Aligned closely with India’s political mood has been the business of generating Television Rating Points for advertising revenue over the last three-and-a-half years. A set of previously obscure bearded men have been integral to it. They mouth the most unreasonable positions on complex issues like triple talaq while a fraction of 0.56 per cent divorced women in India are the victims of the un-Islamic practice. In the process, the Muslim stereotypes are strengthened for the benefit of the party in power and the real issues of disenfranchisement, lynching, and lack of justice are obscured. It keeps the Muslim bogey alive and those who can “put Muslims in their place” firmly in power.
In this dehumanising atmosphere, it is difficult to imagine a set of stories an average Muslim grows up on. The stories include that of the woman who would curse and throw garbage at the Prophet Muhammad every time he passed by. The Prophet made it a point to see the woman when the routine stopped one day as she was taken ill. Garbage-throwing was nothing in comparison to the mutilation another woman, Hind, subjected the body of Prophet’s favourite uncle to. He forgave her too along with several others who had wronged him. The moral of the stories is to drive home a central point of Islam as a faith: Compassion.
The story that illustrates Islam’s key idea of social justice is the honour a former African slave, Bilal, was given as the first muezzin or prayer caller. Nothing underlines the importance of gender equality more than the Prophet’s employer and later wife, Khadijah. Impressed by the Prophet’s reputation as an honest man, she employed him to take care of her business which was spread from Mecca to Syria and Yemen. She had been widowed twice before proposing marriage to the Prophet, when he was 25 and Khadijah 40. The Prophet only confided in Khadija and her Christian cousin when he is believed to have begun receiving revelations. Many of the early converts to Islam were women — impressed by the idea of equality — when the Prophet began preaching two years after he started receiving revelations. The Prophet’s message was revolutionary for its time — the women got the right to acquire property, something that eluded their European counterparts for centuries.
The importance of universal education is underlined by the Prophet’s saying that go as far as China if you need to to acquire knowledge. He declared education compulsory for women and men when the right to educate oneself was the privilege only for a priestly class in the India. The Prophet loved animals and is once believed to have cut a sleeve of his coat to ensure that a cat napping on his arm was not disturbed while he had to rush for prayers. He is said to have told a woman she would find place in paradise despite being “sinful and evil” for saving a dying dog and giving it water.
Until a perverse form of Jihad backfired on the West and became the only thing defining over a billion Muslims, for real Muslims the idea meant struggle, with the biggest being against the evil within. The words for fighting or war in Arabic are qital and harb. Jihad appears in the Quran 41 times while dissuasion from fighting 70 times. The US introduced its perverse form in the late 1970s to fight communism. It pumped millions of dollars for textbooks full of violent images and teachings for Afghan schools. According to The Washington Post, the primers “filled with talk of jihad” featured “drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines”. They served as “the Afghan school system’s core curriculum’’ and even the Taliban used them, seeping “a generation in violence’’.
Islam’s humanising elements have not disappeared overnight. As Sophia Rose Arjana shows in her book, Muslims in the Western Imagination, there has been a long history of imaginary Muslim monsters who have aided the dehumanisation of the Muslim Other. The Hindutva movement has borrowed liberally from this tradition for its power politics. As a result, the alleged conduct of ruthless empire builders who happened to have been Muslim has been used to further this dehumanising project. The project conveniently ignores the glorious legacy of spiritual Islam in Sufism and true heirs to the Prophet like Bulleh Shah, Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti, Baba Farid etc.
That a substantial number of Muslims have no agency in large parts of what is erroneously labelled as the “Islamic” world has not helped either. Most of this world are swathes of fiefs of self-serving rulers. They owe their existence to the lines Mark Sykes and Francois Picot arbitrarily pencilled on West Asia’s map for Britain and France to get Germany’s oil share in 1916. The territories were demarcated to allow the two countries to build separate pipelines from Iraq to the Mediterranean ports for oil concessions in return. The rulers do not draw their legitimacy from their subjects and cannot see beyond the interests of their families and tribes.
The so-called Islamic world’s deficiencies are used as a stick to beat Muslims with while examples of countries are conveniently ignored. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country, where 12.9 per cent of the world’s Muslims live. It is secular with a heavy Hindu influence exemplifying its pluralism. The influence is disproportionate to the number — 1.7 per cent — of Hindus in Indonesia. Its national airline is named after Vishnu’s vehicle, Garuda, its currency notes carry Ganesh’s picture while the Ramayana and Mahabharata have a deep imprint on Indonesian culture. A Saraswati statue stands outside the Indonesian embassy in the world’s most important capital: Washington DC.
These are the stories that need to be told repeatedly for a peaceful future of co-existence when Islamophobia and transnational terrorism are feeding into each other.