Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Question of Islam, ‘Islamists’ and Resistance within

 Motiur Rahman Khan

Post-Enlightenment, Islam has been one of the major resisting forces against the Western colonialism and their ‘noble mission’ of civilizing the world. Sometime Muslim resistance became so powerful that it left its mark on the psyche of the colonial elite and revived bitter memories of the Crusades.
At one point of time, Islam became nationalist voice against imperialism and racial oppression. History of nineteenth century saw a series of ‘Prophets’, ‘revivalists’ and a number of movements against unjust world equations. At the same time, these ‘revivalists’ in their thrust of challenging their enemies preached extreme ideologies to gain devout executer of their ideas and by doing so, somehow they strayed away from their own socio-religious culture. Such instances further intensified in the twentieth century, when the world community dealt with the Muslim world differently. The Iraqi aggression in Gulf was opposed with force and Israeli aggression at the cost of Arab is supported by the West. And such other events in Balkan states further aggrieved the situation and feeling of frustration in the Muslim revivalists. The situation led to rise of many militant groups who preached violence and targeted innocent peoples. It is highly probable that the origin of such militant groups lie in nationalistic or politico-economic issues of the region. But these modern Islamists went further when they started abducting, killing innocent people and at the same time propagating terror by uploading videos of their heinous acts on internet. Though, demonization of Islam as a religion through different websites and creating ‘Islamophobia’ among the non-Muslims is an ongoing process. (see, for example: http://www.thereligionofpeace.com/, http://www.jihadwatch.org/) But these Islamists are also using their heinous acts and its propagation for two purposes; first, for gaining cheap publicity and creating fear of their presence and second, for instilling insecurity among common Muslims to get new recruits.
Jo Ghayab Bhi hai Hazir Bhi

I am provoked to write this essay following the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram and their proclamation that they would sell them in slave markets as this is what they have been commanded by God. This kind of illusionary and illogical explanation has been used earlier also. Islamic God, whatever He had to say has already revealed in His Book, the Holy Quran.  He is not in contact with any Boko Haram leader (as the recent video sent by their leader claims) ordering him to stop people from going to schools or condemning the girls to death or slavery. Islamic politics (I would prefer, Arab politics of different shades), one may argue, have always been aggressive and this very aggression had led the Arabs successfully conquer regions up to Spain. But the voices of dissent from within the community (umma) have always been there against Arbo-Islamic politics.

The third Caliph, Othman (r.644-656) was murdered by a dissenting group. He was charged with favouring people of his own clan in political and government appointments. He was also blamed for not properly distributing the income from Swat region among the people of Medina. It was said that Othman’s rule was not according to the Quranic principle of governance and hence his murder/killing was justified and needed no revenge. This argument convinced Ali (d. 661) the fourth Caliph, who was raised to the post by these dissenting groups. Later on, Ali waged war against the Prophet’s youngest wife, Ayesha and captured her for her opposition to his elevation as Caliph. When Ali agreed to resolve the dispute between him and Muawiya by a treaty, he too was charged with incompetence and later murdered by a group of people known as Kharajites. All these political events made a large number of ordinary Muslims uneasy and though, they accepted Muawiya as the political authority; at the same time they rejected the religious leadership of Muawiya and his successors. Murders of Husayn and his associates at Karbala was a shattering event for the common Muslims. Frustrated commoners turned towards the people who preached love and advocated personal relations to God, the Sufis, who raised their voices individually. But with the dynastic and autocratic evolution of Caliphate these individuals started gaining influence among the masses. Mansur al Hallaj (858-922 CE) preached personal relations with God above any religious rituals; in doing so he said that the ultimate goal is to dissolve oneself into the presence of God. He used to say that, “If you do not recognize God, at least recognize His sign, I am the creative truth —Ana al-Haqq—, because through the truth, I am eternal truth.” He represented the stage of baqa of Sufism as propounded by Ali Hajveri. For Al Hallaj, "Love means to stand next to the Beloved, renouncing oneself entirely and transforming oneself in accordance to Him." (Massignon, 74) He spoke of God as his "Beloved", "Friend" "You," and felt that "his only self was God," to the point that he could not even remember his own name." (Mason, 26) His ideas were against the Caliphal state and for them it represented chaos against the order of God. Therefore, he was accused of heresy and after a trial of 11 years, he was executed. The martyrdom of Mansur al Hallaj was held in high esteem by the contemporary and near contemporary poets and sufis. Farid ud Din Attar (1145-1221 CE) says that when they were taking al Hallaj to court, a Sufi asked him, “What is love?” He answered, “You will see it today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow." They killed him that day, burnt him the next day and threw his ashes to the wind the day after that. "This is love," Attar says. His legs were cut off, he smiled and said, "I used to walk the earth with these legs, now there's only one step to heaven, cut that if you can." For Muslims, Al Hallaj, even today is a celebrated Martyr. His martyrdom is exemplary for spiritual masters as well as common Muslims even today. Faiz Ahmad Faiz (d.1984) exploits that sentiment when he says:

