‘Muslims Must Conform to Islam, Not Reform Islam Itself!’ (Part I)
The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), or the National Center for Scientific Research, is a government-funded research organization, under the administrative authority of France’s Ministry of Research. Founded in 1939 by governmental decree, CNRS has the following missions: evaluating and carrying out all research capable of advancing knowledge as well as that having social, cultural, and economic benefits for society, contributing to the application and promotion of research results, developing scientific information, and supporting training for and through research, participating in the analysis of the national and international scientific climate and its potential for evolution in order to develop a national policy. As part of its research initiatives, in July 2006 the CNRS interviewed the Executive Editor of Young Muslim Digest, an Islamic monthly magazine in English published from Bangalore, India, since the past quarter of a century. In this wide-ranging discussion with CNRS, BIJU ABDUL QADIR spoke of Islam, its premises, and of the predicament of the community associated with it within and outside the Indian subcontinent. Presented hereunder is the first part of the condensed text of the interview.
CNRS: What is a Muslim for you? What of the good and the bad Muslim?
BAQ: A Muslim is a person who has accepted a certain state of being, a state of Islam. Anybody, anything, that accepts the state of Islam, is a Muslim. Islam is not a stereo-typed religion like Christianity and Buddhism where you have even the names of these religions defined by the alleged founders of these faiths. Islam is a state of peace and harmony which comes through the complete submission and total surrender to God. A Muslim, therefore, is one who accepts the law of God unconditionally and completely for himself/ herself. Strictly speaking, there is nothing called a bad Muslim. ‘Bad Muslim’ is a contradiction in terms. I am speaking from an idealist perspective.
CNRS: What is Secularism for you?
BAQ: A compromise where peaceful coexistence between different communities and groups is given preference. It implies freedom for all people as long as they abide by the constitution. From the Islamic perspective, it’s not compatible. In secularism, there is a man-made constitution that has to be respected. This is something unacceptable according to Islam, which insists on the way, the legislation, of God, since the human mind is relative and can therefore offer only relative solutions to human problems. But, in the sense that it tolerates other religions, yes, Islam is tolerant but not in the way secularism exhibits tolerance. We should distinguish between secularism and tolerance. A Shariah-governed state is preferable.
CNRS: But what of the Dhimmis under Islam? Are they not discriminated upon?
BAQ: That Dhimmis have lesser rights than Muslims is a misconception foisted upon Islam. When the Prophet spoke about helping out one’s neighbour, he never insisted that he was speaking of a Muslim or a non-Muslim neighbour. The egalitarianism and tolerance of Islam is well-known. In fact, the very term Dhimmi literally means ‘the protected one’ and so the community that goes by that title within an Islamic state is protected by the state, and, unlike the Muslim citizens, cannot be forcefully conscripted into the Muslim state’s army when the state is at war with its enemies. Nor can the Zakat tax be extracted from them, as it is extracted by force of arms if necessary from the Muslim citizenry.
CNRS: How do you view Democracy?
BAQ: As something by the people, for the people, and a state wherein the minorities are ruled by the majority opinion. In Islam, there is a rule of Divine law: the only thing of true value. All other systems, whether democratic, or authoritarian, are all man-made and so not acceptable within the Islamic dispensation which accepts no other law-giver other than God Almighty. Among man-made methods of governments, democracy is perhaps a lesser evil as compared to Fascism, and Nazism. But even this is proven wrong when we see what goes on in the United States today. The story doing the rounds today in the corporate media is that the US is trying to spread democracy. Actually, its a minority that rules in the US – a minority that does not speak the will of the majority.
CNRS: Which authors have influenced you the most?
BAQ: There is the former Bosnian President, Alija Ali Izzetbegovich, with his magnum opus, Islam between East and West and his more recent Notes from Prison: 1983-88. There is also Arundhati Roy with her work on social issues like The End of Imagination, The Greater Common Good etc. (all of which related to some of the premises of Islam which I had, although she was a non-Muslim herself. It shows that morality is common for the whole of humanity, not just for the Muslims). There is also Sayyid Qutb, Mawdudi, Hassan al-Banna, Maryam Jameelah (formerly Margaret Marcus, she was an American Jew who later reverted to Islam and became one of the most prolific intellectuals of the Muslim world). These are basically reformist Muslim intellectuals of the last century; they all had a common thread running through their thinking. Other writers, like Edward Said (a Christian, with Christian principles, but whose system of values coincided with many of Islam; it again shows that despite your religion there is a common basis for human morality). From the Western side, there is again Noam Chomsky. I was also influenced by Ali Shariati, the intellectual ideologue of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, at a certain stage of my intellectual growth. As far as the growth processes in intellectual development go, it was not a problem for me that he was Shia. At certain levels, the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims are more of a political nature, although ideological differences have been the real stumbling block on the path to a true unity between the two.
