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Updated: December 23, 2013 21:08 IST

In search of Prophetic Islam

A. Faizur Rahman
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JIHAD AND OTHER ESSAYS: Asghar Ali Engineer; Pub. by The Book People, an imprint of Olive, East Nadakkavu, Kozhikode-673011. Rs. 595.
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JIHAD AND OTHER ESSAYS: Asghar Ali Engineer; Pub. by The Book People, an imprint of Olive, East Nadakkavu, Kozhikode-673011. Rs. 595.

Muslim orthodoxy has always claimed Islam to be one of the most misunderstood religions in the world. The insinuation here is that non-Muslims have not put enough effort to find out what this religion really stands for. The truth is, if responses to Islam have fluctuated between bewilderment and phobia, Muslim theologians are to be largely blamed. Their conflicting expositions on what constitutes the shariah have confounded not just non-Muslims but Muslims too. For example, one set of scholars legalise triple talaq which renders a woman instantly divorced on the pronouncement of the word talaq thrice by her husband, even if he happens to be drunk; while another group considers this method illegal. Confusion also prevails over the legality of marrying minor girls. There are scholars who shockingly justify the marriage of eight year old girls to forty year old men, even as others condemn this practice. Then there is the mystique of jihad. Does it mean “holy war”, or is it a democratic struggle against social injustice? Opinions diagonally vary. There is also no unanimity among the scholars on the correct definition of the word kafir. Most of them use it, without any basis of course, to refer to all non-Muslims. But Muslims have also been branded kafirs (apostates) liable to be killed; mainly to suppress dissent or to put down other schools of thought.

It was left to the reformist scholars throughout history to make sense of this mindboggling theological discord and demystify Islam to the world. One such personality was Asghar Ali Engineer, the renowned Mumbai-based social activist who cudgelled against anachronistic interpretations of Islam. He unfortunately passed away in May 2013 just before the launch of Jihad and other Essays which is a collection of 42 of his articles on various Islamic issues including jihad, ijtihad, burqa, compassion, gender equality, freedom of religion, commonalities between Islam and Hinduism, Indian Muslims, Islamic secularism and the absence of democracy in the Muslim world.

Mardin symposium

But jihad is by far the most discussed subject in this compendium. It figures in the title of no less than six essays in different contexts in which Engineer takes great pains to explain that jihad, out of the 41 times it is mentioned in the Quran, has not once been used in the sense of holy war either against the Muslims or non-Muslims. The Quranic words for war are qitaal and harb. As further evidence, Engineer refers to the important conclave of top Islamic scholars, held in March 2010 in the historic city of Mardin (Turkey). The subject of the Mardin meeting was the controversial ‘Mardin fatwa’ issued by the 14th century Muslim theologian Ibn Taymiyyah, which proclaimed jihad against the Mongols despite their conversion to Islam on the grounds that they could not be true Muslims because they followed the ‘man-made’ Yasa code instead of the shariah. Over the centuries, this fatwa had been misused by Muslim extremists to justify violence against non-Muslims and also other Muslims by declaring them apostates at the slightest difference of opinion. The Mardin symposium was an attempt to neutralise this. Its New Mardin Declaration inter alia condemned the moral vigilantism of radicals and called upon Muslim scholars to analyse and assess “ideas that breed extremism, takfir (labelling fellow Muslims as unbelievers) and violence in the name of Islam.” Citing this, Engineer exhorts Muslim youth to focus on education to avoid falling prey to extremist ideologies. The ulama and Muslim intellectuals, on the other hand, are asked to shift their discourse from jihad to ijtihad (independent reasoning), and through ijtihad transcend all existing schools of Islamic law and develop a unified law applicable to all Muslims thereby giving a “greater meaning to the otherwise hollow slogan of Islamic unity.”And such a law is possible, argues Engineer, only if prominence is given to the four most fundamental values promoted by the Quran; justice (adl), benevolence (ihsaan), compassion (rahmah) and wisdom (hikmah). He laments the fact that no Muslim state or society today follows these values. Indeed, theologians have circumscribed Islam to some selected aspects of the shariah such as the dress code for women, hudood laws (laws of fixed punishments), blasphemy laws and so on. And if Islam is to be unshackled from the hobbles of medievalism the Prophet’s liberation theology is the only way out.

