Time For Renaissance
Another world is possible / RELIGION
Pakistani author Tehmina Durrani is no stranger to controversy – though she insists it isn’t something she courts. My Feudal Lord, her no-holds-barred account of the domestic abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband, a prominent Pakistani politician, rippled the complacency that surrounds the issue in her country, but also led to her parents disowning her. It has been translated into 36 languages. Her novel Blasphemy tore the lid right off the shocking perversion of religious values by men in power. It was the story of a young bride’s descent into hell after her marriage to a sadistic pir – a hereditary saint, viewed as an intermediary between Allah and the people.
Recently Tehmina Durrani has begun Ana Hadjra Labaek, a movement which aims to ‘free the spirit of Islam’ and bring Muslim women to the forefront. The question that the NI put to her was: ‘How can religion be rescued from fundamentalism?’ That was before 11 September. Her answer was inevitably influenced by world events which had put the spotlight, rightly or wrongly, on her faith and her country.
The unresolved historical grievances between believers in the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad – peace be upon them – translated into some of the most chilling images of the 21st century: passenger planes crashing into America’s landmark buildings and the devastation that followed. The world underwent several evolutions in just a few days.
Muslim peoples were jolted by the horrific fact that Islam had become ‘actively visible’ as a violent, medieval cult – instead of just being ‘perceived’ as one. It is, of course, the last of the three great world religions, but has suffered over the centuries through being represented by ‘man’s interpretation’ of the Holy Qur’an instead of by its ‘intent’ and ‘essence’.
Indeed, today one must look to medieval times in order to reclaim the greatness of Islamic achievements: Europe was relatively primitive until its contact with a Muslim civilization that excelled in science, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. But whereas nothing moves backward, not the day, nor the month, nor the ageing of all things, the wisdom of Islam receded into the tight limits of a distorted and outdated interpretation of its past.
How far back Islam’s essence receded is obvious in the internal conditions of the Muslim world. Famous for depriving its own people, known for cruelty to its own people, recognized for robbing its own people, shunned for undermining its own people, condemned for human-rights violations against its own people and mocked for not educating its own people, the Muslim world is paying dearly for this legacy of distortion. Yet Muhammad – peace be upon him – instructed: ‘To gain knowledge, travel as far as China.’ And the Holy Qur’an repeatedly commands that following the path of wisdom and knowledge is the way of Islam.
Over the centuries the Muslim world split into two separate unities: the rulers and guardians of official Islam; and the Muslim peoples, driven into submission. Enforced religious oppression became established as the meaning of the Islamic faith. These two identities of the very vocal minority and the silent majority further divided into myriad different brands of Islam. Engulfed in ritual and dogma, instead of intent and essence, the entire Muslim world plunged knife-sharp contradictions into the heart of the Islamic faith.
Within the Muslim family, under the same roof, men moved forward while women moved back. Two divided genders, one in darkness, one in light; one exposed, one concealed; one weak, one strong; one with the might of every right, one hostage to enforced religious, economic and social bondage. Surrounded by guns, imprisoned in ‘man’s interpretation’, with all their issues branded ‘domestic’, Muslim women became in many instances the most oppressed sector of humanity.
With no recognition of the Qur’an’s deep intention, no concept of its infinite vision and no scope for movement in its oceanic vastness, not one acceptable authority emerged among a thousand powerful rulers to unite the Muslim peoples against official Islam. No leader dared to identify or challenge the forces that distorted, exploited and violated the word of Allah.
To whisper of liberty and tolerance as the intent of Islam; to protest against unjust sentences of death; to invoke humanitarian Islam as opposed to militant oppression; to support progress and growth, knowledge and justice, reformation and freedom, culture and civilization, evolution and enlightenment: all of these provoked fatwas against the Muslim people.
Militant activism had captured the forefront. Confrontation unto death was its most popular slogan. Holy wars were fashionable and Islam’s heroes were all militants. The collective Muslim intellect was imprisoned. Individual comprehension and choice were forbidden.
Now the guns that for so long have pointed inward have been turned outward.
The terrorist strike was America’s first experience of a prolonged breakdown. It was also, I believe, the first deadly blow to the fortress of official Islam. For in the final analysis, ‘man’s interpretation’, and not Islam’s intent and essence, is what will be recognized as having extended its terrible grip beyond its own people to the wider world. One man and one government, symbols of ‘man’s interpretation’, became the prime suspects.
The attack on America has conveyed a powerful message to all of humanity. It has exposed America’s naïve foreign policy, its ignorance and arrogance. But world leaders, the international media, people of all persuasions and creeds, must understand that the Taliban are not isolated: they reflect Muslim experience across the planet.
The problem lies in the widespread interpretation of the Islamic faith, not in the Afghani landscape and its people. Bombs cannot kill ideas. Militant Islam cannot be defeated militarily. The Muslim multitudes are hungry, angry, unread, directionless and armed. Muslim immigrations are countless and conversions to Islam are at their peak. The Muslim world can no longer be fought, it must be transformed – and just as this crisis took decades to create, it will now take patience, wisdom and vision to defuse it.
The message for the Muslim world must be that an era of fear and silence has to come to an end. It is the duty of every Muslim to defend Islam’s intent and essence against those who have hijacked its meaning. Breaking the silence is the only solution for moderate Muslims who wish to avoid being tarred with the same brush as ‘perceived Islam’. Moderate rulers, who succumbed to the dictates of official Islam, will have to transmute this catastrophe and redirect their nations towards a valid future. Or else a new Muslim leadership will emerge to mobilize the faithful towards ijtehad: a reinterpretation of the Holy Qur’an based on the original intention of Islam, rooted in the tradition of Abraham, inspired by the example of Prophet Muhammad – peace be upon him – and in keeping with the times.
Throughout history progressive movements in similar, oppressive environments have succeeded in uprooting powerful systems. Monarchies were overthrown, the Renaissance was possible even without the resources, technology and assistance that are available to the Muslim people today. And as the power of the world is channelled against those tutored in the school of official Islam, a young plant is already breaking through the crust of the earth.
This chaos could be the beginning of a brand new world in which ijtehad is no longer beyond our reach. But it has to evolve within the boundaries of Islam – by the Muslim people and for the Muslim people. Liberal ideas, progressive debate and tolerant discourse will create an environment for ijtehad. Utopian though it may sound today, and whatever the immediate reaction to the current world events and their aftermath might be, ijtehad is bound to be the natural outcome of this violent jihad.
But before this vision of ‘Jihad for Ijtehad’ can rise out of the Muslim quagmire, a war has been unleashed which primarily affects not soldiers and warriors but innocent people across the world. Though the Muslim leadership was not directly responsible for the terrorist attacks on the US, it was fully responsible for not averting the attacks on Afghanistan. Proving their mediocrity, their inability to lead their nations and serve their faith, the Muslim leadership hid behind a play-safe policy instead of taking into their own hands the justice sought by America. In an appalling case of irresponsibility to the world, they left the US to settle scores with an enemy that cannot be isolated from the Islamic faith.
Ironically, the Muslim poet most widely read in America, Jelaluddin Rumi, was born in Balkh, Afghanistan, in the 13th century. A veteran of the war of love, Rumi represents the true meaning of Islamic jihad. Transcending all national, cultural and religious boundaries, this shrewdest, most unsentimental and sober teacher of the Muslim world is also the clearest guide to the Islamic Renaissance. May we be emboldened to learn both jihad and ijtehad from him, and in that endeavour may the Muslim peoples remember that ‘All the armies of the world cannot stop an idea whose time has come.’