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Essence of Ramadan: Be in the Driving Seat

We have two aspects in our personality which influence us: our thinking process and our inner inclinations. If our thinking goes wrong, we are doomed. And so are we destroyed if our inner desires move in the wrong direction.

It’s possible that we have the right thinking and yet we are not sufficiently motivated because our desires are not in line with our thinking. It is also possible that our thinking is wayward but we are otherwise disciplined in our life, doing what we want to. But neither of the two situations is acceptable. We need to simultaneously think correctly and behave in accordance with our right thinking.

The month of Ramadan helps us in achieving both. On the one hand it puts us (back) on the right course by (re)linking us with the Qur’an and thus enabling us to think correctly, on the other it also gives our authority on our personality back to us by making us fast.

Let’s avail the tremendous opportunity this Ramadan is offering us to know the right path yet again and follow it genuinely. It’s just a matter of focusing oneself properly for the task ahead. If we are mentally prepared for it, it will be an experience of a lifetime in shaa Allah. If not, it will come and go without affecting our soul even slightly.

If it’s true that life can end anytime and we don’t even know if we’ll see tomorrow, never mind next Ramadan, this sacred month is an unprecedented opportunity of a lifetime. Let’s avail it.

Two things in particular need to be done: Reading and understanding the Qur’an as much as is possible and learning to control our desires through fasting so that we are in the driving seat of our journey of life.

Let’s pray that both changes take place during this Ramadan. In case it happens it will indeed be the most important experience of our life.

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Paving the Way for Non-Muslims

The message of Islam has the potential of appealing to a very large part of the world population, if three factors are properly addressed: The propaganda that it encourages terrorism is effectively shelved, the parts of its teaching that are misunderstood are properly clarified, and the difficulties confronted by non-Muslims while converting to Islam are removed. While the first two aspects are getting attention from many Muslim scholars, the latter aspect is by and large getting ignored.

When a non-Muslim begins to take Islam seriously, he/she is confronted with challenges which at times are so enormous that for an ordinary person the idea of conversion seems impossible: changing the name, announcing before everyone that he/she has changed faith, saying prayers openly, using Islamic expressions while conversing in a way that the change appears quite noticeable, for instance using Allah instead of God or the equivalent expression of it, women becoming prominently overdressed to the dislike of the non-Muslim family members and friends, at times women announcing they were parting ways with their husbands if they weren’t going to change faith likewise etc.

The end result of all these expected changes is that the interested individual is discouraged from making the change and even if he/she converts, the rest of the non-Muslim community makes it a point that the person is either ostracized or at least not taken as a normal member of the group anymore. The important questions we must address ourselves are: Are all these changes necessary? Is it important to undertake these changes immediately? What is the most important thing God desires from His servants after learning about His message? Did all companions of the prophet, alaihissalam, convert immediately exactly the same way as the most prominent among them did? Do Muslims by birth adapt immediately to the expectation of change on learning about Islamic teaching?

The fact of the matter is that God wants first and foremost that His servant should have a change in attitude towards life on acknowledging a few realities called beliefs: That God is one; He is the only creator and sustainer of this entire world; that He arranged for His messages to be disseminated to the humans through His chosen men, the last of who was Muhammad, alaihissalam; that this worldly life is to be followed by another one, a reality which is important to always be considered while leading this life. Apart from acknowledging these realities, God wants His servants to say their prayers and pay Zakat regularly. Having done that, they are complete Muslims in the eyes of God. All other changes applicable to them must follow gradually, keeping into account the circumstances of the individual.

In most of the cases, overnight turnaround in an individual’s life is neither helpful for the individual nor for the people living with him. The individual starts practicing a faith which he hasn’t properly appreciated in its entirety and his non-Muslims relatives and friends begin to become wary of the newly embraced ideology. The fact is that companions of the prophet, alaihissalam, took different routes to reach their faith and took their own pace in adopting Islamic way of life. So much so that while on the one hand it was declared at a certain stage of the Madinan period that all able-bodied men must migrate to Madinah to prove their faith, the Almighty nonetheless didn’t allow Muslims to attack Makkah because there were some believers residing there who hadn’t declared their faith openly. (Qur’an; 47: 25)

Many Muslims are non-practicing Muslims and yet are considered a part of the faith. Why is it that when it comes to non-Muslims who are beginning to appreciate the basic idea of Islam that we must put all the burden of practice immediately on them? Is it not a good idea to do the task gradually? After all, once they are inside the fold of Islam, whether by formally announcing conversion to it or not, they are more likely to take other matters more seriously in a gradual way.

What I am suggesting is that while spreading the message of Islam we should be gradual, polite, and intelligent. If a person shows interest in learning more about the message of God, facilitate him/her. If his/her circumstances don’t allow formal announcement, just ask the individual to make a commitment from inside to God and begin saying prayer privately, paying Zakat, reading the Qur’an, and learning about Islam. That way, inshaaAllah, we will be able to bring many more people closer to believing in and accepting Islam.

