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The god is in details

S. Irfan Habib Photo K.V.Srinivasan   | Photo Credit: K_V_Srinivasan

As a little boy I must have been a source of constant irritation for my teachers. More so, for the hafiz ji who tried to teach me to read the Quran. Try as he did, I could never go beyond an ayat or two before a question popped up in my brain. “My teacher tells me in school that we have all descended from apes,” I would ask him. “Shhh. Don’t talk nonsense, just read… mazhab mein sawaal nahin karte,” the hafiz ji would smother all attempts at conversation, his thickset frame, large, protruding eyes and a beard that hid the neck and kissed the chest enough to instil the fear of God in many. “But,” I would insist, “the Quran tells us that Allah will raise us again on the Day of Judgement. Once we are dead, will He give us life again? We do not have the concept of birth and rebirths in Islam.” The teacher, who had probably only memorised the holy book without understanding much of it, had no answer.

Soon, we gave up on each other. But my questions remained unanswered for long. Until I had grown up to read, to ask, to explore things on my own. It is then that I realised that Islam actually encourages us to use reason, to ask questions. The Quran has a surah called Furqan which loosely translates into criterion of right and wrong. And yes, it answers my query too about rebirth after death. “Does man think that We cannot assemble his bones together? Yes! We are able to put together the very tips of his fingers perfectly,” says the Quran. Of course, my hafiz ji did not tell me this. He probably did not know himself. And truth to tell, the words had a new resonance for me when I discovered that it was only in 1880 that fingerprinting became a scientific method of identification following research by Sir Francis Golt who pointed out that no two persons could have the same fingerprints. The scripture had talked of it some 1400 years ago.

Yet the more things change the more they stay the same. Just recently, my daughter, just a year over 10 but exposed to constant news reports of the murderous attacks by IS in the name of Islam, asked her moulana who teaches her to read the holy book, “Why do they kill the innocent if they are true Muslims?” “Shh. Don’t talk. Just read,” advised her moulana, a similarly rotund man with deep expressive eyes. A little before this conversation, I had picked up “Jihad or Ijtihad: Religious Orthodoxy and Modern Science in Contemporary Islam”, a wonderfully well argued book by S. Irfan Habib, not to be confused with the Aligarh Muslim University historian who has spent a lifetime asking uncomfortable questions. The book had been with me for a fair bit; I had read a couple of chapters and moved on, only to come back following the release of the book by Romila Thapar recently. Am I glad! If it were not for the visuals of the book release, I would have forgotten about this brilliant work, so tightly written and so insightful with its arguments, its usage of Islamic history, the chapters and verses from the Quran, etc. There is enlightenment right at the beginning itself when Habib writes, “The title of the book is not to provoke. Both jihad and ijtihad are at the core of Islam. While the former is the most misunderstood and misused term ever, the latter has been forgotten. The real jihad was defined by the Prophet himself when he said after his return from a battle, ‘We return from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad, the more difficult and crucial effort to conquer the forces of evil in oneself and in one’s own society in all the details of daily life’.”

He goes on to throw light on another truth: some of the earliest progress in the field of science started from the Muslim world yet it is the Muslim countries today that languish in the field. “While Europe was still stuck in the Dark Ages, scientists in the Islamic world were translating Aristotle, and making huge strides in astronomy, mathematics and philosophy. Two thousand years later, the idea of ‘scientific progress’ seems to be locked in a hopeless war with Islam.”

Habib even questions people’s understanding and interpretation of the holy book. “The Quran nowhere insists on the literal interpretation of the text; rather, it constantly stresses the need for intelligence in deciphering the ‘sign’ or ‘message’ of God. Muslims are not to abdicate their reason but to look at the world attentively and with curiosity. It was this attitude that later enabled Muslims to build a fine tradition of natural science which has never been seen as large a danger to religion as in Christianity,” Habib does not hold back his punches.

In another context, he questions many established practices of some Islamic countries. Taking recourse to quoting from well known fundamentals of Islam, he pleads for a world free of arrogance, conceit and tyranny. “This so-called Islamic position is un-Islamic as it lacks Islamic humility, which is the very cornerstone of Quranic philosophy as well as central to the Prophet’s own conduct. The Quranic term for humility is khushu. The opposite of humility is arrogance ( kibr). The Quran speaks of Satan (Iblis) as the arrogant one who refused to obey God’s command to show humility towards His creatures. In other words, one may consider the absence of humility tantamount to arrogance, which is not an angelic but a satanic attribute….Further, the Quran states that arrogance leads to tyranny ( zulm).”

Absence of khushu. Presence of kibr and zulm. These are some of the attributes one can associate with IS in our times. Sign enough that whatever the body stands for, it certainly knows not its faith.

As for the moulanas who taught me, and teach many youngsters today, time to decipher the signs of Allah. The answer, as they say, is blowing in the wind.

(The author is a seasoned literary critic)


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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 9:40:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Ziya_Us_Salam/the-god-is-in-details/article7900642.ece

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