Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Islam spin

Conversations with a new breed of Pakistani Muslim

In August-September, 2009 I found myself having an argument with supporters of the Caliphate – Khilafat, Khilafah – movement and self-styled jihadis. They seemed obsessed with destroying the existing structures of government and society and replacing them with a ‘Caliphate system’, which would unite all Muslim countries under a single Caliph/Khalifah. The person with whom I mostly exchanged e-mails was fond of quoting extensively from the Qur’an and from a subjectively defined concept of Sunnah imported from an Arab Sheikh. The Quraanic quotations were often misapplied, having little relevance to the topic under discussion. These people tended to assume that anyone who opposed their views was an American sympathiser. Therefore, the first thing they do is to seek one’s views on the USA government’s adventurism in the Middle East and Asia. Relevant extracts from the e-mail correspondence are given below. 
My views on the USA government’s involvement in Pakistan and the Middle East, and the situation in Pakistan generally:

The writing is on the wall in CAPITAL letters - everyone can see it very clearly. My comments are of little use as they will merely state the obvious: that Pakistan is now little more than a colony of the USA, which had installed the current Pakistani government in power to serve American interests.

The USA invaded Iraq on the pretext of that country possessing weapons of mass destruction. It staged the farce of 9/11, an 'attack on the USA by a group of Muslims living in Afghanistan' and invaded that country. The then government of Afghanistan had offered to try Osama bin Laden in a court of law of a neutral country but the USA had ignored that offer because it was busy destroying the evidence of the stage-managed attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon (all traces of the aircraft that supposedly took part in the attack have mysteriously disappeared - a criminal and illegal action for which the USA government ought to have been tried under USA laws). The USA government has since studiously avoided court proceedings against those it falsely accuses of terrorism because a trial in a court of law will uncover the shameful deeds of the USA Establishment. So far America has killed more than 2 million Iraqis and Afghanis - fewer than 3 thousands had died in the 9/11 self-inflicted wound - and it has now extended the killing spree to Pakistan.

Pakistan's national inferiority complex

It is not just that our government is composed of toadies and yes-men, the sad truth is that the whole Pakistani nation is suffering from a deeply ingrained inferiority complex in relation to the Americans and the British. Their language has become the de facto national language in which affairs of the state are conducted while our own language is treated with contempt. This has resulted in power being concentrated in some 5% of the population of the country, which has managed to arm itself with an ‘English education'. We are thus keeping Pakistan as a developing country in perpetuity through wanton neglect of 95% of our intellectual capital because people educated in Urdu are denied the opportunities to utilise their inborn talents fully. This gives rise to gross injustice and inequality of opportunity. There is an easy solution: let us conduct all our affairs in elegant, graceful Urdu and stop expressing ourselves comically in English (it is never easy to master a foreign language - and it shows in the graceless, incorrect English which plagues our national life). 

Just look at this e-mail exchange. Can you imagine the Koreans and the Chinese sending e-mails back and forth in a foreign language? Sixty two years after independence we have failed to develop our language sufficiently to meet the demands of the modern age. Is it because our national inferiority complex has tied us too closely to the language and culture of our past and present colonial masters?

Our self-loathing extends to our cultural heritage as well. Do we know what Iqbal said about patriotism in relation to our country of birth and the requirements of the larger Muslim ummah? Iqbal's thoughts were an interpretation of the Quraanic Guidance - to understand that each of us just has to read and ponder over the Message of the Qur'an. There is no need to look for a Sheikh far and wide to tell us what we need to do. Our Guidance is within an arm's reach! Discover the treasure trove in your own backyard before you go hunting abroad.

Let us first deal with the evils that are to be found in our country of birth before we go looking for the utopia of a Khilafat. And don't forget that the Khilafat ended with Hazrat Ali - what came after was just dynastic monarchy, the son succeeding as king on the death of his father.

In a separate e-mail I had to elaborate further on the role of language in Pakistan because my references to Urdu were taken to be too ‘nationalistic’; I also had to clarify my understanding of Islam:

All I will say is we should sincerely try to understand the Guidance in the Qur'an according to our capacity and then put our understanding into practice to the best of our ability. Our understanding will remain subjective, depending on our character and inherent wisdom. Therefore, we should refrain from claiming that the way we have understood the Message is the only right way.

My references to Urdu are all in the context of providing justice and equality of opportunity to the 'have nots' of Pakistan. How do you expect 95% of Pakistanis to compete with people who first impose an alien language on them and then shamelessly rub salt into the wounds they have inflicted on the nation by having their children educated in the USA and the UK? The fact is we are criminally, insanely wasting 95% of our intellectual resources and, worse, turning the whole nation into robot-like slaves of the Americans. 

Allah has created different racial groups with their own languages. So long as we continue to live in the material world bounded by time and space, we derive much earthly pleasure from our local language and culture - to annihilate our essential characteristics as a nation will lead to subjugation, not freedom. Certainly, when we die and leave this world of matter our earthly differences will cease to exist. However, so long as we remain on earth we have to acknowledge the constraints under which we live. Once we learn to live as free and proud men and women it is possible for us to reach out to the rest of humanity and learn to live in harmony as one large human community. That, in my view, is what the essence of Islam is all about. It is a SYSTEM OF LIFE, it is NOT a mazhab. 

