Whose Islam?

By Khalid Baig

Whenever there is any talk of following Islam in the collective life of any Muslim country, one inevitably hears a rhetorical question. Whose Islam? Always the question is posed by those who want an easy out. But in addition to antipathy or hostility to Islam, which is generally recognized, it also shows an intellectual dishonesty that is not as widely perceived.

Actually the question is borrowed from elsewhere---without the least effort to judge its applicability in case of Islam. Nevertheless, it is a valid question when posed in the context of, say, Hinduism, Christianity, or Judaism. Hinduism cannot even agree on its own definition or its articles of faith. ("Hinduism is whatever a Hindu believes in.") There is no unified code or source for a code, just some vaguely defined cultural traditions.

In case of Christianity, the Bible could be a central unifying instrument. The trouble is there is not one, but hundreds of them---none of them in the original language of its revelation. Whose Bible? Whose translation? Whose interpretation? (Bible critics argue that the Bible can be quoted in support of just about any cause). The same is true of Judaism, where even the question "Who is a Jew?" remains a bone of contention. (The common ground in Israeli Jewry is not based on theology but only on a common goal of oppressing the non-Jews).

In fact it was the problems with and within Christianity that lead to the doctrine of separation of Church and State in the U.S, the world leader now trying to export that ideology to the rest of the world. A little bit of history may be helpful here. A lot of those who came to the U.S from Europe were religious people. For example, in 1630 when John Winthrop reached Massachusetts Bay, the would-be governor of the new colony declared to his followers: " We are entered into Covenant with Him...we shall be as one body, always having before our eyes our Commission from God to walk in His ways and to keep His Commandments and His Ordinance and His Laws...so that the Lord, our God may bless us."

But not everyone agreed on what was presented as "His Laws". After all, these were, personal opinions of the religious authorities. What else could one expect in the absence of a well preserved Revealed Text and well preserved Prophetic interpretation of that Text. An obvious problem with this is that you can have as many contending interpretations as there are experts --- and vested interests --- willing to define them. Thus the question "Whose religion?" became relevant and there was no practical answer. As religion became a divisive force that could not hold the country together, it had to be relegated to the private space to protect it as well as the State. So a century and a half after Winthrop the framers of the constitution of the United States firmly embedded the doctrine of separation of Church and State in it.

Exactly the opposite is true in case of Islam. Here Allah's Book has been miraculously preserved in the original language of its revelation as has been the language of its revelation itself. The sayings of the Prophet, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, along with a complete account of his life down to the smallest details has also been preserved. As even a child knows, the question "Whose Qur'an?" is as absurd as the question "Whose Bible?" is relevant. The Shariah is rooted in Qur'an and Sunnah. With the twin rock-solid foundations plus historic continuity, Islam remains a sure and uncompromised source of guidance unlike any other.

Aren't there big differences between various schools of Islamic law? Not only are there various schools, but there are divisions within the schools themselves, some might point out. For example in the countries of the Indian sub-continent, where the great majority of Muslims belongs to the Hanafi school, there is this unbridgeable chasm between the Deobandi and Bralevi groups. What is generally not realized is that there is no difference on issues of law or fiqh between these groups. While there is disagreement between them over certain practices, they rely on the same authorities, quote from the same books, and follow the same exact code of law right down to the minutest details.

The four major schools of fiqh certainly have differences between them. Yet the relevance of these differences to Islamization of a society are vastly exaggerated, while the common ground between them is ignored. Just consider, are there any differences between them regarding the articles of faith? The pillars of Islam? The meaning of good and evil? The definition of right and wrong? Sources of law? Moral values? Role of government? The relationship of individual and the society? The role of women in society? The fact is that on all of these issues there is no difference between them. Yet these are central issues when organizing the collective life of any society.

For example, Islamization of education system means helping the students develop an Islamic outlook. In science they should see the signs of Allah. In history they should see the working of Allah's Laws that determine the rise and fall of nations. Islamization of the media means aligning their methods and goals with Islamic morality, throwing out a system that appeals to people's baser emotions as a means to attracting their attention and their money. Islamization of the economic system means replacing the injustice and irresponsibility of a riba based system with the justice and responsibility taught by Islam. It means developing a society in which affluence and poverty are not viewed as achievements and failures but only as different conditions that carry with them different sets of rights and responsibilities.

Now let us ask, which of the above is hampered by the differences between various Islamic schools? Which of these require us to ask the question "Whose Islam?" before we can proceed?

In map making, the prevalent European Mercator projection system introduces distortions making some areas much bigger and others much smaller. For example Greenland is in reality much smaller and Africa is much bigger than the maps show. A similar distortion has been introduced in the religious maps of the Muslim world that vastly enlarge our areas of disagreement and tremendously reduce our common ground, thereby portraying the picture of "so many irreconcilable versions of Islam". That, unfortunately, sometimes the distortions may be done by insiders does not change the fact of distortion. It is time we realized that there is something wrong with that picture and with the question: "Whose Islam?".