In the article Muhammad (PBUH) as Liberator Engineer points out that the Prophet was more than a teacher and spiritual guide. His primary Quranic mission was to liberate humanity from ignorance, superstition, oppression, slavery and injustice. In fact, even before messengership was conferred on him, the Prophet, along with several tribes, was part of a confederacy called Hilful Fuzool in Mecca whose aim was suppressing violence and injustice, and protecting the rights of the weak and the poor.

Engineer explains how, using the very first command (Iqra or, Read) revealed to him, the Prophet liberated the Arabs from the darkness of ignorance and illiteracy. In fact, the change in Arab attitude toward knowledge and rationalism was so radical that within a century an intellectual glitter surrounded the Islamic world while most of Europe was experiencing a phrenic blackout. And, the barriers of colour, status and race were brought down so fast that a liberated black slave, Bilal, saw himself being elevated to the high position of a muezzin (prayer caller), an honour coveted by many free and “racially superior” Arabs. Not to mention the freedom that was granted to women from the slave-like treatment that was meted out to them by the Arab male. The Prophet, through the Quran, also liberated the Arab society from economic injustice. Back-breaking usury was abolished and only honest trade was permitted. Speculation was banned, and the rich were asked to contribute at least one-fortieth of their annual income to a common fund for the benefit of the economically challenged members of the society.

Yet another glorious aspect of the Prophet’s liberating message was the openness, tolerance and respect for other religions. Muslims were not just asked not to differentiate between divine prophets, they were also warned that there was no compulsion in religion. Engineer equates this attitude of Islam to its compatibility with secularism wherein people of all faiths and ideologies are allowed to live in peace and harmony, subject of course to no group forcing its way of life on another. As an amazing example Engineer cites the framework of governance the Prophet signed with the people of Medina soon after his migration to that city. This historic constitution known as Meesaq al-Madina upheld the right of all citizens to their respective religions. Included in this agreement was the most tolerant clause, “the Jews of the Banu Auf shall be considered as a community (ummah) along with Believers [that is, Mulsims]; for the Jews their religion, and for the Muslims their religion.”

In short, it is the argument of Engineer that unless Muslims revive the spirit of Islam found in the Universalist message of Prophet Muhammad, their future is bleak. Jihad and other Essays offers a wonderful insight into what this message is. It serves both as a guide for the perplexed and an effective antidote to the disinformation campaign of the Islamophobes.


Islam and its interpretations  September 29, 2014

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As long as the media and establishment continues to project
non practising Muslims and scholars of obscure sects there
is little hope of engagement with Muslims. Perhaps the
reporter is unaware or was misled by the book. It is a matter
well known to people who study islam as a academic subject
that ijtihad has never been abandoned in practice or in
theory by the Twelver Shia aka the Iranian/Iraqi Shia.
Engineer has viewpoints which to some extent reflect the
Twelver Shia so much so they seem to be old news to the
Shia. All the same I will read this book.

from:  shakil
Posted on: Dec 25, 2013 at 02:49 IST

Well its sad to know that Mr. Ashgar is no more. use to hear about him when i was a medical student. very well written , eloquent sensible essays. But alas the muslims largely will not change their attitude. the shariah law benefits the muslim male, and themullahs. look how the moguls persecuted the non muslims during their rule. Islam i feel isincompatible with democracy, minorities rights , women rights etc. i know cos i live in a muslim majority country and the mullahs n the muslim domonated govt in malaysia have passed a fatwa banning the word allah to be used in the churches, temples etc. Islam is as mideaval as its religious calender is.

from:  Dr Sawant, Malaysia
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 20:22 IST

Very well written,

I agree that 90% muslims are not even know the basics of the islam, they
need to educate & understand the true meaning & teachings of islam, It
is one of the best religion the mankind can have but at the same time
most misunderstood religion.....Please educate. Thanks

from:  sayed Tasneem
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 16:38 IST