Take a look around you and try to improve the quality of life in your own community. When enough people have undergone an inner transformation, and changed their communities for the better, those communities will gradually draw together and coalesce seamlessly. For example, if Pakistanis and Afghans can somehow free themselves from subjugation to the Americans and become truly free men and women, I can foresee a time when those two countries may form a single political unit. 

Let us be realistic and proceed gradually. At the present time talking about the utopia of a Khilafat may make people feel good but that is about all, in my opinion.

Our views evolve over a lifetime and they are never static. The 'treasure trove in our backyard' from which I have gained much includes: Iqbal, Jinnah, Ghulam Ahmad Parwaiz (do read his 'Saleem ke naam khatoot' if you haven't already read it), Qudrat Ullah Shahab's 'Shahab Nama', Mumtaz Mufti ('Labbaik', 'Talash', 'Ali Pur ka Aeli', 'Alakh Nagri', etc ), Dr Shabbir Ahmed, and many more.

My interlocutor came back with an extremely long e-mail with all sorts of quotations and references, relevant and irrelevant. Below is a short extract from his e-mail:

Now Jihad is not just killing, for the war and battles Allah uses the word 'Qitaal' . Jihad is wider. Its the jihad of ideology , its the jihad of words and speech and mindsets . Why does our youth prefer being called a nigger from the west side , rather than a muslim or a millat e ibraheemi. A true Jihad would be like the division of labour. Some factions would be working to improve the knowledge of Quran in the Ummah. Some would be working against foreign ideas by fighting their ideologies through the power of pen and words . Some would be fighting physcially the army of taaghut. Some would be raising the funds for the activities etc.

You know this language issue that you have raised. I have hosted shows about it on Geo channel called urdu bol and lafanga, when i was a part of that system . But that is just the surface of the problem, muslims are always adviced to prefer hikmat and crush the stems rather cutting the leaves. Talking about language is akin to speaking about why people wear jeans and pants and not shalwar kameez . Kindly nullify the concept of a nation state, or being Pakistani from your mind, because that concept is alien to Islam. We are one nation. Zionists planned for more than 400 years to attain greater israel and were persistent in it . Remember they didnt have the help of ALLAH with them. If we want to establish a true Khilafah, we would have the help of Allah with us and the economically , socially and morally oppressed people counting 1.8 billion, why does this goal seem so far fetched . 

I can write volumes about these issues because they are personal to me and Allah is my HAADI, who has guided me to this path.”

My response was:

