No matter which way Indian politics goes from here, the inflection point will be India’s response to the Muslim countries’ protests at an unseemly remark on Prophet Muhammad by now-suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma and expelled leader Naveen Kumar Jindal. Objectionable as the remarks have been, it’s not a pretty sight either to see the resurgent India being bullied by a caucus of moneyed countries. It recalls to mind the capitulation of the Indian government before a cabal of regressive clerics on the Shah Bano issue in the mid 1980s. That the Muslims could still make the Indian State bend to their whims caused a deep resentment in the majority community.
Much of the politics has since been shaped by that fateful event. It had a long gestation period, though. The current crisis might have a quicker outcome since it stirs the historical memory of invasion, conquest and subjugation. In a letter to C.R. Das, Lala Lajpat Rai had written that he was not afraid of the seven crore Indian Muslims (their total strength in the 1920s) but “the seven crores in Hindustan plus the armed hordes of Afghanistan, Central Asia, Arabia, Mesopotamia and Turkey, will be irresistible”. Now, more than ever, the imputation of extra territorial allegiance would stick on the Indian Muslims.
Muslims’ duality over what’s blasphemous
The unfortunate remark is not India’s official position. As an aside one may ask what the official position of these Islamic kingdoms, emirates and autocracies with regard to other religions is, and how their preaching reflects in their practice.
What if the Hindus too had the concept of blasphemy and were equally sensitive about what they hold sacred? Could the social media still be splattered with the meme fest recently witnessed about the Shivling?
The mainstream literary corpus and oral tradition of Islam is full of vituperation against Hinduism’s mythology, beliefs and rituals, particularly the strand of polytheism and idol worship. While the Muslims could disparage other religions, others couldn’t return the favour.
It’s important to ask if a religion is protected from the kind of criticism its followers level against other religions. For example, if one calls other religions irrational, unscientific and superstitious, are they prepared to apply the same rational and scientific criteria to evaluate their own? More importantly, if one vilifies another religion by highlighting those aspects of it that do not align with today’s morality, are they ready to use the same yardstick to judge the historicity of their own religion as right, wrong, moral and immoral?
One could say the language of their religion is allegorical, that reading it literally would distort the meaning, that everything part of that religion had a specific historical and cultural context, that those contexts should be kept in mind while deciding the relevance of a particular event. But, would they extend the same latitude to other religions?
“Revile not those unto whom they pray other than Allah lest they should ignorantly revile Allah in enmity”. (Quran, 6:108) Thus, the Quran forbids it followers from criticising other religions if they want their own religion not to be criticised. In another verse, 29:46, they are told, “And argue not with the People of the Scriptures unless it is in the best manner”. According to verse 28:55, they are supposed to bow out of a frivolous conversation, but without any rancour.
This is the normative side of Islam, but Muslims have honoured the prescribed etiquettes of debate and discussion more in the breach than the observance. Not surprising, though. Islam soon acquired an empire and ended up becoming an imperial ideology. The political supremacy was the proof of its truth. It couldn’t but be on a pedestal from where to talk down to all other religions. The imperial rule invested Islam with entitlements which still endure. It also imposed disabilities on other religions, which endure as well.
Today’s televangelism and vitriolic debates on TV are reminiscent of the pre-Independence culture of religious polemics, known as Munazira, which were nothing but vicious slanging matches. They so vitiated the inter-community relations as to lead to episodic riots and murders which eventually culminated in the holocaust that accompanied India’s Partition.
These debates could go irreparably wrong as it recently did. It doesn’t augur well for the country. Especially, the Muslims can ill-afford it. Their purported representatives on TV screen, caught in the time warp as they are, embarrass the community by bringing into open the popular common sense regarding inter-religious issues.
Views on Prophet’s life change with time
Our religions are old. They represent the moral standards of their times. Our relation with them is spiritual, not moral, since our contemporary morality is a big advance over them. Judging the past by today’s morality is as problematic as applying the morality of the past to the present society.
Prophet Muhammad’s marriage with Aisha, who according to Sahih al-Bukhari, was only nine years old when she came to live with him, had not been a subject of controversy until late 20th century. In his own lifetime, the marriage that set the tongues wagging was the one with Zaynab bint Jahsh, who had been married to the Prophet’s adopted son, Zaid. In the Arabian society, an adopted son was no different from a biological one.
Later, the 19th century orientalist critique of Islam focussed on the Prophet’s polygamy, which, according to the monogamous Christian ethic and the value attached to celibacy, seemed un-prophetic and impious. It may seem strange today, but the orientalist scholars who castigated the Prophet for polygamy rationalised his marriage to Aisha as the early onset of puberty in the hot clime of desert. Even by the 19th century standards of Europe, menarche readied a girl for marriage, which was not to be deferred much, and the age compatibility was not an important criterion in seeking a match particularly if the groom was of high station.
It was only when Europe woke up to its problem of paedophilia, and began judging couples by difference in their age that this aspect of Prophet Muhammad’s life came in for a sharp criticism, and many Muslim scholars also began rummaging the sources to prove that Aisha’s age was 19, not 9, when her marriage with the Prophet was consummated. As morals change, some other aspects of Muhammad’s life will come under scrutiny. His marriage with Aisha hasn’t ever been problematic. However, if Muslims were to argue in favour of child marriage under Sharia and Personal Law, it would become problematic, and that’s the nub.
Muhammad’s life has been a subject of more threadbare discussion than most historical figures. Modern Muslim scholars, beginning from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Syed Ameer Ali in the 19th century to Jonathan AC Brown in the 21st, have attended to the criticisms in the same manner as they came — academic. A violent display of hurt sentiments is a sign of intellectual inadequacy. I use the term ‘sentiment’ rather than ‘emotion’ to underline the cultivated nature of these expressions.
Ibn Khaldun Bharati is student of Islam, and looks at Islamic history from an Indian perspective. He tweets at @IbnKhaldunIndic. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)