Islamic perspective

Islam - the ultimate vision

Every religion has its vision, I would say visions. Religion is a subjective thing, an inner experience. Thus each follower can have his/her own vision realized through one's religion - born in or acquired.

Thus it will not be wrong to say that there are as many visions of a religion as its followers. But this again is an idealistic statement. Each follower does not care to evolve his/her vision in life.

More often than not, people follow religion mechanically. No wonder then, that, every religion, however throbbing with life or deeply committed to certain values, is soon transformed into a set of fixed rituals. Also, age old socio-cultural traditions are also absorbed and the revolutionary potential of the religion is lost only to be rediscovered occasionally by one or the other radical follower.

Every great religion - Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism - had a great reformist thrust. Their founders were deeply disturbed by social conditions around them and were inspired by an ultimate vision to reform the society. Some, like Buddha and Mahavir Jain, drew their inspiration through the process of deep reflection lasting over several years and getting enlightened in the process, others got their ultimate vision through revelation like the Prophet of Islam. But one thing was common among these great religious thinkers - they were dissatisfied with the state of affairs they were born in and had a deep inner urge to set things right.

These religious thinkers were born in certain socio-historical conditions and their ultimate visions could not escape deep imprint of these conditions. Thus each vision while being transcendent was also limited by spacio-temporal frame. That explains specificity of each religion and its vision. These specificities should not lead to irreconcilable differences.

They should be appreciated for their creativity. The human potential for creativity - theological and otherwise - is immense, almost unlimited. Even in the same given circumstances, two religious visions may not be same, not even similar. Each thinking mind imparts its own print, apart from the given circumstances.

Each major religious tradition gets subdivided into a number of traditions. Thus every religion has multiple visions while each vision claims to be closest to the original vision of the founder. No major religion has escaped this fate. These subdivisions should not be derided. They too have added to the richness of theological thinking. Each sect claims to be the sole true interpreter of the original vision and thus it condemns all other sects as false. One must come out of this frame of mind. One must realize the theological creativity and richness of every sect.

World worth living

Each religious tradition laid emphasis on certain values: Hinduism on non-violence, Buddhism on compassion, Jainism on non-possession, Christianity on love and Islam on equality and Justice. All these values, a moment's reflection would show, are complementary to each other. It is these values together which can create the ultimate vision. A world without non-violence, compassion, love, equality and justice would not be worth living.

These values, most fundamental for a humane society, were important tools for the founder of great religions to create a world worth living. It is unfortunate that these values were relegated to background, if not altogether forgotten, in every major religious tradition. Instead, rituals, shorn of their original significance, constituted core of religion. These rituals became significant for every religious tradition, representing a demise of the ultimate vision.

I am not suggesting that rituals have no significance today. Rituals in every religious tradition were signifiers of the core values of its ultimate vision. But when vested interests who came to control religious establishments delinked these rituals from the ultimate vision, they lost their value and were reduced to some mechanical operations.

The faithfuls who only followed - in many cases they were forbidden to think - performed these rituals without ever understanding its linkages with a fundamental vision. These rituals can come to life only when linked to the ultimate vision the founder had. These rituals today are more symbolic of ones culture and its richness rather than the values and visions.

I would like to illustrate the point about rituals from my faith tradition, Islam. The most fundamental ritual is salah (i.e. prayer). Islamic prayer is the most fundamental to the value-system Islam emphasizes. In fact, it signifies Islam's ultimate vision. Islam wants to create a society based on equality and justice tempered with compassion.

The Islamic prayer has been devised to infuse this spirit among the faithfuls. The first words of call to the prayers are Allah O'Akbar i.e. the God is Greatest. These words have their own meaning and significance. If Allah is the greatest, a faithful should not bow down before any other power. Bowing before any other power will signify bowing before tyranny, exploitation and arrogance.

Allah is the ultimate justice (Allahu 'adil) and hence bowing down before Him is bowing down before justice and raising ones head against oppression and exploitation. Allah is compassionate and merciful (al-Rahman al Rahim). He is ultimate in mercy and compassion and one bowing down before Him would bow his/her head before mercy and compassion and would never bow before cruelty and hard heartedness. Thus the word Allahu O'Akbar negates all that is unjust and devoid of mercy and compassion. One who worships Allah worships justice, mercy and compassion.

