Enjoining Good and Forbidding Evil
By: Waheeduddin Ahmed Ph.D.
It all began with these words “— falyablighi al-shahidu al-ghaiba — It is incumbent on those who are present to convey this to those who are absent” (The prophet’s sermon in Hajjatul Wida, the last Hajj, Bukhari: II, 132:795). Then those who were present got up, pulled their cloaks and blankets about them and spread out to distant lands. His message was neither about conquests, nor about Rome and Persia but a social message for the purification of souls and the reformation of mankind. The Quran and the Sunnah, such as the one quoted, illumined their path. Some ended up in the land of Caesar Heraclius, some in Malabar and some in even China. Armies, which were perhaps marching along the same routes did not necessarily have the same motivation, synchronous but not synergetic. The armies were the forces of history and the pioneers of a civilization, they, the emissaries of the Prophet and the forbearers of a universal brotherhood. The Quran had given them clear instructions about their mission: “kuntum khaira ummatin ukhrijat linnasi, tamuroona bilmarufi wa tanhouna anilmunkari wa tuminoona bi-Allah — You are the best of nations sent out to people, (because) you enjoin good and forbid evil and you believe in Allah” (Quran 3:110). They were told not only what to do but how to do it: “Ud’u ila sabeeli Rabbika bi al-hikmati wa al-mouizati al-hasanah — Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching” (Quran 16:125). “Wa man ahsana qaulan min man da’a ila- Allahi, amila salihan wa qala innani min al-muslimeen — And who is better in speech than the one who invited (people) to Allah, did good deeds and declared: ‘Indeed I am from those who have submitted to Allah?” (Quran 41:33). As anyone can see, the sword is not mentioned in any of these instructions from Allah, nor from the Messenger. The sword and the Quran have an obvious disconnect here.
The conquests had their own momentum. They proceeded with a lightning speed and enveloped three continents. Uqba Ibn Nafi, reaching the west shore of Africa plunged his horse into the Atlantic Ocean with glee thinking that he had reached the end of the world, an act, which Iqbal alluded to in his Shikwah:
[Dasht to dasht hain darya bhi na chore hamne. Bahre Zulmat men dauradie ghore ham ne]
(Deserts are but deserts, waters stopped us not. In the Sea of Darkness did our horses trot.)
However, conversions lagged centuries behind because their dynamics were far too different. Let us consider some statistics as illustration: The battle of Yarmuk took place in 637 A.D. opening up Syria for Muslims but the country had a Christian majority until the Mongol invasion (1244-1323A.D.). Likewise, the battle of al-Qadisiya, which took place in the same year, laid the vast territories of the Sasanian empire open to Muslims. No mass conversions immediately followed. In fact, the Muslim population in Iran reached only 40% in the mid-Ninth century and not until the end of the Eleventh century did it reach about 80%. In Egypt, it took Muslims four centuries to attain a majority. In the Malay Archipelago, Arab traders had started settling from the time of Khalifa Othman (646-656 A.D.) en route to China, as evidenced by the tombstones that have been excavated. However, when Marco Polo visited the region in 1292 A.D., he found only one Muslim kingdom out of many non-Muslim ones. Ibn Battuta’s visit a few years later has also confirmed this. In fact there was a gradual process of social intercourse in which Islam supplanted Hinduism and Buddhism, becoming a dominant religion by the end of Eighteenth century. It still left the island of Bali predominantly Hindu. Thus Malaysia and Indonesia are the shining examples of non-coercion in the propagation of Islam as a religion. In India, Muslim rule spanned twelve centuries and yet by the end of that period, the Muslim population stood at only 25%.
The process of conversion is complex and is not amenable to rational analysis using simple historiography as a tool. It needs the genius of Ibn Khaldun, rather than the narrative skill of Al-Tabari to unravel history in its true colors hidden under the debris of wars and conflicts. Among the various factors involved in conversion, we may consider: theology, ritual practices, ethics, law, economic incentives, societal mores, intellectual prowess and occasionally political pressure too. If theological discourse was the only factor, Islam could have easily prevailed over the Trinitarian concepts of the Christians, the Dualism of the Zoroastrians, the Atheism of the Buddhists and the Polytheism of the Hindus but intellectual debates and documents rarely engage a lay person’s mind. It is the totality of the religious practices, the faith and the morality manifest in actions, which attract people’s attention. History records some very odd reasons too. When the Portuguese conquered Goa, it was not the promise of salvation, which made Christianity triumph but the spectacle of pomp and glamour, the colorful costumes of the priests, their liturgy and the whiteness of their skin, which caught people’s fascination and made them submit to the Lord Savior.
In the Byzantine Empire, dogmatic conflicts within Christianity, persecution of sects, which were out of favor with the Popes or the emperors were largely responsible for opening up the countries for Muslims. The populations accorded the invaders, in most cases, a warm welcome, who in turn demonstrated good governance, religious tolerance, justice and fair play to win the people’s approval.
In India, low caste Hindus saw their chance of emancipation in converting to Islam. On the other hand, the high caste Hindus found that they could lose their social privileges in the egalitarian community of Muslims if they converted; so they largely abstained. However, some of them like the Kaests and the Khatris adopted the Islamic culture, while steadfastly adhering to the Hindu Dharma. Raja Todar Mal of Akbar’s court and Maharaja Kishen Pershad, a wazir of the Nizam are examples. The first president of independent India Dr. Rajendra Prasad’s primary education had taken place in a madrasa, where, he had learned Persian among other things.