Our task is to invite people to the truth and pave the way for them to believe in and practice Islam. Our task is not to force them to conform to each and every aspect of Islam we think is important for them to follow. The Qur’an says “Your job is to remind; you are not their keepers (to force things down their throats)” (Qur’an; 88: 21-22). It also says: “Allah desires from you ease; He doesn’t desire from you difficulty.” (Qur’an; 2: 185) The prophet alaihissalam is reported to have said: “Make things easier for others; don’t make them difficult. And give them good news; don’t scare them away.” (Bukhari; 69) It is said about him: “Whenever two different options were offered to him, he would always choose the easier of them.” (Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal; 24890)

The Frozen Society

Some of the Pakistanis living in the countries they have chosen to settle in have created frozen societies: They are a group of men and women who have not moved an inch intellectually and culturally from the point of time when they shifted to their countries of migration. If they shifted in the 1960s to the UK for instance, their thinking and culture has remained frozen in that period. The important contributing factor to this phenomenon is the fear that the new society will swallow them: Their culture will be brutally damaged and their progeny will be transformed into the new, unacceptable ways irrevocably and thus they will completely lose their original identity. This fear has partly to do with lack of confidence in the ideas and ways of their culture and religion of origin: If we are going to expose ourselves, we’ll jell in the new society. There is no doubt about the fact that the society of the new adopted country with its cultural dominance has the ability to suck in the smaller groups. There is thus some merit in the argument of the immigrant Pakistanis.

As a consequence of the inward-looking policy of extreme restrictiveness no change occurs in either the thinking process or the apparent ways of conducting life in these frozen societies. The intellectual progress is completely stationery. While back home things have changed, the culture in the new country they have chosen to settle in has stagnated. It changes back home because human society is dynamic. The more there is debate and discussion as a consequence of new challenges, the more it is likely that a change would occur within the ideological limits of the group. This process is facilitated by the fact that the participants in the debate for change back home are all ‘insiders’. No matter how weird an idea is, provided it is presented by someone belonging to one’s own religious or cultural group, it is considered worthy of consideration. However, since there is a deliberate policy of not interacting with any other group in the adopted country of the immigrants because they are aliens, no change is ever possible.

There is an additional factor that contributes in the freezing of immigrant societies: Some strong personalities who enjoy the status of leaders of the group make sure that the status quo is maintained. Their awe-inspiring presence guaranties that even if in their absence some change was possible, it wouldn’t happen whilst they exist. If there are any members of the group who would want more openness to the new ideas and ways, they are left with the choice of either to meekly submit to the authority of the leader and live a hypocritical life or completely part with the group and disappear into the culture of the new country.

Another factor that strengthens the process of freezing is the existence of institutions that ensure that the culture of the country of birth of the immigrants is maintained in its original form in its entirety. There are special, alternative schools run for the kids to make sure that they don’t learn the new ways of the society. At times, double standards are maintained for boys and girls: the latter are sent to schools meant exclusively for them and boys are allowed to learn ways of the new society by joining the local institutions. Quite apart from the fact that traditional Muslims have turned out to be more sensitive about women in cultural matters, women are also seen as a more important gender when it comes to the question of preserving the culture of the country of origin. If a compromise is to be struck, boys can be sacrificed, not girls.

Another important factor that contributes in the sensitivity attached to preserving the culture of origin is the example of some of the compatriots who didn’t exercise caution while mingling with the new society and were therefore lost in the new culture. Their glaring example is seen as a deterring factor for others to keep completely away from the influences of the new society. Many of these people have assimilated the new culture so completely that they appear more local than the locals in all the bad ways but hardly in any of the good ones.

Are frozen societies completely wrong? No, that’s not what I am trying to say. They do have merit in their arguments. However, in their extreme form they are a big hurdle in the way of promoting the message of God. When communication with the locals of the adopted country is completely nonexistent, there is no possibility of the message of God getting across to others. However, if efforts of getting close to the new culture are undertaken too far then all the good along with the bad ways of the culture and religion of the immigrants are in danger of being lost. It seems that the key factor the new social groups should be looking for is balancing the two competing considerations.

In order to maintain the right balance, the immigrants must create opportunities which allow meaningful dialogue and exchange of views and cultural practices in a way that the dangers of overindulgence in assimilation don’t mar the process. That way, it seems that the best of both worlds might be successfully achieved. These opportunities should be designed in a way that while on the one hand the important part of the ideas and culture of the country of origin is fully preserved on the other dialogue continues to ensure the possibility of desirable change through a dialectical process.

For Muslims that objective calls for at least three important factors to be in existence: Islamic Centers that not only welcome Muslims but non-Muslims to their programs as well to allow the opportunity of exchanging views in an atmosphere of learning and mutual respect. There is also a need for enlightened Muslim scholars who not only have a deep understanding of their religion but are also fully aware of the challenges of the modern times to guide these programs. And a group of intelligent Muslim professionals and traders are also important for the process to continue: individuals who mingle with the locals of the society ensuring that the process of continually improving and evolving continues. There is no doubt in mind that this process is important for both immigrant Muslims and the local non-Muslims.

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Tweet on Eligibility for a Muslim Leader

I sent a tweet on April 30 which read like this: “A former playboy can be an angel after repentance; he can be eligible to the best paradise but not to lead Muslims. U’ve a right to disagree.”

The tweet met with an unusually negative response. So strong was it that I had to decide that I would stop using my twitter account until after the elections were over.