Your long reply to my last e-mail to you has an eerie quality about it, which defies common sense. I think it also contains statements which are inconsistent with the basic principles of Islam. The gulf between the worlds you and I inhabit is so vast that it cannot be bridged by means of an exchange of e-mails between us. My comments on your most recent e-mail are given below. I am also circulating my replies to your e-mails more widely in the hope that it will open up the discussion and draw in other participants.
I do not know why you have quoted from aayat 2:216 relating to ‘qitaal’. You should not quote selectively from the Qur’an – the full aayat or more than one aayat must always be quoted so that the context of a particular statement of the Qur’an is clear. So, would you please state the context in which you think your selected Quraanic statement applies.
Let me make it quite clear that, based on my understanding of the Qur’an, I consider suicide bombings for ANY purpose to be an unmitigated evil. On the other hand, to take up arms in defence of Allah’s Deen (His system of life), if it is attacked, is necessary. That is what the aayat is about. Now will you tell me where in the world today Allah’s Deen is practised? The vast majority of so-called ‘Islamic’ countries are steeped in corruption, exploitation, lies, deceit, rank injustice – in other words, these are all non-Islamic societies where a minority of pious Muslims survive one way or another. The wars that are fought today are not for DEEN – they are merely political wars.
In my last e-mail I commented on how Muslim communities can grow and unite. What I had said was: “Take a look around you and try to improve the quality of life in your own community. When enough people have undergone an inner transformation, and changed their communities for the better, those communities will gradually draw together and coalesce seamlessly. For example, if Pakistanis and Afghans can somehow free themselves from subjugation to the Americans and become truly free men and women, I can foresee a time when those two countries may form a single political unit. Let us be realistic and proceed gradually. At the present time talking about the utopia of a Khilafat may make people feel good but that is about all, in my opinion.”  Surely you have a responsibility towards other members of the community in which you live? 
In my last e-mail I had shown how the exploitative Pakistani society uses the language as a tool to keep the vast majority of Pakistan’s citizens in permanent subjugation. The language that all Pakistanis understand is Urdu but to make worldly progress they need to educate themselves in an alien language, which is beyond the capacity of most Pakistanis. Pakistan is thus deprived of some 95% of its talent that could have been used in nation building - which is the primary reason for the country being economically backward. Your reply is very odd indeed. You have made the following points:
·      “We learn English only for economic reasons”.
·      “Urdu is a lashkari language, it has adapted words from different languages to sustain”.
·      “Most of the people speak Minglish to express themselves”.
Yes, we learn English for SELFISH economic reasons to enrich ourselves at the expense of people who lack the resources to learn this alien language. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ language. English has a huge number of foreign words: Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, Spanish, etc – and yes, Arabic, Persian and Hindi as well. Urdu has evolved enormously and it has absorbed many words from other languages, including English. The fact that so many people speak ‘Minglish’ merely reinforces the point I made about exploitation: poor downtrodden Pakistanis have been conditioned into thinking that upward mobility is only possible through the medium of English. Therefore, when they speak ‘Minglish’ they are actually letting others know that they, too, possess some knowledge of English. Do we need more evidence to tell us that we have not been able to free ourselves from mental bondage to foreign masters?
Finally, you make the point that it is better to teach ‘Science’ in English rather than in Urdu. This is a sure recipe to keep Pakistan permanently incarcerated as a developing country. Learn from the experience of South Korea which rapidly developed its language to meet the needs of the modern era. Our inferiority complex kept us chained to English and we neglected to develop our language.  For the time being we must perforce carry on with English while making vigorous attempts to make Urdu a viable scientific language as soon as possible. That, in my opinion, is the only way to bring justice, equality of opportunity and long term prosperity to our people.  There is indeed an urgent need to reform our educational system and to create a level playing field for all.
At the risk of arousing your ire I would say that we can also learn much from the example of Israel, which breathed life into a dead language – Hebrew – and set it up as the national language. Unfortunately, that sort of pride and self-esteem is missing from us Pakistanis.
Our national inferiority complex has made us a laughing stock for foreigners. When Zardari was last in the USA no one took him seriously as he went about grinning from ear to ear and delivering such gems as ‘my democracy will deliver’. It would have been far better if he had proudly spoken in refined Urdu – of which he is quite capable – and let an interpreter translate for him. The unspeakable Karzai was actually given greater prominence than Zardari and this showed very clearly in the seating arrangements made for these two clowns.
Your reading in Urdu appears quite limited. I doubt if you understand the greatness of Iqbal and Quaid-e-Azam. You can at least read the latter’s speeches in English. Because of his noble character and the high ethical standards he followed, he stood head and shoulders above people like Mountbatten, Gandhi and Nehru (who initially ingratiated himself with the Mountbattens but ended up becoming much too familiar with his benefactor’s wife, Edwina – I’ll spare you the sordid details).
You have given me a lecture about the evils of nationalism! Why? Certainly, ‘my country right or wrong’ is an evil sentiment which all Muslims should abhor. However, Allah has created different nations and different languages – which is an undeniable fact. This has nothing to do with ‘internal divisions’ mentioned in 3:102-103, which you have quoted. You are misapplying Quraanic verses to support your own particular agenda. To derive enjoyment from the good things that Allah has given us – the beauty of our language, our music, our poetry – is perfectly natural. Not to do so is wrong because Allah does not like exaggerated piety.
Again, the quotations you have given from books of Rivaayaat (traditions) relating to ‘asbiyyat’ (prejudice) are misplaced and quite out of context. By the way, some of your quoted rivaayaat are offensive and extremely disrespectful to Rasul-e-Akram. You don’t seem to be aware that the enemies of Islam in the past – the Zoroastrians, the Jews and the Christians – and also the Muftis of pleasure-seeking Muslim kings (who called themselves ‘khalifah’) had forged many ‘ahadith’ and mixed them with genuine rivaayaat. In light of the lavish praise heaped on the character of Muhammad Rasul-Allah in the Qur’an, how can you possibly attribute the following vulgar statements to him?
"He who calls for `Asabiyyah’ is as if he bit his father's genitals"
“but in the sight of Allah they are more contemptible than the black beetle that rolls a piece of dung with its nose”
“If they do not give this up Allah (swt) will consider them lower than the lowly worm which pushes itself through Khara (dung)”
The books of Rivaayaat compiled by men who came from the conquered Persian empire contain many stories which contradict the verses of the Qur’an. You must exercise great care when quoting from these books. The Muslim world today has regressed into the pre-Islamic era of Jahiliyyat (Ignorance), but that is now called Islam! When will we emerge from this darkness?

Another extremely long reply came back. Extracts from my response are given below:  

I see that you have quoted a single aayat [2:216] dealing with ‘qitaal’ and ignored all the other jihadi aayaat. Let me quote what you said in a previous e-mail: “Now Jihad is not just killing , for the war and battles Allah uses the word 'Qitaal' . Jihad is wider, its the jihad of ideology, its the jihad of words and speech and mindsets”. OK, Nabeel, if you now want to concentrate on ‘qitaal’ then let us see what the Qur’an says about it.

Al-Hajj, [22:39]: Permission to fight is granted to those against whom war is wrongfully waged. And God is indeed Most Powerful for their support.

