Mohammed Ali Jauhar (1878-1931)

Mohammed Ali Jauhar (1878-1931) and the Origins of Pakistan

By Professor Nazeer Ahmed

Mohammed Ali Jauhar was a product of the Aligarh movement and a principal figure
in the historical processes that resulted in the emergence of Pakistan. To appreciate
the contributions of this towering personality one must retrace the footprints of history
to the latter part of the nineteenth century. The decimation of the Muslim aristocracy
in northern India following the uprising of 1857 created a political vacuum which left
the masses despondent and rudderless. A new order had come into being, dictated by
British imperial interests in which the prerequisite for advancement and prosperity
was acquiescence to— and adaptation of— western education and cultural values. The
Muslims distrusted the new order as hostile to their own values, beliefs and the traditional
educational system. The distrust was mutual. The British, on their part, looked askance
at the Muslims whose rule they had usurped in large parts of the subcontinent through
conquest, diplomacy or deceit.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan broke this cycle of mutual distrust. Convinced that the
advancement of Indian Muslims lay in acquiring the knowledge and wisdoms of
the west and integrating them with traditional Islamic education, he moved into the
educational arena and founded the institution, which in time evolved into Aligarh Muslim
University. The Aligarh movement was a giant leap forward from the medieval to the
modern age but the passage was not as smooth as Sir Syed had envisioned. Traditional
school systems sprang up in Deoband, Nadva and other centers of learning, juxtaposed
with the modernist Aligarh system. The graduates of the traditional schools had little
understanding of the modern west while the graduates of Aligarh often were lacking in
the traditional disciplines. The tensions between the traditional and the reformist persisted
into the twentieth century, and indeed, they persist even to this day.

Mohammed Ali, one of three Ali brothers, was born into a Pashtun family of UP in 1878.
His father, Abdul Ali Khan, passed away when Mohammed Ali was two years old. A
bright student, Mohammed Ali studied at Aligarh, and in 1898, won a scholarship to
study at Oxford University. Returning to India in 1904 he accepted employment first at
Rampur as Director of the education department, then at Baroda in the Administrative
services (1906). Later that year he resigned from civil service and dedicated himself to
national service. He attended the first conference of the Muslim League in Dhaka in 1906
and, along with Wiqar al Mulk and Muhsin al Mulk, became a principal spokesman for
Muslim aspirations on the national scene.
Mohammed Ali showed his metal as a writer and a poet at a very early age. He was
equally fluent in English and Urdu. The Times of India ran a series on his observations
on contemporary affairs in 1907. Some of his early poems, written while he was a student
at Aligarh show a remarkable synthesis of revolutionary zeal and Sufi resignation:

Life in its full splendor will arrive after death, O executioner!
Our journey starts where your journey ends;
Confront you, who can (O executioner)? But—
Blessed is my blood after your bleeding;
The martyrdom of Hussain is indeed the death of Yazid,
The breath of life wakes up the faith of surrender after every Karbala!

His poetry is animated by the passion for righteous action and the power of perseverance.
It is this universal appeal that has made him one of the most quoted poets of all times. He
sounds off his clarion call to the isolationists in the following words:
Tell those who hide behind curtains to hide in their tombs—
The inert—no refuge do they have in this world!
He scoffed at titles and sycophancy preferring a higher reward:
The occupancy of the chair, that is worth its felicitation, O Jowhar!
But higher is the recompense of the Day of Recompense.
Neither a seeker of wealth nor a pursuer of honor am I,
The mendicants at this door—they ask for something else.
He was an activist. In the pursuit of higher goals he was not afraid of making mistakes:
The intercession of Muhammed is a divine Grace for sure,
The Day of Gathering—Ah! That is a feast of Grace for the wrong doers.

There was no journal, and no newspaper that carried the voice of the Muslims. To fill
this void Mohammed Ali started the weekly “Comrade” in 1911. Published in English
from Kolkata, the journal electrified the Muslim educated class. It was read not just
by English speaking Indians but also by the British bureaucrats who wanted to feel the
pulse of the Indian political climate. It carried political commentaries, analysis and essays
on social issues. The capital of India was shifted from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911. So the
publication of “Comrade” was shifted to the new capital. It was soon obvious that to
reach the masses, a publication in the Urdu language was required. So Mohammed Ali
started a Urdu weekly “Hamdard” in 1911 as a companion publication to “Comrade”.
International events of global import soon overtook national events and consumed the
attention of the Indian Muslim intelligentsia. The Balkan War of 1911-12, in which
the combined forces of Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece attacked the Ottoman Empire with
the tacit connivance of Britain, France and Russia, alarmed the Muslim world. Italy
invaded Libya and occupied it. There was not much that the large Muslim population of
India could do except to petition the British government not to aid and abet the Balkan
aggressors. The Maulana spoke up for justice through the voice of Comrade. His strident
calls caught the attention of the ruling authorities. The publication of Comrade was
stopped and the Maulana was jailed and stayed locked up until 1918.

The guns of World War 1 shattered the peace of the world in 1914. India, a captive
colony of Britain, declared war on Germany. The Ottoman Empire entered the conflict,
ill prepared, goaded into the fray by the Young Turks who miscalculated that the initial
rapid advance of the German armies into France presaged a quick victory, and their
desire to recover territories lost in the Balkan wars of 1911-12. The Indian army, largely
recruited from the region between Delhi and Peshawar, consisted of Muslims, Sikhs and
Hindus in roughly equal proportions. It was unceremoniously packed up and dispatched
to Iraq and Palestine to fight the soldiers of the Khalifa. The war ended in a disaster for
the Turks. The Middle East was carved up and swallowed by the British and French
empires. The Arab revolt of 1917 stabbed the Turks in the back, shattering the illusions
of pan-Islamism harbored by many Indian intellectuals.

It was not the Ottoman defeat in the Great War but the British desire to abolish the
Caliphate in its aftermath that riled the Indian Muslims and impelled them to political
action. The Caliphate was an institution that had survived the vicissitudes of the Islamic
history for 1300 years and most Muslims believed that it was an integral part of Islamic
faith. A Khilafat committee was formed in 1920 to apply pressure on the British
government on this issue. A delegation headed by Maulana Mohammed Ali was sent to
London and returned empty handed later that year.

The Khilafat movement was a milestone in the history of South Asian Muslims. It
brought together ulema like Maulana Hussain Ahmed Madani, secular nationalists like
Dr. Saifuddin Kuchlo and Hakim Ajmal Khan, universalists like Maulana Azad and
pan-Islamists like Maulana Mohammed Ali under one umbrella, and when it ended it
unleashed communal forces whose frenzy propelled the subcontinent into the holocaust
that accompanied partition in 1947. It defined the career of Maulana Muhammed Ali
who felt that an enslaved India could not successfully resist the international intrigues
of the British Empire. Cooperation with the majority Hindu community was essential if
India was to achieve its independence. The emergence of this conviction coincided with
the rise of Gandhi on the national stage. Gandhi saw in the Khilafat movement a golden
opportunity to fuse together the Hindus and the Muslims into an integrated political
movement that would force the British out of India. But it was a marriage of convenience
in which the national agenda of independence was wedded to the pan-Islamic idea of
Indian support for the Khilafat based in far-away Istanbul. The injection of religion into
the struggle for independence provided an entry for fringe right wing elements, both
Hindu and Muslim, to enter politics. It was an idea fraught with explosive potential for
the future of communal harmony in the subcontinent. Indeed, partition was born in the
communal politics of the 1920s. Jinnah, a strict constitutionalist and a secular nationalist
at the time, saw through this danger and warned his countrymen and fellow Muslims
about it. He was opposed to the Khilafat movement. No one listened. Indeed, it estranged
Jinnah from Muhammed Ali and the motley collection of scholars and opportunists who
had gathered around the issue. It also solidified the estrangement of Jinnah from Gandhi.
The coalition was inherently unstable and it was bound to break up sooner or later. And
break up it did in 1922. Gandhi was chosen as the leader of the Khilafat movement in
1920 and he proposed peaceful non-cooperation to compel the British to listen to Indian
demands. The movement was launched with much fanfare with the Ali brothers, Maulana
Azad and others traversing the country to whip up support from the masses. But India
was not ready for peaceful non-cooperation. The situation got out of hand when violence
broke out in Chauri Chaura in 1922 and Gandhi called off the struggle leaving its ardent
supporters in the lurch. The issue died a peaceful death when the Turkish parliament
under Kemal Ataturk abolished the Caliphate in 1924.

The failure of the Khilafat movement compelled the Hindu and Muslim communities
to face one another and try to work out a modus operandi. To give voice to Muslim
sentiments, Maulana Mohammed Ali restarted the Comrade weekly in 1924, soon to be
followed by its Urdu counterpart, Hamdard. But the India of the 1920s was a changed
India from that of the 1910s. Just as Jinnah had warned, communal forces were let
loose. Communal riots rocked Nagpur, Meerat and other cities. The Hindu Mahasabha
gained traction and in 1925, its president Golwalkar proposed the two-nation theory. A
disunited and confused Muslim leadership held several meetings to chart out a vision and
a course of action for the future. An all-parties conference held in Delhi in 1925, which
included representatives of the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, failed
to agree on guidelines for a future constitution for India and instead delegated the task to
a committee headed by Motilal Nehru.

The Nehru report was a watershed in the independence struggles of India and Pakistan.
The report, compiled by an eleven member committee including two absentee Muslim
participants, came up with a unitary concept for the proposed constitution of India with
residual powers vested in the center. This was a reflection of the socialist leanings of
Jawarharlal Nehru who stayed wedded to top down, planned, government controlled
economic models throughout his influential political career, but which had as its corollary
the domination of majority views on the minority. The Muslim leadership preferred
a federal constitution with residual powers vested in the states. Secondly, the Nehru
report abrogated the separate electorate agreements reached between the Congress and
the League in 1915 in Lucknow which were brokered by Jinnah. Both of these were
unacceptable to the majority of Muslim leadership. Maulana Mohammed Ali failed to
convince Gandhi and the Congress party to change these provisions of the Nehru report.
In bitterness, he broke with Gandhi and walked away from the Congress.
Maulana Muhammed Ali attended the first round table conference in London 1931,
called by the British to discuss a dominion status for India. It was also attended by
Jinnah, Dr. Ambedkar, the Agha Khan, Sardar Ujjal Singh, Tej Bahadur Sapru, B.S.
Moonje and others. It ended in failure because the Indian National Congress, the largest
political party in India, boycotted it. Muhammed Ali died in London and was buried in
Jerusalem as he had wished.

