The Point we always Evade1

Arun Shourie

'I think the ban should be lifted,' says Mushir-ul-Hasan, pro Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia", reported Sunday. 'I think,' Hasan told the correspondent, 'every person has a right to be heard and to be read.' He added that, as happens in all cases of this sort, banning Rushdie's book had given it greater notoriety and in addition given our country the image of being 'intolerant and undemocratic'. As such the ban in his view, the report said, "qualifies as an indefensible move".

Students of Jamia Millia Islamia paralysed the university. Liberals got up and acted, that is, they wrote a letter to the editor saying Hasan had a right to speak his mind. Hasan buckled, issuing three statements clarifying his position: he expressed 'sincere and profound regret over my remarks' and maintained that he had never wished to demand that the ban on Rushdie's book be lifted.

The liberals were at a loss for words. Now, none of us may sit in judgement on a man beleaguered. Anyone of us may react in the same way. Rushdie himself had felt compelled to announce his reconversion to being a Believer and to express regrets for the hurt the book had caused. The point at issue thus is not Hasan's courage but the pressure which the students have felt entitled to exert on him and how, even while castigating it as undemocratic, the liberals have flinched from talking about the set of beliefs which lead the protagonists to the conviction that they are entitled to bend another man, that they are entitled to silence him.

Two phases

Each time a controversy like this arises, and the facts are pointed out, we are told that actually Islam preaches tolerance and peace. Allah, we are reminded, told the Prophet, "Let there be no compulsion in religion; Truth stands out clear from error…" (Quran, 2.256); that He told him to "Invite (all) to the Way of Thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and persuade them in ways that are best and most gracious…" (Quran, 18.25); that He admonished Muslims, "And if ye catch them out, (in a controversy), catch them out of worse than they catch you out" and that the best course is to show 'for bearance" (18.126), "O, unbelievers", Allah urges Mohammed to tell them, "…to you your religion, and to me my religion" (109).

But the fact is that these conciliatory verses pertain to the earlier period when the Prophet was trying to persuade the various clans in Mecca, including those who made their living off the various idols in the Kaaba. Once he had to leave for Medina, and specially after he began welding the Arabs into a State, Allah commanded him to be harsh in the extreme. Reviewing the drastic change, and recalling the new commands to fight the unbelievers so that they either submitted or were put to death; the famous Iranian scholar Ali Dashti says in his Twenty Three Years: A study in the Prophethood of Mohammed, "Mohammed's announcement of this edict… indicates that with Islam in power, polite and rational discussion with dissentients was no longer deemed necessary. The language of future discourse with them was to be the language of the sword." "Mohammad is the Messenger of Allah", Allah proclaimed, "and those who are with him are hard against the unbelievers, merciful to one another…"(48.29). Allah repeatedly warned the faithful that many will say one thing in their presence and another when "they are alone with their evil". They shall spare nothing to ruin you, Allah warned the faithful, they yearn for you to suffer: "Hatred has already shown itself of their mouths, and what their breasts conceal is yet greater", He warned. "They but wish that ye should reject Faith as they do and be on the same footing (as them)," He warned. Do not take them as friends, He admonished, be harsh in dealing with them (for instance, Quran, 2.14-16, 3.118-120, 4.89, 4.140, 5.6O.)

"They swear by God that they said nothing (evil)," Allah pointed out in a vital verse that is sure to be cited in the present round, "but indeed they uttered blasphemy. And they did it after accepting Islam; and they meditated a plot which they are unable to carry out; this revenge of theirs was (their) only return for the country with which God and His Apostle had enriched them; if they repent, it will be best for them. But if they turn back (to their evil ways), Allah will punish them with a … penalty in this life and in the hereafter. They shall have none on earth to protect them or help them" (8.74). "O, Prophet", Allah therefore commanded, "strive hard against the unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell - an evil refuge indeed" (9.73).

How are Rushdie and Hasan - both Muslims, both whom Allah has enriched by His bounty of the one true faith - to be dealt with in terms of such commands? Where is the room in any of this for the principle liberals cherish, namely that, "Every person has a right to be heard and be read"?

The point is this: while liberals etc. always take comfort in the revelation Allah had sent down to the Prophet when the latter was yet alone and his followers few, and try to make out that a liberal Islam can be founded on these, Islam itself has been founded on the commandments to harshness which Allah set down once the Prophet had established himself in Medina. The entire history of Islamic rule bears testimony to this.