All inclusive values

Again these values of justice, mercy and compassion are all inclusive, not confined to the faithfuls alone. Imam Raghib,the great Qur'anic lexicographer maintains that Rahman is all inclusive and that Allah's Rahmah (mercy) embraces both believers and un-believers. Thus it will be seen that the Qur'anic values are inclusive, not exclusive.

Another important act during Islamic prayer is to stand in one line be he highest of high or lowest of low. This clearly signifies that Allah recognizes no social hierarchy and all human beings are equal before Him, whatever their colour, language or territorial origin or whatever their social status. No language or colour is superior to the other, all languages and colours are signs of Allah.

“And of His signs”, says the Qur'an, is “the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Surely there are signs in this for the learned.” (30:22). Thus with these words the Qur'an wipes out all distinctions between one human being and the other, be this distinction on the basis of language or race or colour. Any worshiper of Allah who perpetrates these distinctions is not worthy of worshiping Him.

Again, according to the Qur'an, it is not the mode of worshiping which is ultimate but excelling each other in above virtues (Khairat) which is fundamental. Thus the Qur'an does not lay emphasis on the mode of worshiping Allah but on cultivating the virtues whose ultimate representative is Allah. Thus the Qur'an proclaims, “For every one is a direction in which he turns, so vie with one another in good works.” (2:148). A great Sufi saint of 14th century India, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, referring to this verse used to say that there are as many ways of worshiping Allah as the grains of sand.

A Muslim also recites certain surahs in his/her prayers. These surahs also give an important message of social significance. The Quran's ultimate vision is to usher in a just and egalitarian society. This is possible only when no one in the society accumulates wealth for ones own benefit. Concentration of wealth not only strengthens oppressive and exploitative structures in the society but distorts the entire value-system and deprives life of any transcendental meaning. All efforts are then concentrated on accumulation of wealth as the ultimate goal of life.

The Qur'an thus considers accumulation of wealth a source of great evil. The Qur'an condemning accumulation of wealth warns the believers, “Woe to every slanderer, defamer who amasses wealth and counts it. He thinks that his wealth will make him abide. Nay, he will certainly be hurled into the crushing disaster. And what will make thee realize what the crushing disaster is? It is the Fire kindled by Allah, which rises over the hearts, surely it is closed in on them, in extended columns.” (Chapter 104).

Just distribution of wealth

This surah 104 is recited every day in prayer by the Muslims. Its significance cannot be lost on the believer if he/she takes prayers in the same spirit in which it was designed by the founder. Just distribution of wealth in society is very central to the Qur'anic teachings. It is not without meaning that salah (prayer) in Qur'an everywhere has been juxtaposed with zakah (i.e. obligatory levy for the poor, the needy, the orphans, the widows, the indebted, the manumission of slaves and needy travellers). No Muslim prayer can be complete without zakah.

The Qur'an also requires the faithfuls to spend surplus ('afw) for helping weaker sections of society after meeting ones' own basic needs(2:219). Thus the Qur'an does not approve of accumulation of wealth on one hand, and luxurious ways of life on the other. Both corrode all the higher values in life. Both rob life of all meaning except instant pleasure. And a meaningful life is much more than instant pleasure.

The ultimate vision of Islam, as per the Qur'an and the Shari'ah, does not approve of consumerism of modern capitalist society. The capitalist values are totally alien to Islam. Capitalism and capitalist values are in fact alien to all religions which stress one or the other set of humanist values. No truly religious person will approve of capitalist values which are totally negative: production only for profit and greed. Capitalism encourages exploitation as it leads to greater accumulation. In a capitalist system one gains at the cost of others. High pressure advertising is used to create false needs. It is greed, not need, which is central to capitalist mode of production.

Religion, on the other hand, encourages need-based economy. Buddhism and Islam both stress the middle path. There is great wisdom in adopting the middle path, avoiding extremes at both ends. Extremity, even if it be in asceticism, is negative for growth of humanity and human values. Asceticism only leads to neglecting all corporeal demands. The prophet is reported to have said “there is no asceticism in Islam.” The Qur'an also describes the Islamic community as “ummatan wastan” i.e. a community following the middle path. Edward William Lane, an Arabic-English lexicographer, describes “ummat wasat” as meaning a just, equitable or good nation.

