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The following brief observations on some topical themes and controversial issues that face Muslims living in the modern world are meant to round off the basic thrust and import of my own paradigm of Quranic Islam. I do desire that my candid submissions be widely considered and debated without fear or favour. Only when Muslims participate in free discussion, without any fear or threat from any quarter, whatsoever, will Muslim society throw up, in sufficient numbers, men and women having the clarity, courage and integrity required to bring about lasting peace for the entire human family.                       


Spirituality, Religion and Superstition:

One often hears that so and so is very religious, or that he is an atheist. An amazing confusion and ambiguity lies concealed in such language. A person who is strongly critical of any organized religion or  ‘church’, may be a deeply religious person in the sense of giving central importance to spirituality rather than to mere morality or to mere creed. Likewise, a person may think that he is an atheist and others may also believe that he is an atheist, when the plain truth is that he cannot honestly accept the particular conception of God or ‘Theos’ current in his milieu.  In other words he rejects a specific idea or mental image of God, but is very sensitive and alive to ‘the sense of Divine Mystery’ and is passionately drawn to a supreme Power that ‘creates’ and sustains the universe but cannot be further conceptualized through any creed. He honestly believes that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy’, or, for that matter, in modern science.  Still further, a person may believe he is very religious when the plain truth is that he is mighty afraid of omens, curses, witchcraft, the evil eye, demons etc and seeks security and protection against them with the help of ritualistic practices or rites prescribed by some organized group or ‘holy personage’.

Man reaches the level of spirituality when the simple goodness of the heart and universal kindness and compassion get impregnated with the gift of Divine grace or a mysterious inner purification beyond human effort and control. Spirituality, like music, beauty, intelligence and the simple goodness of heart cuts across all creeds or religions in the narrow sense. Some would like to say that to be religious, in the best sense, is to be spiritual, or that true religion is the same as spirituality. All this is pure semantics. Every religion admits of several versions of conceptual refinement and also of different levels of spirituality. Thus, I hold a Manuvadi Hindu to be at a lower level than a Vedantic Hindu. Likewise, all Muslims are not at the same level. Moreover, it is futile to grade religions, in the abstract, in view of the multiplicity of levels within each religion.

Superstitions come easily and naturally to the human family because infantile fears and illusions tend to persist in adult life. The belief in lucky numbers, incantations, charms, tombs, miracle performers, controller of demons, wielders of supernatural powers etc. are all different illustrations of this natural tendency. The belief in an all-powerful Divine Father or Mother also comes easily to the child when he realizes the limitations of his earthly father and mother. Religion in the sense of a body of theological doctrines also comes about easily due to cultural conditioning or indoctrination of the child. Spirituality, on the other hand, is the most difficult to attain, and in the final analysis, it remains a Divine gift, beyond human will and control.

Work Ethic in Muslim Societies:

Muslim societies the world over place primary stress upon religious faith and ritual prayer but not upon a strict work ethic. The modern Western approach is just the reverse.  Society permits the individual to feel free to go to church or not to go, but penalizes him for shirking or violating the code of honest work. The practice of religion in the West is neither rewarded nor punished as it is deemed to be a very personal matter. Productive work is a social obligation and carries sanctions if it is not performed according to the terms of the contract. The West in medieval times was also creed-centered and the individual was under considerable social pressure to conform to the prevailing faith. However, the ethical humanist revolution was the social correlate of the scientific and industrial revolutions of the West in the 18th century. This gradually led to tolerance of dissent in the sphere of religion, and the primacy of integrity and work ethic in society. Many centuries earlier Socrates, in the West, and Buddha, in the East, had done the same.  Sufi Islam also lays tremendous stress upon work ethic through its doctrine of ‘akle halaal’. But the plain fact is that the modern Western value system represents a radical shift of priorities in the gradation of basic values. It leaves the individual quite free inwardly in the matter of religion, and this is a basic change in the human situation. Traditionally oriented religious persons tend to regard this modern approach as the rejection of religion. A more objective and accurate assessment is that that the modern approach is the affirmation of inner freedom to choose any specific religious creed or thought system without fear of external sanctions. Muslim societies must do the same, not in imitation of the dominant West, but because of the intrinsic wisdom of giving primacy to work ethic and granting autonomy to the individual in all transcendental matters.

