must be reviewed in the light of Quranic pronouncements and child marriage must be banned. If the Saudi authorities have realised the need for banning child marriage, it should be welcomed. If they take this initiative, others can follow. But legislation, though quite necessary, is not enough. Many laws continue to be violated in practice.
Thus, there is an urgent need to spread awareness in Muslim societies. Awareness has to be created among women as, more often than not, they are the victims of many traditions and customs which have nothing to do with Islam. Also, a greater problem lies in areas where women are less literate or illiterate. They need to be made more aware of their Islamic rights to prevent more instances of child marriage and other abuses.
The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.
Many Western Muslims won't put their faith in a ‘Wazir of Oz'
From Monday's Globe and Mail
Last updated on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2009 03:29AM EDT
.In a study sponsored by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Carleton University professor Karim Karim found bifurcations between Muslims acclimatized to the West and imams “imported” from the Middle East and South Asia.
The result of the study, in which interviews were conducted with 56 Muslims in Canada, Britain and the United States, was not altogether surprising.
Many Islamic centres employ an imam from abroad to minister to the spiritual needs of a diverse, complex community. Some imams don't speak English very well, or at all. But the biggest disconnect, according to the study, is a lack of cultural familiarity.
One Montreal participant summarized: “My ultimate fantasy would be to find an imam who gives a [sermon], who … goes out to work from 9 to 5, takes the bus, is dealing with his kid who is picking up a marijuana joint at the age of 13. This is the kind of person I want instructing me on Friday, not speaking to me about the battles [Muslims] won 1,200 years ago.”
This disconnect is being played out in Ottawa, where the city's largest mosque has been embroiled in controversy as it searches for a permanent imam. The mosque's directors initially sought an imam familiar with Western culture. Instead, they chose one from Cairo's al-Azhar University, paid for by the Egyptian government. As a result, many mosque members revolted.
This episode, along with the IRPP study, also points to a growing divide between those who run the mosques and those who attend. Many centres are run in an autocratic manner, without input from youth or women. Now, community members want their voices heard and more accountability from directors, and they are willing to speak up. This is a healthy development.
The IRPP study also revealed that the participants – who were required to speak English well, have knowledge of contemporary intellectual discussions relating to Islam and have lived in the West for at least five years – are seeking to maintain their Muslim identity while trying to navigate modernity. The guidance provided by those who know little about liberal democracies is, not surprisingly, unsatisfactory.
In fact, Muslims accustomed to the West often experience a clash of cultures with their co-religionists elsewhere in key areas such as gender equality, critical analysis and individual freedom.
For example, a female convert to Islam once confided to me that, while the spiritual foundations of her new-found faith were wholly satisfying, dealing with the local Muslim community was akin to “going back 30, 40 years” in terms of women's rights. For all the rhetoric about women's rights in Islam, the reality is that many Muslim cultures (not all) do not accord women the respect they deserve or the opportunity to develop to their full potential.
Critical analysis of culture and faith is still taboo in some Muslim cultures and is often seen as a sign of non-belief. Yet the Koran points to Abraham, who questioned God so that his heart might “be at peace.”
In fact, the Koran is replete with questions asked by believers, agnostics and atheists. Questioning, thinking and reflecting are viewed as means to attaining faith, contrary to the view of some. Muslims raised in an environment that encourages critical thinking will approach their faith in a manner different from those schooled by rote learning.
History teaches us that the cultural manifestation of Islam is a reflection of indigenous norms. Gender equality, critical thinking and individual creativity may be seen as a threat by some. However, for Muslims living in the West, these form essential components of an indigenous Islam in harmony with liberal democratic values. Instead of looking for a mythical “Wazir of Oz” from the East to provide solutions for living in the West, Muslims should look for homegrown paradigms.
As for the fantasy sermon, it is already a reality. In June, the PBS documentary New Muslim Cool featured Jason (Hamza) Perez, a former gang member and drug dealer. After converting to Islam, he cleaned up his act. He is now an imam who also performs hip hop and a devoted family man who counsels prisoners (of all faiths) to reflect upon the harm they have done to themselves and to others. He believes in helping humanity, explaining that jihad is foremost a personal struggle to improve from within. Now, he wants to develop a program to get drug dealers off the streets.
What war? holy or unholy, and who is the Muslim scholar and where is the debate...increasingly or decreasingly? …
Good question, as stated in the first post of this thread, the intention behind this thread was to highlight the fact that there is a need for re-interpretation of faith in light of altered circumstances around us. The scholars questioning the need to go to war in the interests of faith is symbolic of this situation.
Perhaps the title of the thread needs to change to “Re-interpretation of Faith” if Admin can change it……
Some People might think that I am just in denial mode for this notion but I don’t think there is any war in actual existence of what world media is propagating about…rather it is some elements in small minority on each side of every situation that think or want to think otherwise and subsequently want more people to believe in their ideology as the reality…and, even, if the reality was any closer to their version, Propagating or debating it with some kinda self imposed holiness is not helping majority of us but only to that small mischievous minority on each side.
I can’t buy the attributes of holiness or unholiness of any war or conflict in today’s world and find that illogical, manipulative and deceiving… I think it is just the ignorance and backwardness that has to be addressed by majority of us in progressive ways for all and not in divisive or exploiting ways. .. plus involving of “scholars” makes it even more laughable….I think the best a scholar can do or should do is disagree politely and decently with others in that regard and wouldn’t have anything to do with any kind of war…or he or she is not an scholar in the first place…rather just an ideologue or other political or social lobbyist.
