The Muslim community, despite its fall from the sovereign position, still considers itself the best of all the communities. Its members still continue to act in a complacent manner in conducting their affair and indulge in daydreaming. On an emotional plane, the community still finds it difficult to accept the fact that it is no longer the community that has been promised help from the heavens through the angels in its our of difficulties. The sweet, musical note of verses celebrating the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the vast gatherings celebrating the Prophet’s birth anniversary and the massive congregations of collective worship may reassure us that we are indeed the true adherents of the Faith, but the fact remains that we are no longer the community that has been characterised as the chosen people. The crisis has assumed grave proportions. Centuries have passed since we had occupied the sovereign position, and we were designated as the chosen community. As the followers of the final Prophet, we have been blessed with the promise of the leadership of the world, till the last hour. We had come to acquire this sovereign position through the divine Word revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
As long as the divine Word lit up our ways, we exercised a firm grip on the movements of history. The course of events in the world followed our direction, and sometimes, in moments of difficulties, when we felt our grip slackening, our eyes would automatically look towards the heavens. We sought help from Allah Almighty and sure enough the help would come unfailingly at the most opportune moment. During the battle of Badr, the Prophet himself was leading a handful of warriors against a vast enemy horde, and sought help from Allah. During the later battles in Muslim history, be it the vanquishing of the emperors of Persia or Rome, or still later, the incident of burning the boats on the coast of Spain, the Muslims always felt that a living and dynamic God was always there to help them out. This feeling actuated them to take the gravest of risks in the way of the Faith. When Harmzan, the famous Iranian general, was brought as a captive before Caliph Omar, he had borne witness to this fact. He had said, ‘O Omar, as long as it was strength pitted against strength, you were nowhere in the reckoning. But today God is on your side, and who can vanquish one that has God on his side?’
There is no doubt that we are the same people who once vanquished the mightiest of enemies on the strength of our belief in Allah’s help. But what has happened, after all, that for centuries now, we have become strangers to this blessing of Allah. There is no dearth of people even today who are ready to die in the name of Allah. In different parts of the world, there are groups known as ‘Hizbollah’, ‘JundAllah’, ‘Islamic Jihad’, ‘Jama’a Islamia’, ‘Mujahideen-e Islam’, ‘Sipah Sahaba’ etc., whose members are ready to lay down their lives for Islam. Which part of the world is free from the presence of the followers of Muhammad who have not written the glorious history of Islam with their own blood? However, in all the major and minor conflicts and challenges in the contemporary world, it seems as though defeat has become our destiny. Allah who is the Almighty and who can change the course of events in the twinkling of an eye does not come to the rescue of the Muslims. Mourning assemblies are held in the Muslim community more frequently than in any other community, one can hear cries of despair emanating from every corner of the Muslim society. This is because this community has been at the receiving end of murder and mayhem for centuries, each moment brings some new torment for it, and each day it has to face some new challenges. Who will the people turn to in this moment of grave crisis? The mosques now remain more crowded than before. The reformist and revivalist movements have created an ideal atmosphere suitable for prayers and fasting, nightlong worship, litanies, meditation etc. There is no dearth of people performing supererogatory prayers and reading the scripture. Despite all this, despite the visible restlessness and helplessness of Muslims, why are we deprived of the kind attention of Allah Almighty?
This is a question that agitated both the elite and the commoners amongst us. Even the best men of intellect among us seem to be thoroughly confused. A couple of years ago, during the attack of the U.S. on Afghanistan when the Afghan people refused to compromise with their self-respect, they had to face the brutality of the American army. The fighter jets B-52 rained down death on the people. Hardly would there be a Muslim in the world who had not sent his tearful prayers to Allah during those weeks. The whole Muslim world – the East and the West, the Shiite and the Sunni – cried out in despair, ‘O Allah, kindly rescue this helpless and powerless community.’ The mosques reverberated with the chanting of prayers, so much so that even those Muslims who had never visited the mosque earlier, made it a point to go there and pray for Allah’s help, along with their brethren. The Afghans showed extraordinary courage. The death raining down from the sky could not shake their resolve. At that moment, the whole world waited with bated breath for a miracle. The days turned to weeks and still there was no miracle in sight. On the contrary, the defeat of the Afghans became more and more evident. The vents in Afghanistan totally shattered the confidence of the entire Muslim nation. The Almighty did not come to their rescue. The whole ummah plunged into deep despair. After the sack of Baghdad in 1258, this was the second event in the history of the Muslims that brought them face to face with a deep emotional crisis. It seemed as though no new dawn would ever greet this community again.
