EditorMarch April 2005

In Search of a Prophetic Voice

Future Islam

A Warner to all and the blessings for the entire world as he was, the Prophet Mohammed’s message had a bearing of universality. He called for the general well being of all mankind, for the emancipation of man from man-made shekels. Islam then appeared to many as a liberating force, a gate wide open on all those seeking solace irrespective of their caste, creed, colour or race. The message of Islam coming from the mouth of the prophet then had an international appeal. It attracted nations far beyond the borders of Arabia. Sohaib of Rome, Bilal of Ethiopia, Salman of Persia saw in this struggle equally the same promise of salvific liberation that brought the local Arab population to side with the Prophet. Such then was the appeal of the prophetic voice.

Today, despite the presence of 1.6 billion followers of Mohammed on this planet, this prophetic voice is not heard of any more. Almost at all international forums of Islam, be it the OIC, the Muslim World League, the Arab League or even the conclaves of prominent Islamic organizations, one only hears much ho-ha about how to uplift the Muslim nation or how to arrest the Muslim decline but not how to redeem the humankind. Much to our dismay, Islam in our Age has become a communitarian project. This edition of Islam that we Muslims have developed in course of our historical journey has no attraction for the people of other nations. Instead, they look at it as a rival ideology and a potential threat to their own hegemony. That is the basic rationale behind the American war on terror and lay at the heart of what the establishment intellectuals call the Clash of Civilizations.

Living in a post-era sensibility where history has come to us as a meaningless drift, we Muslims have been picked up as a mere escape-goat. Media is continuously beaming around the world a larger than life-size image of the radicals amongst us who in their desperation, at times, go on ignoring the very basic teachings of Islam. Yet what makes the damage un-repairable is the utter absence of the prophetic voice amongst us, that vision of global redemption that once was the hallmark of early Islam. If the moderates or other thinking Muslims limit their efforts to merely uplifting the House of Islam and the radicals work, in their own way, for the global supremacy of their cult, where would the world find the all-embracing, consoling, life-affirming and healing massage of the Last Prophet?

As long as Islam characterised submission to one Lord God, the God of all nations – رب العالمين, it was taken as a universal truth. But when we Muslims turned it into a communitarian project, it became more of an identity than the attitude, loosing its appeal for the other. The genesis of this transformation goes back to the formative years of the Abbasid Baghdad when our fuqaha canonized this universal message as the Empire’s ideology. What constitutes to be a Muslim became the focus of our discussion once it became clear to us that Islam was the ideology for this part of the world alone that we, for our convenience, had come to define as the darul-Islam. The ulema of the time in their enthusiasm to put Islam to the service of the Empire vociferously demanded a commonly agreed list of Muslim creed. Leaving the Qur’an aside that spells out what to believe in and what not, the Muslim legists went on formulating the essentials in mainstream Islam. The idea of a created Qur’an had far-reaching political implications, giving the establishment ulema a free-hand in further consolidating on their understanding of Islam as the Empire’s ideology. The move was vehemently opposed by Ahmad bin Hambal and a host of other scholars, nevertheless, they could not help Islam being stamped out as a communitarian project. Verses that left salvific possibilities open for the submitters of other nations were considered abrogated and fuqaha took it as their prerogative to judge on sensitive issues that Qur’an had asked not to divulge in and about which we were told that God alone would decide on the day of judgement: إن الله يفصل بينهم يوم القيامة.

Of the Qur’an, what it means to be the word of God? Did Allah speak to Mohammed in pure Arabic? Or he merely sent down to him the ‘intent’? How did it take place – the conversion of the sublime word of God into a human language? Is the Qur’an word of God in the same sense as Logos? Such questions had direct bearing on conceiving Islam as the sole heritage and ideology of the new emerging Arabian Empire. That God spoke to Mohammed in an Arabian setting but at the same time Mohammed was entrusted with a global project and his followers were commanded not to acquire any communitarian or local identity instead, submerge in the colour of God – صبغة الله – remained no more our concern. Can Islam be conceived minus Arabism? Or can the original intent of the Qur’an be deciphered beyond the linguistic construct? Such questions have bewildered many Muslims throughout the ages. For example, when Iqbal, the poet-philosopher of the East, saw, in the absence of the Khilafah, an opportunity to conceive pure Islam without the Arab cultural elements, he was mainly voicing the hope of re-emergence of the universal message of Islam. In our time, those who find themselves marred in a host of puzzling questions about the linguistic body of the Qur’an which, owing to Deconstruction’s fall-out on the linguistic theories, have made it utterly difficult for them to get to the real ‘intent’ and yet be sure about it. People like Mohammed Arkoun or Nasr Abu Zaid, in their curiosity to discover new meanings in the text have in fact tried to enter the meta-physical zone where being human they got bounced, nay, rather knocked down. In a way, they have brought to the fore the same age old issues that once surrounded the ‘createdness’ debate. Understanding a timeless document beyond time and space is ideal, but those who live only in time and space cannot simply do it. At most we can re-read the book in contemporary setting, finding new meanings that our predecessors might have missed. Yet the spatial and the temporal elements of the Prophet’s time cannot be altogether peeled out from the text. What the Deconstruction Age scholars like Arkoun and his ilk are calling for is not simply a study of the text in the light of newly acquired anthropological and linguistic insights, rather in their naivety they are unsuccessfully trying to penetrate into the danger zone, trying to figure out the very process of Revelation. Yet they emerge no wiser from their lengthy discourses despite their deployment of modern linguistic theories and fashionable jargons.

