Asghar Ali Engineer
(Professor Ali Engineer is a Muslim scholar and the head
of the Institute for Islamic Studies
(Islam and Modern Age, May 2003)
slam and Muslims are very much under attack today for various reasons, chief among them is attack on New York towers on 9/11/2001. Also, the Islamic world on the whole tends to take very conservative stands on number of issues and still implements laws formulated during medieval ages by eminent Islamic jurists presumably based on Qur'an and sunnah but introducing considerable changes in them through interpretations to suit their times. The laws pertaining to women are in great need for change, specially the way people like Taliban and Saudis implement them making Islam target of attack.
It seems the very spirit of Islam has been lost the way Muslims behave. The orthodox 'ulama insists, in Muslim majority states, to implement Shari`ah laws as they are and even insist on stoning adulterers to death. This is so from Indonesia to Algeria. There are very few Muslim states, which can be termed as liberal and democratic. Millions of Muslims are suffering as a result of this, particularly women. In countries like Kuwait women cannot vote, in countries like Saudi Arabia they cannot go out alone, Taliban did not allow them to go to schools and in most of the Muslim countries they have to wrap themselves into veil. In Saudi Arabia recently when a girls school caught fire, some girls tried to escape but were pushed back to burn alive simply because they had left their veil behind in a rush. Thus human life has no value and Islamic dress for women has.
These are such matters that Muslims have to reflect deeply about and engage themselves in the serious project of changing society so as to be more progressive in keeping with Islamic values. A Muslim is, above all, believer in these values. Islam had conceived of emergence of a new man - a mu'min - who firmly believed in Islamic values and engaged himself in changing the world in accordance with those values.
First, I would like to throw some light on these Islamic values. The
most fundamental Islamic value is justice 'adl and Allah's name is 'Aadil
i.e. Just. Allah is Just. A Muslim cannot be a Muslim without being just
himself or herself. He has to engage himself in promoting justice in the
Another significant Islamic value is equality. All human beings are equal
in as much as we share our humanity with each other. All children of Adam,
according to the Qur'an (17:70) possess honour and dignity accorded by
Allah. This is to be seen in conjunction with freedom of conscience (2:256).
Once cannot think of human dignity without the concept of freedom of conscience.
Thus equality, human dignity and freedom of conscience all are related
with each other and cannot be compromised in any way. A society which
is Islamic in substantial way must ensure all three to all human beings.
A mu'min should also strive continuously for removing suffering from earth. It comes very close to Buddha's concept of dukkha and its removal from earth. A Muslim must dedicate himself to removal of suffering in all its forms from this earth. And any form of injustice causes suffering and hence establishment of justice is directly related to removal of suffering from earth. The Qur'an repeatedly condemns oppression and exploitation what it calls zulm. The word zulm is derivative of z.l.m. which has meaning of deviating (from right or just course) and zulmat in Arabic means darkness. Injustice leads to darkness.
Thus an engaged Muslim must devote himself to fighting zulm i.e. any
form of injustice and oppression on earth. He should help all those who
are victims of injustice. According to the Qur'an Moses actively helped
the Israelites throw away the bondage of Pharaoh. He rid themselves of
the oppression and exploitation and gave them sense of dignity and honour
as free people.
A real jihad for a Muslim is to fight against all forms of injustices and all forms of exploitation and make all forms of sacrifices to remove these injustices to establish real peace on earth. As long as there is any trace of injustice and exploitation on earth there will be violence in some form or the other and it is duty of a mu'min to wage struggle to remove all traces of injustice. An engaged Muslim has to be committed to peace on earth and without peace this earth will not be worth inhabiting for all human beings.
And peace can be established only through jihad against all forms of zulm on earth. Another important value is truth called haq by the Qur'an. Allah Himself is referred to as Haq in the Book. Thus an engaged Muslim has to fight for truth. Truth is God and thus god cannot be realised without realising truth in all its forms.
Truth, it is important to note, is much more than mere conformity with fact or empirical reality. Truth is nothing if not value-oriented. The given facts of life may not be conducive to promoting justice and peace. There may be zulm all around us. An committed Muslim cannot accept such a reality. His dedication to truth will inspire him to fight against such earth filled with exploitation and oppression. Being truthful means being just. Truth is not mere statement but praxis.
A Muslim who is engaged seriously with his religion and his conscience would never be at ease with himself if there is gender injustice in his society or country. Today gender injustice is widespread throughout the world. The Prophet of Islam both through revelation and through his own words and practices (sunnah) did all he could not only to improve the status of women in society but also to accord them equal status to her with that.
