Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hajj 2010


Maryam Sakeenah

At the Maqam e Ibrahim:

I held on to the golden bars trying to keep my balance, with my nose pressed against the blurry glass screen smeared with many a finger mark. I bolstered up my wits and finally decided to look: footprints in the sands of time, etched into the sacred earth forever by divine decree_ blessed, immortalized. Ibrahim (A.S) had stood up and stood out. His standing was an act of worship and intense adoration, an act of courage, resistance, strength, integrity, dignity and true heroism. He laid the foundations of this modest little structure that stands in the heart of Makkah like an immense magnet drawing to itself millions who strive to stand in its shade. In its humble construction shorn of all grandeur and ostentation it inspires an inexplicable awe and reverence; giving direction and focus, unifying, holding together, reminding. Ibrahim’s was a labour of love. The builders had prayed, “Our Lord! Accept this from us! Indeed You are the Hearing, the Knowing. Our Lord! Make us Muslims [in submission] to You and from our descendants a Muslim nation [in submission] to You.” (2:128)
Ibrahim (A.S) had questioned, wondered, reflected. He had thirsted for the Truth and sought the Light that rends all shrouding darknesses. He had refused ordinariness, refused to follow the crowd_ stood up and stood out, facing the winds alone. He had Loved_ truly, settling for nothing lesser than the perfection, wholeness, sublimity of Al Haqq (The Truth). In the darkness of the night he beheld the shining star, and in his very human search for the Object of the deepest Love the human heart is capable of, he said, "‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said, ‘I do not love those who fade away.’”(6:77) He had loved passionately through hardship, suffering and trial, and attained the Pleasure of Allah, so that the place of his standing_ this stone I beheld through the blurry screen_ became sacred hallowed ground; the endeavour of his hands and limbs became a ritual of worship observed by billions here forevermore.
Ibrahim (A.S) had stood alone to confront and expose falsehood that his innate fitrah had rejected, all the while ‘seeking the Face of His Lord.’ He was sensitive and honest to the divine essence breathed into the heart of man, which testifies to Monotheism. Today, as I look around at this immense unending crowd vying to stand where he stood, seeking to be honoured by walking the path he walked, I am educated in the meaning of leadership.
While on the theme of leadership, there cannot be a legacy more venerable, more awe-inspiring, powerful and enduring. Some wise old man said something to the effect that when you stand up for the truth against the odds, the whole universe conspires in your favour, because that truth you strive to establish is written in the heart of the earth; it is destiny.
The man whose footprint I beheld is acknowledged as the spiritual progenitor in all monotheistic traditions. Islam claims a direct link with Ibrahim (A.S) not through race or geography but primarily on account of theology, as its simple Monotheism of ‘La ilaha ilallah’(no god but Allah) is the ‘Way of your father Abraham’ (22:78).

Catching a Glimpse of Jabal Noor in the distance...

Years passed and the heart and mind of man was clouded again by ignorance while Ibrahim (A.S)’s legacy existed only as dusty remnants and soulless rituals in what had become ‘too much of a pathless wood.’ From the shadows of Jahiliyyah (Ignorance) emerged again a soul restive in search of the Whole Truth, refusing these untruths and half truths, attentive to the inner voice that had impelled Ibrahim’s struggle. It was convinced that the Truth lay waiting to be discovered. Not far from the Kaabah stands Jabal Noor, the Mountain of Light... Muhammad (SAW), wearied by the society that had lost its discrimination of right and wrong, ascended its steep, stony incline in order to contemplate the truth, seek out answers and pray to the One God of Ibrahim (A.S)_ to ‘get away from earth awhile... to come back and begin over. For, earth’s the right place for Love...’ Muhammad (SAW), the devoted follower of Ibrahim’s (A.S) honest creed was chosen to lead, and Jabal Noor irradiated the world with God’s final revelation.

(references from ‘Birches’ by Robert Frost)

From Makkah to Madina

I am on the way from Makkah_ the native city of Muhammad (SAW)_ to Madina where he had sought refuge. While reclining on the cushioned seat of an air-conditioned bus, I gaze outside to see rugged mountains and a forbidding, hostile landscape_ barren and treeless, with the desert sun mercilessly streaming down red hot. Roughly 1431 years ago Muhammad (SAW) and his followers had made the same journey in conditions as different from my journey today as possible_ on foot, with and sometimes without bare essentials of life; ragged, penniless, shelterless, fearing for their lives yet led on by one conviction_ their hope and trust in the Lord of the Heavens and the Earth, the Owner of Destiny.
We often want ‘proof’ to vindicate faith: What can possibly account for this madness to leave hearth and home and traverse the hostile land in fear, hunger, pain and hardship seeking the Unseen? What can explain this passion, extraordinary resolve, grand sacrifice, courage, hope and belief that the Truth is destined to triumph? What can explain this limitless capacity to go on enduring trial and hardship not yielding an inch? What can explain giving up all seeking an ideal, an unseen God? Faith answers where reason fails.
In his work ‘Khutbaat Haram’, Abul Ala Maudoodi records when the Prophet (SAW) sat against the wall of the Kaabah in the early days of Islam when his few followers were being oppressed and tortured in vile ways. Khabab bin Al Aratt (R.A), who had suffered severe persecution for his faith, approached the Prophet (SAW) in pain and desperation, asking him to beg Allah for relief. The Prophet (SAW) replied, “This task will be fulfilled, O Khubaib, till a time comes when the traveller shall go from Sana’a to Hadrmout without fear or worry (meaning, peace will be established in the land through Islam). But it is you who turn impatient.” This hope in the darkest of times sprang from faith and trust in Allah, and mankind witnessed its fulfilment.
Standing up to pray in the shade of the green dome of the Prophet (SAW)’s mosque in Madina, I was reminded of that early surah revealed to the Prophet (SAW) at one of the lowest points in his life when he had been rejected and ridiculed: “By the forenoon (after sun-rise); And by the night when it is still (or darkens); Your Lord (O Muhammad (SAW) has neither forsaken you nor hated you. And indeed the Hereafter is better for you than the present (life of this world). And verily, your Lord will give you (all i.e. good) so that you shall be well-pleased. Did He not find you (O Muhammad (SAW) an orphan and gave you a refuge? And He found you unaware and guided you? And He found you poor, and made you rich (self sufficient with self contentment, etc.)? Therefore, treat not the orphan with oppression, And repulse not the beggar; And proclaim the Grace of your Lord (i.e. the Prophethood and all other Graces).” (Chapter 93)
“And whose word could be truer than Allah’s?” (4:82)

Circumambulating the Kaabah

This day I stand, a speck among these millions all moving on as wavelets of a shoreless ocean around the Centre, their whispered prayers merging into a chorus: “Glory be to You! All Praise and Thanks are to You! There is no god except Allah; Allah is great! There is no power or might except with Allah.” They all move forward yet are bound to the core, all seeking One Goal, One Direction. The ocean never recedes, never dwindles; from the far corners of the earth they come to witness this extraordinary legacy, to live this miracle, to stand where Ibrahim had stood, walk where Muhammad (SAW) had walked_ and be inheritors and sharers in the great legacy preserved, revived, immortalized by the Lord of the Kaaba: “Hence, [O Muhammad,] proclaim thou unto all people the pilgrimage: they will come unto thee on foot and on every [kind of] fast mount, coming from every far-away point [on earth]...” (22:27)
As I merge into the endless moving circle, I am enveloped by a sense of peace that reaches the innermost recesses of my being. For an instant all pain and fear drowns into the power and magic of the moment, and a swoon of blissful oblivion envelops me_ all is here and now. I rise, I float, I fly_ like those midget-birds that forever circle the azure skies around the Kaabah, daylong, nightlong_ a labour of Love.
There are also moments of intense self-awareness when you are struck by the realization of how unworthy you are of the honour to be here, how undeserving to set foot on this sacred earth. Witnessing the manifestations of His Glory, you become conscious of the darkness in your heart and soul, you feel a crushing shame that suffocates you... but like the winds bearing good news of the torrent, Hope in His Mercy comes to liberate. For, the Mercy of the One who brought you here is greater, so all encompassing. The feeling is reassuring as you rise above regret and shame onto the wings of hope and bask in the comfort of the knowledge that His mercy and forgiveness supercedes His wrath. “If it were not for Allah's grace and mercy on you and that Allah is Oft-Returning Full of Wisdom (ye would be ruined indeed).”(24:10)

The Victory:

I look at this gigantic mass of people of all shades and colours, these followers all sweat drenched, tear stained, barefoot, and I know this is the ‘Clear Victory.’(48:1) I know this is the ‘Fount of Abundance’: “To you (O Muhammad!) have We granted the Fount of Abundance. So pray to your Lord, and sacrifice. Surely, he who bears rancour against you shall be severed (from all future hope).” (Chapter 108)
And again:
“Have We not opened your breast for you (O Muhammad SAW)? And removed from you your burden which weighed down your back? And raised high your fame? So verily, with the hardship, there is relief. Verily, with the hardship, there is relief. So when you have finished (from your occupation), then stand up for Allah's worship (i.e. stand up for prayer). And to your Lord (Alone) turn (all your intentions and hopes and) your invocations.” (Chapter 94)

On Leadership

Ibrahim (A.S) and Muhammad (SAW) followed their inner voice and the Command of the Lord they recognized humbly and resolutely. They lead in their following, and present the highest level of leadership humanly possible_ a leadership of a holistic nature rooted in the heart and soul, springing from it and seeking to purify and satiate it; enunciating a veritable Way of Life followed today by billions as a matter of faith shaping individual lives, societies, economies and politics. Michael H. Hart, choosing Muhammad (SAW) to top his list of 100 greatest people in human history wrote: “My choice of Muhammad (SAW) to lead the best of the world’s most influential persons may surprise some readers and may be questioned by others, but he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels. Of humble origins, Muhammad (SAW) founded and promulgated one of the world’s great religions, and became an immensely effective political leader. Today thirteen centuries after his death, his influence is still powerful and pervasive. The majority of the persons in this book had the advantage of being born and raised in centers of civilization, highly cultured or politically pivotal nations. Muhammad (SAW), however, was born in the year 570, in the city of Mecca, in southern Arabia, at that time a backwards area of the world, far from the centers of trade, art and learning. Orphaned at the age of six, he was reared in modest surroundings. Islamic tradition tells us that he was illiterate... When Muhammad (SAW) died in 632, he was the effective ruler of all of Arabia... The rapid spread of Islaam continued after the demise of Muhammad (SAW)... By 711, North Africa, to the Atlantic Ocean, then the Visigoth Kingdom of Spain . . . stretching from the boarders of India to the Atlantic Ocean, Islam was the largest empire that the world had yet seen”.

