Leading PostsSeptember October 2004

Is Religion all about Rituals and a Fancy Dress Code?

Future Islam

The Muslim community is going through a deep crisis. The intensity of this crisis can be gauged from the fact that everyone, be he a leader or commoner, is asking the question as to why, despite the presence of the Qur’an amongst us, we cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel. Why the community that was entrusted with the task of leading the world, despite the presence of the Qur’an and the teachings of the scholars and commentators, is going through a deepening ideological crisis? After the trauma of Auschwitz this question had raised its head among the Jews too as to how could God abandon His chosen community to fend for itself? The Jewish scholars and intellectuals asked themselves the question that if the community of Jews was wiped out from the face of earth, then what possible meaning can the history have for them? The Israelites who, for a long time, have been accustomed to live in history are yet to fully recognise the fact that they have been ejected from the seat of authority and guidance. The basic difference between the Israelites and the Muslims is that while the deposition of the former is a divine decision, the deposition of the latter is an historical aberration that can be corrected through recourse to the Last Revelation. However, the irony of the situation is that instead of critically assessing their situation and attempting to light up their path with the help of the Divine Revelation, the Muslim have become prisoners of history. This has made it difficult for them to come to grip with this historical aberration and understand the full extent of their decline.

The world is now going through its worst crisis in history. Enormous changes, not always for the better, have been effected in different countries of the world in the name of development; the unscrupulous way in which different parochial powers have tried to extend their areas of influence has resulted in an uncertain future for the world community. The spoilage of the environment, the accumulation of the wealth of the world in a few hands, the monopoly of multinational companies, the suppression of the freedom of thought through the manipulation of the media and publicity and compelling the people to see and hear what some dominant power or faction wants people to see and hear – these are some of the realities of our time that are difficult to come to terms with. The anti-God stance of the policy makers has turned the world into an atomic furnace. The intellectual and economic resources of the humanity are being used for the destruction of human life rather than preserving it. Under the circumstances, it was expected that the inheritors of the last Divine Revelation would come forward to direct the confused humanity. However, the stark fact is that despite being declared the most favoured community by God, the Muslims are engaged in a struggle for their existence. There is no doubt that the current situation prevailing in the world urgently demands guidance from God-fearing people. If the Muslims, like the other communities, do not show courage to face this challenge, then how can they delineate their distinction from other communities as the inheritors of the last Divine Revelation?

Lately, on the occasion of the Parliament of World’s Religions, I had the opportunity to travel to Spain and stay on the peak of mount Montserrat in a Christian monastery. Some Sikh religious leaders and a pandit from Manipur were also staying in the same monastery. I saw that the Pandit who had got up at the break of dawn engaged in adorning, with utmost care and concentration, his forehead down to his nose with a white pigment, till the time it became apparently visible from his human face that he was indeed a religious leader! On the other side, an old Sikh gentleman was busy arranging a length of cloth, considerably long, with the help of a friend so that he could participate in the World Parliament of Religions like a true Sikh wearing his prominent turban. An extensive array of colourful religious dresses was on display there. The black robes of the Benedictian monks, the Kippah of the Jews, the white sarees of the Brahmakumaris and the Arabian robes and tarboosh of some Muslim divines. Some had added the honorific ‘His Holiness’ before their names, while others insisted on prefixing their names with ‘Reverend’ or ‘Father’. If some were rabbis, others were maulanas, and some even considered it reasonable to write the word ‘Imam’ very carefully before their names.

In this assembly of the divines, such insistence on sartorial refinement and its display left one greatly disappointed. I asked the pandit sitting by me the reason for this insistence on the part of the divines on wearing the particular dress of their community in the World Parliament of Religions, as it would accentuate perception of difference among religions. After a lot of arguments and debates on the issue, he finally came out with the frank answer: ‘People look up to us for direction and guidance. They want to see us as role models, different from the man on the street. It is obvious that all this attention to dress is because of the image that the common people have of us in their minds. Otherwise, what does dress have to with real piety?’ In the perpetuation of this ritual of dress, the Pandit alone could not be held responsible. All the leaders had taken great pains in wearing dresses that would distinguish them from common men, and project their image of being Godly or religious beyond all doubt, at the very first sight. The common people would find it difficult to decide whether a human being like them, of flesh and blood, is breathing behind the heavy and impeccable robes, and whether his views can be subjected to scrutiny and analysis.

It is said that when the Roman officials had come to arrest Jesus Christ, it was difficult for them to recognise him as he was sitting with his followers. They had to take the cue from Judas’ reverential kiss. Jesus Christ was, after all, a distinguished Prophet. Even the followers of Prophet Muhammad did not like to adopt any artificial means of distinction that would set them apart from the common populace. The visitors to Medinah would often express their amazement at the spectacle of Caliph Omar interacting with them wearing an ordinary dress, without any visible trappings of power and the presence of a flattering entourage. The first generation of Muslims greatly valued freedom of thought. They knew very well that everyone is equal to God. The responsibility of leadership or offering guidance to others does not take the leaders beyond the level of common human beings to a holy status. The common Muslims consider that they are entitled to put the actions and words of their leaders and scholars under the strictest scrutiny. So much so that even during the course of his Friday sermon a common Bedouin woman dared to disagree with the Caliph of the time. Conversely, leaders and scholars also considered themselves to be ordinary men of flesh and blood and would not like any supra-human epithet or title for themselves. The ordinary Muslims also did not like the idea that they should see people like themselves to be invested with a sacred halo around them. As long as Muslims valued freedom of thought they sought guidance from the pages of the Divine Revelation, and not from their leaders and scholars. The moment scholars and men of letters established the convention of presenting themselves as sacred entities, quite apart from ordinary human beings, and pompous and pretentious spiritual epithets began to be prefixed or suffixed to their names, the Muslim mind began to stagnate and take recourse to blind imitation.

If today, despite the presence of the Qur’an, we cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel, it is due to the fact that we accord greater credibility and honour to scholars and jurisprudents than to the Divine Revelation. Instead of directly accessing the Qur’an and ignite our thinking from it, we consider it necessary to verify whether our stance is corroborated by the sayings of the earlier Islamic scholars. Those who should have been students of the Qur’an have, through different rituals and through adopting impressive titles, transformed themselves into the religious authority. As a consequence, a priestly class among the Muslims has emerged. What could be the reason for this amazing similarity between the religious leaders of the Israelites and those of our own community? Just as the religious leaders of the Israelites called themselves rabbis, implying that they share Godly attributes, and the Christian priests adopted for themselves the term ‘Father’ which is appropriate only for God Himself, in the same way, the Muslim religious leaders have adopted the title ‘Maulana’, a term that has been used in the Qur’an for Allah the Almighty. When communities get accustomed to seeing their religious leaders invested with a halo of sacredness, and when common people begin to believe that there are some individuals among them whose thoughts are sacred and pure and do not admit of scrutiny and correction, then freedom of thought is effectively stifled. In critical moments, such communities fail to find new solutions to their problems and ignite their path with the light of the Divine Revelation. And then all the tasks undertaken in the name of religion result in its negation. Christ’s strongest admonition of the Pharisees, the Jewish maulanas of Christ’s time, in the Bible endorses this view. The Qur’anic assertion in the context of the Prophet extending da’wa to people that he offered people relief from the tyranny of priesthood was designed to stress the idea that God has not given the monopoly of interpreting religion to a particular class, and that the Prophet’s invitation for revolution would not put up with any kind of intervention by rabbis, popes or maulanas. How can true piety and love for God allow that the believers should use epithets and titles exclusive for God, and the assumption of false spiritual authority should extinguish the light of freedom of thought and expression?

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