Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Islam as I Understand it

December 6, 2016
By Saeed Qureshi

Let us first of all admit that Islam is a religion just like Christianity and Judaism; that it is a monotheistic religion like Judaism. That it shares its divine ancestry with Judaism and Christianity, even if the latter two religions don’t accept it, because they claim to be the forerunners of Islam. It is in the same way that Judaism doesn’t accept Christianity which came much after Judaism.

Let us also acknowledge that Islam has a rich heritage and culture like other faiths. The Islamic religio-social traditions and customs teach how to dress up especially for the women, what to eat (meals from legitimate income and in case of meat the animals to be slaughtered in a religiously defined way). The Islamic ethos also spells out the ways to celebrate the religious days and how to host feasts. It also includes the circumcision and the marriage ceremonies. Islam does not encourage the kind of music and modes of entertainment that arouse sexual, carnal and lecherous sentiments.

Islam like other religions has symbols also. These, inter-alia are the mosque, rosary, holy water (Zam Zam), beard, moon, black stone placed in one of the walls of the House of the Lord (Khana Ka'ba), the green color, the curved sword, minarets and turban. Like many other religions, the Muslims too have a holy book Qur’an. It is our common knowledge that this religion sprouted in the Arab land whereas the Christianity and the Jewish were born in the North of the Arab peninsula.

Islam has a package of five basic beliefs. These are: belief in one God or Allah, belief in Angels, belief in Holy Scriptures (Torah, and Bible), belief in the apostles or messengers of God, belief in the Judgment Day, belief in God’s omniscience, prior knowledge and determination of all things.

Islam has also five pillars of Observance or obligations. These are Shahada (declaration of faith) that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. The second is Salat or prayer with face towards Haram Sharif or Khana Ka'ba five times a day. The third is the Zakat or alms which ordains giving a percentage of one’s income to the poor and underprivileged. The fourth is Fasting during the Islamic month of Ramadan. The fifth is Hajj or pilgrimage once in life time if possible financially or health wise.

There are two sources of Islamic Sharia or law in Islam. While the Quran is the primary basis for the Sharia, it is in the second source the Sunna or the life of the prophet as recorded in the Hadith that has been a major source of information for the details of the law only hinted or omitted in Koran. The Sunnah or Hadith of Prophet Muhammad comprises his actions, silent approvals, decisions, utterances, sayings and edicts. The decisions and sayings of the four successors of the prophet called caliphs are also used as precedents for making decisions on matters concerning Muslims or non- Muslims.

Sharia covers the entire body of Islamic law as it developed since the time of the prophet (six hundred legal references in Koran and Prophet Muhammad’s statements contained in the Hadith). Sharia clarifies if there is confusion on a certain matter. It interprets rules and regulations, decisions and edicts of the prophet and Quran. 

The constituents of Islamic Sharia are not confined to Quran and Hadith alone. The other sources are some of the Pagan customs from the Bedouins like Muta and dowry and also the traditional commercial/agrarian practices. A select number of Roman and Byzantine laws have also been incorporated in the Islamic Sharia. For instance, the plaintiff must produce evidence and witnesses otherwise defendant can swear and clear himself. Jewish, Persian and Greek traditions and laws also form part of Islamic Sharia.

The Quran narrates parables and stories of the ancient prophets, nations, societies and civilizations and warns as to why they prospered and why some of them received divine wrath and vanished. It gives vivid and detailed information about the life after death, the Day of Judgment and the final destinations of the Heaven and the Hell.

Islam judges or evaluates the temporal and the ecclesiastical matters and the deeds of a Muslim faithful through five parameters or commands. These are: absolute duty, (Fard), commendable (Mustanjab), permissible (Mubah) reprehensible but without punishment (Makruh) and forbidden (Haram). These five criteria also fall under Sharia. As already explained, the Sharia that governs the conduct of a person or group is derived from the text of Qur’an and also from the practical life of the prophet.

The Islamic state was headed by Prophet Muhammad in the city of Medina in 622 - 632 A D. This was the actual period when the fundamental contours of a Muslim state were laid down. Since prophet (SAW) himself was the ultimate authority on all temporal and divine affairs, his words, decisions and verdicts were unquestionably accepted as the commandments of God conveyed to him through divine revelation (Wahi).