The Farewell

I walk away from the Kaaba turning to look back at the silent, circling sea I have been a droplet of, moving gently, eternally in the shade of this small landmark that wears an unexplainable, immeasurable awe, majesty and power. It still draws to itself to elevate, honour and bless. I am overwhelmed with thanksgiving and with an already rising nostalgia I will have to live with: “The lovers of Your faith shall never dwindle, even while I_ fleeting creature of an hour receding into the dust, am no more among those forever treading the Path of Love.”

Sunday, October 17, 2010

'He of the High Desire'


Maryam Sakeenah

“I will go where no road goes and the road shall go with me”.

When I first came across this verse by Joscelyn Ortt, it occurred to me how remarkably it fitted in with the story of Ibrahim (AS)’s Struggle to Surrender. Courageously honest to the innate Truth within the self, he sought out the truest ‘God’__ beginning with the negation of false pagan godhood, he ultimately found Allah, forever. It is fascinating to read the account of his search for the Truth as Allah tells it in the Quran: “When he (Ibrahim) saw the sun rising up, he said: ‘This is my lord. This is greater.’ But when it set, he said: ‘…Verily, I have turned my face towards Him Who has created the heavens and the earth, and I am not of those who join partners with Him…’ And that (faith) was Our Proof which We gave Ibrahim against his people. We raise whom We will in degrees. Certainly, Your Lord is All-Knowing, All-Wise.”(6:80-83)
Ibrahim (A.S) brings together in his person an unafraid honesty and the invincible courage to proclaim it loud and clear. The search for meaning in life through the faltering intellect of man and the pursuit of the Highest Truth through human reason is most clearly and admirably articulated through the story of Ibrahim (A.S). He attained the truth through his lone, relentless struggle, and rejected once and for all whatever impeded the Way to his Lord. He fearlessly showed that truth to the world with all his passion. The Quran quotes Ibrahim (A.S) while addressing those who rejected the Truth: “The Lord of the Alamin, who has created me, and it is He who guides me. And it is He who feeds me and gives me to drink. And when I am ill, it is He who cures me. And He will cause me to die, and then will bring me to life. And who, I hope, will forgive me my faults on the Day of Resurrection...”(26:78-82).
Taking ‘the road less travelled by’ demands strength, persistence, honesty, and only the ‘hanif’ (uni-focal) can come out through the trials it involves, triumphant, able to ascend to a higher realm of the Contented Self (nafs e mutma’inna). Ibrahim (AS)’s struggle was a struggle to win ‘Islam’ (peace through submission). This struggle begins with the negation of false gods (‘la ilaha’), and leads the soul on to a recognition and acceptance of the Only Truth that brings with it the peace of ‘ill allah’. “When his Lord said to him ‘(O Ibrahim!) Submit!’ He said, “I have submitted myself to the Lord of the worlds...” (2:131) Having internalized this faith and lived it out with his person, Ibrahim becomes the embodiment of Tauhid. “Verily, Ibrahim was an ‘ummah’(a leader or a nation), obedient to Allah, haneef (singly focused on worship of none but Allah), and he was not among those who join partners with Allah. He was thankful for Allah’s favours. Allah chose him and guided him to the Straight Path.” (16:120-121)
For when the sweetness of Eeman is tasted, nothing else satisfies, nothing else fulfils. Ibrahim (A.S) was possessed by this Single Idea which gave meaning to life and the world, which enlightened, elevated, enriched, purified. Ibrahim (A.S)’s faith in and love for Allah rings through the beautiful prayers of His that Allah records in the Quran: “My Lord! Bestow on me Wisdom and Authority, and join me with the righteous. And grant me an honourable mention in the later generations. And make me one of the inheritors of the Paradise of Delight...” (26:83-85) The achievement of the Contented Self brings out the human soul in all the richness, beauty and grandeur that human nature is capable of, till the exclusive title ‘ahsan i taqweem’ (the best of all creation) is earned and Allah Himself bears testimony hence: “Salam be upon Ibrahim (A.S). Thus indeed do We reward the doers of good. Verily he was one of our believing slaves...”(37:109)
The Faith of the Contented Self expresses itself in ways larger than life, much greater than what is humanly understandable. The patience of Ibrahim (A.S) through the trials he went through, his exemplary sacrifice was one such expression of the faith of the Contented Self, the intensity of which transcends the limitations of historical time. Allah has preserved it forever, to be relived, refelt. Ibrahim (AS)’s faith broke free from the tethers that bind man to the pettiness of the Minimal Self (nafs e ammara)_ from base desire, from egoistic impulse.
Allah reciprocates, blesses and preserves the glorious deeds of His righteous slaves. Hence Ibrahim, having triumphed over all of life’s trials, received the boundless Love of His Lord. The mention of Ibrahim A.S in the Quran resonates with Love of the Speaker, the Lord of Ibrahim A.S. Allah says: “And who can be better in religion than one who submits his face to Allah and does righteous deeds and follows the religion of Ibrahim (A.S). And Allah did take Ibrahim (A.S) as an intimate Friend.” (4:125), and “Verily, Ibrahim (A.S) was, without doubt, forbearing, used to invoke Allah with humility, and was repentant.” (11:75)
It is the Love from God for His slave who sought His Love with burning desire that announces: “And take you the station of Ibrahim (A.S) as a place of prayer...” (2:125)
Ibrahim (A.S) was blessed with leadership, honour and respect among all mankind. He is revered as the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim people, from whom all monotheistic faiths spring forth. And yet, the position of Ibrahim (A.S) in Islam is unique. The pristine tauhid of Islam that accepts no semblance of shirk in any manifestation, is the continuation of the mission of Ibrahim (A.S). Allah insists in the Quran to ‘follow the religion of Ibrahim’, the pure Monotheistic tradition: “It (Islam), is the religion of your father Ibrahim (A.S).” (22:78) The Arabs even before Islam were conscious of and proud of their Abrahamic ancestry. Despite the corruption of polytheism and many rampant social ills, the concept of the One God of Ibrahim A.S, the Sublime, Omnipotent Being above all, was part of Arab tradition in one form or another. Islam purified, reinstated and revived that Abrahamic faith with its simple declaration of ‘La ilaha il Allah’ (no god but Allah), and hence has a legitimate claim of being a consummation of the Abrahamic mission.
It will not be an overstatement to say that the ritual of Hajj is in many ways a commemoration of the extraordinary life and struggle of Ibrahim (A.S) and his family. It celebrates the edifying legacy of Ibrahim (A.S), who, eons ago, had prayed: “Our Lord! Make us submissive unto You, and from our offspring, raise a nation submissive unto You... send amongst them a Messenger of their own, who shall recite unto them Your verses, and instruct them in the Book and the Wisdom, and purify them...” (2:128-129). The rituals of Hajj immortalize Ibrahim’s faith and privilege the believers to take of the immensity of that boundless treasure. The Kaabah itself bespeaks Ibrahim’s faith and his belief in the Oneness, the Sublimity of God. Muhammad Asad writes: “Never had I felt so strongly as now, before the Kaába, that the hand of the builder (Ibrahim A.S) had come so close to his religious conception. In the utter simplicity of a cube, in the complete renunciation of all beauty of line and form, spoke this thought: ‘whatever beauty man may be able to create with his hands, it will be only conceit to deem it worthy of God; therefore, the simplest that man can conceive is the greatest that he can do to express the glory of God.’... Here in the Kaaba, even the size spoke of human renunciation and self-surrender; the proud modesty of this structure had no compare in the world.” Each time the pilgrim performs a ritual, he experiences again for a blessed moment, that edifying legacy, and revives within him again_ in a minuscule proportion_ that spirit. When he prays at the Maqam e Ibrahim, he reaffirms his association, as a monotheist, with Ibrahim (A.S) the Haneef, and realizes how the passionate faith of ‘those of the High Desire’ is immortalized by the Immortal, how the footsteps in the sands of time remain, leading, guiding, enlightening and blessing_ always showing the Way, the sirat al Mustaqeem; going where no road goes, taking the Road with them.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Lost Soul of the United States of America