As a community, during the moments of crisis, we always declared that the victory would be ours through help from Allahنصرمن الله وفتح قريب)). We have done everything in our command to face the enemy and change our lot. But we have remained deprived of Allah’s help. A couple of months ago when the American tanks were marching towards Iraq and were caught up in the desert storm, it sent a wave of excitement through the Muslim community. It seemed as though Allah’s help had finally arrived. But this complacency did not last long. The fall of Baghdad once again underlined the fact that Allah is no longer with us; and as long as a community does not enjoy Allah’s pleasure and support, no one can save it from defeat and humiliation. For centuries now, we have been facing defeats on a daily basis. It seems as though every moment something is breaking within us. We cannot but agonise collectively – when will Allah’s help arrive, after all?
Our exegetes and jurisprudents do not seem to be interested in analysing this situation and come up with well-argued answers. Rather, they seem more interested in reassuring us through wrong interpretations of Quranic verses. According to them, all these misfortunes are, in fact, meant to test the strength of our beliefs. The understood the Quranic verse
as implying that the world is a testing ground for the Muslims where they should be ready to be inflicted with sorrows and sufferings. The infidels will have a field day here. As the Muslims have been promised a glorious life in the Hereafter, they should exercise patience and perseverance while facing afflictions in this world. Some groups, finding no way out of this humiliating situation, have advocated renunciation of the world as a valid religious stance in Islam. But the problem is – renunciation is not really possible while living in this world of here and now. When our very existence is facing slow extinction, how many of us, and how long, can give up reflecting on it and remain indifferent to the imminent crisis? Further, this humiliating life and the anguish of constant failures are not consistent with our past history when the Muslims of yore left exemplary lives of piety and glory. We want to adopt them as role models in our practical lives. Who could be a greater Muslim than the Prophet himself and his immediate followers? They certainly faced grave challenges, but they did not have to live a life of humiliation and suffer the anguish of constant defeats. Our history tells us that for the believers, leadership has been promised in this world too, not to speak of the Hereafter which is perfectly secure for them. The pages of the Qur’an are witness to the fact that, in every age, the believers have been blessed with the leadership of the world, along with good tidings for the Hereafter. The accounts of the glorious kingdoms of Dawood and Sulaiman, and the stories about the privileged status of the Israelites among all the communities in the world, underline the fact that once we belong to God’s party, we can triumph over the whole world. This had happened before, and the Qur’an brought good tidings for it. Then, what could be the reason that, in the passage of several centuries, on all critical occasions, the good tidings carried by –- الا ان نصرالله قريب did not come into effect. Deprived of Allah’s help, all our efforts lead only to just one more instance of salutary lesson for the future. The events of the contemporary world make it obvious that we are no longer the community that can be sure of Allah’s help, that can look upon Him as its Friend and Benefactor.
During the era of our continuing decline, a poet was born among us who registered a thousand complaints against God for having withdrawn His favours. There is no doubt that his poetic complaint contained the stark truth of everyday life:
“Your blessings are showered on homes of unbelievers, strangers all
Only on the poor Muslims, your wrath like lightning falls.”
However, to remedy the situation, the poet looked for answers that were as conventional as those presented by our scholars and Predecessors in different forms. A new awakening, seeking Allah’s benevolence, turning towards Allah – who can doubt about the validity of such stances? However, despite the presence of such clear answers, if our community has failed to draw help from Allah, the basic reason for this is the fact that we have become accustomed to interpret “turning towards Allah” merely as mechanical observance of some rituals. This is why all our efforts at turning towards Him could not make us deserving of His help. The Quranic promise of help remains ever distant from us. Then naturally the question raises its head in the minds of the restless souls as to whether God exists or not. Where is the God who had promised to come to the help of the believers?
When the course of events has made it crystal clear to us that God has abandoned us, then it becomes incumbent upon us who have been living on the strength of our hope in God’s help to seek answer to two questions: first, why did it happen, and secondly, what should we do to deserve God’s help once again. In other words, as a community, we have to make a reassessment of our collective existence. As long as we are not ready to interrogate our present, it is not possible to find ways for the future.
First, we must understand it clearly that however much we want to claim our relationship with the companions of Prophet Muhammad, the fact remains that as far as our thoughts and actions are concerned, we have a very tenuous relationship with them. The Islam that the Prophet preached and practiced was a different Islam. His life was illuminated by the pages of the Qur’an. In the construction of our religious life, rather than depending on the Qur’an, we have begun to depend on many other self-styled books. The Prophet’s Companions had surrendered themselves totally to God and experienced sublime joy, but we have got trapped in lifeless rituals. They were the chosen people who were given total control over history. We only have delusions about being the chosen community, entertaining false belief about our superiority over other people and have become captives of history. Our situation is not much different from that of the Israelites who, despite their dismissal from the privileged position, still consider themselves to be the chosen people of God. For them, piety means mere observance of rituals. As lifeless rituals cannot produce a genuine feeling of piety, that is why our professed return to religion does not produce the desired results. Today, there is no dearth of Muslims who are meticulous in their observance of all the injunctions of Islam. After the end of colonialism, the mosques have become crowded once again, the number of religious seminaries is increasing by the day, and return to the roots of religion is a manifest trend among the Muslim youth throughout the world. However, all these external manifestations of a return to religion have not made us more deserving of Allah’s help. And if we do not merit Allah’s help, it begs the question whether Allah really wants the kind of worship that we have come to regard as true expression of our piety.