Al-Baqarah, [2:190]: So, fight in the Cause of God those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression. Indeed, God does not love aggressors.
[2:191]: Subdue them regardless of their tribal affiliations, and drive them out of where they drove you out. For ‘fitna’ (persecution, terror, torture, oppression) is a crime even more grievous than killing. Do not fight against them near the Masjid of Security (a haven of amnesty) unless they attack you therein. But if they attack you there, then you shall fight against them. Such has to be the rebuttal of those who reject (the Standard of Peace).
[2:192]: And if they desist, then, remember that God is Forgiving, Eternal Source of Mercy.
[2:193]: Hence, fight them only until there is no more harassment, and Deen may be adopted for the sake of God alone. And if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against those who replace peace with aggression.
Now you can go back to [2:216] and ponder on its meaning afresh!
In the verses above Allah is speaking to you, Nabeel. Isn’t the meaning quite clear? Why do you ignore the words of Allah and listen instead to al-Jalalayn and Ibn Kathir? They were fallible human beings, we do not follow them, we obey Allah alone. You have claimed in your e-mail, “I am using the Quran only, because all other knowledge can be wrong” – I am sorry to say that, so far as I can see, you are following Messrs al-Jalalayn and Ibn Kathir, who are putting their own particular spin on the Quraanic Message.
So, the moral of this discussion is that we should never pluck out a verse from the Qur’an and run away with it. It is our sacred obligation to study all the verses which shed light on a particular subject and then come to a conclusion accordingly.
Next, let us look at the life of Rasul-e-Akram. For 13 years he and his companions quietly suffered intense persecution at the hands of the people of Makka but the Muslims did not hit back. Rasul-Allah was ‘Nazir’ and ‘Bashir’ and he carried on delivering the divine Message. Later, when Allah’s Deen had been established in Madina, and it was under threat from the Quraish, Rasul-Allah took up arms to defend the Muslim state.
My question to you is: where have you established a truly Muslim society which needs to be defended? You need to have the patience to undergo a period of inner purification and to establish Allah’s Deen (see my article on Islam for a definition of Islam/Deen) before you can start talking glibly about killing fellow human beings. You are only interested in imposing a ‘khilafat’ by force which, l am afraid, will create a fitna, leading to much bloodshed.
Point 2: Establishment of Deen/Islamic state
I am broadly in agreement with the earlier part of what you say. My introductory article was concerned with the essence of Islam. When it comes to implementation of Islam as a system we need to be careful. Remember that there is no compulsion in matters of Deen and each person living in the Islamic state has the freedom to pursue whatever system he/she prefers. If people are unable to see the excellence of Islam over other religions then we leave them alone – they remain our fellow citizens in an Islamic state.
Your swipe at Iqbal is quite uncalled for. Do point out to me where you consider Iqbal’s message to be deviating from the spirit of Islam.
Thereafter, it is difficult to follow your reasoning in the great mass of words that you have laid out.
Point 3: Pakistan and Afghanistan
You are attributing things to me which I have not said. Let me repeat my words for the SECOND time for you: “Take a look around you and try to improve the quality of life in your own community. When enough people have undergone an inner transformation, and changed their communities for the better, those communities will gradually draw together and coalesce seamlessly. For example, if Pakistanis and Afghans can somehow free themselves from subjugation to the Americans and become truly free men and women, I can foresee a time when those two countries may form a single political unit. Let us be realistic and proceed gradually. At the present time talking about the utopia of a Khilafat may make people feel good but that is about all, in my opinion.”
If we have patience and proceed gradually, we may find that more and more nominally Islamic countries are able to implement justice and equality for their people and they, too, may want to join any political union of truly Islamic countries that may have taken place. The desire has to come from the people, not imposed by know-alls who decide what is best for everyone. I repeat, that will lead to ‘fitna’ and much bloodshed.
Point 4: Emancipation from debt and foreign influence
So far as Pakistan is concerned why do you need ‘qitaal’ for this? The answer is simple. We need to learn self-reliance and put up with hardship for a period of years while saying ‘no’ to foreign debt. Also, tell the Americans in our country that they are not needed and they should leave. Our real problem is the corrupt politicians and military commanders. This is an internal problem, which can be solved with patient efforts over a number of years to educate and inform the ignorant Pakistani population, and implement justice and equality of opportunity (since most of our people do not understand English – which modern thinkers such as yourself have imposed on the country - they remain despised and in a state of terrifying ignorance).
There are foreign occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no justification for that presence which, in turn, justifies armed action for political reasons. Don’t drag Islam into it because, at the time of American invasions, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan could be described as an Islamic society as defined in the Qur’an.
Point 5: Khilafat
I reiterate: if you try to implement it by force you will create a ‘fitna’ and blood will be shed. Just let it evolve gradually over a long period of years as truly Islamic societies emerge in the world. To bring about khilafat eventually, you will need to work very hard with great patience in the meantime. You will need to emulate Rasul-e-Akram in your character traits, not outward appearance.
I am amused to read your claim that “these proletariats of the Ummah ardently desire that they join together and shatter the differences and be united so they can prosper collectively.” Really! When did you carry out a survey to ask their opinion? I can tell you that if you will care to go out and mix with the poor, downtrodden people of Pakistan, you will find that they are merely concerned with daily survival – they have neither the time nor the inclination to philosophise in such grandiloquent terms.