The primary legacy of Maulana Muhammed Ali was to give forceful expression to the
voice of his generation through his considerable journalistic and poetic skills. He was
at once a nationalist and a mujahid. Addressing one of the meetings of the Khilafat
committee, he declared, “As far as the command of God is concerned, I am a Muslim and
Muslim alone; as far the issue of India is concerned, I am Indian and Indian alone”. He
roused the Muslim masses in support of the Khilafat movement and sought a cooperative
independence struggle through Gandhi. In these attempts he failed because he failed to
grasp the inherent contradictions in his positions on national and international issues. At
the onset of the Khilafat movement he fell out with Jinnah but while in London in 1931,
he and his brother Shaukat Ali begged Jinnah to return to India and take charge of the
Muslim League. The rest is history.

Reference: Mujahid e Azam, Maulana Mohammed Ali Jowhar, Farooq Argali, Fareed
Book Depot, Delhi



Submitted by Dr. Abdel Latif Aljibury

Sectarianism has been a thorn in the body of Muslim societies for over thirteen centuries. Recently, we are witnessing horrific acts as a consequence of sectarianism with calamitous consequences for the whole world.

It is a well- known fact that people are enemies of what they are ignorant of. To expose the ignorance that has led us to this state is a only first step towards clarifying that Islam is at odds with sectarianism.  Sectarianism has no basis in Islamic Ideology. It has no basis, either in the Qur’an or in the Sunnah of the Prophet. Sectarianism was brought about by political schisms and the struggle to achieve power with complete disregard for the well-being of Muslim Society. The historical origins of these schisms have been thoroughly covered elsewhere in this encyclopedia.

The Quran has forewarned the Muslims against sectarianism. This was made clear in the following revelations: Allah says in the Holy Quran 3:103:


“And hold fast altogether onto the bond with Allah and do not draw apart from one another and remember the blessings which Allah has bestowed upon you….”

And the Holy Quran says in 6:159



“Verily, as for those who have broken the unity of their faith and have become sects, you have nothing to do with them.”

Also in 6-153 the Holy Quran says:


“And know this is the straight path leading to me, follow it then, and follow not other ways lest they cause you to deviate from His path.”

The above verses are references to the state of the Muslims in the past as well as today. They are a clear condemnation of all sectarianism which arose out of people’s intolerance of others, and the exclusive claims to be the only genuine and true adherents of the Quranic teachings.  They assume that they are the very ones and theirs is the only true sect that follows the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet!

It is tragic to realize that what has contributed to this schism is that many Muslims have committed a grave error in calling themselves names other than “Muslim.” This error precipitated the alienation between one Muslim individual and another, since the other happens to prefer the interpretation of the Quran and the Sunnah by a different scholar. Instead of welcoming these differing opinions to arrive at a suitable solution to their particular needs, they blindly and rigidly adhere to these interpretations and, elect to look at these interpretations as if “cast in stone” of an otherwise one opinion versus another.

Our Prophet has made a declaration of a far reaching implication that Muslims should consider and adhere to in these trying days. The Prophet declared:

”The differing opinions of the scholars of my people are a blessing.”

The Prophet’s Tradition points to us the proper course of action, yet we adamantly veer away from the proper course. Here is an Islamic principle of a far reaching implication (that goes beyond the boundaries of the subject), that urge us to accommodate differing opinions. In the wider sense, this principle not only lets us accommodate but encourages differing opinions as a means of arriving at a correct judgment. Since Chapter 53 verse 3 declares that the Prophet speaks of the wish of Allah:


Siasat e Madani (Politics) by Shah Waliullah

Siasat e Madani (Politics) by Shah Waliullah

Siasat e Madani (Politics of a city or state)
Shah Waliullah of Delhi
(1703-1762 CE)
Translated from “Hujjatullahul Baliga” by
Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

Note: Shah Waliullah was one of the most influential reformers of the subcontinent who lived during the waning years of the Mogul Empire and the onset of British Raj in India/Pakistan/Bangladesh. His voluminous writings are unsurpassed in their comprehensiveness, incisiveness, sensitivity and scholarship. As a social reformer he tried to arrest the moral decay that had overtaken his age which explains why India imploded just when it was challenged by a resurgent Europe. I have made an attempt here to translate his writings on Siasat e Madani (politics). So much of what he wrote more than two hundred and fifty years ago is applicable to today’s social and ethical decay in South Asia.

City (state) politics is a term used for that part of wisdom which explains the sustenance of mutual relationships between city (state) dwellers. By a city (or a state or country) we mean those groups that live in close proximity with one another, engage in mutual transactions but who live in separate homes. The essential element of city politics (civics) is that mutual interactions weld the city together as if it is a single entity whose constituent body parts function as an integrated unit.
In (such) a composite body, it is possible that a defect develops in its internal or external aspects so that a changed (reformed) condition would be better for its organic functioning. It is also possible that it (the composite body, the city or state) is completely healthy as is, meaning, it is functioning as an integrated (healthful) whole due to its inherent and natural virtues (and no change is necessary). Since a city is a conglomerate of large groups, it is not possible that they be in complete agreement with one another so that they work together for what is just and do not need an individual to arbitrate between them without (the authority of) rank or position. Therefore, there exists a possibility of mutual hostility (in a city). For this reason, the organization of a city can only take place when those who are vested with understanding nominate a single person as their leader and he be splendid (in character) and is supported by a body of (sincere) advisers and aides.
Those who are short sighted, quarrelsome, angry and prone to conflict are in greater need of civic life. The defect of city politics is that oftentimes a group of powerful, vile and wretched people gang up together to abandon the path of righteousness and pursue their personal interests. This happens in many ways:
1. Greed for the wealth of other people, as it is with thieves and robbers
2. Aggression on other people because of hatred or anger
3. Thirst for power which leads to organizing (gangs) for armed conflict. This flaw (in character) leads to an oppressor inflicting hurt, pain or (worse) murder, or abusing another person’s wife, or desiring another person’s sisters or daughters, or openly swindling another person’s property, or stealing it or defaming another person, or accusing someone of a vile and wretched deed, or speaking harshly to others.
In addition, (city, state) politics suffers from such secret activities as are inherently harmful such as rumor mongering, training people for riots, inciting the peasant against the ruler, servant against master, wife against husband. In addition those customs that destroy the cohesiveness of society such as homosexuality, marital relations in forbidden manners, all of these distract from the purpose of marriage. (In addition) social practices that are unnatural such as for a man to become a woman, or for a woman to take on the role of a man, or those practices that cause major conflicts such as when a woman is unattached and several men establish relations with her (prostitution) and fight over her. The consumption of liquor is also a practice in the same category.
There are certain (economic) practices that harm civic life such as extracting doubled and tripled interest (sood), taking bribes, compromising on weights and measures (swindling), hiding the defects in items, buying goods from merchants outside of the city (before it enters the market), hoarding grains, cheating and selling at exorbitant prices items that you would not buy yourself . Similarly, there are instances when people offer doubtful evidence and it is impossible to decipher the truth. For this reason it becomes necessary to sift through evidence, oaths, documents, verbal depositions and events to bring people to the right path, uphold justice and decipher the connivance of contesting parties.
It is also harmful for civic life if people withdraw themselves (from civic life) or migrate to another city (country), or that the general public bows down (accepts) practices that harm civic life. For instance, if everyone gives up farming and becomes a trader, or a large segment of the population become fighters. What is appropriate is that the farmers be supported as the producers of grain and traders and craftsmen be supported as guardians of the country who are distributors of grain (goods). The multiplication of wild animals and vultures is also detrimental to city life and one should attempt to eradicate them.
The safekeeping of a city is ensured (and a state is strengthened) by the construction of buildings that benefit everyone such as shelters (for the poor), rest houses for travelers, forts, fortifications (defense), markets(business), digging canals and wells (irrigation), and the supply of boats for crossing rivers (transportation). Traders should be encouraged to bring goods from the outside (commerce). The people in the city (state) should be taught to treat the travelers with utmost courtesy. This will encourage the ingress and egress of merchants (trade). Farmers should be encouraged not to lay barren their land. Craftsmen should be encouraged to produce quality goods of beauty and ruggedness. The citizens should be educated about these benefits. The cultivation of knowledge (education), writings (literature), medicine and arts should be encouraged (made excellent and perfect).
It is necessary to gather intelligence about the affairs of the city (state) so that one tracks the activities of the well wishers as well as the trouble makers. If one learns of a destitute then (the state should) help him. If there is an accomplished artisan, then use his services (give him a job).
There are two reasons why city (state) life deteriorates in this day and age:
1. Abuse of baitul mal (government treasury). The ghazis (soldiers) and ulema (scholars and teachers) who have (no doubt) a right on the baitul mal (treasury), as well as poets and writers who used to be patronized by kings have now made it a habit to look upon bait ul mal (government treasury) as their means of day to day income. They have become dependent (parasitic) on the baitul mal (the government) for their livelihood. They become richer (through the income from the government), each one more than the other, and become a burden on the general population.

2. Heavy taxation on pilgrims, businessmen and workers is a major recipe for poverty. It destroys honest people while the (unscrupulous) powerful become rebellious (abuse the laws). The reform of culture takes place through a balanced establishment of professions (farmers, traders, craftsmen, soldiers, scholars, doctors). Our compatriots should be aware of this subtle observation.

Faith, History and Science in a Secular Paradigm

Faith, History and Science in a Secular Paradigm

Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

Adviser, World Organization for Resource Development and Education, Washington, DC

Note: This article is taken from the invited valedictory address given by Professor Ahmed to the Convention of Indian Secular Institute held in Bangalore, India on September 15, 2013. In this thought provoking address, Professor Ahmed has expanded the envelope for secularism and has redefined it in spiritual terms, not as a negation of religion, as was done by nineteenth century European philosophers but as the transcendent shared space of interacting faiths.  In so doing, he has circumscribed secularism within faith space These thought provoking ideas are as applicable to America, Europe and South Africa as they are to India.

The prospects for secularism have never been brighter. At the same time, the threats to secularism have never been greater. In my brief presentation, I will offer some perspectives that may perhaps clarify the state of secularism in the modern world. Is there an existential essence to secularism?  How do faith, history and science fit into a secular paradigm?

In a pluralistic global village, civilizations overlap and individuals have multiple identities. The same person may at once be an Indian, a South Asian, a believer or an atheist, and if dual citizenship is allowed, an American or an Australian, or he may simply consider himself a citizen of the world with no label. Cross-cultural dialogue requires the commitment to seek out and broaden the shared space, the tolerance to accept the validity of the doctrines and the faith of the other, and the openness to participate in and enjoy the holidays and feasts of the other.