But when the Muslims in subsequent times, through their conquests and preaching missions came into contacts with other civilizations and religions, they faced enormous doctrinal and administrative challenges that had to be resolved rationally if these did not have the precedents within the Quran or the life of the founder of Islam. It is in the wake of such intellectual and doctrinal dilemmas that several schools of jurisprudence for elucidation of Sharia to the outside world and even to the inquisitive Muslim came into being.

The four such orthodox schools of Islamic law that dealt with the application and expansion of Sharia in the subsequent times are:

Abu Hanifa: analogies, parallels or Qiyas gleaned from Quran if there is no order or injunction in Quran or Sunna.

Imam Malik: His collections of laws relied on local traditions of Prophet Muhammad and his companions in order to fit into the customary law.

Al Shafi: Stipulates compromise between tradition and independent thought, restricts use of common sense as done in Imam Abu Hanifa’s Qiyas practice. He founded the science of Muslim jurisprudence

Ibn Hanbal: He was ultra conservative. His legal philosophy is called Nass. Nass is the binding ordinance explicit in the Quran and Hadith. It means sanctified opinion derived from only Quran and Hadith and no other source. While he rejected human reasoning adopted by other three Islamic scholars, he preferred even Shaky Hadith to determine a law or decision.

These schools operate within the framework of Ijtihad that means reinterpretation of Sharia or Islamic laws. The decisions arrived at are ordained to be with Ijma or consensus and not to be a single opinion (Raye) of an individual.

Besides these schools, the Muslim thinkers also tried to answer many philosophical contradictions through intellectual scrutiny and rational explanations. Such questions were about the predestination, the free will, mysticism, religious truths and intellectual truths, role of reason in relation to the theological truths and so on.

Apart from these intellectual and religious debates ranging since the passing away of the prophet till now, the simple principle on which the entire Islamic religious philosophy and precepts boil down is that man should live like a servant of God and accept him as the only creator who not only governs the universe and all the existence but also watches the Muslims in the light of their good and bad deeds or intentions.

Based upon the nature of a deed in this world, God, on the judgment day, will give reward and punishment accordingly. The obedience to God has not only to be professed verbally but practically demonstrated through five times daily and one time weekly prayers. A faithful’s virtuous life and personal good conduct is also a testimony to his submission to God as his subject.

Thus, Islam wants man to be an embodiment of all positive and good virtues such as humility, charity, peace, chastity, kindness, tolerance, love for fellow believers, respect for elders, and women and so on. The crux of all these noble traits is defined in one phrase that, “a good Muslim is that whose tongue and actions are not harmful to others”. Islam means submission and Muslim means who practices Islam and is unconditionally obedient to God.

Prophet’s Muhammad’s period of leadership is deemed by the Muslims as the ideal model both from mundane and spiritual standpoints. To a lesser degree, the caliphs’ life of piety, self-denial and untainted dispensation of justice is also taken and followed as beacons for Muslims. The Shia sect in Islam believes only in the spiritual leadership of the fourth caliph Hazrat Ali, who was the cousin brother and son in law of the prophet also.

The ideological cleavage between the Shias and the Sunnis is the incurable wound inflicted on the body of Islam. Although, they share major common elements of faith, yet the Muslim nation is irredeemably and rather irreconcilably divided into two distinct factions forever. Their mutual antagonism is as deep rooted and chronically as bitter as the religious animosity between the Muslims and the non-Muslims. This festering fissure resulted from the claim of the fourth caliph Hazrat Ali as the rightful successor of the prophet for the caliphate.

As for fundamental beliefs, Islam brooks no compromise, nor tolerance nor any deviation. As for the rituals, these are subject to certain conditions that apply keeping in view the physical, social and financial status of a faithful. For instance, pilgrimage is essential for those who can afford it monetarily. The religious tax (Zakat) is also contingent upon the economic position of a member of Islamic fraternity. The fasting is also not strictly applicable to those with infirm health, pregnant women or during traveling or for similar reasons.

