Saturday, February 16, 2008

Shed prejudice against Islam

Khushwant Singh
Khushwant Singh

Prejudice is poison. Unless purged out of one's mind in early stages, it can spread like cancer and make one incapable of judging right from wrong. Of many kinds of prejudices, the worst is to believe that one's own religion is superior to all others, which may be tolerated but never taken seriously or accepted as equally valid as one's own. The most misunderstood of the major religions of today is Islam which, after Christianity, is the second most widely practised religion in the world. It also gains more converts than any of the others. Prejudice against Islam was spread in Christiandom from the time Muslims gained dominance in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. Christian crusaders failed in their mission to crush it in its homeland but continued to vilify its founder Muhammed. The emergence of militant Islamic groups like the Al-Qaida and the Taliban gave them reasons to do so. The attack on the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001, provided fresh ammunition to vilifiers of Islam.

The two principal contentions are that Islam was spread by the sword and that its founder Prophet was not the paradigm of virtue that Muslims make him out to be. It can be proved by historical evidence that Islam was not forced upon the people; it was readily accepted by millions because it offered them new values — equality of mankind as one fraternity and rights to women unheard of during those times. In countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, Islam was not forced on the population by Muslim invaders but by Muslim missionaries. Muslims are extremely sensitive about criticism of their Prophet. A popular adage in Persian is: Ba khuda diwaana basho, ba Mohammed hoshiar (say what you like about God, but beware of what you say about Muhammed).

They regard him as the most perfect man that ever trod the earth—a successor of Adam, Moses, Noah, Abraham and Jesus Christ. He was the last and the seal of Prophets. If you honestly want to see how Muslims see him, you owe it to yourselves to take a good look at his life and teachings he claimed had been revealed to him by God. It would be wrong to judge him by the doings of the Al-Qaida and the Taliban or the fatwas periodically pronounced by Ayatollahs and half-baked mullahs. You do not judge Hinduism of the Vedas and Upanishads by the doings of Hindus who, in the name of Hindutva, destroy mosques, murder missionaries and nuns, vandalise libraries and works of art. You do not judge the teachings of the Sikh Gurus by the utterances of Bhindranwale and murders of innocent people by his hooligans.

Likewise, judge Muhammed by what he taught and stood for and not by what his so-called followers do under his name. Muhammed was born in Mecca in 570 AD. He lost both his parents while still a child and was brought up by his grandfather and uncle. He managed the business of a widow whom he later married. She bore him six children. He took no other wife till after she died. He was 40 when the revelations started coming to him while he was in trance.

They proclaimed the new Messiah. Such revelations kept coming off and on, at times dealing with problems at hand, at others with matters spiritual. They were memorised or written down by his admirers and became the Koran, which means recitation. It should be kept in mind that Muhammed was not preaching ideas of his own creation but only reiterating most of what was in the Judaic creed. Allah was the Arabic name for God before him. So were Islam (surrender) and Salam (peace). Mecca was the main market city of the Bedouin tribes. Kaaba, with a huge courtyard and the monolith, was the black meteorite embedded in it. Tribes gathered there during two pilgrimages—the bigger Haj and the minor Umra—offered camels as sacrifice and circumambulated in the Kaaba. He accepted Judaic traditions regarding food which is halaal (lawful) and haraam (forbidden, such as pig meat), names of the five daily prayers and circumcision of male children.

Muhammed only asserted the oneness of God, which did not accept any equals such as proliferated in the Kaaba in the forms of stone goddesses worshipped by different tribes. This was unacceptable to God and Muhammed was his human messenger to remind people of these truths. He never forced people to accept his faith and indeed quoted Allah's message of freedom and faith. "There must be no coercion in matters of faith—la ikra f'il deen. Again, if God had so willed, He would have made you all under one single command; but He willed otherwise in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed into you. Vie, then with one another, in doing good works."

As might have been expected, Muhammed's mission roused fierce hostility. Many attempts were made to assassinate him but he had miraculously escaped. Ultimately, in 622 AD he was advised to flee from Mecca to Medina. This is known as Hijrat (emigration) and recognised as the beginning of the Muslim calendar. Meccans made a few attempts to capture Medina but were repulsed with slaughter. Muslim armies led by Muhammed died in Medina in 622 AD. The Arabian peninsula was united as a confederacy of different tribes under the banner of Islam. Most of the ill-found criticism of Muhammed is directed towards the number of women he married after the death of his first wife Khadijah.

It has to be seen in the perspective of the Arabian society of the time. Tribes lived on warring against each other and looting caravans. There were heavy casualties of males, creating serious gender imbalances. Widows and orphans of men killed had to be provided homes and sustenance. Otherwise, they took to prostitution or beggary. Instead, they were given protection by being taken in marriages. Also, matrimonial alliances were a good way of creating bonds between different tribes. Muhammed did nothing not acceptable to his people. He went further. He was the first teacher to proclaim that the best union was a monogamous marriage, and fixed the outside limit to four, provided a man could keep all of them equally happy—which was most unlikely.

To make a beginning in clearing your mind of anti-Muslim prejudices, I suggest you read Karen Armstrong's Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time (Harper Collins). Armstrong is today's leading writer on comparative religions. She is not a Muslim.