That was more or less the end of our discussion as a vast gulf appeared to separate our respective viewpoints.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Pakistan's colonial set-up

An illusion of Freedom

Politically, Pakistan has been independent since 14 August 1947 but, in a deeper sense, it seems never to have enjoyed true freedom. The country's Establishment and the middle class servicing it, comprising at most less than 5% of the population, receive their education in English, much as they would have done under the British in the pre-1947 era. Consequently, much of the business of the state continues to be transacted in a similar manner to that the British had imposed on their subjects. Thus, the Pakistanis who have managed to arm themselves with an English education comprise the new Raj, lording over the remaining 95% of Pakistan's population educated in Urdu.

This continuation of an essentially colonial system has had a devastating effect on the Pakistani psyche and on the country's economic development. The exaggerated importance given to an alien language and, inevitably, the culture associated with it, has produced a Pakistani elite suffering from a deep-seated sense of inferiority. The people occupying seats of power tend to be shallow individuals: deficient in the knowledge of their own language, history and culture while their knowledge of the alien language and culture they so painstakingly study is little better. They assume a fawning attitude before the Americans and the British but act with extreme haughtiness towards fellow Pakistanis who lack the vulgar trappings of ill gotten wealth and power.

As for the effect of Pakistan's colonial system on its economic development, this is dealt with in the two e-mails below, which I exchanged with a well known columnist in a leading Urdu language newspaper of Pakistan.

First e-mail:

I agree with you that our progress over the last 62 years could have been more rapid. Certainly, it has been our misfortune to be saddled with the kind of leadership that we have had to endure for much of Pakistan’s brief history. I agree also that this has, indeed, been a significant factor in slowing down the growth of the country’s prosperity. However, I do not think that it is the root cause of our economic lethargy.

You have given examples of four countries whose economic growth has outstripped that of Pakistan, namely, China, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. Of these, only the last two can be said to have benefited from inspirational leadership. China, in particular, was devastated and impoverished by the crazy policies of the tyrant Mao Zedong (if you have the time, do read the fascinating book “Wild Swans” by Jung Chang – a ‘must read’ if you have even a moderate interest in the sociological and political changes which have taken place in China over the last hundred years or so). It was only after Mao’s death that China’s rise as an economic powerhouse began.

Leaving aside the special case of tiny Singapore, which has a well educated, diverse population, I think that the main reason for the rapid growth of the other three countries was that they were able to harness the talent and genius of their populations by the simple means of spreading education in the language that people spoke. Thus, it was immaterial whether an unusually gifted child was born in a rich family or a poor family - that child had the opportunity to excel at studies and win recognition for his/her innate brilliance because the school examinations that the children had to take were conducted in the same language that they spoke. Contrast that with the situation in Pakistan.

We have a culture in Pakistan where, by and large, people refuse to recognize intelligence unless it is expressed through the medium of a language which is alien to the vast majority of Pakistanis. Our national psyche has been conditioned to such an extent that we consider a mediocre person speaking bad English to be more intelligent than a near genius from a poor background whose intelligence manifests itself only in Urdu. Like conceited peacocks we strut around flaunting the second-rate English that we speak and write. It is these mediocre people who then go on to occupy positions of influence and power while the real brainpower of the nation rots unrecognised because intelligence expressed in Urdu is not accepted as intellectual excellence!

In my opinion, it is this mental subjugation to our erstwhile colonial masters – and, indeed, to our current de facto colonial masters, the Americans – which is the greatest obstacle to our economic progress as a nation. Our national inferiority complex leads to criminal waste and destruction of our intellectual capital on a massive scale, affecting perhaps more than 95% of our population. The remaining 5% of the population, which is able to educate its children in the foreign language that dominates our national life, simply cannot produce able people in sufficiently large numbers to meet the needs of the country.

At one time China and South Korea were both categorised with Pakistan as ‘developing nations’ but they have since broken out of that straitjackjet while Pakistan has stood still. The reason is that those countries are able to call upon the whole of their available talent while we unfortunate Pakistanis depend, to a very large extent, on the 5% or so of “English educated” exploiting class. Try explaining the benefits of an “English education” to the Chinese and the Koreans - and the Japanese before them - who managed to develop their languages to a point where the whole population could participate in the development of the country! Both the Koreans and the Chinese were able to make full use of the intellectual resources of their respective countries because their ruling classes were not slavishly tied to an alien language and its byproduct, an alien culture.

In view of the past neglect of our national language it is now a practical need to continue teaching English to our children for the time being but we need to formulate an alternative strategy to develop Urdu and enable it to progressively replace English in an ever widening sphere of our national life. We must also take concrete steps to raise the status of Urdu in Pakistan. Here are some simple suggestions:

· the country’s leadership should adopt a simple rule to always address the nation in Urdu;

 · all official correspondence between members of the public and government departments/ institutions to be conducted in Urdu;

 · proceedings in a court of law, so far as possible, should take place in Urdu .

And so on! Wiser heads than mine can modify/add to these suggestions.

Second e-mail:

In my view, therefore, the spread of education in the national language within previously ill educated populations was the single most important underlying cause for the resurgence of the South East Asian "tigers". I think you hold the view that the primary cause was the leadership of the countries concerned.

