Static Islamic versus Materialist West

Bharat Jhunjhunwala

The beheading of a school teacher in France has ignited Islamophobia across the world. That is, however, a one-sided view. There is need for reform of both Islam and Western materialist ideology. Both ideologies are fundamentally egalitarian. The sixth century Arab world was hugely inequal with rampant slavery and tribal elitism. At that time Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) brought a revolutionary message that all human beings were equal. The key words of the French Revolution in 1789, in parallel, were “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The two thought processes evolved in different directions in course of time.

The responsibility of explaining the ideology of Islam was taken over by the tradition or the “Sunnah” after the Prophet. The Sunnah consisted of the sayings of the Prophet known as Hadith (as distinct from the Suras of the Holy Quran that were revealed through him) and the interpretation of these texts as done by the elders. According to Leslie Hazelton, author of After the Prophet, the simplicity and equality were maintained during the first two Caliphs following the Prophet namely Abu Bakr and Omar. The situation changed dramatically at the time of the third Caliph Uthman. He got a massive palace made at Medina with marble columns where foreign dishes were served. He granted huge parcels of land along with thousands of horses and slaves to his near ones. This inequality appears to be against the teachings of the Prophet. However, it has been accepted in mainstream Islam because the sole authority of deciphering the meaning of the verses of the Quran has been taken over by the Sunnah to the exclusion of the common man. Thus, the grand inequality seen in Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia have become “acceptable.” It has become impossible to change, or even challenge, this particular interpretation of the Quran. Ayat 2:256 says “There is no compulsion in religion.” However, the saying of the Prophet as recorded in Bukhari’s Hadith 9:59 says, “Kill one who changes his Islamic religion.” The Sunnah therefore has altered, even reversed, the teaching of the Quran. It has become nearly impossible to repair this alteration because Ayat 3:92 of the Quran says that Mohammad would be the “last Prophet.” Question is whether the Mohammad was the last Prophet among the Prophets till his time; or we would be the last Prophet for all times to come? The Sunnah had determined that Mohammed was the last Prophet for all times to come. Therefore, the teachings given by Prophet Mohammed and as interpreted by the Sunnah have become “fixed” and unchangeable. Islam has thus become “frozen,” so to say. The march of economic development, the spread of education, the liberation of colonies, the outlawing of slavery is all ignored by Islam.

Similar is the situation of the Western ideology. Europe witnessed huge killings of one Christian sect by another in the first millennium of the Common Era which is known as “Inquisitions.” Non-Christians were considered second-class citizens and decried as “pagans.” The French Revolution in 1789 led to separation of religion and the state and established the idea of equality. However, France itself colonized entire north-west Africa and acted barbarously towards the natives in the nineteenth century—exactly opposite to its own ideal of equality. French Multinational Companies continue to exploit the developing countries after the end of colonialism. The ideology of equality and fraternity was limited and continues to be limited within the borders of France. Those living outside France are not entitled to either equality or fraternity. Thus far, Islam and the West are similar. Both have denied equality and fraternity in different ways. However, the West has evolved. At one time colonialism was in vogue. Now it is passe. In comparison, there is no change in Islam because according to Ayat 3:92 Mohammad was the last Prophet and the message delivered by him as interpreted by the Sunnah in unchangeable. The message cannot change ever.

Another difference in the two ideologies is about the exact nature of their all-encompassing character. Islam considers Allah to be all-encompassing. The slogan of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” also was all-encompassing. But there is a crucial difference. The all-encompassing character of Islam is external. Allah is separate from the society and He stands outside of mankind though He is all-encompassing. The nature of His all-encompassion is to be determined by the Sunnah. Thus, as Bukhari’s Hadith would say, it is okay to kill who changes his religion from Islam. All-encompassion stops here. This view cannot be discussed or challenged by the affected people because the human beings have no role whatsoever and no authority whatsoever to challenge the Sunnah. In comparison the Western all-encompassion is dynamic and resides within the society. The collective thinking of all mankind is the ideology of the West as seen in the adoption of democracy. The ideology is answerable to mankind, which is sovereign. At the same time, the writ of the same ideology has been limited to people within one’s country and comes with freedom to exploit those outside one’s borders. On the other hand, the ideology of Islam is answerable to Allah Who is outside of mankind. Mankind cannot question the ideology as given by Allah and interpreted by Sunnah. Allah is sovereign, not mankind. For this reason, Western ideology can and has been evolving—which is not seen in Islam.

Conclusion is that the ideology of equality runs deep in both the Islamic and Western ideologies. However, Sunnah has killed this ideology in Islam by adopting internal inequality while crass economic interest has killed the same ideology in the West by limiting equality within one’s borders. There is need to reform both. Islam will have to accept internal equality and West will have to expand equality to the whole mankind. Secondly, the all-encompassing nature of Allah in Islam is entirely compatible with the all-encompassing ideology of equality of the West. However, these have to be synchronized. The Islamic all-encompassing nature of Allah has to be expanded to all human beings as said in Ayat 2:256 and made compatible with other religions. The Western all-encompassing nature of equality has to be taken beyond one’s borders. The roots of conflict between Islam and the West lie in these different conceptions which need to be discussed and a common framework arrived at with mutual consultation.

Dr. Bharat Jhunjhunwala, Formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru

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Nov 7, 2020

Dr. Bharat Jhunjhunwala

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