The Prophet's example

In instances such as those of Rushdie, the point is even sharper; there is in fact no room for relenting. And the reason for that is two fold. Islam is founded on, it revolves around the personality of the Prophet. Any thing that casts a shadow on that personality is therefore taken to undermine Islam. There was of course, as has been pointed out, an attempt - for instance by the Ashrite school, in particular by its great theologian, Al-Baqillani - to maintain that the central thing was the Revelation - the Quran - the one through whom it was made being of lesser importance. But it was soon evident how such a position would leave Islam vulnerable, and so most have insisted that the Prophet's conduct, motives, personality must not be called into question in any way. This position leaves no room for Rushdie.

But there is not just the negative point - if such licence is allowed in regard to the Prophet, Islam itself will be endangered - there is the positive example. The Prophet's life, what he said and did is the ideal example which every Muslim must aspire to follow - in every particular, and to the fullest extent.

Now, the Prophet himself was very particular about what people said about him. Upon conquering Mecca, for instance, the Prophet proclaimed an amnesty for all except six persons who, he ordered, must be killed wherever and whenever they were found: his previous scribe who had said that he had renounced Islam upon seeing that the Prophet altered the text of the Revelations at his - i.e. the scribe's - prompting (he was saved by his proximity to Othman, though against the Prophet's inclination); two slave girls who were reported to have sung satires about him, and their master etc. Similarly, Abu Afak was killed although he was well over a hundred years of age: the Prophet himself ordered the killing of this 'rascal' as he called Afak, as the latter had tried to make light of him. The killing of a man so old led a poetess - Asma B. Marwan - to compose verses criticising the Prophet. She too was therefore killed - "She was sleeping with her children about her," writes Maxime Rodinson in his well known biography of the Prophet. "The youngest, still at the breast, lay asleep in her arms. He (Umayr ibn Adi, who had been spurred by the Prophet's 'will no one rid me of this daughter of Marwan?') drove his sword through her, and in the morning he went to Mohammed. 'Messenger of God,' he said, 'I have killed her!' 'You have done a service to Allah and his Messenger, Umayr! was the reply…' These and other killings are listed in every canonical biography of the Prophet, they are listed among the expeditions of early Islam. As they originated from the Prophet whose words and deeds are the ideal which every Muslim must emulate, they constitute the norm. (To get the flavour of the Prophet's attitude to those who sought to mock him, the reader will do will to read one of the most revered and earliest biographies of the Prophet - Ibn Ishaq's Sirat Rasul Allah which is available in the translation of the great Islamicist, A Guillaume: The Life of Mohammed, Oxford University Press, Karachi, 1978, in particular, pp. 307-8, 384-9, 550-1, and 675-6 for the incidents mentioned above).

These examples were soon codified in treatises. Annemarie Schimmel, a diligent and also one of the most sympathetic scholars of Islam, summarizes in her And Mohammed is his Messenger the position as it came to be. She writes: "For how could one defame or slander a person whose name is mentioned close to that of God in the second half of the profession of faith? If someone should commit this sin, he has to be asked to return to Islam: if he refuses, he has to be put to death. Other authorities went further; the slanderer of the Prophet was declared to deserve immediate capital punishment, which could not be averted even by contrition. And indeed Islamic historians now and then report that someone was either executed legally or lynched by an enraged mob when he had been overheard slandering the Prophet. It is ironic that one of the greatest theologians in Islamic history, the medieval reformist Ibn Taimiyya, was sentenced to heavy punishment because of his alleged 'lack of veneration' for the Prophet when he spoke up against certain unhealthy exaggerations in the popular cult of the Prophet in Damascus, such as the veneration of his footprint…"

"Reports of Muhammad's own reactions to slander and insult are contradictory," Schimmel continues. "Many hadith emphasise the Prophet's mildness and generosity in such cases: others found it necessary to give a much harder picture of his reactions. An example of the latter is Ibn Taimiyya - once himself accused of lack of reverence for the Prophet! - who composed a special work with the telling title Aggaarim al-maeluul alaa shaatim ar-rasuul (the Sword Drawn against the Vilifier of the Prophet), in which he states 'whoever vilifies a prophet is to be killed and whoever vilifies his companions is to be flogged.' The latter sentence is of course directed against the Shiites, who curse the first three caliphs and other Companions…"

Freedom of speech in this setting? Taking back Khomeini's fatwa in view of such precedents? It is this central fact - that the only sort of freedom of speech which Islam sanctions is the freedom to laud it - which the liberals do not want to face. But unless they do so they will in each round be reduced to doing what they were to in this instance: writing a letter to the editor one day, and falling silent the next.