My view was partly a personal opinion and partly a religious one. I will explain what I meant by it.

The Qur’an states a unique punishment for extra-marital sex (Zina): flogging them (both man and woman) with hundred lashes in public and denying them the right to marry a chaste person ever in the future. It is seemingly a harsh punishment. But the reason behind it is that it is in the nature of this particular crime (extra-marital sex) that if it isn’t dealt with an iron hand it has the potential of spreading like an epidemic. Human weakness is particularly vulnerable to it; and opportunities of committing it are numerous. If strict measures aren’t taken by the society against it, it would amount to trivializing the crime and allowing it to spread like an epidemic.

The other aspect of Qur’anic treatment for this evil is that you can’t even talk about ordinary people’s involvement in this crime unless you have four witnesses who testify that it has happened. If you accuse someone of doing it without bringing four witnesses, you’ll be flogged with eighty lashes. In other words, the Almighty wants that if the filth is happening in secret, we shouldn’t even share it with others so that the filth remains isolated and is not allowed to affect others. And if it has happened in a way that public has learnt unmistakably about it, deal with it so mercilessly that others are deterred from coming close to it.

That much is the Qur’an.

A playboy is someone who has a carefree lifestyle. He is seen around with one woman or another in a way that the apparent relationship and the manner they show around are not very convincing to a decent taste. If taken lightly, this lifestyle carries a very similar danger of spreading like wildfire.

With someone who is quite openly known for such a past and the Qur’an clarifying that when crimes of this nature become public, in order to condemn the crime — not the individual — strict measures are necessary to be taken, people with a past of that kind should not be allowed a prominent status and the highest office of a Muslim state. If that clarity is not adopted, it would tantamount to taking the evil lightly. People would start talking on the lines that it isn’t really a big deal. If our leader can do that — and he being otherwise a great man — why can’t we? We too can reform later after having spent an exciting, unbridled youth. A still more dangerous stance Satan can whisper into the heart is that probably the natural path to greatness is what our hero has experienced. If you can’t relive his past, you can’t be what he has become now.

My point is that even though no one has a right to call a playboy a Zani, (if he does it, he will deserve eighty lashes) his apparent lifestyle should not be allowed to get popular in the society by allowing its evilness to get trivialized. While we don’t have any right to accuse or punish him, we shouldn’t make him our hero. Someone who is not allowed to marry a chaste woman, I argue, can’t be considered eligible for leading Muslims politically as well. That doesn’t mean that he should not be respected in the society. Likewise is the case of a former playboy.

Because the link between the example of a person who commits Zina in such an open way that he is caught and punished and the one who has spent a part of his life with women in suspicious circumstances may not be completely convincing for all, I mentioned that people had a right to disagree with me. My point is that a playboy who hasn’t been punished for Zina can certainly marry a chaste woman legally, but his public reputation in this matter is something that causes the same concern of trivializing evil as is caused by a Zani being allowed a normal life. A Muslim society should be sensitive enough to not give him the status of their leader. Doing so, strictly speaking, wouldn’t be against the law; but it would certainly be against the spirit of the law.

I mentioned in another of my tweets briefly that when John Profumo who as an important part of the British government was caught in a scandal with a woman in UK in 1963, he quit his office and served public quietly for the rest of the forty three years of his life, washing toilets in a hall run as charity etc It is reported that towards the very last part of his life some respect was restored to him because of his relentless attitude of repentance by being invited to the eightieth birthday of Mrs Thatcher. This firm stance is adopted in that otherwise relatively liberal society because of the realization that if an important government official is afflicted with such a moral disease, he can be vulnerable to more temptations and therefore he is unreliable to be given an important position of authority.

My whole line of argument can be incorrect but how on earth can I be accused of saying anything against the “basic teachings of Islam and basic ethics” when I express these views? If people disagree with my argument, they have a right to. It is the beauty of democracy that facts are put across with arguments from both sides without hurling accusations and filthy language at each other. And I will fight for my right to claim that for a Muslim society religious arguments are no less important.

Several questions were raised in response to my tweet. I am addressing some of them.

Were some of the companions not involved in the sin of extra-marital sex earlier and yet they later became leaders of Muslims? We don’t know if that claim is true. What is mentioned in history, in particular pre-Islamic history, is not fully reliable. What I have mentioned above is a principle that I am pleading to be applied on people whose past is as visible as their present by virtue of newspaper clippings, photographs, television clippings etc. Moreover, when you belong to a religious group, whether willingly or otherwise, you are judged by its principles. If a playboy is a Muslim, his conduct shall be judged by the principles of Islam. The companions of the prophet, alaihissalam, changed their lifestyle after embracing Islam. Also, the Qur’anic law mentioned above was introduced at a particular point in time. It couldn’t have had application with retrospective effect.

