Islam: a Way of God - As I have experienced it
Samuel Simick SJ
After a short exposure to Islam and meeting Muslims of Bihar Sharif I came to understand a little more about Islam and Muslim life style. It was not the first time that I was meeting Muslims or learning about Islam. My first close interaction with a Muslim was when I was in high school. We became good friends. However, we never talked of our religions during our meetings or when we visited each other’s houses. Later, when I was doing my under graduate studies, I met many Muslims. Some became good friends. However, I never asked them about their religion or about their faith. Nevertheless, I never met a Muslim who was not friendly. The present exposure to Islam at Bihar Sharif gave me a chance to learn more about Islam and Muslims. Ten days were a very short time to do any deeper study. Therefore, this paper is not a scientific or objective paper, but an expression of subjective experiences. Together with Bihar Sharif’s experiences, I have used my earlier experiences to make this paper a presentable one.
A Muslim is one who surrenders him/herself fully to the will of Allāh. Commonly, a Muslim is a follower of Islam, promoted by Muhammad, the Prophet. Some scholars even try to give full form to the abbreviated five alphabets of ISLAM as “I Surrender to the Law of Allāh through Muhammad,” though it may not be widely accepted as the real meaning. In every Muslim’s heart the words ‘Allāhu Akbar, Lā ilāha illa-llāh Muhammadun rasūlu-llāh’ (Allah is great, there is no god but God: Muhammad is the messenger of God) are deeply rooted. This is the profession of faith of every Muslim, and a Muslim holds this very dear to his/her life. To surrender to the will of Allāh (God) is not an easy task, and to know what is the will of God is even more difficult. However, for a Muslim the will of Allāh is spelled out clearly in the Holy Quran, which is supplemented by the life of the Prophet (Hadith) and the other Muslim writings (Sunna). Every Muslim tries to follow the demands made in the Quran faithfully, because, as I have already mentioned, they are the will of Allāh for human beings on earth.
Initiation into the Religion
Every Muslim child is taught to read the Quran—in the original Arabic—from very early in life. He/she is initiated into Muslim religious practices form childhood. It is surprising to see that even children as young as 5-6 years know a lot about their religion and religious observances. They know that as a Muslim, they believe in Allāh and Muhammad as the messenger. They know that a Muslim must offer prayers five times a day, facing in the direction of Mecca; give alms and help the poor and needy; fast during the holy month of Ramzān (though the children before puberty and aged and infirm are exempted); and make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in his/her life time. Children are encouraged to wear a particular type of dress, for example, Kurta and cap (usually white in colour) for boys and Salwar Kamiz with headscarf for the girls. As they grow up, most Muslim men keep a beard and women are encouraged to wear burqa (veil). From very early on in life, children are sent to the Madrāsa, where they are taught to read the Quran and they are introduced into religious practices. Once the children attain puberty, they are instructed to live a physically clean life, as the sign of purity of living. They are introduced to the “dos” and “don’ts” of Islam in these religious schools. Later on, if a Muslim boy wants to study the religion, he may continue his study in the Madrāsa, and the others can go to do various secular studies in colleges / universities. The Madrāsas have a special importance in the development of young Muslim minds.
The Word of God, the Holy Quran
For a Muslim, Islam is a natural religion. The solution for every practical problem is dealt with, rather spelled out, either in the Quran, Hadith or Sunna. Since the Quran is a revealed book, there can be no mistake in it. Muslims believe that there is a book in heaven and it was given to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. They also believe that the language of Jannath (heaven) is that of the Quran, i.e., Arabic. However, this idea may seem to be too good to be true for a non-Muslim, but for a Muslim there is no question of its not being true. A Muslim’s life is centred on the Quran. The Quran, for Muslims, is ‘the’ Word of Allāh, written as it is in heaven. Therefore, one cannot question the authenticity of the book. If we read the Quran, we can see that the book mostly deals with what God did and does for us and what we should do to save ourselves from the wrath of God. The Quran, for a non-Muslim, seems to be a book of rules.
Muslims do not ask questions regarding the Quran. They often quote the verses from the Quran but they never raise questions, such as why or whether the saying could be understood in different ways; or whether the words of the Quran are relevant in the world of today. These are the questions that come to a non-Muslim’s mind, but, for a faithful Muslim, everything that is written in the Quran is Allāh’s words and no one has the authority to question them.
Muslims believe that there are other books (Torah-Pentateuch; Zabur-Psalms; and Injil-Gospel) beside the Quran that were revealed by Allāh to the human race. However, the earlier revealed books were not complete. Since the Quran was the last of all the revealed books, it is the complete revelation and there will be no more revelation thereafter. Muhammad, being the last of all the prophets of God, is the greatest of them all.