China, Korea and Malaysia have reached very high literacy rates compared to Pakistan. We struggle because of our multi-faceted educational system and the chronic shortage of resources allocated to education (this is where leadership comes in - there has to be a political decision to allocate resources). In my last e-mail I said that the hold of the English language in our national life had resulted in 'good education' being confined to a small part of the population of Pakistan. A very high proportion of Pakistani parents - 95%? - lack the resources to provide quality education in a foreign language to their children. The Chinese, the Koreans and the Malaysians are free of this curse. They are able to provide quality education in their respective languages to a high proportion of their populations and they reap the rewards that flow from it: instead of the intellectual capital of the countries being neglected, it is utilised in the development of those countries.

Certainly, there are supplementary factors which play an important part as well. Here are some:

1. POLITICAL STABILITY/ LEADERSHIP. Once the Chinese realised that Mao's policies, culminating in the Cultural Revolution, had ruined China, a movement began to isolate Mao, his wife and other hangers on. Following Mao's death, the old guard lost influence, and Mao's opponents held the reins of power. In the case of Malaysia it was the leadership, typified by Mahathir Mohammad, that provided political stability and the emphasis on spread of education. The most remarkable case is that of South Korea which was totally destroyed by the Korean War. Since 1953, however, it has managed to transform itself into a modern state. I don't know enough about the country to pinpoint the precise causes of this renaissance. In general terms, spread of education and political and institutional stability must have been the principal factors behind this success story. We Pakistanis have wasted our years of independence serving foreign masters and getting the wealth of the country plundered by greedy and power hungry civilian and military dictators. Our unstable political system can, at best, be described as a fake democracy where the larger political parties are merely vehicles to serve the interests of a particular family or a privileged class. Elections are held only nationally, not within the so-called political parties. This system gives rise to weak institutions, social and economic injustice, and exploitation on a massive scale.

2. HISTORY and NATIONAL IDENTITY. Both the Chinese and the Koreans had suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese. China had also been exploited by the Western powers. Both countries had a natural desire to grow strong as a nation and face their erstwhile oppressors from a position of strength. Their language, culture and traditions helped them fuse together as a nation. However, I do not think China has been very successful in this respect because its people are spread over a large area with significant racial differences; also, China has a history of enmity among its provinces. Korea and Malaysia have been more successful. We Pakistanis had a strong sense of identity in 1947 but that has long since disappeared. The voices of Iqbal and Jinnah have got lost in the mists of time and, after 62 years of "independence", we are anything but free. We look to the West as the fount of knowledge and wisdom and we have lost awareness of the treasure trove in our own backyard. We trample on our own national language and we swell with pride if we manage to pick up some English. Our DEEN, which the Qur'an tells us is One and indivisible, has been fragmented into scores of sects. We Pakistanis do not obey Allah, we obey leaders of various religious sects. In practice, we pay lip service to Islam but our actions belie our words. The Pakistani society can hardly be described as Islamic because DEEN has been replaced by mazhab, often a collection of meaningless rites and rituals laid down by the various sects. How do we define our national identity today?

3. CHARACTER TRAITS. I hate to say it but some groups of people do seem to be just lazy and content with the stagnant societies in which they live. Somehow they can't bring themselves to widen their knowledge, learn from the experience of others, try to improve their circumstances and move towards a nobler existence. This is a sensitive subject and I shan't say much more.

To summarise, my recipe for taking Pakistan to the status of a developed nation is:

· Rapid spread of education in a way that provides equality of opportunity for all.

 · Stable and fair political/economic system and strong institutions.

 · Sense of National Identity.

· Willingness to learn from others.

Monday, October 12, 2009

ISLAM : back to basics


(for young Muslims born and brought up in the West)

Islam has been segmented into scores of sects, which is often bewildering to the offspring of migrant Muslims who have settled in the West. Generally, the religious instruction the growing Muslim children get comes from clerics who have been imported from their parents’ countries of origin. Often these people have little understanding of life in the West. They also tend to have an inadequate command of English, and they find it very difficult to distinguish Islam from their own cultural backgrounds. It is this confusion of Islam with the cultural background of Muslim priests which is often a big stumbling block to an understanding of Islam by Muslim children growing up in the West. Let us discover Islam straight from the Qur’an, free of the sectarian and cultural baggage.

Al-Qur’an comprises the verbal Revelations to Muhammad, Allah’s Messenger, over a period of some 23 years. The Message is addressed to the whole of humanity, setting out the Guidance from the One who created the universe and sustains it. The Qur’an is divided into chapters or Surahs of varying length, each Surah comprising a collection of semi-poetic verses called the aayaat (singular: ‘aayat’).

How is ISLAM described in the Qur’an?

Al Qur’an requires each and every Muslim to ponder on Allah’s Message because the ultimate responsibility for our actions rests with us. If we thoughtlessly follow the mullahs and end up acting against the Guidance in the Qur’an then we have only ourselves to blame: according to the Qur’an we will not be able to excuse our behaviour by using the mullahs as a shield for our indolence and lack of effort to understand and act upon Allah’s Message to mankind. 

A definition of Islam must follow directly from the Book of Guidance. According to the Qur’an there has always ever been one Deen (a System, a Way – but see below) and Allah’s Messengers were all ‘Muslim’ (that is, one who submits to God’s Message). Islam is a Deen, a Way of Life. It’s not a religion dominated by rites and rituals as so many religions are. It is our faith in God and our actions which determine whether or not we are Muslims. This distinction between Deen and Religion is crucial to an understanding of what Islam is.

