A soldier rediscovers Islam
Brig FB Ali in a more just society would have been the commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army, but instead he was made to serve time and forced to flee the country he served and he loves. He has been living in Canada and you will meet few people with a clearer understanding of things and a more principled outlook on life. He is also a superb writer. In another dimension of time, had he become what Gen Musharraf is today, he would have written a far better book, which would also have had the added virtue of being entirely truthful.
Brig Ali recently wrote a paper he called Rediscovering Islam. He sent it to some of his friends, but given the situation the Muslims are in today, it deserves to be read by many, many more. Hence this column. What follows is FB Ali’s, not mine, but it is an edited version of what he wrote. He begins: ‘It is necessary that we Muslims face up to the reality that the Islam that we profess, practise and preach today is not working. And has not worked for a long time. This is true both for our communal life as societies, and our personal lives as individuals. In Muslim countries and communities around the world there is no shortage of mosques and preachers; prayer and fasting are common; millions perform the Hajj every year. Yet most of these societies are rife with corruption and injustice; poverty and illiteracy prevail; sickness and malnutrition are common.
‘This failure of Muslim societies to solve internal problems has been matched by their failure to deal with external challenges. No Muslim society today, whatever its geography or history, can be pointed out as one where humanity has progressed, or as a model of how human beings should live. There has not been such a one for centuries. At the personal level, for each Muslim there is a fundamental paradox, whether we face it or not. How can we reconcile the wide prevalence of injustice and suffering with our belief in a world in which a just and merciful God reigns supreme? Some acknowledge that there are problems, but believe that they are due to Islam not having been applied correctly or not fully. A number of Muslims blame all our problems on the “enemies of Islam,” and, in recent years, some of them have taken up violent jihad against these “enemies.”
‘When the Quran brought Islam into the world some 1,500 years ago, it had a remarkable effect on the warring tribes and worldly townspeople of Arabia: it transformed them into a single people imbued with a transcendent vision for all humanity, and a sense of mission to spread it.
‘The obvious question arises: could it be that the Islam we believe in and practise today is not the same Islam that raised its earlier followers to such great heights? The original Islam had no dogma, no ritual, no complex set of dos and don’ts, no special class of persons learned in the religion who guided and judged other believers; in short, none of the elaborate structure that now passes for Islam. The problem we face is that Islam today is a complex and rigid structure, frozen in time, which covers over and obscures the original and essential message that Islam brought to humanity. Further complicating the issue is the emergence of a class of self-styled religious authorities and “guardians,” so that there is now a virtual priestly class in Islam, where there was no place for one in its original version.
‘The first step to understand the Quran’s real message is to discover the correct meaning of the terms and concepts that occur in it, to take their meaning as it was understood in the Arabic of that time. Secondly, to discover the Quran’s position on any topic, we must put together all the Quranic references to it and then see the coherent picture that emerges. The third step is to deduce the overall ideology that the Quran teaches, within which its positions on all the major issues it covers fit in a consistent, logical manner. However, merely understanding the meaning of the different portions of the Quranic text is not enough, we also need to understand the significance and relevance of these meanings for us today. Where the Quranic message deals with practical injunctions, these relate to contemporary matters, but conform to the fundamental principles and values that should govern all human conduct, anywhere, anytime. For its own time and place such a message is completely true and valid, and applicable in all its detail. But in places where circumstances differ materially, and even in the same area after the passage of time, the message becomes of limited validity and applicability. The practical injunctions are no longer fully relevant since people’s ways of living and their social structures have changed, while the descriptions of abstract matters no longer satisfy since human knowledge and modes of thought have advanced.
‘Since the Quran is the last of the revealed books and no more wahy will occur to take its place, the fundamental truths and realities that have always been conveyed through wahy can be discovered only through the Quran. This aspect led some Muslim theologians to advance the view that every word of the Quran is applicable for all time to come, and this proposition has become a dogma among most Muslims. This is unfortunate, since not only is it impossible to implement this in practice, but it also contradicts the Quran’s own teaching on the subject. What are valid and applicable for all time to come are not the words of the Quran but the truths, realities, principles, values, concepts, etc. that lie behind, and are the basis of, these words. The Quran itself makes this clear. There is a set of three passages that introduce the term Umm al-Kitab (the essence or core of the divine message), the only such usage of this term in the whole Quran. Read together, these passages say, in summary, that for every period there is a divinely inspired message and, when this period ends, the fundamentals of the message remain permanently applicable while the rest becomes nullified. The rest is similar to the transitory elements of the earlier messages, as those with knowledge and understanding can discern. The three basics are: the fundamental truths underlying the system within which we exist; the principles of action that should govern human conduct; and the permanent values which we should adopt and uphold. These are the foundations and the fundamentals of Islam.
‘The permanent values that should permeate our lives and govern our actions can be derived from the Quran, many of them from the attributes of Allah, the most important being: freedom, love and justice. The final word must remain, as always, with the Quran. And the Quran’s final words could not be clearer on this issue. Based on both the external and internal evidence, the final substantive portion of the Quran received is: ‘For you this day have I brought to its culmination your way of life and bestowed upon you My final favour, and approved for you Islam as a way of life.’ The Quran urges us, as free and rational persons, to recognise the Supreme Being who is the creator and sustainer of our universe, and whose laws govern it. It tells us that we possess the potentiality to become the surrogates, the representatives, of Allah in our world, and offers us this role. To undertake this responsibility, to act for Allah in our world and fulfil His purposes and obligations in it, this is the way of life that is Islam.’