In the Prophet’s own time there was no dearth of curious people who wanted to gain some insights into the process of revelation. They even asked the Prophet, the Qur’an tells us, about the mystery of God’s agency that brings down divine words to him. To this, the Qur’an does not elaborate much: ‘they ask you, O Mohammed about the process of Revelation, say, it is by the decree of my Lord’ (Qur’an,17:85). In another context the Qur’an relates to the three modes of revelation but no further elaboration is made about the process itself. Probably God did not like to demystify the process or it was beyond human comprehension to appreciate such a complex transformation of God’s intent into a humanly comprehendible language. God alone knows the best.

A re-reading of the Qur’an beyond an Arabian setting yet not de-linking it with the spatial and temporal Arabia of the Prophet’s time will have a direct bearing on the shape of Islam to come. While it is undesirable to peep into the nature of revelation it is incumbent on all of us to fix our gaze on the bubbling intent of the text and employ all available tools to strike right at the crux of the intent, transcending time and space, making journey back to the Prophet’s spacia. This alone can help us rediscovering the prophetic voice.

The Qur’an is the word of God, but not dead words; they keep growing. It is like a prism through which we can see each Age in a different light and can glean through the past and the future. This is the ratio legis of God commanding us to delve deeper into the Qur’an: ‘Why don’t you make serious reflections on the Qur’an, is it because you don’t have a responsive heart?’ (Qur’an, 47:24). Those who take the word as a finished product also feel compelled to give the text a meaning in historic setting thus being guilty of freezing the text as well as making the text subservient to history, basically a human tool with all its flaws. And those who approach the text as any other text suitable for sociological and anthropological dissection are equally guilty of giving undue importance to are yet to be fully developed tools for any decisive enquiry. Both the groups demand, in their own way, sole right to interpret.

The world around us is not a static place. It is continuously evolving, growing. Ignoring this fact while seizing on the interpretative opportunity is one thing and re-reading the text in our own context is something else. While the former has been instrumental in creating a totalitarian mind and tyrannical regimes in the name of religion the latter has yet to be experimented in our time. The Temple life in Jerusalem, the rule of religious elite, was twice disrupted and it remains so till date owing to the dogmatic fixity of the Jewish mind that had transformed the universal message of God into a communitarian salvation project. And when the sins of Church fathers attained unbearable proportion and their theologians claimed sole right not only on the possibility of salvation but they even started dispensing it with, this totalitarian mindset brought the once powerful to a total ruin. No different was the fate of Ottoman Caliphate that eventually crumbled as it became hard for the bewildering Turks to figure out if they had at all a prophetic mission to carry on. History testifies to the fact that whenever proponents of religion envisioned the universal message as a communitarian project claiming the sole right to salvation for their own folk, they gradually found themselves locked in a closed system where interpretative activities had come to an end. The words of God, in all such situations, appear to them as frozen words that once had spoken to their ancestors, the pious Elders. Having lost track of the ever-engaging live words of God, the men of religion find no other alternative but to cling to the pious elders. This uncreative, unhealthy attitude creates a sense of false religiosity and at times end up in establishing the most tyrannical regimes in the name of religion. God Almighty who sends His prophets to liberate mankind from the shekels of al-Ahbar, the misguided religious elite, has kept something inherent in all such tyrannical systems to engineer their own undoing.

The post-era sensibilities have left us with a big vacuum. The West is experiencing unprecedented crises of its history. Western philosophy is caught in the web of linguistic analysis, western concept of development is questioned owing to its devastating ecological effects and western ideals such as democracy have failed to establish a sane order right within the bastions of western civilizations. Today, not only the invincibility of science is being questioned, social norms involving abortion, gay marriages, and sexual ethics before marriage once taken as given have become topics of discussion again. The modern west has lost its glamour and what is in the offing is not clear yet.

The last few decades have witnessed an unprecedented upsurge in interfaith gatherings. Religious people in various traditions find it hard to live in isolation or to deny salvific possibilities to the other. Amidst the murmuring of liberation theology of Latin America, homeland theology of Taiwan, the minjung theology of Korea and the dalit uplift theology of India – the remnants of that old modern world, we clearly hear the hankering for a truly global theology. This concerted effort to rediscover the eternal message of God, the God of all nations, the rabbul aalameen as the Qur’an puts it, may bear early fruits if we Muslims wind up our communitarian Islam project inviting all nations on this planet to sing the praise of Lord God in unison:
‘Praise be to Lord, the Lord of all nations,                  The Merciful, the Mercy-giving,                  Master of the Day of Judgement.                 O Lord! To You we worship and from You we seek support.                 Guide us to the right way,                 The way of those on whom You bestowed your blessings                 And not of those on whom your wrath fell                 And not of those who went astray.’
(Qur’an, 1: 1-6)

Rashid Shaz
New Delhi
March  01, 2005

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