Islamic culture goads moderation, sanctity, piety and sobriety. It shuns or discourages the indecent extravaganza, the morbid exhibitionism, or lewd show off. For instance, Islam allows feasts on weddings and merry making on joyful occasions but exhorts serenity and no lavish spending.  In matter of dresses or costumes, it is not necessary to dress up like Arabs by wearing a big long rob but one is ordained to cover the nakedness of certain parts of the body. 

The purpose is to maintain sanctity of one’s body which is more rigid in case of women for being an object of amorous eyes from the impious or sexually pervert people. Understandably, such conditions can be met by wearing even western, Chinese or African dresses if these fulfill the basic criterion of covering the body and maintaining modesty.

Mindful that the religious teachings and dogmas would not remain rigid for all times and in different societies, the prophet kept the door for amendments and changes open in Sharia but without deviation from the main corpus of Islamic teachings. This is called Ijtihad (literally means exertion). As such, all the interpretations or alterations in the Sharia worked out by the succeeding Muslim philosophers and religious scholars were done in the light of that provision.

When we compare the western democracy with the Islamic political system and the choosing of the leaders in the primitive Islamic societies with that of the modern times, we tend to forget that it was only after the Renaissance and Reformation that the Europe started embarking upon the democratic path. Otherwise, the Christendom was afflicted with bloodletting conflicts between old Roman Church and the proponents of reforms throughout the Middle Ages. So, to paint only Islam as undemocratic is not a pragmatic or truthful approach to the Islamic system of government.

Democratic system functions in a closely-knit world with fast communications as we have in the modern times. Otherwise the Greek democracy that was prevalent even before Christ was confined to the cities. Beyond the city states, it could not be expanded because an integrated system of voting or conducting elections in the length and breadth of the vast empire was not possible. Moreover, those were not the ages of enlightenment and therefore the true democratic culture even if conceived could not be practically followed during the present times.

The Sharia that was prevalent during the time of Prophet Muhammad and four caliphs (632-661) can still be applicable if it is suitably modified to bring it in conformity with the phenomenally different world of today. The consensus can be brought about, if the narrow concepts and beliefs affected by sects and denominations, contrary to the age of prophet, are set aside. Or at best these sects can still function but the main consensus code should remain supreme.

Which means that the symbols are just a window dressing and have no pronounced bearing on the life of a Muslim faithful? The rituals are relative and are strictly obligatory for those who have the capacity to observe them. The beliefs are confined to the individual and are personal. What matters most is the resolution or dealing with the crimes, anti-social practices and destructive actions of the citizens.

Islam presents a general framework for dispensation of justice. The cardinal principle that Islam lays down is the strict fair play, administering absolute justice in complete disregard of someone being poor or rich, influential or obscure, a common man or a man of authority. It should be acknowledged that the modern judicial system fulfills all these conditions if applied by such a government that would respect and sincerely promote law and justice.

It means that the punishment to the convict is imperative but the choice of the punishment and the mode of dispensation can be improved or reformed for such punishments as beheading with a sword. For instance, the theologians and Islamic jurists must acknowledge and therefore incorporate it in a new Islamic code that covering of veil was not possible for women now as was done in tribal or feudal societies in the past and even now.

It is also essential to change through an agreed Ijtihad process that a rape female victim instead of being further victimized and brutalized by the religious laws must be helped against the male rapists. So, such unattainable or impracticable conditions as to the production of four witnesses must be discarded because in the present times, the occurrence of rape and the identity of the rapist can be verified by scientific means such as testing of DNA.

The Islamic caveat concerning the interest or mark-up has to be modified because the complexion of the societies and the nature of interest have undergone a radical change. The Arabian society in the 6th or 7th centuries was primarily agrarian. The usury or the interest was charged in advance on cash given to a needful. Now the concept of interest is not like those primitive societies.

The interest-bearing economy is now profit making economy because the money remains in circulation. That is how the wealth increases and the economy grows. The old interest concept which now is rather reinvestment for profit has to be modified.

Similarly, another issue relating to patrimony or inheritance and alimony (allowance paid by the husband to divorced wife) has to be redefined in the modern societies when the civil laws enshrined in the modern jurisprudence, treat these issues better than the antiquated customs that were derived from the tribal system. If a reinterpretation is not thought about, still the parallel legal or economic system cannot be ignored or ruled out. The world today is interdependent. The Muslims cannot live in isolation.

