It has today become a slogan and even a cliché to say ‘think global, act local.’ Perhaps all of us agree that in some sense this is an acceptable ideal and would claim to follow it or try to follow it. But let me question our theory and practice. Let us apply the adage to our view of religion and its exclusivist claims. I ask a few questions to all of you and how far our view is compatible with a global vision that talks of humans as humans transcending all limiting or divisive barriers without disregarding uniqueness of every individual or tradition.
I begin with a story told by William Chittick and narrated to him by an Iranian aalim and his comment on the same.
Two Iranian scholars were discussing religion. One of them asked the other, “who goes to paradise? The other a poet well known for his sense of humour, answered, “Well , it is really very simple. First all religions other than Islam are obviously false, so we do not have to consider them. That leaves Islam. But among Muslims, some are ‘Shi’tes and some Sunnis, and we all know that the Sunnies have strayed from the right path and will be thrown into hell. That leaves the Shi’ites. But among Shi’tes there are the common people and the Ulema. Every one knows that the common people don’t care about God and religion, so they will burn in the Fire. That leaves the Ulama. But the Ulama have become ulema in order to lord it over the common people. That leaves you and me. And I am not so sure about you.”
Doesn’t this kind of reasoning sound familiar? It is perhaps not wildly inaccurate to say that many of our contemporaries think this way, whether they be Muslims, Christians, Jews, scholars ,scientists, politicians or whatever. And this sort of position sounds suspiciously like that of Iblis, whose motto is “I am better than he.”
My own comment on this is: This story could well have been true about many Sunni scholars especially of today who hold their own sects dearer than Islam or as the interpretation of Islam? We know Justice Munir Commission report in Pakistan in which representative scholars of different persuasions in Pakistan were interviewed and what they agreed in was heterodoxy of other sects and hardly anything united them. We know many mosques had to be closed by administration because of sectarian conflicts. We are aware that there is deadly conflict over what constitutes in theory and practice shirk? Are khoshand bad aetaqadis ready to marry amongst each other’s families? Don’t some think that others hold a view that is based on forgetting part of Islam? Not to speak of atheists, it is difficult to tolerate Ahl-i-Kitab for many for their different theological views? How many know that Hindus were treated as similar to Ahl-i-kitab by a vast majority of Muslim scholars? Do we compete over doctrine or over best conduct? Isn’t it true that Companions competed over how much they distribute in the name of God, how best they serve, how humble they are, how virtuous they really are? Isn’t competition in virtues the only criterion that Islam recognizes and when we talk of global citizenship what else can be a meaningful criterion? Virtues define us and take us to the world of Spirit that is our true home. Not theological opinions or debates. It is true that it is said in the Quran that Islam alone is acceptable to God but who can assert that it means a historical religion rather than primordial religion of Adam that has been only transmitted to other prophets? Isn’t this primordial religion an existential commitment, a call for surrender of autonomous will, a cal to be truly human, a call to transcend all sectarian affiliations and be clothed in the colourless colour of God (Sibgatullah)? Who can say what is God’s chosen colour? Like the Sun that shines on everyone equally and whose radiance assimilates all colours, God’s colour is supraformal? Isn’t Islam to be taken in its truly universal or metaphysical rather than in historical sense that has been evolving over decades after its inception? When we say the term Islam what do we mean? And what gives us the right to restrict its usage to our own version of Truth that of our sect or school of law ?