Doesn’t the Qur’an say in verse 24:5 that God will accept repentance of the people involved in sex-related crimes? Why would God punish someone for a life time? The punishment for a fornicator is a part of the Islamic Shari’ah. God has given His verdict on certain important aspects of the moral life of humans in His Shari’ah which were beyond the grasp of their intelligence. That’s what Shari’ah is all about. Clearly, we couldn’t have thought of that punishment ourselves. But God knows the nature of crimes and human weakness that inclines man towards it. If He doesn’t allow a person found guilty of committing such a crime despite his repentance to marry a chaste woman, there has to be a reason for it. And if you have a doubt about the whole argument, look at another punishment of the Shari’ah: In an ideal Islamic state the hand of an established thief is amputated. The question is: How can a thief restore his self image after he has repented sincerely given that the absence of one of his hands is advertising his past? The only answer that comes to one’s mind is that although he deserves respect from all decent members of the society and he can attain the highest level of piety in the eyes of God, his amputated hand is a living testimony for the society that theft is an intolerable crime even though a thief who has repented has a right to respectability.

Why did I withdraw from tweeting?
Answer: God doesn’t want me to let people know about His religion when they aren’t interested in it. When I saw people were more interested in ensuring that a certain candidate wins the elections and not quite as much in learning if a certain argument was religiously more valid, I felt it was about time that I withdrew tweeting to let them be assured that my interest was not in helping one candidate to win or another. Now that the period of frenzy is over, I am clarifying my position to those who care to understand.

Why didn’t I talk about the weaknesses of other candidates?
Answer: I didn’t talk about weakness of any particular candidate. I talked about a principle. I wasn’t launching a political campaign. I was raising a religious point. As soon as I realized that an angry mob was accusing me of launching an indirect, clever political campaign for a certain political party, I decided to withdraw from using tweets for communicating the message until after the elections were over. Only one person sought my advice from Pakistan on whom he should vote for. My response was: Respond to the voice of your conscience! In fact, when I noticed that he wanted to vote for the party of my choice, I dissuaded him from doing so and urged him to vote in response to the voice of his conscience.

But why after all did I have to send a tweet like this just before the elections?
Answer: Because a principle must be mentioned at the time when its application is needed the most.

Aren’t you guilty of accusing someone without any real proofs?
Answer: I am accusing nobody. I am simply stating a principle. If you think it is applicable to a candidate and you think the principle I stated is correct, think about it. If you think the principle isn’t correct, ignore it.

If you can talk about one person why not about several other candidates’ past whose scandals are well known?
Answer: I am talking about scandal of no one. If someone talks about scandals of others, it is his responsibility to bring their cases before the competent authorities to prove his point. Hurling unsubstantiated blames on others, I have already stated, isn’t an Islamically acceptable thing to do.

What was I trying to achieve?
Answer: I was trying to create awareness of an Islamic principle and invite discussion on its application on other aspects of life at a time when that principle was needed the most. A well established principle is more important than an individual. An individual can rise very high and then fall; a principle can never fall.

How would you respond to the claim of a scholar: “A former playboy can certainly become head of the state of a Muslim state so long as he enjoys the support of the majority; in fact even if he continues to be playboy while being the head of the state, he will continue to enjoy the right of that status”?
Answer: I am sure this statement is correct. I am not contesting the legal right of an individual to be the head of the state of a Muslim country if there is no law preventing him from becoming a head of it. What I am pleading are two things: Conscientious Muslims shouldn’t support a candidate who had a suspect past even if he/she has seemingly repented and a Muslim state should ideally have a law that bars such people from becoming the head of the state. In the absence of that law, I am sure the claim of the scholar is correct.

Another response was this: “Even if the weakness you are mentioning about my leader is correct, he is an angel compared to the other candidates.”
Response: The fact is that I didn’t point out any particular candidate. If some people think that their leader was a former playboy it’s for them to worry about. But the comment in this response is confirming my worst fears. If my line of argument is correct, a man who should be considered unworthy of becoming a leader because of his suspect past is being declared an angel relative to others. Satan will have little difficulty in pursuing his task thereafter.

May God Almighty guide us all to the right path!

 

Has Religion Caused More Evil Than Good?

Has religion been useful for mankind or has it caused more harm than good? How does one respond to it given the teachings and the history of the practice of world religions in general and that of Islam in particular?

Religion in its pure form is God’s response to the yearning for guidance man is born with. If properly understood and practised, it is an undisputable blessing. In case it is misunderstood and misused, there could be few evils more dangerous than it, as we have witnessed over the history of mankind, more particularly the very recent one. It is irrelevant in the context of this debate whether religion’s contribution to the welfare of mankind on the balance has been predominantly good or evil. It is not a great idea to view the matters pertaining to truth purely from the narrow lenses of utilitarianism which is what the concept of good and evil is normally associated with. Religion should be viewed in the light of its claims. If its claim of divine origins makes a convincing case, it should be accepted; if the claim doesn’t make sense, it should be rejected; and if the verdict of the conscience on it is not clear, one should keep considering the arguments to reach a final conclusion.

Viewing the acceptability of religion or otherwise from a purely utilitarian criterion is like deciding whether one’s old, ailing parents are useful to be looked after anymore. If the parent-son relationship is established, which is not a subjective issue, it’s then a moral requirement that they be looked after well.

One might justifiably argue however that even if not completely relevant, the utilitarian criterion to judge the veracity of a religious claim to truth is not completely out of place either. I would argue then that there could be no objective, unanimously acceptable way to reach a final calculus of pros and cons of religion. For a religious person who has found the truth that God has spoken to him in a certain text or some other manifestation of faith all atrocities of the world allegedly caused by religion put together would not make their evil heavier than the solace he or she gets from imagining that what is being experienced is from God.