Thus, my direction in life was given to me by Islam and its Muslim reformists but then I found common things running throughout the intellectual world, whether Christian or Muslim. In the Indian context, even Medha Patkar is engaged in social issues which call forth your respect. There are also Western academics like Samuel Huntington who through his The Clash of Civilizations, generated debates that kept me in sustained intellectual ferment. It opened up various other things to me. It showed that the premises of the early Islamic reformists were correct. I speak of Huntington in a negative sense, because while he opened up a range of debates and discussions for my understanding, I never quite agreed with him. There is also John Esposito and Amartya Sen (his contributions to welfare economics again highlighted to me that the underlying concept of welfare economics was correct: that it actually underlined the structure of Islamic economics itself. He was awarded the 1998 Nobel for Economics for that.) Among other influences, the French revert to Islam from Communism, Roger Garaudy: I respect him for his incessant search after the truth, and for his commitment to stick to that truth, no matter what befell him.
CNRS: Why do you think you have been influenced so much by Islam and not the Left?
BAQ: Islam is the only system which bases itself on an ideology which satisfies the inner longing for spirituality in man. This is a longing that you cannot deny, that even an atheist who does not believe in God cannot deny. It is the only system of belief, of thought, which gives us a basic purpose in life – something which man is always seeking after. This is not given by the Leftist, the Communist or the Marxist philosophy. The Marxist Philosophy bases itself on the very absence of God: there is no (divinely ordained) morality as such here. However, this is what the human being actually yearns for. No matter how you term it, non-believer or atheist or whatever, he is ultimately in an unenviable position where his principles stand compromised by outward practices. For instance, when he is rendered helpless, and caught up in such extreme situations of life, he is wont to appeal to higher powers: this is something you cannot deny. The only practicable ideology which pays attention to that is Islam, and it is also a theology of liberation, all rolled into one. That’s only in Islam. That’s not given by any other. In the capitalist-Western scheme of the world, on the other hand, man is treated as the highest power.
CNRS: In your view, who are the most important Islamic/ national thinkers? Why?
BAQ: That’s a hard question because they are so many. Modern thinkers, I can just tell you off-hand: Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Hassan al-Banna, Abul A’la Mawdudi, al-Shaheed Syed Qutb, Muhammad Qutb, Malik Bennabi, Khomeini and Shariati (where their thoughts pertain to the anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist struggle), al-Shaheed Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, Maryam Jameelah (formerly Margaret Marcus), Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss), al-Shaheed Omar Mukhtar (Libyan revolutionary against the Italians) and many others. It’s a whole tragic cycle of resistance, of occupation, and again resistance. And if you come to Afghanistan, it’s been the same for past 30 years. People are just resisting: when do they have the time to create civilization? They have only the time to offer sacrifices, or strategies to defend what remains of their lives and honour, in wars forced upon them.
CNRS: What has been the influence of Abul A’la Mawdudi and Syed Qutb on your own way of thinking?
BAQ: I think that it can be safely said that the most fundamental influences in my initial leaning towards Islam have been through the works of Abul Ala Mawdudi, Syed Qutb and Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi along with Ahmed Deedat’s work against the contradictions of Christianity. All later accumulation of knowledge was, in my experience, essentially a confirmation of what the above-mentioned personalities meant to me. It is interesting that Syed Qutb himself acknowledged Mawdudi and Nadwi as his respected compatriots in the struggle for which he ultimately gave up his life in 1966.
As a teenager fooling around with concepts of morality, commitment and sacrifice within Islamic history, what was especially poignant for me was the element of self-immolation, indeed selflessness, within the repertoire of both Mawdudi and Qutb as they stood up for all that was good and noble against the inimical forces that sought to hem them in. Their prodigious talent was no lesser than their iron will in the cause of Islam. As much is in evidence in Syed Qutb’s monumental In the Shade of the Qur’an which is a commentary of the Qur’an that was composed, in the main, during the years that he spent in Egyptian jails as a political prisoner – or how should I say – as a prisoner of conscience.
