Friday, February 06, 2009


Reforms and radical Islam

By A K Verma
Thursday, 05 February , 2009, 10:47

Anand K Verma is a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, and the author of Reassessing Pakistan.

Except the war zones of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan and the proxy war zones of Kashmir and India, the rest of the world has not witnessed a major terrorist incident for quite sometime.

Since its birth, the Islamic civilization has gone through debates and counter-debates. Except for the Shahadah (God is one and Mohammad is his messenger) and the five mandatory duties (Haj, Zakat, Roza, Namaz and Shahadah), everything else in Islam has been subjected to deep scrutiny and analysis, with the result that many schools of thoughts kept appearing and disappearing.

Those that came through generally had the backing of the executive ruling power, which gave its support only to those which helped it to survive and strengthen.

The Quran and the Prophet took a liberal view of who constituted a Muslim or believer, but in the first three centuries of Islam, there was a constant fighting over religio-political, legal, theological and other issues of doctrine.

The differences were severe, but ultimately the largest community of believers crystallised into what came to be known as Sunnis. But while they called themselves the true Muslims, even they were not organically one. They got divided into four schools of law — Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’i and Maliki.

The most conservative among them is the Hanbali, which is practiced in Saudi Arabia. The widest following is commanded by Hanafi, which the Afghans and earlier, the Ottomans adhered to. Shafi’i is the law in Malaysia.

After Sunnis, the Shias are the largest group with their own legal system, the Jafaria.

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People view an installation by Kader Attia entitled 'Ghost 2007' at the Saatchi gallery in London, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009. The work made from aluminium foil is a large installation of a group of Muslim women at prayer. He renders their bodies as vacant shells, empty hoods devoid of personhood or spirit. Courtesy: AP.

With such divisions, it is quite evident that there could never be a unity of thoughts in Islam. Even on the validity of some scriptural items, interpretations differed. The absence of a Quran-supported centralised mechanism or authority often led to conflictual analysis of verses of the Quran or Hadith.

However, if consensus could be developed on an issue, an annulment to or deletion of the verse was possible. Such modifications through Islam’s history saw it move away from the doctrines of caliphate, slavery and war booty.

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Two other illustrative examples can be given to show that Islam is not a monolithic institution. Does a Muslim have the freedom to change his religion? There is no bar on it in the Quran, which broadly supports an individual’s choice to a religion.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 guarantees to everyone freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change religion. Many Muslim countries have subscribed to this declaration and are agreeable to extend such rights to all their citizens.

But only a miniscule number of the Muslims in practice conceded to the Muslim a right to change his religion. A majority holds that the right to choose its religion does not apply to Muslims.

For such Muslims, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights creates a problematic situation. The problem arises because many Islamic jurists in the medieval past ordained that a change of religion by a Muslim amounted to apostasy for which they prescribed death as the punishment. Here is thus a contradiction.

While broadly supporting the concept that human rights accrue to people simply because they are humans, prejudice prevents the majority from extending this human right to the option to change religion.

The other example relates to the Muslim law of apostasy itself. Apostasy with its punishment of death had existed before the advent of Islam in some Semitic religions including Judaism. But the Quran and the Prophet created no offence called blasphemy or a punishment for it. The offence and its punishment came into existence later on the basis of rulings of Islamic jurists.

Today most Islamic states which follow the Shariah have apostasy or blasphemy listed as a crime, meriting corporal punishment. In Malaysia while there is no such central law, the state of Kelantan, one of its federating units, has such a law on its statute books.

Fears are being entertained in certain quarters that for maintaining Malay domination over power in the country, even the leading Malayan political parties at the centre may move towards adopting the Kelantan model. If they do, it will be one more fissure in the body politic of what is described as Ummah and a retrograde step against the globalising movement among some Muslims, towards separating the religious community from a political identity.

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Modern day perspectives in Islam are not theology, law or philosophy driven. They are born out of frustration as many in the Islamic world see themselves as low in the world pecking order.

The most destructive to the social order are the Islamists. They reject notions of both the state and secularism, and aim to reach political eminence through sabotage, subversion and violence. Their ultimate aim is to exercise political power through a Caliphate of the whole Ummah. Anything or anyone outside the pale of their Islam is an enemy to them. Currently, Osama bin Laden is the high priest of this ideology.

Older movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamait-ei-Islami belong to this genre. For the Islamist, religious fundamentalism serves the purpose of a political tool. The rise of Jihadis, ready for martyrdom, in its ultimate analysis, amounts to a political manifestation, not a religious one.

The Wahabis and Salafis constitute a puritan strain, wanting Islam to be followed as it was in the seventh century Medina, with no deviation in practice or interpretation. The Arab model is the only model for them. Ultra conservative and orthodox Saudi Arabia is a Wahabi country. Their large scale donations to madrassas in the sub-continent have promoted growth of the Arab model of orthodoxy among the Muslims of the sub-continent. The Wahabis are rabidly anti-Shias.

