At no stage in modern Indian history have Muslims been put to such a hard test. Every action of theirs is being viewed through a suspicious lens and even their positive contributions are being viewed in a negative light or are being deftly airbrushed as insignificant. The mainstream narrative is being orchestrated to pigeon hole the entire community into stereotypical templates – that of fanatical, undisciplined, conspiratorial and unpatriotic Muslims.
Earlier, the right-wing media had labeled Muslims in two categories: good Muslims and bad Muslims. COVID-19 has helped these religious anthropologists get over even that inconvenient distinction. Now all Muslims are being straight-jacketed into a standard singular identity – that all Muslims are bad. They are all being portrayed as uniformly untrustworthy. Nobody wants to hear anything good about Muslims. Ears have grown deaf to such sentiments.
The propaganda machine is being operated with such ferocious velocity that the voices of reason and logic are getting drowned in this high-voltage crescendo against Muslims. Positive examples, like the benevolent deeds of Muslim corporate houses like Cipla and Wipro and the Khan celebrities, are portrayed as isolated flashes of philanthropy.
These pseudo-intellectuals detest the fact that Islamic monuments bear Muslim ties and resent that historians have documented facts about them so solidly that consistent attempts to efface their identity have not yielded any fruit.
Media, rights and injustice
At this juncture, we do not need revolutionary advocacy to explain how prejudiced, misinformed and misdirected the whole media sector is. Every age has been a witness to such threats to pluralist societies, and it is the time-honored message of our scriptures that has helped society ride out these storms. We need to just revisit these scriptures and their original content to understand their divinely transmitted message and distinguish it from manmade religious thought and practices that have become the more-recognized face of all organized religions.
The divine books are the work of an infallible God, but human-mandated practices that have shrouded the original divine message are products of the minds of fallible human beings. This is the root cause of misunderstanding about religions and the wrong beliefs that abound in adherents, most of whom are illiterate or are intellectually incapable of comprehending the scriptures.
It is in these misgivings we see a distorted worldview of Islam being projected to the world. With the powerful influence of Islamophobic brigades, there has been a massive surge of hatred against Islam and its adherents. Muslims continue to be demonized and projected as uniformly fundamentalist and violent. This powerfully flawed narrative and negative stereotyping continue to fuel distorted perceptions about Islam. This portrayal is not based on rigorous evidence or scientific inquiry but springs from biased reporting and misguided speculation in the media. In a climate where Muslims are already feeling alienated and marginalized, it is unfair to mock and ridicule their religion and identity.
The core messages
Islam, actually, is a religion of peace. That is its aim and goal. The Quran's powerful commandment should leave one in no doubt: "Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as though he had killed all of mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind" (Q5:32).
The Quran, in its essence, promotes justice, peace, equality, brotherhood and freedom. Compassion and kindness underpin its core message. To understand this, one has to read the entire Quran and not isolated verses. No verse is a standalone commandment. Each not only has a bearing on the other but amplifies it too. It is an integrated book and egalitarianism is its underlying philosophy.
The voice of the text is the fruit of a dialogue. For some, the peace of God is through his sword; for others, it is found in his unbounded mercy. The entire paradigm is built around human interpretation. The pacifists and the terrorists read the same text but present fundamentally different interpretations. It is important to consider the reader and interpreter of the Quran. The voice of the Quran heard by Islamic fundamentalists is not the same as the voice heard by progressive Muslims.
It is essential that all the verses of the Quran are read and understood in conjunction with each other. Reading and interpreting verses in isolation is a very incorrect way of engaging with the text. Much of the strife and misunderstanding of the scripture is primarily on account of selective reading and lacks reference to the context in which the verses of the text were revealed.
Not promoting violence
For example, the current modern definition of jihad is contrary to the linguistic meaning of the word and also contrary to the beliefs of most Muslims who equate it with religious extremism. The word jihad stems from the Arabic root word "J-H-D," which means "strive." Other words derived from this root include "effort," "labor" and "fatigue." Essentially, jihad is a struggle to stand by one's religion in the face of oppression and persecution. The effort may come in the form of fighting the evil in your own heart or standing up to a dictator.
The first time the word is used in the Quran, it signifies a "resistance to oppression" (Q25:26) that is spiritual and intellectual rather than militant. The moralist approach espouses jihad through conscience (jihad bin naïfs), while a more radical wing advocates jihad through the sword (jihad bin saif). In mainstream Muslim tradition also, the greatest jihad was not warfare but reform of oneself and one's society. The Prophet Muhammad explained that true jihad was an inner struggle against egotism.
There is a lot of misunderstanding on account of this verse: "Slay them wherever you catch them" (Q2:191). But who is this referring to? Who are "they" in this verse? The "them" are terrorists who persecuted and killed innocent people for their faith. Some verses are very often "snipped" out of context by mischief makers for inflaming emotions, fostering misunderstandings and perpetuating violence on all sides. Quran 3:8 preemptively calls out people who cherry-pick verses as "'perverse' people, declaring ... those in whose hearts is perversity seek discord and wrong interpretation of (the Quran)."
Islam does permit fighting but only in self-defense, in defense of religion or on the part of those who have been expelled forcibly from their homes. The permission given in Q22:40-41 to fight was only given to "those against whom war is waged." At the same time, it also lays down strict rules that include prohibitions against harming civilians and against destroying crops, trees and livestock. It is critical that we understand this critical dimension of Islam.
