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Newsletter for March 2013
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The Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the Liberator
by Asghar Ali Engineer
Why liberation and from what? are important questions to be answered before we get to the discussion about Muhammad (PBUH), the Prophet, (peace be upon him) and his liberation movement.
For any liberation movement the existing social situation, social, political, religious, cultural or economic, is extremely important. Any liberation movement actually takes off from this situations. It is therefore, necessary to take of the socio-cultural and politico-economic situation existing before the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) appears on the social scene of Mecca. Then and only then we can understand
the significance of Muhammad (PBUH) as liberator.
First, let us take the social scene on the eve of Prophet’s appearance on the social scene of Mecca. Illiteracy was widespread. It is thought by the noted historian Tabari and others that there were hardly 17 persons who were literate at the time. The Arabs, in fact, considered it a waste of time to learn to read and write and even took pride in their being ‘illiterate’, they were extremely fond of poetry which was something to be recited and heard, not written, no other genre had developed, except poetry in Arabic literature of the time. It was said of Arabic language that it was sacred to the ears, not to the eyes. Written prose was almost unknown. Arabic was mere a spoken language.
It was not for nothing that the period before Islam was called a period of Jahilliah (i.e. ignorance). It was not mere illiteracy which mattered most. The social outlook was very narrow. In fact they hardly ever saw beyond there own tribe. Their code of conduct too was limited to unwritten tribal customs. There was no written laws. The Arabs at the same time took great pride in their ancestry. If the tribal pride was hurt it would result in prolonged bloodshed, at times lasting over generations.
The religious scene was even worse. Each tribe had its own idol. Historians tell us there were more than 360 idols in K’aba, the holy abode of God. Tribal gods brought about even sharper divisions. There was no concept of humanity beyond ones tribe. The whole existence of an Arab was circumscribed by tribal limits. Superstitions were a great religious force. These superstitions have been referred to in the Quran and condemned. There was no attempt whatsoever to widen the frontier of knowledge. Their whole life was governed by superstition.
The position of women was very unenviable. Though there was no practice of veil like feudal society, they were socially and economically unfree. They could not play independent role in social, economic or political affairs. Their marital status was even worse. They had to live, at times, with more than a dozen co-wives. Also, they were considered a burden and in many cases an attempt was made to bury them alive to which the Quran also refers in a verses (And when the one buried alive is asked. For what sin was she killed, 81: 8-9).
Economic scene as no less depressing. The social woes of the weaker sections were indescribable. Tribal structure was collapsing (in economic sense) and a commercial oligarchy was coming into being. This oligarchy was motivated by material greed and was blatantly disregarding even tribal obligations. As a result the orphans, the widows and the needy (miskin) greatly suffered. Also, there was innumerable slaves and slave girls. They were condemned to work without any reward. The slave girls were compelled to co-habit with there masters. These slaves existed on the periphery of the society. They had no human dignity.
Also, among the free there were many who had been completely marginalised. They were condemned to provide cheap labour. The commercial caravans passed through Mecca. The camels carrying commercial goods had to be loaded and unloaded. This cheap labour was provided by the poor and the needy, those existing on the margin of the society. Neither they could protest of unionised. Such a concept did not exist at that time. The artisans too were condemned to struggle for bare existence. They included tanners, smiths, carpenters and others. The neo-rich, on the other hand led life of luxury.
Politically the situation was less dismal. Arabs were fiercely independent people and jealously guarded their independence. No attempt to subjugate them ever succeeded whether at the hands of Romans or the Sassanids. They thus lived independently in Arabian peninsula. However, as pointed out earlier, there was no unity among the Arabs divided as they were among various tribes fiercely fighting against each other. Moreover, there was no concept of unity beyond ones own tribe. Such a unity was considered blasphemous, to say at least. Only few tribes in Mecca tried to form inter-tribal corporations for commercial purposes. The commercial caravans were oftenly owned by individuals belonging to different tribes.
Muhammad (PBUH) appears on the social scene on Mecca in such despicable conditions. He had no schooling as neither was encouraged (as pointed out earlier) nor it had any functional value (except for commercial contracts, a need which was newly emergent and was met with the help of a few literates in Mecca). He was orphaned at an early age, led life of penury and was steeled through struggles of life. He married a rich widow at the age of 25 and began to lead a life of a recluse in the cave of Hira where he spent time brooding over the social, religious, political and economic situation around him. He than literally burst over the Meccan scene at the age of 40 to liberate his people as well as the whole humanity.
