Beyond Hate, Towards Understanding 

Say No to Religious Hatred and Majoritarianism

By Asad Mirza

FOR two weeks now, the largest minority in India has been made uneasy due to a controversy that is not political but religious in nature. The incident is related to the controversial remarks made by some ‘ambitious’ politicians, trying to get noticed by their party’s leadership for creating a surcharged and divisive atmosphere in the country on religious lines.

The unpleasant remarks against the most venerated personality in the Islamic community, Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him), have affronted Muslims not only in India but also globally.

Within India, instead of adopting a mature and sensible strategy to handle the crisis and assuage the hurt feelings of the largest minority community of the country, the media and politicians tried to portray these remarks as inconsequential. Infact, they were used as a litmus test for the minority’s followers and the government refused to apologise till the courts stepped in. Hurriedly, the establishment in India had to heed to the international outcry in crisis mode as well.

The BJP-led Centre is already troubleshooting after more than 15 countries condemned the remarks, starting with Qatar, at a time when it was hosting Vice President Venkaiah Naidu. The controversial remarks have landed India in a tricky foreign policy situation with West Asian nations with which it has crucial trade and diplomatic relations. Over 89 lakh Indians living or working in the Gulf also make it an area of diplomatic concern for India.

Pakistan has been very vocal in its response to the controversy. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif tweeted on June 5, calling the comments “hurtful” and accusing the Modi government of “trampling [on] religious freedoms and persecuting Muslims.”

The 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) not only condemned the remarks made by the now-suspended BJP spokesperson but also linked the row to the hijab ban controversy which took place earlier this year and the reported demolition of Muslim properties in the aftermath of communal violence.

The UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFAIC) affirmed firm rejection of all practices and behaviors that contradict moral and human values and principles. UAE underscored the need to respect religious symbols and not violate them, as well as confront hate speech and violence. It also noted the importance of strengthening the shared international responsibility to spread the values of tolerance and human coexistence while preventing any practices that would inflame the sentiment of followers of different religions.

The Kingdom of Jordan too condemned the remarks made by Nupur Sharma. Ministry spokesperson Ambassador Haitham Abu Alfoul stressed Jordan’s denunciation of such statements and firm rejection of violation against Islamic and other religious figures.

Indonesia also expressed its strong condemnation over “unacceptable derogatory remarks” against Prophet Muhammad.

Qatar and Kuwait even said they expect a public apology from India, prompting India to say the comments from some “fringe elements” did not represent the views of the Indian government.

A senior official at the Qatar Embassy in New Delhi said PM Modi’s government must publicly distance itself from the comments. “Hurting our religious sentiments can directly impact economic ties,” Reuters quoted an official as saying.

When the remark snowballed into a controversy, the ruling BJP suspended its spokesperson Nupur Sharma and sacked Naveen Jindal, who was media head of the party’s Delhi unit.

In the suspension letter, the party’s central disciplinary committee wrote, “You have expressed views contrary to the party’s position on various matters… Pending further inquiry, you are suspended from the party and from your responsibilities with immediate effect.”

“The BJP is strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophy,” a press release signed by BJP national general secretary Arun Singh read.

Even China joined the list of countries that have responded with varying intensities to the Prophet remarks controversy, saying that it hoped the incident could be “properly managed”.

The row also elicited a response from a United Nations (UN) spokesperson, who called for “respect and tolerance” for all religions.

“We condemn the offensive comments made by two BJP officials and we were glad to see that the party publicly condemns those comments,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said. “We regularly engage with the Indian government at senior levels on human rights concerns including freedom of religion or belief and we encourage India to promote respect for human rights.”

But what’s worse is that Muslims in India were unable to respond to the crisis meaningfully.

A deeper look at the controversy exposes the need to have better responses in specific contexts. For instance, in the current volatile situation, the responses from Indian Muslims should have been more contextual.

Claims and Rebuttals 

The controversy was triggered by derogatory remarks made by two spokespersons of the ruling-BJP party against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the most venerated personality amongst Muslims. Of the comments made against the Prophet were the usual accusations critical of the age difference between him and his wife Aisha (RA). He was blamed for marrying Hazrat Bibi Aisha (RA) when she was 6-years-old and 9-years-old when the marriage was consummated.