The World of Fatwaas:

I found Arun Shourie’s recent work, The World of Fatwas, so lucid and powerful that I am using the title to express my own views on related issues. Shourie quotes extensively from original Muslim sources and the thrust of his critique of traditional Islam, at the levels of Fatwaas and Hadees, is quite valid. I wish Muslims candidly accepted this fact. However, the learned writer says rather little about the pure Quranic Islam, Sufi Islam and the several well-known philosophically oriented versions of Islam down the ages.  He hardly mentions the contributions made by, say, a Sir Syed, Iqbaal, Azaad et al. It may be that he wanted to focus on the weaker side of the Islamic tradition, or it is possible he argued that to enlarge the scope of an already voluminous work would make it rather forbidding for the general reader. I find Shourie’s critique so powerful and incisive that I can honestly say that traditional Islam at the level of Hadees and Fatwaas stands bruised and bleeding before the eyes of any honest observer, irrespective of his religion. Long back Shourie had done the same for traditional Hinduism through the pages of his remarkable, ‘Hinduism: Essence and Consequence’. I, therefore, hesitate to blame him, in view of the author’s penchant for calling a spade a spade. However, several other instruments are also available for inspection. Thus, neither Muslims nor Hindus need lament over the merciless probing eye of Shourie, the critic. Those who care for their cultural legacy but are honest enough to admit its limitations and to renew it from within can and should learn from those who, for some reason or other, are inclined to throw away the baby with the bath.

It seems Shourie lacks empathy for Islam and the Muslims. Perhaps, when he wrote his probing work on Hinduism he also lacked empathy for the Hindu tradition, but the gift of empathy grew upon him as he matured and evolved with the passage of years.  But empathy must be universal and humanistic rather than for any segment of the human family. I find Sudhir Kakar’s approach to Indian culture and mythology both critical and sympathetic, hence fruitful.

The Hold of Prejudice:

Prejudice, conscious or unconscious, against the out-group, based on religion, caste, region or some consideration or other continues to influence our behavior in unsuspected ways. When we were selling some land adjacent to our family house at Aligarh some well meaning friends advised us to prefer Muslim purchasers, on grounds of security in these troubled times. Thanking them for their friendly concern I pointed out that for me integrity of character came before everything else, including the religion one professed. The simple goodness of heart knows no religious or caste divisions, and the fellowship or fraternity of the good and honest souls is the most important brotherhood or caste for me. Consistently thinking and acting on these lines is quite compatible with remaining good Muslims and Hindus or Christians in the best sense.

On Religious Conversion:

Looking from a global perspective the 19th century was marked by Western imperialism, Christian apologetics and missionary activities, rapid growth of science and technology, atheism or positivism, belief in progress, and cultural pluralism. All these currents and movements coexisted and ran their own course, reinforcing or clashing with each other.  The 20th century consolidated the same trends minus political imperialism and Christian apologetics. It has now become almost patently clear that religious faith is a matter of cultural conditioning and that the dream of converting the entire human family to the one single true faith is futile, since no religion can be proved objectively or logically true. Informed and practical religious leaders and missionaries have, therefore, reconciled themselves to the program of general betterment of the deprived and weaker sections of the human family, without aiming at their formal conversion. If the educational, medical and other forms of service rendered by constructive social workers and missionaries to the weaker sections attracts the latter to some religious tradition or other this is not the same thing as the previous missionary goal of religious conversion to the one true religion.  Indeed, the missionaries themselves are continually revising and renewing their own interpretations of the Christian faith.  The best among them have advanced from the level of Christian apologetics and polemics to Christian Existentialism.

The idea of converting from one religion to another had no appeal for Gandhiji. All religions have elements of truth and some limitations. Every religion is a particular language of the spirit. One can well draw upon the beauties and charms of different languages and their literature without giving up one’s own mother tongue. This is what Gandhiji actually achieved. In some exceptional cases, however, the honest and perceptive person may hear an inner irresistible call or whisper of the soul to adopt a different language of the soul and to identify oneself in totality with some spiritual or linguistic fraternity, whatever the reasons. In such cases the inner voice represents a higher wisdom. However, what must be preserved at all costs is utter humility, inner transparency and respect for all true believers, whatever their faith.