The Worsening Position

The situation in India is far worse than it is in other countries. The French Marxist scholar Maxime Rodinson's biography of the Prophet, Mohammed, is freely available abroad: its English edition is published by Penguin. It traces the revelations which appeared from time to time - specially the ones pertaining to personal law - to the personal dilemmas the Prophet was facing at that turn: such an exercise by an Indian scholar would be shouted down, and his book banned. Ali Dasthti's, Twenty Three Years to which I have referred earlier shows in graphic details how the Prophet's attitude to one thing after another - to power, to the Jews, to those who did not fall in line, to women - changed after his position in Medina became secure. It is freely available abroad, the English version having been published by George Allen & Unwin. The same book, had it been written by an Indian, would have called forth demands for a ban, demands which would certainly have prevailed.

And the situation in India has been getting worse over the years. Imagine one of us - who happens to be a Hindu - writing today, "Excepting our own almost all the other great religions in the world are inevitably connected with the life or lives of one or more of their founders. All their theories, their teachings, their doctrines, and their ethics are built round the life of a personal founder, from whom they get their sanction, their authority, and their power: and strangely enough, upon the historicity of the founder's life is built, as it were, all the fabric of such religions. If there is one blow dealt to the historicity of that life, as has been the case in modern times with the lives of almost all the so-called founders of religions; we know that half of the details of such lies is not now seriously believed in, and that the other half is seriously doubted - if this becomes the case, if that rock of historicity, as they pretend to call it, is shaken and shattered the whole building tumbles down, broken absolutely, never to regain its lost status…" There would be a howl - "fascism," "cultural imperalism" - and demands that the book be kept out of schools and universities. Yet the passage is Swami Vivekananda's - and he makes the point repeatedly in almost identical words.

Imagine a scholar today referring to the "obvious defects of the Koran," to the "crudities of the Koran". Imagine a scholar casting doubts on the revelations which came to the Prophet characterizing the claim to having received them to be a "doubious claim," and saying about such claims, "Such experiences always result from cerebral disorder which takes place whenever the prescribed practices are carried too far. Fixed ideas, however fantastic or imaginary, may appear to take concrete form if the mind is focused on them so as to exclude the consciousness of other sanctions. A scientific study of the psychology of seers reveals the fact that 'inspiration' or any other 'religious experience' is the result of the pathological state brought about either accidentally or purposely through prescribed practices." Imagine the scholar going further and writing that when Muhammad himself doubted the "psycho-pathological symptoms" and the "the worldly wise" Khadija, who stepped in and "was quick to appreciate the spiritual value of the mental aberrations of her husband. She persuaded him that his visions were not signs of insanity, but were messengers of God. Taking advantage of his psycho-pathological state of suggestibility, she could easily make him 'see' an angel entering the room to deliver to him the Message of God…" Imagine a scholar writing this today - the book could be pounded on, effigies of the author burned…

Yet the sentences are from that most effusive - and one of the shallowest - apologies of Islam: M N Roy's The Historical Role of Islam. In brief, the situation has worsened over the decades. No one today could write even this much, and it is only the good fortune that our people do not read these older books which allows them to continue in circulation.

The point about Khomeini's fatwa is that it has worked: it has intimidated into silence scholars and writers all over the world. And the agitation against Hasan will work too: it took three years for a Muslim scholar to say as much - or, as little - as he did. It will take twice that many years for another one to say half as much.

And no one has contributed to making these things work, to smothering free inquiry and speech in this vital sphere as the liberals and secularists. We supported the ban on Rushdie's book at that time, writes a leading commentator, as we knew the reactions the book would provoke.

Does that "prudence" not go to the fundamentalists to work up a fury each time they want to have their way? Is that not what they are doing now?



1 This syndicated article appeared on 18 March 1992 in The Observer of Business and Politics, New Delhi. It also appeared in many other newspapers and periodicals all over India.


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