Educating people about religion
DR Pervez Hoodbhoy in a recent article has referred to Islamic history to argue that a sect called the Mutazilites (Mu’tazila, in Arabic) were responsible for spectacular developments that took place in learning and science from the 8th to the 13th centuries, and that this process came to an end when the Imam Al-Ghazali ‘spearheaded’ the reawakening of ‘Muslim Orthodoxy.’
However a closer look at Islamic history does not support the conclusions he has reached.
The Mu’tazila were a fringe sect whose origins go back to the Umayyad period when a student of the ‘Aalim Al-Hassan of Basra separated from him over a question concerning the status of a Muslim who has committed a major sin. And hence the name Mu’tazila comes from the verb ‘itazila — to separate from, dissociate from etc.
The central plank of the Mu’tazila doctrine hinged on the arcane question of whether the Quran was ‘created’ or ‘uncreated’. The Mu’tazila held that it was ‘created’ whereas orthodox Islamic doctrine to this day holds that it is ‘uncreated’.
And so the Mu’tazila remained an obscure fringe sect for more than a century after their founding until caliph Ma’mun succeeded his brother Amin in 813 A.D. Ma’mun strongly embraced the Mu’tazila and made their doctrine a matter of state policy to the extent that an inquisition was set up and people could be flogged, or worse, if they failed to display their allegiance to it. After Ma’mun’s death in 833 A.D. the Mu’tazila lost favour and were declared heretical a few years later by the Caliph Mutawakkil (847 A.D — 861 A.D).
Be that as it may Ma’mum was a man dedicated to learning and science. A story in Ibn Al-Nadeem’s ‘Fihirist” relates how he had a dream in which he saw Aristotle sitting on a throne. Following this vision he had an emissary dispatched to the then Roman Emperor to collect as many books on science as he could so that they could be translated. Clearly it was Ma’mun’s personal love of knowledge rather than the views of the Mu’tazila that caused him to strongly sponsor learning.
While it is true that Ma’mun’s reign was a particularly fertile period for science and learning, the same can be said, in general, of the whole Abbasid period which extends from the defeat of the Umayyads, in 750 A.D. to the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 AD — a period of 500 years. The proof of this is that some of the greatest scientists of the Abbasid period the likes of Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, Ibn-Al Rushd, Ibn Hayyan, Al-Biruni, and countless more did their work decades or centuries after Ma’mum and the Mu’tazila were distant history.
Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali was born in 1058 A.D., more than two centuries after Ma’moun’s death. He was a man of extraordinary brilliance and had an intense thirst for knowledge. He studied the natural sciences, philosophy and religion and wrote extensively on his research. He had an open mind and was committed to the search for truth. In the end his search led him in 1095 A.D. to embrace Sufism — a tradition that has never been regarded to be part of Islamic orthodoxy. He died in 1111 A.D. The Abbasids continued to rule for another century and a half and learning continued to flourish.
Islamic orthodoxy remained essentially unchanged throughout the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, and indeed remains much the same today. So if we have to seek an explanation for why the Muslims fell behind in learning and science after the 13th century we have to look elsewhere.
One does not have to look further than the Quran and the Hadeeth to see the emphasis that Islam places on learning. The fact that this did not happen earlier — in the Umayyad period for example — is because the Muslims were preoccupied with spreading Islam to the edges of the known world and building an Islamic state. Their work done, the Umayyads left the stage and the Abbasids then focused their attention on learning for half a millennium.
As Muslims seek to find their way in the modern world it is useful for them to bear in mind that the only time in history that they had held a place of influence and power on the world stage was during the Islamic rule of the ‘Khilafat’ — the Umayyads from 661 A.D to 750 A.D. and then the abbasids from 750 A.D. to 1258 A.D.
It is easy for us to blame our backwardness on our adherence to an ancient religion and to ascribe the success of the West to embracing secularism. Yet in the post-colonial period secular governments have ruled most Muslim countries and they have not succeeded in lifting their people out of poverty and backwardness.