Liberate from what? whom? and why?. Liberation from ignorance, superstition, oppression, slavery and injustice. Liberation to give dignity and freedom of thought and action. These are the noble ideals which not only provide inspiration to live but also encourage creativity and purposeful action. Also, Muhammad worked for the liberation of the oppressed, the poor and the needy and the ignorant. He was, in this project of liberation, not only a teacher and philosopher, but also an activist, participant and fighter. Under his inspiration the Arabs not only liberated themselves but also sought to liberate others by shattering the two greatest oppressive empires of the world then i.e. the Roman and thee Sassaniid. Their stormy victories were ensured as they were scene by the oppressed of these mighty empires as liberators.
We would now discuss the liberative elements and liberative aspects of Muhammad (PBUH) the Prophet’s teachings and actions.
For any liberative praxis knowledge is a must. In fact it is knowledge which provides perspective for liberation and for liberative actions. It is thus not for nothing that the very first revelation (see chapter 96 THE CLOT) came with the word igra i.e.read. The following verses in the chapter also lay stress on acquiring ilm (i.e. knowledge). The verses run as follows: "Read in the name of thy Lord who creates (the implications being one should study and acquire knowledge of creation). creates man from a clot, Read, thy Lord is most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of pen, taught man what he did not know."
It is important to note here that there was no concept even of pen among the Arabs, literacy being very rare. Here the Quran stresses the use of pen as it is through pen that knowledge is transmitted from one place to another and from one generation to the other, thus revelation to the Prophet began with stress on knowledge and its transmission to others. Elsewhere the Quran also likens to knowledge to nur (light). Thus Allah led the Arabs (as they were the immediate people around the Prophet then) from darkness of ignorance to the light of knowledge. One can understand what liberative effect this acquisition of knowledge must have had on the minds of the Arabs. The Prophet further reinforced this by his making acquisition of knowledge obligatory (faridat) for both men as well as women. The Prophet also induced his followers to acquire knowledge even if it be in China (Sin).
Undoubtedly these exhortations by the holy and the Prophet had great liberative effect on the Arabs and his other followers. The Arabs who had nothing but abhorrence for knowledge became masters of learning within a century. During the Abbasid period the Arabs and the other Muslims acquired the entire treasure of Break knowledge so much so that they were referred to as its foster father. Not only this they produced great philosophers like Avicena and Avveros and several other philosophers, masters of medicine, chemists, geographers, physicists and mathematicians to whom even the west is indebted. The Muslims could have hardly achieved this excellence in knowledge but for the exhortations of the Quran and the Prophet. The Arabs thus were completely liberated from ignorance.
Liberation from ignorance had deeper consequences in other areas. The Arabs, as pointed out earlier, were greatly constrained by tribal outlook. This outlook was completely shattered by the Quranic teaching that entire human kind has originated from the same man and women and no one has any distinction over the other on the basis of tribe, nation, race or colour. These divisions only serve the purpose of identification. The most honoured is one who is most just and most pious. The Quranic verse runs thus, " o humankind! we have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might recognise one another, verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is one who is most righteous (and just)."
This was most revolutionary concept not only for the Arabs for entire human race. The barriers of colour and race are powerful even today so much so that the UNO had to stress equality of all irrespective of caste, creed and colour in its charter of human rights which is considered most liberative and rightly so. But the Quranic charter anticipated this by several centuries. The Prophet demonstrated this by elevating an emancipated Negro slave Bilal to the status of his muazzin (i.e. caller to the prayer) , an honour converted by many free men among the Arabs. It is after him that some black Muslims in this states have formed a Bilalian society. By elevating a freed Negro slave to this status the Prophet clearly demonstrated human dignity is above all, colour as well as social status. There can’t be more liberative act than this.
The Prophet also fought against superstitions and supernatural beliefs. He refused to perform miracle. He projected himself not as a supernatural being but as a human like any one else. The Quran was very categorical about it. The Quran ridicules any demand for miracles. In chapter 17 there are several verses to this effect (see verses from 90 to 95). The unbelievers demanded miracles like causing a spring to qush forth from earth, or to create garden of palms and grapes among which riverse to flow forth abundantly, or cause heaven to come down upon us in pieces or bring Allah and the angels face to face or you create for yourself a house of gold or thou ascend into heaven and so on. Allah wants people to accept the guidance as it comes to them through the Prophet. Had there been angels living on earth we would have sent down an angel for guidance. Among human beings only a human being would be sent as Prophet. Thus the Quran rejected the demand of unbelievers to perform miracles. The only miracle was the Quran itself.
The Quran’s style was simple, fluent and powerful. It was the first example of a powerful purposeful prose. It’s diction was urban and classical. It’s style and power simply astounded the Arabs who were so proud of their inimitable style and diction. They could not rival its style despite repeated challenge. Still they continue to deny the truth of its message.