One must admit however that not all that is religious is necessarily good. In fact some part of religion and religious practice is most certainly evil. Mawlana Amin Ahsen Islahi, the author of Tadabbure Qur’an, an exegesis of the Qur’an par excellence, once remarked: “There is no blessing under the sky better than a true religion and there is no evil worse than a false one.” By true religion he not only meant intrinsic truthfulness of its claims but also the way it was understood and practised by its adherents. How should one decide whether a claim to truth from God, which is what religion is, is right or wrong? The fact is that it is a matter which is both subjective and objective, depending upon the circumstances of the individual. For an individual who has been introduced to the religion of God in its pristine form, it is an almost objective matter. That is what happens when the representatives of God, His messengers that is, deliver the message to a society directly. In their times too, however, the truth gets objectively clear only gradually. In other eras, the question is again less or more objective, but perhaps never completely one, depending upon the circumstances of the individual. The circumstances that cause the truthfulness of the religion of God to be less or more obvious to an individual include the kind of presentation of religion he witnessed in his surroundings, his intellectual abilities, and his own moral performance. While he cannot be blamed if he takes a wrong decision because of the first two causes, he will be held responsible for a wrong decision due to the latter cause.

That is precisely what the Qur’an says: “And those who believe and do good deeds – We shall not make a soul responsible for (any expectation) beyond his capacity – such are the people who shall enter the paradise.” (Qur’an; 7:42)

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The Moon Analogy

We communicate with each other adopting different styles of expression to help in understanding realities better. Sometimes we need to employ analogies to put across our views on reality, since the other person is unable to appreciate them because of a different background. Analogies are able to bridge the communication gap, putting across an unfamiliar concept by referring to a similar idea the receiver is familiar with. Thus the communication gap is bridged and the reality is likely to be better understood.

One needs to be careful however while using analogies in communicating: The reality and the analogy are not identical phenomena. It is only an aspect of the reality which it is helping to clarify. If the addressees aren’t serious in receiving the message in the correct spirit, they can find reasons to ridicule the presenter, referring to the aspects of the analogy which were not meant to be a part of the clarifying plan. “He is as daring as a lion” can be ridiculed by a response stating that lions were beasts and therefore the man referred to was a beast too. And so on.

That brings me to present my new-moon analogy. Many science-influenced minds question the validity of religious beliefs by asking for their proofs quite the same way as Science is able to offer proofs for its claims. “If religious beliefs are realities, why can’t their realness be shown clearly, like we are able to do in the case of scientifically proved realities?” The truth is that religious beliefs are meant to be quite as much a test of character as they are a text of intelligence or observation of the subject. God wouldn’t appear physically before the beholding eye. He will appear unmistakably to the eager mind and yearning heart. However, a mind trained to understand realities through visible demonstration of cause-effect relationship isn’t willing to give any significance to the idea that a reality as important as God can’t be scientifically verified when many less significant truths can be easily confirmed through the fool-proof scrutiny of the scientific process of verification.

Here is the analogy: When moon appears on the horizon on the evening of a new lunar month, in many cases, it isn’t easily visible to the naked eye. However, on a more careful observation, it begins to appear, at least to some people who can then help others to see it by pointing at the exact location where it is appearing. Even though, to begin with, obscurely visible only to a few, it becomes absolutely clear and visible to the beholding eye once the requisite effort is put in. To the one who isn’t prepared to look at the right direction, for one reason or another, there is always a room to reject the idea and ridicule it. However, to those who have done enough to get a glimpse of it, the new moon is as obvious a reality as the shining sun on a bright day.

God, His messengers, and His books are in a sense somewhat similar realities. They are there for the ‘beholders’ to ‘see’. But not everyone can see. One needs to have a genuine interest in attempting to see in the right direction to get a chance of a glimpse of it or else the reality would elude him despite it being very much there. What prevents an individual to see those realities is an absence of interest in observing it out of arrogance, overindulgence in worldly desires and success, prejudice for a contrary ideology or a combination of all these reasons.

Religious realities too appear to an individual gradually once he begins to take keen interest in searching for them. This life has been designed in a way that his search for them becomes a genuine need. (See Why is Religion Needed for details). However, the distracting attractions of the world cause those genuine needs to get ignored. It is less than a sun-like appearance and more of a crescent-like one that makes religious realities a real trial for the character of an individual. If he is really interested in knowing those realities, like he is interested in beholding the new moon, he will be able to see them. If he is not be interested in knowing them, he will bring in excuses to reject and ridicule them by claiming that they don’t exist.

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Purification of the Soul: Key to the Paradise

Tazkia Nafs is the ultimate objective the message of God wants to achieve in us. In other words, God’s message has been revealed for the purpose that the humans are able to attain Tazkia. Our Creator has decided to allow the ultimate privilege of entry into the paradise to humans on the basis of Tazkia: Only those people shall be allowed to enter the paradise who will have done their Tazkia at a minimum expected level. If that level will not be achieved, first such individuals will have to go through the process of Tazkia (probably through temporary punishment) before allowing them to enter the paradise.

