A case for tolerance
THE recent incident of a clerk slapping a boy inside a mosque has taken social media by storm. Its echoes have travelled well beyond social media and in mosques and at shops, in offices and at homes, people are debating the issue, its genesis , consequences and the larger impact it tends to have on overall built up and characterization of religion – Islam in particular. Are religions, and in this case Islam, springboards and arenas for rhetorical gymnastics? Is it the manifesto of religion to thwart people against one another? Pit them in incorrigible polarities and sow such animosity in society and amongst people that they reach to each throat’s and harbour such covert hatred and animosity for each other that raises them to the ranks of fanaticism? While question like these do not encompass the scope of the question raised in the title of this article, but for the immediacy and inevitability accompanying these questions, we shall mainly explore the nature and call of religion in its relation to these questions. Let’s start our investigation from the question of vice and virtue, on which are hinged almost all the schisms of religious order and the difference of opinion wherein leads to contestation, conflict and confrontation. What is the Quranic concept of virtue and what are the area it emphasises upon? The Quran replies “Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveller, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfil their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous”.
Seen in the backdrop of this vast and encompassing framework, our narrow and self-defined notions of virtue fall flat and the importance of trifling issues which we glorify, zoom in and focus on are reduced to naught. Our ritual-centric notions of virtue, which focus on peripheries and amplify them to the size of whole, prove self-contradictory in the light of this verse and the concept of virtue it sets before us. It only needs our intellect and will to reconcile with this Quran-centric notion of virtue that we will see most of the difference and divergences vanishing away, which otherwise posit us in a state of constant friction. The verse also spells out the ideal of Islam in general and identifies the true belief in God, his apostles and the concept of moral accountability as cornerstones of faith. This is not to say that the issues of Fiqh, the debates of Kalam, the intricacies of Hadith are to be discounted and done away with. But the point shall not escape our understanding that these are not the issues on which are pegged the fate of belief and disbelief. At a time, when fellow Muslims are being labelled as infidels, the inter-sectarian schisms have risen to apogee and the fanatical tendencies have become the hallmark of religious discourse , one is immediately reminded of the Quranic dictum that “Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.” (2:62). This shall serve both as a shut-up call and an instant of awakening for those who claim monopoly over salvation and in the dizziness of their bigotry went on to identify everybody as disbeliever, heretic or apostate. The Quranic concept of vice and evil is a strong corollary of its concept of virtue. It is true that there are sins of theological order and the Quran does often speak of moral evils and their disastrous consequences – all these occupy a place of their own in Quranic theodicy. But the sin which God himself identifies as one of terrible consequences, in addition to associating partners to him, is spreading discord on Earth. This discord can be moral, military or it can result from the perversion of scholars, as happened with Bani Israel. So before battling for the size of trousers, the correct way of offering prayers, the issue of intercession and such, scholars need to guard themselves against the evil of being agents of mischief and discord on the land of God, for this act enmeshes them in a sin of greater order with its repercussions overflowing to societies and civilizations.
What has been underscored above highlights the broader scope of Islam and its approach to human salvation in terms of its theorization of vice and virtue. Having said that, one is obliged to investigate the broader question which characterizes this article. What does Islam want from its followers and what are the liabilities that it puts upon its followers in pursuance of this ideal? Islam doesn’t demand from its followers a bigotry and religious zealotory infringing upon the rights and lives of others, nor does it warrant of any religious compulsion. We all know that Islam emphasises on ethics and morality, on virtue and piety, but how many of us recognize that Islam was historically the first religion to guarantee freedom of conscience, the freedom to choose religion of one’s choice and the freedom to exercise intellect in matters of faith. It emphasised reason and rationality at the cost of sentimentalism, hyperbole and rhetoric. Bypassing and shunting the primitive elements of war and violence accompanying the human psyche, it made pen mightier than sword in the true sense of the word by according to argument a place much higher than force. It initiated the process of dialectic in the matters of faith and enjoined on its followers the usage of “beautiful and wise means of propagation”. Quran – the magnum opus of Islam advocates reason and rationality and when it touches upon the themes of war and violence, it takes them up to put a cap and limit on them, instead of granting them blind legitimacy or celebrating the cult of violence. Emancipation from error, liberation for tyranny and oppression, globalization of sympathy and empathy are some of the dominant leitmotifs that recur in Quran and that were catalytic in shaping the movement of liberation theology in Africa against Apartheid in late 80s and 90s. But how much of it we get to listen to in our sermons and religious speeches. When did you last hear from a religious cleric a sermon on environmental consciousness, on gender equality, on poverty and egalitarian world, on the ills that our society is festering with? Does Islam not concern itself with the human life here and now with its all issues of spectral diversity? Of course it does – but unfortunately talking on these issues doesn’t fetch our clerics the audience and applause they dream of and that is precisely the reason that they engage in sectarian strife and drag down Islam from its pedestal to the marsh of non-sense it has nothing to do with.
The creed of Islam has no pantheons, no evolved complex of rituals and neither does there exist an abysmal chasm between man and God which will need a cleric to fill up. The respect we accord to our religious scholars derives its legitimacy from the fact that they inform and explicate for us the word of God, but they shouldn’t take this occasion as an opportunity to interject themselves between man and God and on occasions “Play God”. The responsibilities of Ulema are manifold in comparison to the masses in general for they are capable of setting up an example and their word usually has a wider outreach, but on each instant they need to introduce mankind in general and Muslim audience in particular to the true and unadulterated precepts of God. Any failure therein has a consequence and a price, the price too heavy in spiritual terms, the price which Biblical verse sums up as “Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes”!
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