Dissimulation of a past Marxist and present Islamic apologist
These are distressing times. Never before has the country seen killings by Islamist terrorists on the present scale. There is a sense of helplessness among the population, the like of which we have not witnessed before. How far will the killings go is a nagging question that exercises many minds today. There is a lingering sense that the government of the country seems to have lost control of the situation. There is a sense of loss of direction. Talks of existential questions concerning the country are not uncommon.
The problem is hugely complex but Islam lies at its core. The terrorist who explode bombs to kill themselves as well as others, the murderers who wield the machete to murder free thinkers and members of other religions, do it in the name of Islam. In more recent times, foreigners have been considered fair target, if they happen to be infidels. And yet among most Muslims acts of militant atrocity are generally followed by beating of the breast, accompanied by a repetition of the old jargon: Islam is a religion of peace. That normally ends further discussion on the role of Islam. Anything that sounds like critical inquiry into possible sources of violence in Islam is considered an infringement of the “religious sentiment of the people.” People have been sent to jail for the offence and sterner punishments have been demanded.
Lamentation over the awfulness of atrocities by Jihadists and reiteration of the old jargon that Islam is a religion of peace are not limited to the average “mainstream” Muslim. Intellectuals held in high esteem in society are often seen to shed tears for the victims, fulminate against the perpetrators, and then go on to proclaim that Islam does not support such acts of terror and, almost inevitably, proclaim that it is a religion of peace.
A recent newspaper article by Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, the eminent columnist, is typical of the genre, excepting that it comes from a former Marxist, which perhaps adds to its appeal to some. With a title, in Bengali, Khoma koro Hazrat, or Forgive us, Hazrat, the person addressed here being the Prophet Muhammad, the article starts off in a mood of post-Eid expansiveness, which is quickly soured by a report of the most recent Islamist atrocity, this time in Turkey. A number of lines from a poem by Kazi Nazrul Islam (which I roughly translate in plain prose here) set the tone : “You did not want stifling strife in the name of faith. You gave us not the sword but the immortal word. And we shunned your liberalism, and embraced blind faith instead. In consequence your rahmat no longer comes down from heaven. Forgive us, Hazrat.”
Chowdhury takes the poem to heart and calls on Muslims to come together in a maidan and beg forgiveness of the Prophet of Islam. He has reason to like the poem. However, he goes far beyond poetry, takes the narrative as historical fact, and draws moral conclusions that have a bearing on the present sorry state of the Muslims. As a poet Nazrul is well- known for his hyperbole that sometimes tend to exceed normal bounds. Neither was he an observant Muslim, who would be obliged to do regular daily namaz and fast in the month of Ramadan, for example. His poetry, such as the one above, often consisted of sweeping poetic exaggerations. Given his mostly non-observant status as a Muslim and his secular humanism for which he is justly famous, it is impossible to see the poem as supplication from someone dipped in piety. Similarly, to draw ready lessons from them can be rather silly. Not content with this, Chowdhury even endows Nazrul with prophetic power; the poet, according to him, foresaw the present rotten state of Muslim societies. Let us look closely at some of the statements in the poem in historical context.
Take, for example, the line from the translation above: “You gave us not the sword…” It is a shameful dissimulation to suggest that Prophet Muhammad did not use the sword or did not ask his followers to use it. What jingles well in a poem is a travesty of truth in historical terms. The Medina period of the Prophethood saw the spilling of very considerable amount of blood, beginning with the Battle of Badr, which was not a defensive battle, as commonly believed, and was brought on by the desire of Prophet Muhammad to raid a Meccan merchant caravan. That he was following age-old tradition of raiding caravans for booty does not make it a virtuous act. Badr was the beginning of a series of expeditions and wars, leading finally to Muslim victory in which the sword played a decisive role.
Similarly, Chowdhury waxes eloquent about the Prophet’s “udarota,” a term which is difficult to translate. In the quote above I translated it as liberalism ( “And we shunned your liberalism…”). But it could easily include tolerance and kindness. Even in an age of great cruelty that was not confined to any particular region of the world, the word is hard to apply to the Prophet of Islam, even though it is not hard to find instances of kindness and forgiveness on his part. Of the latter, one is reminded of the historian Tabari’s story of Prophet Muhammad forgiving a Jewish woman who had tried to poison him. The incident took place during the Prophet’s Khaybar campaign that saw the total subjugation of the Jews of the area.