In addition, the revolutionary fervour that was set in motion by Qutb’s seminal Milestones against the corrupt elites in the Muslim world has been instrumental in the resurgence of all revivalist movements in the modern Muslim world. So powerful was its appeal that the Egyptian government executed its author for his unwillingness to modify any part of the said treatise. But to kill a believer is not to kill a belief, and so Qutb’s influence, like that of many other martyrs in the Islamic cause, continues to live on after his death. Abul A’la Mawdudi too had had his share of trials in the cause that he upheld, with him being sentenced to death at one point in his career. This sentence was later commuted by the Pakistan government due to national and international pressure. In short, I have believed that Abul A’la and Syed Qutb went beyond the average modern Muslim academic in their understanding of Islam as a comprehensive way of life and in their articulate validation of Islam as the true, and lasting, alternative to the problems of the contemporary world, Muslim or otherwise.
CNRS: What are your views on the Christian version of the theology of liberation?
BAQ: The Christian theology of liberation is, I think, something very personal, at best, since it requires a leap of faith that is not always supported by reason; not always applicable at the societal level. For instance, the present day Bible would have us believe that Christ died for the sins of the world; that ‘God so loved the world that he sacrificed his only begotten son that any believing in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ If this is the basis for human liberation then you will agree that it definitely entails a leap of faith that is unrestricted by reason or by the contradictions that such a statement gives rise to. To be fair, however, if we agree that Christian theology as it exists today offers the believer a certain code of conduct, of forgiveness, love and mercy, in his quest for a personal liberation from the afflictions of the world, we must also agree then that this code of conduct is essentially based on a philosophy of world-renunciation, not world-affirmation as in the case of Islam. But surprisingly, it is also a theology that, in historical experience, has not tolerated freedom of thought and reasoning; it is a theology that resulted in the hated inquisitions of the Middle Ages and the persecution of scientists in Europe and beyond. It has been a theology that saw sexuality as inherently evil and, thus, celibacy as the epitome of virtue.
The Christian theology of liberation based on the handiwork of different people who wrote and edited the Bible through the course of the centuries, is a theology that is relative through and through, coupled as it is with the contradictions and inconsistencies associated with multiple gospel writers who were prone to all the shortcomings of the human mind. Of course, all this is not to state that reformative attempts have not been made or that they have been unsuccessful in Christian history. There have been several heroic attempts to stick to, or to go back to, the original teachings of Christ and the earliest disciples, but all of these were efforts against the scriptures that were deemed canonical and infallible by the third century after the disappearance of Christ. Foremost in these efforts were the struggle of the Unitarian Christians against the Church, the Protestant reformation of Martin Luther, the efforts of St. Augustine with his City of God, and of course, the luminaries of the scientific community like Copernicus, Galileo Galilee and even Sir Isaac Newton himself.
CNRS: Do you see Zakat, as donation? Do you respect the prohibition against Riba? If, yes, how do you manage in daily life? If you want to buy a house, or if you want to send your kids to a good school, how will you do so? Islamic banking?
BAQ: I do not see Zakat as donation. Rather, I understand Zakat as the right of the poor; not as charity, nor as dole-outs for the needy. I don’t take interest. It’s primarily an issue of obedience to God, as mentioned in the Qur’an. So since the Qur’an is against Riba, we are against Riba, and that’s about it, at least on the surface. And, of course, if you dwell into the matter more deeply, you find the problems associated with interest/ usury. You begin to see how the world economy is geared to the capitalist class as against the Third World countries because of this factor. The interest rate’s bearing on inflation in the economy is undeniable. As a tool of exploitation, interest must be discouraged, even done away with. Apart from the religious aspect, this has to be done even as a matter of social importance. As for meeting my own minimum needs like housing or other family requirements, we just save for the rainy day. We make it a point to see that when we are paid our salary every month, we don’t just spend it all out. After paying up our Zakat dues, and after keeping aside enough for our monthly needs, we ave the rest. Perhaps such inconveniences actually make us more responsible; and enable us to live within our means.
CNRS: There is no Islamic banking as such in India?
BAQ: There are efforts going on. Now the government has given directions to the RBI to consider Islamic banking within the Indian economic system if it is a possibility. The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh has given directives because, as an international financing system, it is gaining respectability throughout the world. You have many banks, even abroad, in the West, where you have these Shariah-compliant cells, quite apart from their main banking unit. This maybe to open it to Muslim deposits which would otherwise be lost to the Bank. But then, they know that it requires to be done, and so they are doing it. Islamic banking is here to stay.
