Islam through the Lenses of Life and Death

Say no to Islamophobia
Photo: Penn State News

By Subhajit Pal

As the political climate of the world is permeated with Islamophobia, with almost two complete decades of the ‘war on terror’, an insight into the traditions of Muslim life in India – a country marked with rising incidents of communal tension – is perhaps a small step towards countering the prejudices. I say so from my experience in a non-savarna middle class family where throughout my childhood the knowledge about Islam and Muslims would either come from their portrayal on television or from tea-stall rumours. In my university courses on Islamic history and cultural practices, I realised that without adequate knowledge of how Muslims perceive life or death, a Muslim’s ‘ordinary’ activities are easily concocted on baseless explanations spread by religious hatemongers and fake news peddlers. The reason why one needs to know about Muslims and Islam as a religion is well captured by Nicolas Pehlam, in The Economist. He writes:

Muhammad (Prophet, SAW) is celebrated not for his battlefield victories but his verse. Abd al-Malik, the caliph who took Cyprus, was better known to Islamic chroniclers for building Jerusalem’s majestic Dome of the Rock and, less appealingly, halitosis so severe it could kill a fly. Mahmoud of Ghazni, the jihadist who conquered the Hindu kingdoms of north-western India, was admired for decorating Islam’s eastern periphery with gardens. (“You have strung the wild rose with patterns of pearls,” oozed a court poet.) Timur, the Mongol “sheep-rustler and world-conqueror”, built towers of skulls but also the soaring, sublime mosques of Samarkand. Sultan Mehmed II, the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople, was ‘a renaissance man’.

Therefore, there is always a side of Muslims that is obfuscated to create many of the modern-day myths to reduce Islamic practices and beliefs as medieval orthodoxy not suitable for the neoliberal market.

Hodgson defines a Muslim as, “(a) person committed to worshipping God according to the teaching of Muhammad of Arabia and of the Qur’an.” For Muslims, life on earth is not the only focus, as in the Islamic tradition the concept of ‘Hereafter’ has immense importance. This idea is different from the Western civilisational values, as post-enlightenment in Europe, according to Hardt and Negri, humans became the center of the world, making this life the center of all actions and ideas. In Islam, the Almighty, is the center of all attractions, and human life comes with several tests to fare well on the day of Judgement. For Muslims, the world and worldly life have been defined by the five pillars of Islam, as referred to in the Qur’an, namely, the declaration of faith (Shahada), the prayer (Salat), giving alms (Zakat), fasting (Sawn) and the pilgrimage (Hajj). The various other cultural traditions are situated essentially around these five pillars. The difference in the worldview that renaissance and then enlightenment brought amongst the Europeans, made this basic Islamic value system appear archaic. The difference that arose has never been reconciled and impacted everyday political matters.

Eickleman and Piscatori, in their quest to understand Islam as a social phenomenon, writes: “Muslim communities, like all religious communities, are imagined… They are created — and knowable — through the vision, faith, and practices of their adherents. Faith is accepted and sustained through symbol and metaphor, the very stuff of imagination which not only enlarges adherents’ perceptions but reorders them so that the validity and rationality of religious faith and practice seem only natural” (Coulson 1981: 3–8). On the other hand Hodgson coined the term Islamicate society in order to define the set of cultural values that runs through a society which is either inhabited or governed by Muslims. Hodgson finds such societies spread across diverse geographical terrain carrying some minimal semblance in terms of culture and social laws. The reason why travellers like Ibn Batuta felt at ease while travelling such diverse parts of the world is because some aspect of the lives of Muslims all over the world are governed by similar guidelines from the holy Qur’an.

The reason behind Islam’s rapid spread through different landscapes perhaps has to do with the encouragement that the guiding texts provide which is to seek knowledge and see the bounties of Allah, encouraging hijrat or travel of people across territories. The formation of organisations like Tablighi Jama’at does not have sinister ideas that are portrayed by mainstream Indian media. Rather, proselytisation (even other religions have similar approaches) and organisation are central to Islamic piety, as Masud writes, quoting from the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), “I convey the following five commandments given me by God: attention, obedience, migration, struggle and organisation.”

Life, in Islam, revolves around invoking the Almighty at every possible juncture and, hence, jibes taken at the religion or at the Prophet, are not welcomed. Like ‘life’ ‘death’ in Islam has a different understanding, which is seen as a window for moving to the world of ‘Hereafter’. In Islam, importance is also given to the apocalyptic and eschatological traditions because of which certain regions attain importance which inform geopolitical disputes even today. I have mentioned elsewhere, how the Dome of Rock in Jerusalem, Palestine, is central to the Islamic eschatological traditions. Livni-Kafri, arguing about the importance of Jerusalem in the Muslim world, opines:

Traditions related to the end of days and Jerusalem should not be studied separately from other diverse features of the sanctification of Jerusalem in early Islam, such as the place of the city in cosmology, the debate over its place as a centre of pilgrimage, or the character of the circles that contributed to the shaping of the idea of its sanctity.

So, the importance of such ideas around death and its geopolitical ramifications goes a long way in defining the reason for contemporary crises of Palestine and Jerusalem. 

Finally, the idea of Ummah opens up another huge space for understanding traditions in a Muslim society. The imagination of a united Muslim state headed by the Caliph has garnered a lot of mainstream attention and a lot of times it has been misrepresented in the light of terrorism. Some scholars like Aydin have refuted the idea of a ‘Muslim World’ and have posed relevant critical questions of difference between the Muslims of different parts of the world. However, it is also true that the central theme of piety remains the same, as observed in the discussions of Hodgson, wherever Muslims reside or to whichever culture they belong to. To counter this idea of difference among Muslims, we may refer to Nasr, who writes:

In modern times, as a result of the loss of the universal perspective of tradition or din among the vast majority of Western orientalists as well as among modernised Muslims, men have lost sight of the unity of the Islamic tradition and the unifying principles which over the ages have bound together the diverse elements of the Islamic tradition. Studies limited to historical and analytical methods have tended through their method of dissection to neglect the living character of the subject of their treatment. They have tended to forget that one can only dissect a living entity after divesting it of its life.

The dependence on Allah and similar notions of life propel ideas such as ‘Dar-al Islam’ into existence.

An understanding of these intricacies of Muslim life, based on both difference and commonality, is important to effectively counter mainstream Islamophobia.

Bio:
Subhajit Pal is pursuing Global Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi, New Delhi.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Travel Writing: A mode of constructing knowledge”, edited by Raeesa Usmani, Surat, India.

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