Islam has been favoured amongst all the other divine religions by having in its possession a scripture — the Quran — acknowledged to be unchanged from the time it was revealed. And while they cannot match the absolute authority of the Quran, it is generally accepted that the sayings of the Prophet (the Hadeeth) as reported in the two Sahihs — Bukhari and Muslim are authentic.
So the Muslims of old drew their inspiration from exactly the same texts that is read today. Why is it then, that working from the same material, they were able to create a civilization that dominated the world, while the Muslims of today, remain mired in obscurity and ignorance?
This question admits of no simple answers. It is clear however, that there is no going back to the past. Those who believe that a ‘khilafat’ can be re-established — and there are such people — are actually having dreams. But it is also clear at the same time, as we have seen from a cursory glance at our history, that we cannot blame our religion. The fault then rests squarely with us, with our ignorance of what our religion is, of who we are and of where we have to go.
We in Pakistan suffer especially from this ignorance. The sectarian violence of the recent past is ample evidence. People in the Arab world shake their heads in disbelief when they learn of shootings in Pakistani mosques. They just cannot believe that Muslims would kill other Muslims, let alone do it in a place of worship. Gai Eaton refers to the malaise that afflicts us in the introduction to his excellent book ‘Islam and the Destiny of Man’ in which he says: “Where human beings are concerned, good men and good women are by no means thick on the ground, but vice always pays its tribute to virtue by masquerading behind the mask of religion — or more recently — of some political ideology, and both wickedness and stupidity walk the streets more confidently when decently clothed.”
“It would be foolish”, he continues, “and, to say the least, counter productive to seek arguments to excuse divisions within the Ummah, wars between Muslim states, the brutality and hypocrisy of certain nationalist leaders, the corrupt practices of the rich or the hysteria of zealots who have forgotten the fundamental (Islamic) law of mercy and the binding obligation (in Islam) to make use of the gift of intelligence.”
Mr Eaton is an Englishman who has become a Muslim. He has written his book to explain Islam to westerners. But it is also written for those Muslims whose minds have been shaped by a western system of education. Those of us who are exposed to this education, either in Pakistan or abroad, develop, without perhaps realizing it, a certain scepticism of all things religious. The system focuses on guaranteeing success in this world. It is not concerned with what may happen in the next.
The most vexing problem we face in Pakistan is unequivocally this: How do we educate our people, the majority of whom are illiterate, about their religion? Literacy is of course of paramount importance and it must be addressed with extreme urgency. But this is a separate issue. Our concern here is with religious knowledge. And the majority of Pakistan’s people get their information about Islam from the Imams of their local mosques. Here we have a problem. Many of these Imams do not have the necessary training or knowledge to inform the people about the truth of Islam. The sectarian upheaval that we now see is a direct consequence of this unfortunate situation.
I attend jum’a prayer at my neighbourhood mosque in a suburb of the city of Dammam. The Imam there is a manager in corporate planning at the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Saudi Aramco). He is well versed with the Quran and the Hadeeth. In a typical khutba it is not unusual for him to refer to people such as Freud, Nietzsche, Sartre, to name just a few. It is rare that I emerge from one of his khutbas without having learned something new. Indeed it is an event that I look forward to and ensure that I arrive early to get a good place. How many people in Pakistan would be able to make a similar assertion?
The war that went the US way
THE intelligent use of “smart” bombs and the judicious deployment of US troops have helped Afghan fighters lay the groundwork to rebuild a once insignificant but suddenly strategic nation.
That does not mean the end of the war on terrorism — far from it — but it does mean that the valid doubts and exaggerated worries about going to war half a world away against an elusive enemy are put to rest. So far the US-led campaign that began to form Sept. 11 must be judged successful.
US Army helicopters provided transportation early in the war for the man who now is Afghanistan’s temporary prime minister, Hamid Karzai. Green Berets helped him forge a fighting force to battle the Taliban in the south. In the north, US special operations forces aided warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum and other fighters of the Northern Alliance.
