The Prophet taught that to find the enemy of peace we must look inwards – not out at others
Sunday marks the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, a public holiday in almost every Muslim country. It is celebrated with drums, street parties, sweets for children, poetry competitions, and, in most British mosques, a startlingly incongruous display of tinsel and fairy lights.
This is fine, of course. Religion is meant to make people happy. Onlookers may frown, mystified, but believers rejoice. This time, the rejoicing is about nothing less than the healing of the torn human heart. God has sent a prophet to “heal hearts”, as the Koran puts it. From spiritual sickness, the Prophet brings his people into wholeness. The Prophet’s birthday is therefore on an emotional par with the party a cancer patient might throw when given the all-clear. There is a sense of relief and of exuberance, and also of gratitude.
All this sits well with Islam’s generally upbeat optimistic temper. The religion has no doctrine of original sin; sexuality is celebrated, private property is sacrosanct, and God is merciful. The risk, of course, is complacency, even smugness. If one has a delicious religion, and a generous Lord, who has promised that, despite all tribulations, goodness and justice will ultimately be victorious, what privilege could be more secure than Islam?
Yet this state of mind is in crisis. The Prophet taught optimism, but the Muslim world today looks hopeless. An array of shabby tyrants, most of them fortified by unshakeable Western support, watch as Palestine shrinks and Iraq implodes. Thanks to the Islamic virtue of patience, most of us stolidly persevere, hoping for the better times which we are promised. The West will stop interfering, and we will be free.
Such is one consolation of classical piety. As America’s finest trample like tyrannosaurs through ancient Muslim cities, most of us hunker down, and pray in hope. Yet classical piety tells us something less consoling as well. The Prophet brought healing, but the treatment itself was painful. In Turkish mosque decoration, the word “submission” is traditionally written with the Arabic dots painted red. This is, we are told, because submitting to God is so difficult that the believer weeps tears of blood. Religion juxtaposes hope with fear. The hope is in God, and the fear is of the ego. There may be no original sin, but there is certainly human perversity, waywardness, and a kind of gravitational attraction to selfishness.
The Prophet’s birthday announced the crushing of the Arabian ego. For centuries, the peninsula had been locked in tribal strife, fuelled by pride and mutually competing idolatries. In place of this, Islam brought brotherhood and unity. Reiterating the moral genius of Hebrew prophecy, the Koran does not vindicate its own people, but subjects them to a barrage of criticism. The Prophet emerged as an Arabic voice denouncing Arab ways, enduring extreme persecution from his own people. By endangering himself he gave them one of the great monotheistic gifts, the duty of collective self-criticism.
“Speak the truth,” says this voice, “though it be against yourselves.” God will only restore the believers’ fortunes “when they put themselves right”. The principle of divine justice should compel believers to blame themselves for their own misfortunes, rather than looking for external culprits.
Radical Muslim discourse of the type that is currently gaining ground seems to ignore this. Yet the conspiracy theories indulged in by many of our people are a secular intrusion into Muslim thinking. The ego tells us to blame others, when the scriptures insist that we have only ourselves to blame. The secular mind may blame enemies, but monotheism tempers this with the awareness that it is all, finally, our own silly fault.
The new sort of Islam that directs the finger of blame outwards, rather than towards the self, has been with us for only a very short time. Thirty years ago, no one had heard of it. Yet it is a sterile hopeless primal scream of desperation that can do no good to religion or to the world. It compounds Muslim grievances against our neighbours, and can lead to forms of self-destructive terrorism that are historically unprecedented for us.
The targeting of innocent bystanders is clearly a symptom of this. The Koran says: “Be steadfast witnesses for God in justice, and let not a people’s hatred make you swerve from justice.” Luckily, the Prophet was right to be optimistic. Such attitudes are not native to Islam, and cannot endure. The new generation, and teenagers in particular, are sick of the dishonour done to Islam by the zealots, and seem everywhere to be returning to the Koran’s own teaching. “Whatever misfortune descends upon you, comes from yourselves.” They, at least, recognise that the Prophet’s birthday is an invitation to be healed, not a claim that this has already happened.
* Abdal Hakim Murad is a Muslim chaplain at Cambridge University, United Kingdom.