Thus Islam neither promotes asceticism nor consumerism. Both produce negative effects and hence must be avoided. Its ultimate vision is of a just and equitable society wherein the weaker sections would not suffer and people would not be greedy and grabbing as in a capitalist society. Similarly, though Islam accepts right to private property but does not make this right absolute. If the public welfare demands curtailing this right, it can be. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah, a noted theologian of 13-14 century, also maintained that public welfare has precedence over private and individual welfare.

Welfare of weaker sections

The welfare of weaker sections of society is so central to Islamic theology that a revealed chapter of the Qur'an even rejects a believer's prayer if the person does not take care of them (the weaker sections) and does not spare a portion of his/her wealth for them. This chapter says, “Hast thou seen him who belies religion? That is one who is rough to the orphan, and urges not the feeding of the needy. So woe to the praying ones, who are unmindful of their prayer! Who (pray ) to be seen. And refrain from acts of kindness.” (107).

Thus the above Qur'anic chapter which is also recited almost daily by the faithfuls in their prayers is quite emphatic about welfare of weaker sections being quite central to the Islamic society. Also, in yet another surah which is also generally recited in prayers deep concern is shown for the poor and needy. It calls those needy as lying in the dust, i.e. the most wretched of the society. And those who disbelieve in these signs of Allah (which include the wretched of the earth). “On them is fire closed over.” (see chapter 91:15 to 20).

Thus it will be seen that Islamic prayer salah is not a mere ritual to be mechanically performed. Every prayer is a renewal of commitment to the poor, needy and other weaker sections of society. Every prayer must create a strong inner urge in the hearts of those who pray to commit themselves to all such programmes and projects directed at removal or ameliorating the lot of the poor and the needy.

However, Islamic prayer too has been reduced to mere ritual. There are number of reasons. Firstly, the vested interests want Islam's commitment to poor, exploited and other weaker sections of society to be overlooked. Such a commitment will seriously harm the interests of these rulers and ruling classes. The Islamic societies are as much hierarchical as any other society. There is as much injustice an exploitation in these societies as in any other.

The differences in income and wealth are not less striking either. The rich Muslims are as insensitive to the sufferings of the poor and needy as others. Even zakah is not honestly paid to ameliorate sufferings of the poor. Thus Islamic societies are stratified and stagnant.

Thus it will be seen that the radical thrust of Islamic prayer has been totally lost. It is performed merely as a mechanical exercise and even without knowing what one is reciting from the holy Qur'an. Millions of Muslims do not know the Arabic language and all prayers are said in that language. The 'Ulama resist any effort to render prayers in local languages. The Qur'an's translation was also not allowed in other languages for long. It was only in last one century that the Qur'an was widely translated into several languages of the world.

The same can be said of other rituals like fasting and Haj. These rituals are no less mechanically performed. Their spiritual and liberative contents have been totally lost. It is like in any other religion. Muslims cannot claim any superiority in this respect.

There is a question of freedom and religious beliefs. No ultimate vision of a religious society can be complete without discussing the question of freedom of human conscience. Generally it is maintained that one is bound by ones faith and its injunctions and a faithful is not allowed to exercise freedom in religious matters.

As far as Islam is concerned the 'Ulama maintain that all Shari'ah injunctions are obligatory. There can be no change and no freedom to reinterprete. One must unquestioningly obey these injunctions. Thus unquestioning obedience called taqlid is obligatory for all Muslims.

However, my ultimate vision of an Islamic society considers freedom of conscience absolutely necessary. Unquestioning obedience to religious dogmas as evolved during early Islamic period would bring about stagnation. No society which is stagnant can be capable of an encounter with truth.

Truth is a value as well as conformity with empirical fact. Truth ceases to be living if it looses touch with empirical reality. Moreover, a commitment to a cause can be meaningful only with total freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience cannot be compromised if one wishes to retain ones sensitivity to changing reality all around.

The Qur'an also declares freedom of conscience in no uncertain terms. It says, “There is no compulsion in religion the right way is indeed clearly distinct