I can sense all kinds of differences between people and societies in general in today’s world and they are even more visible than ever before but I am not sure debating the differences with some kind of rigid ideology of holy war and whatnot is beneficial for anyone except few of those who is working against most of us.
Mind set: Yoga beyond religion
27 August 2009, 12:00am IST
I follow all the Islamic tenets in the right interpretation and spirit and so, I can say that there is no such thing as yoga being haram
(disallowed) in Islam. Rather, I have found that Islamic yoga is a reality. It is possible to employ the skills of yoga to worship Allah better and to be a better Muslim.
Issuing fatwa declaring yoga anti-Islamic by some Malaysian and Indonesian ulema is nothing but misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the fact that yoga and namaz are almost identical. Having practiced yoga during my school days, I found that it can easily be integrated with the Islamic life; in fact the two assist one another. Not only is there no conflict, but Islam and yoga together make a mutually beneficial holistic synergy.
Both are agreed that, while the body is important as a vehicle on the way to spiritual realization and salvation, the human being’s primary identity is not with the body but with the eternal spirit. Maintaining a healthy and fit body is a requirement in Islam, which teaches a Muslim that his or her body is a gift from Allah.Yoga happens to be one of the most potential common grounds between Hindus and Muslims.
The purposes of yoga and Tariqat-e-Naqshbandi (Sufi lifestyle) are apparently similar since both aim at achieving mystical union with the ultimate reality namely Brahma or Allah. Islamic mysticism is undoubtedly impacted by the uncanny Vedic and Buddhist influences desiring to achieve mystical union with the Supreme Being or as one may also call nirvana or fana (a term used by the Sufis).
The Indian Muslims’ love affair with yoga is a complex thing, born of many factors. There’s the general disenchantment with strict, orthodox Islam of the myopic clerics and the accompanying pull to alternative forms of spirituality.
Yoga, according to Ashraf F Nizami’s book Namaz, the Yoga of Islam (published by D B Taraporevala, Mumbai 1977) is not a religion. Rather, it is a set of techniques and skills that enhance the practice of any religion. Nizami writes that in namaz , various constituents like sijdah is like half shirshasana while qayam is vajrasana in the same way as ruku is paschimothanasana.
Even Father M Dechanel wrote a book on Christian yoga recording that practicing yoga is encouraged because it is a way towards the realization of Christian teachings. According to Badrul Islam, a yoga instructor at a government academy in Dehradun, one of the most obvious correspondences between Islam and yoga is the resemblance of salat (five-time prayer a day) to the physical exercises of yoga asanas . The root meaning of the word salat is ‘to bend the lower back’, as in yoga; the Persians translated this concept with the word nama z, from a verbal root meaning ‘to bow’, etymologically related to the Sanskrit word namaste.
Since the yogic metaphysic of Advaita Vedanta is in perfect accordance with the Islamic doctrine of tauhid (God’s oneness), there is perfect compatibility between Islam and yoga on the highest level. The ‘Book of Sufi Healing’ by Hakim G M Chishti clearly states that life, from its beginning till the end, is one continuous set of breathing practices. However, in Tariqat-e-Naqshabandiyah, the Sufi tradition of Islam, breathing practice has been there exactly as in yoga. The Quran, in addition to all else it may be, is a set of breathing practices.
The enigmatic and most revered Qari (one who melodiously recites Quran) Abdul Basit of Egypt, whose recitation of the Quran is considered the best till date, practiced breathing exercise exactly similar to pranayam and was able to recite a surah by holding his breath for such a long duration that even the medical experts were amazed. However, no one told the Qari that he did it with yoga.
Nowadays, yoga is commercially promoted for health and repel diseases. In fact, less exercise owing to long office hours on computers is one of diseases of modern world. Cars, motorcycles and computers are our main pulse beat of contemporary life. People no longer think about physical and spiritual exercises, which make a good excuse for Muslims to be offered yoga practice.
Besides, many western societies are materialistic and for limitless monetary gains people would fall prey to rat race and superiority whereas their spiritual sides remain void. Forms of yoga such as Patanjali, Tantra, Sankhya and Dhyana ,
among others, are non-religious as even the atheists can practice them. Yoga today is a way of life for the followers of all religions.
The place of yoga in the lives of most Muslims will not be shifted by the fatwas of Indonesian and Malayian ulemas . Those who practice will practice, the so-called super-pious will frown. Even in the Middle East and Iran, yoga is a pet with Muslims.
Most Muslims in India are dazed that the all-encompassing credentials of yoga need to be debated. Let’s appreciate that at this time, the proyoga fatwa by the renowned Darul Uloom Deoband seminary has given it a clean chit and Swami Ramdev has also given the green signal that Muslims can substitute Allah for Ohm, but was it really required?
Quite interestingly, the word Ohm, according to Urdu or Arabic alphabet, is formed from three alphabets — Alif, Wao and Meem. If we consider the abbreviations of these, Alif means Allah, Wao or wa means ‘and’ while Meem means Mohammed. It shows that Ohm is a confluence of Allah and Mohammed. May be some super-pious will also frown upon me on this word play.
