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Category: History

Reports

There is a clear difference between “it is reported that such and such happened” and “such and such happened”, let alone, “I believe it happened”.

We are familiar with this concept in the science of hadith, where we learn, “It is reported that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said…” The learned draw this distinction for good reason: to attribute words to him, while allowing for the possibility that he did not in fact say them.

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The schizophrenia of the times

My newsfeed reveals a schizophrenic attitude to faith and conflict. Today’s conflicts and violence are condemned absolutely, while the triumphant conquests of the past enjoy great eulogies, their reality whitewashed and distorted. We pine after a glorious past, oblivious to former transgressions, to doctrines of perennial war and imperial rules of engagement as cruel and unforgiving as the battles of any of the zealots of today.

What a strange situation to find ourselves in. Faced by the realities of war and conflict in modern times, we find ourselves perpetually on edge, worn down by the constant litany of barbaric acts and savagery, craving a legendary past when all men were just, all conquests honourable and six hundred years of war a time of peace. Somehow we are meant to reconcile the two implacable positions: to condemn today’s infractions and praise the misdemeanours of the past at exactly the same time. To take a different stance on the same behaviour, depending on when it occurred and who was in charge.

Too often the only element that differentiates one from the other is the question of authority. Barbarity under the auspices of a legitimate religious or political authority is sanctioned and sanctified, clothed in folklore and pious mythology.

Do not cut the tree, do not kill the child, do not kill old people, do not destroy the temple or church, do not kill the woman, do not kill the monk or priest, be good to prisoners and feed them, do not enforce Islam. Yes, all of these are found in the teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and in the verses of the Qur’an. But open those classical books of fiqh, or read our history. How many times were these noble injunctions — spread so widely today — ignored?

Were not many of those past conquests, so celebrated today, offensive and not defensive? Did armies not seek to expand the borders of the state annually, to carry the faith far and wide? Did the empires of the past not believe they were liberating the people they conquered, like the armies of today bringing democracy to whole peoples with the aid of cruise missiles, stealth bombers, mass invasion and proxy wars?

So this is the schizophrenia of the times — on all sides. Civilised nations which invented the concept of terror bombing in World War II and carpet bombing in the decades thereafter, now look on perplexed at indiscriminate bombs placed in market places, condemning their barbarity without a trace of irony. Meanwhile, the faithful, schooled in the nobility of their tradition with its varnished history, sob and wail at our tragic reality today — the unending conflict and violence — while singing the praises of the vast armies of the past and their magnificent leaders, whether they were just or not, or any less sectarian than today’s bedeviled warriors.

How will we exorcise these demons? Surely not by hankering after an imagined past, or speaking of mythical laws in classical texts, or by petitioning us with tales about legitimate authority, apparently unachievable today. A paradigm shift, it seems to me, is needed — a better way of thinking — that unburdens us of these schizophrenic mindsets which cause us such unrest and discomfort. We need to open our minds and forge a thoughtful forward path.

New histories

I am always fascinated by the communal and collective reactions when a well known person passes away, because it shines light on the development of other histories.

It is well worth detaching yourself from the moment, standing back and studying the story telling that follows.

There are the biographies of those who knew the departed intimately, who shared every moment of their lives. There are the curated autobiographies left behind. There is the apocrypha: that body of statements incorrectly attributed to them. There is the mythology attached to the legend. There are the statements of well known others that cement authority. There are the claims of the multitude of individuals who only met the departed once, or who encountered him from a distance. There are selected sound bites. There are the views of enemies and opportunists. To each observer, their own narrative. To each individual, their own claims: saint or sinner, hero or fiend, man or more-than-man.

When we study our own reactions to the story telling and myth making of the present, we begin to better understand the legends and narratives of the past, and perhaps may begin the process of separating fact from fiction, as much as we are able.

The land that welcomed Emir Abdel Kader

When the French invaded Algeria in 1830 they were met with fierce resistance from its Muslim scholars. In time these scholars lost the war against the French. About 500 of them were expelled from Algeria with their families, never to return. However they were welcomed somewhere else: in Damascus.

The area where they settled is called Hay alMuhajireen, the neighborhood of the migrants. They thrived in Damascus and enriched it.

After the scholars were expelled, a man rose and led the revolution against the French armies. His name was alAmir Abdel Kader. He fought for many years and was a champion of human rights. Even his prisoners had rights. In the end, however, he also had to surrender.

The Emir, his family and followers were taken into captivity in France. He was moved to Toulon, then Pau and then the Amboise castle. The physical and moral health of the Emir deteriorated during their stay at this castle. Victor Hugo (French), Lord George of Londonderry (British) and others campaigned for his release.

The Emir was released after Napoleon Bonaparte became ruler and he thought about where to move next. He was contacted by the Algerian scholars in Damascus, who invited him to move to them. Eventually he moved there and was later buried next to aShaykh Muhyideen. They were spiritually one.

During his stay in Damascus, the Druze attacked the Christians and killed many of them. The Emir opened the doors of his house and many fleeing Christians took refuge therein. The Druze even came to his door asking for the Christians to be released to them. His reply was that if they did not go away he would call his compatriots and would fight them.

For this, many rulers of the time decorated him or sent him gifts. The list includes Queen Victoria, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln and others. He was recognised as a vehicle for peace in this troubled world. The United States have named a town after him.

There are undoubtedly some bad people in Syria. However some of its people are amongst the greatest people alive.

 

The pursuit of truth

I have a problem with the scholar’s refutation of our enemy, because I know what our books of fiqh contain. It is not enough to say these people are Wahabis or Kharajites. What they are doing is right there in our manuals of Hanafi and Maliki fiqh.

So we say they do not have authority to act thus. What? So legitimate authority would make their odious actions true and fair? These are the intellectual acrobatics we subject ourselves to.

Our books of fiqh say many wonderful things, unmatched in other traditions. But they also contain extremely unpalatable ideas, such as the notion that it is a communal obligation to wage offensive war every year to expand the borders of the state, and worse. These are not Wahabi teachings; they are detailed in our madhabs, and the learned know it. Some of us have honest teachers who acknowledge these realities. Others pretend not to know.

The latter are those who condemn people who seek to put the Qur’an first and restore it to its rightful place in our lives. While condemning those who bring the directives in our books of fiqh to life to such hideous effect, they simultaneously lambast those who turn away from them. The dishonesty is risible. Many a parable I was raised on springs clearly to mind.

There is a better way, but it demands bravery. Not the path of covering up what is in our books or pretending not to know — you cannot unsee what you have seen — but that hard, rough road where we acknowledge what we have inherited, but ask if it is really Quranic and really the prophetic way. Unfortunately, in the pursuit of truth, you have to expect most people to oppose you. It is a lonely road.

The burden of history

It was not long ago that I held a smug sense of satisfaction that our tradition had not been burdened by the intellectual acrobatics that characterised the first three hundred years of Christian history in the run up to the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. But the more I learn about the intellectual endeavours of the scholars of our own tradition — some brilliant beyond comprehension, some patently absurd to the unlearned mind — the more I realise how terribly naïve I was.

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