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Now is the time for all communities to work on propagating religious moderateness

A May 24 image from the extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation held at the headquarters of the OIC General Secretariat in Jeddah (Image courtesy: Twitter/@OIC_OCI)

Last month, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), a coalition of 57 Muslim countries, suspended the status of Sweden’s special envoy, accusing the Scandinavian nation of enabling “the repeated abuse of the sanctity of the Holy Quran and Islamic symbols”.

One of the reasons for this sort of Islamophobia to rage unabated across the world is the failure of Muslim societies to question clerical interpretations that present Islam as an exclusivist and intolerant religion.

A religio-political alliance

Although Muslim supremacism is more than a millennium old, its widespread prevalence today owes mainly to the mid-eighteenth century religio-political alliance between Muhammad bin Saud (1687-1765), founder of the Saudi kingdom, and Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), the founder of modern Salafism who believed that a rejection of his narrow understanding of monotheism renders Muslims outside the pale of Islam, or kafirs.

The pact with Saud was, therefore, to seek autarchic assent to impose this blinkered interpretation across Arabia. In return, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab promised to provide theological underpinning to Saud’s rule over the region.

In The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia, David Commins writes about the remarkable endurance of this symbiotic deal which “survived traumatic defeats and episodes of complete collapse”. And, in Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, Gilles Kepel describes how, after the discovery of oil, the Saudis spread Wahhabi thought across the world and even normalised it through the liberal distribution of charity and construction of mosques in Muslim societies.

In addition, writes Kepel, the Saudi ministry for religious affairs sent at no cost millions of translations and commentaries of the Koran (reflecting the Salafi worldview) to the world’s mosques. The doctrinal uniformity this strategy managed to enforce upon the religiously diverse Muslim world has been so huge that it obtrudes itself into all Muslim thinking today.

In an allusive acknowledgement of this fact, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) told The Washington Post in March 2018 that investments in mosques and madrassas overseas were rooted in the Cold War, when allies asked Saudi Arabia to use its resources to prevent inroads in Muslim countries by the Soviet Union.

Welcoming moderation

Nonetheless, MBS’s public recantation of the Wahhabi ideology and his push for moderate interpretations of Islam is an epochal moment in the history of Saudi Arabia which needs to be supported because of the transformative impact it is likely to have on Muslim thought.

In pursuance of the recast raison d’état of Saudi Arabia — Islamic moderation — Secretary-General of the Mecca-based Muslim World League (MWL), Mr. Mohammed bin Abdul-Karim Al-Issa, was in India last month to talk about the need for an “alliance of civilisations” to counter the fatalistic idea of “clash of civilisations”. The MWL is the force behind the promotion of what it calls the “Prophetic approach of moderation”.

In his address to Muslims at the India Islamic Cultural Centre (IICC) on July 11 in Delhi (during which this author was present), Al-Issa stated that Islam is a tolerant and open religion which obliges Muslims to live in peace with everyone.

Aetiology of extremism

The inherent tolerance of Islam needed to be highlighted because the aetiological roots of the extremism exhibited by groups such as the Taliban lie in the arrogant otherisation of non-Muslims as kafirs and judging them to be beyond redemption for not following Islam.

But the Koranickafir is not a non-Muslim. It is anyone (including a Muslim) who wilfully rejects and suppresses truth, or is ungrateful. Thus it is not religious belief but thanklessness and repudiation of established facts that make a person a kafir.

If Muslims today are in the dark about the philosophy of language and intentionality of the Koran it is because sectarian exegetes have distorted it beyond recognition. To give just one example, The Noble Quran (one of the most widely distributed English translations from Saudi Arabia) renders a prayer in verses 1: 6-7 as, “Guide us to the Straight Way. The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).”

The reference to Jews and Christians is not part of the Arabic text of the Koran. In other words, this parenthetical interpolation (which is freely accessible online) indoctrinates Muslims to look down upon the followers of Judaism and Christianity in violation of the Koran’s original meaning.

In fact, most Salafi-minded translations are full of similar ideological transclusions. The Koran in 5:77 prohibits such travesties of facts and tells Muslims that the promotion of anything other than the truth (ghairal haq) is an act of extremism (ghulu).

If the moderateness of Islam is to be successfully propagated across the globe, Saudi authorities must see to it that translations disseminated from their soil are re-examined and changed to reflect the original intent of the Koran.

Indian Muslims

The Muslim community in India is perhaps the only Islamic society in the world which did not succumb to the temptations of any extremist ideology. This fact stood endorsed when India’s National Security Advisor Mr. Ajit Doval, speaking after Al-Issa at the IICC, pointed out that despite their huge population the involvement of Indian Muslims in global terrorism has been “incredibly low”.

Mr. Doval warned that if communities don’t sail together they are “doomed to sink together”. For it is “only with mutual trust and cooperation among nations, civil societies, religions and people of the world that security, stability, sustainable development and a dignified life for all citizens can be ensured”.

NSA Ajit Doval
National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval at an event organised by Khusro Foundation at Delhi’s India Islamic Cultural Centre in New Delhi, last month (Image courtesy: Khusro Foundation)

Mr. Doval’s compelling advocacy of communal cooperation needs to percolate down because the progress of our country could be seriously affected by needless violence of the horrifying kind witnessed recently in Manipur and Haryana.

In the context of Islamophobia, the extra-judicial lynching of Muslims in the name of saving Hindus and their religion, burning of mosques, calling for the social and economic boycott of Muslims, and ultimatums to Muslims to leave town or vacate houses should open our eyes to the stark reality that moderation needs to be practised not just by members of any one community.

The perpetrators of the aforementioned atrocities must, apart from being proceeded against legally, be made to understand that the assimilative pluralism of Hinduism is so wide in scope that it accommodates diverse philosophies such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Buddhism, Vedanta, Mimamsa, and even the atheistic Charvaaka school of thought.

Then why can’t Islam, Christianity, and other religious or non-religious belief systems peacefully co-exist with Hinduism in a democratic India? This is what our Prime Minister meant when he said during his recent visit to the USA that in India “there is no place for discrimination on the grounds of caste, creed, gender, religion”.

In the end, self-restraint and moderateness are mechanisms of sociological transmutation. If we don’t use them to convert hate into harmony, peace and progress would remain elusive.

(A. Faizur Rahman is Secretary-General of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought. This article was first published in The Hindu on August 16, 2023)

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