To appreciate better our fallen state of pain and anguish, in the context of the absence of God’s help, it will be instructive to remind ourselves of the Israelites. This is also appropriate due to the fact that the Qur’an, through its frequent allusions to the Israelites, warns us against observance of lifeless rituals. The Israelites, looked upon by us as a cursed and degraded community, are known for their excessive show of religiosity. They consider it essential to consult the rabbis and the jurisprudents even on the smallest details of any and every issue. Be it the details about the Yum Kappur or the Sabbath, or the proper way of slaughtering animals (kosher killing), seeing the meticulous way in which the pious Israelites consider it necessary to abide by the finer details of Talmudic rituals it would appear to anyone that there would scarcely be any other community in the world that had adopted religion in such a perfect way in their lives. The Israelites still believe that they are God’s chosen people, and enjoy precedence over other communities of the world in God’s favour. This they attribute to their adherence to the Torah because of which, they think, they occupy this privileged position. That is why they took it for granted that God would always stand by them. In Nazi Germany when the Jews became the object of general hatred and when these self-styled chosen people of God found the earth getting too hot for them, the religious scholars and intellectuals among them wondered how God could see his own chosen people face slow extinction? Some said that the words of Torah contain immense hidden potentials. The condition of the community could change if specific verses are chanted again and again. Some took the help of Cabbalistic diagrams, some re-established their relationship with rabbinic literature, and some took initiative for organising collective chanting and meditation. As the situation in Germany and other places got more critical for the Jews, they turned more and more doggedly to their religion. So much so that it was found in concentration and death camps that some were absorbed in religious chanting or muttering incantations under their breath. Their dogged devotion was evident in the fact that in those camps where even the barest minimum food to sustain their life or clothing to cover their shame was not available, what the inmates desperately wanted, having bribed the prison officials, were books of prayers (Siddur) that they followed both individually and collectively. During searches, when these books were confiscated and thrown to fire before them, the pious Israelites would cry out and wondered whether the world wouldn’t come to an end in the absence of these religious books. Some Jewish mystics believed that if some particular parts of the Torah were read repeatedly with absorption and then help was sought from God, it was bound to come. It is said that in one of the concentration camps, one such mystic found shelter in a pit into which the dead were thrown. He kept himself absorbed in prayer and meditation there. People had begun to call that pit ‘the abode of Midrash’ (bait-e Midrash). However, despite all his piety and severe penitence, God did not come to his rescue.
What could be a greater proof of the religious devotion of the Israelites that even in their most difficult hours, they remained steadfast to all their religious rituals. If they could somehow manage to find a tefflon attire or a tillet it would bring a wave of joy and excitement in their joyless and dark lives. Donning the tefflon, they would perform prayers by turns. So much so that even while marching from one camp to another, if they had a scholar of Talmud among them, they would keep up with their lessons in Talmudic jurisprudence. Whenever there was a respite from the rounds of the prison officials in concentration camps, they would gather to listen to the Torah and the Mishnah being read out to them by the people who knew them by heart. It is said that in the camp at Madanek where three thousand Jews were kept, there were hardly anyone who wouldn’t participate in the daily congregational prayers. One day when they sighted a page of the Talmud on a garbage heap they were beside themselves with joy. In this camp, Rabbi Ishaq Zanba, used to hold regular sessions where he based his discourses on the same page of the Talmud. Even though their religious books were confiscated in the camps, their attachment to their religion was so deep that they wrapped up their belongings in the pages of the Talmud. The extent of their devotion could be gauged from the fact that even while they pined for a morsel of food, they would happily trade it with the prison officials or give them the gold in their teeth, for a copy of the Torah, or a copy of the prayer book or a particular edition of the Siddur. Despite such deep religiosity, their cry for help from God turned out to be a cry in the wilderness. These so-called privileged people of God could not draw His attention through their uttermost demonstration of religiosity.
What happened in the concentration camps in different places in Germany, particularly in Auschwitz, shattered the confidence of the entire community of the Israelites. It is said that about two third of the entire Jewish population of Europe were done to death by the Nazis. This did not happen in a single day. As the heart-rending stories of the concentration and death camps began to come to light, and the Jews of Europe began to realise that their wholesale extinction is imminent, they could not but ask themselves the question – “Does God want to empty the world of His chosen people like us? How is it possible that we who are the followers of the Torah, who abide by the Talmud in the conduct of our daily lives, are facing extinction from the world, and yet God’s help is nowhere visible?” Some even began to doubt whether God is there at all? Was the glorious story of the Israelites that they had always heard mere fiction that had no basis in reality?