( Firoz Bakht Ahmed is a commentator on social and educational issues)
Islam & social reform
By Asghar Ali Engineer
Friday, 23 Oct, 2009
It is very unfortunate that many ulema should still vehemently oppose everything new, only to accept it later, reluctantly, for their own survival. We often refuse to move with the times and then time forces us to move with it after extracting a price for our refusal to change. –APP/ File photo
Traditional ulema have nearly always opposed social reform calling it un-Islamic. Many are able to mobilise support from static Muslim societies by quoting either certain selected Quranic verses or the hadith. Historically, ulema have also declared reformers as kafir or mulhid, i.e. believers in naturism rather than God.
Once such fatwas are issued against a reformer, he/she faces total isolation in society and finds it extremely difficult to carry on reform. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, whose birthday was on Oct 17, was one such great social reformer.
He never laboured over religious doctrines. He just wanted Muslims to go for modern, secular education so that modern knowledge, which was mostly available in English, could be made accessible to the Muslims. The ulema opposed his movement for modern education, the founding of an institution of modern learning, and issued fatwas against him, dubbing him variously as kafir, Christian and Jewish. One of the ulema even travelled to Makkah and obtained a fatwa for killing Sir Syed.
The question arises: why this show of fierce opposition to social reform which was, after all, for the betterment of the Muslim community of India? It was certainly not religious belief alone because opposition to social reform emanates from a host of complex factors.
Firstly, change is always feared as it brings uncertainty and unknown consequences, especially on the part of those who do not benefit from change. Apart from theologians and community leaders, it is feared by the masses who have not experienced change and have lived amid ignorance and superstitious beliefs.
Secondly, it is feared by the priesthood, by theologians as well as some social and cultural leaders because it challenges their leadership. Priests and theologians have had a grip on the minds of the people for too long, and many feel any change will throw up new social or theological leaders in which case they will lose out. Thus they oppose reform to secure their own positions. To legitimise their opposition they find what they call religious reasons and try quoting out of context from scriptures to impress the public.
The ulema in the 19th century were highly apprehensive of English education as it would mean challenging the madressah education, coupled with the fear that Muslims would be moving a step nearer to Christianity. As Arabic education was considered a step towards Islam, English education was considered a step towards Christianity. There was little more reason for the ulema to oppose modern education.
The ulema had held high positions in Mughal courts and functioned as qazis or religious judges. They were being replaced by British judges and highly qualified Indians who had studied the law. This created strong resentment among the ulema; they denounced the English education system which was taking away everything from them. Thus they had everything to fear and nothing to celebrate.
Muslim masses also supported them, because they recognised the ulema as their religious leaders and men of great Islamic learning. Secondly, Muslim society at the time was either static or decadent. Any change made the people fearful and they rightly believed the British to be their enemy, one who threatened their religious belief and political hegemony. The future was unknown and in the hands of foreign rulers.
Also, as pointed out before, change is feared by those who lose out and celebrated by those who gain from it. Only very few side with reformers who have some idea of what the future may hold. Among Muslims in India Sir Syed began the vigorous movement for modern education even before a new class of Muslims who could be the beneficiary of English education emerged.
Eventually, of course, that class came to the fore, albeit slowly, and subsequently became the harbinger of change. Among these people a galaxy of intellectuals arose who are respected to date. They included people like Nawab Mohsinul Mulk, Maulavi Chiragh Ali, Justice Amir Ali and Maulvi Mumtaz Ali Khan among several others. They developed a new vision of life and laid the foundation for a better life for the Muslims in India. Many from this new class of Muslims joined the civil, police and other services and left a mark on society.
Today many ulema are not only learning English they are also trying to project Islam to non-Muslims in the English language. What was thought to be the language of kafirs in the 19th century has now come to stay in the Muslim world. Thus, those who oppose change subsequently not only accept it, but also find that it becomes the very means of survival.
It is very unfortunate that many ulema should still vehemently oppose everything new, only to accept it later, reluctantly, for their own survival. We often refuse to move with the times and then time forces us to move with it after extracting a price for our refusal to change.
The writer is an Islamic scholar who heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai
University blasts in Pakistan and the future of Islam The International Islamic University is carving out a much-needed space in Muslim intellectual, and through it, political, life.
By Mark LeVine
from the October 23, 2009 edition
Lund, Sweden - When the Taliban attacked the International Islamic University in Pakistan this week, many were shocked that militants were targeting an Islamic school. In fact, the double suicide bombers were going after a university that is at the forefront of changing the way Islamic and Western knowledge are brought together in the Muslim world.
I also had some misconceptions before I had lectured in the very building where the second bombing took place. But the encounters I had there in 2007 utterly changed my understanding of Pakistan, as well as the future of Islam.
I had only landed in Islamabad just a few hours before I was scheduled to give my first talk at the university, and whether it was the 13-hour time difference with Los Angeles, two nights flying in coach, or walking through an arrivals lounge that had recently been attacked by terrorists, I felt more uneasy about being in Pakistan than Baghdad or Gaza during their own periods of intense violence.
Matters weren't helped when I was introduced to a group of male religious studies students by my host as someone who'd lived in Israel and speaks Hebrew. In fact, my stomach sank a bit – especially as their long beards and traditional dress reminded me a lot more of the Taliban than the graduate students I normally spend time with.
