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Introduction to The Waste Sad Time
Muslim Communities: Some Awkward Questions
I am quite ignorant about Islamic theology or Islamic law and jurisprudence. My knowledge of Islamic history is no greater. But a little over seven and a half years, spanning the period between 1967 and 1995, spent in three different Muslim countries, have brought to me some knowledge of life and people in those countries. My experiences there, described at some length in The Waste Sad Time, combined with observations about happenings in different Muslim communities across the world, give me the confidence to ask some questions about Muslim communities, unafraid to tread delicate ground. I like to think of myself as a liberal, sceptical of facile generalisations and quick judgments about human collectives. I also think that ordinary people in Muslim societies, like ordinary people almost everywhere else, go about their lives trying to ensure for themselves and their families, decent food and shelter, healthcare and education, peace, tranquility and a little joy, paying more or less sincere or no homage to the Almighty, unconcerned with fine, ratiocinative debates about questions of religion, philosophy and politics, hardly touched by some of the questions I am about to raise here, until their emotions are manipulated by those with axes to grind.
My first question is about the way dissidents and nonconformists, especially in matters concerning religion get treated in different Muslim communities. Let me say straightaway that wielders of power and authority everywhere and almost at all times are not only intolerant of dissent and nonconformism but would try to silence them, except that democratic societies, through long years of struggle and protest have instituted formal and more or less effective mechanisms for protecting the right to dissent. Instances of verbal or physical violence against those in Muslim communities who express themselves in ways unacceptable to the religious or political establishments, often with the connivance of the state machinery, are dismayingly frequent.
Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, a Sudanese politician and thinker, who proposed some new thoughts on the Sharia, was convicted of the crime of apostasy and executed in 1985 in the Sudan by the tottering military regime of General Gaafar El Nimeiry. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the supreme spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran had an edict issued pronouncing death for Salman Rushdie for writing the story of Mahound in his SatanicVerses, a story thought by many Muslims to be insulting to Prophet Mohammad. Tasleema Nasreen, writing in Bangladesh, a democratic Islamic republic where elections are held regularly, wrote a novel which people decided was anti-Islamic, and was forced into exile. In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, not only has an entire community, the Ahmadiyas, who observe all the tenets of Islam in addition to following the teachings of their spiritual leader, been declared un-Islamic by the state but also individual members of the community have been persecuted under the blasphemy law. A sixteen year old woman, not an Ahmadiya, was prosecuted because someone said she had thrown a copy of the Koran in the waste bin and another man, a teacher, was tried and sentenced to death in 2002 under the same blasphemy law, for saying that since the first revelations of the Koranic verses did not come to Prophet Mohammad until he was 40, there was no Islam before then and no Prophet. Much more recently a man in the newly established Islamic Republic of Afghanistan narrowly escaped being punished for the crime of apostasy. His fault was his conversion to Christianity some dozen years earlier. Under pressure from various Muslim groups, the usually liberal Dutch government is at the point of expelling a Somali woman, born a Muslim, resident in Holland for many years. She has been writing critically about Islamic beliefs and practices.
Having for as long as I can remember enjoyed to the full my right to disagree with whomsoever and say what I like, I simply cannot understand how in this beginning of the present century such diverse societies would suppress independent thought and behaviour, on grounds of religion. But it is for people who form parts of different Muslim communities, the believers, the practicing or the merely nominal, to make the effort to eliminate the factors that make such suppression of dissent possible. As a non-Muslim and an outsider, I can argue to myself, a little perversely, that these are problems between spiritual and political leaders of different communities and their individual members and the consequences of the refusal of those communities to change themselves are theirs to suffer. By contrast, it is difficult to view with the same equanimity any attempt by different Muslim groups to impose their value systems on me, a non-Muslim, or the attempts by other Muslim groups to selectively set aside the secular law of the land they and I live in.
About thirty years ago, when the English film, The Message, was being made there were vociferous and not always peaceful protests because there were rumours that Charleston Heston was going to play the role of Prophet Mohammad. The filmmakers went to great lengths to ensure that no human or other form represented the Prophet anywhere in the film. A similar effort seems to have been made by the makers of a 2004 animated film about the life and work of Mohammad. It is difficult to say if the makers of those films exercised any self-censorship. The editor and the publisher of the Danish newspaper which published the now notorious cartoons of Mohammad and the editors and publishers of the newspapers that reprinted them evidently did not feel the need to exercise such self-restraint.
Muslim communities across the world went into frenzied protests. Many governments announced different kinds of embargo against Denmark. The case of the protesters was that these cartoons mocked at the Prophet and were a deliberate affront to Islam. In other words the protesters were accusing the publishers of those cartoons of violating the norm of common decency of not insulting another’s religion. Wont as I am to ignore a man who hurls verbal abuse at me or ignore another who makes a rude gesture, I asked a prominent Indian Muslim at the height of these protests why Muslims in different places could not have ignored the cartoons. He said he found the arrogance of the European response to the protests insulting. When I asked him if the best response was not to deny the power of hurting Muslim sentiments to those who published such stuff by ignoring them, he did not answer.
