This is an account of what conjures up before my eyes when I think about Islam
in general and its votaries in this part of the world in particular. I must, however,
confess that I have not read Islam and have had almost no Muslim friends and,
so, have not been exposed to the culture as such. My essay, therefore, is
difficult to defend if attacked and, though I stand by it, the reader should
not take it at face value.
I have an instinctive feeling that had Prophet Mohammad been alive today he
would have been an outcast. This is because Islam was a by-product of its times
(a very practical one at that because it respected its contextual setting and at the
same time transcended it in several ways) while the mullahs who espouse its
cause most fervently are, in general, fossilized.
Islam was written down – that was the start of the deception. In a society where
most were illiterate, what use did a book serve except for shock-or-awe
purposes? It is the greatness of the book that it can still be debated upon
intelligently after so many years but the fact that it exists at all and is treated with
religious fervour shackles the average human brain. Surely we cannot be serious
to believe that a man in AD 600s would have thought out all problems to their
logical conclusion. Why, some of the problems we face today were not even
there in his age and time! Islam as Law I can appreciate for then I have power to
amend its tenets or even throw out some of those who have outlived their utility.
But to see Islam as religion or for that matter any codified book as the basis of
religious activity is a dangerous proposition which paves the way for religiosity,
fanaticism and worse. I am certain that the Prophet did not intend Islam to be
a religion and, if he did think so, he made a mistake. The fact that Muslims
would view this as blasphemy is to deny that the Prophet, though a great man,
was still a man who was born, who lived, suffered, failed, learnt, won and who
died. It was almost superhuman to have lived in that era in Saudi Arabia in which
the Prophet did and to have had a clean reputation and a bold resolve that
centred on things higher than petty selfish interests, which was what the Prophet
achieved. No wonder, the Prophet deserves to be looked up to. But to turn him
into God1 is to belittle his conquest over the greatest adversary he ever faced –
his own self, his own human-all-too-human desires and foibles. God, by
definition, has no limitations while the Prophet reached close by overcoming
most of his. Surely, no one can expect him to have overcome them all!
Islam did not spread by the sword. The sword used Islam to spread. Those who
live by the sword die by it and, usually, leave behind nothing but smudged pages
of history that make for sad and often gory reading. If, by some convoluted
understanding of history, people believe that Islam ever did or ever could live by
the sword, they are falsifying its history and jeopardizing its future. Islam is an
evolution of the human brain in its better aspects; it is also an idea that has its
retrogressive side when seen in the modern context.
It matters little that you were born into an Islamic household if you do not
understand that one is not born a Muslim; one becomes a Muslim. In fact, your
being christened Ali may just have contributed in a big way to you being Islam’s
greatest foe at this point in time because you never thought of the journey you
have to take to become a true Muslim. Your name reached the destination before
you could and you thought that that was enough. No sir! The Prophet was not
born a Muslim. He became one.
I have no means to know for certain what the Prophet actually said or meant.
Time and language are no mean barriers. However, when I see the strict
1 Actually, as my wife corrected me, into a “Messenger of God”. Then, could there not be more messengers
of God after that? Can this Messenger not be off the mark or even incorrect on a few points? Can he not get
dated? Could he not have made a mistake or two while interpreting God’s message? Possible, IF we
consider him to have been a human being!
observance of regulations, the over zealous interpretations of the Faith and the
utterly ridiculous manner in which Islam allows itself to be held hostage to the
twisted convulsions of every semi-literate, bigoted maulvi’s thinking process, I
feel I am close to realizing just exactly where the fault lines lie as far as this great
experiment in human history is concerned. Islam is indeed in danger because it
has permitted some of its most hare-brained devotees to conveniently espouse
that Islam is not an experiment in social cohesion but “Word” of God against
which there is no appeal and which, by its very nature, ultimately stultifies its
average adherents and marginalizes its best votaries. Indeed, Islam’s propensity
to be amenable to distortion so easily is a subject which requires serious
introspection. Surely, there must be some bulwark to resist misinterpretation?