In this shrunken globe, as old frameworks crumble and new ones emerge, every faith is engaged in searching for its own soul so that it can define and refine its position with respect to the other faiths. Oftentimes this dialogue is an internal one, within individual souls as they seek to reconcile multiple, overlapping identities and the inevitable tensions inherent therein.

Secularism is no exception to this rule. It must redefine itself so that it remains relevant to the lives of modern men and women. This requires an examination of its origin, its historical context, the terminology used to define it as well as the assumptions that underlie that terminology.

Although secular ideas have existed in every society since ancient times, modern secularism is a product of the perceived conflict between faith and philosophy that emerged during the early years of Christianity and Islam. As the domains of these faiths increased, they came in contact with Greek rational thought. Ideas collided.  One may, for instance, seek the origin of secular thought in the dialectic between Al Ghazzali (d 1111) and Ibn Rushd (d 1198). It is not my intent here to retrace the historical battles that took place between the Mutazalites and the Kalam school in eighth century Islamic history or the dialectic between faith and reason addressed by Thomas Aquinas (d 1274). The response of these two great traditions to the secular-religious dialectic was fundamentally different. The Islamic world rejected rational deductive philosophy and adopted empirical inductive science. The Christian world bifurcated its world view into the sacred and the secular. Matters of faith were confined to the Church while history, sociology and science were opened up to secular inquiry.

Modern secularism was born in the nineteenth century in the heyday of European expansion. Developments in science and technology went hand in hand with industrialization and colonization. The accumulation of enormous wealth, albeit it was concentrated in the hands of only a few bankers, merchants and industrialists, held out the promise of unlimited human development. Secularism, developing on the heels of humanism, saw no need for the Divine in human affairs. Humankind, at any rate the European part of it, seemed to be doing quite well without the burden of religious dogma. This was the heyday for philosophical speculation. The Theory of Evolution was a prime example of such speculation. In its social implications, it supported the dominance of the west over the rest of the world and gained wide acceptance as a “scientific” theory even if key tenets of the theory remained without empirical validation.

In the twenty first century, the widely accepted definition of secularism as a non-religious movement needs to be re-examined.

In the post-industrialized world, there has been increasing disillusionment with material progress and an awareness of the terrible price paid for dissociating oneself from spiritual space. Faith in its many forms is alive and well. Indeed, in the last two decades there is a resurgence of religious fervor the world over. This is as true of India as it is of America and Europe. Some of this fervor is exploited by extremist groups to further their own political agendas. Extremism robs religion of its spirituality and creates a thorny bush out of a flowering plant. As a Muslim with a deep faith, I must point out here that the Qur’an explicitly discourages extremism (“Innallaha la huhibbul mu’tadeen-Verily, Allah does not love the extremists.” The Qur’an). There is no clash of civilizations in the world as Huntington would have us believe. There is a clash of extremisms as Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University has explained.

A consequence of increasing religious fervor is that secularism finds itself increasingly isolated in a world awash with religious extremism.

It should be obvious that secularism has done itself a disservice in accepting the definitions advanced by western man in the 19th century, namely, that it is a movement that is anti-religion. Although its primary application was in the political domain in separating church and state, it was soon applied to social and scientific disciplines as well. There is no reason why we should accept this traditional definition that is couched in negative terms as a movement that is irreligious. Indeed, we have an historic opportunity to expand the horizons of secularism and its global reach by redefining it in spiritual terms. We need to stretch the envelope and think outside the box.

An overwhelming majority of the people of India subscribe to one religious identity or the other. Even the most avowed secularist in India does not renounce his religious identify. By defining itself in non-religious terms, secularism isolates itself and reduces its appeal to the masses.

So, allow me to offer a new definition of secularism appropriate for a highly religious, pluralistic society.

Secularism is the existential essence of spirituality. One may also say that secularism ought to be the existential essence of spirituality. A third way to express a similar idea is to say that secularism is the shared spiritual space that emerges when coexistent spiritual groups transcend their individual religious domains and join hands to work for the common good.

This definition may sound new and challenging but it need not be. It is inherent in the teachings of the great spiritual masters of the past.

Let me offer an example. It was the year 1250 CE. The Eurasian continent was reeling under the Mongol onslaught. Much of the landmass from the Indus to the Danube lay in ruins. In the midst of the cacophony of war and the clang of swords and shields rose the melodious voice of a great sage, Mevlana Rumi (d 1273) in far away Anatolia. Arberry referred to him as “the greatest mystical poet in the history of mankind.”  Describing himself in the midst of this mayhem of destruction, the Mevlana wrote:

“What is to be done O men of faith! I do not recognize myself. I am not Christian, or Jew or Muslim, nor Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen; not any religion or cultural system…..This is me: sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed….for me to fit inside everyone’s heart, I put on a new face”.

These mystical passages, profound in their insight on the human condition, have been translated and explained over the years in many different ways. Such passages are not the subject matter for mundane conversations; they are addressed to the spiritual elite. One possible explanation is that Rumi was expressing the state of the soul when it transcends the constraints of ritualistic religion. When the soul transcends the confined bounds of ritual, it ceases to be Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jew, Sikh, Zoroastrian, believer or disbeliever and soars into the unbounded space of  Divine Grace. This is the pristine, primordial state of the soul as was explained by Al Gazzali. Thus secularism is not a negation of religion. It stands on the shoulders of religion. It begins where ritual leaves off.

Ladies and Gentlemen… Distinguished guests… Faith is the moving principle of civilization. Where there is no faith, there is no civilization. This is the Universal Law of Civilization.

In the fascinating panorama of the struggle of man on earth, faith has played a pivotal role. Each of the major religions of man imbues its followers with a particular vision of the transcendent and the relationship of the human to the transcendent. That particular vision governs to a large extent the relationship of each faith with the world at large. As the globe shrinks under the incessant impact of technology, men and women of different faiths need to come together to understand one another and shape a common human destiny.

A civilization is a human system in faith space. Faith is a divine gift to humankind. It brings man in contact with heavenly energy that flows down from divine Grace. Was that energy to disappear for a moment all existence shall cease to be.

The reservoir of faith is infinite. It is inexhaustible as compared with the reservoir of human energy which is limited and exhaustible. A civilization based on faith endures. One that is not anchored in faith may last several generations but does not endure.

A civilization is a living organism. Within this organism, life and death, renewal and decay are coexistent. When the forces of renewal are dominant, a civilization prospers. When the forces of decay take over, a civilization collapses.

Like waves, civilizations collapse with a thunder. But the forces that cause them to collapse are not instantaneous. They build up over time until the civilization becomes unstable. The process is like that of an earthquake. The forces that cause an earthquake build up over years, perhaps centuries. And when they exceed the limits, the pent up energy is released with the suddenness of an earthquake flattening everything that stands in its way.

A dynasty is not a civilization. A civilization may contain within it several dynasties. Each dynasty is like a fresh wave overtaking the one before it. Observe an ocean wave as it overtakes the one before it. The wave in the front disappears and gives way to the one behind it. In the same way, a dynasty gives way to another one. A particle in the ocean moves up and down as a wave traverses it. Similarly, a body politic endures a dynasty as it makes its appearance and disappears. As long as the ocean provides the energy, new waves are formed and the show goes on. Similarly, as long as faith propels a civilization, it renews itself even as it endures the vicissitudes of history.

Civilization is a monarch that rides on a chariot with four wheels: justice, perseverance, mutual support and righteous action. If any of these wheels becomes unhinged, the chariot topples over. Faith is the propulsive power for this chariot. When the reservoir of faith is exhausted, the chariot grinds to a halt.

What does faith mean in a secular paradigm? Each religious tradition in a multi-religious, pluralistic society has its own personal space and its own community space. The personal space defines its doctrines and belief systems. The community space defines its ritual systems, feasts and festivals. But the bulk of societal space is shared space, which is common to all faith groups.

It is this shared space that is the domain of secularism. While one respects the doctrines and belief systems of the other, one works together in this common space for the common good.

This shared space need not be anti-religious, certainly not anti-spiritual. It is like an edifice supported by many pillars, each one representing a different religious tradition. This edifice has a vast common space with multiple doors, each one representing a separate tradition of humankind.

It is in this shared space, transcending individual faiths but supported by them, that one finds social and economic justice, rights and responsibilities of men and women, human rights, environmental protection, love of the homeland, common defence, mutual respect, righteous and noble action, individual dignity and societal welfare.

Faith in a secular paradigm embraces not only faith in one’s individual spiritual tradition but faith in the systems that sustain the common good in shared space and a willingness to continuously struggle for them. The two are not exclusive; they complement and reinforce each other. Modern man has concurrent and overlapping identities. Secularism must accept these overlapping identities and redefine itself as the transcendent aspect of individual faith that governs shared space and the common good. The paramount dialectic of modern man is the definition of the interface between the individual space and the shared space in a spiritual matrix.

In India, for instance, one can have an abiding faith in Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikkhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, or any other faith system, and be a staunch secularist with an equally abiding faith in the common good based on justice, mutual love, good deeds and a common destiny.

How do history and science fit into this spiritual secular paradigm? The separation of the world view into the secular and the sacred has resulted in the fragmentation and fossilization of knowledge. Truth is one and indivisible. There cannot be one truth for nature and another truth for faith and a third one for history. This self-evident reality is overlooked by modern man who has compartmentalized science, history and faith.

The discipline of each – science, history and faith- is a noble and grand enterprise in its own right.  Each one shows the grandeur and majesty of creation and guides man to his noble destiny. Each one has its own assumptions. A man of wisdom is aware of these assumptions so that when he embarks on his discovery of the Truth, he does not confuse what is apparent with the reality that lies hidden behind the manifest.

History is not merely a compendium of dates and events. History is a study of the laws that govern the formation and dissolution of civilizations. What makes it possible for common people to work together to achieve uncommon results? Similarly, why do civilizations decay and disappear? These questions transcend any specific dogma and therefore belong most appropriately to the shared secular domain.

There are a host of theories about the rise and fall of civilizations with which the reader is no doubt familiar.

Ibn Khaldun (d 1406), the great philosopher of the Maghreb, and the father of historiography, studied the Berber dynasties in North Africa and postulated his theory of the rise and fall of civilizations based on tribal cohesion. Ibn Khaldun found that the desert nomads possessed the qualities of courage, valor, integrity, hard work and mutual support in abundance. He contrasted these qualities with those found in the city dwellers where the ease of city life led to lethargy, mutual rivalry, chicanery, deception, acquisitiveness and a lack of ethics.

