By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
03 June 2019
India is a multi-religious and multi-cultural society. It is one of the greatest strengths of the country, that despite attempts to homogenise its religio-cultural standards, the country still remains diverse and plural. Attempts to homogenise have come from both sides: from the side of secularists who have historically tried to promote a single ‘rational and scientific’ standard by belittling the diverse religious traditions of the country; and from right wing religious organizations who have sought to argue that their reading of a particular religious tradition should be the only standard. India is a shining example that all such attempts have failed and the country continues to be plural.
This is the reason perhaps why followers of different religions in India have started arguing that their religions promote pluralism and diversity. Muslims are no exception to this rule. In almost all formal gatherings, Muslims point out that Islam promotes diversity and pluralism. However, when one starts interrogating such assertions, these Muslims either parry the question or start calling you an Islamophobe. Such a response only tells us that deep down, Muslims have clearly not done enough hard thinking on this issue and their articulation that Islam promotes pluralism is just a performance which they are enacting in front of a sympathetic audience. This not only does disservice to the cause of inter-religious harmony but also to Muslims themselves since they do not have the intellectual capacity to confront their own religious past.
Most Muslims, even the educated ones, paint a very dark picture of pre-Islamic era. Muslims unthinkingly argue that it was a period of Jahiliyya or ignorance, that the condition of women was miserable and that there was no law or regulation which governed that society. You just ask them how they know so much about the pre-Islamic period when there is a near absence of written historical records. More importantly, Islamic literature also tells us that the whole notion of Jahiliyya is a construct of latter day Muslim scholars, anxious at making a distinction with their own past.
Like many parts of the world, Arabia was largely an oral culture. Written texts were a rarity and thus what we know about the period comes largely through the works of Islamic writers. It must be remembered that Islam emerged victorious in this battle between ‘truth’ and ‘ignorance’ and victors all over the world have tended to write histories which have been disparaging about the vanquished. Also, we must remember that according to the tenets of modern historiography, volumes of Hadees literature, which tell us about this supposed pre-Islamic period, cannot even be considered as historical texts. But most Muslims rely on these obscure texts for their arguments and find no problem in citing these antediluvian texts. At the same time, they will argue with all passion that texts of other religious traditions cannot be relied upon because they are not grounded in history. It beats common sense how Muslims can belittle other religious and cultural traditions and yet vouch for the pluralistic ethos of Islam.
If pre-Islamic Arabia was such a regressive place, then how did it throw such valiant women of strong character like Khadija, who was the first to realise the prophetic mission of Muhammad? If women had such a low status in society, how did she become a first rate entrepreneur before Islam came to the picture? If there was nothing to be appreciated in that society, how it produced first rate poets and satirists remains an intriguing question. If there were no rules in that society, then how did the rule of not shedding blood at the Ka’aba got enforced?
The problem is that Muslims do not question the received wisdom which has come down to them through generations of religious scholars, all of whom have been united in their a historical opinion that pre-Islamic Arabia was a place of Jahiliyya when there is ample evidence that this might not be the case.
A genuine dialogue and search for pluralism within one’s own religious tradition cannot begin without a ceaseless search for the truth in the light of available evidence. Relying on texts of dubious historical authenticity is certainly not the right way to go about it. For example, the same texts also inform us that the Prophet ordered the execution of the poetess Asma bint Marwan, who used to compose poetry against Islam and the Prophet. Now, if we are arguing that Islam stands for pluralism, then we need to be able to answer such tough questions as why the Prophet was not tolerant enough to withstand criticism from a woman or why he couldn’t accept another point of view. And certainly there cannot be any idea of pluralism without the practice of tolerance.
There are other questions which Muslims advocating Islam’s supposed pluralistic ethos need to confront. They rightly point out that the covenant of Medina is a pluralist document, which talks of amicable living together between the Jews and Muslims. The problem is that such a covenant can be read as an agreement between two Semitic traditions, both claiming to worship the same God. But can this also be extended to polytheistic traditions? This question is certainly important in the Indian context where a large majority of population is certainly polytheistic. How does Islam in India want to deal with them if it wants to showcase itself as a religion devoted to pluralism? Muslims have unthinkingly advocated that the covenant of Medina serves as a guide for plural living together, even with the Hindus.
However, it is an open question as to how this can be extended to Hindus if Islamic ideas and practices have been antithetical to idol worship and polytheism? Islamic monotheism stands opposed to polytheism and no hermeneutic jugglery can resolve this problem. Islam fought against polytheism practiced in Arabia and wiped it out very rapidly. The very reasonable conclusion that one derives from Islamic history is that monotheism is far superior to polytheism. After all, how do the Muslim advocates of pluralism account for the fact that the Prophet himself removed idols from the Ka’aba signalling the final triumph of Islam over polytheism? How can someone, who was intrinsically antithetical to non-monotheistic ways of relating to God, be considered as an ambassador of religious pluralism as claimed by some well-meaning Muslims?
The whole point of arguing all this is not to belittle any religious tradition. But just to open up a debate amongst those Muslims who sincerely believe in a reading of Islam which is pluralist and tolerant.
Arshad Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com