Of tolerance, it is difficult to see it in the banishment of Jewish tribes from Medina. Of cruelty, there is little to compare with the massacre of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayzah soon after the Battle of the Trench. The circumstances leading to the gruesome event are somewhat unclear. There is no doubt about the scale of the massacre. All the male members of the tribe were slaughtered: their number varies between six hundred and nine hundred, for the tribe’s alleged treachery for which historical evidence is thin. It was not Prophet Muhammad who ordered the killing; the decision about how to punish the tribe was left to a mediator named by the Prophet. The man, S’ad b.Mu’adh, was fanatically devoted to the Prophet and was seriously wounded during the Battle of the Trench reportedly by a Jewish arrow and was close to death. The Prophet knew what kind of mediation could be expected of him, and when the decision was communicated to him, he is reported to have told S’ad “You have judged according to Allah’s judgement.” Soon the trenches dug for the purpose of the execution filled with blood. Tabari reports that the only woman put to death received her punishment from the Prophet himself. He personally beheaded her. She is said to have killed a Muslim fighter by throwing a millstone during the seize of the tribe, perhaps from the rampart of the tribe’s fortress. Such examples rankles the modern mind. While one may readily accept evidence of individual acts of kindness on the part of the Prophet of Islam, to see him as an exemplar of liberality and tolerance is to stretch the imagination.
The Prophet’s liberality, in fact, did not extend to non-Muslims. A verse in the Koran says it very well: “Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah ; and those who are with him are hard against the unbelievers but compassionate among each other… “ ( 48:29)
The ultimate aim of Chowdhury’s article is of course to defend ‘true’ Islam as opposed to what he variously calls the Islam of the Mullah, or Islam of the followers of blind faith (the Dharmandha). Chowdhury does not define true religion, and wisely so, because true Islam is undefinable. That does not prevent him from talking. He talks about the glory of historical Islam that released a veritable “tidal wave of peace, fraternity, and liberality.” Again, when exactly was that golden age in history? According to some (the Salafists, for example) the era of the undefinable true Islam was supposed to be the time of the earliest caliphates. But three of the first four Caliphs were murdered. And that was also the time of the bloody fitna, civil strife, that tore the Islamic community asunder. The various factions claimed that theirs was the true Islam and fought bloody wars to uphold it. The Kharejites, to whom the present-day ISIS bears an uncanny resemblance, excelled in cruelty to defend pure Islam. The caliphates that followed were interspersed with periods of intrigues, debauchery and drunkenness in the palace, and were hardly embodiments of true Islam, however defined. Decay set in and the Mongols finally put an end to the crumbling edifice. The great flourishing of culture that is often talked about was real but had little to with Islam.
It is ironic that Chowdhury finds inklings of true Islam among the great Imams – Abu Hanifa, Malik Ibn Anas, Muhammad al -Shafi‘i and Ahmed bin Hanbal, who lived between the beginning of the 7th century AD and the middle of the 9th – whose position he contrasts with that of the “Mollas.” He is perhaps right to castigate Mollaism. But he can hardly laud the great Imams as standard bears of true Islam without at the same time recognising that they also laid the foundation of truly orthodox Islam which was irreconcilably opposed to reason as the vehicle of human thinking. Reason and critical thinking, espoused for example by the Mu‘tazila and others, succumbed to theology, thanks to the work of the Imams, the Asharites, and finally al-Ghazali. If Chowdhury is right, the murdered mukotomonas of today are in fact victims of the orthodoxy that he seems to single out as true Islam.
It would not be Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury if he did not end his article with a swipe at western imperialism. To him, much of the present state of the Muslim Arab land is due to the mendacity of the imperialist America and Britain. From his comfortable eyrie in London, the capital of western imperialism, he never misses a chance to denounce the two bastions of capitalism. He is oblivious of one important historical fact: Islamic imperialism far antedates western ones.