First, Muslims cannot preemptively initiate a war. They are only allowed to act in defense. War can be waged if there is a situation where defenseless people are under attack. A war is considered just when one party does not cease aggression in spite of a proposed truce. If the enemy inclines toward peace, Muslims have to follow suit: "But if they stop, God is most forgiving, most merciful" (Q2:192). Also read, "Now if they incline toward peace, then incline to it, and place your trust in God, for God is the all-hearing, the all-knowing" (Q8:61).
Second, Muslims are not allowed to transgress divine injunctions: "Fight for the cause of God, those who fight you, but do not transgress, for God does not love the transgressors." (Q2:190). Third, Muslims have to treat prisoners of war with honor. Prisoners have to be released after the war, either in exchange for Muslims captives or only as a favor.
Historian Sir William Muir records how the Prophet Muhammad instructed his companions to treat prisoners of war. The refugees had houses of their own and received the prisoners with kindness and consideration. "Blessings on the men of Medina!" said one of them in later days: "They made us ride, while they themselves walked afoot; they gave us wheaten bread to eat when there was little of it, contenting themselves with dates."
Contrary to what some historians have portrayed, Islam did not impose itself by the sword. This has been emphatically made clear in the Quran: "There must be no coercion in matters of faith!" (Q2:256). In words quoted by Muhammad in one of his last public sermons, God tells all human beings: "O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another" (Q49:13). Moreover, Islamic wars weren't just to defend Muslims against persecution but to defend Christians, Jews and people of all faiths. All verses addressing fighting are preconditioned with rules of self-defense. The Quran says that "persecution is worse than slaughter" and "let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression" (Q2:190-193).
Tolerance is the essence
On his victorious rerun to Mecca after 20 years, the Prophet Muhammad bore no animosity for the locals who had persecuted him and his band, forcing them to emigrate to Medina. He offered blanket forgiveness, the only condition being that Meccans accept universal freedom of conscience.
In keeping with this spirit of tolerance that the Prophet Muhammad demonstrated during his lifetime, today's Muslim thinkers feel there exists no imperative to distance themselves from this tradition of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. They are plumbing it to find resources to help them adapt to the modern world and to shape it on those lines. Muslim religious scholars are exhuming and popularizing principles and practices that allowed Muslims in the past to coexist with others, in peace and on equal terms, regardless of creed and faith. They keep reminding themselves that seventh-century Medina accepted Jews as equal members of the community (umma) under the Constitution of Medina drawn up by the Prophet Muhammad in 622.
Muslim reformers are returning to the foundational text, the Quran and its commentaries and other early sources of religion – authentic sayings of Prophet Muhammad and early historical chronicles – for seeking solutions in these troubled times. They are combing their literature to shed better light on moral guidelines and ethical prescriptions.
There is no better testament to the Prophet Muhammad's credo of tolerance and forgiveness than the attestation of non-Muslim historian Stanley Lane-Poole: "The day of Muhammad's greatest triumph over his enemies was also the day of his grandest victory over himself. He freely forgave the Quraysh all the years of sorrow and cruel scorn in which they had afflicted him and gave an amnesty to the whole population of Mecca."
It is in the above light that we have to reshape our response to the current pandemic. We all now know that the COVID-19 pandemic is the culmination of our long warfare that has tinctured the fabric of our planet. It is not just chemical warfare but warfare in its widest manifestation that has brought us to the edge of this catastrophe. All forms of warfare, including warfare of religions and ideologies, are symptomatic of sick minds that need patient healing. This can be made possible only when we renew our understanding of the insights of history and civilizations. These lessons are distilled in the founding credo of UNESCO, which reads, "Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed." The minds of men will need to be sanitized by purging them of all sorts of misinformation being purveyed in the name of religion by self-appointed custodians. We need to understand every religion from its primary scriptures and not from secondary sources, which are unfortunately prone to so many misinterpretations and are usually representative of a particular school of thought. The only lasting solution will be to liberate society from manmade religion and return to the pristine message of the scriptures. These scriptures had a simple, straightforward and plain-speaking message for all humanity, which got distorted at the hands of the modern tools of so-called intellectual sophistry and sterile polemics. We need to sanitize not just our bodies and our environment, but also our mind and intellect.
We have denuded religion of its humanist content, compassion, piety, tolerance and fairness, and reduced it to a rigid set of social codes and practices considered the only valid credentials for attaining salvation. Fake religious leaders have adopted the responsibility of collective salvation, freeing humanity of its own individual moral and spiritual accountability. We need to think and act at our individual level and abandon this trend of seeking salvation in herds if we want to achieve our moral redemption. This is the distilled essence of all divine revelations.
Our fight against COVID-19 is not an option. It is an imperative cause that needs absolute unity of purpose and complete trust among all humankind.
It is extremely painful that some people continue to underscore imagined communal divergence in this dark hour, making us wonder what our real objectives are. Whatever the purveyors of hate might think they are achieving through the toxicity of their discourse, they do not realize they are causing irreversible damage to civil values.
COVID-19 has many spiritual lessons, apart from medical and biological lessons. One is that we have to be compassionate with our planet. But to achieve this, we must learn to be compassionate with ourselves, and our brothers. We must be our brother's keeper. We must not forget that we are one species, Homo sapiens, and our planet is our common heritage. That is also the way to a more balanced, inclusive and equitable society.
History tells us that politics plays a vicious role when there is a clash between briefs and truth. Society has paid a heavy price for allowing politics to have its sway. We should grow wiser from the lessons of history. Let history not repeat itself. Let us not play with precious human lives.
*Holder of Ph.D. in economics based in Napur, author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies about the Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Omar