CNRS: Do you think Islam can be easily practiced in India? When you work, can you obey the religious duties of Islam? If not, how do you personally reconcile this fact?
BAQ: It depends on what type of interpretation you are looking at. If you are looking at an Islam where man is able to pray five times a day, give Zakat and fast during Ramadan and go for Hajj, yes: that can be practiced in India rather easily, at least as of this time. But the problem is deeper, because Islam is not just about these things. Islam involves a complete way of life, a complete system where all the fields of life are given specific laws, for instance: the judiciary, criminal law, the economic system, the social system, etc. Now all these things as a whole cannot be practiced in any place where Muslims are a minority, like in India, for instance.
Wherever Muslims are a minority demographically, when they do not have the required political power in a democratic process to form bills in Parliament or to pass resolutions, or to change the constitutional law; when they are not in power in any important, practical, sense, they cannot practice Islam in full. Their Islam will be confined to doing the Salah, which is something that comes at a very personal level, to giving Zakat to the poor, fasting, and going for Hajj. These things are very personal but there are other socially related issues too, like I said, the judiciary, the economic system – an interest-free system – all of which requires a government, which requires political power if they are to be implemented. This is not possible in a country where Muslims are a minority.
It’s not just a question of demography, though. Even if you are in a Muslim majority nation, like Pakistan, for instance: they do not have Islamic laws there. On the contrary, they have governments supported by the West who are not sympathetic to Islam as a complete way of life.
So wherever they are, whether as a majority or a minority, Muslims ought to try to abstain from laws that directly, or otherwise, requires them to compromise on their principles. As of now, this is the situation: they should try to stay away from compromising their salvation in the Hereafter for the superficialities, and compulsions, of the here and the now.
CNRS: What are your feelings about God? Which of the following statements comes closest to your view: everything in life is determined by God, God allows man to have some free choice in life, or God gives man total free choice?
BAQ: As far as a believer is concerned, there are three stages in his/ her journey of faith: fear, hope and that stage where you do things solely for the pleasure of Allah. Some believers are in different stages, indeed, they keep changing stages. Sometimes, they do things out of fear of Allah, and also abstain from things out of fear of Allah. Then there are believers who do things seeking His Paradise, and who work on these lines. But then you also have that rare group of people who have gone past these stages, who do everything for the Pleasure of Allah: to get His good pleasure. Any good Muslim, at any point of time, keeps rotating between the three stages: fear, hope and the Pleasure of Allah. As for man’s freedom of will, yes, man is given free will to live as he likes – whether to accept Good or to accept Evil. This is the moral justification of reward and punishment. Of course, in the sense that Allah knows what is going to happen, since He knows all infinity, He exists in all points of time. So He knows what actually will transpire, what will happen. It does not mean that He has affected it. These things are related to predestination and Taqdir. So it’s a combination of the first and the last of the options you have mentioned.
CNRS: What are your feelings for the Prophet? What of the cartoon caricatures on Prophet Muhammad?
BAQ: For the Prophet, I have respect, love, and allegiance worthy of the role-model that he was. Nothing more, nothing less. As for the Danish cartoons, I felt the cartoons were something to be totally ignored with the contemptuous indifference that they deserved. The personality of the Prophet has been attacked right from the time he started out with his message. This has been happening for the last fourteen hundred years. Muslims should live up to what Muhammad preached more than defending him while not yet practicing Islam in full themselves.
CNRS: What meaning do you give to prayer? Do you see it as a means to Jannah, as a duty (farz) as a good Muslim, as communication with God, etc.? Can one be a good Muslim without attending a mosque?
BAQ: The Muslim Prayer (Salah) is all rolled into one. First, it is an act of remembrance; of Zikr; of remembering your allegiance to God. In praying regularly, you remember that you are under an obligation to Him; you remember that you owe obedience to Him, and then whatever follows is a corollary, a by-product. It’s also your way to gain salvation; it’s also your way to disciplining yourself. Many things follow. A Muslim can pray at home, although it is strongly recommended that he try to be with the congregation at the mosque every time. Praying away from the congregation might not be the ideal, but that, by itself, will not make him a sinner.
CNRS: Do you also see health virtues in fasting?
