The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, June 8, 2003

Understanding the spirit of Islam
L. H. Naqvi

On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam
by Asghar Ali Engineer. Sterling, New Delhi.
Pages 220. Rs 400.

ISLAM is the most reviled religion. At the global level it is projected as a religion of violence, hate and civil strife. In the domestic context it is a religion of a category of people who are described as "mlechha"—one who is outside the recognised Indian religious and social structures. An Indian Muslim is the very epitome of sin!

So where does one begin when one wants to explain to the world at large and the ill-informed section in India that Islam does not support violence or the spreading of hatred among communities or families? The basic purpose of the faith, revealed through Prophet Mohammad 14 centuries ago, was to end civil strife among the constantly quarrelling Arab tribes. They had 360 gods. The Quran gave them one faceless God. They fought among themselves to assert the superiority of one tribe over another. Islam gave them the concept of human brotherhood to make them live in peace as friends and neighbours.

One need not even try to explain that Muslims are not "mlechha". Because the section of the Indian people that coined this expression, that was given an exalted position in Hindi literature during the period of Aurangzeb, are not interested in accepting that the basic purpose of all religions is to spread peace and harmony.


At the global level Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein have been projected as the contemporary face of the faith, which was described by G. B. Shaw as the best religion with the worst followers. Islam and terrorism, as presented by the western media, are the two sides of the same coin. If you are a terrorist you are a Muslim, and if you are a Muslim you are a terrorist.

In the Indian context to be a Muslim means the right to have four wives. And their personal laws are projected as a threat to national unity.

It is a depressing scenario. Who wants to understand the basic tenets of other people’s religions? Communal harmony functions provide the best example of the insular approach of even those who want to promote the concept of respect for all religions. The Hindu panellist speaks about the role of his religion in promoting social harmony. Sikh, Muslim and Christian speakers project the compassionate face of their faiths. Can the trumpeting of the virtues of your faith help promote communal harmony?

Welcome Asghar Ali Engineer. He has at least had the courage of conviction to share with those who want to be informed about the most controversial faith of the present century his understanding of Islam as a religion of peace. Engineer is not a routine armchair commentator. He has been condemned and assaulted for daring to lead a movement for reforms within the Bohra community.

The book On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam is certainly not going to make non-Muslims shed their internalised prejudice for the faith that is as simple and as pure as the one that salutes the Creator as "Satyam, Shivam, Sundram". He is the truth, the benefactor and the beautiful. Translate this Sanskrit reference to the Supreme Being into Arabic and you may find many a Muslim utter "Alhamd-ul-Illah" (Allah be praised) in acknowledgment.

Engineer, through Quranic references, has discussed the concept of capital punishment, secularism, democracy, compassion and the essence of Islam. However, to use an Americanism, the book is not an "easy read". The Roman transliteration of the Arabic verses, to explain Islam’s position on several social, political and ethical issues, somewhat retards flow.

The non-academics who want to understand what "this fuss is all about" in the domestic context and also in the context of the American propaganda may find the Arabic verses in Roman script, jumping out of every page, a "put off". The purpose of educating the section of the Muslim population who only passively belong to the faith, as also the non-Muslims, would have been better achieved by merely quoting the authentic English translation of the verses.

In chapter nine he has discussed at great length his views "on developing theology of peace in Islam". Does Islam really need to develop a theology of peace to counter the wrong projection of the faith by the various jehadi groups? The answer is a firm no. The essence of Islamic theology is to evolve a climate of peace and brotherhood. It emphasises the importance of giving "to you your religion, to me mine", for achieving universal peace and brotherhood. The theology of peace already exists in every page of the Quran and the utterings of the Prophet of Islam. It needs to be enforced, not developed. If the jehadis are not stopped, they will destroy it; and like the Bohra clergy force their own version of Islam on the pain of death.