Dr Mohammad Manzoor Alam
I am returning to this column after a long while, in circumstances that are far from pleasant. Today, the Islamic world is a sad picture of disarray, anarchy and violence–internal as well as with others. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Saudi Arabia to Syria and Somalia, Turkey to Yemen, it is a story of violence all the way.
Everywhere, both sites of the conflict are Muslim and the victims are almost always innocent non-combatants, quite often women, children and the old. People have been forced to flee their homes, crossing borders in desperation with little food and water and insufficient clothing in severely cold climates. Till they get recognised as refugees in their new land they have to sleep in the open icy climes.
The refugees flooding Christian Europe are Muslims. Another, and possibly the most significant haven for these refugees, is Turkey, a preponderantly Muslim country. All the victims and perpetrators are Muslims. The shared values of Islam should have glued them together, but the differences of ethnicity, religious sect and subsect, differences over national claims and other variables are tearing Muslim societies apart. Islam was meant to unite Muslims as well as the entire humanity.
Every day we read reports of violence, see on our TV screens, busy cities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen bombed with huge casualties. Both sides are Muslim. Only a few hours before writing this piece the media were flush with graphic reports of the destruction of the historic heritage city of Aleppo in Syria, one of the oldest and most developed centres of culture.
President Bashar Asad’s forces, supported by Iran and Russia, have leveled the city and conducted a massacre barely seen outside Hitler’s Germany. The massacre has been so huge that Paris switched off the lights of the great Eifel Tower in protest and mourning. The UN Security Council, Europe and the US took note, but did nothing to save Muslims from other Muslims. This is a great moment for Muslims of all kinds, sects, ethnicities, nationalities and races to deeply think over what is going on, where does Islam stand, and where have the Muslim failed. This is not merely a political failure, but a civilisational one also.
To begin with, Muslims have miserably failed to evolve a political system which offers everyone some space, freedom of opinion and choice and a system that happily welcomes and accommodates difference. There is rarely any organised system of peaceful transfer of power in the Muslim world. One of the many examples is the blood-soaked Syria where Hafez al-Asad ruled for decades and passed the reins to his son Bashar before dying. The son is there to rule for as long as the father did, even if Syria is destroyed in the process.
What the Muslim states as well as Muslim societies are suffering from comes from a lack of appreciation and tolerance of diversity. This is largely a political failure because the system of governance in Muslim world (ranging from monarchy to various degrees of dictatorship) has failed to ensure democratic respect for difference: difference of race, ethnicity, tribal affiliation, religions and religious sect. To avoid a complete civilisational breakdown the Muslim world must debate on and evolve a proper political system for those countries and societies and must come to terms with modern ideas of state and nationhood. Civilisation must be anchored in Islam. Yet, as Akbar S. Ahmed wisely points out Muslims have got to come to terms with the post-colonial paradigm, of democracy, state and nationhood. Ahmed notes that because Muslims have failed to come to terms with the post-colonial paradigm we see people like Saddam in Iraq and Asad in Syria who destroyed millions of their own countryman. There are others like them waiting for their turn to devastate their own lands and people.
Unity is not possible without a certain liberal stance, tolerance and willing acceptance of diversity. We have to remember that God made a diverse world, and diversity is the essential feature of existence in the world. God says in the Quran that if He so desired He would have made everyone a Muslim, but He made it a diverse world, so that different races, tribes and clans could distinguish and identify each other.
Both for the unity of the Ummah and for peace within it as well as peace with other faiths a liberal and tolerant attitude is essential. For unity in the Ummah one has to recognise (as does the post-modernist literary theory) that there can be several different readings of a single text (including the text of scripture) and all of them could be equally valid.
This explains why there are so many sects, sub-sects and sub-sub-sects within Islam. It is largely because of different interpretations (readings) of the Quran and the Prophet’s (PBUH) traditions. Hence, it is not desirable to insist that only one of them is right and all other interpretations and sects/sub-sects based on them are dubious. Such a rejectionist view can easily destroy unity. It is also against the Islamic credo that plurality of opinion in the Ummah is a blessing from God and worthy of cherishing.
The emphasis on an acceptance of diversity is finely exemplified in an incident in the life of the 13th century Muslim sufi poet Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi. It was said that he did not believe in sectarian differences, to the extent that he accepted all the putative 72 sects of Islam as valid and equal to each other. There is the common belief in parts of the Muslim world that there will come a time when Muslims will be divided in 72 sects and only one of them will be right. Followers of all others will be consigned to hell.
When a hot-headed Muslim (there has never been a shortage of such fellows) came to learn of the sufi’s belief he confronted him: “Mewlana Jalauddin, I have heard that you tell people you accept all 72 sects as valid?” Mewlana Jalauddin Rumi said, “Yes, I do.” At that the man flew into a rage and began a flurry of expletives and choice abuses. The sufi listened to the abuses calmly. When the hot-headed man got tired and fell silent, Mewlana Rumi announced quietly: “And I accept fully this 73rd sect of yours.” Only such great men with their generous acceptance promote unity and avoid division in the Ummah and the world at large.
As long as we insist that our sect, sub-sect or sub-sub-sect is right and all others are doomed to hell, we will be promoting division and mutual hatred. An example from the subcontinent is illustrative. The Hanafi sub-sect of the Sunni sect is divided further into sub-sub-sects - Deobandis and Barelvis. Instead of cherishing their shared Hanafi doctrine they are at each other’s throats. Even within these two there are internal differences of emphasis. Differences can be ok, but hatred, division and violence are not. Both within Shia and Sunni sects there are sub-sects that are violently opposed to each other. There is a history of massive violence within sects and a long record of mutual suspicion and animosity.
India’s Muslim community is divided both vertically and horizontally. There is a distinct horizontal division in the name of masaalik, and there is a vertical division in the name of castes. Put together, they generate such animosity that their mutual ill-will transcends the capability of Islam to unite and heal.
The poet Iqbal wrote a hundred years ago which, in translation is “Divided you (Muslims) are in sects and castes/ Is it how people flourish in the world?” It is quite apparent that such mutual antagonism runs against the grain of Islam and brings disgrace to the Ummah. Enough is enough. Now let us close our ranks and follow God’s command: “Hold together (all of you) the rope of Allah and don’t create dissension in your ranks.” Muslims must pay heed to it.
They do not pay heed to the Prophet’s [PBUH] warning to Muslims not to unsheathe their swords against each other. Otherwise, the sword will never go back to the sheath. The sword that was unsheathed in the civil war between Sahabah (the Prophet’s (PBUH) companions has not gone back into the sheath. It must be sheathed now if our civilisation has to survive.