April June 2016InsightSlider Post

Muslim Ummah: Framing a Rational and Humane Agenda

Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

Muslims constitute about 23% population of the world. They rule themselves in 56 countries which are member-states of the OIC. Around one-third of them inhabit several major countries of the world as religious minorities but as full citizens.


While the world has heard much of ‘Islam means Peace’ rhetoric in recent years, peace eludes the Muslims and the Muslim world the most. Bulk of the disquieting news emanates from the Muslim world. Think of war, refugees, displacement of people, coups, suicide bombings, militancy and terrorism, civil wars and sectarian feuds, illiteracy, unemployment, corruption, fragile and failing states, gender disparity, hunger or famine, the part of the world inhabited by Muslims is plagued by more of the most of these social and economic afflictions1.


Broach these issues with Muslims, the response could range from Western or Jewish conspiracy being responsible for all that violence and bad blood happening in the Muslim world, or biased projection in the international media or simply denial of problem. The Muslim world produces much disquiet; has been the theatre of all major recent wars; witnessed the largest exodus and influx of people displaced by wars or civil wars; sends out the largest number of migrants to industrialized nations and countries that offer employment or ensure civil liberties.


Peace is not merely ‘Absence of War’

Islam of course means peace. And Peace does not merely mean ‘absence of war’. It means availability of justice. Few in the Muslim world understand and still fewer are able to articulate that the causes for chaos in their lands and societies may be unmet human needs of security, identity, shelter, basic resources and acceptance of others. True peace involves equality, justice, freedom, and compensation to victims. Monarchies still survive in a number of Muslim lands while several others are ruled by dictators. Few of the Muslim nation-states can boast of real democracy, smooth transition of power, corruption-free and responsive governance, independent judiciary, gender equity and respect for human rights and civil liberties. Some of the most shocking pieces of news and images have been emanating from this region too.


Where exactly lie the roots of these crises? Is Islam to be blamed for all this? Or is it a case of Islam being used to sub-serve the interests of groups out to grab power and foist upon the populace regimes immersed in medievalism? These queries are natural.


The colonial masters vacated the Muslim lands nearly seven decades ago. True, they created new political geography by drawing lines on the sands of the Middle East and by erection of fences or creation of artificial borders elsewhere.  They appointed their stooges in several of them who looked at their dictates or guidance in all matters of statecraft. They were rulers rather than leaders (barring exceptions), for they led no one other than their own selves. They took no pains to establish their polity on stable institutions and sound convention. The old colonial powers or new imperialists continue to protect those stooges till this day in lands where their vital strategic and economic interests are involved and will continue to suppress the popular quest for freedoms till their own domination gets challenged. But these were not unique to the new States inhabited by Muslims alone. It happened with India, many states in the Indo-China region. Even the case of Germany or Japan is not materially much different. The regimes there were made to follow the dictates of the Allied powers that subjugated them in the II World War.


Wriggling out of the Shadows of Past

But then there was a difference between them and the majority of Muslim states. Those States –with India included—wriggled out of the shadow of the past. They adopted a Constitution of their own and put in place responsible bureaucracy and responsive administration. They trained their people to discover the joys of being citizens rather than subjects. They gave them education, skills, and turned them into effective and disciplined workforce to throw out the yoke of foreign dependence soon enough to emerge into States capable of managing their own affairs. Some of them have grown into vibrant democracies and some other into thriving economies. Not all are truly democratic, but vast majority of them are makers of their own destiny. India serves as a shining example of managing humongous diversity while remaining intact and democratic, and achieving food security and developing sufficient technological capability and a vast exportable educated and technically skilled workforce.


