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Also published on Chowk

by Akber Choudhry

As Irish bombs are in the media today, instead of AlQaeda bombs, and Muslims are not on the defensive for one whole day, maybe we can sneak in the opportunity about the biggest problem that ails the Muslim Ummah today – TAKFEER.  For the un-initiated, it means the act of labelling someone ‘kafir’. And ‘kafir’ means a ‘rejecter’.  In the Quranic sense, it was someone who rejected Islam in its early days, and it still has its use in Islamic canon law and institutions.  However, at a personal level, and mostly in the absurd quest for purity born out of Western wars on Islam, it has come to mean almost anyone you don’t like or don’t agree with.  It suffocates thought in a nation that thirsts for thoughts and ideas.

Dirty Secret

Takfeer is the dirty secret of Muslims, and the biggest tool of coercion by the Muslim clergy, and in the modern world, there is no rigorous legal procedure for it.  This is the tragedy of the loss of the Islamic legal system, and mistrust of Western legal systems — that most of the Islamic world is caught in a legal limbo.  Muslims are fed up with it — for example, overuse of it by Al-Qaeda followers lost them much sympathy.  But it remains a taboo, for according to some scholars, even considering a person declared as ‘kafir’ as a Muslim is becoming ‘kafir’ in itself.  Then, there is the loss of the genuine Muslim liberals who remain totally isolated from their communities and do not provide much-needed intellectual strength to their communities because they want nothing to do with this name-calling.

It wasn’t always this way

There was a time when scholars of Islam were extremely reluctant to declare even the most heretical thinkers as kafir, and now every corner Imam and his helper settle personal scores with this gravest of insults.   In a perverse way, it has cheapened the term to the degree that it has even become a joke — but nevertheless it remains a cruel and injurious defamation, for it alters an individual’s relationship with his community and unless they are mentally tough, their own self-image and self-esteem.  In Western countries, it is even worse as it is rarely said publicly except in innuendo, and mostly in private conversations.  As such, it combines multiple evils in one and perhaps forms the root of all what is politically and socially wrong with Muslims today.

Two points need to be clarified here:  Religion and religious organisers have a great role to play at the grassroots level in communities, and they keep the communities tied together, especially in poor areas of the Islamic world.  Secondly, calling an individual Muslim ‘kafir’ in the neighbourhood mosque is totally different from duly constituted laws that determine the  political status of autonomous and already self-isolated communities such as the Druze, the Bahais or the Qadianis as they have been legally, collectively and unanimously ruled as not subscribing to the Islamic creed.  Even then, the word ‘kafir’ is rarely used for them formally, and even more rarely for their members. 

Economic Factors and a Business Model

This model mostly started in poorer countries, where the purveyors of faith found out that isolating their followers and making them believe that they are the only chosen ones would result in more control over them and result in more donations, especially if they turn a blind eye to corruption.  Never is the corrupt official happier than when he can buy salvation through the proceeds of his corruption.  As the religious leader turns a blind eye to lack of character and corruption, he gets fixated on non-consequential matters such as the length of beards and the gait of women and music and every other sexual crime imaginable, real or perceived.  These frivolous transgressions may or may not be forbidden in Islam, but they definitely come far behind character and corruption that corrodes society and the nation as a whole.

For the rich man, his private life is private as he has high walls and deep pockets.  The poor and sincere man follows his religious leader and tries to become more and more perfect, having been told that it is the synchronous rubbing of millions of foreheads on the prayer mats at dawn that is going to change his fortunes and that of his nation.  Or, that it is his life that is going to pave the way for the rule of the scholars who will take the nation into nirvana.  Fortunately, there are enough sane people around who know that the so-called scholar’s rule will be more laxity for the rich and more oppression for the poor — as all right-wing politicians.

Trying to guess what you are thinking, can I ask a simple question : when will I see a religious scholar take on a corrupt rich person?  I haven’t yet.  I hoped I do before I die.

This business model worked so well that it resulted in market fragmentation, to such a degree that the minutest of differences — in dogma and th
ought and even dress style, but never in uprightness and rule of law — results in further fragmentation.  Why? because the majority of the financial benefits go to the leader, so the Maulanas and Muftis and Allamas continue to proliferate, and their titles and salutations get longer.  So, you have the Green-Turbans, and the Black-Turbans and the White-Turbans, all trying to differentiate their brand from the competition.

As their worldly knowledge decreases, our so-called scholars declare worldly knowledge to be superfluous, although the scholars of the golden age were masters of philosophy and science and literature.  “Aaah, that was a bygone era, now we do not want to follow the evil West”, and just then, the scholar pulls out a mobile phone from his pocket, completely oblivious to the 300 years of human endeavour and technology that has gone into building it and receiving the signal over which he plies his trade.

Are you still surprised at what ails the ummah?  The common thread in all of this is isolation — through the constant din of US and THEM.  Externally and internally.  The constant, mind-numbing lessons of alienation.  kafir, kafir, Kafir, KAFIR, KAFIR !!!! ENOUGH!  STOP! QUF! STOP!

External Projection

Some rightly say that the biggest internal issue for the Muslim Ummah today is takfeer, and as you will read below, it projects externally as well.  Why?  In order to stigmatise a fellow Muslim with this label, you have to first declare Christians and Jews as mushrik (polytheist) and kafir, although the Quran refers to them as ‘people of the book’.

In this age of fitnah (upheaval), the basic concepts of due process and utility have eluded us — this is worse than medieval witch hunts — as then, at least the town gathered and agreed to some silly test.  Here, there is nothing — even writing this piece criticising the scholars makes me a kafir according to Allama Kashmiri’s book which lists 700+ ways in which one becomes kafir.  Just like that — no accuser, no evidence, no judge and no jury — just the opinion, whim, or fancy of the religious person, or even his helper.

My friends, this is worse than Jahiliyyah.  It really is.  This situation is much, much worse than Jahiliyyah (the age of ignorance in Arabia before the Prophet, saw).  Pick a day, any day, even today, May 18th, and call it non-Takfeer Day.  Go to your local imam and ask whether he pronounces people who differ with him in any matter as ‘kafir’.   Ask him for precedent from the Quran or the practice of the Prophet (saw).  Maybe, with enough people asking such simple questions, he might even change his business model.  The good thing about our Imams and scholars is that they are very pragmatic — many declared Allama Iqbal and Jinnah as ‘kafir’ but quickly rescinded when they saw their  popularity.  This pragmatism is welcome, but at the same time, it points out the lack of our resolve, as lay people, to confront this scourge.

This is the root of social and political problems.  You are part of it, for your money drives the business model that drives Takfeer.