BAQ: In Islam, principles and prescriptions have a two-fold aspect to them: that’s the whole beauty of Islam; it’s so perfect, so symmetric that there are no contradictions involved. In each of its tenets, in each of its rituals, its prescriptions for human life, there is this spiritual aspect to it, and a material aspect to it. If you talk of fasting, there is a spiritual side, a material side. The spiritual side, of course, is in your obedience to God which is always the more important. As for the material side of fasting, apart from the health benefits involved, fasting is about sharing the feelings of the deprived in society. If you talk of Salah, there is a spiritual side, and a material side there as well. The same goes for Zakat.
CNRS: What is the material side of Salah?
BAQ: Disciplining oneself. You rotate your life around these five times, these five periods of the day. You do everything according to that. So wherever you are, whether in the railway station, in the market, you may immediately see a Muslim taking out his prayer-rug and start praying. This act talks to the world, it is a display of your allegiance to something superior to man, to humanity, at any time: no compromise whatsoever.
CNRS: What is the material aspect of not eating pork? Of eating only Halal food?
BAQ: Look at it: modern science confirms that through pork you get hook-worms and other worms into your system. For health reasons: that’s the material aspect of it. Alcohol: the same thing goes. The social destruction caused by alcohol is well known. America tried to bring in prohibitive laws during the 1930s but failed in implementing them. In Islam, it is a natural prohibition which people comply with because it comes from an authority superior to man, superior to the American Constitution. Halal (Islamically permitted) food includes meat of prescribed animals that have been slaughtered in a precise manner by disconnecting the jugular vein. Scientifically too, this form of slaughtering tends to allow for complete draining of blood from the body of the animal, thereby making it more palatable to human diet.
CNRS: What meaning do you give to ablutions?
BAQ: Symbolic, physical-mental, inner-outer, cleanliness when addressing your Creator in prayer. Of course, you can’t deny the general, external, cleanliness that ablution five times a day provides you with. This is all in the beauty of Islam. The whole list goes on like this.
CNRS: Do you think circumcision (khatna) is important? Why?
BAQ: Yes, circumcision is an important recommendation and practice of the Prophet, indeed, of all prophets including Moses and Jesus. The Old Testament is on record that Adam himself was circumcised, that Jesus was ‘circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin when he was eight days old.’ That Paul, who had himself never even seen Jesus, thought it fit that succeeding generations of Christians may be absolved of the need for this important ritual and legacy is quite another matter. On the scientific side, circumcision is today hailed as one of the best preventive practices towards ridding society of the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and other related disorders.
CNRS: What is in your view the worst sin?
BAQ: That man should deliberately deny God’s existence – and as a result, His commandments – even after his best studies compel him to acknowledge the Divine Presence. This, I think is the home of all evil; indeed, the worst of all sins, for all else, all other sins, flow from this source, and from this source alone. Also, ignorance of God – whether feigned or genuine – can be no excuse either.
CNRS: How, when, and how frequently do you engage in Da’wah?
BAQ: Da’wah happens in the sense that you are trying to communicate Islam with people. In that sense, the foremost requirement is to be a good Muslim yourself: your life is the biggest message you can give to humanity, to people to whom you wish to communicate Islam. So you need to be a proper, practicing, Muslim if you need to communicate; if you need to sound convinced when you speak to people. Unless you are practicing yourself, you are not doing it very convincingly. That rings equally true for any ideology, for that matter. Hitler believed in a particular philosophy – a racist philosophy – but he believed in it so firmly, in its value for the welfare, unity and, in time, the ultimate resurrection of his nation. So convinced was he that when he tried to communicate it to the German nation, people followed him in their millions to a war that ultimately destroyed whole notions of our times.
CNRS: Do you think it’s a nice comparison?
BAQ: Perhaps, not quite. But all I’m saying is that in Adolph Hitler we had a man who, even with a negative, destructive, philosophy, could convince millions, and finally turn up other people like him, when he was convinced of it himself. He could present his philosophy with such force only because he was convinced himself. The same could happen with any other philosophy, including Islam. Islam’s is a positive, benign, philosophy and if you believe in that positive philosophy and are convinced yourself of the correctness of its position, and then try to convince others, it will doubtless have its own far more superior, multifold, effects. And since it is a positive philosophy, millions are easily influenced by it; indeed, all mankind is bound to be influenced by it, sooner or later.
CNRS: How do you go about Da’wah yourself? Do you involve yourself in some organized manner of Da’wah?