Maryam Sakeenah

Secretary Hilary Clinton’s self-congratulation over American leaders’ unanimous disapproval of the intended burning of Muslim religious texts misses out the truth about American society and politics, and the crisis of its fundamental values.
The mass furore over the construction of a Muslim community centre blocks away from Ground Zero is symptomatic of a serious malaise. Public sentiment often manifests in funny ways, but what is worrying is that this has not very seriously bothered many of America’s stout guardians of values, its face-saving rhetoricians.
Protestors against the construction are not terrified by the prospect of bombs hidden away in the mosque’s secret chambers, but are offended by the symbolism of it, and this sheer audacity of America’s alienated Muslim minority.
The name ‘Ground Zero mosque’ is an inaccurate, exaggerated and dramatic construct indicative of the desire by some elements to exploit the widespread Islamophobia in the U.S in order to obstruct a venture essentially courageous and needful.
I say ‘needful’ because of its true symbolism that has escaped many who have been swept away by the tide of Islamophobia. If any community has borne the brunt of what happened on 9/11, it is the Muslims. Not only do they suffer America’s wars in tottering Afghanistan and devastated Iraq, but also the assault on civil liberties jeopardizing Muslim identity globally, Islamophobia in all its facets_ discrimination, racial profiling, stereotyping, bias and a sightless demonization campaign. The construction of an Islamic Community Centre could be America’s conciliatory overture to the marginalized Muslim community, its initiative to start the healing process. The Centre could function as a sacred space for a victimized community to work to restore its true image and ethos, to highlight the role and contribution of Islam in society, and to actively engage with the American community. The United States, priding itself for its liberalism, must yield that necessary sacred space.
President Obama’s outright support to the venture may help salvage his personal image among the Muslims, but it offers little consolation in the face of stark realities Muslims in America have to grapple with. A recent opinion poll shows over 53% Americans hold Islam in a very negative light_ and the government cannot shy away from responsibility for having contributed substantially through its propaganda machinery to rising anti-Islam sentiment in the U.S since 9/11. The American public is almost exclusively informed on national and global issues by influential media giants run by powerful lobbies. The indicators of rising Islamophobia in the U.S speak loudly about the media’s relentless campaign of dehumanizing and othering of the Muslim persona, and its failure to justly differentiate between a religion followed by billions and the actions of individuals in a particular context who claim to belong to it.
Even more telling is General Petraeus’s take on the matter. In his view, what makes the heinous task of burning scriptures worrying is its consequences that may threaten the U.S military abroad. By this logic, it is the consequences for men in uniform that render the act wrongful, not the act in itself; not the hurt this barbarism will wreak on the sentiments of billions of Muslims worldwide, not that this atrocity flies in the face of the most basic values of human civilization and violates the most fundamental rights of billions. Petraeus’s sentiment was echoed in what White House representative Robert Gibbs said of the matter: that ‘any type of activity that puts our troops in harms way would be a concern to this administration.’ Again, the reprehensibility of the act lies almost exclusively in the fact that it may endanger the lives of American troops. The logic exposes the narrow, narcissistic, nationalistic arrogance that puts the bloated Self over its perceived Other; that makes some lives more valuable than others, ‘óur values’ more inviolable than ‘theirs’.
There has been great concern and speculation in the U.S media over the death of an American soldier in the wake of an uprising in Southern Afghanistan sparked by the news of the 9/11 burning plans. The General shudders to think of what may happen if the images of burning sacred books end up being ‘used’ by terrorists to ‘incite violence.’ He forgets that it is not the ‘use’ of the resulting images that is the trouble, but the act in itself. And any Muslim knowing this could happen in the heart of the United States of America cannot but feel confounded over the state of a nation that allows that to happen.
The United States must stop presenting its warmongering as a result of misguided and ill-advised policies as if it were a clash between ‘our’ values and ‘theirs.’ It must get real and face the fact that it is not hated for its values, but for the lack thereof.
Petraeus enlightens with an analogy that the proposed act is like the Taliban’s, and that ‘The Taliban do the same (burn sacred books?!).’ This sweeping statement again takes as given the myth that the wars going on are about values, religions, scriptures and not policies. The Taliban’s fight never has been about American, Western or Christian values. The logic used here implies that if it was not for images being used to threaten American interests, deranged fanatics like Terry Jones may attack and insult what is most sacred to Muslim sensibility, stab in the softest part, strike where it hurts most and crush the very heart and soul of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims! The Taliban may be a reviled demon everybody loves to spit on. However, by attempting to strike a comparison between this global enemy and the despicable lunatic from Florida, Petraeus makes the contrast in their respective moral standing only too obvious.
Because, for a Muslim who takes his religion seriously, it is inconceivable to desecrate or even disparage any religious scripture or symbol. It is a core Islamic belief to acknowledge the Divine origin of all revealed religion. The Quran says: “Do not revile those who they invoke apart from God.. .” (Surah Anaam, verse 108). Muslims_ or even the Taliban for that matter_ cannot by any means respond to Jones’s lunacy in equal measure for the demand their faith makes on them. The universalism and pluralistic vision of Islam originating in its basic texts revealed 1400 years ago sets a standard that secular, liberal American society would take ages to reach. The fact that it can allow sick-minded hate-mongers like Jones to not only exist in society but actually propagate and promote their devilish cult with impunity while conventional self-congratulatory lip-service to pacify a minority’s raw sentiments goes on in the backdrop, ought to explode the bubble of what the U.S ‘stands for’. It ought to lead to a serious rethink, for it is about the very soul of America.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Musings on the Pakistan Flood

-Musings on the Pakistan Flood
Maryam Sakeenah

One stands the risk of being dubbed illiberal and unenlightened if one sees in the deluge that has drowned one-fifths of the country, the Hand of God. The floods have, among other things, again brought to the fore the gaping ideological split that cuts across Pakistani society, making it deeply fractured and polarised. The flood, and the way we choose to look at it raises some fundamental questions that strike at the heart of our very self-definition and our worldview_ in fact, our very identity.
Pakistan’s clique of English writers flaunting liberal credentials are clearly irked by those who insist on seeing the flood as God’s handiwork, and emphatically stress on the fact that inanimate nature and its ‘inhumane’ forces act mechanically and indiscriminately.
On the other end of the divide are the ‘punishment theorists’, whose understanding that the floods are God’s anger unleashed on a sinful people does not really sit well. It is both arrogant and ignorant to brand everyone with the same iron. There is a certain unease and discomfort for a thinking mind to buy the theory. The problem with the punishment theory arises when it leads one to indiscriminate judgement rather than self-reflection; and when it deflects emphasis from the actual, material factors and ground realities directly responsible for wreaking a tragedy of these dizzying proportions: that no dams have been built in the country for years, that in a routinely flood-prone country there is no proper flood management system in place, and that we have not been sufficiently alerted to the very real effects of the global climate change.
Both perspectives are reductionist and lopsided_ the liberal view for ignoring the normative dimension and failing to appreciate the worth of the realization of one’s powerlessness and the humbling it brings. It ignores the understanding central to the Muslim worldview that everything that happens must be seen as a piece in the Divinely-laid scheme of things. Every occurrence fits into the mural of God’s Plan; that there are no random accidents, no meaningless chaos or anarchy in nature. For, Nature is Allah’s manifestation, and its processes are by His Design.
The punishment theorists, on the other hand, oversimplify a complex, multi-faceted reality in order to make sense of an inordinate phenomenon.
What is ignored in the process is the insight offered by some basic religious texts that deal with the subject. For one, the Quran talks at great length of natural calamity and cites historical instances of punishment through natural disasters to rebellious peoples. However, it has to be understood that within the framework of Absolute Justice, punishment becomes justified only when Truth has been clearly established and vindicated, and Falsehood exposed for all to see; and when the choice between Truth and Falsehood has been made in complete earnest by all. This criterion is fulfilled in the lifetimes of prophets. Hence the utter rejection and hostility after full knowledge, of a prophet’s message warranted divine punishment. With the ending of the line of prophethood, this is no longer the case. Hence it is erroneous to see a natural calamity in this day and age as wholesale, all-out, indiscriminate punishment to its victims of the kind the scriptures talk about.
Natural calamity after the time of prophets, functions as a reminder to man of his vulnerability as opposed to the Power of the Universal Sovereign, and of the transience of life; it serves to revive in the heart of man that God-consciousness, awe and fear so necessary to cut him down to size when he tends to get out of his boots. It functions as a test of faith, of patience and of man’s capacity to heal, help and alleviate the suffering of his fellow-man.
Another dimension that needs to be brought into focus is that God, in His infinite Mercy, recompenses every iota of suffering borne by His slaves , and that people of faith who lose their lives to accidents, disasters, calamities are blessed with the ranks of martyrdom. Clearly, being struck by a calamity does not make one less fortunate or more deserving of God’s Wrath. This understanding infuses in the Muslim’s heart compassion towards the sufferers.
A tradition attributed to Ayesha, the Mother of the Believers (R.A) sheds light on the matter with amazing precision. When asked how natural calamities were to be interpreted, she said: “(It is) A punishment for the disbelievers and a reminder to the believers.” (From the audio "Natural Disasters" by Shaikh Faisal Abdullah).
What this makes clear is that there can be no generalizations and no judgement, for the knowledge of the state of belief in people’s hearts lies with Allah alone, and whether a calamity becomes a punishment or a test for those affected by it and those witnessing it depends on every individual’s inner state, impossible to be judged by you or me. It is our attitude towards a calamity_ whether we respond to it with patience and learn from it the right lessons, or whether our hearts remain hard and unyielding_ that makes it either a punishment or a reminder for us. It is always those who humble themselves and can acquire the courage and faith to say “We belong to Allah, and to Him alone is our return” , that emerge triumphant out of every calamity, and whose indomitable spirit no calamity of whatever magnitude can crush.
Out of an instinctive aversion to a ‘not-so-liberal’ worldview, the ‘liberal fatwa ’ on the flood by our dogmatic liberals misses the essential point. It fails to appreciate the value of understanding ourselves as underlings to a Greater Power_ an understanding that humbles and imbues us with a sense of responsibility as we conduct ourselves in life, and a God-consciousness that makes us constantly strive to better ourselves; that gives us resilience and stoicism in the face of trial as well as compassion towards fellow human beings; that makes us conscious of our greater purpose and that at the end of the day we all are to stand in the Court of the Ultimate Sovereign with nothing but ourselves; that “His grasp is over all vision... and He is acquainted with all things.”
“How wonderful is the affair of the believer, for his affairs are all good, and this applies to no one but the believer. If something good happens to him, he is thankful for it and that is good for him. If something bad happens to him, he bears it with patience and that is good for him.” (Hadith of the Prophet PBUH, narrated by Muslim, 2999).

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Reflections on the Mosaic International Summit 2010

"Naught But A Single Nation"

‘And mankind is naught but a single nation.’ (The Quran, 2:213)

My friend from the Mosaic International Summit 2010 Sayka Hussain summed it up best to her inquisitive colleagues when asked what the Mosaic International Summit was all about_ ‘What would you make of a place with 80 people from all over the world, different cultures, languages, backgrounds... conservative Saudi Arabia rubbing shoulders with secular Turkey, Pakistan with Bangladesh... and guess what_ true respect for difference, a genuine desire to know and understand, celebration of diversity, sharing, learning, enlightening discussions, and some real fun.’

A paradigm of refreshing rarity in this puzzling, jostling world_ that’s the Mosaic International Summit. I remember the dismal air of gloom that hung over my city as it still reeled from the scars of a horrific terrorist attack earlier in July. I also remember the nervousness and anxiety, the clammy hands clutching the crumpled bit of paper with ‘safar ki duaein (prayers for travelling)’ written across it on the way to the airport. I remember reading worrying reports about the banning of veils in Europe, and the likelihood of it happening in the UK too, and getting jittery about the whole thing... and I remember how soon it all became a distant memory.

I’ve often read and heard of unity in diversity and seen bespectacled intellectuals make a big deal out of it, but these past few days I actually saw it work, witnessed it all around, experienced it, lived it. Eighty people from all over the world, and yet the instant bonding, the connectedness, the fraternal feeling, almost. You say that magic word ‘Salam alaikum’, and there you go_ the tautness leaves you, the stiffness goes out, and you feel warmed up, bursting into a smile_ as simple as that.

Now that I can reflect on the extraordinary experience, I know it was the ‘Muslim connection.’ Because beneath all our colours, shades and shapes, we shared core values. With all our diversity, we converge in a Unity that arises out of the faith we all share. Even as we travel on our own marked out pathways and make our own individual journeys, we are linked to the Centre that holds_ like those myriads circling the Sacred House_ always moving, yet always firmly linked to the Centre that holds_ Homeward bound.

