By Asghar Ali Engineer
(Professor Ali Engineer is a Muslim scholar and the head of the
Institute for Islamic Studies in Bombay, India)
Islam and Muslims are very much under attack today for various
reasons, chief among them is attack on New York towers on 9/11/2001.
Also, the Islamic world on the whole tends to take very conservative
stands on number of issues and still implements laws formulated
during medieval ages by eminent Islamic jurists presumably based on
Qur'an and sunnah but introducing considerable changes in them
through interpretations to suit their times. The laws pertaining to
women are in great need for change, specially the way people like
Taliban and Saudis implement them making Islam target of attack.
It seems the very spirit of Islam has been lost the way Muslims
behave. The orthodox 'ulama insist, in Muslim majority states, to
implement Shari`ah laws as they are and even insist on stoning
adulterers to death. This is so from Indonesia to Algeria. There are
very few Muslim states, which can be termed as liberal and
democratic. Millions of Muslims are suffering as a result of this,
particularly women. In countries like Kuwait women cannot vote, in
countries like Saudi Arabia they cannot go out alone, Taliban did
not allow them to go to schools and in most of the Muslim countries
they have to wrap themselves into veil. In Saudi Arabia recently
when a girls school caught fire, some girls tried to escape but were
pushed back to burn alive simply because they had left their veil
behind in a rush. Thus human life has no value and Islamic dress for
These are such matters that Muslims have to reflect deeply about
and engage themselves in the serious project of changing society so
as to be more progressive in keeping with Islamic values. A Muslim
is, above all, believer in these values. Islam had conceived of
emergence of a new man - a Mu`min - who firmly believed in Islamic
values and engaged himself in changing the world in accordance with
First, I would like to throw some light on these Islamic values.
The most fundamental Islamic value is justice 'adl and Allah's name
is 'Aadil i.e. Just. Allah is Just. A Muslim cannot be a Muslim
without being just himself or herself. He has to engage himself in
promoting justice in the whole world.
Another important Qur'anic value is ihsan - benevolence, doing good
to others and Allah's name is Muhsin i.e. Benevolent. Allah is
benefactor of one and all without any distinction of caste, creed or
color. A Muslim also has to be benefactor of all Muslim or
non-Muslim. The prophet has also said that a hand of a Mu'min should
not do any harm to the other.
Another significant Islamic value is equality. All human beings
are equal in as much as we share our humanity with each other. All
children of Adam, according to the Qur'an (17:70) possess honour and
dignity accorded by Allah. This is to be seen in conjunction with
freedom of conscience (2:256). Once cannot think of human dignity
without the concept of freedom of conscience. Thus equality, human
dignity and freedom of conscience all are related with each other
and cannot be compromised in any way. A society which is Islamic in
substantial way must ensure all three to all human beings.
Yet another important value is compassion called in the Qur'an as
rahmah. Allah is called Rahim, Compassionate. He is also referred to
as Rahman which means almost the same i.e. compassionate though the
Muslim theologians make some fine distinctions between the two.
Rahman, according to the theologians is Allah's attribute of Mercy
for all whatever the caste, creed or nationality. Thus a Muslim must
display compassion for all and should be extremely sensitive to
others' suffering. A Muslim cannot be indifferent to suffering of
others including animals.
A Mu`min should also strive continuously for removing suffering
from earth. It comes very close to Buddha's concept of dukkha and
its removal from earth. A Muslim must dedicate himself to removal of
suffering in all its forms from this earth. And any form of
injustice causes suffering and hence establishment of justice is
directly related to removal of suffering from earth. The Qur'an
repeatedly condemns oppression and exploitation what it calls zulm.
The word zulm is derivative of z.l.m. which has meaning of deviating
(from right or just course) and zulmat in Arabic means darkness.
Injustice leads to darkness.
Thus an engaged Muslim must devote himself to fighting zulm i.e.
any form of injustice and oppression on earth. He should help all
those who are victims of injustice. According to the Qur'an Moses
actively helped the Israelites throw away the bondage of Pharaoh. He
rid themselves of the oppression and exploitation and gave them
sense of dignity and honour as free people.