Ibn Khaldun observed that as city dwellers succumb to the pleasures of a settled life they are overrun by the desert dwellers. With time the newcomers themselves settle down and develop the flaccid habits of city dwellers only to be overrun by a fresh wave of conquerors from the desert.

Ibn Khaldun’s theory has universal application. Civilizations decay from within. Righteous action fosters mutual support and sustains a civilization. Vices destroy a civilization, and as they decay they are overrun by other civilizations that are more cohesive and virile. And the process repeats.

However, Ibn Khaldun’s path-breaking theory leaves several issues unanswered. Must city life necessarily lead to corruption? Were not some of the great civilizations of the past city based? Secondly, once a civilization begins to decay, must it necessarily fall prey to outside forces? Ibn Khaldun’s theory leaves no room for internal renewal.

There are other theories for the rise and fall of civilizations. Those of Toynbee, Adams, Hegel, Marx, Spengler, Kennedy and Diamond deserve serious study. Toynbee’s challenge and response is a further development of cause and effect. Brooks Adams saw economic centration as the driving force for the formation of civilizations. Hegel’s dialectic found a concrete expression in the material dialectic of Marx and Engel. Kennedy advances his thesis for the decay of empires based on over-stretch in relation to its resources. Diamond takes an ecological view to societal collapse postulating that the capacity of a society to endure is directly connected with its ability to maintain a balance between the availability and exploitation of natural resources at its disposal.

As I was dissatisfied with each of these well known theories, I have advanced my own theory for the rise and fall of civilizations based on a theory of renewal (reference: I have postulated that a great civilization is based on faith. It is faith that provides a reservoir of energy for the civilization to renew itself from within as it faces the vicissitudes of time. Those civilizations endure that have this capacity for renewal. Those that do not, disappear.

Faith is not only the cement, the glue that holds a civilization together but is also the reservoir that a great civilization dives into for its renewal. Faith fosters righteous action which alone propels a civilization forward. Take the faith away, a civilization degenerates like a brick that has not been fired. It collapses into dust. Such a civilization does not endure. It is overwhelmed and is swallowed up by the turbulence of time.

Secular India must cultivate and foster an unshakeable faith in the shared space of its people who enter this domain from multiple spiritual platforms. Only such faith can provide a reservoir of energy as India seeks to build a great civilization that draws upon the energies of multiple faiths but in its functionality transcends them all.

The function of science is to find the truth. In this grand enterprise, the mind, the body, the heart, the soul and the spirit work together. Man is both spirit and body. It is not the body that contains the spirit. It is the spirit that surrounds the body many times over. The secular cannot comprehend the spiritual. It is the spiritual, supported and confirmed by the empirical and the rational that leads to the truth.

It is a tragedy that modern man accepts the compartmentalized assumptions of science that the body and soul are separate and distinct. He relegates the soul to “the other world”, while assuming that the body belongs to “this world”. In such a soulless world, he cannot find joy, happiness, justice, feeling and compassion. What he does feel is der angst. He is lonely, lost.

Science, history and faith are interrelated in their origin as well as their functionality.  The origin of all knowledge is the search for the Truth.

Knowledge is a treasure. It is gifted through the Spirit which is the source of life.  Whether one is a saint or a scientist one must concede that with birth come life, knowledge and power. A dead man has no life, no power and no knowledge.  It stands to reason that knowledge is a gift that accompanies the Spirit which is infused into a person between conception and birth. It is the Spirit that is the life source. Without the Spirit, there is no life and no knowledge.

Science, or at least science as we know it today, grew up in the cradle of secularism.  While science has bestowed unprecedented riches on humankind, it has also extracted an enormous price in the bargain. While we know the objective characteristics of nature and have used them to our advantage, we have lost touch with a sense of beauty and feeling. Let me illustrate this with an example from physics .

The senses act as windows to the physical in time-space and facilitate the construction of an empirical worldview which forms the basis of science.  This worldview, based on the assumptions of before and after, subject and object, is flawed, deceptive and imperfect. Consider a rainbow. A physical description of the rainbow would take us in the direction of wavelengths, dispersion, wave propagation, optic nerves, and neurons in the brain. Consider this worldview of wavelengths, dispersion and neurons. Where is the enchanting beauty of the rainbow as it vaults the sky from horizon to horizon? It is not there. Yet, even the most unlettered human can relate to the beauty of the rainbow and be awed by it. The beauty of the rainbow is not in the physical description because beauty is not in wavelengths, cells and atoms. It is in the soul which is hidden from the physical, but makes its presence felt through interaction with it.

Secular man is constantly at war with himself. He cannot circumscribe the heart with his logic. Traditional secular thought would have us believe that there is nothing more to the cosmos than the physical. The materialists go even one step further; they reduce all experience to the physical. In the process they negate the essence of being human which lies in the perceptions of the heart and the soul. In their world there are new tears, only chemical changes in the body, no smile of a baby, no beauty, no joy and no sorrow.

Despite Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, modern man clings to the belief that the incomplete picture provided by science reveals the whole truth. Indeed, science has become the new religion of man.

The dichotomy between the physical and the soul is removed when the physical is presented within a spiritual paradigm. Such a perspective does not negate the scientific approach which demands its validation in observation and measurement. It merely imparts a transcendent vision to the physical so that the scientist can use the experience of the senses, not as an end in itself but as an occasion for the spirit to witness the grand panorama of creation from a platform of faith.  Such a view does not negate the processes of science. But it changes the perspective in a profound way.

Every moment Divine grace displays itself in nature, and it does so with majesty. In it there are Signs for perceptive minds. The study of nature thus becomes mandatory for humankind so that it becomes witness to these Signs, uses them as occasions to celebrate Divine grace and create Divine patterns in the world

In summary, the predicament of modern man and his dissociation from the self offers an opportunity for the secular domain to extend its reach, not as anti-religion but as the transcendent aspect of overlapping and intersecting spiritual traditions. Secularism need not negate religion. On the contrary, it must elevate and propel religion to transcendental heights, into the shared space of all humankind, which is the essence of true religion. In this transcendental dimension there is universal justice, righteous action, love, mutual support, rights and responsibilities of men and women,  and the vision of a shared destiny for a nation and for humankind. Would it not be a beautiful world if a Muslim becomes the keeper of a Hindu, a Hindu the keeper of a Christian, a Christian of a Jew and a Jew of a Muslim?

Copyright May 6, 2013, Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

Bangalore, India

The Recent Upheavals in the Muslim World

The Recent Upheavals in the Muslim World (2011-2012)- Analysis and Cures

Professor Nazeer Ahmed


Like an angry ocean whipped up by violent storms, the rage in the Islamic world hammers at everything in sight, whipped up by long pent up passions, the gale force winds created by depressions of centuries old grievances, of defeat, humiliation, conquest, colonialism, insults and exploitation. The secrets of how intense these storms will be and what damage they will cause are hidden in the womb of the future. As students of history we watch these storms with fascination and we experience them with trepidation. Without the benefit of perspective which the passage of time affords, we can only document our observations, declaring, “We bear witness!”, and leave the lessons to be learned to the future.


There are analyses galore about what is going on in the Muslim world and in the Arab core of that world. There is no dearth of pundits who pontificate on the events and make a good living doing it. Their vocabulary is punctuated by a new lexicon: Arab spring, Arab fall and so on. And there is the old lexicon that includes democracy, religion, Arab-Israeli conflict, Islamophobia and Anti-Americanism. These attempts remind us of the story of the four blind men of Hindustan and the elephant.  The four men embark on a joint expedition to discover the shape of an elephant.  A friendly, domesticated elephant is ushered into their presence. One man touches its trunk and declares that it is like a water spout. Another wraps himself around a leg and exclaims it is like a tree. A third touches the ear and cries aloud it is like a fan made of banana leaves. The fourth one moves his hand around the trunk and asserts it is like the throne.

The analysis of current upheavals in the Islamic world suffers from the same limitations of perception, mired as these perceptions are in the jargon of the times. Very few grasp its extent or its intensity.  People in the west ask: “What is it about Muslims that make them so thin-skinned when it comes to their religion?” On the other hand Muslims often ask, “What is it about Westerners that makes them so thick-skinned that they continue to needle us?”


It is a grand enterprise to capture the multiple dimensions of these upheavals. They have historical roots as well as perceptual, emotive and socio-political dimensions.  Nonetheless, we will make a fresh attempt to tune in to the heart beat of the Islamic world.  What we hear in that heart beat may startle the listener. The voyage and the discoveries will change our world view. Old paradigms are destroyed and new ones have yet to be built. We summarize our observations at the outset:


  1. Technology has knocked down the barriers to communication. It is as if the entire world, men and women of different faiths, all live together under one tent. The lion and the lamb have been forced into the same habitat. In this confined space, every faith must rethink how it retains the sanctity of its own religious space while honoring the sanctity of all others. It requires the evolution of a new paradigm of interfaith ethics. A new lexicon of “us” versus “them” is urgently needed.
  2. The concept of the sacred is different in different faiths. In addition, all faiths struggle in a materialist world that is secular and is arrayed against the sacred.
  3. A new etiquette of free speech is required which preserves independent thought but avoids trampling and desecration of others’ sacred space.  Muslim scholarship must address this issue as well and address it must with urgency.
  4. Religion has become too serious a business to be left in the hands of professional religious men.
  5. The “Arab spring” lost out before it got started. It was hijacked first by a lexicon of democracy, then by the compulsive forces of a global Empire and right wing, home grown extremist ideologies. Now it is torn between the two.
  6. The half-time score in the Arab spring is: Empire: 1, Democracy: 0, Outcome: uncertain.
  7. The convulsions in the Islamic world are about fair play and a level playing field. The central issue is the increasing polarization of the haves and the have-nots. The convulsions are not about trappings of democracy which has long since been co-opted by big money.  In addition, people are fed up with dictatorships, internal corruption and external military occupations.
  8. The Islamic world is caught in a strategic contest between an American Empire which is under stress from economic contraction and a resurgent China, economically strong but still a distant second to America in military might. As the old African saying goes: “When the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.”
  9. The three major challenges before the Islamic world are: the rise of extremism, rampant corruption which gnaws that every facet of Muslim society, and the hegemonic  pressures  of a shrinking American empire supported by western powers.
  10. Islam in America has a historic opportunity to realize its existential destiny as the true brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. Muslim Americans must build bridges and work in cooperation with those who seek to construct the edifice of a more tolerant, economically resurgent America but one that modifies its compact with the military-industrial complex.
  11. America can win the strategic contest with China based on the values of Jefferson and Lincoln, not on the strength of its arms.