In vehicles, from manned and unmanned aircraft circling above and on foot atop mountain ridges, US military spotters identified Taliban convoys and called in airstrikes with impressively devastating precision. As in all wars, errant bombs killed civilians and friendly soldiers. But the overall picture is one of leading-edge technology in the hands of well-trained US fighters.
The use of Green Berets, other special operations troops and Marine expeditionary forces impressed on Afghans that the United States was willing to send its own fighters into harm’s way to root out Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban regime protecting them. Foes had claimed that while the United States was willing to bomb from 15,000 feet, it was unwilling to fight man to man. Some cited as evidence the 1993 US pullout from Somalia after the bodies of American personnel killed there were dragged through the streets. —Los Angeles Times
Emerging norms for conflict resolution
THE way coalition forces have carried out their military operations in Afghanistan shows that “bomb or buy” is the only method to achieve strategic objectives. Sophisticated and ‘civilized’ theories of conflict resolution are relevant and limited only to the seminar rooms of American universities and not applicable to the ‘real world’ like Afghanistan or Palestine.
Many countries like India, Israel and Sri Lanka now have the temptation to solve their “terrorist” problems militarily by using the ‘superior American wisdom’ and its ‘effective methodology’. For instance, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a New York Times columnist: “You in America are in war against terror. We in Israel are in war against terror. It is the same war”. By the same token, Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee has started using the same language and logic while responding to the December 13 suicidal attack on the Indian parliament.
The savagery of the brutal attacks on September 11 put the US on high moral grounds. The terrorists were condemned world wide. Few quarrelled with the inevitability of some sort of American retaliation against the group of assassins and their sponsors of the savage act. But the extended scope and scale of the military retaliation, particularly the relentless bombings of the Afghan landscape which have turned thousands of equally innocent civilians dead, even as it has not yet been able to achieve its primary target of capturing Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and others. Such a scenario led many people to agree with MIT Professor Noam Chomsky when he said “Bush and Osama are the chips of the same block: both are killing innocents for ‘just and right’ cause”.
It may be noted here that the problem is not with the ‘fight against terrorism’; nobody likes terrorists — at least in theory. The problem is with the didactic tenor and the sometimes imperious language of the utterances of US President Bush, and his senior colleagues, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Defence Secretary Don Rumsfeld, as they urge the “civilized” nations of this world to join the “international coalition against terror” By doing so they, in fact, suggest that new norms and rules of international conduct should be followed by the rest of the world. Their language and actions indicate that the new American preoccupation with terrorism be given primacy above every other political, economic and social objective, be it the fight against hunger, disease or illiteracy. After September 11, a large part of the international community did concede the concept of the right of American retaliation in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, international community seems increasingly reluctant to accept the crude methodology of the retaliation.
The logic of retaliation has now stretched to accommodate the concept of allowing a locus standi for the original victim-state (the US) to become the arbiter of destinies in a country thousands of miles away on the ground that it had “harboured” and “supported” the original attackers. Through this logic the US got the right to bomb them. But the world is perceiving this logic as an indication of America’s desire for global dominance and to have access to the Caspian resources.
Further, it would establish a precedent that the countries like Israel and India with their adventurist and expansionist designs find irresistible. Thus the copycat missile strikes on the West Bank which have left a number of Palestinians dead, at least equal to those Israelis killed in the suicide bombings of the Hamas. What is becoming an acceptable norm of international conduct is the idea of retaliatory action.
By doing this, Americans are endorsing the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” the idea which they have been branding an ‘uncivilized way’ to dispense justice. The recent American warning to Iraq has sent a shock wave to Islamic world and more and more people are thinking that the same treatment would be meted out to other Islamic countries ‘one by one’.
