Early History of Muslims needs fresh appraisal–XVI

M Aamer Sarfraz

The incident of Karbala, scripted after 139 years of its occurrence, has caused a retrospectively-inspired prospective and a poisonous split among Muslims. It was supposed to have been about power politics but has gradually assumed an inflexible theological configuration. As the Abbasid dynasty weakened, they found the political and religious authority very hard to maintain. The clergy took advantage of this lack of political consensus among various ethnic groups across the Empire and carved out religious identities across ethnic lines and assumed their leadership, which they enjoy till today. The Sunnis were advised to honour the history as it took shape (architect = al-Tabri), and the Shias decided to honour it as it should have taken shape (architect = al-Tabri).

The Sunni-Shia split cannot be resolved on the basis of debates and several such attempts over the centuries have failed miserably. This is because both camps have their own versions of Muslim history (and collections of Ahadith) and have developed their doctrines accordingly. If one deviates from any aspect of the relevant theology, he/she gets purged from that denomination. The last big Shia-Sunni debate was hosted by Emperor Nadir Shah of Persia (1736-1747) under the supervision of neutral judges in 1740. Its details are a fascinating read but its outcome (not based on the result) was to establish another Mussullah (congregation) in masjid-al haram to let Shia pray behind their own Imam. For those who do not know, before Ibne Saud (and Abdul Wahhab) abolished this practice, Sunnis used to pray separately behind their four different Imams in different places at different times within masjid al-haram but facing the Kaaba.

Islamic revival is not about going backwards, or about dominance of one sect over another in one place (and then exporting the ‘revolution’), nor is it about armed struggle against a much superior enemy (and getting annihilated in the process). All these approaches and models have been tried repeatedly over time and failed. There is absolutely no doubt in the sincerity and intellect of the theological giants including al-Ash’ari, al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah, Maududi and Khomeini, but they were wide of the mark. What has not been tried widely is the approach of Unity, Education, and Rationality advocated lately by Jamal Uddin Afghani, Sir Syed, and Allama Iqbal. They had concluded that the renaissance of Islam is not possible without observing the supremacy of the Quran. Humanity in general and Muslims in particular must realise that no Mahdi, apostle or prophet is coming as Muhammad (SAW) was the last messenger of God who passed away after establishing a model state and leaving the Quran to guide humanity.

Battles can be won and lost, but Nations and Civilisations rise and fall on the basis of their ideologies. The Quran offers all humanity, including Muslims, permanent values for a sustained and progressive existence, avoiding any internal or external clash. Muslims were undone by conspiracies against the Quran, and their inability to identify and deal with those. These conspiracies against the Quran included: creating doubts about its authenticity (revelation, compilation, order, renditions, meanings, explanation, implementation), creating and prioritising Ahadith over it, confounding its main concepts, turning it into a sacred relic, and making its reading a ritual than a practical manual. This gave rise to generations of corrupt and mindless clergy & complicit and ignorant politicians, in different types of regimes in different eras, dominating confused, disenfranchised, disunited and regressive Muslim populations.

Battles can be won and lost, but Nations and Civilisations rise and fall on the basis of their ideologies. The Quran offers all humanity, including Muslims, permanent values for a sustained and progressive existence, avoiding any internal or external clash. Muslims were undone by conspiracies against the Quran, and their inability to identify and deal with those

Some saw through the tricks against the Quran and took isolated stands against them but only to cause local commotions, and lost their lives and/or social status. Allama Iqbal was the genius who was insightful enough to inspire an academic route for Islamic conservation and revival. He persuaded Chaudhry Ghulam Ahmed Parwez, a scholar and civil servant, to prepare a dictionary of the key words/concepts in the Quran based on the language of the Arabs when Quran was revealed, and which corroborated with the modern Arabic dictionaries. Parwez spent over 50 years of his life not only compiling the dictionary (Lughatul Quran) but also collected Quranic verses subject-wise (Tubweebul Quran) and produced meanings of the Quran (Mufhoomul Quran) among other works. This single-handed effort gives him the unique honour to surpass any academic in Islamic history for over a millennium. The only unfortunate aspect is that 95% of his work is in Urdu and inaccessible to the world at large. Perhaps he expected too much from us or wanted someone else to translate those into English (and other languages).

The good news is that the two shining lights in modern Islam at present, both have their roots in Pakistan. I have already written about my friend Javed Ghamidi and his slow evolution towards the Quran. He could have been a world leader if his spoken English was as good as his Urdu. The other is the South Africa-based, Farid Esack, who acquired madrassa education in Karachi before achieving a PhD from England and postdoctoral studies in Germany. He has taught in New York, Cincinnati, and Cambridge before becoming a Professor at the University of Johannesburg, in South Africa. He has enriched his academic life by mixing it with secular activism and by becoming an administrator by serving as a Commissioner for Gender Equality, and founding organisation like “Call of Islam” and “Positive Muslims”. He has several books to his credit and was awarded the Order of Luthuli (South Africa) in 2018, for his brilliant contribution to academic research and to the fight against race, gender, class and religious oppression.

We obviously need many more rationalist Islamic academics and activists before Islam (read Muslims) can be revived. This cannot happen through guns and swords but by heavy investment in improving the quality (and quantity) of the mainstream modern education throughout the Muslim world. Meanwhile, there is one very interesting project really worth taking on as an emergency. Someone should step up and write a book on early Muslim history based entirely on the Quran and the live artefacts scattered throughout the world. The person must have a few pre-qualifications though: open mind, quality modern education, solid grip on English language (and some on Arabic), and money. The latter can be found but the former along with motivation are definitely the main ingredients for success. I am happy to contribute to the budget for this project and provide practical support (I did the same in a minor way with (late) K.K. Aziz’s work about Pakistan history).

I can propose two of the best possible supervisors, Prof. Akbar Ahmed & Prof. Mubarak Ali, for this valuable project. I also have a few remarkable candidates in mind who could actually carry out this distinguished work; one is a newly-wed academic based in Oxford with a strong family history of academia and the other is the Editor of this newspaper. My backup are two busy civil servants in Pakistan who are trying to save the nation from itself at the moment. Can anyone persuade these people (or others) to undertake this epic work which will not only help revive Islam and humanity but also ensure that the world will remember them forever? Destiny is knocking at your doors, ladies and gentlemen!

The writer is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Visiting Professor

Published in Daily Times, January 27th 2019.