So, it depends upon the governments to apply and enforce laws, otherwise even the best of rules and caveats fail and remain ineffective. The example is the multitudinous Islamic caliphates that used Islam to justify their illegitimate hold on power. They fought each other for power and decimated their rivals to the last man as exemplified by the power struggle between Umayyad and Abbasid and later between other Islamic dynasties.

The religion of Islam is patently secular in nature, not in the religious sense but in terms of its openness, liberalism and accommodation for all opposing creeds and cultures. The incontrovertible shining example of that is the Muslim rule in Spain (756-1492), when the Christians and the Jews lived with the ruling Muslims, enjoying equal rights and in peace and dignity.

In the contemporary times, Malaysia, Indonesia, Tunis, Morocco, Jordan, Egypt and certain Central Asian states offer examples of enlightened, accommodating, progressive Islamic polities where minorities live in peace, harmony and equality along with the Muslim majority. In these countries, the Islamic laws have been enforced in such a way that these not only fulfill the pristine spirit of Islamic Sharia, but also meet the requirements of a modern state.

Although polygamy is practically nonexistent for the majority of the Muslims, yet it is one of the stigmas that Islam suffers from. The polygamy is prevalent mostly in the Arab lands. In other countries, it is sparingly practiced in the tribal, feudal and religious classes. But for outsiders this has invariably, been used as a slanderous tool against the Muslims to prove that the women folks were sex chattels, were lesser equal and inferior to the males.

That is true to a degree. In order to deal with this contentious issue, it is necessary that the Muslim jurists and theologians should sit together and hammer out a formula that should aim at discouraging the polygamous tendencies and practices in the Muslim societies. Or it can be declared forbidden through Ijtihad.

But I strongly reckon that as the societies tend to be more progressive, the Muslims would themselves abandon the polygamy. As a result, though, the divorce rate would soar among the Muslims as we can see in the western societies where polygamy is lawfully banned. Even now the educated and independent women do not like to marry a person who would be already married. So, the modernization of the Islamic conservative societies would neutralize this social slur associated with Islam. The domestic violence should be sternly dealt by the Islamic governments but it would also be hopefully outstripped and fade away with the passage of time.

Modernism, liberalism and secularism is the answer to the backwardness, indolence, underdevelopment and intellectual, economic and social decadence of the Islamic world. The Jews hammered out a historic compromise in 18th century when they imbibed and adopted the western ways of life at the behest of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Professor Moses exhorted the Jews to abandon their rigid fanaticism and Talmud and conform to western culture.

Through a political movement aided by the capitalist Europe and America the establishment of the state of Israel was made possible in 1948. In the same way, the Islamic religious fervor has got to be rational and aided by the political and reformative spirit if the Islamic countries want to be counted as modern nations in contemporary world.

The first constitution is always vulnerable to further alterations and amendments. Likewise, the original Islamic ideologies and dogmas that became controversial, counterproductive and rather unworkable, should be overhauled while keeping intact their spirit and core philosophy and teachings of Islam.

If Ijtihad started barely 80 years after the demise of the prophet of Islam by the Muslim reformers, theologians, philosophers and scholars, then such an endeavor is indispensable in the modern times when the Islamic teachings are targeted for their irrationality, obscurantism, subjectivity, inconsistencies and for being out of sync with the rapidly advancing imperatives of a highly competitive modern world.

In Christendom, after prolonged controversies, debates and bloodshed, the state finally managed to relieve itself from the influence of papal supremacy or the domination of the church. Every country established its own church or denomination in Europe, elsewhere in the world, and of late in the United States. The Church and state were separated for their respective roles. That proved to be a blessing in disguise both for the church and the state. Similarly, in Muslim societies a gigantic effort is needed to harmoniously blend the Islamic beliefs and religious creed with the dynamics and progressive spirit of the modern societies without compromising the essential teachings.

In Islamic states, the state and religion have to function without mutual conflict and contradiction. There should be no place, for fundamentalism, sectarianism, fanaticism, or rigid adherence to a creed, that is outdated and ruinous to the cosmopolitan nature of Islam. An enlightened and updated fundamentalism (the age of prophet) is the need of the hour for Islamic societies to move forward and join the comity of modern states in technological, scientific and in other domains of human and material advancements.