To write down what I learnt at Mosaic International Summit is to try and put an abysmal intensity in black and white. However, one of the many lessons that was significant to me personally was the tremendous force with which the reality of the resounding ‘Verily, We have honoured the Children of Adam’ (The Noble Quran, 17:70) was driven home to me; that we all are honoured in being human; and that every individual is a piece in the Mosaic painted by the ‘Moving Finger’, adding to the colour, completing the design and making it whole. Every individual fits into and adds to that bigger picture; every individual is intrinsically valuable for his God-given humanness.

The experience of meeting spirited, visionary young Muslims from the world over revived in me the Hope that was so dangerously dwindling with news alerts, breaking news updates and appalling headlines. If 80 people, as my friend had so candidly put it, could foment the most enduring ties in two weeks and eighty different voices could break out in chorus ‘Different colour, one people...’, there was promise on the horizons. If this spirit could be magnified onto the world scene, a lot of obstacles could be surmounted, a lot of barriers could fall and stereotypes shatter.

Meeting people who had made it big in life and had substantially contributed to society reinstated my Idealism, and convinced me it was not foolish or vain to dream and to idealize. It was not stupid to have a vision for a better world even in your smallness. Every journey begins with a single step. You only have to know it will take you there. The signposts on the journey come from the faith you subscribe to, and guidance is to stay the course signposted for you. As a Muslim, I was awe struck to find that for every issue we discussed or focussed on_ be it leadership, sustainability, poverty alleviation or interfaith harmony_ there was a clear and comprehensive guideline, a definitive pointer, a solution indicated in the sacred texts of Islam. And hence Islam is no religion, but a Code of Life. Truly. It has always been faith that has inspired people to attain the highest of human aspirations, and it is Islam that informs our response as Muslims to the challenges confronting us today. On leadership, Islam tells us we have to be followers before we can lead; it tells us we all have a leadership responsibility within our own spheres, and that we are all as ‘shepherds to our flocks’, as the Prophet (SAW) used the analogy. On sustainability, Islam tells you to respect the natural Balance Allah has created: ‘And We have set up the Balance; so do not transgress the due Balance.’ (The Quran, 55:9) On poverty it tells you it must be eliminated by all means, as Ali (R.A) said, ‘If poverty was a person, I would have killed it.’ It teaches the importance of charity, and gives a system to regulate and establish it as a permanent means to bridge socio-economic disparity. However, it also tells you charity may help lift people out of a crippling animal existence, but that the real need is to create sustainable means of income generation through vigorous economic activity and an egalitarian, inclusive culture_ just as the Prophet (SAW) preferred to teach the beggar who approached him to fend for himself rather than just give him charity. It teaches you that while you put your faith in God, you also have to ‘tie your camel tight’, and that ‘Allah does not change the condition of any nation, until they change themselves’(The Noble Quran, 13:11) _ putting the onus on human initiative, individual and communal effort rather than Messianic hero-worship and inaction. I leant, as Councillor Afzal Khan CBE quoted from a hadith, that ‘He whose Today is not better than his yesterday, is a sure loser,’ and as Mr. Arif Zaman quoted in his parting message, ‘Value five things before five others... youth before old age, wealth before poverty, free time before getting busy, health before illness, and life before death.’ (hadith of the Prophet SAWW, narrated by Abu Dharr R.A) I learnt, as professor Keeler put it, that ‘Islam is a Balance produced by a Unity imparted through Revelation: the highest and most powerful form of Knowledge...’, and that it depends on us what we wish to take from the thousands of years of the Islamic experience and its heritage.

I noticed also that all of the extraordinary leaders we met_ Muslim or non Muslim_ shared one common, basic value_ they all had vision that transcended the immediate, short term material goal. They all had their eyes fixed on Yonder, and rose above the pettily personal. That is what made them people of personal integrity, character, principle, upstanding virtue. I learnt that this is the most fundamental component of true leadership, in whatever capacity. Because, as Imran_ a delegate from from UK put it, at the end of the day, we are all going into our own graves, and we are all going to have to answer for our actions. So it really is about your individual/personal choices in life, your sensitivity to the moral voice, your intentions, your sincerity. Even when we work for our fellow human beings, the punchline is that ‘in the final analysis, it is between you and God; it was never between you and them anyway.’

I look back with both nostalgia and thanksgiving. Some Mosaic moments come to haunt, instruct, enlighten, reassure and cheer up. From so many of my friends I learnt that beneath our skins and appearances we had so much in common, so much to share... I learnt how fickle our stereotypes are, how infantile our preconceived notions. I learnt that freedom and liberty is to be yourself and let the other be, and to respect their right to be themselves. I learnt to rise above external trappings and value the essence within; I learnt the importance of self-awareness, a sense of identity and the strength to profess it in order to venture into someone else’s sacred space. I learnt to embrace diversity and respect difference. I felt the warmth and the strength of holding hands and together walking the tedious Path, yet sure of the Guiding Hand, moving on, hoping to get There, eventually (thanks, Sayka). I relished that wonderful feeling of being understood, trying to understand, sharing, exchanging, learning, unlearning. (Thank you to ALL my newfound brothers and sisters). To my Pakistani friends, you give me so many reasons to be proud of and hopeful for my country.

A recurring memory is of the last night before departure, when John (or John O’Brien, executive head of MOSAIC) sat with some of us, sharing his journey to Mosaic, and what Mosaic had come to mean to him. He confided in us the values this had imparted to him, and how his encounter with every single one of the extraordinary people at Mosaic had been part of the personal journey of Self Awareness he had been chosen to make. He shared how it had made him look at some of the subtle biases he had grown up into, with maturity, critical insight and a humanistic vision. John’s experience resonated with many of our own stories of what Mosaic had come to mean to us. And in the magic of that moment, the diversity of the little group we were, the Welshness, whiteness and blue-eyedness, the brownness, blackness and veiledness, holiness or unholiness dissolved away into nothing_ for we were as one, able to feel, think, respect, empathize, understand, respond, laugh and weep_ just different colours, but one people... thank you, John!

I remember how during the presentations at Mosaic, whenever any of the presenters talked of the ‘Eighty extraordinary young leaders’, I would shrink into myself, thinking ‘seventy nine, actually.’ After this vigorous, overwhelming, transforming experience, I feel inspired, motivated, driven, sure of myself, confident of my vision, hopeful, energized, empowered, connected and resourceful... And so do the seventy nine others. I browse through my mailbox reading messages from Bangladesh, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan expressing not merely concern over the recent devastating floods in my country, but activism, responsibility, empathy and a desire to lend a hand. I am reassured, heartened... and a familiar hadith rings in my ears: “The believers, in their mutual mercy, love and compassion, are like a (single) body; if one part of it feels pain, the rest of the body will join it in staying awake and suffering fever.” (Narrated by al-Bukhaari).

I rise on the wings of Hope_ all is not lost!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

In Memory of Dr. Israr Ahmad


Maryam Sakeenah

As I walked through the dust and heat, threading my way through the throng of unfamiliar faces, I felt an indescribable kinship, an invisible bond that linked me to the faces I walked among. We were drawn towards the same_ a personage, a symbol, a phenomenon, an institution, an era, a life larger than Life. I was a nobody among the crowd, one among many_ and yet I felt I needed to be there, to draw in the moment, to feel the meaning in the cool shade of the towering white minaret and the gentle wind’s whisper, to see it writ large, to savour blessedness, to understand what it meant to truly live, and to live well. That was one of the many realizations the departure of Dr. Israr Ahmed brought home to me. I looked around at the silent, sombre crowd I felt we were all suddenly bereft, forlorn, derelict. There was the huge, gaping void it would take decades, perhaps centuries to fill.

He was rare_ not just as a scholar, but as a person too_ as a family member tearfully confided in me how he had been the unifying factor, helping resolve differences, sorting things out, solving problems, strengthening ties; how he had been the advisor, guide, patron, father figure, guardian, comforter, confidante.

There were tearful eyes, one of them a friend’s who reminisced of her time at the Quran Academy as a student. She said it had only struck her now that the personal revolution that had given her an entirely new orientation had been just one of the many, many transforming experiences thousands like her had undergone, made possible by the conviction and endeavour of a single ‘possessed’ man_ a man obsessed with a Single Idea. I had never before understood with such crystal clarity the meaning of ‘sadaqa e jarya.’

In one of his interviews, Doctor sahib, in his candid demeanour, had said he didn’t think he had been successful in any significant measure_ except perhaps that his work had helped create religious awareness and inclination among the country’s educated middle class. Understated indeed, considering the enormity and significance of the task. His tireless mission spanned decades, and his tenacity in pursuing the goal he believed in with all his soul was commendable. The depth of his knowledge and insight had been garnered over years of painstaking, unaided personal effort. The maturity of his seasoned vision, the sense of balance and the conviction in the face of formidable odds were a rare combination. His passion for the Cause he held dear and strove tirelessly for was powerful and moving. He dreamt alone, and dared to act it out. He was thoroughly immersed in the Quran, thoroughly in love with it. You couldn’t doubt the love, it was so there. He had its glow on the face, its brilliance in the eyes, its ring in the voice. And it was infectious.

As I stepped into the place where he had lived for years, I was instantly struck by the simplicity, as it was so utterly shorn of any semblance of comfort and luxury. ‘Live in this world as a stranger or a wayfarer.’ The Wayfarer had lived it out, eyes firmly fixed on the Greater Beyond, and moved on. And when I stepped out of the simple place that had been home to him all those years I noticed the offices of the Tanzeem i Islami, the library of the Khuddaam ul Quran, the hordes of people attired in the beauty of the Sunnah _ bearded, wearing prayer caps_ and the edifying structure of the masjid, I knew I was witnessing an edifying legacy. And all of a sudden I could feel the humungous power, the might, the impact of individual initiative and effort. I could suddenly see the miraculous divine power that invests sincere action, blessing it with barakah that outlasts lifetimes, even generations. I could see the unstoppable, spreading luminosity of that lone spark in the blackness. I could see it bursting into flame.

In one of his interviews he had explained how as a child he had been struck with the powerful meaning of the verse by Iqbal: ‘Woh zamaney mein muazzaz they musalman ho kar, Aur tum khuwar huwe tarik e Quran ho kar.’ He said the verse had possessed him, and then there was no turning back. He had been Handpicked, marked out, chosen. The Moving Finger was at work. His last Friday lecture barely days before his passing away, was about the meaning of Shukr_ gratitude to God_ for being chosen to discover and share and disseminate; for the man that he was, and for the legacy he left. In this last lecture, he mentioned at length the blessings awaiting believers in Al Firdous, and that only on receiving that true and lasting reward would the actual and full meaning of ‘Alhamdulillah’ be experienced in its totality. ‘Jab hum Jannat mein jayein gay,’ he had said, ‘to sub se pehlay zaban se yehi niklay ga: ‘Alhamdulillah.’