Respect for All Religions and Value Systems:

It is well known that Muslims feel deeply hurt and feel offended if anybody shows disrespect to Prophet Muhammad . Muslims hold that the rank of the Prophet  is next only to God Himself. While Muslims may reluctantly tolerate a person who blasphemes or denies the Creator they get enraged and are apt to become violent if anyone dares to blaspheme God’s messenger. This sensitivity of the Muslim believer is, by itself, commendable provided he concedes the same right to others. Unfortunately, traditional Muslims do not realize that they barely concede the same right to others. I wonder if Muslims ever gave thought to this contradiction in their thought and value system when the Taliban government demolished the Bamian Buddha statue or sculpture in Afghanistan. Nor do they hesitate in resorting to retaliatory demolition of/damage to places of worship of other non-Muslims for whatever reason. There can be little doubt that behind the real or alleged veneration for the Prophet  or for getting even with the enemies of God and His messenger a mix of politics and group conceit gets the better of genuine religious piety. This critique of violent response in human affairs in general applies, with equal force, to other religious groups as well. In short, it is politics rather than piety that engenders and fuels religious slogans in such inter-group conflicts.

Since matters of faith can never be conclusively proved as true or false, the only rational and valid approach for all religious groups is to accept, unconditionally, the ethic of mutual respect and reciprocal active tolerance for the human family in totality. Freedom of expression is, without doubt, an integral part of human rights and of the full meaning of democracy as such. However, this right must be exercised in the atmosphere of mutual respect for each other’s value system. Lampooning, ridiculing, debunking of heroes, saints, sovereigns, remote ancestors, may be permissible in one society but others may view this as utterly repugnant and outrageous. To my mind, there is a clear distinction between sober and reasoned criticism (in the course of autonomous evaluation of any belief, truth-claim or the character of any person, living or dead) and the act of humiliating, ridiculing or debunking the same, for whatever motive. While sober criticism should never be suppressed, even if it results in causing hurt to the religious sensibility of this or that group, ridiculing or abusing what is sacred for others cannot be deemed to be an integral part of the meaning of democracy and freedom of expression.

The Indian constitution is admirably clear on this point. I submit it is in this light that we must see the infamous Salman Rushdie episode some years ago and the Danish cartoon episode in the recent past. As I see the above and other similar episodes, both the provocation, as well as the response to provocation comes about because the parties concerned suffer from spiritual myopia and a deficit in self-understanding and basic humanistic empathy. The politically motivated triggering of mass emotion through slogan raising processions only deepens mutual misunderstandings and distorted perceptions. All such techniques carry the seeds of mass violence. The human family needs inter-faith dialogue and sympathetic understanding of different perspectives. And this process is on, though it may not be very visible, due to the storms in teacups that power seekers engineer, be they priests or politicians.    

The Modern Value System:

Traditional norms governing arranged marriage and divorce, chastity, male dominance, female roles, double standards of sex morality, alternative sexuality etc. have broken down in large sections of urban Indian society under the impact of Western industrial society and culture. It is not that Indians or the Westerners have become immoral scoundrels. Rather the content of the moral law acceptable to them has undergone a radical change. The most positive and welcome feature of the modern value system is the concept of ‘authentic being’ or ‘authenticity’.  In other words, this means that ‘being truthful’ or inwardly honest has become more important than possessing or ‘having truth’. I am quite convinced that the sphere of morality is different from that of legality and the two should not be mixed up just as religion and politics should not. Some matters are best left to the conscience of the individual without any effort, direct or indirect, at ‘moral policing’ in the public interest.

Empowering the individual conscience and giving freedom to responsible adults will not lead to anarchy or indifference to moral values or sexual ethics, provided that the individual is not only free and responsible but is also well informed.  In fact when these conditions are jointly present the concern for values and the sense of accountability are much greater than in the case of externally imposed moral codes.

Inter-Religious Marriage:

The occurrence of mixed marriages is bound to increase in modern secular societies where young people of all religions and castes are thrown together in a common social space. The recent economic independence and now the ever growing empowerment of women cannot but encourage them to choose their own marriage partners instead of following old ways. Many parents either barely tolerate a mixed marriage or just break off family ties. This approach must go.