Bas Naam rahay ga Allah ka 

Jo main bhi hun aur tum bhi ho
Jo nazir bhi hai manzar bhi

(Then only God's name will remain
Who is both absent and present 
Who is both the observer and the view itself)
Uthay ga Analhaq ka Naara
Jo Main bhi Hun aur Tumbhi ho

(When the anthem of ‘I am the Truth’ will be raised
Who I am and you are as well)
Aur Raaj karay gi khalq-e-Khuda

(And the people of God will reign 
Who I am and you are as well)

Faiz invoked the utterance of Anal Haque (I am the Truth/God) by Mansur al Hallaj, which had become a symbol of revolt/resistance in Muslim societies to remind that it is not new for us to revolt against the established orders (in his other poem na unki rasm nayee hai na apni reet nayee). 

          Islam was understood to be a religion of Arabs and they treated their subjects, even if they were Muslims, differently. The non-Arabs were organized in patron-client relationship with the existing Arab tribes. These non-Arabs were called the maula (pl. mawali) or slave of the Arab tribe which they were tied to for politico-social reasons. Dissenting Arab groups such as the Kharajites (khariji) were against this system in their early phase of existence and talked of unity of the ‘umma. But later on they too changed their position with the beginning of Mawali Movement, which is well-known for their opposition to the Arab supremacy. Abbas Saffa exploited the mawali sentiment against the Arabs and with their help the Ummaiyad rule thrown out and the ‘Abbasid Revolution’ took place, which introduced completely a new system of state modeled on erstwhile Sassanid’s with some modifications. The Abbasids too betrayed the non-Arab cause and introduced regressive Arabisation of society, state and culture. The non-Arab Muslims, particularly Persians resisted this move with full vigor and they started Shubbiya Movement (shubbiya derived from shub, Arab., nation) to keep their Persian language and identity intact. The movement extolled the “Wisdom” of non-Arabs, the Indians, the Greeks, and especially the Iranians in contrast to the lack of culture of the Arabs. The psyche of the Persians can be understood in the words of a Persian commander as related to by Firdausi (c. 1010) of Shahnama fame:

From mere drinkers of camel’s milk and lizard-eaters,
The Arabs have reached such a state
That they are aiming at the Iranian imperial throne
Fie upon thee, fie, O ever-turning Fortune!

In response to the Persian criticism of Arab racism in Islam and politics, the Arabs emphasized that they were the ‘first to produce Islam’ (Irfan Habib 2013). This kind of common Arab attitude and their notion of Islam, which emphasized on the reward in afterlife for obeying God in this world, did not impress more cultured Persians; to them it was a selfish motive. The response to this notion, Rabia of Basra (d.801 CE) gave the idea of ‘disinterested love’ for God. She is reported to have said that, “I am going to light a fire in paradise and pour water in hell, so that the servants of God can see him without any object of Hope or motive of fear.” Rabia is much celebrated women sufi, who has been referred to by several sufis as example for their own teachings. One such example is narrated by Shaikh Nasiruddin Chiragh of Delhi (d. 1356) about her:

“Rabia of Basra possessed much beauty and grace. The principal men of Basra, consisting of scholars and mystics resolved unanimously that this woman, while traversing the path of God, was not to behave like men; it might not happen that Satan led her astray. Thereupon they assembled together and went to Rabia. They told her, a woman however pious must have a husband. She asked the most learned of them to come forward. Upon Khwaja Hasan Basri doing so, she asked him: How was wisdom (aql) divided, at Creation? He replied, “Nine parts were given to men, one to women”. And how, she went on, was lust (shahwat) divided. He said, contrary to that, nine parts of it were given to women, and just one to men. Rabia thereupon countered: One-tenth of wisdom that I possess prevails over nine-tenth of lust that I have got, while the nine-tenths of wisdom that you people have cannot prevail over just one-tenth of lust!” (Hamid Qalandar. 1959, 200-201 c.f. Irfan Habib. 2013)

            Rabia’s story, here, became the voice for challenging inherent patriarchy in the Muslim societies, perhaps, of Delhi if not of Basra. Although, Razia Sultan almost a century ago had challenged the patriarchal nobility by becoming an independent Sultan with the help of common Muslims, to whom she requested for help after Friday prayers in Delhi, but unfortunately, she could not hold her position in a hostile environment for long. It was perhaps Razia, who caused the beginning of the debate around patriarchy among the Muslim elites of Delhi.     

             Exposition of Sharia law in itself is a story of different politico-intellectual conflicts prevalent in the early umma (Muslim brotherhood).  The succession of early caliphs depended on claimant’s nearness to the Prophet and his piety as described by the companions (of the Prophet). By the time Marwanid Ummaiyads came to power, no one from the companions was alive, therefore the caliphs started patronizing writing of Hadith (traditions), which was related through a chain of proofs. The Quran and the Hadith became the basis of Islamic law and its interpretation became a leading science to be studied. Intellectual pursuit of this kind was also accompanied with philosophical studies. Soon after the conquest of Syria the Arabs started translating Hellenistic literatures into Arabic. These translations crept into the philosophical understanding of the Arabs and influenced religious thought as well. Mutazallite movement is an example of these influences on Islamic thought, which not only tried to understand the cosmology of Islam with reasons but also challenged very basic belief system. They said that the Quran is a part of creature and like any other creature of God has a life-span, thus the Quran can also become irrelevant in future. For some time the Mutazallites had a great influence over some of the caliphs who also unleashed mihna (inquisition) on the people who refused to accept the Mutazallite view.

        These influences were not restricted to religious philosophy and theology but it influenced many individuals who did not hesitate in recording their dissent against established orders. Muqaddasi, one of great geographers of Islam, while writing in c. 985 wonders, whether it would not ‘have been better if the vast sums of money spent on mosques had been spent on roads and carvanserais (rest-houses) and frontier fortresses’ (Irfan Habib. 2013).  Abu Raihan Alberuni, the writer of Kitab ul Hind (c. 1035) is well-known for his open mindedness and the liberal attitude had been very frank in asserting that “To offer to him who has beaten your cheek, the other cheek, also to bless your enemy and to pray for him: Upon my life, this is a noble philosophy.” It is impossible that Alberuni was unaware of that this is not what Muslim theology preaches. His admiration of Bhagvatgita and Vyasa is an exemplary in itself.

           The brief survey of history, which I intentionally kept restricted to first five centuries of Islam, narrates the stories of Arabo-Islamic politics and commoners’ response to it. The driving force of Islam, as it is preached, was its emphasis on egalitarianism at least, among the umma. But, throughout the period of caliphate one notices, the principle hardly been followed. However, it is quite interesting to see that the orthodoxy always faced challenge from one quarter or the other. In the present scenario of Nigerian crisis and their likes, one has to resist and come out against their design to push the society backward. The history remembers those who resist against tyranny.

Na unki rasm nayee hai na apni reet nayee!     

MASSIGNON, LOUIS (1983). "Perspective Transhistorique sur la vie de Hallaj". Parole donnée (Paris: Seuil): 73–97. 

MASON, HERBERT (1983). Memoir of a Friend: Louis Massignon. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press

IRFAN HABIB (2013). “Questionings within Religious Thought:The Experience of Islam”, K. M. Ashraf Memorial Lecture at Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi in 2013.

HAMID QALANDAR (1959), Khairul Majalis, ed. Khaliq Ahmad Nizami. Aligarh

The author teaches Medieval Indian History at PGDAV College (Eve), University of Delhi

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