But as with most things in Pakistan, appearances were deceiving, and the situation was far more complex, and inspiring, than I'd imagined.
It turned out that the students with whom I was meeting weren't merely studying Islam, they were PhD students in comparative religion. They were situating Islam, its history, and its religious dynamics within the broader study of religious experience worldwide.
Moreover, the recently established program in which they were studying was a model for the International Islamic University's drive to develop a new curriculum, one that would combine 1,000 years of Islamic learning with the latest developments in American and European humanities and social studies scholarship.
The students explained they were all learning Hebrew, as well as biblical criticism and contemporary approaches to religious studies as part of their course work. As we began to talk it became clear that neither students nor faculty had much time or desire to engage in spirited critiques of the United States or the West.
They were much more interested in discussing how to better integrate "Western" and Islamic methodologies for studying history and religion. And more telling, they were trying to figure out how to criticize the government without "disappearing" into the dark hole of the Pakistani prison system for five or 10 years, or worse.
Colleagues in the history and political science departments were just as eager to develop the most up-to-date curriculums possible, and in so doing lay a benchmark for the development of their fields, not just in Pakistan, but globally.
This is not to say that the members of the University community supported US policies in the Muslim world. Far from it. But as good social scientists (or social scientists in training), they understood the importance of the interplay of local and global dynamics, and of the problems in their own societies that contributed to the violent relationship between the US and many Muslim groups around the world.
Indeed, when I delivered my second lecture on globalization early on a Saturday morning, the room was filled with students, more women than men (upward of half the student body at the University are women), who grilled me about the assumptions underlying my research and methodologies. Would that most of my students back home were as interested in what I was teaching as were they.
As I walked around the campus, and met faculty and students who'd come from all over the Muslim world to study there, the role of the IIU in the larger context of Islam globally became evident.
The University was carving out a much-needed space in Muslim intellectual, and through it political, life through its bringing Muslim and Western traditions into dialogue.
Yet it was receiving, and continues to receive far less attention from scholars, commentators, or policymakers than the fully American-style universities being opened across the Persian Gulf. This is most recently evidenced by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, just established with great fanfare and a $10 billion endowment from the king in Jeddah.
Such a venture is surely important, not just for having one of the world's fastest supercomputers or giving every newly hired professor $400,000 in research money – I got $3,000 when I was hired at University of California, Irvine, and that was when the university was flush with cash.
Yet the singular focus of KAUST on hard sciences is ultimately myopic and will likely produce little in the way of the larger societal change in Saudi Arabia predicted by the new university's boosters. Such changes come only with a robust public sphere where citizens who are educated broadly and humanistically are equipped with the social knowledge and skills to challenge the dominant political and social-religious discourses.
Building such an active Pakistani citizenry was and – I imagine despite the bombing – remains a major goal of the IIU.
Sadly, it's just such a goal that probably made it a "legitimate" target for the Taliban, for whom a healthy public sphere populated by educated citizens willing and able to challenge, potentially democratize, and clean up their government would pose at least as big threat to its position in the country as the army they are now fighting in the country's northwest.
Not surprisingly, the core mission of the IIU would also not win it many friends among the country's corrupt economic and political elite, who, as many of the senior education and religious officials I met confided to me, share the Taliban's desire to silence any kind of critical scholarship or societal debate.
With this attack, the Taliban has struck what until now was a sanctuary, however fragile and inchoate, where the emerging generation of Pakistanis and Muslims could determine on their own terms how best to bring together their cultures and traditions to grapple with the profound challenges faced by their societies.
I hope it doesn't weaken the spirit and resolve of the thousands of students who've come to the IIU from across the Muslim world to help build a better future. They are not just the future of Pakistan, or of Islam; they are the future as well.
Mark LeVine is a history professor at University of California, Irvine and currently a visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He is the author most recently of "Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam" and "Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989"
Sheik All Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, possesses a wonderfully exotic title, a scholarly manner and the unique burden of issuing about 5,000 fatwas a week — the judicial rulings that help guide the lives of the Muslim faithful. On a recent visit to the United States, he explained to me the process of "resolving issues of modern life." And modern life offers Gomaa and his team of subordinate muftis plenty of fodder for resolution, from the permissibility of organ transplants, to sports gambling, to smoking during Ramadan, to female judges, to the use of weapons of mass destruction, to mobile phone transmitters on the top of minarets.
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Islam for many non-Muslim Americans, who must look back to puritan Massachusetts for a time when hermeneutics — the art of interpreting a holy text — was such a consequential public matter. In the West, theological debates have long been confined to seminaries, causing nothing more serious than denominational splits. In Egypt, Gomaa is a theological celebrity. His office, the Dar al-Iftaa, is part of the Ministry of Justice. And though his rulings are non-binding unless adopted into Egyptian law, they are widely influential.
Reform in the Arab world is not likely — at least soon — to reflect the Western privatization of theological beliefs. All of life is subject to sharia law and most Arab governments gain at least a part of their legitimacy by reflecting it. At its worst — but rarely — this involves the classical Islamic punishments of stoning and amputation.
At its best, sharia law plays an equivalent role to the rule of law, binding both rulers and ruled by the same objective standard of justice.
