I LIVE in Canada but often visit Pakistan. I notice two types of differences in how Islam is practised in the two countries. The first is a much wider range of practices in Canada than in Pakistan. The second is much less tolerance in Pakistan for those who do things differently.

There is another stark difference that should be obvious to all: the contrast between the glory days of Islam starting with the Prophet (PBUH) becoming the head of state in Arabia, when Muslims were a force to be reckoned with, and today when the Muslim world is in a state of utter chaos.

This raises the question of how Islam relates to the sorry state we are in today. I am puzzled nobody asks that question since we have always been taught to believe that Islam is a complete way of life. It raises the question of which of the following explains our current malaise.

First, is it that Islam can’t be a way of life in the modern world? Second, is it that we don’t seem to understand Islam anymore, compared to the generations of a few centuries ago, during and after the Prophet’s time? Or is it that Islam, the way we understand it, is just fine and we don’t follow enough of it?

We need to spend time understanding the philosophy of Islam.

Whichever of these explanations is correct is fundamentally critical to the Muslims’ place in the modern world.

In the absence of any critical thinking on the big issues, I find the Muslim world taking the easy way out: living in the modern world but tagging Islam to it by practising a set of rituals without any understanding of what they are meant for.

The tragedy of this approach is that a Muslim may do every bad thing conceivable, but be happy in their belief that they are practising Islam and, despite their sins, will go straight to heaven. I call this balance-sheet Islam: the danger is that the more you practise rituals without the slightest thought of what they are for, the more you may feel you have huge positive assets that give you a licence to do every conceivable bad thing. In this scenario, religion cannot be the positive force it was meant to be.

Let me put my preliminary thoughts on the table to answer the question I posed here to kick-start a conversation.

My understanding of Islam, based on many years of serious research, is based on two fundamental principles: first, there is an underlying purpose behind everything Islam wants us to do or not to do. This purpose is related to two key outcomes, ie, good human beings and a well-functioning society; second, Islam came for the benefit of us humans, not as a means of benefiting Allah. He, given the entity we believe Him to be, doesn’t need any favours from us. So, if religion doesn’t help me, is there any point in me spending time on it?

These two principles take me to an understanding and practice of Islam that bears no resemblance to what I see happening in the Muslim world.

Where does this approach take us?

We need to keep in mind there are two parts to Islam: its philosophy, or the big picture which describes the fundamental objectives and desired outcomes; and the operational tools, that are used to achieve these objectives and outcomes.

It may be easy to provide simplistic answers to both these requirements but that wouldn’t be sufficient because there are many serious challenges to overcome in getting practical guidelines. We need serious thinking and research over many years done by many knowledgeable and thoughtful people.

The same thing that Mu­­slims used to do in the past: people such as, to name just a few, Hazrat Umar, Hazrat Ali, Imam Ja­­f­fer Sadiq, Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Ghazali and Abu Ali Sina.

As an example, what is the fundamental objective behind the way we understand zakat? Is it a 2.5 per cent wealth tax? Or is it to achieve a desirable level of income equality? Given the way economic systems have changed from then to now, there is a huge conflict between the two answers. So, we need to spend time understanding the philosophy of Islam.

Similarly, we need to differentiate between the philosophical and the operational. Which is which? Take namaz as an example. Experiencing the way Islam is practised in Pakistan, it would seem namaz is the philosophy. Is it?

Or is it an operational tool to achieve a philosophy, such as making humans better? I saw an example of a huge conflict between the philosophical and the operational when one of our guests arrived an hour late with the explanation that they waited to offer their Maghribprayers.

I hope I have put some questions and ideas on the table for others to participate in a serious conversation.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2023

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