The medieval society robbed women once again of their high status and subjugated them to male domination. And this persists today throughout Islamic world. Thus an engaged Muslim would not rest in peace if such bondage of women persists throughout Islamic world today. The `ulama are constantly demanding strengthening of medieval practices and trying to rob women of whatever rights they have won in recent times.
It is not only that. The modernity is so dominated by the unrestrained capitalist system that women have been reduced to a saleable commodity. If the conservative 'ulama demand confining her to four walls of home and putting all sorts of restrictions on her the modern capitalist system exploits her body to sale commodities. Her naked or semi-naked body is for sale everywhere to promote consumerism. Thus the modern capitalist system has cheated her of her sense of dignity.
Thus an engaged Muslim has to face double challenge - challenge of orthodox 'ulama on one hand, and that of modern capitalism and its utterly exploitative attitude towards women, on the other. Both are not acceptable. If the former is violation of Islamic spirit of justice the latter is total negation of her human dignity and is result of capitalist greed. To call it freedom is misnomer. There cannot be any freedom without dignity as pointed out before. Both compliment each other. How can she be free if she is reduced as a commodity and her body is used or selling consumable items.
In some Muslim countries women are still quite low on education. The Prophet has said that acquiring education is obligatory (faridatun) for both Muslim men and Muslim women. Thus an engaged Muslim has to wage a jihad against high rates of illiteracy among women in these Muslim societies. It is also to be mentioned here that in some Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia the rate of literacy among women is quite high but in countries like Pakistan, Bangla Desh, India etc. where a very large number of Muslims reside the rate of literacy among women is quite low and this should engage Muslims of these countries to wage jihad against illiteracy.
Illiteracy be it among men or women is to be removed. The Qur'an describes ignorance (jahl) as darkness and 'ilm (knowledge) as light (nur). And the first revelation to the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) began with the word iqra' i.e. recite or read which is synonymous with knowledge. Knowledge is a value and Allah is described in the Qur'an as 'Aalim i.e. the Knower.
Thus it is duty of Muslims to engage themselves with latest developments of knowledge in the world. Even the word for science in Arabic is 'ilm. It is very comprehensive word embracing all forms of knowledge religious as well as secular. In fact an engaged Muslim should always be engaged in knowing what is created by Allah in this universe. The 'ulama (knowers, scientists) according to the Qur'an reflect on Allah's creation day and night. Thus in verse 3:190 the Qur'an says: "Those who remember Allah standing and sitting and (lying) on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: Our Lord, Thou has not created this in vain! Glory be to Thee! Save us from the chastisement of the Fire." And in verse 35:28 the Qur'an says that only who are possessed of knowledge really fear Allah.
From both these verses the importance of knowledge in Islamic civilisation is quite obvious. Islam greatly encouraged knowledge. In fact as in 3:190 a true believer reflects on creation of this universe day and night and sitting and standing and through reflection on His creation they affirm Glory of God. And an ignorant person cannot even fear Allah and cannot acknowledge His greatness.
Thus a committed Muslim will spend day and night on acquiring knowledge
and spreading its light among all. Is it not very sad thing that the record
of literacy in Islamic world is so poor compared to non-Muslim world?
And when it comes to study of science it is even worse. The Islamic world
has not created one great scientist who could have lasting impact on the
world as a whole? Even the Noble Laureate Dr. Abdus Salam though hailed
from Pakistan had worked all along in USA and did all his research in
Physics there. It is an irony that in Islamic world Pakistan is considered
most advanced in science and technology though compared to even India
Pakistan is far behind in this race.
Only during colonial period one notices some intellectual stir under the influence of the west. Jamal al-Din Afghani and his disciple Muhammad Abduh who later became Grand Mufti of al-Azhar produced fresh thought and egged on Muslims to think afresh. In India Sir Syed Ahmad Khan founded MAO College on the patterns of Cambridge and Oxford Universities and induced Muslims to go for western secular knowledge. However, the Islamic world is far behind in the field of knowledge and still conservative 'ulama rule the roost particularly in oil rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait etc. In these countries it is so difficult to challenge even age-old traditions. The rulers are afraid and any intellectual dissent is suppressed with heavy hand.
A committed Muslim must take inspiration from the Qur'an and work for spread of all kinds of useful knowledge systems in the Islamic world. Unfortunately in Islamic madrasas and universities even today outdated sciences as developed during early Islamic period and Ptolmian Astronomy are taught and anything else is considered deviation from religious teachings.