A revolutionary, radical and liberative movement stresses reason as reason teaches one to question and critically examine. The Quran revealed to Muhammad (PBUH) lays stress on reason, not on mystery or miracles. The Quran repeatedly calls upon the people to think and addresses them as u’ l ’ il alb b which means of reason. Lubb in Arabic means an essence of a thing and reason is considered as essence of humanity and thus by inference lubb is used for reason, its plural being albab
Also, those who follow ancestral tradition and do not change are called a’ am (blind) and those who think as bas r (i.e. one who can see). It goes on to say, "Say (o Muhammad (PBUH)): I say not to you, I have with me the treasures of Allah, nor do I know the unseen, nor do I say to you that I am an angel; I follow only that which is revealed to me . Say: Are the blind and the seeing alike? do you not them reflect." (6:50)
In this verse once again Muhammad (PBUH) is asked to deny all supernatural powers and preference is given to one who sees and reflects. Thus appeal is to reason, not to tradition. In another verse the Quran says; "Does one of you like to have a garden of palms and vines with streams following in it - he has therein all kinds of fruits - and old age has over taken him and he has weak offspring; when (lo!) a whirlwind with fire in it smites it so it becomes blasted. Thus Allah makes the signs clear to you that you may think." (2: 266)
Here a very earthly example has been given which is often experienced and there is nothing supernatural or superstitious about it and then thee Quran invites us to think and reflect on it. Nowhere the Quran requires us to accept anything blindly, Signs are made clear and then we are urged upon to think over it. Islam was a revolutionary movement which wanted to liberate people from shackles of tradition and irrational conventions perpetrated through ages. Hence it invites its addresses again to reflect and think, not to follow blindly. It had liberative affect on thousands of the Prophet’s followers.
Muhammad(PBUH) was basically engaged in liberating the weaker sections of the society, both those who were sexually weaker and economically weaker. Women, as pointed out earlier, suffered great disabilities in Arabia in particular and in the whole world in general. Muhammad(PBUH), announced through the Quran a charter of rights for women. Quran for the first time gave them rights, never conceded them before in any legal code. Women’s individual existence as a legal entity was accepted without any qualification for the first time. As far as the Quran was concerned she could contract marriage (without any marriage guardian), could divorce her husband without any condition, inherit her father, mother and other relatives, could own property in her own absolute right (neither her father nor her brother or husband could temper with it or deprive her of it), could have custody of her children (upto certain age after which children would exercise their option) and could take her own free decisions.
It is also laid down in the Quran that her male relatives cannot coerce her in anyway even in matters of marriage. No legal charter before Islam gave these rights to women. In Europe women could not even own property in their own right even upto late nineteenth century. In fact the Quran announced in clear words that in her rights and obligations she is equal to man (see the Quran 2: 228). It was nothing short of revolution for her. For the first time in history she was given legal status equal that of man and she was liberated from the clutches of male domination.
The only stigma she can be said to have suffered was permission given to man to marry more than one wife (upto four). This no doubt detracts from her status of equality with man. However, one has to take a historical view of the matter. The Arabs married any number of wives; Islam restricted it to four. Earlier multiple marriages were just for the sake of pleasures and without any reason. Islam put strict conditions. The marriages were not to be allowed just for pleasure. It was permitted strictly in case of orphans and widows, to take care of such unprotected women (both the Quranic verses on polygamy are with reference to the orphans and widows and their properties. Also, the Quran lays down a strict condition of equal treatment in all matters including in the matter of love. Thus the Quran says, "And if you fear that you cannot do justice to orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two, or three, or four, but if you fear that you will not do justice, then (marry) only one or that which your right hands posses." (4:3)
Thus it would be seen that it is not a general license to marry more than one wife for pleasure. Also, it was historical necessity. It is no more necessary. As it militates against more cardinal principle of justice, there would be nothing un-Islamic to either ban it or severely restrict it and permit only in exceptional cases. Many Islamic countries have done it. Also there is no concept of purdah (veil) in Quran. Quran had only prescribed pulling down a bit the head gear in order to discriminate free women from slave-girls as unbelievers used to tease Muslims women and when caught used to get away by saying "we thought she was a slave-girl". The Quran no here requires women to cover their faces or hide themselves.
These mild disabilities on women should also be seen in sociological context. If the society, or sociological context changes these disabilities should no longer be imposed. It is important to note that the Quran first accepts the concepts of freedom and individual dignity of women and then, in view of the historical and sociological context. proceeds to impose these mild disabilities referred to above. Basic principle of freedom and individual dignity is more important then the sociological disabilities. The earlier concept would have precedence over the later as it is fundamental, not contingent.