Tazkia means two things: purification and development. We are expected to purify as well as grow. In one sense it is a negative process and in another it is positive. We are expected to get rid of our impurities, weaknesses, and evil within us by following God’s message. When we do that, we also progress morally and spiritually in the process. God has given us a tremendous potential to grow morally and spiritually. We can become individuals of very high ethical standards and come spiritually very close to God. That is what the purpose of our existence in this life is. When we will achieve that objective, at least at the minimum expected level, we will be allowed to enter the paradise. The higher the level of Tazkia we will attain, the better the place we will deserve in the paradise. However, in the way of achieving this objective there are many weaknesses and temptations. Satan exploits them to stop us from progressing. God’s message enables us to overcome the challenge of Satan to our moral and spiritual progress.

What are the areas where the process of Tazkia is undertaken? The entire Islamic Shari’ah focuses on moral, physical, and dietary purification. Each religious expectation is meant to make us cleaner, either morally or physically. The Qur’an not only gives the Islamic law to us but also reminds us to achieve our objective of achieving moral and spiritual excellence. Reading the Qur’an is therefore a very important source of achieving Tazkia Nafs.

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Is Islam Static or Dynamic?

One hears quite often calls for the teachings of Islam to be altered and to be kept in line with the changing realities of time. The conventional scholars are blamed for causing it to have become static. What exactly is the reality about Islam’s message: Should the teachings be adjusted regularly to the pace of the changing times or should the changing trends of the society be considered evil if they do not conform to Islamic standards?

The fact is that Islam’s message was meant to be a source of guidance for humans of all times. However, its immediate addressees were the people who were addressed directly by the Qur’anic text. Their circumstances and the peculiar nature of their trial – which included the fact that being direct addressees of God’s revelation they were to either flourish or perish in this life too – moulded the Qur’anic text to suit their needs of guidance first and foremost. There is a part of the Qur’an therefore which is era-specific and there is another one which is universally applicable to all times. The decision of which part belongs to one category or the other is not subjective. The Qur’an is a clear book of guidance. However, the text expects careful reading for the reality to emerge clearly.

That message – both the Qur’anic text and the authentically transmitted religious practice of the messenger (Sunnah) – is what forms the core of God’s religious guidance for mankind. However, most of our traditional scholars believe that what the earlier scholars have said is sacrosanct too, even though only the word of God and the authentically transmitted religious practice of the prophet are sacrosanct; the rest of the Muslim literature should always be scrutinized in the light of these two criteria.

The reason why our traditional scholars insist that the religious views of earlier scholars have to be accepted as authority is that they claim that no one in the present times can be better than Abu Hanifa, Imam Shafi’i etc. Thanks God other disciplines didn’t follow the same line of argument or else no Einstein could have been born after Newton, no Keynes could have dared to better what Adam Smith had already mentioned, no Bernard Shaw and Iqbal could have produced literature after Shakespeare and Ghalib respectively. Each one of them had his own place in history. The achievements of one didn’t undermine the stature of the other. And what is more important, the disciplines they served were prevented from staying static; instead, they flourished because of the contributions of the later scholars.

Islam is dynamic too. It is simply not possible that what is true for Science, Economics, and literature, the very reverse of it should be true for God’s message. The original teachings of Islam carry ingredients for catering to the needs of changing conditions of the new times. However, its teachings mention some principles and some applications of them which are unalterable. Most certainly some part of the Qur’anic message was era-specific which carries enormous value for our faith but is not applicable to us practically. Unfortunately, Muslims are torn between two extremes: On the one hand are the religious extremists who deem each and every word of the Qur’anic message – including the situation-specific part that requires non-believers to be killed – to be applicable for all times to come, even though the Qur’an makes it unmistakably clear that the message carrying such expectations was meant for a particular occasion only; on the other hand are the liberal extremists who want religion to submit to each and every expectation of the changing times.

To sum up, the message of Islam is dynamic; it has full potential for responding to the needs of the contemporary world. However, it is important to distinguish between what is religiously binding and what is not on the one hand and between new happenings of the modern times that are necessary to be taken seriously and the ones that need to be condemned or ignored. We need to have scholars who are up to the task to properly understand and bring forth the potential dynamism in the message of Islam. We need a perennial supply of Shah Waliullahs and Hamiduddin Farahis who could further the great task done by Abu Hanifas and Shafi‘is without undermining their great contribution. To achieve that task, we need educational institutions where potentially great scholars get the right education, training, and environment to be groomed properly.

Those who are worried about the present state of the Muslim ummah should do something to create such institutions.

Don’t Blame Taliban

Kanwar Khuldune Shahid’s article “Don’t Blame Taliban” appeared in Pakistan Today on Friday, 12 October. My blog is a brief response to what he has written. It is important that his article too be read if the discussion on the subject is to be fully appreciated.

http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2012/10/12/comment/columns/dont-blame-the-taliban/

The good thing about the author is that he hasn’t spared any punches while commenting on Islam. It’s far better talking to someone who is frank even if a little rude in criticizing your point of view than talking to someone whose inner feelings are different from what are expressed.

