Muslims in a maelstrom

Irfan Merchant   Muslim ‘Fundamentalism’: "Saala  suwwar! I shall beat you with my chappals," a pious Muslim colleague told me way back in 1990. He then proceeded to remove his chappals to execute his threat. I was then working for a well-known trust and NGO in Mumbai as its Executive Secretary. This happened at an Executive Committee Meeting which boasted of an MBBS, a PhD., engineers, graduates and post-graduates. What was the provocation which resulted in this traumatic abuse? A perceived insult to the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet of Islam. This was Muslim ‘fundamentalism’ at its worst. Much to my regret, being highly disturbed, I had resigned from that organization. At that point of time we were in the middle of an English-medium school project which got delayed. Twenty years later, last July 2010 the school was ‘inaugurated’ with a religious ceremony. (The project is still not 100% complete).   Working together: I had written this essay way back in 1990 and I find it still fresh in 2010; nothing appears to have changed. In fact things appear to be much worse now than in 1990. What then, were the lessons learnt from that incident? It highlighted then, as it does now, the disunity amongst Muslims which cuts across all social, economic and educational classes. It is this singular aspect of not being able to work together that is one of the primary factors which plagues the Muslim ‘ummah’ not only in India, but every where in the world. It has contributed significantly to the backwardness of Muslims both secular as well as spiritual. It is as if there just does not exist any commonality of thought and ideas amongst Muslims as a community.  It is as if we have decided that as a group, that we will, all the time bicker and fight amongst ourselves all the time. Adopt a filthy tonuge and live in dirty and filthier areas. Discord exists in some form or the other between family members; brother against brother, son against father; in buildings and chawls, in the Muslim neighborhoods and percolates down the few social organisations that exist amongst Muslim. Muslims today appear to be caught in a maelstrom from which they are unable to or do not want to rescue themselves. Maelstrom means a violent whirlpool and a state of confusion and despair.   Ayyam-e-jahaalat: Being blessed with a ‘perfect’ religion, what ails the Muslim community, which Allah Himself has made His viceroys on earth? To follow the compulsory addicts of Namaz, Roza, Hajj and Zakat is definitely the beginning for the search for the ‘straight path’, the siratul-mustaqeem; as ordained by the Almighty. The present day Muslim individually, or as the citizen of the world, by his behavior, by his aamaal, does not show the remotest evidence that he merits this exalted position awarded to him. Theaamalus-salehaa mentioned repeatedly by God in His Book is conspicuous  only by its absence. We appear to be sliding swiftly in to another ayaam-e- jahaalat, the age of darkness.   My Brother’s keeper: All this brings us to our starting point: That the tragedy of Muslims today is their division and the abandonment of the concept of brotherhood. For Muslims, the answer to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, is a resounding yes. The fighting amongst themselves leaves Muslims with little time to make a serious effort to resolve the serious problems facing the community. But before we proceed further one more step towards the understanding the Muslim mind must be taken. Why are Muslims angry all the time? In order to succeed we Muslims will have to renounce anger and its logical by-product, violence, both individually as well as a community. A serious effort will have to be made to change the way the world looks at us.   Common Fundamental Agenda: Muslims, regardless of their sect, can be divided into two broad categories: the rich and educated, and the poor and the uneducated. It is on the rich and the educated class that the burden of a revival of Islamic character, Islamic values and learning will squarely fall. We must agree to a common Fundamental Agenda. Firstly, Muslims must sink their differences and come to an agreement based on the commonality of thoughts and ideas that do exist in their fragmented community. Secondly, Muslims must encourage the growth of leadership from within their peer groups. One reason for the infighting in the community is that all Muslims, in a sense, want to be leaders. The most pious, the best qualified and the most enlightened from amongst themselves must be chosen to show the way. And taking a leaf from early Islam, these leaders may seek advice and ideas from their colleagues but must be empowered to act decisively on their own. This of course is the formula on which modern management systems are based!   The Iqra Agenda: Any Islamic renaissance must start with education. We must go back to, what I call the Iqra Agenda in a real and visible way. Muslims must collectively spearhead a movement for the promotion of education, both religious as well as secular. Very quickly, Muslims must find a new direction. And this direction can only be the direction that leads them to schools, colleges, universities and to centres of learning and education. Our children must acquire modern and secular education of the highest standards which will lead them out of the maelstrom of abject poverty and backwardness in which they are living now. Special attention must be paid to the education of boys who now appear to have been consigned to a hell of our own making. Maashallah, our girls are doing well, I have personally seen this happen in the past twenty years, where I co-manage a girls Urdu School in a slum locality in North Mumbai. The girls of the area go to colleges and look after the family. The boys do nothing, pass their time on thenukkad and during the time of an election, do petty job for petty politicians of the area. If they are very lucky, when they drop-out from the schools, they get a job selling underwear and shoes as hawkers on Mumbai’s footpaths in tony areas of the City. We must liberate these boys  by some brilliant affirmative action.   Islam as a subject: But secular and modern education by itself is not enough particularly western-oriented education which has failed to deliver acceptable moral and ethical values worldwide. Religious education must therefore be imparted to Muslim children from an early age. Islam must be taught as a subject. The Ulema, the religious scholars, have therefore a critical responsibility. Shedding the narrow cloak of their various sects and sub-sects, they must give us a thoroughly sophisticated, revised and broad-based curriculum of Islamic education which can be introduced in the first standard itself. All other things being equal, Arabic must be taught as alanguage. All care must be taken to ensure that our children imbibe a core fundamental principle of the religion, that of moderation. That there is no place in the religion for extremism, fanaticism and intolerance. And zero place for anger and violence and killing of innocent people.   Islamic Values: Our children must be taught, for example, that they must be respectful towards their parents and elders; that the taking and giving of interest is prohibited; that gambling and drinking are vices of the highest order; that the punishment for giving and taking bribes is very harsh as it is for permissive behavior; that hoarding and profiteering is banned; that orphans, neighbors, the poor and needy have rights which have to be protected; that the most disliked but permitted act by God is that of divorce; that a Muslim has a duty towards his country, his society, and that removing even a small obstruction from a pathway is an act of virtue! That a Muslim must never lie, always speak the truth and never break a promise made. And that a Muslim is judged not by his wealth, or his color or his appearance but only by his piety and behavior.

When the personality and character of the Muslim youth is embedded in Islamic values then at some time in the near future the name Sakina or Abdulla will become synonymous with scholarship and learning; with reliability and trustworthiness; with honesty and integrity; with forgiveness and compassion; with piety and righteousness; and with forbearance and fortitude.

After all the Prophet of Islam came as Rehmat-ul-lil-Alameen, a Blessing for all mankind! Post-1992 in Mumbai, I had the privilege of asking Maulana Wahiduddin Khan how the Muslims should now behave.  I still remember his answer.  The Maulana said that Muslims must learn to behave rationally and not emotionally. I think it is time, for all of us to return to the Age of Reason and to the Age of Enlightenment.

Irfan Merchant is an educator and social Worker. Currently he is President of Rahat Welfare Trust, Mumbai, which helps over one thousand children with various educational assistance schemes.  He can be reached at irfansworld[@]