So it obviously matters greatly how sharia law is interpreted, and who does the interpreting. But Islam, for better or for worse, has no pope or traditional clergy. Instead, it has several schools of interpretation — all of which view the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad as normative, but reconcile local customs with Islam in different ways.
Some, on the Saudi Arabian model, view the seventh century as the purest Islamic ideal, which is difficult to reconcile with modernity, pluralism, democracy, women's rights and success in the modern world.
Sheik Gomaa represents a different approach. He can hardly be called a liberal. "The Egyptian people," he told me, "have chosen Islam to be their general framework for governance. That being the case, the Egyptian people will never accept homosexual marriage, or the use of illegal drugs, or the commission of homicide or joint suicide." Morality and its sources are absolute. "The Qur'an and the tradition are what we depend on," he insists.
"They were true 1,400 years ago, they are true today, they will be true tomorrow."
But traditionalist Islam, in his view, is pragmatic in the way it applies these principles to "current reality." It is the job of Islamic scholars "to bridge the gap between the sources and life today." Some past interpretations "may have been corrupt — we may find a better way. What we look to in tradition is methodology, not the exact results of 500 years ago." Gomaa focuses on "the intent of sharia to foster dignity and other core values," as well as "a commitment to the public interest."
"The end result is to improve the world, not destroy it," he said. As a result, Gomaa has made a number of rulings recognizing women's rights, restricting corporal punishment and forbidding terrorism.
"Let me give you an example of the approach from freedom," he told me.
"The Prophet, in history, peace be upon him, wore clothes like what they wear in Sudan. The fact that the Prophet did that doesn't mean we all must dress that way. There are those who want to hold on to the past, not hold on to religion."
Beneath Gomaa's interpretive approach is a strong assertion of the role of the traditional scholarly class within Islam. The issuing of fatwas by unqualified radicals has often led to religious chaos. Gomaa is a scholar of the first rank, and believes scholars, rooted in a long tradition of learning, should take the leading role in Islamic jurisprudence. His goal is not to liberalize Islam, but to rescue orthodoxy from extremism.
This does not amount to a fully orbed theory of human liberty. But Gomaa stands for an important and encouraging principle: Radicalism is the shallowest view of Islam.
MICHAEL GERSON is A COLUMNIST WITH WASHINGTON POST.
THOUGH there is no concept of priesthood in Islam, a clerical class has come into existence. In Islam any person, if he/she has adequate knowledge, can perform all the functions and rituals, be it related to marriage, death or other obligations for Muslims.
Alim (plural ulema) means one who knows. Thus the whole emphasis is on knowledge irrespective of class, caste, race or
nationality. Since knowledge is central this class came to be called ulema.
Now the question is what knowledge should be imparted to these persons who are supposed to guide the community. The ulema often quote a hadith that since Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is the last prophet the ulema are like stars after him and Muslims should seek guidance from them as stars guide and become source of light in the darkness of night, and ignorance is like darkness.
In those early days when a bunch of ulema began to come into existence the most important knowledge was that of the Quran and hadith which embodied total knowledge for the guidance of the community. Anyone having that knowledge was counted among the ulema. However, as Islam spread to other countries with their own old cultures, civilisations and indigenous sources of law, besides the ulema of the Quran and hadith, other types of ulema also came into existence, i.e. those who acquired knowledge from other sources like philosophy, mathematics and physical sciences. These ulema put emphasis on reason and rational sciences besides traditional sources of Muslim knowledge.
The rational sciences, over a period of time became so important that they became sources of syllabus for training of ulema and came to be known as ulum al-aqliyah, which mainly consisted of translations from Greek philosophy and other sciences.
In those days Greek sciences were the most advanced and these rational sciences were supposed to broaden the vision of the ulema. Muslims produced great philosophers who contributed richly to world knowledge and whose commentaries on Greek philosophy were taught in European universities and Christian seminaries throughout the Middle Ages. Thus the Christian priests studied al Farabi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, etc. in their seminaries. All kinds of rational sciences flourished during the mediaeval ages in the Islamic world and Muslim ulema learnt and built on these sciences.
The Greek sciences are mostly of historical importance and humankind has made tremendous progress in social and physical sciences, so no one can claim to be an alim today without knowledge of contemporary developments. Unfortunately, the colonial period and the development of these sciences in Europe had to be simultaneous and since Muslim countries were victims of colonial rule, Muslims in general and our ulema in particular became highly prejudiced against all western or European advances made in the sciences, subsequent to Muslim scientists’ efforts.
Also, Islamic seminaries while taking out their anger against their colonial masters did not understand the difference between the colonial rulers and the scientists; many of the latter were persecuted by the same rulers. It was not western rulers who developed the sciences but the scientists who did so. The Christian church had also resisted Greek knowledge, and many philosophers were persecuted, but later they adopted and made these sciences part of their syllabus, and then of their theology.
Similarly, traditional Muslim ulema at first resisted modern social and physical sciences as irreligious and as being imports from the colonial West, and rejected these ulum. However, later they began to accept these sciences but would not teach them in Islamic seminaries. Still, they teach traditional Greek sciences as if it is part of Islamic knowledge. Now it is high time that Islamic seminaries integrate modern sciences, like they had the Greek sciences earlier, and make them part of the syllabus in seminaries.