Those who challenged the powers that be in the Muslim world were naïve enough to use the 7th century Islam to confront them. They were devoid of any social and economic vision for their land and people, bereft of skills to contextualize themselves with the urges of 20th century and totally oblivious of the need to imbibe humane values. They were largely unaware of the geopolitics and ambitions of the neo-imperialists and their ensnaring stratagems what with their vast scholarly and leviathan diplomatic apparatus and military machine capable of twisting any of the rivals’ objectives for subserving their own ends. Some of them harboured the vision of utopian Khilafat. Some others were looking for some converts to Islam and tom-tommed the achievements if they happened to win a few individuals from the spiritually-starved, mainly white communities in the West. They ritualized, politicized, puritanized and militarized a substantial portion of the masses. Some of them turned into transnational movements too.  Outcome is before us. The Muslim world groans under dispensations pursuing disastrous legacies of former colonialists and their uncouth rivals with atavistic models and agendas.     


Fears of Politicized Islam

Today, it has become embarrassing to be associated with Islam in a liberal world. In a world where religion is generally seen as a means to connect with God and seek spiritual solace and kept away from public life, Islamist rhetoric of ‘Islamization’ of governance and administration evokes fears. Till September 11, 2001, Islam was generally looked with scepticism. Feeling of hate remained dormant. No doubt much of these stemmed from negative portrayals in the Western literature, films and other media. These spawned bigotry among non-Muslims.  September 11 unleashed a free for all against Islam.


Despite Europe being the source of the Crusades in the hoary past and the theatre of the two World Wars, Stalinist violence, Bosnian genocide, Chernobyl disaster in the century just past, the West chose to target and single out Islam and Muslim world for all the intolerance and violence that prevailed around the world. Resistance against corrupt regimes, occupation of Muslim lands and predatory capitalism was dubbed Jihad and became a ruse for bloodier reprisals against the Islamic states. Unfortunately, such an opportunity was offered on a platter to the West by Muslim extremists themselves who hijacked the term Jihad jettisoning its broad spectrum of ethical and spiritual meanings and focusing mainly on its combative aspects only.


Distorted Perception of Jihad

Any study of peace-building in Islam should have been premised on the base of Islamic law which seeks to protect life, religion, property, lineage and intellect. The term Jihad and Jihadist entered into the media lexicon during the last two decades. The facile translation of Jihad into English as holy war, as is common in some scholarly and non-scholarly discourses, constitutes a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the term’s Quranic usage. The Quran expects the Muslims to be engaged constantly in the basic moral endeavour of enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong. Some of our scholars read into it a system that forcibly erases what they perceived as wrong and establish what they perceived as the right. Some others got engaged in winning converts to their cause.  The struggle implicit in the application of this precept was a struggle, both individual and collective. Any war to annihilate the non believers or to convert them to Islam was, is and should be doctrinally unacceptable in Islam. How distorted is this perception of Jihad being terrorism or invitation to violence also gets refuted by the Quranic discourse wherein patience is stated to be a component and a manifestation of the Jihad of the righteous. Similarly quietist and activist resistance to wrongdoing was equally valorized by Islam.


Today, the dominant narratives of Islam emphasize the past as perfect, glorious, heroic, ideal, authentic, and desirable. It glamorizes all that is old and injects a sense of fear with the new, modern and liberal, regardless of the rationality and moral essence of the ideas and ideologies. Internally, taboos abound within Islam and keep expanding, taking in newer anathemas on a daily basis2. Sternness has come to be considered religiosity and liberalism is perceived as licentiousness. In a situation, where Muslims have no media, the conservatives have the advantage of mouthing their rhetoric from the pulpits of the mosque. The liberals and the liberalists have withdrawn into their shells. If ever the secular media offers them any space, they only get bracketed with those arraigned against the conservative Islam.   