The Quran lays great emphasis on distributive justice. It is totally against accumulation and hoarding of wealth. It condemns accumulated wealth as strongly as possible. It also exhorts the people to spend to take care of orphans, widows, needy and the poor.
It does not want the wealth to circulate only among the rich (59:7). Also, it warns the people that wealth should not be counted again and again nor one should think it can give eternal life. One who accumulates and counts again and will certainly be hurled into crushing disaster and what is this crushing disaster? It is hell fire, which rises over the heart (see chapter 104). Again in chapter 9, verse 34 it gives severe warning to those who accumulate wealth and do not spend it in the way of Allah. The Quran also exhorts the believers to spend whatever is surplus (after fulfilling basic needs) (2:219).
The practice of usury in Mecca was back-breaking and a great many people were in debtrap. The Quran strongly denounced usury and warned those who perpetrates it to be prepared for a war with Allah and His Messenger (see verses 275 to 278 in chapter 2 and verse 39 of chapter 30). Many scholars strongly feel that riba means not only usury but exploitation in general and include exploitative profit.
The Prophet also disapproved of share-cropping (mukhabira, muhaqila) which again is an exploitative practice. He also banned speculation in every form to prevent exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich and powerful. For example, he banned buying of unripened standing crop as it often results in exploitation of the needy peasant. He approved of only legitimate margin of profit (as a reward for ones work and entrepreneurship) and strongly disapproves of hoarding, black-marketing etc. he not only permits hungry to snatch food from one who has excess of it but also declares him a martyr if he dies in the process of procuring it.
Also, the Quran strongly denounces zulm (injustice, oppression) and permits the oppressed to fight against oppression. It says, "And what reason have you not to fight in the way of Allah, and of the weak among the men and the women and the children, who say: Our Lord, take us out of this town, whose people are oppressors, and grant us from Thee a friend, and grant us from Thee a helper." (4:75). Thus one who fights for the weak is the helper and freund of the Lord. the Quran not only includes believers to fight for the weak and oppressed, but promises that the oppressed would lead and inherit this earth (28:5).
Thus it would be seen that the Quran is a charter of liberation for the oppressed. Islam exercises its option for the poor and the oppressed and has no kind words for mutrifun (i.e. those live in luxury). When we wish to destroy a town, The Quran says, we induce its rich to transgress all limits and we destroy that town with utter destruction (17:16). Thus it is clear that when the rich become insensitive to the sufferings of the poor and needy the whole social structure becomes topsy-turvy and is ultimately destroyed at the hands of the revolution.
Attitude Towards other Religions
Openness, tolerance and respect for other religions is another important liberative element. The Quran makes it clear there is no compulsion in religion (2:256) and that for you is your religion, for me is my religion (109:6). Quran also exhorts Muslims not to abuse those who call upon besides Allah lest they abuse Allah through ignorance (6:1090. Also, Quran teaches that a believer should show equal respect to all the prophets) They all believe in Allah and his angels and His books and His messengers. We make no distinctions (4:150-51).
That is why a Muslim shows equal respect to all the Prophets right upto Muhammad whether named or not in the Quran. The Quran also declares unequivocally that paradise is not that the monopoly of any religious group. whosoever submits himself entirely to Allah and he is a doer of good (muhsin), he has his reward from his Lord (2:112).
Thus the Quran did not condemn any religion as false but stressed that the priests have corrupted the teachings for their own interest. All the prophets had brought Allah’s message. Quran never preached disrespect, let alone hatred or violence against any religion.
However, within three decades after the death of the Prophet, Islam lost its liberative and democratic character and became part of monarchical establishment under the Umayyads. Prophet had gathered the poor, the oppressed and the slaves around him and never hesitated to suffer along with them. Now the Umayyad emperors gathered powerful tyrants and oppressors around them and ruthlessly suppressed all those who challenged their oppressive rule. Number of slaves multiplied, women subjugated and confined to harems, female slaves sexually abused, non-Arabs discriminated against and liberative teachings of Islam replaced by fatalistic outlook. Dogma of Jabr (determinism fatalism) was actively propagated and that of gadr (freedom to act) was suppressed. After development of monarchy feudal values became supreme. Power hierarchy developed, socio-political equality was lost and equality confined only to the lines of prayers in the mosque, women came to be completely subjugated and their social status was very much eroded and Arab domination established firmly.
It was steep decline down and Islam lost all
its liberative thrust (except in dissident movements and
rebellions) and could never recapture its earlier spirit when
Muhammad (peace be upon him) preached and practiced.
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