Allāh: the Notion of One God
Islam is a monotheistic religion. Muslims believe in only One God, Allāh. Though Allāh is said to be the most compassionate, the most merciful, the most forgiving, all wise, all-powerful, all knowing, the creator of all things etc., but these, according to Muslims, are simply attributes of Allāh. (In traditional Islamic theology the essence and attributes are commonly accepted. This is true here in Bihar). Allāh is also said to be the All-Knowing Judge who will judge both the righteous and evildoers and give either reward for the good done or punishment for wrong doings.
For ordinary Muslims, Allāh is the All-Knowing Judge, the most compassionate or most forgiving. For them, religious practices cannot be compromised in any way. They are more frightened of breaking rules than of doing a righteous deed. According to the Quran, a Muslim is obliged to give alms (Zakat) to the poor, and a Muslim believes that it is his/her duty to do so mainly because it is enjoined upon them. If a Muslim does not give alms, even his/her pilgrimage (Hajj) is not valid. The reality that we see in a Muslim community gives us a different picture. Most of the time the reality contradicts the belief, for we see very rich Muslims and, at the same time, very poor Muslims. If a Muslim really follows the Quran, there would not have been any classes, because Muslims believe that Islam is a class-less religion. The word of Allāh seems to have touched their eardrums and intellects but not their hearts. Islam, like all religions, is a group of people, and human desires always contradict the religious belief. Often we bury the voice of God under human desires, because of which there is domination, violence, fear, and hatred. Such discrimination and oppression are present in every religion, and Islam is not an exception.
Muslims believe that all human beings are created by one God, but when it comes to the reality of God, they have difficulties in accepting other religions. Many Muslims believe that those who believe in One God are all Muslims and Islam is the religion of all humanity. Whatever the differences, one cannot deny the fact that every Muslim is united to another in his/her belief in One God (Lā ilāha illa-llāh).
Women in Islam
Sura 4 (Al-Nisa) of the Quran writes, “Men have fear of your Lord, who created you from a single soul. From that soul He created its mate, and through them He bestowed the earth with countless men and women” (4:1).
The verse clearly points to the fact that men and women on earth are generated from the soul created by God. However, as the chapter develops, we find that more importance is given to the male gender. When we read verse 34 in the same chapter we find, “Men have authority over women because Allāh has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them.” These types of sentences in the Quran have been often quoted in order to establish the domination of men over women within Islam. The Quran was misinterpreted in many ways, especially when it comes to Women. Though the first verse of Al-Nisa clearly says that both men and women are generated from the soul God had created, and there is nothing that indicates that women are not equal to men. However, we do not give importance to such verses, because these types of verses do not allow males to have dominion over females.
I have met three types of Muslim women—I am not saying that there are only three types—through my interactions with them. The first type is those who are poor, timid, uneducated, fearsome and always submissive to others. They are simple and ignorant. This type is the most common among Muslim women. They have been kept at home and forced to do what the male members of the family/society want or think they should do.
The second type is those who are outspoken, but they do not have the courage to challenge the authority of religion and tradition. This type do not find any negativity in their tradition, faith or socio-religious practices. They do not challenge the existing rules or regulations, even though they are oppressive. They generally belong to rich or upper class families. They have many supporters, and they are ready to do anything for the development of the good works they have started or envisioned. They keep their hands off religious matters, and try to justify their religious practices and beliefs. They are diplomatic in a general sense.
The third type is those who try to reform their own oppressive religious practices. This type is rare. They are people who have experienced the pain of being less-human; the pain of being dominated; and the pain of being captivated by a male dominated society. I think these women are much more enlightened than other women in the Muslim community. They challenge the inhuman practices of their own religion and society. These women try to interpret the Quranic verses in a new light by giving a deeper meaning and understanding of the rules and regulations. These women face much opposition, but they do not stop doing the good things they have started. For me, these women are the prophets of the modern world.
In general, Muslim women do not have an equal status with Muslim men. There are times and places where women are forced to remain at home. They are deprived of their rights of education, speech or life. However, the Quran says that women should be given education and all possible skills. Many a times they are forced to wear a veil over their bodies, completely covering them. The enforcers of these types of life-styles upon Muslim women are generally more fundamentalist. The Quran says that women should “…draw their veils close around them. That is more proper, so that they may be recognized and not molested” (33:39). The Arabic word translated as ‘veil’ is actually hijab, means ‘an outer garment’. The veil is used to protect a woman from being molested, but this should not prevent others from recognizing her. If she covers herself from head to toe, who could possibly recognize her? The liberal Muslim women think that the veil should be understood in a new way. It is not the covering of the women’s body, but it should be changing of the attitude of men who lustfully look at women. Muslims may not accept this in general.