Idealizing the Past

Speeches extol rationalism but when it comes to practice, it is reverence to the conventions and rules framed in the past that are referred. They are considered eternal and immutable while the current age urges adaptation and innovation. Muslims idealize their theology and past scholarly opinion as simple to follow and coherent. But practiced in the plural, complex and diversity-ridden world, it creates conflict. They tirelessly argue and endorse the integrity of Hadith and the science behind its collection and compilation, but fail to satisfy the simple query as to why Prophet’s persona is presented in poor light in umpteen numbers of them3. The inbreeding in the madrassas does not allow most of those trained in traditional Islamic sciences to question them. Their minds become refractory to these ideas. They are not able to understand as to how anti-Islam websites could use hadiths to tarnish the picture of Islam unless they themselves see them. Muslim religious class is blissfully unaware of the reach of the internet which has enabled forces hostile to Islam to dredge such material from the classical sources and put them within easy reach of the browsers. While on one hand it keeps fuelling antipathy against Islam, on another level, it sows seeds of skepticism among the younger Muslims and turns them cynical.


Sternness manifests itself mostly in matters of gender segregation, subordination and exclusion of women4 and in relationship with non-Muslims. Cultures embedded in the history of Middle East and South Asian countries get mixed up with religion and pose problems in the liberal atmosphere of the West where most mosques, madrassas and other Islamic institutions were set up by immigrants.


No Objective Inquiry

In an age when creative interpretation and objective inquiry are the norms, Muslims (and Islam as it is understood with reference to them) show extreme resistance to change, place limitation on new thinking, curtail freedom of thought, traditions are idealized thereby leading to alienation of the younger generation. It is more evident among the younger generation of immigrant Muslims in the west. Even while Muslim trumpet the conversion of a few to Islam (a boxer Muhammad Ali here and a musician Yusuf Islam there), the alienation of the younger generation from Islam is never highlighted.5 Those confronting the conformism live under the threat of being heretics while a silent majority succumbs to compromise. The younger generation suffers the dilemmas of dichotomy and disaffection.


Faith-Reason Conflict

Distance from common rationality could be seen in confusion that prevails in the community over moonsighting for Ramazan or Eidul Fitr; appointing women on boards of mosques and awqaf; dealing with bank interest or having business transaction through them; building schools and hospital from zakat donations; buying houses or cars on mortgaged loans; allowing women into sports and swimming; organ donation and transplantation; cloning and stem cells; or even in small matters as wearing one’s national dress being likened to imitating the non-believers.


While irrationality is just one aspect, the entire process of transmission of sayings of the Holy Prophet to the current day followers has skipped scrutiny6. The holy Quran was the main fulcrum of the Islamic teachings. But over the last one millennium and half, interpretation or deduction of laws has become a hostage to all varieties of Hadith, thanks to the curriculum imparted by the madrassas (theological schools) which have shifted the axis from Quran to Hadith and Fiqh of their chosen imams. Many of these contradict the teachings of the Quran and speak ill of women or preach prejudice towards other communities. A good number of them seem irrational. And finally and extremely painfully, many of them cast the Prophet, the central figure of Islamic faith, in poor light and run contrary to his pious, gentle and mild disposition.


Challenge of Modernity

Islam faces the huge challenge of modernity whose source lie in the West. Muslims cannot escape the changes being forced upon them by factors like mass economic production and movement, monetization of money, mass education and penetration of rationality to the grassroots of the population, automation, mass media etc. This calls for continuous and systematic thinking. To borrow Prof. Fazlur Rahman’s words, “Societies often react to changes in two ways i.e., panicking and recoiling upon itself and seeking delusive shelters in the past on one hand and sacrificing or compromising its very ideals on the other and can react to new forces with self-confidence by necessary assimilation, absorption, rejection and other forms of positive creativity, it will develop a new dimension for its inner aspiration, a new meaning and scope for its ideals.7” Any laissez faire attitude towards the new forces will make us simply drift, and the attitude of escaping to the past will seem emotionally more satisfying in the immediate future, but will be more fatal of the two attitudes.  Reading of the early history of Islam would reveal that early Muslims were much more creative, thoughtful and courageous in interpreting the Quran and the Sunnah according to their circumstances and would not flinch from taking stands that would appear drastically different from approach of the Prophet but would be based on the keen understanding of the Islam’s cardinal principles. If we have to move forward in current times, we need to do away with much of those old fixations that freeze us in seventh century mould.