The spark that lit the fire that spread to forty nations was a crass, despicable movie about our Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and his noble family. This was not the first provocation nor is it likely to be the last. The fuel that provided the energy for this fury was the pent up frustrations of people with economic disparity, lack of opportunity, political oppression under dictatorships, military defeat, occupation and continuing humiliation by the west. We will examine these issues in some detail. But first the overarching influence of technology that empowers a devilish loner to set the world on fire must be understood and its awesome implications fully grasped.


Technology Has Compressed the World into a Single Unit


Technology transforms individuals, societies, alters old social paradigms, propels some civilizations to the heights of power while it destroys others. The invention of the stirrup in the ancient world, for instance, empowered the nomads of Central Asia to extend their sway over the settled civilization of India and Iran. The invention of the gunpowder transformed warfare, and in the sixteenth century, cannons mounted on boats gave the decisive edge to the Europeans to conquer and colonize the Aztecs of the new world as well as the coastal cities of Africa and Asia. In the nineteenth century, the appearance of the automobile changed the political landscape of New York State and shifted political power from the bucolic upstate to the emerging megapolis that is New York City.


The internet is a much more powerful tool than any of the previous inventions of man, perhaps comparable in its impact to the invention of the wheel. It removes barriers to communication across national and continental boundaries, empowers millions in Asia to enter the global marketplace and enables individuals to bypass governments and project their voice to millions, perhaps billions around the globe.


But human beings have shown a propensity to apply every technological advance as much for evil as for good. The stirrup enabled the nomadic horseman to conquer and plunder. The cannon mounted boats were used to destroy ancient civilizations. Advances in physics were used to build the atom bomb. And now, the internet has given free rein to pornography.  Statistics differ but there is no denial that pornography is the lifeblood of the internet.


It is in this context that we must examine the recent upheaval in the Islamic world. The awesome power of the internet has enabled a few sick people to set the world ablaze. Religion itself has become hostage to the work of Satan. Deeply held beliefs of people and the sacred space of communities far away can be trampled upon with impunity by anonymous ghost writers and pseudo-artists. The complex interplay of a selective and self-serving, often hypocritical application of freedom of speech with the rights of individuals to be left alone and the sanctity of deeply held beliefs of communities and nations far away presents the world with intellectual, ethical and juridical challenges not experienced in the past.


There is Need for an Interfaith Religious Etiquette and Protocols


It was a time that has long since disappeared, swallowed up by the unceasing march of technology. That was when men and women lived by a code of honor that had been developed and refined over centuries of living together. In that world, a man’s home was his citadel. It was designed and built to preserve the sanctity of its occupants and encourage politeness and humility on the part of outside visitors.


Our ancestral home in India was built of mud walls reinforced with straw. No one knew how old the house was.  My grandma used to say it was at least two hundred years old. The mud walls had a thickness of more than three feet at the base and tapered off to about two feet at a height of ten feet. The inclined roof was a laced labyrinth of bamboo poles and was covered with neat rows of curved baked black tiles.


It was a spacious house with a large angan (courtyard), always cool in summer and warm in winter. My great-grand father, Gulam Hussain had moved down from the Northwest with the British army, and after retirement as a soldier circa 1920, settled down in the South and had bought the house for sixty rupees. There was one characteristic of the house that was distinct. Every door in the house cut low, less than the height of an average man, and tapered slightly as a cone to carry the weight above it; a larger door would have caused the mud walls to collapse.


A visitor would first say Salamu alaikum, seek permission to enter, take off his sandals and then bend down as he passed the low entrance door, naturally saluting those inside, as if with humility.


All the mud houses in the neighborhood were similarly constructed. It was culturally accepted that a visitor would bow as he entered your house. Once inside, the visitor would honor the sanctity of the owner. If it was prayer time, the man of the house always led the prayer, even if the visitor was an accomplished scholar.


Modern life provides no such sanctity for private living space. Technology beams in images, some wanted and some unwanted, right into your bedroom. What used to be an inner sanctum is now public space. Stand alone houses with mud walls and thatched roofs have given rise to high rise buildings, some large enough to accommodate a small town. It is not just the physical space that is invaded; it is also the social, intellectual, emotional and religious space. People are all exposed.


How does one conduct oneself in this private space which has become public? What rules of etiquette and behavior are acceptable to the visitor and the visited?


The question becomes complex and extremely sensitive when one realizes that there is no accepted standard of what space is considered sanctified and what is not. This is particularly  true of emotive and religious space. In a global village, each community, each religious group and each nation has its own distinct and separate ideas of what is sacred and what is not.  The demarcation between public and private is largely a function of the group’s historical experience as well as its national socio-political-religious structure.


Jews, for instance, consider the holocaust to be a national tragedy and would consider it anti-Semitic if anyone dared question it. Christians are sensitive about the Trinity and the place of Jesus in it. Blacks in America are sensitive to issues of racism while the Hispanics are concerned about ethnic profiling. Each group has an emotive, religious, social space that is sensitive, perhaps even hallowed. For the Muslims, this hallowed emotive and religious space is occupied by the Qur’an and the love of the Prophet.   These deeply held perceptions, while differing in their emotive intensity to those who hold them, illustrate the difficulty of civil communication in a shrunken world wherein the barriers have been knocked down by technology.


One can see that in a pluralistic society, even a discussion of what is sanctified and what is not becomes difficult.  If a committee consisting of a Christian minister, a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Hindu priest and a Buddhist monk were to work on a common definition of what is to be considered sacred, there would emerge five different opinions.  It would be a futile exercise. Their perceptions are differentiated not only by doctrinal issues but also by centuries of historical and collective social experiences. For the Jews, religion and people co-mingle. Most Christians accept a separation of the sacred and the secular. For the Hindus, all creation is sacred. For the Buddhists, it is the interconnectivity of creation, not the Creator that is important. The Muslims separate the Creator and creation and insist on the transcendence of God. And so on. Exhausted, the interfaith committee would agree that each faith must define its own sacred space and the others must honor that space.


A post-religious, secular world knowingly flaunts this manifest wisdom and insists on selectively imposing its diktat on everyone. While Germany bans any questioning of the holocaust, it permits the screening of a film offensive to Muslims.  The British take down advertisements of a winking Jesus but defend freedom of speech when it comes to trespassing on Muslim sensibilities. America legislates that discrimination based on race, ethnicity and national origin is illegal but leaves out religion from this definition. This satisfies powerful electorates among Blacks, Hispanics and Jewish Americans but leaves the Muslims totally exposed. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. But does this mean you have the freedom to walk into somebody else’s domain, insult, humiliate and denigrate him?


The world has not addressed these questions. A universal, religious code of etiquette is yet to evolve. Worse yet, a selective application of freedom of speech has stoked the perception that it is a hypocritical mask worn by some when it suits their sinister political or social agenda. The same groups that jealously guard their turf are the first to defend freedom of speech when it tramples upon and denigrates the sacred space of other groups. It is in this perception that one has to look for the origins of the sparks that have ignited the Muslim world.


Religion, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It is a living, breathing organism that exists in the economic-social-political domain.  The major religions of humanity have been around for thousands of years.  People of faith have learned to work with each other despite their differing views of the transcendent. So, why is there a global upheaval at this time? What are the economic, social and political factors that provide insights into the current upheavals shaking up the Muslim world, constituting one quarter of humanity? And what are the constructive alternatives that would help address these issues?

It is obvious to me that there is a crying need for an accepted etiquette in interfaith and interreligious dialogue. Charity begins at home. Muslim scholars must first get their own house in order.  The terminology of “Muslim”, “Kafir”, “Darul Harab”, “Darlul Islam” must give rise to a new terminology based on genuine faith, mutual respect and shared space. This, in my opinion, is the message of the Qur’an.


If I was asked to advance a Declaration of Interfaith Etiquette or aDeclaration of Interfaith Protocols it would be along the following lines:

“As a Muslim, I believe in the Oneness of God, and in the Angels, the Books and all the Messengers of God;

I believe that the Qur’an is the last of the revealed Books and Muhammed (pbuh) is the last of the Messengers of God;

I hold the Qur’an in the highest esteem as the Word of God;

I accord the most profound honor and love for the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh);

I expect those who do not share my faith to respect my sanctified space when they chose to enter it, and if they do disagree with me, to do so with due respect;

I undertake on my part to honor and respect the sacred space of other faiths, and if I do disagree with them, I will do so with due respect;

I hereby undertake to work with the utmost zeal to foster mutual respect for the sanctified space of all faiths and to honor the shared humanity of all men and women on this planet independent of their origin, race, color or creed.”


Islamic Education Must Combine the Traditional and the Modern


In a shrunken world, religious leadership is too serious a business to be left to the professional mullahs. The modern world demands that those who speak for a religion before a global audience must have a firm grounding not only in the traditional disciplines but also in modern communications, science, technology, mathematics, history and sociology.


When I was a graduate student at Caltech more than fifty years ago, I shared my office with an ordained Catholic priest, father Arenz. Father Arenz held an earned doctorate in theology from a distinguished school near Princeton and had been sent by his archdiocese to obtain a PhD in Aeronautics from Caltech which at that time was the best school for space sciences in the world. I lost touch with him over the years but I am certain wherever he served he excelled in presenting a synthesis of his tradition with the best of modern scientific knowledge.


There is nothing equivalent to such training in the world of Islam. There are fifty seven Muslim countries. Almost a quarter of the population of the world is Muslim. But there is not one academy that produces scholars who are at home at once with the traditional, natural and human sciences. Our higher institutions of religious learning at Nadwa or Deoband excel in the traditional religious sciences but offer little or no training in the modern scientific disciplines. Al Azhar and Qum have made an attempt to modernize their syllabus but they still have long ways to go. It was not always so. Imam Abu Haneefa was not only one of the greatest ofmujtahideen but was also a very successful and rich merchant, a mathematician of repute, an accomplished architect and city planner who was responsible for the layout of the city of Baghdad when it founded in 760 CE. In the classical period, Muslim scholars were trained in the Qur’an and Hadith, mathematics, the languages, discourse, astronomy, medicine, chemistry and tasawwuf. These disciplines were a part of the curriculum as late as the Mogul era. The marginalization of the syllabus in our religious academies is a recent phenomenon, dating back to the onset of the colonial era. I have covered in depth the history of this marginalization in the Encyclopedia of Islamic History


Great civilizations use every major challenge to renew themselves from within and rise to new heights of achievement. Lesser ones recoil and disappear. Great moments in history are occasions to reshape, mold and transform a civilization. Where was Muslim scholarship during the recent upheaval? Did it rise to the challenge and use the upheaval as an occasion to chart new ground for religious and interreligious discourse? Or, was it bogged down in descending spirals of condemnations, denials and self-righteous proclamations? There were indeed condemnations of the movie and of the violent response to it. Are mere condemnations and hand-wringing enough? Muslim scholars are stuck in ancient paradigms, unable to extricate themselves from its inertia and move forward or lead others to new vistas in the unfolding panorama of God’s will through human history.