As is well known, the traditional Islamic law permits inter-religious marriage of a male believer with a Jewish or Christian woman, but not with women of other religions, unless they first convert to Islam. I find this morally repugnant since this amounts to a sort of coercion to change one’s religion for the sake of love or marriage. Moreover, it is quite feasible to interpret the Quranic texts on marriage in a humanistic manner without twisting or stretching the plain meaning of Arabic words and expressions.    

The Quran categorically prohibits Muslim men and women to marry from among those who totally deny God. But it is plain that all non-Muslims cannot be said to be atheists as such. The traditional Islamic law is one among several possible interpretations of the Quranic texts concerned.  The humanist interpretation I am suggesting is certainly a departure from the traditional, but I submit, that it is not as radical as it appears at face value. It is my faith that much earlier than we imagine the humanist interpretation will cease to bother the Islamic conscience of enlightened Muslims committed to the universal values of tolerance and cultural pluralism in the modern age. Just as several restrictions and prohibitions imposed by traditional Islam on birth control, photography, music and so on, have, or are in the process of withering away the idea of inter-religious marriage will no longer remain in the category of the ‘unthinkable’ for good Muslims. The present Islamic restrictions on such marriages are certainly not an integral part of the essential Islamic value system.  Indeed, the historical role of Islam in this respect, as in so many other social matters, has been quite innovative.

Muslim Personal Law:

The directive principles of the Indian constitution require that the government should take steps to bring about a common civil code for all citizens. A judgment of the Supreme Court in the late eighties in connection with the Shah Bano case against her husband made this issue a major public controversy.  A large number of prominent Muslim individuals and organizations held the judgment of the Supreme Court of India as an interference with their personal laws, which they deemed to be an integral part of their religion.

The British rulers had deliberately refrained from such interference both in the case of Hindu and Muslim subjects, despite making far reaching changes in the constitutional, civil and criminal laws of the land. This approach had won almost universal acceptance. Liberal quarters in all the different religious groups had initiated internal movements of social and religious reform according to their own lights. The great Indian patriot, Tilak, was an outspoken critic of outside agencies initiating reform in such matters. Muslims took legitimate pride in the fact that in many spheres of social justice (including rights of women) the legal system of Islam represented a great advance upon pre-Islamic ideas and norms. It is also a fact that several features and aspects of Islamic law, like the idea of marriage as a civil contract, right of divorce, inter-religious marriage, (with some restrictions) etc have gradually become integral parts of the modern value system. Muslim public opinion, therefore, merits respect, though much could also be said in favor of a quick enactment of a unified civil code.

I believe personal or family laws in Islam do deserve special treatment even in a secular dispensation or state. It is worth analyzing the central importance of personal laws in the Quran, which is the ultimate authority for the Muslim. The Quran has approx. 6500 verses. Out of these approx. 175 verses are clear imperatives that constitute the nuclear core of the shariah.  Now, of this number a mere 20 deal with political, economic and administrative issues, and 20 with moral rules or regulations.  Approx. 45 verses deal with prayers, fasting, pilgrimage etc, while as many as 55 with laws pertaining to marriage, divorce, inheritance etc. The shariah also provides for fresh reasoning and reinterpretation of the legal system to meet new situations in a changing world. It should not be deemed outrageous for a ‘Muslim Gandhi’ to arise and say: If stoning as a punishment for adultery, death penalty for apostasy, unilateral divorce, some statutory procedures of divorce, remarriage and inheritance etc. be integral parts of Islam I am not prepared to call myself a Muslim. As is well known, Gandhi had spoken in this very vein against the evil of untouchability as practiced by orthodox Hindus in the past. In short, effective secularism and emotional integration of the diverse elements of the human family will not get diluted if a permissive approach be followed in the sphere of personal or family laws, as had been the British practice.

I sincerely believe that when the British rulers adopted a permissive approach in respect of personal laws of their Indian subjects their primary objective was not to divide and rule, but to show genuine respect for the religious convictions of the people in this sphere. The real empowerment of women and the removal of social injustice cannot be stopped in the long run for the simple reason that women constitute half the electorate in the world at large. No matter what the orthodox might say gender equality is the destiny of the human family.     

