We Muslims live with a paradox. If we are really the last chosen nation entrusted to lead the world till end time, why it is so that we are unable to arrest our own decline? Despite the fact that the Muslim nation today constitute almost two billion strong population and they are strategically located in energy-rich lands on which depends the future of the world, they are reduced to mere consumers. The new technology has revolutionised the way we live and it is still forcing us to live differently, but we as a nation has almost no share in this process and hence have completely lost control of the happenings around us. The new inventions and the pace of scientific discoveries have confronted us with a host of mind boggling and disturbing questions. For example, what will be the social and ethical fall out of the DNA revolution? If human living on other planets becomes a reality, or if future researches point to arrest the process of aging thus increasing the longevity to a thousand years, how will it affect us? Or, imagine a future scenario where each individual will bear an identifying genetic code or possibly due to a microchip ingrained on him will find himself a prisoner of the tech-world. Can we or should we stop this technological menace? These and many other similar questions might hold our common future, but the Muslim nation is not in a position to take a decisive stand on any such issues. Unfortunately, those who shape the future agenda today are not us.
Yet the Qur’an keeps mentioning that the global supremacy and domination is the hallmark of believers: انتم الأعلون إن كنتم مؤمنين. Those entrusted with world leadership are the people engaged in good deeds. They are, to use the Quranic term, the ibad as-saleheen per se. And as compared to the abd saleh who is destined to have leadership role, the kafir or rebel of God has to be on the margin. A terrible fate awaits him not only in the hereafter, in this world too he is reduced to a non-entity, the saghiroon.
The kafir, due to his blind and uncreative opposition to the natural process eventually gets isolated. Devoid of a role in the policy-making, like the animal he lives only on material plane. Kufr and Iman are no cultural identity. In fact, they are two binary opposing worldviews. Whenever a prophet blows trumpet of life, the otherwise barren land of spiritualism gets revived and a host of submitters to God emerge from the long forgotten nations. However, when the same nation of submitters, in course of time, loses the zest for life and many among them take on a destructive course, they unknowingly engineer their own fall. Among the believing nations those who commit kufr or bid farewell to life affirming attitude, usually fail to realise that in their vainglory of false religiosity they have in fact walked away from road to submission. The Qur’an tells us in great detail how the Jewish nation which once was entrusted with world leadership came to believe that that this privilege was their birth right. They failed to realise that this chosenness was due to their adherence to the Torah and not simply because they belonged to a particular nation.
Much like the Jews, we Muslims too have the delusion that despite our muddled religious outlook and the obvious shift in our worldview the world leadership is reserved for us and for ever. Nevertheless, the stark realities of life and the fact that for centuries we find ourselves on a slippery slope give us a very different and awkward feeling. Bridging the gap between our declared position and manifested reality that surrounds us today is no easy proposition. This dichotomy has led some of our thinkers to believe that the world leadership or supremacy that the Quran declares a logical outcome of a life of faith has nothing to do with political or cultural domination in this world. Instead, as they argue, this amounts to excellence in the realm of spiritualism alone. The disparity between the promise and the reality has forced them to conclude that probably what Qur’an promises is a sort of spiritual ecstasy in this world and salvation in the next. In their opinion, the material world is heaven for the non-believers and a prison house for the people of faith. Then there are other ultra-mystical sects among Muslims who believe that given the deplorable condition of the Muslim Ummah, a remedy is being worked out in providence where the assembly of autad wa aqtab — the mythical seers of the spiritual realm, is likely to take a decision soon.
Such mythical, irrational and defeatist interpretations of the world around us has only added to our woes as they deliberately divert our attention from the root cause of our malaise. The mythical mind that has been in the making since the days of Abu Hamid Ghazali has not only been successfully postponing a creative debate on vital issues, it has also failed in creating a new theological paradigm to meet the demands of our time. Thus we are forced to live with this theological paradox: if we are the last Ummah chosen to lead the world till end time, why do we have this awkward feeling that the reign of history has slipped from our hands?