Arab Spring- A Historical Turning Point


The recent upheavals in the Muslim world are of extraordinary historical import. More specifically, the Arab spring marks a turning point in the history of the peoples of the Middle East.  There have been social movements, religious movements, anti-colonial movements in parts of the Arab world but one has to go back centuries to find a movement that swept across the entire region. Comparing it to the Abbasid Revolution of the eighth century would be an exaggeration but comparing it to the post World War II nationalist movements that brought in Nasser of Egypt and the Baath party of Iraq and Syria would be an understatement.  For a moment, the Arab masses woke up and gave vent to their pent up frustrations through what Jesse Jackson used to call “street heat”.


No sooner did the Arab spring start than forces opposed to it went into action and co-opted it intellectually and suppressed it militarily.  The motive forces behind the Arab uprising were two-fold: (1) the increasing economic centralization which left out millions from the benefits of growth in trade, industry and commerce, and (2) the rampant corruption that has overtaken their societies like a tsunami inundating the political, social, economic and even religious landscape. Both of these are universal issues. The global economic engines have worked in favor of a few to the disadvantage of the many. While there are more billionaires today than at any time in history, millions have very little to eat and no jobs to support their families. Two-tiered economies flourish in most part of the world: one for the rich and the other for the poor. The same cup of coffee that is sold for ten cents in a hut and served in an unfired clay cup is served next door in a five star hotel to the wealthy for ten dollars in glazed Chinese cups. I was among the first ones to point this out, way before the outbreak of Arab Spring in my article on Egypt, under the title, One River, Two Egypts, published in the Link.


Graft and corruption gnaw at the social fabric of a society just as termites gnaw at the inside of a tree and ultimately destroy it. That is why the Qur’an repeatedly warns against the perils of corruption. Corruption saps the creative energies of a people and makes rational, strategic business planning impossible. How can you plan to build a bridge when more than half of your budget is siphoned off by graft and corruption? In some Muslim societies, the percentage consumed by graft is even higher. The Arab Spring was the voice of millions that cried out aloud:  “Enough is enough! Give us a level playing field.”


The Arab Spring was the collective voice of the Arab people. It emanated from the pent up frustrations of the masses, and was led by the secular elite. Its origins were basically non-religious and were rooted in the anger against the corruption in their societies. It was a genuine mass uprising.


The moderate and secular groups suffered from a fatal flaw. They did not have an ideologue who could articulate their positions in a cogent, coherent language in conservative Islamic societies.  Allama Iqbal (d 1938) successfully did this in the subcontinent. Ali Shariati (1977) attempted the same for Iran. However, even in these two cases, the results have been short lived. Iqbal’s Pakistan was hijackied by extremist jama’ats while the Iranian Revolution was taken over by the clerics. In the Arab world there have been notable intellectuals from Mohammed Abduh (d 1905) onwards who have tried to articulate a consistent modernist theme for the Arabs. But the results have been mixed. Sometimes the efforts have degenerated into Arab nationalism; at other times they have veered off to the religious right.


This is a general observation: the Islamic world has yet to produce a thinker who can successfully integrate the traditional and the modern and articulate this synthesis in a cogent manner that is understood and accepted by the thinking elite as well as the conservative Muslim masses. This is a monumental task as the secular and the religious establishments jealously guard their turf and are always ready to pounce upon anyone who they perceive to be not one of them. Considering the fragmentation of the Islamic world and the enormous tensions within its body politic, it is not likely to be a person like Mujaddid Alf Thani (Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi, d 1624) who will articulate and implement a grand vision but a process extending over many generations to which many thinkers will contribute.


A second flaw of the modernist front in the Arab Spring was that it had no social and political infrastructure to back it up once the existing corrupt infrastructure was eliminated. A successful revolution needs many elements: a goal, an ideology, a spokesperson, an organizer, a mass movement and a sound social and political infrastructure. The modernist front achieved its first goal of shaking up the existing political structure but it could not follow through to fill the resulting political vacuum. There were others who were ready to move in and take advantage of the vacuum. An imperfect analogy is like that of a lion who hunts and kills its prey but is unable to eat the meat because it has no teeth. In total frustration, it walks away and surrenders its prey to the foxes who are waiting not far away.


No sooner had the Arab Spring started, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt that the forces of reaction went into high gear. The counter revolution was both internal and external. Internally, the forces of the Islamic right, long quiescent under political pressure from entrenched dictators raised their head. Here again, one finds a wide spectrum of rightist forces, ranging all the way from extremist salafists to the moderate Ikhwan ul Muslimeenwho have been vetted over the last fifty years in the crucible of international politics and have learned to moderate their posture. The salafists are comparative newcomers on the international scene. They cause havoc wherever they go. They target their own people as well as foreigners. Their actions result in massive social dislocations and political turmoil.


Interference from the West Derails Social Transformations from Within


The external resistance to modernist and secular change came from the Western powers. Contrary to popular perceptions that the policies of the West foster democracy and fair play, the actions of these powers work exactly in the opposite direction.  They support dictators and strongmen who suppress democracy and foster corruption. A more correct assessment of the policies of the West is that they are geared towards their own self interests and the preservation of a world order in which capital has a free reign to exploit the resources of the world. Philosophically, there is nothing right or wrong with this position. The position may indeed be legitimate. It is the hypocrisy with which these self interests are wrapped in a jargon of democracy that irks people.


The Arab Spring was no exception to this rule. First, the propaganda machine in the West went into action projecting the objective of the uprising not as a demand for economic justice but as a desire for electoral democracy. Genuine democracy, which means government by the people, of the people, for the people is one of the most profound political ideas to grace the civilization of man. But alas! Political democracy has been hijacked by Big Money wherever it is practiced. The rituals of democracy, the elections and the voting are there, but lurking behind the ballot boxes is Big Money which controls the process itself and makes a sham of the genuine will of the people. The Arab Spring was about economic justice and a level playing field, not about the trappings of a manipulated ballot box.


The results speak for themselves. In Libya, the overthrow of one dictator, Mo’ammar Qaddafi, has resulted in the dictatorship of anarchy. There is no law and order. Armed gangs roam the streets. The economy is in ruins. People endure even without the most basic amenities. No one knows what happened to the billions that Libya had deposited in foreign banks. In Tunisia, there is political instability. In Egypt, the modernist forces that had organized the demonstrations in Tahrir Square were shunted aside by the Muslim Brotherhood which has a vast, well organized network of social and political institutions. Mubarak was dethroned but the right wing forces have moved in. The salafis, massively funded from abroad, stirred up disturbances against the minority Copts, and have cornered a respectable share of the right wing votes. Democracy is suppressed in Bahrain by force. The civil war in Syria ranges on. It is not hard to see the intervention of western powers in each country. In Libya, the intervention was overt. In Syria it is covert. In Bahrain it is indirect. In Egypt it is subtle. And so on.


On the broader global scene, the interventions of western powers led by the United States have reinforced the perception that the west is waging a war on Muslims, with some even going so far as to say that it is a war on Islam. Those who subscribe to these perceptions cite the American invasion of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the drone attacks in Pakistan and the NATO bombing campaign in Libya to support their position. They suspect that America is out to undo the Middle East and remake it to suit its long term strategic interests. Specifically, they maintain that seven countries are targeted for destabilization and remaking: Iraq, the Sudan, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan. Add Pakistan to this list as an encore. Iraq has been destroyed and a virtual new state has been set up in the Kurdish North which threatens the territorial integrity of Turkey, Syria and Iran alike.  Sudan has been bifurcated with continuing pressures for further fragmentation.  Libya is in shambles and there is talk of dividing it into two.  Afghanistan is in ruins.  Pakistan is bleeding from drone attacks, its economy in shambles, one of its provinces in ruins and its body politic at the mercy of extremist groups.  Now, it is the turn of Syria where an insurgency goaded and armed from outside is pitted against an entrenched dictatorship supported by Russia. The raging wars and the political turmoil have segmented the Middle East into two camps: one including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Shaikdoms who support the west and the other group that includes Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon who oppose the west. So far it is the United States that has prevailed, although the long term benefits of its interventions, which were achieved at great cost, are questionable. The so called unity of the Muslim countries has been shown to be what it is, namely, a sham. The Organization of Islamic Countries cannot even hold a quorum and spends its time expelling one member or the other. In short, the situation is a mess. The Arab Spring which started as an expression of the genuine hope of the masses for economic justice has instead been manipulated to destroy left leaning dictatorships and replace them with right leaning dictatorships. The mid-term score for the Arab Spring is: The Empire 1, Democracy 0.  The future remains unstable and highly unpredictable, offering opportunities for creative solutions as well as possibilities for destructive disintegration


Historical Analogies with the Maghreb and Spain


Historical analogies are imperfect. However, if one insists on an analogy to the current situation in the Muslim world, the disintegration of the Maghreb between 1212 and 1578 CE offers some parallels. The Almohad defeat at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212 CE) set in motion the fragmentation of Muslim Spain. The Omayyad Khilafat of Andalus disappeared.  Its place was taken up by petty principalities in Seville, Cordova, Granada and North Africa, who constantly waged wars with one another in collusion with the Christian forces of Castile, Aragon and Portugal.  The fall of Granada in 1492 was not the end of this story. The Conquistadores continued their onslaught on land in North Africa and at sea in the Mediterranean and the Indian Oceans. Religion was the major driver in these conflicts.  It was not until the year 1578 when the Sa’adid Sultan Ahmad of Morocco defeated an invading force from Portugal at the Battle of Al Qasr al Kabir (1578) that the threat to Muslim North Africa was lifted. King Sebastian of Portugal was killed in the Battle and Portugal became a protectorate of Spain. The Ottomans advanced on North Africa from the East. Thereafter, a balance of power prevailed in the Maghreb between the Ottomans and the Spaniards. During this entire period (1212 – 1578) there was constant meddling from the Christian powers of Spain and Portugal in the affairs of Muslim North Africa.  The objective was to keep the Muslim powers divided and prevent the emergence of a unified political and military front that would challenge the ascendancy of the Iberian Christian powers.