Below are some quotations from the Qur’an; the translator is Abdullah Yusuf Ali (he normally translates Deen as ‘religion’ – in some places I have replaced the word ‘religion’ with the original Arabic word).

From Surah Aal-e-Imran [3:85]

If anyone desires
A Deen (Religion) other than
Islam (submission to God),
Never will it be accepted
Of him; and in the Hereafter
He will be in the ranks
Of those who have lost.

Surah Al-Maida [5:69] makes it clear that "salvation" in the hereafter is not confined to muslims alone. In this respect Islam is, I think, unique: probably no other religion extends "salvation" to people outside its fold.

Those who believe (in the Qur’an),
Those who follow the Jewish (scriptures),
And the Sabians and the Christians –
Any who believe in God
And the Last Day,
And work righteousness –
On them shall be no fear,
Nor shall they grieve.

Surah An-Nisa [4:123-125] deals with the Law of Requital, which we are told applies to all human beings. Allah has no favourites.

Not your desires, nor those
Of the People of the Book
(Can prevail): whoever
Works evil, will be
Requited accordingly.
Nor will he find, besides God,
Any protector or helper.

If any do deeds
Of righteousness, -
Be they male or female –
And have faith,
They will enter Heaven,
And not the least injustice
Will be done to them.

Who can be better
In religion than one
Who submits his whole self
To God, does good,
And follows the way
Of Abraham the true in faith?
For God did take
Abraham for a friend.

I hope these quotations make it clear that Islam is a universal “religion”, wide as the ocean. It is not a narrow inlet overwhelmed with the weeds of rules and rituals. The Way of Abraham is the same as the Way of Muhammad – the apparent differences that we observe are the work of priests and so-called religious leaders. A jew or a christian, for example, can be a better Muslim (that is, one who submits to the divine Message) than a so-called muslim who merely pays lip service to Islam.

Sectarianism within Islam

The Qur’an forbids sectarianism.

From Surah Al Shura [42:13]

The same Deen has He
Established for you as that
Which He enjoined on Noah –
That which We sent
By inspiration to thee –
And that which We enjoined
On Abraham, Moses, and Jesus:
Namely, that ye should remain
Steadfast in Deen, and make
No divisions therein:

From Surah Al An’aam [6:159]

As for those who divide
Their Deen and break up
Into sects, thou hast
No part in them in the least;
Their affair is with Allah:
He will in the end
Tell them the truth
Of all that they did.

There may be as many as 100 or more sects in Islam though a fairly common figure often quoted is “over 70”. It seems to me that these sects exist to venerate the men in turbans, beards and long cloaks, whose favourite occupation, one suspects, is to denounce their opposite numbers heading rival sects.

How is it possible for our religious leaders to openly defy the Quranic injunction against sectarianism and get away with it? In my opinion an important reason is the downgrading of Islam from DEEN to religion (mazhab), which has resulted in the Qur’an being treated as a “holy book” to be recited in the original Arabic (Quraish dialect) at births, marriages, deaths and various “religious occasions”. The Qur’an’s role as a Book of Guidance has been usurped by the priest class, whose “books on Islam” are now the principal source of information on Islam as a religion.

So, what is Islam?

Al-Islam is, in essence, about Submission and saalih a’maal (constructive actions which benefit humanity). The attributes of those a’maal (actions) are repeated again and again and again in the Qur’an: Justice, Truth, Honesty, Fair dealing, Courage, Speaking up against oppressors and resisting oppression, Avoiding lewdness, Protecting the weak, Establishing conditions for peaceful co-existence, Respecting all faiths (and defending their places of worship), Frequent Remembrance of Allah whose Power guides us and protects us in our lives, Helping those in need and being charitable (what we give in charity is a “loan we have made to Allah, which He will return manifold” – provided we do not seek a return from the person we are ostensibly helping), etc.

There are Quraanic injunctions which apply to the conduct of communities of people. In an introductory text on Islam I think it is best to concentrate on the rulings applying to an individual. Another important reason for taking this approach is that most, if not all, of the so-called Islamic countries are, in practice, non-Islamic societies where the Quraanic Guidance is ignored, resulting in widespread corruption and oppression. The common factor in all these countries is the neglect of the Qur’an as a Book of Divine Guidance, a system to be followed in our life, and its replacement by Islam as religion with a bewildering variety of sects. So, we have the “books on Islam” and the standard sermons delivered in the mosques, which tend to produce people obsessed with securing their passage to paradise by means of prayers and other rituals while neglecting their lives in this world. People tend to lose sight of their wider responsibility to society and, consequently, social ills abound and the criminals flourish.

How can we acquire an awareness of Islam?

In truth, an understanding of the Qur’an requires wide knowledge (“ilm”). According to the Qur’an the universe is there for man to conquer. To conquer the planets and the stars, let alone the seemingly inaccessible regions of the earth, a relentless pursuit of knowledge and ceaseless action (jihad) is essential. Our efforts on the material plane are guided – or ought to be guided - by the unseen Hand of God to whom we turn in humble worship. This is necessary so that we do not use our human powers and our abilities in the wrong way. For example, people so guided would not then arrogantly take it upon themselves to go around dropping bombs on the innocent people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nor, for that matter, would they go about blowing up themselves and innocent lives in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the world.