Let me elaborate. In Islam, faith without action is not acceptable. Here, faith and action, i.e., iman and amal salih, move hand in hand. Together they complement each other. In fact, a good deed is the logical outcome of sincere faith, an extension of the faith itself. Whereas as a sincere believer continuously testify to his faith by his good deeds, the munafiq or hypocrite on the other hand, by his/ her contradictory actions go on negating what (s)he verbally declares. The early generation of Muslims were aware of the implications of faith and hence they saw for themselves a pro-active role in the universe. As upholders of the last revelation they were required to compete (فاستبقوا الخيرات), collaborate and take lead in acts of goodness. Then, amal salih was taken as an act of common good. As the Qur’an had projected its Prophet as the mercy unto all, it was quite logical that the good deeds emanating from followers of the prophet become a solace for the entire humanity.
Muslim scholars have generally confused amal salih with ritual worship. A close reading of the text, however, clearly indicate that amal salih is much more than the ritual worship or obligatory prayers such as salah and zakat etc. It is rather advanced though essential stage of faith: إن الذين آمنوا وعملوا الصالحات وأقاموا الصلوة وآتوا الزكوة لهم أجرهم عند ربهم (Qur’an, 2:277). Urging the faithful to get involved in amal salih, an act distinguished from the obligatory salah and zakat, clearly indicate that a life in faith goes a long way. If amal salih is so clearly other than the ritual worship, what it is then? The Qur’an tells us, oft and on, that all those who submit to Gad and do good deeds are people for whom a place is assured in the heaven: والذين آمنوا وعملوا الصالحات أولئك أصحاب الجنة (Qur’an, 2:82). And this assurance is not for Muslims alone. Even those who come from other faith communities such as the Jews, the Christians, the Sabians, they too, if committed to amal salih, deserve fare reward (أجرهم عند ربهم) and an assured amnesty from all kinds of worries in the hereafter (لا خوف عليهم ولا هم يحزنون). The amal salih is the only criteria of assured success both in this world and in the next for all faith communities, no matter what prophetic tradition they come from. No wonder then, if our loud proclamations of faith devoid of amal salih do not yield long awaited results.
The amal salih, as propounded in the Qur’an, is an all-inclusive term for general wellbeing in consonance with nature. It is a positive contribution of man to add his own beauty to the universe by delicately and thankfully availing the bounties of natural world. From keeping the city clean for fellow citizens to inviting them to the worship of one Lord God, or inventing a cure for a deadly disease, each action comes within the purview of amal salih. Where as the believer due to his life-affirming and proactive attitude is always busy in making the world a better place to live, the kafir is always hell bent on destroying the harmony of phenomenal world. In the Quranic worldview, kufr is opposite to amal salih: من كفر فعليه كفره ومن عمل صالحا فلأنفسهم يمهدون (Qur’an, 30:44). Those who lack a creative, proactive and life-affirming attitude or who are unable to contribute their own share of amal salih in the universal projects of common good or who do not think beyond their communitarian interests, such nations find themselves in close allegiance with kufr. Such nations find it difficult to sustain a leadership role. This is exactly what had earlier happened with the Jews (كونوا قردة خاسئين) and the same has plagued the House of Islam today.
The Quran exhorts the believers to think, reflect and make use of the brain to its fullest, yet for the last many centuries the Muslim nation has not been a substantial part of common wellbeing projects, save assuming a leadership role. The modern world appears to us a radically different place as compared to the past when the Ummah’s hegemony went unchallenged. The large-scale deployment of modern gadgets, the mass transportation through jumbo jets, the invention of radio, TV, computer and the internet, have not only revolutionised our life, they have also brought knowledge and information within the easy reach of common man. Much has been written on the failure of anti-biotics and the unhealthy side effects of modern medicines, yet we cannot ignore the fact that over all health sciences have greatly contributed in improving the conditions of our living. There were many selfless people who devoted their entire life to scientific researches and who took great pains in carrying out successful inventions. We may not know their names or nationality but for their good deeds or amal salih they deserve appreciation from their Lord. It was due to their hard works that today, in 21st century, we are in a position to breath in the cyber-world, a human extension of the majestic world of God. No doubt, such and the like projects of common good that appear today as purely western constructs owe much to the great masters of Muslim East of the medieval age, but for the last many centuries our share has been minimal. The orthodox Muslims even find it difficult to call such acts of common good as amal salih.
