Website authored by
Dr. Ram Puniyani
Issues in Secular Politics  •  Issues in Democracy and Fundamentalism  •  Secular Actions  •  Useful Links

Islam: Perceptions and Reality
By Ram Puniyani

Book Review:  Islam-Misgivings and History, Asghar Ali Engineer, Vitasta, New Delhi 2008, Pages, 228, Rs 295.

The current times in the World history are marred by the political interests wearing the cloak of religion. World over the major offensives against the oil rich countries have taken place with the projection that the Western civilization is under threat due to the backward Islamic civilization. The real goal of control over oil has been hidden in the cloak of 'backward Islam.' The phenomenon of terrorism has emerged due to various reasons but most of it has been attributed to Muslims and Islam. At home in India the rise of rightwing politics has derived its legitimacy from the dangers of Islamic teachings and nature of Muslims, being aggressive, intolerant and terrorists. All in all, nowhere before in history any religion was picked up for such a demonization for political goals. At no point in History the major threat to world civilization was projected due to religion. The political interests have adorned the clothes of 'savior of democracy', while attacking other countries. At home a particular nationalism has been constructed around targeting Muslims and Islam.

It is in this background that a simple but profound contribution from Asghar Ali Engineer is a timely intervention in the social thinking process. Engineer has been one of the most prominent exponents of democratic secular values and profound scholar of Islam. His prolific and scholarly contributions have served as the defenders of human rights and values which uphold the rights of weak and deprived sections of society. He has contributed immensely, with equal competence, in different but related areas like communal riot investigation, defense of secular values and exposition of Islam. His commentaries on Islam are very refreshing and enlightening. Being primarily an activist his contributions are presented in a language which an average reader can grasp without any difficulty. At the same time he maintains rigor of the underlying concepts.

This book is on the expected patterns. It is a compilation of 17 of his essays written under Islam and Modern Age, his monthly essays. These cover the broad canvass of various issues around which Islam is perceived. 

Right at outset he makes the distinction between ruling classes ruling in the name of Islam and their monarchical, feudal practices. Many an Islamic rulers being the part of feudal set ups are also close confidantes of the U.S. empire which at another level is spearheading the oil hunt with a deceptive flag of defending democracy. Making it clear that Islam's advent took place in the background of Arabic practices, which were very primitive bereft of moral components, it was the teachings Prophet Mohammad, which introduced the moral values of very high order, the values which have withstood the test of times. He counters the popular notion that Islam imposes inhuman compulsions of different types on its followers. While religions put up moral-ethical standards, the society rather than rising to those drags the standards to its level of practices. In this case it is duet between social practices and the moral standards set by Quran. The society is governed by multiple economic, social and political factors, the consideration of which alone can give us the clear picture of times.

The word kafir has been misused very badly to assume that Islam regards all those who do not believe in Islam and ordains that they be killed. Contrary to that Kafir word was used for those who rejected the new humane values of Islam, and used violence against its followers. The use of violence here was permitted purely in self defense. It should be made clear that the word Kafir was given a twisted interpretation by Madrassas set up by CIA-ISI to train Al Qaeda to fight the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Since that this word has become a totally distorted and used in a negative light. It is Islam which gave the concept of law for the first time. Disturbed by the use of violence as a means of settling issues, the concept of mediation and legality was introduced. Also disturbed by the social inequality the concept of zakat, obligatory payment for the welfare of deprived was introduced.

Similarly the meaning of jihad has been distorted beyond recognition due to these madrassas, meant to train Al Aqeda. Interestingly the syllabus of these was drawn in Washington and it is here that by subtle manipulation words, kafir and Jihad in particular were given the meaning which many a terrorist groups use and the meaning which media popularized. As such jihad according to Quran means to speak truth even in the face of a tyrant ruler. Jihad is against julm, tyranny. Killing the innocents it is a tyranny and so Islam not only opposes that but it also preaches to speak against any killing of innocents. Jihad is a collective struggle against tyrants and exploiters; it is for upholding justice and human dignity and for establishing a society where human rights and dignity will be ensured. According to Engineer, "...the Quran came as a liberator of entire humanity and brought those fundamental values, which are needed to evolve a liberated society. The Quran also accepts the fact that several prophets, guides and seers came in this world for the same purpose…" (P50)