Given this background of intellectual crisis within Islam and Muslim society, it becomes imperative for Muslims

1-to evaluate their situation in the world,

2-to identify the causes for decline of their worth and retrogression in thought process and divergence from the cardinal principles of the Quran

3-to reset the objectives for the ummah

4-to reorder the priorities and set the target

5-to initiate discussion on concepts like Shariah, Ummah, Sunnah, Ijtihad, Ijmaa, Apostasy, Blasphemy etc.

6-to close the gap between reason and faith

7-to demarcate the boundaries between divine law and human legislation

8-to reformulate the madrassa curriculum

9-to put in place a mechanism for constant research into postulates of Quran, Hadith and other sources of Islamic guidance

10-to decide the ambit of legislation within Islam

11-to determine the locus of rituals in public space

12-to weed out inauthentic traditions

13-to lay down a roadmap for socio-economic wellbeing of the ummah




Notes & References


1-Situation of Muslims in some vital spheres

HDI being the index of social development. Let us have a look into the ranking of major Muslim nations: Pakistan 146, B.Desh 142, Nigeria 152, Turkey 69,  Iran 75, Saudi Arabia 34, Egypt  110, Indonesia 108, Brunei Darussalam is at 30 (the best ever among Muslim nations) and Qatar is at 31.

Corruption is the indicator of misgovernance: Let us have look into the ranking of major Muslims nations in the Corruption Perception Index 2014 released by the Transparency International (1 being the least corrupt and 175 the most corrupt):  Pakistan 126, B.Desh 85, Nigeria 136, Turkey 64,  Iran 136, Saudi Arabia 55, Egypt  94, Indonesia 107, Sudan  , Chad 154, Algeria 110, Somalia 174.

Fragile State Index 2014 by Fund for Peace think tank in the US: (Note: it is a ranking of 178 states) Sudan and Somalia in the ‘Very High Alert’ category; Chad, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq in ‘High Alert’ category; B.Desh, Egypt, Nigeria, Niger in ‘Alert’ category; Libya, Iran, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan in ‘High Warning’ category (India is also included in this category); (http://library.fundforpeace.org/library/cfsir1423-fragilestatesindex2014-06d.pdf

Refugees around the world:  In 2013, the country hosting the largest number of refugees remained Pakistan, with 1.6 million refugees. Afghanistan had been the largest source country for refugees for more than three decades but by mid-2014, Syria had overtaken Afghans as the largest refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate with more than 3 million registered refugees. (http://www.unhcr.org.uk)

Suicide bombing: In 2013, eighteen countries suffered the lethal results of suicide terrorism. Some 291 suicide bombings were carried out, causing approximately 3,100 deaths. This figure represents a 25 % increase in the number of attacks over the same period the previous year (230). In 2013, the Middle East saw 148 suicide attacks, which constituted some 50% of all attacks in the world. The most prominent trend in the region is the increase in the number of attacks in Iraq. The 98 attacks there constituted one-third of all suicide bombings in the world, an increase of 280% over the previous year (35). Iraq, which began to suffer from suicide bombings only after the entry of Western forces. (http://www.inss.org.il/index.aspx?id=4538&articleid=6408)


2-In daily practice, the Islamists would argue about perfumes being prohibited as they contain alcohol; cosmetics and nail polish being taboo as it disallows penetration of water during wuzu; and other numerous other suggestions of this ilk. 




4Some of the disparities seen and discriminations practiced against women in/by the current Muslim societies are:

1-Sacrifice of two goats for aqeeqah for the birth of the boy-baby and one goat for the girl-baby.

2-Tawalliyat: Guardianship of women under father, husband or son. No such restriction for men.

3-No permission for women to travel alone. (The Holy prophet might have advised some individual woman not to travel alone to a particular destination. It is useful to remember that travel in those days was on horseback or camelback. Today it is generalized to all even when the mode of travel is social i.e., in a plane, ship, bus or train.

