S Irfan Habib in New Delhi

There has been a lot of noise about rethinking in Islam, particularly post September 11,2001. I feel it is long overdue and September 11 has just given us a rude shock to get into action. Within India, Godhra and the ensuing Gujarat carnage has added urgency to the question of rethinking, making us conscious of the fact that there is something seriously wrong somewhere. If September 11 and Godhra are the ugly faces of Islam than the burning of Graham Staines and his children and the ongoing Gujarat carnage is the depraved and distorted face of Hinduism. Both are threats to the secular and pluralist fabric of India.

Unfortunately Muslims and Hindus have allowed their respective faiths to be hijacked by the lunatic fringe, which appears to be calling most of the shots on their behalf. Pakistan is an apt example of this perversion in Islam while the Sangh Parivar is the mirror image of this aberration in India. The Islamic variety appears to be more threatening to world peace due to Islam’s multinational character and the diverse political problems involving these so called Islamic nations. However this does not mean that the sangh parivar’s machinations and hate filled campaign against its fellow citizens is a lesser danger to civil society. Striking terror and causing mayhem and misery among fellow human beings is nothing but terrorism. It is time to wake up and wrest control from those who have no qualms about vulgarization of their religion as long as it serves their sectarian agenda.

It is a known fact that Islam did not undergo any meaningful reform to cope with the challenges of modernity. Any serious attempt at ijtihad- a reasoned struggle and rethinking to reform Islam, has been countered by specious arguments saying Islam is beyond time and context thus any talk of rethinking is un-Islamic. This was seen during the 19th century when Syed Ahmed Khan, Jamaluddin Afghani, Mohammad Abduh and others gave a call for ijtihad. The so-called defenders of faith take refuge in Islamic tradition to counter any suggestion for change, which conforms to changing times. They fail to realize that Islam came in with a dynamic and revolutionary social, political, and moral message. It can never be a creed to resist change in accordance with the changing contexts. Alam Khundmiri, the late activist and thinker of Hyderabad who died in 1983, was right when he said that most Muslim social reform movements commit a common error of identifying a particular medieval religious tradition with Islam itself, which as a religion was itself a revolt against the superstitions of the age in which it was born. It is a pity that in an attempt to preserve the Islamic tradition, this revolutionary tradition of early Islam is being completely ignored.

The Book has many passages that should inspire man to use his reason and elevate the status of man as an agent of change. Islam left it to the creative intelligence of the believer to translate the essential vision of the Book into an idiom, which suits the requirements of the modern age. This early vision of Islam and its reverence for human reason and respect for human experience was revealed in a limited manner in the magnificent achievements of Muslims in the fields of science, mathematics and philosophy. All this was possible in an era of Mutazilite ascendancy when ijtihad reigned supreme and the shackles of tradition had not yet trapped the vibrant faith. The believers were still conscious of the fact that the only thing eternal about Islam is Quran and the relationship with the Quranic text has to be interpretative, more so if it is perceived to be eternal. Once interpretation or ijtihad was outlawed, any scope of adjustment with the changing times and contexts became impossible. Alam believes and rightly so that the medievalists committed an error by putting the seal of finality on Islam’s historical achievements. Let us stop finding medieval solutions to our modern day concerns and reinstate ijtihad to open up Islam, bring back its dynamism so that it stops being an obstacle to progress.

Another much talked about feature of Islam is Shariah. It is being interpreted in its most revile form by the believers themselves and in the process inviting ridicule and scorn of the civilized world. The Shariah is perceived as a divine code of conduct applicable forever without any spatial or temporal constraints. This has led to serious complications with respect to women’s rights. It is unfortunate that in Islam religiosity and morality have become synonymous with legality, while in fact legality should be subordinate to a moral and ethical vision.

There is an urgent need to make necessary changes in Shariah under the Quranic gaze so that it conforms to the moral fervour of the Prophet and the ethical vision of Islam. Ziauddin Sardar is right when he says that Shariah is nothing more than a set of principles: framework of values that provide Muslim societies with guidance. But these sets of principles and values are not static , they are dynamically derived within changing contexts. Taliban misadventure in Afghanistan has shown to us how narrow adherence to the text and tradition takes us away from the real world. What we have today is the caricature of Islam being projected as the true face of Islam.

But what about Hinduism and its vulgarization at the hands of sangh parivar? A group of rabble-rousers have legitimated themselves as representatives of Hinduism and its believers. They leave no opportunity to malign their bete-noire Islam but tend to do exactly the same while articulating their brand of Hinduism. They have brazenly adopted the most un-Hindu version of Hinduism called Hindutva, propounded by Vir Savarkar in the early last century. Being a proclaimed atheist, Savarkar had no qualms in defacing Hinduism to suit his politics of social engineering. It was treated with contempt it deserved all these years till L K Advani revived it in 1989/90, providing it legitimacy and respect.

Simultaneously Advani promoted the idea of cultural nationalism, which was again inspired by the mischievous ideology of Savarkar who unabashedly made Hindutva and nationalism interchangeable. This exclusivism automatically drove out Maulana Azad, Ashfaqullah Khan, Frontier Gandhi, Ajmal Khan and scores of others from the nationalist gallery of the sangh parivar. Contrast this cultural nationalism with that of Jamaluddin Afghani, who was in India during the 1880s, just when the nationalist discourse had begun. While addressing a group of young Muslims in Calcutta, he emphasized on the composite strength of Indian nationalism where all communities had to be equal participants in their struggle against the British colonialism. He emphasized on the common secular heritage including its science, technology and literature reminding the Muslim youth present that they were the inheritors of a civilization that produced arithmetic and geometry for the world. He further went on to say that `Human values spread out from India to the whole world…. The Indians reached the highest level of philosophic thought. The soil of India is the same soil; the air of India is the same air; and these youths who are present here are fruits of the same earth and climate.

Here we find a clear enunciation of shared heritage that is not conflict-ridden and is not grounded in religious exclusivism. Hindutva is unfortunately rooted in the revival of a sectarian past and not the common past of all Indians. It seeks to construct an unadulterated Indian past after a careful sifting of icons and ideas, leaving out a large section from our heritage as something not only alien but also defiling. The most unfortunate aspect of it all is that Hindutva’s concerted hammering of lies had trapped a substantial Hindu population in its web.

Hinduism and Islam have had their bumpy patches but they never hated each other as much as they do now in their new avatars of Hindutva and jehadi Islam. Both these versions have purged their respected faiths of all humanity, morality and spiritualism. They merely represent crass jingoism, fanaticism and hatred for each other. Both are haunted by the images of their golden pasts which are lost in the march of history and which both of them want to rediscover. This reinventing of sectarian pasts has messed up our present and will certainly blight the region’s future.

The author is a well known researcher and author TO MAKE THE DEAF HEAR  Ideology and Programme of Bhagat Singh and His Comrades: Irfan Habib; Three Essays Collective