It’s important to understand the veracity of the claims made before getting into an analysis of the response from the Muslim world.

What’s in the Age?

Notwithstanding the age difference, as perceived by the current generation’s mindset, it is worth mentioning that when the marriage proposal was put forward to Hazrat Abu Bakr (RA), by Hazrat Khoula (RA), he pointed out that Aisha (RA)’s marriage was already fixed with the son of Muta’im bin Jubair. But when he talked to Muta’im bin Jubair, Muta’im said that since Abu Bakr has forsaken his ancestors’ religion, he couldn’t marry his son with Aisha (RA). Abu Bakr (RA) then accepted the proposal brought by Hazrat Khoula (RA).

Myriam Francois-Cerrah in her article written for The Guardian in 2012 on the issue opines that western as well as Indian media base their criticism on a saying attributed to Bibi Aisha herself (Sahih Bukhari volume 5, book 58, number 3894), and the debate on this issue is further complicated by the fact that some Muslims believe this to be a historically accurate account. Indeed, it is.

This doesn’t not mean that the issue cannot be understood beyond the obvious.

In seventh-century Arabia, adulthood was defined as the onset of puberty. Interestingly, of the many criticisms of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) made at the time by his opponents, none focused on Aisha’s age at marriage, as that was the norm during those days.

Infact, it was also the case with even Europe where five centuries after Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) marriage to Aisha, 33-year-old King John of England married 12-year-old Isabella of Angouleme.

Progressive Prophet for Women’s Rights 

The Prophet’s view and treatment of women especially in marriage was quite progressive.

At the age of 25 Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) married his first wife Khadija bint Khuwaylid, who was a widow and was fifteen years older to him. This marriage lasted for 25 years. He married her to encourage widow remarriage which was discouraged in his time.

Infact, after Bibi Khadija’s death in 619 CE, he married a total of twelve women.However, of all of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) wives were widows, with the exception of Aisha.

Italian Orientalist  Laura Veccia Vaglieri in her book An Interpretation Of Islam writes that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was a faithful husband to Bibi Khadija for twenty-five years, and did not marry another woman, except after her death. He at that time was fifty years old. He married each of his wives thereafter for a social or political purpose; such that he wanted to honor the pious women, or wanted the loyalty of certain tribes so that Islam would spread amongst them. All the wives Muhammad married were not virgin, nor were they young or beautiful. So how can anyone claim that he was a lustful man?

Not Just Muslims

Hallett JP in her book Fathers and daughters in Roman society in Rome (1984), wrote that noble women in Rome or earlier Christianity were known to marry as young as 12 years of age.

Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics mentions Manusmriti, in this regard explained by other authorities in (verses 9.88-89), Gautama (18-21) – ‘A girl should be given in marriage before puberty.’ and Vaśiṣṭha (17.70). – ‘Out of fear of the appearance of the menses, let the father marry his daughter while she still runs about naked. For if she stays in the home after the age of puberty, sin falls on the father.’

Several scientific reports mention that our ancestors were much superior and stronger in physical health and girls attained puberty much earlier than as of now. Even recently, there were some medical reports mentioning that girls currently reach puberty at around 13, much earlier than our previous generation.

The way out of this mess is a sincere and respectful attitude for all religions. It is neither productive nor right to make unfounded allegations against a religion. Our quest should be towards tolerance, coexistence and respect for others’ religion.

Additionally, since the day this controversy started, no Muslim leader worth his salt has spoken candidly or correctly against these derogatory remarks. Even Muslim members of most political parties kept mum, except two regional political parties and one individual leader. This teaches us yet again the lesson to be proactive and logic-oriented in our response instead of just being emotional.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

  • Asad Mirza is a political commentator based in New Delhi. He was also associated with BBC Urdu Service and Khaleej Times of Dubai.  He writes on Muslims, educational, international affairs, interfaith and current affairs.

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