The great irony of the predicament in which the world’s Muslims find themselves today is that those who speak in their name are, in the words of the late Eqbal Ahmed, an “armed minority.” The face of Islam that the west sees is not its true face. The fierce hate-laden invective that this minority and its implacable followers inflict on the world’s “infidels”, and those whom Osama bin Laden calls the “crusaders”, is foreign both to Islam’s spirit and the vast majority of its followers around the world. A small number of militants has hijacked Islam and pressed it into the service of a convoluted worldview.
It is this version of militant Islam that is projected on the world’s television screens and splashed across its newspapers. It is no wonder then that to the ordinary person in a western country, this brand of Islam appears as the only Islam there is.
When you point this out to an average American, Englishman or Italian, he feels justified in asking what prevents the majority of Muslims who are tolerant of other faiths from speaking up. Why have they abandoned the stage in favor of a militant and reactionary minority of religious zealots who not only advocate but practice violence, they ask. And that is a fair question. Increasingly, Muslims living in the west, no less than those living here, have come to realize that it is time they stood up and spoke with courage and conviction. If they allow themselves to remain confined to the corner to which the zealots have driven them, they will do irreparable damage to their religion and themselves.
Starting with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic “revolution” in Iran, the journey of militant Islam has taken us through the slaughterhouses of the FIS in Algeria and the medieval tyranny of Taliban Afghanistan. With the blowing up of the US embassies in East Africa and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the clock can be said to have come full circle. Because of a small number of misguided, ignorant men and their distorted understanding of Islam, which has a timeless message of peace and love, today the world’s one billion Muslims find themselves the object of hostility and distrust. I doubt if all the ill-wishers, enemies and detractors of Islam, both past and present, could have hit upon a better plan to isolate Muslims and turn the rest of the world against them than what Osama bin Laden, and those sharing his morbid thinking, have managed to do. It is time for the true and reasonable voice of the Muslims to be raised and heard.
There are enough Muslim scholars working and writing both here and in the west who have begun to do just that. One such person is our own Dr Riffat Hasan from Lahore who has been teaching at the University of Kentucky for several years. Recently, she seems to have had a run in with Dr Farhat Hashmi, she of the richly-endowed Al-Huda Centres and Asma Jehangir. What angered Dr Hashmi and those who share her retrogressive thinking was Riffat Hasan’s fresh and rational approach to Islam and its holy book.
In a recent interview, Riffat Hasan made a number of telling points on the present situation in which the Muslims of the world find themselves. She said the Muslim reluctance to start a debate had to do with the intellectual decadence that had set in over the years. The tradition of intellectual critique of Islam’s first 300 years had been lost. She said the middle of the Islamic community was occupied by a silent majority, adding, “This is where the moderates are; this is where the progressives are, and the place from where the answers are going to eventually come. Right now, this silent majority is in a state of paralysis and dormancy.”
Riffat Hasan’s position on the Holy Quran is worthy of note and answers many questions that people are often afraid to ask. She said her position on the Holy Quran was that it is a sacred text of divine origin but being a text it is made up of words and each word has a root and multiple meanings. “Theoretically it means that everything in the Quran is capable of being interpreted in many ways.” This, she explained, “involves a methodology called hermeneutics. In order to know the meaning of a word, we have to see what it meant in 7th century Hijaz, not what it means today.” She spoke of an “ethical criterion” which means that no Quranic text can be used as a means to perpetuate injustice in any way, since the God of Islam and the Holy Quran is a just God.
Riffat Hasan had some enlightening comments on the recent “epidemic” spread of the practice or fashion of women donning hijab. She said, “The word hijab means curtain. The law of hijab laid down in Surah Nur applies equally to men and women. ‘Lower your gaze and guard your modesty.’ The Quran puts a lot of emphasis on dignity, elevating human beings, calling them the children of Adam and putting them above the rest of Allah’s creations. (The Quranic injunction) is not restricted to the dress code, it includes the way you talk, walk and how you conduct yourself in public space. The message is to be mindful of your human dignity.”
Riffat Hasan explained that a major part of the Quran refers to the conflicts of that time, which are basically references and not principles. “They have to be read in a certain way and are meant for our instruction,” she added. One particular verse which has been put to increasing use recently to paint the Muslims as intolerant of the followers of other religions was explained thus by Dr Hasan, “Where it says in the Quran ‘Take not the unbelievers as your friends,’ today this has been turned into a principle. It is not a principle and was revealed in a certain context. How can such a principle be for all times? In several verses, Allah has referred to the Ahlal Kitab – people of the Book – and given them a lot of importance. People who pick Quranic verses out of context have twisted the verse. In any case, Jews and Christians are not unbelievers.” She went on to add that the Quranic reference to ‘ kafirin’ and ‘ munafiqin’ did not translate into Jews and Christians, a translation that has been superimposed upon these two words by the ignorant and the bigoted.
One can only wish more power to Riffat Hasan’s pen because hers is the kind of voice that the west, no less than Muslim peoples, needs to hear.
Dr. Riffat Hassan who is highlighted in the article is a member of the Editorial Board of THE JOURNAL OF RELIGION AND ABUSE. She is the founder of THE INTERNATIONAL NETWORK FOR THE RIGHTS OF FEMALE VICTIMS OF VIOLENCE IN PAKISTAN.
This article appeared on Feb.14, 2003, in The Friday Times, Lahore, Pakistan