Another problematic area is that of the Triple Talaq (divorce by uttering ‘talaq’ three times). Ordinary Muslims think that only men have the right to divorce their wives. They also think that any time they can divorce their wives by uttering the word ‘talaq’ three times. However, the Quran does not give so easy means for divorcing one’s wife. To divorce his wife, man should, first of all, have a valid reason. Then he should have two honest men as his witnesses. The talaq is not pronounced at once, there is a time gap (the waiting period) between the first and the second talaq; and between the second and the third talaq. The first and the second talaq are given as warning to the woman in question. If in the mean time she repents and changes her life style, accordingly there is no third talaq. In such case, the previous two talaq(s) are nullified.
However, ignorant Muslim men use the triple talaq as a means of getting rid of their wives, sometimes with no reason at all; and ignorant Muslim women fall victim to such inhumane treatment. Therefore wives do not want to offend their husbands, lest they be given talaq by their spouse. Their life becomes miserable and they have to live under the constant fear of being thrown out of their own house.
Sufis in a Muslim’s Life
Though Muslims believe in one God, they do not deny the presence of holy men in Islam. Muslims believe that we can go directly to God, but can also approach God through the intercession of saints. Therefore, the intercession of the holy men is one way for ordinary people to reach God. Sufis are such holy men who lived their life according to the Will of Allāh. They are close to Allāh. Therefore, when they pray, God listens to their prayers. At the same time, such view is strongly opposed by traditional Muslims.
Sufis are known as mystics. Sufism brought the mystical dimension into Islam. One cannot avoid observing various Dargahs (the tombs of holy men) in areas where Islam is present. Many people visit these dargahs, either to pay respect to the dead holy men and his family members, or to pray or to get healed from various ailments. They have deep faith in these holy men’s prayers. Unlike mosques, dargahs receive all types of people, Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, boys and girls, sick and healthy. Usually there is a mosque within the premises of a dargah, and even women are allowed to be present during the prayers, but they have a separate place for them.
Sufis, during their lifetime, usually live a simple and holy life and teach people in the matters of faith and good living. They are seen as the spiritual leaders of the Muslim community. Muslims talk of them as ‘God people’ or holy men. They are respected even after they are dead and gone. Many Sufi Saints have left behind volumes of teaching, which are listened to or read by everyone.
Sharafuddin Maneri is such a person. Who was born in Maner, but lived and died in Bihar Sharif. There are many tombs belonging to the holy people who are somehow related to Sharafuddin Maneri. People visit these tombs to pray and to be healed of various ailments. In Bari Dargah (where there is Sharafuddin Maneri’s tomb) there is provision for the people to stay for forty days and pray mainly for being healed of sickness. I observed many women who were believed to be possessed by evil spirits at the premises. They were there to get better. Whatever the sickness they had, I was touched by their simple faith in the power of the holy man. Not only Muslims but also non-Muslims respect and love him. With love, people address Maneri as Makhdum Baba.
My interactions with Muslims of Bihar Sharif made me realize that there can be no polytheism in the world, because God cannot be many. However, the One Supreme Being (God) could choose to reveal Godself in any way. God as a Supreme Being has freedom to do so. Therefore, we experience God in various ways. We are limited beings and it is not possible to exhaust the experience of the Divine. The fundamental experience of God is Love. When we experience Love, we feel happy, joyful, hopeful, liberated, courageous and faithful. We start trusting and loving others. A Muslim cannot but feel loved when he/she experiences Allāh in his/her life. This experience of love may be expressed in different forms, such as by following the rules and regulations properly, by helping one’s neighbours, by fighting for justice and so on.
It is sad to see how our human interpretation of Divine revelation could lead us astray. When we wrongly interpret the word of God, it may become a hindrance in experiencing Divine Love. To understand the Divine Will, one has to be in touch with the Divine Self. For a Muslim, the Will of Allāh is very dear and important. The will of Allāh for a Muslim is spelled out in the Quran. Doing whatever the Quran says is better than any other deed.
Islam is believed to be a peaceful religion, and so it is. However, in recent times Islam is being wrongly identified with some violent fundamentalist groups, who try to exploit the name of Islam for their own benefit. Some fundamentalist religious leaders try to use the name of religion to mislead people into violence and terror. It is not only Islam, but every religion across the world that is being exploited by a few fundamentalists to promote their own agenda. Instead of bringing Love, Life and liberation, which is the aim of all religions, they try to destroy humanity by resorting to terror and violence.
I always ask myself, when will we learn to understand each other? When will we learn to love each other? When will we see the reign of God? Through my short interaction with the Muslim community of Bihar Sharif, now I am hopeful that one day we will understand each other. I am hopeful that one day we will bring peace into our hearts. One day we will experience love and that day we will see the reign of God on earth.