The interesting fact though is that the author has survived despite writing the article because it was written in English. Had it been expressed in Urdu, published in an Urdu newspaper, not only the author, but Arif Nizami Sahib and the building of Pakistan Today would have ceased to exist by now. So let’s thank our God for enabling humans to communicate in languages other than Urdu and let’s avail this opportunity to exchange our views and be more available for understanding them.

The article alleges that the original Islam is barbaric and that those who try to present an understanding which paints a moderate picture of it are hypocrite liars. The tone of the author disappoints me slightly, because it is only when one is prepared to listen to the other view that a meaningful dialogue is possible.  While presenting my understanding, I am hoping that behind the anger-ridden article is an honest, truth-seeking man who is willing to listen to the other view with an open mind.

The article has criticized the message of Islam on two counts in particular: the part of the message that desires from the believer that non-believers be considered a despicable lot who are worthy of being hated and killed and the other one that requires punishments stipulated in the Shari’ah to be meted out on the happening of certain crimes. He considers those punishments and the laws relevant to women barbaric, anachronistic, and unworthy of the modern times.

Since both criticisms are important and need more detailed treatment, I would refer to links to two of my more detailed articles relevant to these issues. However, I will briefly respond to them in this blog too to make it a somewhat complete, even though brief, response. The fact is that Kanwar’s understanding of Islam is based on an incorrect interpretation of the message of Islam. One can only call another person a hypocrite if one knows that he is deliberately claiming to believe in something that he realizes from inside to be wrong.

As for the allegation that Islam expects believers to despise and kill non-believers, the fact is that Qur’an clearly mentions such instructions to be applicable for a certain group of people of the prophet’s era who were declared criminals by God.  They were the ones who had been delivered God’s message most effectively by the messenger of God and after the clarity had reached beyond doubt, God sent His direct instructions directly to His messenger to get them killed.  Several earlier nations were meted out with similar punishments through natural calamities. God chose to punish some of the criminals belonging to this category through the swords of His messengers’ companions. The Qur’an has described the law most clearly that caused them to be killed. One needs to read the Qur’an with unbiased objectivity to know that is written in the text. If someone has already made up his mind, whether he is a narrow-minded religious extremist or an equally biased opponent of him, he can’t be shown what is clearly written there. The Qur’an repeatedly mentions that its message is only relevant to those who want to know. See for a more detailed treatment of the topic

http://www.khalidzaheer.com/essays/kzaheer/social%20issues/nonmuslim_friends.html

As for the punishments for certain criminals, indeed Islam stands to punish people who are found guilty of committing certain crimes after the crimes have been fully ascertained and they are deemed unworthy of any concession. It is indeed a debate that Muslims must continue to have with others, in particular the Western intellectuals, that if an individual is proved to be an undisputed criminal whose existence is a threat to the society, should he be sympathized with or be delivered an exemplary punishment so that others are deterred from committing it and saved from the evil effects of it.  One needs to ask as to what was the purpose of launching such a massive campaign after 9/11 against terrorists who after all were humans worthy of being sympathized with? Why wasn’t it decided by the western intellectuals that they deserved to be cured psychologically so that they could be reformed to become normal citizens of the society? Why wasn’t a team of expert psychologists and psychiatrists sent to Afghanistan instead of an army of killers? Why aren’t written messages of psychological treatment being distributed through drones instead of bombs getting hurled at the criminals, in the process killing many innocent people as well? Indeed Islam mentions clear punishments as a part of its universal message for those who create mischief on earth, the murderers, thieves, fornicators, and those who make false allegations against innocent people. See for a detailed description of where Islam agrees with human rights movement and where it doesn’t:

http://www.khalidzaheer.com/essays/kzaheer/social%20issues/human_rights.html

I have observed an unfortunate tendency among some critics of Islam that they don’t want to know any interpretation other than the crude, extremist one so that their punches could effectively land on the vulnerable parts of the enemy’s body. It seems as, quite the same way as the extremist Muslims do, they too have already made up their minds that there is only acceptable version of Islam, which is the crude version of it presented by the Taliban-like people. Their firm decision doesn’t allow them to listen to any other interpretation. In the process they end up behaving just like the closed-minded Taliban, although taking the debate on Islam in the very opposite direction.  I sincerely hope that Kanwar Khuldune Shahid is not one of them.

As a result of the highly unreasonable picture of Islam that emerges, the only solution such critics of Islam present is that this outdated religion should be scrapped. They don’t realize that they are unwittingly planning for not just elimination of Islam but human civilization as well. If they imagine the events that would follow after their anti-Islam campaign would unfold fully, they would see that it would not just be Islam’s but the entire humanity’s future that would be at stake. Muslims will never leave Islam nor tolerate its open condemnation and rejection. We have seen enough in the recent times to know that truth. However, Muslims can always be convinced to understand and practice the true, soft version of their faith. The fact of the matter is that it is not Islam but the faulty, extremist, and narrow-minded interpretation of it which is at the heart of the problem. And if the proposers of the anti-Islam ideology and the opponents of it are not going to give way to an attitude of openness and dialogue and as a consequence to new ideas, the problems of this world are going to keep multiplying.