As it was in the Maghreb historically, the Muslims today are at loggerheads with one another. The divisions are ideological, political, economic and cultural. The ancient fault lines along Shia-Sunni divide are well known. Add to it the competition for regional political dominance and the control of oil and other natural resources. Historical memories divide people. The Arabs and the Iranians are at each other’s throats. The Turks enter the fray, discarding the prudence that had governed their policies since the days of Ismet Inonu (d 1973). The Kurds, seeing a historic opportunity to carve out their own state are doing so at the expense of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. And so on.


Overarching these internal political struggles is the intrusion of a western economic empire led by the United States. The meddling in the internal affairs of Muslim states is unceasing. The overthrow of Mosaddeq in Iran (1954), the Arab-Israeli wars (1948 and 1967), the invasion of Iraq (1990-91, 2003-2010), widespread killings and abuse of women in Bosnia (1992-95) (which were mercifully stopped by President Clinton with a bombing campaign against Serbia) ,the destruction of Libya (2012) and the unending war in Afghanistan (2001 -ongoing) are only some of the obvious examples. Outside interference makes it impossible for internal political processes to mature.  When there does emerge a political change, it appears as a sudden hiccup, a disjointed response to an event and its effects dissipate and disappear just as do the waves in a pond when a stone is thrown into it.


The Muslim world suffers from a wounded psyche. It is not just the physical abuse, the invasions, defeats and unending wars that have taken their toll.  It is also the continuing ideological abuse that throws salt over raw wounds. The propaganda machines in America and Europe drown out Muslim civilian casualties as mere statistics. How many women and children have died in the drone attacks on Pakistan? Has anyone compiled their names? Is the life of an Arab child any less precious than the life of a child of any other nationality? Yet, the media pass over 100,000 civilian casualties in Iraq as if it was a number from a book in arithmetic.

The long term trends in the propaganda war against Muslims are there for anyone to see. In the 1960s the Arabs were the bad guys. Gradually, the propaganda was expanded to include the Muslims. After 9/11 Islam itself became fair game. Even the Qur’an and the Prophet were not spared. Buses roam the streets of New York and San Francisco with advertisements suggesting that the Arabs and Muslims are savages. The word “terrorist” appears to be reserved for Muslims. Even an individual crime by a Muslim is branded a terrorist act whereas more heinous crimes by non-Muslims are couched in more forgiving terms. The feeling of hurt among Arabs and Muslims is real. Their grievances are genuine.


There are Gaps between Perceptions and Realities


While many in the Arab and Muslim world perceive that the west led by the United States is out to re-colonize them and denigrate their religion, the general perception in the west is that their interventions have been positive and have been directed towards introducing democracy and reforming Muslim societies.  There are multiple issues with these perceptions. The west is not a monolith. Neither is the Islamic world. There are millions of people in America who have a genuine love for democracy and respect the Islamic world. And there are millions in the Islamic world who admire America for its universal ideas and its achievements.


The reality is that the west is not out to destroy Islam, or for that matter any other religion. The empire of the west is an economic empire. It is not an ideological empire as was the Spanish empire.The banker in New York, London or Copenhagen could care less how you pray or when you pray as long as you work during the day and spend the evening shopping at the mall. He would love you even more if you use a credit card and get into debt so that he can charge you interest.


The real issues facing the Muslim world are corruption and economic and social injustice. These are the same issues facing the entire globe. Abject poverty in the face of opulence, the continual squeezing of the middle classes, the corruption and abuse of power by the ruling elites, these are the real issues at the heart of the Arab Spring. Indeed, these are the issues facing the world at large.


Extremism Is a Menace


The Muslim world faces, in addition, the rising specter of extremism which feeds on poverty, war and political disaffection.  It wraps itself in a religious mantle and advertises itself as the shield against western onslaughts. In reality, extremism is a cancer on the body politic of Muslims. There is no doctrinal basis for extremism in Islam. The Qur’an declares clearly: “Innallaha la hubibbul mo’tadeen” (Indeed, Allah does not love the extremists). And whom God does not love, His creation must discard. The Muslims have themselves to blame for allowing this cancer to spread as much as it has. The extremists impose their contorted vision of religion by force and by coercion.  Ignorant and cruel, they are a menace to their own people. Only a broad-based concerted civil effort can contain this menace and extirpate it.


That a despicable movie produced in the back alleys of California could set half the world on fire startled many people. But they need not have been so surprised. The movie was only a trigger, a spark that set off the fire. The fuel was already there through decades of war, defeat, humiliation and denigration. Will this episode impel the Islamic world into a period of creative thinking or will it sink it further into an abyss of recriminations, complaints and finger pointing? Only the future can tell.


A Vision for the Future


As early as 1995, I offered my own vision for curing the malaise that afflicts the Islamic world. I abbreviated it with the acronymSEEEC:  Spirituality, Ethics, Education, Economics and Cooperation.  To reclaim its destiny as witness over all humankind, the Islamic world must have its firm anchor in the spirituality ordained by the Qur’an. Where there is no spirituality, there is no faith and where there is no faith, there is no civilization. The community must be committed to the ethics of moderation, integrity and fair play. It must provide a broad based education to its men and women in the traditional as well as the modern sciences. It must improve the economic condition of its masses, eliminating graft and corruption and providing a level playing field for its toiling millions.  And this great community of nations must work together in cooperation and peace to achieve justice for all peoples of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

The Fire This Time- Part 2

Professor Nazeer Ahmed


It was a time that has long since disappeared, swallowed up by the unceasing march of technology. That was when men and women lived by a code of honor that had been developed and refined over centuries of living together. In that world, a man’s home was his citadel. It was designed and built to preserve the sanctity of its occupants and encourage politeness and humility on the part of outside visitors.


Our ancestral home in India was built of mud walls reinforced with straw. No one knew how old the house was.  My grandma used to say it was at least two hundred years old. The mud walls had a thickness of more than four feet at the base and tapered off to about two feet at a height of nine feet. The inclined roof was a laced labyrinth of bamboo poles and was covered with thatch on top of which were laid neat rows of baked black tiles.


It was a spacious house with a large angan (courtyard), always cool in summer and warm in winter. My great-grand father, Gulam Hussain had moved down from the Northwest with the British army, and after retirement as a soldier circa 1920, settled down in the South and had bought the house for sixty rupees. There was one characteristic of the house that was distinct. Every door in the house was only five feet high, tapered slightly as a cone to carry the weight above it; a larger door would have caused the mud walls to collapse.


A visitor would first say Salamu alaikum, seek permission to enter, take off his sandals and then bend down as he passed the low entrance door, naturally saluting those inside, as if with humility.


All the mud houses in the neighborhood were similarly constructed. It was culturally accepted that a visitor would bow as he entered your house. Once inside, the visitor would honor the sanctity of the owner. If it was prayer time, the man of the house always led the prayer, even if the visitor was an accomplished scholar.


Modern life provides no such sanctity for private living space. Technology beams in images, some wanted and some unwanted, right into your bedroom. What used to be an inner sanctum is now public space. Stand alone houses with mud walls and thatched roofs have given rise to high rise buildings, some large enough to accommodate a small town. It is not just the physical space that is invaded; it is also the social, intellectual, emotional and religious space. People are all exposed.



How does one conduct oneself in this private public space? What rules of etiquette and behavior are acceptable to the visitor and the visited?


The question becomes complex and extremely sensitive when one realizes that there is no accepted standard of what space is considered sanctified and what is not. This is particularly  true of emotive and religious space. In a global village, each community, each religious group and each nation has its own distinct and separate ideas of what is sacred and what is not.  The demarcation between public and private is largely a function of the group’s historical experience as well as the national socio-political structure.


Jews, for instance, consider the holocaust to be a national tragedy and would consider it anti-Semitic if anyone dared question it. Christians are sensitive about the Trinity and the place of Jesus in it. Blacks in America are sensitive to issues of racism while the Hispanics are concerned about ethnic profiling. There were large scale riots in India not long ago over a site which the Hindus consider to be the birthplace of Rama. Each group has an emotive, religious, social space that is sensitive, perhaps even hallowed. For the Muslims, this hallowed emotive and religious space is occupied by the Qur’an and the Prophet.   These deeply held perceptions, while differing in their emotive intensity to those who hold them, illustrate the difficulty of civil communication in a shrunken world wherein the barriers have been knocked down by technology.


One can see that in a pluralistic society, even a discussion of what is sanctified and what is not becomes difficult.  If a committee consisting of a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu and a Buddhist were to work on a common definition of what is to be considered sacred, there would emerge five different opinions.  It would be a futile exercise. Their perceptions are differentiated not only by doctrinal issues but also by centuries of historical and collective social experiences. For the Jews, religion and people co-mingle. Most Christians accept a separation of the sacred and the secular. For the Hindus, all creation is sacred. For the Buddhists, it is the interconnectivity of creation, not the Creator that is important. The Muslims separate the Creator and creation and insist on the transcendence of God. And so on. Exhausted, the interfaith committee would agree that each faith must define its own sacred space and the others must honor that space.


A post-religious, secular world knowingly flaunts this manifest wisdom and insists on selectively imposing its diktat on everyone. While Germany bans any questioning of the holocaust, it permits the screening of a film offensive to Muslims.  The British take down advertisements of a winking Jesus but defend freedom of speech when it comes to trespassing on Muslim sensibilities. America legislates that discrimination based on race, ethnicity and national origin is illegal but leaves out religion from this definition. This satisfies powerful electorates among Blacks, Hispanics and Jewish Americans but leaves the Muslims totally exposed. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. But does this mean you have the freedom to walk into somebody else’s domain, insult, humiliate and denigrate him?


The world has not addressed these questions. A universal, religious code of etiquette is yet to evolve. Worse yet, a selective application of freedom of speech has stoked the perception that it is a hypocritical mask worn by some when it suits their sinister political or social agenda. The same groups that jealously guard their turf are the first to defend freedom of speech when it tramples upon and denigrates the sacred space of other groups. It is in this perception that one has to look for the origins of the sparks that have ignited the Muslim world.