In our own times we have various forms of oppression and
exploitation be it capitalist exploitation, be it due to
globalization or be it due to any other form of injustice between
two individuals or between two nations or communities.
A real jihad for a Muslim is to fight against all forms of
injustices and all forms of exploitation and make all forms of
sacrifices to remove these injustices to establish real peace on
earth. As long as there is any trace of injustice and exploitation
on earth there will be violence in some form or the other and it is
duty of a Mu'min to wage struggle to remove all traces of injustice.
An engaged Muslim has to be committed to peace on earth and without
peace this earth will not be worth inhabiting for all human beings.
And peace can be established only through jihad against all forms
of zulm on earth. Another important value is truth called Haq by the
Qur'an. Allah Himself is referred to as Haq in the Book. Thus an
engaged Muslim has to fight for truth. Truth is God and thus god
cannot be realized without realizing truth in all its forms.
Truth, it is important to note, is much more than mere conformity
with fact or empirical reality. Truth is nothing if not
value-oriented. The given facts of life may not be conducive to
promoting justice and peace. There may be zulm all around us. A
committed Muslim cannot accept such a reality. His dedication to
truth will inspire him to fight against such earth filled with
exploitation and oppression. Being truthful means being just. Truth
is not mere statement but praxis.
A Muslim who is engaged seriously with his religion and his
conscience would never be at ease with himself if there is gender
injustice in his society or country. Today gender injustice is
widespread throughout the world. The Prophet of Islam both through
revelation and through his own words and practices (sunnah) did all
he could not only to improve the status of women in society but also
to accord them equal status to her with that.
The medieval society robbed women once again of their high status
and subjugated them to male domination. And this persists today
throughout Islamic world. Thus an engaged Muslim would not rest in
peace if such bondage of women persists throughout Islamic world
today. The `ulama are constantly demanding strengthening of medieval
practices and trying to rob women of whatever rights they have won
in recent times.
It is not only that. The modernity is so dominated by the
unrestrained capitalist system that women have been reduced to a
saleable commodity. If the conservative 'ulama demand confining her
to four walls of home and putting all sorts of restrictions on her
the modern capitalist system exploits her body to sale commodities.
Her naked or semi-naked body is for sale everywhere to promote
consumerism. Thus the modern capitalist system has cheated her of
her sense of dignity.
Thus an engaged Muslim has to face double challenge - challenge
of orthodox 'ulama on one hand, and that of modern capitalism and
its utterly exploitative attitude towards women, on the other. Both
are not acceptable. If the former is violation of Islamic spirit of
justice the latter is total negation of her human dignity and is
result of capitalist greed. To call it freedom is misnomer. There
cannot be any freedom without dignity as pointed out before. Both
compliment each other. How can she be free if she is reduced as a
commodity and her body is used or selling consumable items?
In some Muslim countries women are still quite low on education.
The Prophet has said that acquiring education is obligatory
(faridatun) for both Muslim men and Muslim women. Thus an engaged
Muslim has to wage a jihad against high rates of illiteracy among
women in these Muslim societies. It is also to be mentioned here
that in some Muslim countries like Indonesia and Malaysia the rate
of literacy among women is quite high but in countries like
Pakistan, Bangla Desh, India etc. where a very large number of
Muslims reside the rate of literacy among women is quite low and
this should engage Muslims of these countries to wage jihad against
Illiteracy be it among men or women is to be removed. The Qur'an
describes ignorance (jahl) as darkness and 'ilm (knowledge) as light
(Nur). And the first revelation to the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) began
with the word Iqra' i.e. recite or read which is synonymous with
knowledge. Knowledge is a value and Allah is described in the Qur'an
as 'Aalim i.e. the Knower.