Muslim Names and Social Customs:

Muslims generally hold that there are Islamic proper names and those who convert to Islam should, therefore, adopt an Islamic name, customs such as circumcision, the dress code, mode of slaughter of animals for food, disposal of the body after death, and laws of marriage, divorce and inheritance, and so on. Mere acceptance of Monotheism, prophethood of Muhammad , life after death etc. is not supposed to be enough. This approach to Islam is valid up to a point, but the issue is not so simple. The reason is that it is essential to make a distinction between the core fundamentals of the thought and value system of any historical religion and its natural prevailing social and cultural matrix. In the case of Islam Arabic was the natural language of the original Arab audience and reference group of the Prophet . The names of his contemporaries, as well as his own name, were neither Islamic nor non-Islamic but simply Arabic; both before, as well as after Islam entered their lives. The same holds good of their dress, general food habits, marriage and divorce regulations, funeral rites, modes of entertainment, and numerous other social customs. Only such among the pre-Islamic laws and customs were modified or abrogated as God or His Prophet  judged to be wrong and harmful. It follows that social customs are primarily ethnic rather than based on religion or ideology. If so, pre-Islamic Arab customs can hardly claim to be essential ingredients of Islam as a universal religion. 

There does not appear to be any justification for holding that when any person or persons convert to Islam they should discard their cultural heritage in general in order to become or to function as true and full Muslim believers. Why should Chinese, Iranian, African or Indian Muslims exchange their original cultural legacy and deny their ethnic and historical roots to embrace Arabic social and cultural features of pre-Islamic origin?  Some matters must be left to individual taste or the group ethos. In other words, Muslims themselves should make a distinction between Islamization and Arabization. By the same token, there is a clear distinction between genuine Indian nationalism and Hindu ‘majoritarianism’.                          


Music and Fine Arts in Islam:

As is well known, the traditional Islamic value system has an extremely puritanical complexion. However, the Quran nowhere prohibits music and other forms of artistic expression. One or two schools of Sufi thought did practice simple religious music or the chant, but this was not music in the full artistically developed sense. The ancient Hindu value system, on the other hand, glorifies music and dance, making them an integral part of the good and blessed life. I have no doubt that Islam in the modern age will have to accommodate and assimilate the aesthetic dimension of life far more deeply and comprehensively than the traditional approach. It is a plain fact of history that despite all restrictions imposed by the tradition Muslim musicians in India have been second to none in enriching Indian music. It is time that the creative Muslim thinkers and leaders review the Islamic ethos in regard to this matter and repudiate the excessive Puritanism of the orthodox Muslim mind.

Prohibited Foods in Islam:

As is well known, the traditional Islamic value system holds that animals whose flesh is permissible as food   be slaughtered in a specific manner. If the slaughter does not conform to the prescribed manner the food becomes unlawful for the Muslim. The Islamic modernists and reformers in the 19th century in India, Egypt and elsewhere had adopted a much more liberal stance in this regard.  However, due to various factors, social and political, a counter-reform movement has emerged in several parts of the Muslim world. Some persons very near and dear to me, for instance, object to eating chicken or mutton in restaurants, unless they can be sure that the slaughter was made in the prescribed manner. It is worth pointing out that Sir Syed had repudiated the above approach, but many Aligarians today readily repudiate this ‘lapse’ of the architect of the Islamic liberalism in modern India. I sincerely regret what I call the retreat of Islamic liberalism in the midst of the political emancipation and industrialization of Muslim peoples the world over.

I have no doubt that the Islamic liberals of the 19th century and their successors in the 20th were quite right in this as in most other matters.  Unfortunately their ‘fundamentalist’ critics have been seduced by what they call ‘scientific’ arguments proving the overall superiority of ‘halaal’ meat to the ‘non–halaal’. I am rather amused by their claim that not only ‘halaal’ meat tastes better than ‘non-halaal’, but leather goods made from animals slaughtered in the Islamic way are more durable.


Candid Reflections
BY Jamal Khwaja

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Jamal Khwaja studied Philosophy in India & Europe. He was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1957. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of seven major books. 

Khwaja’s work seeks to answer three inter-related questions: Firstly, What does it mean to be an authentic Muslim? Secondly, How should a believer understand and interpret the Holy Quran in the 21st century?  And finally, What is the role of Islam in a pluralistic society? 

Khwaja believes in judiciously creative modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. His mission is to stimulate serious rethinking and informed dialog between tradition and modernity in Islam. 

Khwaja’s work is the definitive contemporary discussion regarding the collision of Islam and Modernity. Readers of his work will be in turn, informed, inspired, and intellectually liberated.