4-Consent of fathers for girl’s marriage has become mandatory in some Islamic societies today. It leads to honour killing if not secured in societies like Jordan, Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

5-Denial of driving licence to women in some Islamic societies.

6-Women are not allowed inside the mosque, mainly in South Asia.

7-Women are not supposed to lead prayers and even pray collectively even in women-only congregations. (This is expressly against the provisions in Islam. Umme Waraqah was appointed imam in a mixed gender mosque. Ref. Sunan Abu Daud and Dr. Md. Hamidullah, Emergence of Islam, Adam Publishers, New Delhi Page 33. Nafisah bint Al-Hasan Ibn Zayd led funeral prayers of Imam Shafii. Ahmed E. Souaiaia, Contesting Justice, State University of New York Press. P. 7)

8-Women should not raise their voice in congregations. (The same mullahs feel no qualms in telling that a woman questioned Hazrat Umar, May Allah be pleased with him, in a Friday congregation.)

9-Bar/restrictions on women attaining higher education and entering employment. (Hazrat Umar appointed two women as market inspectors in Makkah and Madinah.)

10-Bar on men teaching women. (Ibne Asakir says he learnt Hadith from as many as 80 women. Ref. Ahmed E. Souaiaia, Contesting Justice, State University of New York Press, p.6 ).

12-Witness of two women being equal to one man. It has been generalized in all legal matters. (The Quran prescribed it in business transactions as financial literacy among women was poor in those times. Same conditions do not prevail today.)

13-Women cannot be heads of state. (Moroccan scholar Fatimah Mernissi probed it thoroughly and concluded that this Hadith surfaced clear 30 years after the Prophet’s passage in a situation when Hazrath Ayesha was engaged in a military confrontation with Hazrath Ali. The person who narrated it expected some favours from Hazrath Ali.) The Quran describes Queen Sheba being a Head of State and Prophet Sulaiman according her a grand reception in his palace. At no place the description has any negative connotation on a woman being a Head of a State.

14-Divorce could be administered by a man to his wife in the privacy of his home but women requiring the agency of courts.

List could be still longer. Overall the concept of chastity has been enlarged to banish the women from entire public life thereby paralyzing half the ummah.   


5– Following observation by author Jeffrey Lang in his book is illustrative :

“There are at least 250 American students of Muslim parentage at Kansas University, none of whom come to the mosque. Our community has seen about 30 Americans embrace Islam in the last 15 years; almost all of them stopped coming to the mosque a short time after conversion and at least ten of them definitely apostatized. The two local high schools have around 60 students with at least one Muslim parent and only a few of them come to the mosque or attend community events. Immigrant-dominated mosque normally fare a little better than those run by foreign students, but they too are characterized by low participation of Muslims in the area and scarce attendance by native-born Muslims.”

While the overwhelming majority of Americans of Muslims descent have nothing to do with mosque, there is hardly a ripple of concern within the Muslim religious establishment.”

(Jeffery Lang, Losing My Religion: A Call for Help, Amana Publication, Beltsville, MD, USA, 2009)


6A classic case is the consternation felt in Islamic legal circles over the age of marriage of Hazrath Ayesha with the Prophet. Most Hadith collections record the age of consummation at 9 years. But faced with the charge of child marriage by the Holy Prophet, the new research has produced evidence that the age was in fact 19, not 9. If indeed all Hadith are accurate, child marriage receives sanction of Islam. And if new research is to be given credence, Hadith has to be trashed as inaccurate in recording a material fact of the Prophet’s life thereby giving ample scope for doubting authenticity of several of other Hadith that appear irrational. Similar is the dichotomy between Quranic declaration of La Ikraha fid deen or Lakum deenukum waliya deen and the insistence on death sentence for apostates in certain Islamic nations.   


7-Fazlur Rahman, Islamic Methodology in History, Central Institute of Islamic Research, Islamabad, Pakistan. 1965     


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