Today, the whole emphasis in these seminaries is on the traditional sciences and theological issues. This is of course necessary but only as a part of the training. Along with these theological issues they must also train their students in modern social and physical sciences which will greatly help broaden their vision. They should also be trained in interpreting the Quran using modern scientific methods. The earlier commentaries and interpretations were done in the light of knowledge which was available then, and much of it was Greek philosophy. One cannot continue to teach the same commentaries; while the Quran is divine, the tafsir literature is entirely a human effort to understand the Quran within the parameters of available knowledge at any given time in human history.
The existing hadith literature comprises both authentic as well as zaeef traditions of somewhat doubtful origin. The students must be trained in modern methods of sifting through the existing literature and rigorously select only those traditions which are authentic and in keeping with the Quran and reasoning. The integrity of the narrator is not enough; it should also fulfil the criterion of human reasoning. Reason and intellect are divine gifts and the Quran recognises the role of reason.
Also, in those madressahs where sectarianism is flourishing, there is a need for the ulema to learn the value of tolerance and moderation. The fundamental values of the Quran, haq (truth), adl (justice), ihsan (doing good), rahmah (compassion) and hikmah (wisdom), must be taught and emphasised. Also, knowledge of comparative religion should be imparted which is highly necessary in the modern pluralistic world. Only such a comprehensive syllabus will produce a scholarly set of future ulema.
The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.
March 20, 2011
Mullah in Debate of Tradition vs. Modern Schooling
By JIM YARDLEY
AKKALKUWA, India — On opposite sides of a dusty road, thousands of Muslim students in this remote farming town are preparing for very different futures. On one side, inside a traditional Islamic seminary, teenage boys in skullcaps are studying ancient texts to become imams. On the other, students are hunched before computers in college classrooms, learning to become doctors, pharmacists and engineers.
The distance between them is about 50 feet, but it could be five centuries. In the middle is a bearded Muslim cleric, Mullah Ghulam Mohammed Vastanvi, who has spent the past decade bridging the divide between traditional and modern education for Muslims. From his main campuses here in Akkalkuwa, he has built a network of religious schools, hospitals and colleges with more than 150,000 students across the country, and earned a reputation among India’s Muslim clerics as a reformer.
His success here led to his selection in January as vice chancellor, or rector, of India’s most prestigious and influential Islamic seminary, Darul Uloom, in the city of Deoband. Darul Uloom is known for its Orthodox rebukes of modernity, and the mullah is now in a struggle for its control.
Ordinarily, an internal dispute among Muslim clerics over an Islamic school, or madrasa, would attract limited attention in India. But Mullah Vastanvi has stirred a debate among Indian Muslims about the need for reform in Islamic society while tapping into the frustrations of those eager for religious leaders more attuned to the modern world.
“People are tired of the old ways,” said Shahid Siddiqui, editor of Nai Duniya, an Urdu-language Muslim newspaper. “People want development. People want growth. We need people like Vastanvi who can be a symbol of the fight to bring Muslims into the modern world.”
Founded in 1866, Darul Uloom has trained thousands of imams who, in turn, have founded madrasas throughout South Asia and Africa as part of the Deobandi Islamic Movement. Deobandis advocate a conservative form of Islam, and some Deobandi mosques in Pakistan and Afghanistan became radicalized in recent decades.
Many members of the Taliban call themselves Deobandis, even though the Indian leaders of Darul Uloom have strongly condemned them, rejected extremism and organized meetings of Islamic teachers to denounce terrorism. During India’s independence movement, Deobandis supported Gandhi and later rejected joining a partitioned Pakistan.
Today, Darul Uloom is better known in India for issuing so many provocative fatwas, or religious opinions, that it is often derided in the Indian news media as a “fatwa factory.” These opinions, often ignored by mainstream Indian Muslims, have included edicts against women wearing blue jeans; against women and men working together in offices; and against the practice of collecting interest on bank deposits.
Mullah Vastanvi had already proposed reviewing the fatwas when he became embroiled in controversy. In an interview in the Urdu press, later repeated in the English-language media, he was quoted as saying that Indian Muslims needed to focus on economic progress and move beyond the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat in which Hindus rampaged through Muslim areas, leaving about 1,000 people dead.
In media accounts, he was also quoted as condoning Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi, who has long been accused of abetting the violence against Muslims. But the mullah said that his comments were misrepresented and that he had never given a “clean chit” to Mr. Modi.
“My statement was presented in a distorted manner,” Mullah Vastanvi said. “I do not say forget the past. I told the journalist that to my mind, today Muslims should move forward in education and business. If we stay fixated on the old things, how can we move forward?”
A media firestorm erupted, as rivals attacked Mullah Vastanvi in the Urdu press in what his allies regarded as a smear campaign. The mullah responded by offering his resignation but then received an unexpected outpouring of support: several media commentators argued in his favor and blamed the conflict on an internal struggle between his supporters and the powerful Madani family, which has long dominated Darul Uloom.
In late February, the school’s governing council appointed a committee to investigate the controversy and placed daily operations under a temporary rector until a final decision is made.
Meanwhile, many young Muslim clerics, including some from Darul Uloom, have since rallied behind Mullah Vastanvi as a symbol of reform.
“Most of the students are very happy with the appointment,” said Mohammad Asif, 22, a student at Darul Uloom. “Some powerful people did not like the progressive ideas of Mullah Vastanvi. They felt threatened by his taking over.