In the final analysis, it was not the scholar but the saint, who was instrumental in inculcating the faith. It was not the articulation of dogmas but the luminescence of virtue, which brought light into the lives of the people. In other words, it was not the rhetoric but action which met with success. Those who shared the burden of survival, the daily pains of living and the routine trials and tribulations with their neighbors were the ones, who by demonstrating the strength of their character as Muslims exerted influence on others. Khaja Moinuddin Chishti is reported to have urged upon his disciples “to develop river-like generosity, sun-like affection and earth-like hospitality”. “The highest form of devotion”, he said “is to redress the misery of those who are in distress — to fulfill the needs of the helpless and to feed the hungry.” This is a formula, which worked in the past and will work in the present circumstance.
In America, black people were attracted to Islam, basically for two reasons: to find a group identity, based on pride, which would help them fight against oppression and secondly to extricate themselves from what they saw as Christian hypocrisy in “love thy neighbor” (as long as he is of the same race). On the other hand, they saw in Islam a strong message of universal brotherhood and a chance to draw solidarity and moral prowess from it, which could energize them in their fight against injustice. How far the Muslims of America, the immigrants in particular, have been able to live up to this expectation is the burning question of the day!
To sum up, we can say that Islam spread, because it had to. The river flows down the slope and in doing so, creates its own contours and landscapes. We can also describe the process in Huntington’s words as “clash of civilizations”. The Islamic civilization in its heyday collided with various other civilizations, overpowering, sometimes overwhelming the weaker of them but finding stubborn resistance from those with strong intellectual and cultural traditions. However, the conversion of Persia seems to be an anomaly. This very fertile and vitriolic civilization transformed itself by first dissipating and then coalescing within Islam to impact it in all its intellectual avenues and cultural manifestations as no other civilization has done.
Today, the Islamic civilization is at its lowest point in history, while progress is erupting all around the Muslim world with unprecedented vehemence. Muslims now stand in the wilderness, distraught and destitute, leaderless, oppressed from within and pressured from without. They are lashing out in frustration, throwing bombs in every direction and upon themselves. In Western Europe and North America where Islam was making great inroads only a decade ago, Muslims have been put on the defensive. Islam and terrorism is an exercise in word association, an addendum for psychologists.
We cannot counter these defamatory tactics unless we correctly read the enemy’s mind and then choose the right strategy. The root of the conflicts is in the occupation of lands and subjugation and exploitation of people by the western neo-imperialist powers, using as they always do, the rulers of those lands as their agents. It is not too difficult to see that any people under these circumstances, Muslims or non-Muslims, Jews or Gentiles would rise up in revolt. Hit by armies, navies and air forces they would hit back with whatever weapons they could lay their hands on. The conflicts always have a geographical context and a specificity of human groupings. Unfortunately, in the times that we are living; almost all the people at the receiving end of oppression happen to be Muslims. They are the ones who are fighting back. The enemy has found it enormously useful and profitable to put a label on them: “Islamic militants” to prejudice the minds of those who might otherwise support a just cause. The “militants” failed to see how cleverly they were being manipulated and willingly became stereotypes. The Islamic leadership, from the scholars to the politicians failed to counter the move and went along with it. Voices raised in protest were feeble and drowned in the drumbeat of “jihad”. We had no answer to the cunning; such a pity that Muslims do not have a Machiavelli or a Chankia of their own.
I suggest that in order to regain the initiative in the Islamic movement, particularly in the area of dissemination, we must do two things: First, disengage Islam from the so-called “jihad”— Remember jihad was also used by the C.I.A. as a weapon in Afghanistan. The conflicts involving Muslims and the West are in the nature of “just wars”. Let us bring them back in that category, where they belong. People who are fighting these wars have a duty to their cause. Their weapons are their options. Others may support or oppose them, depending upon their political orientations. They may condone or condemn the choice of weapons according to their conscience but let the Islamists most emphatically disengage from this conflict and pay attention to the articulation and propagation of Islam. Let us change the posters at the storefront!
Secondly, in the perspective of the post-nine-eleven America and the negative unmitigated propaganda unleashed against Islam, the efficacy of articulation has greatly diminished. People must now see Islam in action, not hear or read about it. Great effort and resources need to be put in the humanitarian side of Islam, as Khaja Moinuddin Chishti has urged upon Muslims to do. He succeeded against tremendous odds and Insha-Allah we will too.
There is another very serious problem we are seeing today. In America, when Islam was first introduced, it was a pristine religion, pure and simple like in the days of the Sahaba. It did not have time to undergo centuries of pollution, schisms and diversions as in the Old World. Immigrants from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent are now working to drag the New Muslims into their courtyard, where everyone is either: Sufi, Salafi, Devbandi or Barelwi and where people are vociferously slandering each other and where Muslims without labels are unwanted guests. The New Muslims caught in this melee are nowhere to turn. The clannishness of the Arabs and the class consciousness of the Indo-Pakistanis are posing another problem. The images of Sunnis and the Shias blowing each other up in Iraq and Pakistan are ubiquitous and cannot be hidden from those who are invited to the party. They are at the back of their minds when they are gazing at our Da’is giving them lectures. If Muslims cannot rise to this emergency, they will be doomed to eternal ignominy.