Thus it is duty of Muslims to engage themselves with latest
developments of knowledge in the world. Even the word for science in
Arabic is 'ilm. It is very comprehensive word embracing all forms of
knowledge religious as well as secular. In fact an engaged Muslim
should always be engaged in knowing what is created by Allah in this
universe. The 'ulama (knowers, scientists) according to the Qur'an
reflect on Allah's creation day and night. Thus in verse 3:190 the
Qur'an says: "Those who remember Allah standing and sitting and
(lying) on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens
and the earth: Our Lord, Thou has not created this in vain! Glory be
to Thee! Save us from the chastisement of the Fire." And in verse
35:28 the Qur'an says that only who are possessed of knowledge
really fear Allah.
From both these verses the importance of knowledge in Islamic
civilisation is quite obvious. Islam greatly encouraged knowledge.
In fact as in 3:190 a true believer reflects on creation of this
universe day and night and sitting and standing and through
reflection on His creation they affirm Glory of God. And an ignorant
person cannot even fear Allah and cannot acknowledge His greatness.
Thus a committed Muslim will spend day and night on acquiring
knowledge and spreading its light among all. Is it not very sad
thing that the record of literacy in Islamic world is so poor
compared to non-Muslim world? And when it comes to study of science
it is even worse. The Islamic world has not created one great
scientist who could have lasting impact on the world as a whole?
Even the Noble Laureate Dr. Abdus Salam though hailed from Pakistan
had worked all along in USA and did all his research in Physics
there. It is an irony that in Islamic world Pakistan is considered
most advanced in science and technology though compared to even
India Pakistan is far behind in this race.
Many orthodox 'ulama even reject science and maintain that when the
Qur'an talks of 'ilm (knowledge) it talks of only knowledge of
religion. Thus after florescence of knowledge during the Abbasid
period in 2nd and third century Hijra (Islamic calendar) when
science and Who_are_we registered great achievements there has been
not much progress in these fields. Science and technology, even
Who_are_we became stagnant. The sack of Baghdad in 1258 destroyed
what had remained of it.
Ever since the Islamic world remained far behind in the fields of
science and Who_are_we, even unfortunate as it is, in the field of
Islamic knowledge ('ulum-i-diniyyah). Not much worthwhile
contributions were made by the 'ulama in these fields. They began to
stress only taqlid i.e. imitation; a new contribution was denounced
as heresy. And there were not many heretics.
Only during colonial period one notices some intellectual stir
under the influence of the west. Jamal al-Din Afghani and his
disciple Muhammad Abduh who later became Grand Mufti of al-Azhar
produced fresh thought and egged on Muslims to think afresh. In
India Sir Syed Ahmad Khan founded MAO College on the patterns of
Cambridge and Oxford Universities and induced Muslims to go for
western secular knowledge. However, the Islamic world is far behind
in the field of knowledge and still conservative 'ulama rule the
roost particularly in oil rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait
etc. In these countries it is so difficult to challenge even age-old
traditions. The rulers are afraid and any intellectual dissent is
suppressed with heavy hand.
A committed Muslim must take inspiration from the Qur'an and work
for spread of all kinds of useful knowledge systems in the Islamic
world. Unfortunately in Islamic madrasas and universities even today
outdated sciences as developed during early Islamic period and
Ptolmian Astronomy are taught and anything else is considered
deviation from religious teachings.
Ours is the age of information and knowledge and knowledge is
advancing at an exponential speed. Any country, which ignores the
rapid advancement of knowledge, will be ignored by the world. The
rulers in the Islamic world strictly control information as it is
threatening to their authority which is based on the support of
conservative 'ulama and the 'ulama in turn consider any change a
threat to their own authority.
Thus commitment to knowledge is commitment to change and
democratic freedoms. Unfortunately most of the people think that
there is no democracy in the Islamic world because Islam is against
democracy and supports authoritarianism and opposes any.
This is far from true. Islam has never approved of monarchy or
authoritarianism. Monarchy developed in Islam under the influence of
feudalism and under the influence of Roman and Sassanid empires, not
because of Islamic teachings. In fact The Holy Prophet was not
followed by any monarch but by a Khalifa elected by the Muslims
(according to Sunni Muslims) or by Imamat (according to the Shi'ah
Islam). Authoritarianism has no place at all in Islamic teachings.