The fact is that Taliban and their sympathizers and the extremists opposing them have presented such a crude, incorrect understanding of Islam that it has become very difficult for the common man to distinguish the correct message from the incorrect version of it. However, for the intelligent, discerning minds it is not difficult to follow the clear line of understanding emerging from the Qur’anic text which presents a picture that is both authentic and convincing. And it has become important now as never before to understand with an open mind what the true Islam is. And at the heart of the possibility of dissemination of the true message of Islam is the idea of a project like the Malala University. See http://blog.khalidzaheer.com/posts/85

Who can be killed?

In response to a question on the cowardly attack on the life of Malala, Mawlana Tariq Jamil said in the program of Kamran Khan in Geo News that in Islam there could only be three reasons why a person could be killed. There are several questions that need to be answered in view of his response. I will answer the following questions in the order they appear here: Can I criticize a scholar of his stature? Can we make a statement on an issue different from what the Qur’an has mentioned on it? Is it okay to declare that punishment for extra-marital sex is killing the person when the Qur’an clearly mentions it is hundred lashes? Is it justifiable to lay down a condition to people belonging to other religions that while they have a moral duty to convert to our religion, we can’t convert to theirs? In case we do, we’ll be killed. Is there a consensus of opinion on the fact that there is capital punishment for apostasy and adultery?

I find it extremely surprising that fans of some religious scholars get upset when their revered personality is criticized. The truth is that criticism is what causes all of us to remain alert and looking for truth. If we stop criticizing ourselves and others, we will never be able to know if what we are saying and doing is correct or not. We are in the danger of getting intellectually and spiritually stale in the absence of it. However, it is important that criticism should be made politely and it ought to be directed towards the ideas of a person and not his personality. And the more important and popular a person is, the more important it is that his ideas be criticized by those who think they aren’t correct, because he is influencing many others by his ideas because of his popularity.

When we discuss issues that have been dealt with in the Qur’an, it is imperative that we quote the Qur’an on such issues, because everyone, including the prophet, alaihissalam, was responsible to follow the Qur’an. When the Qur’an has answered most clearly the question as to who can be justifiably killed, there is no reason why any other source should even be quoted for the purpose of answering it. The Qur’an says clearly: “Whoever kills a soul – except in retaliation for another soul (that got killed) or for (creating) mischief on earth – it is as if he has killed the entire mankind.” (5:32) The Qur’an is a clear book, and this statement of it should be counted as one of its most unequivocal verdicts which leaves no room for any disagreement. Ignoring this clear statement to accommodate another one which someone heard someone else saying, attributing it finally to the prophet, alaihissalam, when that other statement is not even matching with the Qur’anic verdict is unfortunate to say the least.

It’s a popular traditional point of view that if a married man or woman indulges in extra-marital sex, the guilty should be stoned to death (rajm). This understanding is there despite the fact there is a clear mention in the Qur’an that the punishment for Zina (extra-marital sex) is hundred lashes (24: 2). Such is the status of the Qur’an in the eyes of many Muslims that they believe that the Qur’anic verdict has been superseded by the mention in hadith. It’s not an occasion for me to go into details of it, but it should be sufficient to clarify my position to mention here that the Qur’an talks about the possibility of a married woman committing adultery and yet talks of the possibility that she gets the same punishment of hundred lashes on committing the crime (24: 8). In another passage, it talks about the punishment of Zina for a married slave-girl to be half of what a free woman would get (4:25) which obviously rules out the possibility of stoning to death as a punishment. The fact is that the occasions of stoning to death reported during the lifetime of the prophet can only be explained by placing them in the category of crime of mischief on earth, like cases of rape etc.

Can a person who announces he is no more a Muslim after he was one be killed for taking that decision? Most traditional Muslims believe that a Murtad (apostate) must face death. Quite apart from the fact that such a punishment has nothing to do with Islamic Shari’ah, the fact is that it would be a very strange rule that while people from other faiths are encouraged to convert to Islam, if a Muslim decides to convert likewise, he will face death. If this is not an inconsistent policy, what else is inconsistency? The fact of the matter is that the immediate addressees of all messengers were given an ultimatum after a clear, effective communication of the message that if they would continue to reject faith and oppose the messenger, they will face death either through natural calamities or the sword of believers. Such punishments have nothing to do with universally applicable Shari’ah law. It was meant to be specific for the era of the prophet and in that era too only when God asked it to be implemented.

The punishments of death for married adulterer and apostate are claimed to be legitimately Islamic on the plea that there is a consensus of opinion (ijma’) among Muslim scholars on the understanding that such was the case. The fact is that if the prophet, alaihissalam, was also bound to follow Qur’anic verdicts, one might argue, why could ijma’ be ever presented to undo what the Qur’an has clearly presented? Apart from that, the interesting fact is that many of the famous scholars of the second, third, and fourth century hijrah have clarified that no ijma’ on any issue is possible except for what is clearly mentioned in the Qur’an and the authentically transmitted Sunnah. Imam Shafi’i, Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Imam Ibn Hazm, Imam Taimiyyah, and Imam Razi are some of the scholars who have criticized the popular concept of ijma’. In other words, there is no ijma’ even on what constitutes ijma’. What can be more unfortunate than the fact that a vague source of information such as ijma’ whose very identity and definition is seriously in question should be utilized to silence the verdict of a book that had come to guide the entire mankind.