Alhamdulillah for your being there. Alhamdulillah for passing it on.

In class when I shared the news with students I could not at first explain to myself the calm that suddenly overwhelmed me_ perhaps out of a sense of comfort in the hope that he would be in that Happier Place. A student wrote of him, “I would go to Jannat al Firdous and meet him there inshallah. I would shake hands with him_ I always wanted to do that but he has died, you know, so I can’t. But in Jannah I shall shake his hands and he will smile and say, ‘My son, I am so proud of you.’”

The Dream lives on, beckoning us.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Israel's Attack on Aid Flotilla


Maryam Sakeenah

Israeli journalist Sima Kadmon, concerned over recent events that caused an outpouring of rage and condemnation against Israel the world over (almost), reminisced of a time when her country was ‘a bit less righteous, but a bit more wise’. She held that Israel had been ‘unwise’ in attacking the aid flotilla with its ‘pro Palestine’ peace activists; unwise for not accurately predicting and calibrating its response to the scale of the outrage it provoked. She may have paraphrased the ancient Israeli dictum most aptly to the occasion, but she is not unusual in her perception. Among the Israeli writers who ventured to be critical of the attack, many expressed disapprobation on account of the lack of caution, the stupidity of the move as it failed to gauge the overwhelming responses it could generate the world over. Ben Kaspit thought it important to clarify before expressing his resentment against the unwise move, “First of all, let it be clear: We are on the right side in this story.”
Kadmon‘s comment is interesting and reflective of the mindset that prioritizes things on the basis of expediency, puts interest before rightness or wrongness_ a mindset only too rampant in the kind of world ours is. I like her choice of words... ‘less righteous’ and ‘wiser.’ Lesser righteousness, it implies, is directly proportional to wisdom_ the only wisdom known by the world out there, of course, being maximization of interests; ‘ínterests’ in turn, are defined by whatever accentuates national power and international clout. ‘All do good who work towards that end’_ making sure a lot of suspicion is not aroused for one’s motives, and rhetoric provides effective cover.
At times, however, the rhetoric too can do little to hide the crudeness, the brazenness, the bad taste. The official Israeli statement after the tragedy said: “Israel had no choice but to stop the flotilla from breaking the blockade....While Israel was forced to take action in international waters, its actions are supported by international maritime law... personnel attempting to enforce the blockade were met with violence by the protesters and acted in self defense to fend off such attacks." Washington, not surprisingly, mumbled that it was ‘working to understand the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.’
What is visibly amiss is a reference to morality and to basic human values. What is absent is a consciousness of the fact that lives of real human beings was involved_ both in besieged, oppressed Gaza, and in the ship that carried volunteers on an aid mission. What is absent is that same understanding Shakespeare expressed ages ago in his memorable lines: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” Only the names and identities change, the roles switch, never the human essence.
In my study of International Relations (upper case), just as in my layman’s observations of contemporary international relations (lower case), I have always encountered a cold rationalism, a rock-hard empiricism, a lack of propensity for and a sneering denigration of the normative dimension. I have encountered, as Kadmon stated, an overweening emphasis on being ‘worldly-wise’ in the pursuit of selfish national interest, and an unconcern towards the ‘rightness’ of an act. It is the way of the world, we are told. And it sure is. But the normative question of ‘does it really have to be so?’ is not asked. The rules have been set, compliance demanded.
As we grew more sophisticated and complexly technical in our theoretical groundwork and jargon, and as we devised fancier research methodologies, we convinced ourselves that to be authentic and credible, one had to be harshly amoral, ‘value-free’. This moral ambivalence or ‘neutrality’ characterizes International Relations discourse. It separates in most cases, raw fact from its accompanying context and deeper implications that emerge from the simple understanding that we deal with human beings and their lives, histories, cultures, attitudes and values. The flotilla attack is condemnable not because it was unwisely planned and unwisely executed, but because it was wrong. And it was wrong not because it was stupid, but because it was disproportionate, unprovoked aggression against virtually defenceless peace activists in international waters, and that it killed innocents who had no intent to confront and attack.
Kadmon’s stated cliché is the very heart of the matter.
The ‘value-free’ approach to I(i)nternational R(r)elations has been standardized, and lies at the base of both neo-realist and neo-liberal approaches_ think tanks, research institutes, opinion and policy-making circles that hold the strings, set the directions, orient policy, initiate and inform decision-making. Out of the many such entities dedicated to the dissemination of valueless International Relations, many happen to be run and influenced by lobbyists subscribing to the neo-Conservatist and Zionist worldviews.
The mainstream media too stems from these sources ideologically and otherwise. Roughly the same groups and individuals both own it and set the trends that govern the two domains. Care is taken to preserve an image of ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’_ euphemisms for the moral vacuity that gapes behind the coverage of international affairs by the popular news media. Objectivity and neutrality in the wake of blatant inhumanity, violation of international law, oppression and injustice is criminal_ in fact, it is not really possible for a sensate human being to remain coldly ‘neutral’, and wherever one finds a decorous attempt at dispassionate ‘neutrality’, one ought to smell prejudice and bias. You have to take sides when one party is the victim and the other the perpetrator, and the flotilla incident does not leave us guessing at all. You have to realize your moral obligation and your duty as a human being. You have to stand by the truth and not escape from your moral duty by claiming to be ‘objective’ and ‘neutral’. Indifference and nonchalance in matters like this is tragic.
Media biases in covering the aid flotilla incident were glaringly obvious and have been highlighted by several independent writers. The Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) expressed its deep apprehension and anger over the BBC coverage regarding the freedom flotilla. The BBC’s coverage of the event was clearly lopsided, and any fool could see that. The incident was portrayed as a sort of battle, an action-reaction phenomenon_ not as piracy in the high seas, not as slaughter of peace activists in international waters, not as state terrorism. The official account of the Israeli deputy foreign minister was presented, which stated that the flotilla organizers’ intent was violent. Israeli spokespersons received ample air time to tell their side, while the counter argument was merely made mention of in passing. The viewers did not have versions to even choose from, so relentless was the assault on hearts and minds. The American mainstream media had a similar tenor. Not surprisingly, therefore, opinion polls show that nearly half - 49 percent - of likely U.S. voters believe that ‘pro-Palestinian’ activists were to blame for the deaths that occurred when the Israel Defense Forces raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, according to a new Ramussen poll survey. To set the record straight, one only needs to know that officials from the Israeli Defence Force had made clear their intent to thwart the passage of the aid flotilla towards Gaza. One only needs to see the bare statistics of the fatalities to know who was the victim and who the perpetrator.
This may have come to the fore this strikingly now, but the media biases in covering the Palestine-Israel conflict have been ever-present. The terrible plight of Gaza has not been adequately brought to light in its full intensity except in statistics quoted in opinion pieces on independent blogs and websites. Perhaps we have grown too used to the Palestinians in particular and Muslims in general being killed off like flies. It is nothing to be shouting about from the rooftops.
The ‘analysts’ and ‘experts’ on the Middle East, diplomats and heavily paid crisis managers too have not realized in full the gravity of the plight of the Gazans since the three-year-old siege with any zeal and commitment_ too bored by now, perhaps, of this weeping sore of history since over sixty years. This plays right into the hands of political leaders who pay no more than lip service. U.S rhetoric on the issue has turned positively meaningless, utterly predictable and pathetic. Puppets and dictators installed throughout the length and breadth of the Middle East measure carefully what and how much is to be said or done for Palestine, maintaining a cautious balance on the tightrope_ keeping their bosses in the U.S happy, not alarming Israel and dexterously taming and toning down the public opinion of millions of frustrated Muslim masses at home. If that is wisdom for you, I wish we were a bit less wise.
The flotilla has brought into the limelight the shocking reality in Gaza the world has quite forgotten. The blockade cripples the lives of 1.5 million people of Gaza. While Israel maintains that basic needs are met with the aid supplies that Israel allows, the fact is that these do not meet even 20 percent of the populations’ needs. The result has been 80 per cent population living in abject poverty and misery, and hundreds of deaths from lack of medical equipment and other necessary items. Ismail Patel writing for Al Jazeera states, “Never mind the fact that the blockade has been accompanied by near constant attacks from the Israeli army and navy, which totally eclipse any home made rockets from Gaza. The death toll speaks for itself, with four civilian deaths on the Israeli side and over 2,000 on the Gaza side since June 2007. This is not a just conflict between Israel and Gaza, it is an annihilation of one group of ill-equipped people by one of the mightiest armies in the world.”
Israel has worked hard both through its ‘wise’ state policies of censorship, propaganda, blockade and its influential lobbyists all over the world, to keep the terrible plight of Gaza eclipsed from view. Israel’s allies have been willing accomplices. Amnesty International complained in its annual report for 2010 that the U.S. and members of the European Union had obstructed international justice by using their positions on the UN Security Council to shield Israel from accountability for war crimes allegedly committed during last year’s Gaza war. The rights group also accused Israel of continually violating human rights in the Gaza Strip. It cited Israel’s ongoing economic blockade as violating international law, leaving Gaza residents without adequate food or water supplies. (reported by Haaretz News Service, May 31, 2010.)
If the contorted logic of ‘self defence’ for Israel is wisdom for you, I wish we were a bit less wise, and just a bit more righteous.
What makes the peace activists and aid workers on board the flotilla truly heroic is that they forced the world to look squarely at the plight of Gaza and managed to expose the ruthless ways of the occupier. They are heroic for their determination and resoluteness to challenge the brutal siege that makes Gaza what a journalist called ‘the largest open air prison in the world.’ What makes them heroic is their courage to confront the unabashed aggressor and through their personal sacrifice, to awaken the world’s sleeping conscience. They dared to confront the humungous Goliath with the conviction and moral power_ allegorically speaking_ of David’s lone slingshot. And just like that unequal confrontation eons ago in a distant history which, as later events unfolded, brought the mighty enemy to his knees, so will this little pioneering mission gather the unmitigated strength of humanity’s conscience and spearhead a formidable, global resistance from those who insist on retaining their humanity and defending their right to think, feel and act morally. Turkey has been jolted awake, and the world’s senses still reel from the shock of the brazen violation of law, human rights and basic morality that was witnessed. It will go a long way, to teach us that it is more important to be ‘a little more righteous’, and that this in fact is the highest wisdom. As a friend wrote, ‘I can see the winds of change blowing.’

