Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Struggle in Islam 02-08-24

Struggle within Islam

Mirza A. Beg
Written Aug. 24, 2002
Muslim Observer Sept.6, 2002

All religions have internal struggle for the ultimate truth as perceived by the pious. Christianity has reached a substantial truce even though the Balkan wars, less than a decade ago were religious wars in the garb of nationalism. Judaism is polarized but can not afford a war within before defeating the perceived foes without. Hindus are at war with their caste system. Islam also has an on going struggle that started within a generation of its inception.

The struggle within Islam has acquired greater urgency since Osama bin Ladin became a household name. Enduring changes are slow and methodical. Ideas emanating from usual discussions can be grouped in the following laments.

1. If only we go back to the basics of Q’uran and Hadeeth etc. If we follow the teachings faithfully (that is the rub), God will reward us and all will be well.

2. All the great ideas are well and good but impractical. Talk is cheap. Stop talking and start doing something.

3. Our problem is too many sects. If we could only unite and stop bickering.

All observations are true. Taken in isolation without introspection they guarantee failure. We live in a time in which most of us can get as educated as we want. Yet education without introspection and questioning of one’s own beliefs becomes perpetration of propaganda on oneself.

We tend to read laudatory accounts of past glories of Islamic civilization, but do not like to read or understand other religions and societies. Even when we do, it is usually with jaundiced eyes looking for holes to punch, not to learn from them.

Why once great, are we mired in pathos now? Why is the west ascendant with many obvious shortcomings? One word answer is freedom. Freedom to think. There is no freedom to think great ideas without freedom to think stupid and innocuous thoughts as well.

The Prophet of Islam did not designate a successor. It was not an oversight. In effect he willed us to think and choose according to our best lights. The nascent Islamic polity did choose, though not without dissentions, within the limits of civilized decency.

Islamic ethos was given a body blow in 661 CE when Muawiyyah maneuvered Ali's defeat and made the Caliphate a hereditary office, clearly against the pattern set by the prophet. Islam could have withered away. Not only did it flourish but the Omayyad period followed by the Abbasids is considered the golden age of the Islamic civilization.

There were two main reasons. The dynastic wrangling and struggles were left to the power brokers and warriors. The rulers understood the need to learn from the more developed conquered civilizations. Instead of impeding they encouraged learning and adaptations from Greek, Persian, Hindu and other sources.

The second reason was that though they were not considered equal, the conquered people found more freedom and peace than they had under their co-religionist. The Christian, Jewish and Hindu scholars were not only given freedom but were celebrated for their learning and given places of influence under the new rulers. They went from less to more freedom of thought and practice.

The reformation in Europe lead to the age of enlightenment, which unleashed a thirst for intellectual freedom. Freedom from the oppression of the rulers as well as from the religious establishment that historically molded the religious doctrines to suit the powerful.

This set the stage for modern democracies, which are not flawless. With tug and pull, debate and elections, ordinary people work in small ways to make them better. Often taking two steps forward and one back aspiring for a better, not a perfect system.

At this stage some may say that the Prophets system was perfect. By the Islamic definition we know that there is not going to be another Prophet. The system as evolved by the first four Caliphs was nascent proto-democracy aborted by contrived succession of Muawiyyah by his son Yazid.

In America the democracy is flawed by any ideal standard. But it has evolved in a generally right direction with some major setbacks. The founders recognized human failing of addiction to power. So they designed a system of competing centers of power. George Washington gave the greatest gift to this nation by setting a precedent of giving up power after two terms in office.

Only Franklin Roosevelt overrode this principle during the 2nd World War. The congress corrected it by the22nd amendment. It had a tremendous moderating effect on frail presidential egos and it gives people a certainty of getting rid of perceived bad leader with due process.

The republic not only survives the intellectually deficient to highly intelligent though roguish presidents but it prospers, primarily because the presidents know that they have a limited time to make their positive mark on history. The people know that even the worst leader will be at the helm for at most eight years. Thus there is no need for revolution or violence.

God has given each of us some unique gifts and freedom to use them for good, evil or not use at all. We know the parameters according to which we will be judged. This is a quest for the hereafter. In this world it behooves us not go for the illusive perfect, but aspire for better than what is.

The first lament is that, if we all followed the rules and were pious it will all workout. It really will be wonderful but through the whole human experience, this has never happened. People claiming to be pious have fought for their brand of interpretation, at times they reek havoc.

The second lament that talk is cheap… It is the ideas that guide actions. Unless we have a vigorous fearless yet thoughtful debate, not only no new ideas will emerge, but even the old ideas will not be understood in context to do us any good.

The third lament that only if all the sectarianism will stop... It is like waiting for Godot in Samuel Beckett’s play. This has never happened nor will it ever happen. All religions and ideologies since time immemorial have broken into competing sect immediately after the passing of the founder.

So the time is nigh for a civil, thoughtful and fearless debate within the Islamic polity. None of the Muslim countries have true freedoms to do it. In ‘devoutly proclaimed’ religious countries, the religion is misused to suppress all freedoms and in ‘devoutly secular’ countries the religion is suppressed at the altar of secularism. Muslims in this country have the freedom and opportunity to take this challenge. History and our children will be justified in judging us very harshly if we fail to take the lead.

Mirza A Beg invites comments. He may be contacted at

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