By Ajaz Ahmad Rather
While there is an appalling failure of the Muslim community on the external front in developing a positive and constructive interface with other communities, there is even more alarming failure at the domestic plane to ensure an environment of respect and mutual cooperation between Muslims themselves. Large groups are increasingly fostering exclusive Islamic identities which by design or default redefine our religiosity only in terms which differentiates one group from others. This redefining of religious self and the consequent narrowing down of religiousness to mere differentiating elements vitiates the very purpose of religion.
It is profound intellectual shallowness to assume religion to be narrow enough to be caged into a few personal generalisations and combinations of good deeds. On the practical side, these particularised redefinitions of religiosity make the very idea of religion problematic by creating an aura and inescapable environment of mutual exclusion and consequent prejudice. The end product of this process of particularisation of religious identities within Muslim societies is generalised hatred of each section towards others. And what is macabre is not that we differ with each other, but as part and parcel of a religious self we end up hating each other in the name of Islam. Islam teaches love and positive engagement, but we end up with the opposite.
The absence of positive interfaces, not to mention togetherness, between different sections has become a regular and institutionalised tragedy which, unless resolved, will continue to produce horrible outcomes. What is painful is that a group defines itself in terms of what others are or are not rather than what Islam is. As such, every group enjoys an anti-other identity and consequent negative relations with every other group. It is now a well-acknowledged rule that ‘we are what they are not, and they are what we are not’. So what ‘we are’ is no more a principled position for the sake of God, rather it is a technical one for the sake of one’s group in contrast to others. Since ‘we’ look to ‘them’ only in terms of special parameters, which we ourselves declare paramount in the scale of ‘Islam’ that has been put to sacrilege by ‘them’, they therefore are ‘horrible’. There can be no scope of admiration, no relation of mutual learning, no sense of mutual respect but only hate, and that becomes central to one’s identity of Islam. We start to differ in the way we feel ourselves to be religious. Therefore, it become my Islam, my God, my Prophet and, at the grassroots, my mosque and my group. The universal values of Islam no more hold us together, those that define our special identities, however, endlessly take us apart.
What becomes perturbing is the anger, hate, malice and sense of revenge characterising our conceptualising of religiousness. Being religious starts to mean, within a particular group, apart from other attributes that characterise the group, hating others. Our conceptualisation of religion reaches an extraordinary low where hate itself became symbolic of faith.
The problem is that those who adhere to this serious ethical aberration are only partly to blame. They represent a culmination of a process of particularisation of faith in which few specific group-based traits replace the basic principles of religion. People in general are carried along inadvertently because of the absence of high levels of literacy and intellectual engagement. They live religion as bequeathed by a clergy that consciously or inadvertently ends up defining their Islam as an anti to others groups.
Under such circumstances, one is Muslim because one does not believe and practice what others do. Ironically, one tends not to be Muslim for values that Islam spread. Therefore, one is a Muslim because one does or does not celebrate Milad, or one raises hands at and after ruku or does not do so, or goes or does not go to shrines etc. The concepts of God-consciousness, righteousness, retribution, honesty, love of mankind etc are vitiated enough not to create a spontaneous commonality for a community called Muslims.
Such things are not unique to a small minority, but characterise most of us as we enter our special religious domains. Within the community of ‘seriously religious’ people, we come across people who have resolved never to listen to any person apart from their own group. Whether they can do anything good for their group is uncertain, but they carry an inevitable malice towards others. This, in the context of a particularised faith, actually makes one feel one has served the cause and saved faith!
A young man once asked me whether I know of the Hadith in which the Prophet (SAW) foretold the emergence within Islam of 73 groups, from which only one would be saved or enter paradise. With my ‘yes’, he responded with extraordinary confidence and unfathomable absence of introspection, in the most bizarre self praising manner, “the group that will enter Jannah is us”. What is profoundly disturbing is the complete disregard of individuals and groups who, in their own way, strive to gain the pleasure of Allah. It is even more heinous that we are increasingly trained in identifying faults in others but conditioned to believe our own faith is guarded with absolute surety. This lack of self-introspection means misplaced pride and horrible arrogance, unless curbed. There is no sense of humility left to consider oneself fallible and liable to sins, and thus divine punishment. And this religious ‘fascination’ — considering others guilty of serious compromises in religion and believing oneself absolutely guided — practically ends up in exclusion and serious prejudices against each other.
Those at the top mobilise this prejudice and malice for others skillfully. They flourish not because they are able to project Islam in consonance with its fundamental values of compassion, empathy, inclusion and respect, but their fame is uniquely hinged on their ability to project a particularised Islam of the group as the only infallible, inevitable and ultimately superior conceptualisation of religion. Inevitably, they end up punctuating their discourses with their party agendas. More than a decade ago, I got a chance to listen to a famous scholar of a group from India in their mosque. He repeatedly mentioned the name of the group that had invited him and to which he belonged in his discourse, and almost substituted it for the word Islam in the lecture. There was a unique emphasis on the group and no mention of individuals and organisations beyond it. The less-learned audience got the cue, Islam meant them and they alone were on the right track!
Many scholars also project these party appellations as being synonymous with Islam. They deliberately avoid discussing alternative ways to serve the cause of Islam. The idea of righteousness is willfully trimmed to suit their own party. They mention the wrongs committed by other groups and hide the heinous lapses made by their own. Consequently, their endeavours end up increasing the party cadre, economic resources and, of course, a prejudiced and exclusionist laity. That lack of tolerance, apart from alarmist pulpits, then reverberates at almost all public platforms.
The clergy accommodates, contrary to Islamic principles, people who do not pay zakah, do not give their sisters or daughters their share in property, indulge in corruption in offices, commit serious malpractices in business, are harsh against their neighbours and relations, and have no love for and time to learn Islam. A cursory look can confirm these serious problems as rampant in ‘religious’ people as they are prevalent in others. The clergy of our society can digest it comfortably. This is where religion winds up on the side of evil rather than good. Nonetheless, what is not tolerable is a compromise with the party line. In most of the groups, a person with sympathy or respect for other groups will be considered a nuisance. If he praises them explicitly and presses to learn from them, he may be immediately sacked.
Generally, those who commit larger malpractices are also more influential than others. Since group-based redefined religious identity has no major issues with these, contrary to a sharp reaction to a threat to particularised religion, there is an implicit approval for such malpractices. Thus, if one does or does not participate in Milad, it becomes an object of religious criticism. The same is not true if a person is indulging in corruption or does not distribute property as per Islamic Shariah.
The clergy sensitivities respective clients to a particularised Islamic version at the cost of Islam itself. They progressively sedate their followers with respect to basic Islamic principles by uniquely over-emphasising party identities as substitutes to it. The result is the exclusion of, and malice against, others within Muslim society. We reach a climax of misappropriation where a religion meant to foster love, empathy and respect turns malevolent and sadistic.
The irony is that a religion that came to bind a divided mankind into a brotherhood has been mutilated to justify discords, dishonour and even destruction of brothers. What is disturbingly clear is that the denial of space to, and acute sense of separateness from, others within the community has come to occupy a centre space in our religiousness.
—The writer is a lecturer in economics