Monday, May 17, 2010

Musings on Democracy

Maryam Sakeenah

Writing of Mr. Jamshed Dasti_ the infamous Pakistani former minister found to be in possession of a fake graduation degree, recently re-elected to the assembly in a popular vote_ is one of those moments in my erratic writing career when I feel utterly tongue-tied, run out of vocabulary. Jamshed Dasti may be just another ‘poor player strutting his hour upon the stage’, but he is certainly not an anomaly. He typifies a kind. He and the many others of his ilk who occupy the seats of power are mere symptoms of a deeply flawed, perverted, politically immature and democratically stunted order. Strictly speaking of technicalities, while the transparency of the elections that brought these to the fore cannot be doubted, the inadequacy of any ‘free and fair’ elections held in Pakistan or any other nascent post-colonial republic as an indicator of a ‘democratic’ set-up stands proven. It is to be noted that Mr. Dasti had vigorous, almost audacious support from the ruling Peoples’ Party, unequivocally expressed by the Prime Minister himself. The inability of the system to cough up and spew out elements like Dasti, the bad taste of the average voter and the exposition of the abysmal state of our collective morality expressed through poor democratic choices is all there to see.
Ignorance and corruption that Dasti embodies defines the country’s political trends and leadership even as we still reel from a long military dictatorship and feverishly revel in the country’s first ever truly democratic and transparent elections and a much-awaited return to democratic governance. Understandably therefore, the current regime’s rhetoric is typically loaded with references and invocations to democracy in the midst of a torrent of crises emerging from neglect and myopia that cripple the common man. Critics of government policies are invariably dubbed ‘enemies of democracy’ by pathetically vengeful politicians clinging on to power that does not befit them.
Further away from home, it is again the democratic ruse that does the trick. Inept, corrupt, parasitic and weak regimes are propped up with support from powerful nations. Poor governance is invariably ignored while doling out millions of dollars of aid for ‘sustaining democracy’ _ particularly if that ‘democracy’ happens to be docile to Western interventionist moves. Governments not winning favour with the West for resistance to interventionism, on the other hand, are condemned for undemocratic credentials. Foreign aid to support fragile ‘democracies’ almost invariably goes no further than the pockets of the corrupt ruling elites and parasitic bureaucracies, hardly more than a minuscule fraction ever filtering down to the masses whose votes these ‘democracies’ claim to draw authority from. The donors in most cases, couldn’t care less, and make no secret of it. Similarly, a ‘lack of democracy’ is reason enough to declare a state failed, a rogue element unworthy of standing amidst the comity of the civilized. This very same ‘lack of democracy’ then becomes the grounds and justification for interference and intervention “for democracy’s sake”, meddling in domestic affairs and facilitation of destabilizing elements from both within and without, in order to secure regime change on more favourable lines.
Iraq and Afghanistan, being the two cases in point as sites for contemporary Wars for Democracy are hardly the success stories of the Democratic Project the warmongers would have us believe. What we do have, however, are pro-U.S ruling elites on life support by NATO troops, floundering in the midst of an unruly, chaotic morass and increasingly proliferating resistance. The failure of the democratic project in countries ‘not democratic enough’ is rudely flung in the faces of the architects of war, making the global rhetoric on democracy appear facile and ludicrous. Yet we insist on chorusing the refrain, refusing to grow up and grow wise.
Given the West’s sanctification of democracy as the Greatest Good, and its self-righteously global imposition of Democracy with missionary zeal, it is rather surprising to know that a large number of political thinkers from the Western tradition have not viewed democracy favourably as a system. Plato believed that democracy of the vote was a self-destructive system because, as Will Durant interprets him, “the people are not properly equipped by education to select the best people and the wisest courses to take. To get a doctrine accepted or rejected it is only necessary to have it praised or ridiculed in a popular play. The crowd so loves rhetoric and flattery, that at last the wiliest, calling himself the ‘protector of the people’, rises to power. In democracy we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. The people blindly elect the lesser of two evils presented to them as candidates by the nominating cliques. To devise a method of barring incompetence and knavery from public office and selecting and preparing the best to rule for the common good_ that is the problem of political philosophy.” In our own tradition, we know offhand the verse by Iqbal that says something to the effect of, “Democracy is a system of government in which men are merely counted, not weighed.”
There is also the more extreme sentiment on the other hand, of Democracy being denounced as outright ‘kufr’ (disbelief) and a rebellion against God. Of late, with the rise of reactive militancy in the Muslim world, such sentiments have been exacerbated. Notwithstanding conceptual disagreement over what I think is a flawed premise, I do understand the reactionary nature of this sentiment vis a vis the United States and its allies’ brutal, relentless and uncalled-for exploitation and intervention in the affairs of the Third World in general and the Muslim World in particular_ all in the name of Democracy. Besides, the West has, quite untruthfully, presented democracy to be an exclusively ‘Western’ value which automatically makes the West more ‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’ than the ‘Rest’, ignoring the undercurrents of liberal-democratic thought clearly identifiable in traditions and doctrines not entirely ‘Western’. So when Maulana Sufi Muhammad boldly stated that the democratic system was ‘Disbelief’, creating a furore in the length and breadth of the country, I was not really taken aback, though I would not really side with the Maulana.
That is because when I take an insightful look through the pages of Muslim sacred texts and early history, (precisely the first Islamic state that all Muslims look up to as the ideal to be emulated), I find values and principles that are curiously akin to ‘Western’ democratic norms and principles. I find it impossible to see the system of Islam as it were when first established, as an antithesis to democratic values. How could it be so when the values most fundamental to Islamic politics_ social justice, equality of rights and opportunities, empowering the public voice, creating a participatory culture_ to name a few_ are common also to democratic theory? The prioritization of public welfare, human rights and justice that democracy emphasizes are more strikingly obvious in the narrative of Muslim history in its first few decades than in any other tradition.
It may be misleading to call the first Islamic State at Madinah a ‘democracy’_ as the term in its modern context, originating in Western post-Enlightenment thought, cannot be patched on to an altogether different context, system and ethos. However, it is certainly fair and safe to say that the Islamic state includes in it aspects essential to democracy. According to Khalid El Fadl, the concepts of rule of law and limits on authority in Islam ‘embrace the core elements of the modern democratic practice.’ He enumerates the following social and political values central to a Muslim polity laid out in the Quran: * Justice through social co operation and mutual assistance (Chapter 44 verse 13; Chapter 11 verse 119), * non-autocratic consultative method of governance; * institutionalizing mercy and compassion in social interaction (Ch. 6 v. 12, 54; 21:117, 27:77, 29:57). He further states: “Muslims must therefore endorse forms of government that promote these values... Several considerations suggest that democracy protects individual basic rights... and by assigning equal rights of speech, association, suffrage to all_ offers the greatest potential for promoting justice.”
This said, it is important to understand that despite embodying democratic values in essence, the Islamic system does not make an electoral exercise on a ‘one man one vote’ basis mandatory. Surprising as it may be, this periodic balloting exercise isn’t really the ‘point’ of democracy anyways_ the ‘point’ being to empower the vox populi, to give socio-economic and legal equality and make the rulers accountable to the law and to the people. In the course of Islamic history, oftentimes was voting used to choose leaders or decide particular matters where recourse could be taken to garnering public consent. ‘Ruling by consensus’ is an unequivocal Quranic directive which defines Islamic governance. Rulers could not take office until the people’s representatives expressed loyalty to them ‘as long as they ruled by the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Prophet(PBUH).’
However, there are some important distinctions from contemporary Western parliamentary democracy that need to be recognized:
a) the vote in most cases was not general but by a select group. This does not rule out general, open voting as ‘un Islamic’, but rather emphasizes the fact that the eligibility to vote rests upon the person’s ability (freedom to choose and understanding to make that choice on the right criteria). What counts is not the size of the voting franchise but that the vote ought to truly represent popular choice rather than be a democratic facade over a flawed, corrupt and stratified society. The people eligible to vote in the history of Islam truly enjoyed public confidence, were well-recognised, trustworthy and pre-eminent. Their associated tribes and communities reposed trust in them, and they acted with regard to the popular will invested in them. Therefore, though technically the exercise was short of a general vote as we know it today, it truly represented the people’s will. When the masses rise to the level of this high standard of eligibility through the achievement of a just, egalitarian society, general voting may certainly be the best measure of the public will. Before the level is reached, the holding of general elections may be more of a semblance of democracy to show the world than a real step towards democratic culture.
b) candidates eligible to stand for voting have to be chosen/selected either through nomination by the leader of the community or by the people of respect and eminence in knowledge, on the basis of their character, knowledge, ability, service to Islam and repute among the people. Putting oneself forth or voluntarily standing for election or any sort of canvassing is not permissible in Islam. This is in order to do away with elements who may seek public office as a convenience and privilege, a means for self-projection, popularity etc. Islam understands the assumption of public office as not just a public trust but a sacred trust, a duty toward God, a responsibility, a position of intense scrutiny and accountability both towards people and towards God. It is a position of vicegerency to God and His Prophet (S), and considering what it entails, the earliest Muslims never coveted it. Rather, they shrank from the enormity of the trust. The Prophet (S) is reported to have said, ‘We do not accept for office one who covets it.’
c) Central to the Islamic understanding is the premise that ultimate sovereignty belongs to God, not the people. Apparently, here is a radical shift from democracy. While it is true that democracy accords such sovereignty to the people and so parts its ways with the Islamic understanding, yet the true nature of this Islamic principle of ‘sovereignty belongs to God’ is that absolute supremacy for the Law of Allah translates into dignity for His slaves through protection of rights, welfare, equality, justice which are the ultimate worldly aim of the Divine law. Hence it is obvious that even in this case of a clear difference with democracy, there exists in essence the shared vision and mission of provision of rights, bestowing of dignities through equality and justice. The difference, however, is that while Western democracy invariably follows the popular will to maximize the ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number,’ in Islam the aforementioned values are a result of the establishment, through human effort and agency, of Divine Shariah Law, and are the means to attain His Pleasure in the life hereafter.
Back home, the quagmire of corruption, nepotism and injustice gnaws into our body-politic, this being to some extent a result of our superficial and narrow understanding of democracy as ‘the holding of elections’. The current regime, we know, makes a huge deal out of its democratic win which incidentally ended an era of dictatorship. The rhetoric of the most corrupt politicians is punctuated with references to democracy. The truth that we fail to understand is that democracy is a value more than a political procedure, and that the holding of free and fair elections is the culmination and natural expression of the achievement of a thoroughly democratic culture. It goes from down and then up, and not vice versa. Elections cannot be implanted from the top onto a corrupt, exploitative and deeply unjust system and democratize it magically. For a democracy to work, it has to start at the grassroots. However, letting the rotten system remain while we electioneer every few years will only bring forth, in a predictable sequence, those who can win the vote by throwing their weight about, demagoguery, influence, clout, intimidation or ingenious electioneering theatrics. Voting works to deliver an authentic democracy in a society where stomachs are full, fundamental rights respected, opportunities equally available on merit, access to justice for all, supremacy of law, accountability and the right to dissent.
In my country votes are still cast largely on the basis of filial and tribal ties, ‘baradari’ system, bullying, or canvassing tactics. This immaturity is reflected in the win of the fake degree holder Jamshed Dasti to public office, and the unabashed support for him shown by the highest democratically elected office holders of the ruling clique, including the Prime Minister himself. It is a mockery of the rule of law by the so-called representatives of the people. Our political immaturity is reflected in our thinking that it is democratic enough to hold intermittent elections. Electoral antics can wait till the task of nation building is achieved by empowering the truly worthy sons of the soil who are marginalized and unacknowledged for their failure to play along the devious ways of narrow electoral democracy.
But I can dare to hope and look forward to a gradual political maturation, the grounds for it being amply present in the phenomenal reinstatement of the judiciary not so long ago, by a massive civil society effort. The fiercely independent judiciary’s proactive role in erecting a system of checks and balances will hopefully go a long way to materialize a fairer socio-political order on the basis of stringent, indiscriminate accountability. A regime that resists this heartening change, defies and obtrudes it, in no way qualifies as a democracy. Realizing this means we take a step further towards that much-needed political maturation.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Religion and Morality: A Rejoinder