Truly speaking, the reality of Auschwitz brought the religious thinking of the Israelites to a crisis. But even then this community, living in their sacred past, was not ready to undertake a reassessment of their religious life. This was not the first great challenge that they had faced. After the appearance of Jesus Christ, the second destruction of the Solomon’s temple, and from then on right up to the present day, their community life has been one of continuous suffering and indignity. Wherever they went, they had to face slander and humiliation. Hardly would they settle down at one place when they had to leave it because of the hostility of the local people. It was clear that when God withdraws his blessings from a community it becomes difficult for it to find a restful place in the whole world. There was no dearth of scholars, intellectuals, artists or wise men among them. They were accustomed to hard work. They were inferior to no one in the accomplishments of the head or heart. They also knew very well how to earn wealth and how to spend it. But when God Himself withdraws His blessings, even the best of the human intellect cannot do anything. It is a pity that even the most intelligent people of the Israelites also could not read the crystal clear writing on the wall. Claiming to be the rightful inheritors of Dawood and Sulaiman, the community of the Israelites continue to delude themselves with the thought that they are the chosen people of God, without whom the journey of history remains incomplete. In the modern times, after the establishment of Israel when they mounted surprise attacks on the slumbering Arabs in 1967 and registered extraordinary success in the six-day long battle, they began to cite this victory as evidence of the fact that God has once again stood by their side. But their God-fearing scholars are shouting from the rooftops that the existence of the state of Israel is not consistent with the Talmudic jurisprudence, nor can one find any trace of the teachings of Torah among the people. The state of Israel derives its sustenance from betrayal and fraud, oppression and barbarity, where the teachings of the Torah are compromised day in and day out because of the machinations of the government How can God be there at the back of such an anti-Torahic state? The communities that prefer to live in the past refuse to undertake any serious revaluation; all their efforts are directed at offering an explanation of the situation in a way that would save them from such an exercise.
If we examine the issue with open eyes and alert minds we will realise that the current situation of Muslims is not much different from that delineated above. Unfortunately, we have also become accustomed to depend heavily on interpretations of all kinds. Rather than making a proper scrutiny of our failures on all fronts, we choose to delude ourselves with self-styled interpretations that help us turn our eyes from our pitiable situation.
In this critical hour of history, if we too, like the Israelites, stubbornly insist on our own self-styled interpretations, then our end could not be different from theirs, because be it the community of the Israelites or the community of Muslims, our privileged status really lies in our adherence to the Divine Revelation. As long as the Israelites followed the Torah truthfully, their superiority in the world remained unquestioned. But when they built around a hedge of ecclesiastical interpretations around the Torah, and when instead of the Torah, their religious life began to be governed by the jurisprudence produced by the clergy, and the compilations of Mishnah and Gemarah, and the collections of prayer books and books of benedictions acquired key positions, their relationship with the Divine Revelation grew more and more tenuous. The remainder of the Torah became a prisoner of human elucidation and interpretation, leading to the gradual attenuation of religious devotion. True piety disappeared, only the rituals remained. They became so meticulous in the observance of rituals that even on the most ordinary things of life, they compiled massive volumes of juridical formulations. The rabbinic interpretations of the Torah effectively smothered the religious life of the Israelites. Their scholars and jurisprudents went so far as to declare that as God had entrusted the Torah with them, now they had the absolute right over it in matters of interpretation and elucidation. Rabbi Akiva was considered a more genuine interpreter of the Torah than Moses. This religion, constructed by the jurisprudents, is today equated with rabbinic Judaism without any reservations. It may be known as the religion of Moses, but the fact is that its relationship, even with the remainder of the Torah, is very tenuous. The Judaism in its current form, which is largely a construction of the Jewish jurisprudents, cannot produce the same impact as was done by the religion of Moses. The fundamental difference between the juridical religion and the revealed religion is that while the latter is directed at inundating the heart and mind of human beings with God’s devotion, the former remains trapped in hair-splitting and outward demonstration of rituals that can create only an illusion of devotion. The Divine Revelation illuminates history and provides its adherents the key to its secrets, while the jurisprudents and the rabbis, from an attitude of excessive caution, go on making unending accretions around it, so that the real crux of the Divine Revelation is eventually lost in the accumulation of details. Slowly, excessive dependence on the clergy alienates the community from the effulgence of Divine Revelation, and the religious life is largely propelled by the human interpretations of and commentaries on the Divine Revelation. The fate meted out to the Israelites contains a lesson for us. The pages of the Qur’an are filled with edifying statements about the fate of the Israelites. If we choose to have our eyes open, then we can easily try to find answer in these statements to the question as to why we were dispossessed of the privileged position that rightfully belonged to us, and why God withdrew his blessings from us?