Muslims today are faced with a number of challenges many of them being the result of a narrow understanding of Islam as much by others as it is by Muslims themselves. The road ahead therefore is tough. However, the tougher the task and circuitous the journey, the better and more satisfactory could be the outcome. This is how I can summarise a thought-provoking lecture of Dr. Ataullah Siddiqui who said, “The biggest challenge for Muslims today is to present the life of Prophet Muhammad as a compassionate human being, a well-wisher of humanity”.
A Reader in Religious Pluralism and Interfaith Relations at the Markfield Institute of Higher Education, Leicester, the United Kingdom, Siddiqui was speaking at a symposium that revolved around the theme to identify reasons of hatred for Muslims and Islam in the West and to seek their solution in a broader framework of history, arts, events and changing circumstances. The symposium was organized by Islamic Fiqh Academy (IFA), India on Friday, 8 January, 2016.
Dr. Siddiqui who is also a visiting Fellow in the School of Historical Studies, University of Leicester traced the genesis of the West’s general indifference to religion as a result of which the Enlightenment Movement had started off in Europe in a period in which reason was given prominence and religion was conceded “outdated and irrational”. He said that the entire map of Europe was then understood as the “Body of Christ” in which anything alien including Islam was considered an attack on it. Thus Christianity and Crusade went together for sometime in Europe.
With injustice and corruption becoming rampant in Europe especially in the churches, there arose against it a movement called The Enlightenment which rejected religion outright. “Reason is the centre, revelation has nothing to do with us,” became the hallmark of the movement. Several works like Immanuel Kant’s “Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone” argued that religion would be taken only to the extent that mind [reason] would conform to. This led to a general indifference to religion. Success of the Enlightenment Movement gave rise to colonization, freemasonry and control. This also gave birth to Orientalism, he said.
Despite religion being pushed away during the Enlightenment, the general notion about Islam in the post-Enlightenment period remained the same as it was before. After sixteenth century Islam was simply termed as “Turks” that is that there is nothing like Islam and all that is there is the Turks which meant that Muslims were a notorious, uncultured, uncivilized people.
Crusade was considered superior and religious laws were considered dangerous. Many art works of that period showed Islam to be alien which needed to be crushed.
Sharia in Europe has been understood as something like a voluminous book, which has many clauses and sub-clauses, whose laws need strict implementation. A group of Muslim youth also keep feeding to that by their own [mis]understanding of the term. Siddiqui quoted several examples that explain how Islam has been misconstrued due to failure of Muslims to convey its real meaning to young Muslims and even to new Muslims and non-Muslims. He then questioned, “Why this hatred for Muslims?”
The first reason of hatred for Muslims is rooted in history, said he. The second reason is media, which is not a “free entity” and is “controlled by its proprietor”, he said adding that a section of the media is involved in “creating doubts” so that people do not know the truth. Media also creates complications because of its nature of unaccountability. It cannot be held responsible as it gives right news. However, it makes the news complicated by “twisting”. Media connects the present with the past. Even literature creates and contains hatred. There is an aspect of literature which although does not name Islam, as it calls it “the Arab culture”, but means the same that is Islam.
Islam in the West is being taught for long. As a subject, Islam is taught in the United Kingdom in Oxford since 1632. And, it is not because they want to understand it but because they need to produce diplomats for which they study Islamic art, culture, history and society.
Against the historical backdrop of Christianity, Crusade, the Enlightenment and the prevalent conditions in Europe as also in other parts of the world, the first thing for Muslims to be taken as a challenge is that they (Muslims) themselves understand then explain and tell others the seerah (biography) of the Prophet because “the biggest attack in the West is made on the seerah of the Prophet”. That the Prophet as a human being was a well wisher and mercy for all human beings needs to be understood and this has to be done through original Arabic sources with good command of English. “Unfortunately this is not being done”, he said. “Translations will not suffice.” As a human being, the Prophet needs to be understood as “compassionate and forgiving”.
The second thing which is most important is the diffusion of misunderstanding about the Quran which is considered sort of a collection drawn from religious books and traditions of Jews and Christians.
The scholar also warned against an ongoing effort in the West to “rethink the Quran”. They wish to “separate culture from the message”. They wonder how culture has become part of religion. They say that the Quran “might be a word of God” but how come culture be part of it. He further said that the message of the Prophet was to create a ‘believers community’ which would include Muslims, Christians and Jews which was stalled later.
The third important thing is to understand Sharia. Even many Muslims have a flawed understanding of sharia, for instance taking fiqh completely as sharia. In several states of America sharia is banned but they don’t know what sharia is and what they are banning. Many of our military dictators introduced sharia with Hudood like flogging and cutting of hands. This conveyed a wrong meaning of sharia. This has happened because of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of sharia by some Muslims themselves who think that sharia means that certain things like full dress need to be implemented.
The fourth thing calling immediate attention of Muslims is “the status of women in Islam”. We need to tell that “men and women have equal status and equal responsibility in society”. We ourselves need rethinking on that, he said.
The “image of woman” not like an “entity” but like a “slave” still exists in a vast body of literature, which needs to be clarified. There is a difference between the status a woman is given in Islam and how it is applied by Muslims. That woman is a “social pillar” is not taken so in Muslim society. Therefore many women in the West object to this Muslim culture citing the Quran which gives them rights. Women scholars’ opinions are not given same importance and they are not accepted with similar ease as men scholars’. However, he said that some good works are underway which acknowledge women’s contribution.
Siddiqui, who has been a Vice-Chair of the Christian Muslim Forum and a Senior Research Fellow at the Islamic Foundation, suggested that Muslims must understand different “power points” and make their presence felt in different spheres of influence. For instance, Muslims should have deep understanding of different subjects of arts, humanities, and sports, etc because power is not concentrated only in politics.
He regretted that due to malpractices, sectarianism and un-Islamic practices of Muslims, Islam gets wrong name. In that context he drew attention of Muslims to providing education and training to converts lack of which cause many of them revert to either their old beliefs or become atheists.
While answering a question about certain conspiracy theories, he said, “Everything can’t be dismissed as conspiracy” because Muslims also need to find allies within the existing system. There is need for introspection rather than dismissing everything as conspiracy as it sometimes diverts attention from reality which can be bitter. “We need to help people beyond religious considerations.”
The noted Muslim academic also suggested to introduce some changes in the syllabus of madrasas and asked to think what kind of leadership needs to be provided to society today. He also asked to immediately respond to the negative or wrong reporting in the media.
New generation wants certainly, the search for which sometimes leads to wrong approaches, alerted he. Today, the ISIS has changed the notion of Islamic state which was altogether different five years ago. So, language also needs to be checked and made relevant. He also suggested to include skill development and communication skill development programmes in madrasa curriculum to equip madrasa graduates with required skills.
Amin Usmani, Secretary of IFA; Prof. Ishtiaq Danish of Jamia Hamdard’s Department of Islamic Studies; Dr. Mohammad Ishaque, Director, Dr. Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia; Asad Mirza, editor and advisor at the British High Commission, Delhi; Dr. Abdul Qadir Khan; Dr. Mufti Obaidullah Qasmi; Safi Akhtar of All India Milli Council; ulama, intellectuals and media persons participated in the discussion and shared their views.
It may be noted here that IFA, a pioneering institute known for its tremendous services in the field of research and translation, has conducted several dozens of seminars, workshops, training camps and interfaith dialogues to debate and discuss issues pertaining to Islam in contemporary contexts.
(A graduate of Darul Uloom Deoband, Manzar Imam is a journalist based in New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)