Maryam Sakeenah

Irfan Hussain, in his article ‘Morality and Atheism’ published in DAWN, February 17, 2010, has cited an array of facts and figures to assert his point that despite rising agnostic/atheistic trends in secular Europe, those societies demonstrate better standards of morality as opposed to corrupt and decadent religious societies. This proves, according to Hussain, that there exists no direct link between religion and morality, and that atheism as opposed to religion, is equally moral, if not more. On the face of it, Mr. Hussain is thoroughly correct, given the facts and figures he cites. However, making statistical data the sole basis for drawing assertive conclusions on a subject as complex, multi-layered and profound as the relationship between religion, morality and atheism is at best a forensic approach, very often misleading. The argument misses essential links in its logical progression and, relying merely on a handful of statistics and facile, apparent facts, concludes with a perfunctory yet vigorous assertion. A lot remains to be said.
To begin with, there is no contention with Mr. Hussain’s accuracy in citing his facts. However, the inadequacy of his approach is obvious at the outset when he refuses to be appalled by the prospect of the majority of births in Europe occurring out of wedlock, because these individuals have full ‘legal rights’ in secular societies. What rings loudly out of this is the question he leaves unanswered: Does a human individual need no more than ‘legal rights’ in order to develop wholesomely into a stable, healthy, sound personality? Is the provision of ‘legal rights’ sufficient enough to make the comfort, warmth and security of being part of a stable family utterly unnecessary? The gaping omission in this particular statement runs through the entire piece and the mindset at the back of it; as if forensic data, matter and material were all that counted.
At the heart of the debate lies our perception of human nature. The Quran says in Surah Shams: “And indeed He has inspired it (the human self) with evil and with God-consciousness (or goodness).” Most thinkers, regardless of their Western or Oriental affiliations, assent to the fact that the human being is morally neutral, with both the capacity to do good and the instinct to commit evil. This inherent moral neutrality emphasizes the importance of external influences, surroundings and the milieu which will in large part determine whether the individual exercises his will to enact good or evil. The verse after the aforementioned states: “Indeed, he is successful who has purified it (from evil).” The necessity of this act of purification to restrain the evil impulse and the importance of the social milieu to facilitate the process through external stimuli is central to the Islamic understanding. As the human being is capable of destruction and harm for selfish ends, he needs to be reined in through the presence of social institutions that guard moral values and the inner moral imperative that comes from belief.
In all fairness, to reach a correct understanding, one must first establish the moral bases of religious and secular morality. Traditional morality having its basis in religion and its echoes in Kantian Idealism believes the rightness and wrongness of an action is based upon the motive of duty and conscientiousness with reference to a rationally acceptable moral rule, regardless of the consequences. Secular morality is rooted in Utilitarianism, which defines an action to be right or wrong based on the context and social utility_ given that it serves the end of ensuring the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ While for the traditionalist the ends no matter how noble cannot justify the means_ if the means violate some established moral principle, the Utilitarians believe in expediency, that is, for a useful end, any means that help may be used.
The question of ends and means brings into the discussion the dynamics of human relationships. Professor Don Mc Niven writes, “Utilitarians see human relationships merely as exercises in self-interest. For them, all human relationships are essentially instrumental. People use each other merely as means to their own ends, and not as ends in themselves.’ For Immanuel Kant the Idealist, seeing people as means and not ends in themselves was perhaps the greatest crime. Certainly, all human relationships cannot be viewed commercially or as power relationships, given the more altruistic sentiments of love, sacrifice, sincerity and friendship. With the Utilitarian concept prevailing, laments Professor Mc Niven, “manipulation of others for selfish ends becomes the paradigm for all human relationships.”
Here lies the catch. This gives a glimpse into the ethos of Western society, the amorality of which is deplored by many many voices from the West. Deploring Western morality, Mr. Hussain seems to think, is an exclusively Muslim enterprise, born out of a sort of ‘holier than thou’ attitude prevalent among believers in God. What would Mr. Hussain make of the many Westerners, a number of them secular and agnostic themselves, who have denounced the decadence and depravity running wild in Europe? Professor Mc Niven goes on: “The neglect of moral education has had dire consequences for our civilization. It explains, in part, the wide gap which has developed between our technologies and our moralities. There appears to be a real decline in moral standards in Western civilization. Moral scandals occur in the increasing numbers in every area our lives, in politics, in medicine, in business, in science, in sports and in religious institutions. Our civilization seems to be becoming amoral. It is not simply that we are becoming more evil, but also that evil no longer concerns us. We no longer believe our professional lives have moral dimensions.”
This amorality manifests itself in three aspects of contemporary Western life: i) the crisis of the family, which is directly linked with permissive Hedonism and sexual perversion ii) commercialism which has links with environmental degradation and prevailing competitive materialism, iii) racial prejudice and social exclusivism; marginalization of non Western communities. This aspect is related to rising Islamophobia and post-9/11 politics vis a vis the Muslim world.
Mitt Romney expressed horror over this moral decay taking its toll on family values and personal ethics: “Europe is facing a demographic disaster. That is the inevitable product of weakened faith in the Creator, failed families, disrespect for the sanctity of human life and eroded morality...” Christopher Lasch examines contemporary Western culture and believes its inherent utilitarianism and materialism to have created a culture of Narcissism: “People have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is physical and psychic self-improvement: eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly-dancing, immersing themselves in Yoga meditation, jogging etc. Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped up in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from the big things in life… to live for the moment is the prevailing passion_ to live for yourself. ‘Survival’ has become the catchword, and ‘collective narcissism’ the dominant disposition. The society makes sense only of living for the moment, to fix our eyes on our own private performance, to become connoisseurs of our own decadence, to cultivate self-attention. The world-view emerging among us centres solely on the self and has individual survival as its sole good.”
The fundamental difference between conservative societies and those based on secular-utilitarian morality is that while the traditionalists believe in the sanctity of human life as the central social principal, the utilitarians consider the quality of life to be of prime significance. Professor Mc Niven enlightens on the subject: “Attitudes towards social morality are also essentially different. Utilitarians want to create a benevolent or caring society while traditionalists want a just society based on respect human rights. Many utilitarians hold that a just society is a necessary condition for a benevolent society, but attempts to reduce justice to forms of utility have proved difficult if not impossible.”
It must be acknowledged, however, that Western societies have achieved high levels of comfort, quality of life, social welfare and protection for the generality of masses. Individual liberties are guaranteed across Western societies as an inviolable right. For one, the surviving influence of religious values as the basis of modern ethics even in secular Europe needs to be acknowledged. Secular Europe has effectively established ethical principles_ which it shares in common with religion_ through its social and political institutions. This has given a firm ethical footing to modern European life where the system facilitates and encourages moral behaviour which ‘increases the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ and minimizes suffering. The system makes any violation of ethical principles enshrined in secular law (which, it must be noted, it shares with religion) difficult and punishable. The presence and influence of religious morality in secular West is substantive, and Hussain’s assertion of a ‘widespread rejection of religion in Europe after the Enlightenment’ is only partially true. While institutionalized state religion meddling in politics was certainly rejected, and in this sense Western states ‘secularized’, religious morality was not overturned in its entirety, and survives in contemporary social ethics despite the widespread utilitarian premise. Mc Niven considers the conservative moral tradition to be related to both secular and religious humanism, containing elements of the classical natural law tradition. The Hebrew-Christian tradition is part and parcel of Western culture despite its current secular persona.
How, then, does one explain the appalling crimes European-American political history is replete with? Sultana Saeed, in her essay “Islam: From Revelation to Realization” questions, “History records that countries with written constitutions, democratic principles, fundamental rights and freedom were able to wipe out entire populations... one has to read the records in the Amnesty International Yearbook. We have become immune. We seem to accept all kinds of atrocities against man. With the light of ‘knowledge’ we have reached the moon and become very grand... we no more burn witches at the stake, yet we accept the possibility of the whole of mankind being blown to pieces in a holocaust.” What is striking about Mr. Hussain’s work is how he entirely sidesteps this glaring phenomenon, despite the fact that the terrible atrocities committed by Western governments in the wake of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ have flung this fact rudely in our faces, necessitating a rethink. In 2004, horrifying images from Abu Ghraib prisons in Iraq were released into the media showing humiliation and abuse of prisoners. Shortly after, similar information about widespread prison abuse at Bagram prisons in Afghanistan was revealed. It afforded a glimpse into the inhuman barbarity unleashed on suspects and detainees that had been going on unabated behind the scenes. According to the New York Times, “What happened at Abu Ghraib was no aberration, but part of a widespread pattern. The investigative file on Bagram showed that the mistreatment of prisoners was routine: shackling them to the ceilings of their cells, depriving them of sleep, kicking and hitting them, sexually humiliating them and threatening them with guard dogs -- the very same behavior later repeated in Iraq.” The widespread use of water-boarding for investigating suspects has been condoned by several within government ranks even though the use of high degree torture (which this method constitutes) is officially outlawed. However, expediency is the norm here, as one U.S official put it with raw honesty: "If you don't violate someone's human rights some of the time, you probably aren't doing your job.”