It is therefore not surprising that some of the members of the much touted anti-terror coalition, including Britain and France, have begun murmuring, albeit politely, that it is also time to take a hard look at the roots of the alienation and disquiet that have brought on this mindless and murderous fanaticism, particularly in the Middle East. But driven as it is by its all consuming focus on the campaign to root out terror, the United States has revealed itself as being more than willing, for its own ends, to rewrite the norms of international conduct and to force the community of nations to put terrorism at the top of the global agenda. This has set a precedent which countries such as Israel and India are now so vengefully seizing upon.
It must also be noted that hardliners in India , particularly Hindu nationalists in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, have called for strikes on terrorist camps in Pakistan. For them, December 13 attack on Indian parliament provided sufficient legal and moral grounds to initiate armed conflict with Pakistan to “eliminate terrorists”. Prima facie the Americans have significantly lost moral authority to advise Indians to show restraints.
When the Americans ask India for patience, the Indian intellectuals and politicians accuse America of having ‘double standard’ in dealing with terrorism. Recently India has shown the strongest temptation to solve the terrorist problem militarily, avoiding the more protracted yet more enduring processes of political negotiations.
New Delhi is eagerly investing all its energies in distilling parallels from the American military campaign. Their desire to use the force is so pervasive that they considered the presence of Indian Ambassador in Islamabad useless and called him back. Hence things are being brought form negotiating table to battle-filed for ‘final settlement’.
How did this happen? Why has India such a firm belief in the use of force instead of negotiations? In the post-September 11 world, it seems that new norms are being written both at national and international levels.
For example, new American legislation to counter terrorism denies the due process and fair trial to the accused. Various European countries have also detained ‘suspect terrorists’ without giving them appropriate opportunity to defend themselves. And POTO in India is the worst product of this series.
In their phobia to counter terrorism, the big democracies have started sidelining the much professed values like rule of law, due process of law, equality before law and the right of fair trial.
Unknown number of Muslims especially Arabs and Pakistani origins have been detained and many others live in a state of fear and uncertainty in the erstwhile tolerant, pluralist civil society of the US. And in India (especially in held Kashmir) the concepts like rule of law and equal protection of law have been trampled under boots of state security officials.
Using force and fire power to settle dispute is a dangerous proposition. If one party invokes this, the other would automatically follow suit. In this scheme of things, ultimately, the “terrorists” and the “civilized” would stand on equal moral grounds.’ If the civilized world drops bombs from skies to eliminate the terrorists then the terrorists deliver bombs through suicidal volunteers. The Difference lies in the methodology; bombs are the same. That is why jihadi organizations in Pakistan have started arguing that they are morally right to “use force” to achieve the political and strategic objectives. They conveniently and convincingly argue that “powder should be kept dry” for dignified survival. And America provided them ready and living example by using ‘force’ to settle scores in Afghanistan.
In a nutshell, the post-September 11 events have unfolded various bitter realities. The World has seen the patience and the civility of big democracies and the extent of their commitment to human rights, sanctity for life and civil liberties. Ruthless bombing in Afghanistan has severely alienated the US position as global arbiter. In rapidly changing global politics, one thing is glaringly evident: that is, the international rule of law is fast diminishing. The ‘global war against terrorism’ is converting into a power play. Terrorism has not yet been defined and the concept is arbitrarily and selectively applied to achieve political objectives. The contours of division and fragmentation on the basis of religion and economic power are getting more evident thus suggesting that global politics would witness more violence and polarization in the coming years.
Moral of the story: the efforts to eliminate terror by unleashing more terror is counterproductive. Terrorism must not be defined arbitrarily nor linked with any religious or cultural credentials. The unfortunate fact is that, invariably, all the ‘terrorist-designate’ are said to be Muslims. Notwithstanding the verbal claims and noble intentions, the western civilization is practically proving Huntington’s thesis of clash of Muslim and Christian civilizations.
Rather they are advancing his thesis one step further. For Huntington the ‘clash does not necessarily mean conflict’, but in the emerging world order it seems that clash essentially means conflict.
The author teaches sociology at Punjab University