Ours is the age of information and knowledge and knowledge is advancing at an exponential speed. Any country, which ignores the rapid advancement of knowledge, will be ignored by the world. The rulers in the Islamic world strictly control information as it is threatening to their authority which is based on the support of conservative 'ulama and the 'ulama in turn consider any change a threat to their own authority.
Thus commitment to knowledge is commitment to change and democratic freedoms. Unfortunately most of the people think that there is no democracy in the Islamic world because Islam is against democracy and supports authoritarianism and opposes any.
This is far from true. Islam has never approved of monarchy or authoritarianism. Monarchy developed in Islam under the influence of feudalism and under the influence of Roman and Sassanid empires, not because of Islamic teachings. In fact The Holy Prophet was not followed by any monarch but by a Khalifa elected by the Muslims (according to Sunni Muslims) or by Imamat (according to the Shi'ah Islam). Authoritarianism has no place at all in Islamic teachings.
In fact all early Islamic thinkers approved of rebellion if it was inspired by Islamic teachings against any ruler who was deviating from teachings of Islam. Most of the great Islamic thinkers and companions or companions of the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) strongly opposed the Umayyad rule because it deviated from the system of khilafah and usurped power undemocratically and converted into a synastic rule. An Islamic thinker of the eminence of Hasan Basri was opposed to the Umayyad rule.
Submission to authoritarian rule itself is un-Islamic. Right to open criticism is a sacred right, not because the western democracies approve it but in the earliest Islamic period the Prophet's successors accepted it. The Prophet himself never discouraged any of his followers to ask him questions even when they went against some of his practices. He always gave them satisfactory answer and never allowed, especially in secular matters, any mystique to develop around him. Similarly his successors like Abu Bakr, 'Umar and 'Ali were publicly criticised and they never took a position that Muslims had no right to question their conduct. There is a hadith that there is no obedience in sinful conduct (ma'siyah).
Thus freedom of conscience, as pointed out above, is a sacred freedom,
which every Muslim should guard jealously and promote fearlessly. Thus
a true Muslim should be strongly committed to democratic values and should
refuse to accept any authoritarian regime be it in the field of religion
or in the filed of politics. The culture of taqlid (blind imitation) can
never be an Islamic culture. Freedom of information and freedom of action
are sanctioned by The Qur'an and practice of the Prophet.
Not that there are no violations of human rights in democratic regimes. There can be serious violations of human rights in democracies as we so often observe in western democracies too. It is not sufficient to establish democracy; it is also necessary to be vigilant to the practice of democratic rights. A Muslim should engage himself/herself continuously to oversee implementation of human rights in his/her own society.
Any suppression of ones freedom be it physical or spiritual is against humanity and hence against Islam. In Islamic world today we see great violations of human rights. In fact the Islamic world should have been precursor in the field of democratic and human rights. But historically the Muslim world deviated from the Qur'anic teachings and, under the alien influence of medievalism, it discarded Qur'anic teachings and took to authoritarian culture and unfortunately maintained it throughout colonial period and now even during the twenty-first century.
It is true that western imperialism and now neo-imperialism is strengthening this authoritarian culture for its own political vested interests. It has made the situation extremely complex and one sees very few signs of change. The Western powers have very high stakes in maintaining this culture of authoritarianism in the Muslim world. The popular aspirations and democratic rights are being crushed by the authorities. It is much more so in case of women. They do not enjoy even right to vote in some countries like Kuwait in the name of Islam.
Thus those committed to democratic and human rights have to fight against very heavy odds but fight they must under inspiration from the Qur'anic culture of openness and freedom. This has long been lost through the ages. It needs to be revived. It would be real Islamic renaissance.
For this we need a strong force of committed Muslims equipped with Islamic
values and modern knowledge. It has to wage jihad against
medievalism and authoritarianism and obsolete knowledge systems.
This jihad would be true jihad and it needs not only utmost
efforts but also sacrifices. This jihad would be for peace,
progress and change and has to be waged against selfish rulers.
The Holy prophet is reported to have said that best form of
jihad is speaking truth in front of a tyrant ruler. We need
Muslims to wage this kind of jihad and it is only this quality
of jihad, which would rid Muslim world of tyrants and authoritarian
rulers who suppress all basic rights and deny democracy to
people. It would greatly improve the quality of governance
in the Muslim world and would help greatly in fighting terrorism
of the frustrated youth. It would bring real glory to Islam
and Islamic teachings.