Sound from Saudi | Clutter and Coercion in the name of Islam

We are living in times when WhatsApp consistently reminds us of what is up. A week or two back I received a WhatsApp message: “What is Islamic objections to Qawali singing.” Before resounding to the message I chuckled to myself. How much in our routine interactions do we ask the same question – what Islam says! From silly to serious, the range is really amazing. As a member of a Muslim society I must confess that most of this overindulgent invocation of religion doesn’t reflect our seriousness about Islam. If it betrays anything, it is the sub-standard reasoning, crisis of common sense, and affected piety. Jesus Christ’s sermon on the mount mirrors our image. We are not serious about what Islam says, but are fussy about what-islam-says. So there is lots of clutter in the Muslim society that stays in the name of Islam. It needs a huge reformative process to declutter Muslim societies. And for this we need to focus on our children. We need to simplify Islam to them by telling them that Islam is not a layered and labyrinthine rule book that leaves nothing to our choice, likings, and common sense. We need to tell them that the rules, regulations, conventions, etiquette, and manners are a function of human interaction, produced over time. Islam is not an A to Z compendium of rules.

Some days later, someone WhatsApped a news story. This was about how Saudi Prince is dropping control of the state on matters that were earlier thought of as the prerogative of an Islamic State: Saudi Arabia End Forced Prayer-Time Shop Closure. Since Saudi Arabia is a theocratic state, even before Pakistan and Iran, it defines religion and religious practices for the people living in its territory. The dos and don’ts that are long gone from other societies, including Muslim societies in other countries, are strictly implemented by the Kingdom. But for sometime now, inch by inch, the veil is lifting.

The five time prayer a day is not like what Islam says about qawwali. Nimaz, mandatory daily prayers, is the core of Islamic religious practices. As a parenthetic remark this news story about prayers is full of detail, and it is not merely what the title of the story suggests. But the question we now seriously need to ask ourselves is that can a Muslim state extract a visible, disciplinary, compulsive adherence to daily prayers. We all know that use of force is in the nature of a state, but can force be used to impose a religious practice. Does it amount to compulsion, about which the text of Quran  clearly says that there is nothing of the sort in religion.

The understanding prevalent in today’s Muslim societies is that it is the duty of a Muslim state to establish prayers – Iqamat-e-Salah. But the view that it means to create an enabling atmosphere is more convincing. Besides, the Muslim government is asked to  connect with the people through the institution of one weekly prayer on Friday. But we have stretched all this to the limits where Taliban coerced people to pray. And where does the spirit of prayers go if it is to be imposed. Another point in the specific question of prayers is that in the early years of Muslim state the order of things was basically tribal. Tribe works like a family, and the means of imparting behaviour in a tribe is decidedly different than in a modern diffused, democratic, and ultra technological society. In our religious zeal we miss to read these differences. We invoke history where we need to bring in argument.

The changes that Saudi Arabia is now making in its state outlook appear outrageous to a religious mind. The reasons for this are psychological as well as intellectual. Psychologically Muslims are living, now for more than a century, with a deep sense of insecurity. We perennially think that Islam is in danger, and all other nations in the world are hatching conspiracies against us. This has much to do with the loss of our political power. Intellectually Muslim mind is comatose.  It needs repeated reminders that Quran is no longer at the centre of Muslim thinking. The legal, social, and philosophic attitudes developed throughout our history have displaced the Quran. Muslims would require a huge intellectual departure to change this psychology of insecurity and face the world confidence. On the reverse side, Muslims require extra ordinary courage to ride over this psychological state of insecurity to unfreeze the mind.

Most of the changes, like allowing women to drive or no imposition of a dress code, or allowing businesses to remain open 24 hours; nothing goes contrary to our religion. In fact these bans and impositions should not have been there in the first place. But the unfortunate part of it all is that it is not happening as an internally driven process of reform. This all appears a response to the outward pressure from the West, from the business world, and also an attempt to hide embarrassment on what the regime does in the name of religion. It is much like Pakistan tightening the noose around militant groups, and also making some changes in its religious outlook.  Closer home, Kashmir’s Muslim society is also behaving the same way.

Great would be the times for the Muslims around the world when our governments and societies restore the intellectual dynamism, and break this psychological barrier of fear.

Islam is an orientation of life towards good, away from evil. It’s minimal in its law, and religious practices. Its outward appearance in the form of customs and conventions is guided by the application of universal ethics, and it takes care of the differences in human tastes, and cultural backgrounds. Islam is not a system of life, it’s life.  The beauty of life is restored only when clutter and compulsion stay away.

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