In an earlier article, this writer analyzed the same in some depth hence: “A perfect illustration of how this mindset operates is in those stories of violent, inhuman prison-abuse by U.S soldiers at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, as if the inmates were some vile, despicable, lower-order beasts that you kill under your heavy boots. This is the absolute subversion of morality by narrow nationalism, humanity by blind ‘Americanism.’ And it is not an aberration, it is a malaise spread deep into the very roots of Western civilization. Such things happen because the minimal individual, whose world is its Narcissist paradise, cannot create a link based on its discarded human values with that part of humanity that does not share its particular limited set of values. The Narcissist, whose vision is severely limited to the mirror-image before itself, is appalled at the lack of these values of individual freedom and personal liberty in societies that still uphold the traditional universal code of conduct and curtail the individual’s freedom within limits dictated by that code.” Recent opinion polls show racist and prejudicial tendencies in Europe and the West have dramatically risen over the past few years. The ‘superior moral standing of the West’ that Mr. Hussain seems to be taken in with, does not account for this pervasive trend.
It is very telling that majority of those Americans who oppose the Iraq and Afghan wars, as had been the case with Vietnam earlier, do so on the grounds of the rising death toll among NATO soldiers. Other than the small groups of leftist scholars and writers in Europe and the United States, the public opposition is not for the much more humungous human tragedy there; not for the exploitation and abuse and madness and megalomania that the war is all about; not for the criminal brutalities that nations of innocent millions is suffering. The ‘morality’ of anti-war movements in the West is overwhelmingly limited. In a refreshingly courageous article by Charles Ferndale, this expedient morality and narrowness of vision is lamented: “If one were to observe only the coffins of the British carried through the streets..., one would have observed only 245 such casualties to date, whereas over 600 Pakistani civilians have died in the last two months alone as a direct consequence of the Af-Pak wars. Thousands, or depending upon when you start the count, millions of the natives of Afghanistan and Pakistan have died because of Western actions there, and these terrible numbers greatly underestimate the real damage done. So counting the British dead... gives a wholly inaccurate idea of the devastation the Western forces have wreaked upon the hapless people of that region, whose only crime is to want independence from Western geopolitical designs, especially those connected with energy resources.”
This said, one must necessarily add that highlighting the moral depravity pervading in European societies does not automatically imply the moral superiority in conservative Muslim societies. Mr. Hussain is correct in how he deplores this trend among Muslims of absolving themselves while condemning the West for immoralities. He is also correct in his assertion that most Muslim societies reflect abysmal standards of fundamental social ethics, rampant corruption and dishonesty. However, he fails to look at these irrefutable facts insightfully, taking into account all of the many dimensions involved. He also overlooks a fundamental reality that true and authentic religion differs markedly from its pretense that comes garbed in religious jargon and ritualistic veneer. The decadence of the powerful clergy in Europe eventually led to the breakaway between Church and State which may have salvaged Europe from the perversion of religiosity, but also laid the groundwork for secular-Utilitarian morality which has culminated in the widespread degeneracy manifesting itself in varying forms in different periods of time. In the Muslim world, following the failure of post-colonial Muslim societies to establish the Shariah in letter and spirit, religion, reduced to ‘religiosity’, suffers a similar ‘perversion’. Will Durant writes, “The nadir of perversion is reached when the clergy, whose function is to console and guide a harassed humanity with religious faith and hope and charity, are made the tools of theological obscurantism and political oppression.” This very aptly sums up the state of affairs in Muslim societies globally.
Technically speaking, the task of establishing and regulating the Shariah of Islam belongs to governments. Given the endless chain of corrupt, exploitative and inept regimes plaguing Muslim societies after freedom from colonial rule, successive governments have utterly failed in the task, ignored or neglected it or worse still, allowed it to be manipulated and misused for the extension of political power. Although traditionally Muslim jurists have performed the job of checking and curtailing the limits of governing authorities and binding them within a framework of commitments to uphold fundamental human rights and dignities stipulated by the Shariah, this is no more the case. Muslim jurists are either marginalized from legislative process by governments, or have voluntarily disassociated themselves from the system owing to its many un Islamic elements. Those who remain are self-serving, salaried state functionaries who do little more than assent and approve. Traditionally, it was Muslim jurists who determined the law, while states used their powers to implement it, provided their strategies and regulations did not contravene Divine law. While it was the Shariah as interpreted by the consensus of the eminent mainstream jurists that was the fountainhead, politics was its protector. The fatal mistake made by contemporary conservative Muslim states like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan is that the State has been given legislative power over and above divine law. An example may be given of the government-imposed ban on women’s driving in Saudi Arabia, which seeks justification as a ‘precautionary measure’, using the logic of ‘blocking the means’ to a suspected violation of morality or law. This is clearly an instance of overweening State power that is not moderated and held in check by the guardians of the letter and spirit of the Shariah. A more indepth analysis of the malaise within Muslim societies is offered by Khalid El Fadl in his treatise on Democracy and Islam. According to him, “the disintegration of the role of the ulema and their co option by the modern praetorian state with its hybrid practice of secularism have opened the door for the state to become the maker and enforcer of the divine law; in so doing, the state has acquired formidable power that has further ingrained the practice of authoritarianism in various Islamic states.”
Yet another aspect is the dichotomous understanding of the Shariah which drives a wedge between its ethical content and its legal aspect. In the Muslim mind, the Shariah has been reduced to a set of laws disconnected from their accompanying moral basis which the law simply facilitates and guards. Unless the Shariah is understood and established as a whole_ with its essential values of respect for human rights and dignity, equality, plurality, justice and mercy highly emphasized by the Quran, imposing a bare set of laws will do little more than give a veneer of religiosity to a spineless legal code lacking its true ethical base. This is exactly what Muslim societies suffer from. Added to this the contemporary problems of poverty, lawlessness, social disparity, what is left is the utter morass we find all over the Muslim world.
And yet, in the heart of the terrible crises, Muslims manage to find solace in the spirituality of religious belief, adherence to social and personal values and the traditional honouring of filial ties. That has prevented these ravaged Muslim societies from moral anarchy and chaos. In contrast, the rising incidence of suicide, anxiety, depression and psychosis in the affluent, prosperous and comfortable Western societies drives home the point very effectively. Mr. Hussain fails to realize the immense psychological and social value of the ‘solace for their wretched condition with promise of compensation in after life’, as well as the moral imperative to ‘assuage guilt by giving alms generously, thereby hoping to buy a place in heaven.’ The absence of the sense of duty to pay taxes to the state is yet another symptom of the utter failure of political systems and the absence of trust among citizens for their corrupt and dishonest rulers.
Quoting Einstein, Mr. Hussain asserts the preposterousness of the fear of punishment and the incentive of reward as the basis of morality, believing morality to have a scientific, logical basis. In other words, being good is sensible as it helps maximize happiness and minimize suffering, and the system ought to ensure this, so that people make the rational choice to behave morally. The need and desire for retributive justice goes deep within the recesses of human psychology, and is an archetypal human attribute. Human behaviour is curtailed within moral limits through law which carries a punitive aspect in order to be effective. When worldly systems are made effective with this understanding of human psychology, how can this be denied as a fundamental basis of any veritable moral code?
The miracle achieved by religion is that while taking into account this fact for all practical purposes, it manages to make the believer transcend fear of temporal punishment and lust for worldly reward, making the individual achieve a higher morality of altruism beyond immediate consequence, capable of sacrifice and selfless choices. This morality is the command of the conscience that lives on in the human heart. While utilitarianism refuses to recognize it, religion puts it to best use, rendering the individual capable of astounding acts of selflessness. Some enlightenment proving the falsity of the utilitarian premise and the superiority of religious morality comes from the work of Immanuel Kant. Will Durant explains Kant thus: “If mere worldly utility and expediency were the justification of virtue, it would not be wise to be too good. And yet, knowing all this, having it flung into our faces with brutal repetition, we still feel the command to righteousness, we know that we ought to do the inexpedient good. How could this sense of right survive if it were not that in our hearts we feel this life to be only a part of Life, this earthly dream only an embryonic prelude to a new birth, a new awakening; if we did not vaguely know that in that later and longer life the balance will be redressed, and not a cup of water given generously but returned hundredfold? Finally, and by the same token, there is a God. If the sense of duty involves and justifies belief in rewards to come_ which is no proof by reason_ the moral sense, which has to do with the world of our actions, must have priority over that theoretical logic which was only developed to deal with sense-phenomena. Our reason leaves us free to believe that behind the thing-in-itself there is a just God. Our moral sense commands us to believe it. Rousseau was right: above the logic in the head is the feeling in the heart. Pascal was right: the heart has reasons of its own that the head can never understand.”
The superiority of a social order that establishes itself on this philosophical premise now emerges as self-explanatory. Whether this philosophical premise is present in an Oriental or a Western society is not what matters any more. Religion very realistically embraces this premise, and this code of absolute morality is most strikingly apparent in the pristine Shariah of Islam_ ethics and legality, beyond clerical or statist manipulation. It is the poet-philosopher Iqbal who has the last word, writing in his ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’: “Both nationalism and atheistic socialism, at least in the present state of human adjustments, must draw upon the psychological forces of hate, suspicion, resentment which tend to impoverish the soul of man and close up his hidden sources of spiritual energy. Neither the technique of medieval mysticism, nor nationalism, nor atheistic socialism can cure the ills of a despairing humanity. Surely, the present moment is one of great crisis in the history of modern culture. The modern world stands in need of renewal. And religion, which in its higher manifestations is neither dogma, nor priesthood, nor ritual, can alone ethically prepare the modern man for the burden of the great responsibility which the advancement of modern science necessarily involves, and restore to him the attitude of faith which makes him capable of winning a personality here and retaining it hereafter. It is only by rising to a fresh vision of his origin and future, his whence and whither, that man will eventually triumph over a society driven by an inhuman competition, and a civilization which has lost its spiritual unity by its inner conflict of religious and political values.”