The closing of the Muslim mind did not occur in one day. Under the influence of tasawuf, as early as in the Abbasid Baghdad, Muslims had come to believe that an austere living and resignation were the essence of faith. The monastic living was in vogue that guaranteed the faithful multiple reward for each mystical formula uttered thus leaving no room for the luxury of thinking or pondering on the signs of God. As the emerging Sufi orders of the time were promising a short cut to salvation few would feel tempted to devote their life to the cause of common good. If uttering a particular formula or jumble of words could guarantee salvation, it was sheer waste of time and energy to reflect on the forces of nature or to decipher such forces for improving life on this earth. Although it is no secret that the Quran has great appreciation for all those people who reflect as to how the rain comes down from the sky and how the same rain produces from the same soil grains of different variety and colour. Astounded by the awe of God as they are, the Quran declares them as true scholars. But our decline was so steep that we even changed the definition of a scholar and all those who had nothing to do with reflecting on the signs of God in natural world or any inkling of serious researches came to be regarded as scholars simply because they had named their high school certificate as aalamiyat and called their graduates as ulema, or scholars. Similarly, the concept of good deed or amal salih underwent a radical change. Instead of doing something really good we came to believe that uttering a mystically proven formula a hundred thousand times, or counting God’s name on a sack of seeds, or leisurely turning one’s finger on an impressive rosary of thousand beads were really the good deed that could cause wonders in our life. Such pseudo good deeds were vehemently condemned by no less than a man of Caliph Omer’s stature in the very early days of Islam. Nevertheless, the emergence of clergy in the Muslim society who always had a soft corner for such spiritual vagaries and the social prominence accorded to religious seers made it difficult to shun this alien notion altogether. Once this change in our perception about the good deeds set in, its fall-out on the Muslim psych was disastrous. While other nations were busy in various projects of common good thereby maintaining their leading role on issues that concerned the world, we Muslims due to our abstinence from amal salih found isolated and marginalised. Even those amongst us who willy-nilly participated in such projects in their personal capacity had always had an uncomfortable guilty feeling that probably they were not on a right course. As they lived with a guilt conscience and wore a split personality, they could hardly achieve excellence.
Whereas this mistaken notion about the common good or amal salih kept most of sincere Muslims engaged in futile mystical exercises, it compelled many rational minds to take refuge in secularism. The newly invented tools of amal salih needed no apprenticeship nor posed any physical or intellectual challenge for the practitioners of faith. More so, they successfully helped create an ivory tower for those religiously inclined people who sought a moratorium on disturbing questions. In our own time, the ever-growing popularity of Sufi Islam or religious passivity and the general acceptance of non-Quranic terminologies such as chilla (the forty-day religious frivolity), gasht (spiritual wanderings in group) etc. point to the fact that a dominant number of Muslims do not want to confront this vitally important question: why despite so much of religious assertion Muslims are no match for a leadership role. The Quranic promise of world leadership is clear and candid, though: ‘Allah has promised to those amongst you who submit and do acts of goodness, that He will, of surety grant them in the land authority and power as He granted it to those before them’(وعد الله الذين آمنوا منكم وعملوا الصالحات ليستخلفنهم في الأرض كما استخلف الذين من قبلهم) (Quran, 24:55). The promise of istikhlaf, of worldly power, for the submitters who are committed to good deeds is obviously for this world and hence it cannot be postponed for the hereafter. The Qur’anic God is just; He even takes care of goodness worth an atom’s weight (فمن يعمل مثقال ذرة خيرا يره). Can we expect a just God to ignore the good deeds of other faith communities and instead keep us at the helm of affairs simply because we live under the delusion of being the ‘khaire ummah’, the best of nations?
01 July 2006