I wish the International Working President of the Vishva Hindu Parishad
Dr. Praveen Togadia read this book several times and understand the true
Islam. He is the person who is always against Muslim
community. He misunderstood and misinterpret every verse in the Holy
Quran, he spread false information about Islam and Muslim. As long as
people like Praveen Togadia are there, it is futile to expect peace and
harmony between different communities in India.

from:  K.J.Haroon Basha
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 15:50 IST

A well-thoughtful collection of essays presented without any fear or
bias. Muslim religious leaders deny women's education on the ground
they need no education and for the men they advocate only madarassa
education. Poor muslims fall as victims to political leaders as prey.
Even Mr.Engineer had to face the wrath of radicals and was physically
manhandled by fanatics in his lifetime

from:  kn swamy
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 15:33 IST

Nicely written. Every religion has its own perspective of looking at
the world and its functions. So as the author mentions, its not just
the non-muslims who have to understand Islam, but even muslims who
must take some effort in understanding other religions in its context.
The same applies to people belonging to other religions such as
hinduism, christianity, sikhism etc. Understanding is what makes this
world a better place to live. Unfortunately, religions have started
working like "companies" who want to "monopolise" people into one
entity as they do to commodities.

from:  John
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 14:41 IST

Very well written and articulated. I hope this would help extremist and radicals to understand the basics of the religion and to shun violence on the name of Jihaad. Islamophobes could also learn a lot from it. May this help in bringing peace and rapport among the various societies of the world.

from:  Manpinder Singh Saini
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 14:17 IST

Very well written.
The major problem that is being faced by Muslims today are Ignorance,
Illiteracy. Knowledge and proper education only can help alleviate the
ignorance of Muslims. Islam advocates patience, benevolence, compassion,
social and economic justice.

from:  Hameed Hussain
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 14:10 IST

Most of the ulemas and common muslims agree with asgar engineer saheb, but
the muslim politicians and some wrong minded people defame islam.

from:  mohammedismail
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 13:19 IST

I fully agree with the views of the writer. The fundamental problem bedeviling the Islamic world is that, the thinking capacity of the Muslims as a whole has been hijacked by the bigoted and obscurantist mullas who have taken upon themselves the role of interpreting Islam for the masses. The majority of the Muslims have stopped thinking for themselves(ijtihad). When it come to matters religious they have developed the herd mentality.Whatever the mullas say, they blindly follow, however absurd their exhortations may be. It is also a fundamental belief among orthodox Muslims that Islam is the final message for all mankind. When you have an absurd belief like this you stop learning from others. Yes, that Islam is the most misunderstood religion is the constant refrain of Orthodox Islam! But does Orthodox Islam ever try to understand other faiths? They don't and that's because of the fundamentally flawed belief that Islam is final message for all mankind.

from:  DURAI
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 11:47 IST

Great Thoughts, although sad that he passed away

from:  Ujjel
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 11:12 IST

" The insinuation here is that non-Muslims have not put enough effort to
find out what this religion really stands for."-Why should non-muslims
put efforts to understand your religious views ?.

from:  anil
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 10:42 IST

In an answer to a definition of Sharia, late imam of Ottawa Mosque Tewfik Shahin
described that the Quran means that any law that is good for the humanity is Sharia.
The example he quoted was that red light on a traffic signal means stop and green
means to keep on going. When one looks back in Indian history of about a hundred
years of British rule, one cannot ever recall that the Muslims scholars of India
protested against the British imposed legal system and in place demanded Sharia.

from:  a. khan
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 08:24 IST

This is not 13th or 14th century. The world does not believe anything blindly.....they
believe what they see and what is true. So i do not agree with the statement the
world misunderstood and rest of it i need not read as it started belittling the worlds

from:  Kiran Maddu
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 08:03 IST

One does not need religion to be a good and worthy human being. But one does need religion to be an evil one!

from:  Sohail Zahid
Posted on: Dec 24, 2013 at 04:35 IST
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