A third category is of the traditionalists, who are rooted in the traditions of theology and law as they developed in the Umayyad and Abbasid eras. A diehard traditionalist is anti-reform but the realities of globalisation and the recent waves of terrorism, linked to Islam, have made some of them anxious to accept some reforms. The Deoband Seminary in UP, India, belongs to this classification.

The influence of Wahabi money often succeeded in converting the traditional fundamentalist into an Islamist.

This phenomenon was most visible in Pakistan, where many traditionalists, moving from Deoband after partition, converted to extremism and Islamism. This happened because there is a thin line separating traditionalism from obscurantist fundamentalism and therefore, Islamism is an easy transformation for a conservative Ulema.

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In fact, reformists are a rare breed in Islam. Intellectuals of various persuasionremain within the orthodoxy of Islam for fear of being branded blasphemous. Those who do rebel, publicly or privately across the family dining table, want to make Islam contemporaneous. They stand for substantial changes in its laws and theology.

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Actually, the Quran itself, in an abstract way, does not frown on change since it permits ‘Ijtihad,’ a dialogue between the individual and his Allah, thereby allowing him a personal understanding of the truth that can become his Islam. For the clerics, however, ‘Ijtihad,’ must remain within the doctrinal parlour of Islam.
A woman in the predominantly Muslim city of Banda Aceh, Sumatra, undergoes a caning for having stayed with her boyfriend. The Shari'ah (Islamic law) came under broad debate in Indonesia in 2006.Courtesy: AP.

Reformists often transcend into secular beings for whom religion becomes a matter of personal piety, unencumbered by the sanctions of the state or the reach of the theological legal system. The secular-minded Muslim thus questions the idea that the sovereignty of Allah extends over all things, temporal or spiritual.

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In this context it is interesting to recall that Justice Munir, who enquired into the Punjab (Pakistan) disturbances of 1953, had reported that the various Ulemas who appeared before him gave a differing definition of what constituted a Muslim, and each of them felt that only those who fell within his definition were real Muslims and all others were non-Muslims.

The Taliban of Afghanistan developed into a unique trend, the like of which was perhaps never seen before in Islam. Starting as Ulemas of Deobandi seminaries in Pakistan, they became murderously political, introducing a pattern of Islam which was more conservative than the most conservative fringe of Wahabism.

They Arabised Afghan culture and shifted to the Arab lunar calendar from their own Persianised solar calendar. Women were placed in the category of chattels. All non-Sunni Muslims and Shias were identified as enemies, meriting death. The Taliban’s Emir Mullah Omar took the delusional title of Momin-ul-Musalmeen (Commander of the faithful), claiming tribute from the entire Muslim world like the Prophet Mohammad and later Caliphs.

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Both the Taliban and bin Laden combined to unleash a season of terror over the world. Although Taliban rule has ended in Afghanistan, its virus with its mutations is flourishing in the neighborhood. Its tentacles have extended deep into Pakistan. It is a moot question whether NATO forces in Afghanistan can succeed in eliminating ‘Talibanism’ or its off spring ‘neo-Talibanism’ from Afghanistan or the neighboring FATA area of Pakistan.

Muslims of all shades of opinion as described above are to be found in India also. But fortunately, the Indian Constitution which includes secularism as one of its immutable principles acts as a check on institutions which harbour reservations about it.

A party which does not swear by secularism as an article of faith, cannot participate in the political processes in the country. Thus, imperceptibly, the Indian Constitution is a secularising force on the Muslim citizens of India, irrespective of what their religion says. And they are none the worse for it.

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According to Maulana Mehmood Madani, head of the Deoband Seminary in India, the Muslims of India have had the best deal among all the Muslims of the world and the Muslims who nurse deep grievances against the Indian system are usually part of the 30 percent of the Muslim population that lives in Muslim majority enclaves.

It is among these 30 percent that the battle on terror has to be fought. None among them should be allowed to hijack the agenda of terror to lay an infrastructure, which remains intact and grows even if the leadership is decapitated.

In the absence of efforts to identify the springs of the ideology which inspires terrorism, there lurks the danger that the belief system will become self sustaining. Fatwas against terrorism serve only a miniscule purpose. A political counter strategy is the need of the hour and such identifications constitute the primary steps.

The time to change perspectives has arrived. The objective of such changes should be to make the Muslim society in India more modernised and more in tune with the contemporary values of the globalised world including India, of today.

It must be admitted that there is a considerable confusion among the general masses of the country about Islam, its teachings and its bonds.

What can we do?

There is a good case for setting up some departments of Islamic study in Indian universities so that an increasing number of people can develop an appropriate understanding about it. This may be an important step in political counter strategy to combat terrorism.

Anand K Verma is a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, and the author of Reassessing Pakistan.


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