Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Pakistan: The Carnage in Sialkot and Islamic faith

[Can such pathological behaviour have something to do with the Islamic faith? This is the question we are all terrified to confront head-on. Should an answer in the affirmative mean that I must dissociate myself from the faith of my ancestors so as to preserve my humanity and sanity? Ironically the only place where the various Islamic sects learnt to live in relative peace was the South Asian subcontinent. It must have had to do with the ancient pluralist tradition of this region where spirituality was understood as many ways to the truth (or God). Most Muslim rulers accepted the fact of plurality and became patrons of all the communities living in their realm.]

No to extremist Islam
Ishtiaq Ahmed

It is time to reject extremist, politicised Islam and the terrorism associated with it. We need a reformation which retains the eternal message of compassion and humility that the Prophet (PBUH) practised in Mecca. I am convinced most Muslims still believe in such a humane Islam

The carnage in a Shia mosque in Sialkot on Friday, October 1, 2004 resulted in the death of 31 human beings who had come to pray to Allah. A bomb blast on October 7 killed 40 people who had come to attend a Sunni gathering in Multan to commemorate the first anniversary of the assassination of their leader Azam Tariq. On October 10, five people were killed in Lahore even as guards at a mosque door spotted the bomber and did not let him enter the prayer hall. A few days earlier the miniscule Sikh community in Nankana Sahib had been attacked, while beheading of foreign workers in Iraq is a daily affair and the slaughter in Beslan, southern Russia claimed around 350 lives, included more than 150 children, some of them Sunni Muslims.

Can such pathological behaviour have something to do with the Islamic faith? This is the question we are all terrified to confront head-on. Should an answer in the affirmative mean that I must dissociate myself from the faith of my ancestors so as to preserve my humanity and sanity? Intuitively I know the answer cannot be in the affirmative, because there is no single, incontrovertible interpretation of Islam. After all did I ever know anyone more kindly and saintly than my grandfather, Al-Haj Mian Ilam Din? Orphaned at an early age, he worked hard and honestly and practised his faith with utmost devotion. His door was always open to the poor and needy, including non-Muslims.

His honestly was proverbial. I remember meeting a man, Mian Feroz Din, who told me that long years ago he borrowed some money from my grandfather. One day he came to our house and returned the loan. Later, that evening when my grandfather counted the money he found that he had left more cash than what he had borrowed. My grandfather would not wait until next day and went to his village a few miles away from our ancestral Mozang and returned his money. That was the way my grandfather understood the message of the Prophet (peace be upon him). Honesty, hard work, responsibility, compassion and charity — were Islam. Most ordinary Muslims believe in such an Islam.

I grew up listening to the story how an old non-Muslim woman used to throw garbage on the Prophet (PBUH) when he crossed her street somewhere in Mecca. He would bear the insult with great dignity and forbearance. One day when he was in that street again the old woman was not there. So, he made enquiries and learnt that she was lying in bed seriously ill. He went to her house and asked about her health. She was so deeply touched by his kindness that she immediately converted to Islam. When I tell these stories to my children and to my students at the university they are perplexed as to what to believe and what not to believe. I am myself beginning to wonder what the truth is.

The reason is that there is another Islam, highly politicised, that has fascinated extremists down the ages. For them any real or imagined deviation from their version of Islam is a major sin and must be eradicated with force. It began with the murder of the third pious caliph, Hazrat Usman (Uthman) (644-56 AD), by intriguers around him; claimed the life of the fourth caliph, Hazrat Ali (656-61 AD) at the hands of the Khwarij; and, climaxed with the massacre at Karbala of Imam Hussain and his small band of devotees in 680 AD.

The Abbasids came to power promising to avenge the murder of Hussain. They treacherously killed in 750 AD Umayyad chieftains whom they had invited to a feast arranged ostensibly to bring about reconciliation between the Hashimite and Umayyad clans. The Fatimid caliphs of Egypt belonged to the Ismaili sect. They were expelled from Egypt in 1171 AD by Salahuddin Ayubi. They avenged that by setting up the cult of assassins which struck terror among Sunnis all over the world.

The Shias could not practise their dissenting faith openly in Sunni societies and were forced to resort to taqiyyia or pious dissimulation. When at the beginning of the 16th century the Safavids consolidated their power in Iran they ordered everyone to convert to the Shia Athna Ashari faith or face the sword. At that time, Iran was a Sunni majority country. The Shia ulema gave a fatwa that killing five Sunnis would earn the killer a berth in paradise. The Sunni ulema at the Ottoman court issued a fatwa that killing ten Shias would earn the mujahid a place in paradise. The Wahhabi movement rose in the 18th century in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula with a mission to eliminate deviations from pure monotheistic Islam. The reformers went about destroying the tombs of sufis, killing and terrorising traditional Sunnis and Shias.

Ironically the only place where the various Islamic sects learnt to live in relative peace was the South Asian subcontinent. It must have had to do with the ancient pluralist tradition of this region where spirituality was understood as many ways to the truth (or God). Most Muslim rulers accepted the fact of plurality and became patrons of all the communities living in their realm. Nobody epitomised this spirit better than the great Tipu Sultan. When this framework was disturbed the consequences were devastating. Thus when Aurangzeb (1658-1707) tried to establish a strict orthodox Islamic state he had to conduct long military campaigns first against the Sikhs in the Punjab and then the Shia states of Golkonda and Bijapur in the South. The result was the opposite: those expeditions hastened the end of the Mughal Empire.

After Pakistan was created, fanaticism was directed against Ahmadis in the 1950s, to be followed by harassment of Christians in the 1970s when their colleges were nationalised. Later, from the 1980s onwards persecution of Christians, Ahmadis, Hindus and free-thinking Sunnis began to take place endemically under the blasphemy laws. Additionally, the Shias have been targets of the purgatory zeal of militant Sunni groups. The Shias have occasionally hit back with great barbarity. If this trend continues sooner or later we will devour ourselves because Barelawi, Deobandi, Ahl-Quran, and Ahle Hadith too have serious doctrinal differences within the Sunni majority. To blame the current terrorist attacks on foreign agencies is therefore ludicrous. Such a propensity is embedded in our past from the time of the murder of Hazrat Usman.

It is time to reject extremist, politicised Islam and the terrorism associated with it. We need a reformation which retains the eternal message of compassion and humility that the Prophet (PBUH) practised in Mecca. I am convinced most Muslims still believe in such a humane Islam. My grandfather was one of them.

The author is an associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He is the author of two books

Daily Times 12/10/2004