BAQ: My profession itself is a form of Da’wah. That’s why I am in this profession, although I was trained differently. I was trained as an engineer, in fact. I was working in the engineering field but had to leave it because of the compromises with principles that it entailed. Things that are rampant like corruption, things that are un-Islamic: I could not reconcile myself with those in my workplace. So I had to resign from my job with the engineering companies I worked with. So Islam is everywhere in your life: it’s not just about Salah, and fasting. It’s not just that: when you really live Islam you have to be doing so in the modern world, where you have your particular corners. Sometimes I hold seminars for Western-educated and/ or Western-influenced Muslims. This is because I believe we need to do a lot of homework as a community within the house, to clean ourselves first, before we proceed to communicate Islam to other communities.
CNRS: So it’s basically through this journal that you do Da’wah. You are not with the Tablighis?
BAQ: No. Of course, all these groups which try to sincerely propagate Islam to the masses have their own way of communicating with people. And we have different opinions about the best ways. As the Qur’an says, you must adopt wisdom in your approach towards people, towards communicating Islam towards people. You may need to look at the audience, at what type of thinking they possess. It’s difficult to speak to a Western, in the way you talk to an Eastern. This approach has to be appreciated.
CNRS: What does Jihad mean for you?
BAQ: Jihad refers to any effort to convey Islam, to defend Islam, by word, thought, or action. Every effort you make against evil, even with your own soul, your own self, for improving yourself personally: that’s the bigger Jihad. Unlike the stereo-types given to it, like ‘holy war’ etc. Of course, when it comes to armed resistance, it’s not a matter of whether it’s Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan. When people are unjustly stripped of their lands and their countries occupied, when their basic rights are taken away from them, you try to give this back to them, to defend them against injustice. That’s the defense of their own right to exist: you can’t take that from anybody. Even the UN charter for human rights declares that it’s a fundamental right to survive, to exist. When it is taken away from you, it’s very normal that you defend yourself. Of course, in that process, you should not allow the innocents to be targeted: that should not happen. In fact, in Islam, there are very strict rules of how physical warfare should be conducted, where women and kids cannot be targeted, where the monks, the clerics of other religions, religious personalities are not to be molested. Basic human rights should be ensured even in a battlefield. Physical warfare is the last resort, when there is no other way, when diplomacy proves useless.
CNRS: Is it not a problem to say, in India, that Islam is superior to Hinduism? Can you imagine someone in a Muslim country saying publicly that his religion is superior to Islam?
BAQ: You mean the Hindus take offence? India is quite free in that sense; people are generally not taking it in the wrong spirit. On the other hand, if we talk of a Muslim country, it should not matter to its Muslim citizens because such debates are welcome in Islam. Realistically, Muslims who are not fully aware of Islam or of Islamic teachings are more given to emotions. Again, it depends on the culture. If you have a set-up where Muslims are not so hot-headed or emoting all the time, there would be more tolerance in such a country. Otherwise, you will have the usual problems that come off a particular cultural mooring.
CNRS: Is there any ideal country for you? Any truly Islamic one?
BAQ: Ideal country? Not as such. Not of now, at least. But efforts are going on to Islamize, to bring Islamic laws into many countries, but they have not succeeded fully. It’s a progression; it is at an experimental stage. If you look at the whole picture of modern civilization and then at Islam, you will see that Islam has nothing against modernism as such. In fact, Islam welcomes modernism, in the sense that it helps man to live his life better, within his moral law, without breaking his moral law. Muslims ought to therefore be in search for such areas of residence, for such governments, and for such people who abide by an understanding of the Qur’an that is out and out modern, futuristic. Where it does not contradict the principles of Islam as enshrined in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, they must hope to employ all modern developments happening in the world for improving their quality of life. They must learn to use it for the cause of Islam, to educate the Muslims further, to discover the new ayahs or the signs of God in the universe and to utilize what God has given them in deciphering the secrets of nature as an aid to the better appreciation and worship of God. In that sense, one country that comes to my mind – although not in the complete sense – is Malaysia. It gives you a country that is, futuristic, and modern peopled by a core population that is Muslim (more than 53-55%). It has a government which is sympathetic to Islam, and which has established Islamic universities for the purposes of Islam in the world. There are fanatics everywhere but it’s the moderate, yet holistic, approach that is lacking in many countries. But then there are other Muslim countries which could have reached that level but apparently they have not been allowed to. They have been suppressed and have been under colonial yoke for centuries. They are still struggling to throw it off their burdened backs. They are still being ruled by puppet governments which are not representative of the masses.
