The Tribune - Spectrum

, July 21, 2002

Was the Prophet misunderstood?
M.S.N. Menon

THE Arabs had a multiplicity of gods and goddesses. Hence the Arab saying: When you enter an Arab village, swear by the god of the village. Al-Azraqui says: There was an idol in every Arab home. More often, of goddesses.

Allah was the tribal god of the powerful Qurayshite tribe, which played a major role in the rise of the Arab state. They were wealthy traders based at Mecca. This reminds one of the rich merchants of Pataliputra (Patna) who backed the religion of Mahavira.

Islam was a revolt against the plethora of gods and goddesses among the Arabs. "Proclaim to all: God is one," exhorted the Prophet of Islam. This was his central message to his people and to the humanity.

There were about 360 idols at the Kaa’ba alone in Mecca. The Prophet had them all destroyed. And he ordered the destruction of all other idols.

Was he opposed to idols? Or was he against the multiplicity of gods and goddesses? Surely, he was against the multiplicity of gods and goddesses? This being so, he had to destroy the idols. And the memory of the gods and goddesses, too. There was no other way.


But was the Prophet influenced by the Jewish obsession against idols? One cannot be sure. But it is curious that the Arabs continued to make idols for 1300 years even after it was banned. This shows that they had no hatred against idols. The ban on idols must have come for other reasons.

The Prophet of Islam made few other changes in the religious beliefs of the Arabs. Allah, the tribal god of the Qurayshites, remained, the black stone remained (it is said it radiates a power), the annual pilgrimage remained, the animal sacrifice remained, the stoning of the pillar, the symbol of the devil, remained, in short, most of the pagan rituals remained. Proves that his revolt was not against pagan practices. His revolt was against the worship of so many gods.

But I want to raise two pertinent questions: One: Was the Prophet’s opposition directed at images and idols or was it to the multiplicity of gods and goddesses? I believe it was directed at the multiplicity of gods and goddesses. Which is why he had them all physically destroyed so that there would be no trace of them left. And no memory, either. Two: But after having ordered the destruction of all idols in order to eliminate their memory, could the Prophet have permitted the people to make idols of Allah? It does not sound logical, for it could have encouraged the people to go back to their old ways and old gods. Which explains why the Prophet opposed the making of all idols, including that of Allah.

Idols are no more in vogue among Muslims. But a kind of idolatry has grown around objects and symbols. For example, around the Kaa’ba, the Koran, calligraphy of sacred sayings and tombs of saints (which are for all practical purposes places of worship.) As for verbal imageries, logic is against images and idols. And yet Islam provides a profusion of verbal imageries. The Sufis say: "If you want to picture God, picture the perfect man".

On the worship of the Koran, Vivekananda says: "It is the hardiest of all idols." The Muslims go around the black stone seven times and kiss it each time they make a round. What is this but reverence of a stone?

The Koran can hardly be said to have furnished the Muslim with material for a doctrine on God, says a Western authority on Islam. It refers to God by various names. Muslim theologians paint word pictures of God to describe the nature of the divine.

The Koran contains 99 names of God. Remembrance of these names (Dhikr) plays an important role in popular Muslim piety. These help the Muslims to form images of Allah in the mind. Descriptions such as: God "sees everything", "hears everything", that he is full of "mercy", supremely "powerful", "generous", "just" and "beautiful" — all these are human attributes and leave in the mind of the faithful images of a benign being.

The Mutasilas regarded these figurative expressions as anthropomorphic concessions to human limitations. The point is: the God of Islam is anthropomorphic. He is seen in human terms. Orthodoxy attributes seven divine attributes:Power, will, knowledge, hearing, speech, life.

Islam failed to go beyond a god with form to one without form and attributes. One should have expected it to do so if it was really opposed to all forms.

To see God, a Muslim need see only God’s creations, say Muslim scholars. This is yet another concession. The Prophet himself says: "revile not the world, for God is the world," This is pantheism.

Islamic mysticism has produced beautiful and eloquent poetry, full of metaphors, that vividly portray the mystic’s understanding and experience of God. The entire Sufi theology is based on anthropomorphic conceptions of God. Orthodox Islam looks down on this.

Thus, orthodox Islam considers music as a "disturbance" to prayer. But Jalal-ud-din Rumi, the great Sufi poet and mystic, says music is a bridge between heaven and earth. Similarly, he says dancing is the nearest way to God even though it is frowned upon by the orthodox. Islam is not a single stream. Many streams have flowed into it.

For imageries (verbal, above all) there are few to equal the Sufis. Rumi says: "At one time, our home was in heaven; there we had companionship of the angels. Let us go back to our abode." Perhaps Sufism is the best bridge between Islam and other religions of the world.

Ultimately, if Muslim theologians find no objection to the veneration of the black stone in Mecca by Muslims, then they should have no objection to the veneration of the Shivalinga at Kasi by the Hindus.

To conclude:it is time for the Muslim scholars to ask: was the Prophet misunderstood?Was he against the multiplicity of gods or against the idols? Or was he against both? The matter calls for an explanation.

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