- Published at 01:12 am December 6th, 2021
Mahmud Hossain Opu
As Islamophobia becomes a fact of life, some stories need to be told and retold
Years before Islamophobia became a fact of life, I grew up in Kashmir in the 1990s on stories that drove home the foundational Islamic value: Compassion.
The stories were an important part of training children, especially in families such as ours that had held Kashmir’s religious leadership position for centuries as the descendants of Sufi saints.
For compassion and social justice
My favourite of these stories was of the woman who would curse and throw garbage at the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) every time he passed by for preaching Islam.
When the routine suddenly stopped one day, the Prophet made it a point to see the woman and found she had fallen sick. Garbage-throwing was nothing in comparison to the mutilation another woman, Hind, subjected the body of the Prophet’s favourite uncle to. He forgave her too along with several others who wronged him. Compassion is the moral of these stories.
The story of slave-turned-muezzin from Africa, Bilal, illustrated another foundational Islamic idea of social justice. Bilal was one of the first converts to Islam and a prominent member of the nascent Muslim community. Islam’s egalitarian message first resonated with marginalized people such as women and slaves in Arabia, which was then infamous for entrenched notions of ethnic and tribal superiority.
It challenged inequalities determined by kinship, tribal affiliation, and wealth. The propagation of Islam prompted fierce opposition from the elites, including Bilal’s owner Umayya, who would torture his slave by placing a rock on his chest to have him renounce Islam. Bilal was known for his beautiful voice and went on to earn the distinction of giving the first public call to Muslim prayer. He married an Arab woman from an important clan and was among those closest to the Prophet, making him the symbol of social justice.
For equality and respect
Bilal’s story is also a reminder of the core Islamic mandate of the creation of a society that takes care of its weak and treats them with respect. The honour given to Bilal of giving the first azaan symbolized the uprooting of the oppressive power and social structure, where kinship or lineal descent called nasab determined an individual’s low or high social status.
The story of the Prophet’s employer and later wife Khadijah for us illustrated the importance of gender equality. Impressed by the Prophet’s reputation as an honest man, Khadijah employed him to take care of her business, which was spread from Mecca to Syria and Yemen.
She was widowed twice before proposing marriage to the Prophet when he was 25 and Khadijah 40. The Prophet only confided in Khadija and her Christian cousin when he is believed to have begun receiving revelations as the Prophet. Many of the early converts to Islam were women — impressed by the idea of equality — when the Prophet began preaching two years after he started receiving revelations. The Prophet’s message was revolutionary for its time — the women got the right to acquire property, something that eluded their European counterparts for centuries.
The importance of universal education was underlined by the Prophet’s saying: “Go as far as China if you need to acquire knowledge.” He declared education compulsory for women and men when the right to educate oneself was a privilege only for a priestly class in India.
The Prophet loved animals and is once believed to have cut a sleeve of his coat to ensure that a cat napping on his arm was not disturbed while he had to rush for prayers. He is said to have told a woman she would find a place in paradise despite being “sinful and evil” for saving a dying dog and giving it water.
Until a perverse form of jihad backfired on the West and it became the only thing defining over a billion Muslims, for real Muslims, the idea [of jihad] meant a struggle, with the biggest being against the evil within.
The words for fighting or war in Arabic are qital and harb. Jihad appears in the Quran 41 times while dissuasion from fighting appears 70 times. The US introduced its perverse form in the late 1970s to fight communism. It pumped millions of dollars for textbooks full of violent images and teachings for Afghan schools. According to The Washington Post, the primers “filled with talk of jihad” featured “drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers, and mines.” They served as “the Afghan school system’s core curriculum” and even the Taliban used them, steeping “a generation in violence.”
Islam’s humanizing elements have not disappeared overnight. As Sophia Rose Arjana shows in her book, Muslims in the Western Imagination, there has been a long history of imaginary Muslim monsters who have aided the dehumanization of the Muslim Other.
India’s governing Hindutva movement has borrowed liberally from this tradition for its power politics. As a result, the alleged conduct of ruthless empire builders who happened to have also been Muslim has been used to further this dehumanizing project. The project conveniently ignores the glorious legacy of spiritual Islam in Sufism and the true heirs to the Prophet such as Bulleh Shah, Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti, Baba Farid, etc.
That a substantial number of Muslims have no agency in large parts of what is known as the Islamic world has not helped either. Most of this world are swathes of fiefs of self-serving rulers. They owe their existence to the lines Mark Sykes and Francois Picot arbitrarily pencilled on West Asia’s map for Britain and France to get Germany’s oil share in 1916.
The territories were demarcated to allow the two countries to build separate pipelines from Iraq to the Mediterranean ports for oil concessions in return. The rulers do not draw their legitimacy from their subjects and cannot see beyond the interests of their families and tribes.
The positives are ignored while the negatives, amplified
The Islamic world’s deficiencies are used as a stick to beat Muslims with, while positive examples from Muslim countries are conveniently ignored. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country, where 12.9% of the world’s Muslims live. It is secular with a heavy Hindu influence exemplifying its pluralism.
The influence is disproportionate to the number — 1.7% — of Hindus in Indonesia. Its national airline is named after Vishnu’s vehicle, Garuda; its currency notes carry Ganesh’s picture; the Ramayana and Mahabharata have a deep imprint on Indonesian culture. A Saraswati statue stands outside the Indonesian embassy in the world’s most important capital: Washington DC.
The business of generating “television rating points” for advertising revenue over the last seven years, in particular, has also been aligned closely with the dominant Islamophobic political project in India.
A set of previously obscure bearded men have been integral to it. They mouth the most unreasonable positions on complex issues such as triple talaq while a fraction of 0.56% of divorced women in India are the victims of the un-Islamic practice. In the process, the Muslim stereotypes are strengthened for the benefit of the party in power, and the real issues of disenfranchisement, lynching, and lack of justice are obscured.
It keeps the Muslim bogey alive and those who can “put Muslims in their place” firmly in power. Against this backdrop, the stories that people like me grew up on as children need to be told and retold for a peaceful future of co-existence that growing Islamophobia threatens.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is an author-journalist based in New Delhi. He has been a Senior Assistant Editor with Hindustan Times, India’s second-biggest English newspaper. Khatlani worked in a similar capacity with The Indian Express until June 2018. This piece first appeared on the blog Between The Lines and has been reprinted with special permission.