Many Ulama have been proclaiming about Islamic state. As per Engineer there is no mention of Islamic state in the Holy book. No religion in the world establishes a state. It just removes moral corruption and acts as a spiritual guide.  In the name of Islamic state Ulama control the political affairs and do not "…allow sharia law to be revisited and this is the reason why all Muslim countries, which have proclaimed themselves to be Islamic states and are stagnating in the field of modern knowledge." (p71) And further, ' the compliers of Sharia law adopted mono-level approach and , thus created problems difficult to tackle. What is worse is that the followers of these laws adopt very rigid approach and consider earlier formulations by great Imams as immutable thus injuring the very spirit of Quran." (P.78)

Contrary to the popular perceptions, Engineer points out that Islam was one of the first movements to accord rights to women, rights towards equality and their plight today, the plight of their being treated as subordinates, is more due to social systems in the grip of feudal values and due to the hold of Maulanas. The interpretation of Quran offered by him logically and scholarly shows that it meant to give equality to women. The whole Islamic feminism, the rights of women as enshrined in the Holy book is the foundation for women's rights. It becomes clear that the practices of section of Muslim society are not in conformity with Quran. Some of the sharia laws deprive women of human dignity and reduces them to the status of chattel, and this is what is the popular perception about women in Islam, while it is far from true as sharia rules do not match with the ones of Quran at most of the places. The best example is the insistence on use of veil or burqua by Muslim women. In Quran there is just a concept of dignified dressing not of veil. As per Engineer change is necessary in these laws but Ulama is against these changes due to fear of losing its power.

The perception that Islam and democracy are not compatible is a falsity of the highest order. Again many a Muslim countries, some which are ex-colonies, have not undergone secularization and the conservative elements oppose the reforms under the cry that it is an attempt to Westernize Islam. The political interests of US Empire have promoted and collaborated with many a cruel dictators and kings as the rulers of their countries. The absence of the democracy has nothing to do with Islam whatsoever. There are examples where live and vibrant democracies like the one of Iran, Mossadeq, was overthrown by the coup staged with the help of US. The orthodox Ulama and the rulers of dictatorial regimes go hand in hand and the collaboration of Ulama gives it a false veneer of Islam. Again these Ulama oppose the process of reform. Engineer correctly diagnoses the problem of Muslim society when he points out that Ulama just insists on social traditions rather than values which are inherent in Quran. 

Uniform Civil Code (UCC) has been a bone of discord around which communalists built up their propaganda. There is a place of reform in Muslim Personal law, and there are trends within the community which favor this. The resistance and failure to progress in this direction is due to the insecurity caused by communal violence. A regular occurrence of violence intimidates the community and creates a fear, ghettoisation and strengthens orthodoxy. No physically threatened community can think of reform as physical and social security takes precedence over everything else. Also due to economic backwardness the weak middle class is not confident to oppose the orthodox elements.  Due to low educational levels Muslim women are not aware of their due rights. In the face of offensive of Hindutva propaganda and use of UCC to browbeat minorities even the secular feminists have revised their demand from the UCC to that of Gender Just Civil code through the process of social reform.

Engineer does well to break the current mould of presenting the communities as uniform monoliths. During medieval times all Muslims were not rulers, even Muslim dynasties were fighting with each other, Babar against Ibrahim Lodi is the prime example. There were wars for power amongst Khaljis, Tuglaqs, Lodis and Mughals. Even all the Mughal emperors were not in a single mould. Akbar, Dara Shikoh were very different from Aurangzeb. Even Aurangzeb while was part of destroying some temples had made donations to Hindu temples as well.

This meticulous presentation of values of Islam will go a long way to dispel the popular notions which equate Islam and Muslims with terrorism and other backwards tendencies.

Author would have done well to qualify the other terminologies like, Social Islam, Political Islam. An elaboration of the phenomenon of Wahabi, Salafi and other trends of Islam should have been given to elaborate social and political goals hidden behind them. That would have been further brought forward is the point that these trends of Islam have more to do with politics rather than with what Quran says. What is missing in this valuable contribution is a proper critique of US presentation of Islam through madrassas in Pakistan for its goal of training Al Qaeda, for fighting Russian army. This would have clarified concretely as to how politics is at the back of these horrendous trends which are bringing shame to Islamic values and bringing untold miseries to Muslims all over the World.

Needless to say this book deserves a mandatory place in the book racks of all those wanting to understand the true nature of Islam, and all those who are engaged in struggle against the goals of empire to dominate the World and goals of sectarian politics threatening to bring in fascism in the name of religion.