“He talks of good education, modern education. He is doing good things for the Muslim community.”
India has at least 161 million Muslims, the third largest number of any country, but Muslims remain a largely marginalized minority in a Hindu-majority nation, disadvantaged economically and educationally.
Education is regarded as a critical issue, though often ignored by many clerics. Darul Uloom offers courses in English and computers but the rest of the curriculum is drawn from the ancient Islamic texts. Only a small percentage of Muslim students attend madrasas in India, yet scholars say these theological schools exert broad influence on Muslim society.
Yoginder Sikand, a scholar who has written extensively about Indian madrasas, said Darul Uloom trained students in an ancient worldview, using centuries-old commentaries to teach the Koran or other texts, rather than more contemporary analyses that try to apply Islam to modern concerns. “The syllabus is not reflective of contemporary demands,” he said. “It doesn’t equip students with the knowledge of the contemporary world.”
Mullah Vastanvi is hardly a wild-eyed liberal. He was born in Gujarat, trained in a Deobandi madrasa and arrived in Akkalkuwa three decades ago, where he established a one-room religious school with six students using the same syllabus as Deoband. But as his school grew, populated by children from poor families, the mullah said he realized that students also needed a way to earn a living. He began including training for imams in tailoring and other skills.
But his biggest step came when he started a parallel system for so-called modern education, soliciting contributions from Muslim business leaders to build vocational institutes and, later, certified colleges of medicine, engineering and pharmacy. Many Muslim families struggle to afford mainstream Indian universities, which often demand large advance payments and tuition; in Akkalkuwa, advance payments are not required.
“If you want to move ahead in the world, you have to go where the world is moving,” Mullah Vastanvi said. “And education is critical for that.”
To some secular Muslims, the attention on madrasas is misplaced. Abusaleh Shariff, an economist and co-author of a major 2006 government report on Muslims in India, said resources, attention and energy should be focused on government schools where a majority of Muslim students attend class with Hindus and others.
“We don’t want ghettoism in education,” he argued. “We want secular education.”
But at Akkalkuwa, Mullah Vastanvi seems to be trying to find a balance between Islam and modern schooling.
“Vastanvi tells us this is the era of globalization and competition,” said Mohammad Farooque, a mechanical engineering student. “When you are here, he says try to do your best. Then you will progress.”
Islam’s Reformist Tradition
Professor Abdou Filali-Ansary
This is an edited version of an article written by Abdou Filali-Ansary then Director of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations of Aga Khan University London in 2004.
The search for an authentic path that links Islam’s traditions to the modern world - the Muslim reformist tradition - has deep roots, stretching back to the middle of the 19th century. Reformists have aspired to participate in the centuries-long discussions among Muslim scholars about the proper ordering of Muslim life, reflecting on and seeking to reform the state of their own societies. The influence of the first wave of reformers has been significant, but paradoxically their ideas have spawned conservative trends amongst Muslim thinkers. Today, although there are many reformists amongst Muslims, their existentialist voices are often drowned out by the noise of more essentialist thinkers. Within the larger contemporary context where conflicts have manifested, Muslim reformists are subjecting traditional frameworks to scrutiny, attempting to separate the core ethical principles of Islam from the various historical adaptations that conservatives have enshrined as sacred, and seeking to better understand how universal principles can be expressed through Muslim tradition.
Islam and Spiritualism
03 Sep 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com
Need to Modify Various Islamic Rituals & Practices
By M. Husain Sadar
Muslims should consider modifying some of their religious practices and rituals in order to bring them in line with realities of the modern age. Such a step is needed to ensure a better future for the coming generations of Muslims.
Followers of Islam and those of Judaism and Christianity, share a common belief that in order to deserve a handsome reward a place in heaven after death- people should live life on earth as prescribed by God through various prophets.
These divine proclamations and requirements started with Prophet Adam and have continued through numerous other emissaries of God such as prophets Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus and Mohammad (peace be upon all of them.) These prophets not only conveyed the divine messages to the people but also designed and promoted various rituals and practices for ensuring proper compliance with the divine revelations.
Obviously, such religious rituals were designed according to the prevailing socio-economic conditions and cultural traditions of the society which existed at that particular time period. For instance, Prophet Mohammad ( p.b.u.h), taught his followers, mainly nomad Arab tribes, how best they could put into practice the five pillars of Islamic faith namely, belief in God (shahda), prayers(salaat), charity (zakaat), fasting during the month of Ramadan ( Saum) and annualpilgrimage to Mecca ( Haj).
Most major practices were originally designed by the Prophet of Islam but were further expanded by various Islamic scholars (Imams) such as Imam Abu Hanifa and others with good intentions and for good purposes. However, most of these rituals and practices were put in place several centuries ago. Obviously, since then the human race has experienced numerous irreversible changes in its socio-economic, political and cultural conditions and circumstances. But most importantly, this evolutionary process now has accelerated dramatically due to the growing influneceand cumulative effects of modern technology. Whereas I have been fasting during the holy month of Ramadan over the past half a century, I have now started to wonder about the real purpose and benefits for observing this and other major Islamic rituals.