These protests as the earlier ones against the film The Message leave me with the uneasy feeling that one of the motives of the protesters was to impose on everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, the Islamic injunction against pictorial or sculptural representation of God and His Prophet. If such were the intention, I would cry out in protest as I, a non-Muslim, long used to visual representations not only of Shiva and Vishnu but also of Jesus Christ, Virgin Mary, Gautama the Buddha and the many Bodhisattvas and all the ten Gurus of the Sikhs, would like to be free to ignore this injunction just as I would like to be free to ignore Islamic taboos against pork, alcohol or interest charged on loans just as I find the hudud punishments unacceptable for any society. If I were teaching the history of Islam to non-Muslims, I should like to be able to use pictures representing Mohammad, even God, if I thought that these helped me communicate better with my audience. Similarly a filmmaker, for example, should have the freedom to make a film about the life of the Prophet using people to play the roles of the Prophet and his disciples just as he would do in a film about the life of, for instance, the Buddha, the underlying assumption being that those who found the film or the visual representations offensive would eschew them.
The Government in France, the eldest daughter of the (Roman Catholic) Church but a country with a long tradition of separation of religion and state passed a law some time ago banning the use of visible symbols of religion in public funded schools. Muslim communities, and very tentatively the Sikh community of France, protested. The family of a woman student in a school in the United Kingdom wanted her to continue wearing ‘Islamic’ dress to school, ignoring the dress code decided by the school administration. The matter had to be settled by a law court, ruling for the school administration, saying nothing prevented her from choosing another school which would allow her to wear the dress of her choice. Muslim communities in both France and the United Kingdom enjoy the protection of the secular laws of those countries on matters such as equality of opportunity, freedom of worship and non-discrimination on the ground of religion or race. Yet members of the same communities would wish to choose matters on which they could be exempted from the application of the same system of secular laws.
This brings me closer home to India. Indian law, administered by one single system of courts, guarantees to all its citizens equality, freedom of expression, freedom of worship, non-discrimination, and the choice to be governed, in matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance either by the traditional religious laws of the person or by the secular law. Indian citizens, including members of the Muslim community look towards the law and the judiciary for the protection of their rights. Yet there are occasions when people in Muslim communities express reservations against court orders citing violation of the principles of the Sharia, even denying the choice available to members of their community to be judged according to the Sharia or according to the secular laws of the land. The most notorious of such cases was that of Shah Banu, an impoverished woman from Madhya Pradesh who had been denied support by her reasonably well off divorcing husband ostensibly because such support was not prescribed by the Sharia. She went up to the Supreme Court of India which on general principles ordered her husband in 1986 to pay her support. The Muslim community protested saying the Supreme Court judgment amounted to interference with the Sharia. The government of the day, mindful of electoral support among Muslims legislated to nullify the effect of the Supreme Court order. In all this the plight of the individual named Shah Banu did not enter anyone’s calculation and she soon dropped out of sight.
Much more recently, a Muslim couple in Orissa, was, according to the Sharia law, legally divorced because at night the husband had pronounced the word talaq three times. The next morning the husband repented and said that he had uttered the word in a state of drunkenness. Husband and wife were reconciled and wanted to continue living as husband and wife, as though there had been no divorce. Yet the leaders of the local Muslim community would not accept the position of the couple saying that according to the Sharia, the wife must observe a period of celibacy, marry another man, divorce him, observe another period of celibacy and then remarry her former husband. The couple went up to the Supreme Court which ruled in their favour saying that it was against all acceptable principles of civilized behaviour to force a married couple to live separately when they wanted to live together. When last heard of, the local Muslim community was resisting the application of the court judgment, forgetting in the process the fundamental principle that in a civilized society, governed by the rule of law, the word of the highest court on all matters of law must be final.
Muslims, like Christians, believe their religion is universal. Many Hindus like to think theirs is the eternal religion, while for Buddhists, none but their master taught the four noble truths and the eightfold noble path. Yet, in the real world, neither Islam, nor Christianity, nor Buddhism, nor Hinduism is the religion of all mankind. All these faiths must, as indeed they do, co-exist. Except in the case of some fundamentalist groups in the United States, Christianity ceased being absolutist a long time ago; Hinduism—except in the minds of some latter day zealots of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh—and Buddhism were never absolutist. Regrettably, notwithstanding the historical reality that different interpretations of the Koran, the Hadith and the Sharia have all through been contested, many adherents of Islam act as if the tenets of their faith are the absolute, unchangeable truth, not admitting of any reinterpretation. In the interest of harmonious relations with the followers of other religions or with the irreligious, Islam as practiced by many Muslim communities must lose some of its sharp edges. Likewise Muslim communities living in multireligious societies must work out a viable relationship between their traditions, customs and beliefs and the secular law, for the law in a multireligious society must needs be secular.
I started with a reference to the lives of ordinary people. Very often words have different meanings in the mouths of the learned and in those of the masses, just as religion as practiced by the common masses is not the same as the religion that is preached by a priesthood. In the language of formal Islam, I, born a Hindu, am a kafir, an idol worshipper. I found once that the word did not have the same connotation for at least one Egyptian. We had hired a car to take us around in the city of Cairo. In one of our many conversations through the day, the driver asked me what my religion was. Thinking it would be very difficult to explain to him in a few brief sentences what Hinduism was, I told him I was a kafir. He laughed uncontrollably saying I was joking. Evidently, the word did not mean to him exactly what it means in Islamic religious literature. In the Muslim countries we lived in everyone knew we were Hindus, yet for none of the people we knew did our religion matter and no one ever poured on us any of the contempt that a kafir would seem to deserve. It is not the ordinary people in Muslim communities who need worry about absolutism, it is the ulema, the preachers and the political manipulators.