In fact all early Islamic thinkers approved of rebellion if it
was inspired by Islamic teachings against any ruler who was
deviating from teachings of Islam. Most of the great Islamic
thinkers and companions or companions of the companions of the
Prophet (PBUH) strongly opposed the Umayyad rule because it deviated
from the system of Khilafah and usurped power undemocratically and
converted into a synastic rule. An Islamic thinker of the eminence
of Hasan Basri was opposed to the Umayyad rule.
Submission to authoritarian rule itself is un-Islamic. Right to
open criticism is a sacred right, not because the western
democracies approve it but in the earliest Islamic period the
Prophet's successors accepted it. The Prophet himself never
discouraged any of his followers to ask him questions even when they
went against some of his practices. He always gave them satisfactory
answer and never allowed, especially in secular matters, any
mystique to develop around him. Similarly his successors like Abu
Bakr, 'Umar and 'Ali were publicly criticized and they never took a
position that Muslims had no right to question their conduct. There
is a hadith that there is no obedience in sinful conduct (ma'siyah).
Thus freedom of conscience, as pointed out above, is a sacred
freedom, which every Muslim should guard jealously and promote
fearlessly. Thus a true Muslim should be strongly committed to
democratic values and should refuse to accept any authoritarian
regime be it in the field of religion or in the filed of politics.
The culture of taqlid (blind imitation) can never be an Islamic
culture. Freedom of information and freedom of action are sanctioned
by The Qur'an and practice of the Prophet.
Similarly a true Muslim must be as much committed to the concept of
human rights as this concept is very closely related to democratic
rights. The greatest violation of human rights takes place in
Not that there are no violations of human rights in democratic
regimes. There can be serious violations of human rights in
democracies as we so often observe in western democracies too. It is
not sufficient to establish democracy; it is also necessary to be
vigilant to the practice of democratic rights. A Muslim should
engage himself/herself continuously to oversee implementation of
human rights in his/her own society.
Any suppression of ones freedom be it physical or spiritual is
against humanity and hence against Islam. In Islamic world today we
see great violations of human rights. In fact the Islamic world
should have been precursor in the field of democratic and human
rights. But historically the Muslim world deviated from the Qur'anic
teachings and, under the alien influence of medievalism, it
discarded Qur'anic teachings and took to authoritarian culture and
unfortunately maintained it throughout colonial period and now even
during the twenty-first century.
It is true that western imperialism and now neo-imperialism is
strengthening this authoritarian culture for its own political
vested interests. It has made the situation extremely complex and
one sees very few signs of change. The Western powers have very high
stakes in maintaining this culture of authoritarianism in the Muslim
world. The popular aspirations and democratic rights are being
crushed by the authorities. It is much more so in case of women.
They do not enjoy even right to vote in some countries like Kuwait
in the name of Islam.
Thus those committed to democratic and human rights have to fight
against very heavy odds but fight they must under inspiration from
the Qur'anic culture of openness and freedom. This has long been
lost through the ages. It needs to be revived. It would be real
For this we need a strong force of committed Muslims equipped
with Islamic values and modern knowledge. It has to wage jihad
against medievalism and authoritarianism and obsolete knowledge
systems. This jihad would be true jihad and it needs not only utmost
efforts but also sacrifices. This jihad would be for peace, progress
and change and has to be waged against selfish rulers. The Holy
prophet is reported to have said that best form of jihad is speaking
truth in front of a tyrant ruler. We need Muslims to wage this kind
of jihad and it is only this quality of jihad, which would rid
Muslim world of tyrants and authoritarian rulers who suppress all
basic rights and deny democracy to people. It would greatly improve
the quality of governance in the Muslim world and would help greatly
in fighting terrorism of the frustrated youth. It would bring real
glory to Islam and Islamic teachings.