Those of our mullahs and our priests who have only had a narrowly based “religious” education are not equipped to understand Islam. It is a pity that it is precisely these people who control our mosques and, unwittingly, they propagate a message which is contrary to the spirit of Islam. For example, when a mullah justifies the actions of suicide bombers he actually shows his ignorance of the Qur’an which forbids suicide or the killing of innocent people (including the children and women related to men who may be waging war against the Muslims).

Al-Qur’an is Guidance to be put into practice. The great tragedy of Muslims is that our priests tend to be satisfied with memorising the Qur’an parrot fashion. Not having an understanding of the Message, they are not in a position to implement the Guidance that mankind has been offered. It is this ignorance of the Qur’an within the priest class which has led to a degeneration of Islam into a man-made religion, a jumble of rules and rites which differs from one sect to another. We need to free ourselves from subjugation to men and seek true freedom in Submission to God (Islam), which is the only way to discover our true Self (‘Nafs’) and our true potential.

The popular Islam

Our theologians and doctors of religion have woven such a dense web of theology that the original Message can only be dimly perceived. A lot of this vast literature is useless or misleading – it takes away the simplicity of Islam and replaces it with a religion of great complexity, which requires many years of dedicated study to understand it. The “ulama” – usually written as ‘ulema’ in English - who emerge from universities holding aloft their theological degrees have then to justify their existence. Unlike Allah’s Messenger Muhammad, who was a practical man of the world just as much as he was a Knower of the Reality which transcends the material world, these so-called ulema know neither this world nor the wider Reality. The tragic consequence is that they remain trapped in their books and in the teachings of their respective sects, and they spend their lives in illusory debate and misguided action.

[Note. ‘ulama’ is the plural of ‘aalim’, meaning one who possesses ‘ilm’/knowledge – the Quranic meaning of ‘ulama’ applies more to scientists than to people who merely memorise literature which is passed off as ‘religion’]

How to discover true Islam?

It is best to avoid getting bogged down in “books on Islam” and to go direct to the Source as early as possible. There are many different translations of the Qur’an in a host of languages though they are not all equally reliable. Also, a translation by a professional priest or theologian will differ from one that is undertaken by a true man of knowledge. The priest will tend to give God’s message a fixed meaning, trapped in a particular era. A perceptive and knowledgeable person, on the other hand, will pay more attention to the essence of the message and avoid freezing it in time and geographical location. 

A well written and reliable translation in English has become available in recent years. It is written by a medical doctor – backed up by a team of scholars – who has had the opportunity to spend many years in Saudi Arabia practising his medical skills. In his spare time he took pains to learn the dialect of Arabic in which the Qur’an was revealed (and I hope he acquired a good understanding of the idioms and proverbs which were in use in Arab society of 1500 years ago, and which some unimaginative scholars have translated literally!). Dr Shabbir Ahmed’s translation has the title “The Qur’an As It Explains Itself” and it can be downloaded free from his website,; it can also be purchased in book form or on CD by placing an order at the website.

As you read Dr Shabbir Ahmed’s translation, remember that he may at times be giving his own interpretation to a passage from the Qur’an. You have a right to ponder over the Quraanic verses yourself and come to a different view if that is your honest and sincere conclusion. But do not then insist that your view alone is the correct one. It is that sort of egotism which gives rise to intolerance and sectarianism. Only Allah knows our intentions and our actions, and He will judge us accordingly. Here, in the material world, we are all Muslims, doing our best to implement His Guidance in accordance with our individuality (”Nafs”/Self). 

An example of how conflicting views can arise

Here is Surah Aal-e-Imran, aayat 7 [3:7] (Dr Shabbir Ahmed’s translation):

“He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: in it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord and searching for its hidden meanings but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah; and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord’; and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.”

In this aayat the Quraanic verses have been categorized into two broad sub-divisions: the Mohkemaat and the Mutashaabehaat. I would say that, generally speaking, the first category comprises those verses which are clear and readily understood by the human mind. The verses falling into the second category deal mostly with metaphysical phenomena, or with matters which may be beyond the scope of human knowledge at any given time but advances in knowledge may make them comprehensible eventually. How do you describe phenomena, which defy expression, in a language which is adequate only in the material world bounded by time and space? For us to understand Reality, which encompasses our limited world and extends beyond, is impossible unless Allah raises us to a level where we can comprehend Reality directly.

An example of Mutashaabehaat verses would be the first 18 verses of Surah An-Najm (53, The Star). I see these verses as the unfolding of the mysteries of the Universe before Muhammad Rasul-Allah, Rehmatul-lil-aalameen.

The Qur’an is full of numerous Mutashaabehaat verses. We interpret them according to our understanding. It can be a futile exercise to try to “explain” something which is incomprehensible to the human mind. Thus, while people may hold differing views about certain Quraanic passages, we have been sternly warned in the Qur’an not to enter into controversies concerning such passages.

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