We have been told that fasting makes us realize the sufferings of a starving person. But having seen starving Somali women and children on TV, millions of non-Muslim people around the world have been collecting and sending help to end the sufferings of Somali people. It simply means that one does not have to fast in order to generate the needed sympathy for a starving person. According to the Holy Quran and other previous books of revelation, our Creator is very loving, kind and gracious (raheem and rahman). Since Godis most knowledgeable and fully aware of everything, He knows about the harsh and unbearable conditions created by hot June and July sun or by the freezing cold in various parts of the globe.
As has been the case in the past, during this Ramadan too millions of poor Muslims workers have continued their back breaking work under slave like conditions in numerous countries and especially in oil rich Gulf states. Millions more farm workers had to harvest wheat or corn or pick vegetables and fruit under the burning heat of the summer sun. Surely, God does not want to punish these folks further by asking them not even to drink some cold water during the hot summer days.
Muslims living in predominantly Arab/Islamic countries do not experience such large variations in the movement of the sun as those of us who are living in the northern hemisphere. Consequently, people in those countries can fix times for five daily prayers and for fasting during Ramadan according to the position of the sun. However, those living in other parts of the globe but more specifically closer to the Arctic circle cannot always follow old ways of performing various Islamic rituals. Unfortunately, the so-called ‘Islamic scholars’ but especially those based in the Arabian peninsula or in Iran consider it their exclusive right to impose their opinions (fatwas) on other Muslims. In addition, the mosque imams keep on projecting all old customs, traditions and practices as the final word of Allah which is written in stone. Consequently, Muslims are not allowed to think rationally and act reasonably and independently no matter where they live or what climatic and working conditions they are subjected to. It particular, the ‘imams’ imported from Arab countries to serve the growing Muslim communities in western countries, keep on promoting blindly the religious practices or Sharia laws of their home countries which have little in common with the laws and value systems and practices of European and North American societies.
For instance, covering the entire body of a woman from top to toe (burqua) may be considered as an “Islamic dress” in some Arab/Islamic countries. However, such practices are now being declared as illegal in many European countries. Similarly, marrying more than one woman or ending marriage, divorce (break up) verbally, may be common and a convenient way for Muslim males to project their power or superiority. However, such practices are illegal in non-Muslim countries and societies.
Consequently, even the talk of the so-called Shariah Law is creating unnecessary misunderstanding and tension among Muslims and others living in Europe and North America. One of the most confusing examples in the Arab/Islamic societies is the selective use of modern technology. It seems that these communities are deeply in love with cell phones, DVD’s, cable and satellite TV. However, some Muslim and their ‘imams’ cannot determine the start or end of Ramadan without seeing the moon with their naked eyes. Apparently, the scientific evidence or use of modern technology cannot be allowed to decide such religious matters.
As has been done in the past, this year again one local ‘imam’ along with his few followers ran around frantically over Ottawa area to find a suitable place for sighting the Ramadan “moon”. For him , such moon sighting was a must for deciding the starting day of Ramadan. Amazingly, in doing so, the Imam was armed with a high-powered pair of binoculars in order to assist him find the very thin slice of the moon. Obviously, binoculars, wrist watches, telephones, internet, cell phones, TV and other such modern devices were not available during the time of Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h). Hence, the only way to set times for fasting or daily prayers during those days was by looking at the sun or the moon. However, these days sophisticated technology provides highly accurate predictions and reliable relevant data about all the movements of the sun and other planets in the entire solar system. Surely, the “Islamic scholars” and imams must be aware that we all live in a technologically dominated world. Mosques use loud speakers to ensure that the call for prayers is heard far and wide. Muslim preachers use television for reaching to larger number of viewers. Considering that the message of Islam is supposed to be a universal one, Muslims have to rely on modern technology to spread Islamic concepts and to design associated practices.
Why not take advantage of available technology in order to plan and organize prayers, fasting and Eid celebrations in an efficient and effective fashion? Undoubtedly, the modern day society will continue to undergo even more rapid changes because of greater use of rapidly expanding information technology, space travels, internet economy, global trade and commerce and fast emerging multicultural communities and nations. Moreover, in today’s competitive world, everyone is required to have solid work ethics, high professional standards and strong commitment to team work. Consequently, it is not going to be always easy or convenient to leave work for performing every daily prayer at the designated time and/or fast from dawn to dusk. Reforming some of the Islamic rituals is even more important for younger generations of Muslims who are born and are living in the Western countries.
These coming generations of Muslims may be partly engulfed at home by the cultural background of their parents. However, once in school these youngsters are fully exposed to the value system of the society in which they live. Hence, they are growing up in a democratic and secular environment which encourages open and free discussions on all topics including the religion. It is a common knowledge that all major religions are struggling these days to attract younger followers. Consequently, it is safe to assume that Muslim youth growing up in various western countries may not be as devoted to Islam, at least not to the version as followed by their parents. It may also mean that some of the expensive mosques which are now under construction or are in operation today in the West, may look partially deserted or neglected in the near future.
Obviously, there is great need for meaningful reforms of various Islamic rituals and practices in order to make them more adaptable in the technologically dominated modern world. Failing that, future generations of Muslims in the West may find their own ways to rectify this situation. Another alternative and perhaps an attractive one, will be to abandon completely some if not all such rituals and practices.
Dr. M. Husain Sadar is a former Canadian civil servant and retired Professor of Environmental Sciences. He has travelled frequently in several O.I.C. member countries on UN-sponsored training missions.
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