CNRS: Like in Pakistan?
BAQ: Yes, like Pakistan for instance. Look also at Algeria. They tried democracy there, they tried a ballot box, they tried a referendum, but they saw that 92% of the population voted for the Islamic Salvation Front – a party which was trying to install Islamic law there. France immediately objected. France was there always objecting. Being a French citizen, you know what happened in the Algerian Revolution if you have studied your history, if you have read people like Malik Bennabi of Algeria, who wrote most of his books on Islam in France. His analysis of the human condition makes him a frontline sociologist, although he was an engineer by training. He wrote books, like the Qur’anic Phenomenon, which are read with sustained interest even today, more than 35 years after his death. An Algerian intellectual who participated in the revolutionary activities of his homeland while in France, it would not be too much to say that Bennabi was the intellectual architect of the Algerian Revolution, which ultimately saw France relinquishing its hold on Algeria after having snuffed out more than a million Algerian lives during the course of that struggle. For the past several centuries Muslims have not been allowed peace of mind, suppressed as they have been all the time. There has been no avenue for them to develop their science and technology, and their innate creativity that once made them the leading light of the known world, the veritable guide of all western progress in science and technology. Thus, the best amongst the Muslims are today engaged in a battle where they spend their time, their energy, and their lives in defending their countries, in defending their right to exist. When any people are forced into such a heroic resistance against the encroachment upon their right to exist, not to mention their heritage and their values, how can you expect them to create science and technology? The same has been the case for any country anywhere, in any age.
CNRS: Do you celebrate Milad-un-Nabi? And what of Shab-e-Barat, ‘Urs, etc.?
BAQ: There are no authentic traditions to indicate that the Prophet celebrated Milad-un-Nabi, and that’s how you need to look at it. Neither did his immediate companions. As far as Shab-e-Barat goes, there is no such celebration as far as the traditions of the Prophet are concerned. That’s all part of the cultural baggage: that’s what I call them. As Islam grew, it permeated different cultures. Muslims who embraced Islam belonged to different cultures. So lots of cultural remainders are still there with them. You have innovations in countries like India where they go to dargahs, to shrines. Whereas the Prophet prohibited the building of shrines above the graves, today it has become a means of livelihood with these dargahs and these festivals around holy men.
CNRS: Do you think that the majority of Muslims in Bangalore goes to dargahs?
BAQ: Yes, I think everywhere in India, the majority of Muslims still go to dargahs. Among the younger generation, too, those who have not studied Islam still go to these places. However, there is this new generation of Muslims coming up who are more educated, and who make efforts to go to the sources of Islam. That’s the whole difference between them and the immediate generations preceding them – the older generation which has been brought up with the cultural baggage attached. Many of them are today going to the roots of Islam, which is the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet. There, they don’t find these accretions: these additions came later on; they are innovations, and so we discourage these practices.
CNRS: What are your views on Sufism?
BAQ: In all matters, we go back to the root. To the question: ‘What did the Prophet think of this way of believing, this way which is call tasawwuf?’ The Prophet and the men around him were almost ascetic; indeed, it seemed that they practiced a form of renunciation, where they took the least from that which this world had to offer them simply because they feared that worldly temptations would eventually lead to their fall in the Hereafter. Because they thought anything taken from this world might include things which came to them in an illegal way, in a way that was prohibited in Islam. So conscientious and morally awake they were that they lived more for the ‘then and there’ (Hereafter) rather than the ‘here and now.’ But its equally important to note that, at the same time, and as a general rule, they encouraged other Muslims to be moderate, though they themselves practiced a strict form of Islam that would go by the appellation ‘puritanical’ in modern terms. That philosophy, the purity of faith, was taken to different directions by the Middle Ages, so much so that praying or fasting were declared not important. What was important was your direct contact with your Creator. This was a deviation again, an innovation that Muhammad did not practice. Muhammad himself prayed, he fasted, he went for Hajj, he gave Zakah, he lived very much as a man of this world as of the Hereafter. Indeed, for him the Here was there only as a stepping stone into the Hereafter. Any sort of Sufism or, for that matter, any form of philosophy which deviates from the way Muhammad practiced it, is not acceptable. Granted the filtered truth that the spirit of the law is paramount over the letter of the law, that the faith communities that clung to the letter of the law over the spirit of the law have done so only at the cost of their internal solidarity, even the slight differences between the Madhabs immediately pale into insignificance.