Sadly, I cannot locate it.
I guess that two factors contribute to the present mess – one, Islam has in its fold
more poor, illiterate and having-nothing-to-lose types than other religions. The
very nature and extent of its spread is, unfortunately, the cause for this. The
second factor is that its Messiah never meant it to be a religion but as a social
principle to make it possible for brother to stay peacefully with brother, to
eradicate superstition, to safeguard women in a manner that was practical and
feasible, to condition the economy in such a manner that it lost its most rapacious
tendencies and to improve upon the then existing relations of man with his Maker
in such a way so as to ensure triumph of human conscience over ritualistic
rigmarole. The Prophet saw Islam as a cleansing spring in which one could wash
away one’s impurity. Who would have thought that it would, instead, often
become a destructive torrent with which you either had to swim or go down
Judge a religion by its best rather than by its worst features, said Gandhiji.
However, I think we do Islam a great disservice by treating it as a religion at all.
Seen as a religion, there is little of acclaim in Islam– it has the egalitarian spirit
but it lacks the spirit of wonder (which, by the way, is different from fantasy), is
feeble in the spirit of carefree, abandoned joy and is lukewarm about the spirit of
individualism. Its concept of reward and punishment is too simplistic, if not crude.
But as a social principle, it is par excellence – the stress on discipline,
brotherhood, frugality, purity of feelings and unity of thought and action – these
are the jewels of Islam and these are all social attributes designed to make a
good society and to make this good society do good.
Islam was a response to a sociological problem and to the extent economics,
politics and religion impinge on the society, Islam had something to say on these
fronts also. It is, therefore, the great tragedy of Islam that while it holds sway over
vast territories and multitudes of peoples as a religious idea; the concept of
Islamic society is facing an unprecedented slide. I meant to use the term
“unprecedented attack” but that seems to imply a pressure from without while, in
my opinion, the Islamic society’s internal tensions and dichotomies are to blame
for its present state. The less important parts of Islam stole a march over its
more important tenets and are now dragging the whole thing down into
quicksand. Any thriving society must be a secular society; any responsible polity
must be a temporal polity. Therefore, no living society and no effective polity must
have a religious base and least of all any religious spokesperson. Individuals can
and should have a religion but institutions had better stay out of it all. The blurring
of the lines in the case of Islam has led to sacrifice of the individual,
bastardization of society, defiling of religion and corruption of the polity. The
whole is not organic but self-destructive; the mosaic is not pretty but grotesque;
the bad is worse; the good is liable to turn into bad all too easily. It would need
monumental effort to keep oneself away from the negative influences of such a
behemoth as Islam has been permitted to become through the untiring efforts of
its zealots. Most of the “faithful” are unable to exercise so much of self-restraint.
No one who does not agree that religion is a personal matter – and many
Muslims do not agree – can be a moderate. They are all extremists – some
active and overt, some passive and covert, some involved deeply, others in
danger of becoming so. In order to be saved, Islam would need the non-Islamic
world to behave as true Muslims and to help its adherents to appreciate that you
would not be any less pure if you allow others to worship God as they deem fit.
The only way for Islam to thrive is to ensure that its votaries thrive. In the glory
of its adherents lies the glory of Islam and not vice-versa. Deprived of the
human element, Islam would be dead. And so, what is not good for me as an
individual cannot be good for the Faith. Killing, pillaging, terrorizing, muzzling free
speech and encouraging the demagogue over the democrat, the ideologue over
the sufi, lung power over brain power, the rituals over the spirit and the certainties
of customs over the nebulousness of open thought don’t help the individual and
they certainly don’t help Islam.
The followers of Islam have no territories left to win and have nothing left with
them but their soul to lose. Reputation is all in a shambles; inspiration is all but
eclipsed; self - confidence is all but engulfed with doubt. Time for another
Prophet to emerge. Would he be allowed to have his say before he is stoned and
driven away or pumped with the indifferent bullets shot out of an indifferent
December 11, 2008 –revised May 31, 2009