CNRS: Do you think that the education given in Madrasas is a good one? Do you think it is good enough to live in today’s world/ society? Do you think Madrasas should be reformed? How?
BAQ: Generally speaking, Madrasas today do not teach modern science and subjects related to science and modern technology. Since there is nothing against such instruction in Islam – rather since Islam actually encourages it – the present day Madrasas have to improve a lot in that direction. In Islam, there is no compartmentalization between state and religion, indeed, science and faith. It’s all one whole. The current day mentality built up within the Madrasas has come up because of this compartmentalization, because of this deviation in the way those working behind the Madrasas look at knowledge. True knowledge cannot be divided into science, religion, social studies etc. The whole idea behind the Islamic knowledge structure is that it is one indivisible unit in itself. If you look at the Qur’an, there are more verses in it which call you to observe aspects of nature around you, than there are verses which call you to pray, to fast, to give the Zakah and to the other ritualistic aspects of Islam. There are more verses which call you to observe nature, to study, and to reflect upon the signs (ayahs) of God in creation. In fact, the first revelation which came to Muhammad started with the word, ‘Iqra,’ which means ‘read,’ or ‘recite.’ You see, that command had come to a man who was himself illiterate, himself unread: surely this has more to it than meets the eye? Why did a revelation come asking a man who is not read, who is an illiterate person, to read? The basic importance given in Islam was to the act of reading and understanding the signs of God in the universe. There are so many ayahs (verses) which ask us to ponder over the signs of God in the universe, and to thereby come to the realization that there is a Creator behind the Universe. This complicated universe cannot exist on its own; your complicated body cannot come by itself without a Creator. This is how Islam leads us to understand that there is a Creator. This aspect of the Qur’an which asks you to study science has been forgotten almost in its totality, in the course of the decadence that has crept into the Madrasa. In that sense, the Madrasas are yet to (re)understand the faith that they seek to represent and propagate.
More than reform, Muslim institutions such as the Madrasas – like the Muslims themselves – need to conform to the original Islamic teachings. Right now, there is little conformance with that. They just teach the ritualistic aspects and how you are supposed to wash your body, to maintain your cleanliness, and to do your ablutions. That’s not what Islam is merely about. In fact, Islam is all that and much, much, more. Islam is also about an economic system, a judicial system, a charter of human rights, a procedure and premise (the true one!) for explorations into science and technology: Islam is a complete whole. This has to be explained to them, to those who run the Madrasas, in order that they begin to understand. That’s the conformance to Islam more than reformation that is long overdue.
CNRS: How do you view the image and role of the Ulama in Muslim society?
BAQ: As far as the Ulama are concerned, I think they must accept a certain statement of fact: in today’s world you can be committed to the community of Muslims, or you can be committed to Islam first, but never to both. These two things are sometimes – especially in the difficult times that we pass through today – very separate things. You can be committed to the supremacy of Islam as an ideology, as a way of life in this world, or you can be committed to the supremacy of the community of Muslims which admittedly includes many types of people. Among these are those who are just born into a traditionally Muslim family (and have little else to show for their religious affiliations), and those who genuinely do not know much about Islam. Unfortunately, however, all these groups too are classified under the Muslim denomination. They identify themselves, and are seen as, part of the Muslim community. Be that as it may, the first priority for the Ulama should be to attach due importance to the supremacy of Islam and its principles, rather than to the community that professes to go by it but which miserably falls short of strict adherence to even its basic tenets and practices. There are few today who can look at an average Muslim, and then say that Islam is the religion he would himself accept. In fact, there are few Muslims around who, through their lives, will tell you that you are looking at the ‘best people raised up for mankind.’ This is a tragic situation, because Islam really is the best solution for the problems of all mankind. It’s like looking at a drunkard who, while driving a Mercedes Benz car, rams it into a wall in a fit of drunken stupour, and blaming the car for the driver’s irresponsible attitude. You have to blame the man for it, not the quality of the car. The Muslim community today has reached a position where they do not represent the actual Islamic teachings. So if their leaders, whether of the Ulama or the Umara, really wish well for the community or for Islam they need to make them to conform to Islam first. They need to be uncompromising in the practice of Islam in any place. There should be total acceptance of Islam. There cannot be piecemeal, half-baked acceptance of Islam. If anybody does that – if any leader does that – I’d think it very unfortunate, as something that can only further the community’s further estrangement from Islam.
(To be concluded)