Religion, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It is a living, breathing organism that exists in the economic-social-political domain.  The major religions of humanity have been around for thousands of years.  People of faith have learned to work with each other despite their differing views of the transcendent. So, why is there a global upheaval at this time? What are the economic, social and political factors that provide insights into the current upheavals shaking up the Muslim world, constituting one quarter of humanity? And what are the constructive alternatives that would help address these issues? (to be continued)

Africa, India, China – President Obama “Pivots”

Africa, India, China – President Obama “Pivots” on the AICHIN Ocean

Professor Nazeer Ahmed


It is an Ocean of oceans, the vast body of water connecting the continent of Africa with India and China. I will call this mega-ocean, “the AICHIN Ocean”.  In this acronym, A stands for Africa, I for India and Chin for China. The reader may, with equal justification, maintain that A stands for Arabia, I for Indonesia and Chin for China. It embraces the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Straits of Malacca, the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean. There are also smaller seas and gulfs that stand out due to their geopolitical importance, such as the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Tonkin and the Sea of Japan.   A student of history must look at this vast Ocean of oceans through a single lens, both to capture its historical interconnectivity as well as to emphasize the linkages between its littoral states in a shrunken, global village.

If a visitor from outer space was to visit planet earth and was looking for its center of gravity, he would have no difficulty zeroing in on the AICHIN Ocean. It kisses the shores of East Africa, Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indochina, the Philippines, China, Korea, Japan and Russia. Two thirds of humankind calls it home. And it is the most vibrant, most dynamic part of the globe in the twenty first century.

The AICHIN Ocean offers a fascinating panorama of peoples, cultures, religions, nationalities, races and histories. Many are the stories of human tragedy that lie buried under its waters. And many are the songs of human triumph that are sung on its shores. Most importantly, it holds the keys to the riches of the world.

Now that President Obama has decided to pivot the American military posture on the Western Pacific, it is important for us to ponder over its historical and geopolitical significance.  The implications of this strategic decision can be understood when we keep in mind that as late as the year 1700, the great empires around the AICHIN Ocean contributed more than sixty percent to the GDP of the world. India, under the Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb accounted for 22 percent of the world GDP. Ming China accounted for 18 percent. Japan, Indonesia, Safavid Iran and East Africa together accounted for another 20 percent.

Historically, the fortunes of Europe have hinged on trade with Asia. As Asia reclaims its historic role in the twenty first century, the AICHIN Ocean once again becomes the principal trade route for the nations of the world. Today, approximately 30 percent of world trade sails through its waters. By 2020 this is expected to grow to forty percent. And by the year 2050 almost sixty percent of world trade will be accounted for by the littoral states of this vast ocean. China, by itself is projected to be the dominant economic power of the world with India close behind. Japan and Indonesia will not be too far behind.

The heavens have blessed the AICHIN Ocean. The monsoon winds crisscross this vast body of water enabling the peoples of its littoral states to interact and carry on trade and commerce. In the Indian Ocean the southwest monsoons are the lifeblood of the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh subcontinent. As these monsoons hit the mighty Himalaya Mountains and turn around, the northeast monsoons set in bringing additional rains from the Bay of Bengal. These same winds connect Africa and Arabia with India and also Indonesia with India and Madagascar. Similarly, in the South China sea, the southwest monsoons flow towards the landmass of Asia in late summer. They change to a southeasterly direction in the late fall and winter. Cross cultural interactions take place as people move back and forth.

From the vantage point of history, perhaps the most significant of these interactions were those between the large population centers of India and China. In the first century CE, several Buddhist monks travelled to India to study Buddhism. Noted among them were Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing. Some of the  Chinese monks traveled along the northerly silk route in the Asian landmass.  Others used the sea lanes through the Gulf of Malacca to Sri Lanka and India. Ancient India had many fine universities in Bihar and the Punjab.  The visits continued in later centuries. The noted traveler Fa Hien visited what are today Pakistan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka between 399 and 422 CE.  The descriptions left behind by the Chinese visitors provide detailed and fascinating information about the peoples, cultures, philosophies and dynasties that ruled the sea lanes of the AICHIN Ocean.

Hinduism arrived in Indonesia with Indian traders in the fourth and fifth century. In the tenth century, the Chola Empire of South India established colonies all along the eastern shores of India, Myanmar and Acheh, Sumatra. The Majapahit Empire of the fourteenth century represented the zenith of Hindu culture in the Archipelago.

Islam arrived on the scene in the seventh century.  Active trade had existed between Yemen and Malabar for thousands of years. In the year 628 CE (AH7), King Cheraman Perumal (a.k.a. Sultan Tajuddin) made his journey from Cochin to Arabia, met the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and personally accepted Islam at his hands. That would make the king the first and perhaps the only Indian Sohabi (Companion) of the Prophet. There was intermarriage between the visiting Arab merchants and Indian women and a large number of people along the southwestern coast of India accepted Islam

Arab and Persian merchants established trading posts all along the coastline of the AICHIN Ocean, from Sofala in Africa to Canton in China. By the eighth century CE, the Indian Ocean had become an Arab lake. Arabic became the lingua franca for trade and commerce. Thriving on the Indian Ocean trade, prosperous cities grew up in Sofala, Kilwa, Mombasa, Mogadishu, Yemen, Hermuz, Gwadar, Surat, Cochin, Colombo, Acheh, Malacca and Canton. The piety, integrity and spirituality of the visiting traders appealed to local people.  A large number became Muslim. The noted historian al Masudi (d 956) records the existence of Muslim colonies in Malacca and Canton as early as the eighth century.

In the opposite direction, Malay and Indonesian ships visited Sri Lanka and Madagascar.  The people of the Archipelago were expert ship builders. They carried on a brisk trade within the islands of the archipelago as well as Sri Lanka, Yemen, Madagascar and East Africa.  Recent DNA testing has confirmed that a substantial number of the people of Madagascar carry Polynesian genes.

The contacts between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula were even closer. Africa was not only connected to Arabia through the AICHIN Ocean but had also the benefit of proximity. It had its arms open to refugees resulting from the political upheavals in the Islamic world. There are records of successive waves of Arabs arriving on the coast of East Africa (called the Swahel in Arabic) in the early years of Islam, in the years 686, 719 and 930. Circa 1000 CE, Prince Ali Ibn Hassan al Shirazi of Persia migrated to East Africa along with his entourage of courtiers and supporters and founded the kingdom of Kilwa. By the fourteenth century, Kilwa had grown to be the most important trading center on the East African coast.  Using the Astrolobe, the Kilwans developed precise maps of the Indian Ocean and used it to carry on a brisk trade with India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Islam made its appearance in Sumatra in the eleventh century. It spread through the continuous islands through the dedicated and loving work of Sufi Shaikhs. By the fifteenth century a large majority of the people of Java and Sumatra had accepted Islam. The Hindu rulers of the decaying Majpahit Empire followed the example of their subjects. Thus it was that in Indonesia, Islam grew “bottoms up”, from the masses.  The rulers were the last ones to convert. There was no compulsion in the process.

In 1409 Raja Parameshwar of the Malaccas fell in love with a Muslim princess of Pasai, accepted Islam, married the princess and adopted the name Sultan Iskandar Shah. Love was the vehicle for the introduction of Islam into Malaya.

By the turn of the fifteenth century most of the Archepilago had accepted Islam. Hindu influence was confined to the island of Bali. Islam was spreading rapidly through Mindanao north to the other Philippine islands when the Spanish arrived on the scene in 1540, which arrested the spread of Islam and converted most of the Philippines to Christianity.

In the sixteenth century, the peace of the AICHIN Ocean was shattered by the boom of Portuguese guns. Vasco da Gama circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and with the help of a Muslim Mariner, Ahmed Ibn Majid, landed in Cochin, India. The first trip was only a scouting exercise. He appeared on the scene again in 1502 with an armada of armed ships and blasted his way all the way from the coast of Zanzibar to India. The trading posts, hitherto dominated by Muslim traders, fell one after the other. By 1560, the Portuguese had firmly established themselves in Sofa, Kilwa, Hormuz, Goa, Malacca and Canton.  Only a determined resistance by the Ottoman navy as well as the Portuguese defeat in Morocco in 1578 at the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir contained the Portuguese onslaught.

In the seventeenth century, the North European powers, the Dutch and the British made their appearance. With greater resources at their disposal, they muscled out the Portuguese. As the land powers of Asia imploded due to internal dissension, the Europeans extended their sway in Asia. India was the first great non-European civilization to fall to the British. With the enormous resources of India at their command, the British became masters of the AICHIN Ocean establishing themselves in East Africa, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The Dutch rode on the British coat tails and consolidated their grip on the Indonesian islands.

The Second World War so weakened the colonial European powers that they could no longer hold onto their colonies. The initial victories by the Japanese army had blown away the myth of European invincibility and had shown the Asians that they too could be independent. India gained its independence in 1947. Indonesian independence followed after an armed struggle in 1949. The Vietnam War was an exception. After the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, the Americans intervened. It dragged on well into the 1970s with tragic, large scale human losses. Vietnamese casualties were more than a million. America lost more than 50,000 soldiers.  The war ended with the withdrawal of American forces in 1974 but it left deep scars on the American psyche. Africa followed on the heels of Asia and was free at last in the 1960s.

Independence brought its own challenges including economic development, education, trade and building up representative institutions. After an initial period of experimentation with different economic models, the economies of Asia took off.  China and the East Asian nations led the way. Despite the shock waves of a currency crisis in 1997, Asia has regained its footing. Today, China boasts a GDP of S12 trillion measured in Purchasing Power Parity. India and Japan each have multi-trillion dollar economies. Indonesia is not far behind. What is more important, the Asian economies have kept up a fast growth rate while Europe and the United States are mired in excessive debt, high unemployment and political stalemate. In the next ten years, China is expected to overtake the United States as the leading economic power on the planet. Perhaps what is equally significant is that three of the top four economies of the world are littoral states of the AICHIN Ocean.

It is against this background that one has to look at the strategic decision made by President Obama to “pivot” the U.S. military posture to the Western Pacific. There are huge American bases in Okinawa and Diego Garcia. Other bases are going up in Australia, the Philippines, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. Whether the presence of such awesome American power so close to centers of Chinese economic power is a recipe for stability or instability, only the future can tell.

As far as the Islamic world is concerned, our vision must be to provide a spiritual base to the nations of Asia and Africa that are rising up to dominate the twenty first century. The essence of Islam is individual transformation so that humankind can discharge its mandate to know, serve and worship God. Conflict is not in the interest of Muslim states or the Muslim masses. Their interests lie in the development of spirituality, ethics, education, economics and mutual cooperation with all the nations. That is what will bring out the existential potential of the blessed AICHIN Ocean.

Islam in East Africa

Islam in East Africa

Submitted by Professor Nazeer Ahmed


Like a benevolent mother opening her arms to all the children in the neighborhood, Africa held its arms open for successive waves of refugees from Arabia. In turn, the immigrants brought with them the light of Islam and shared it with the people of Africa. This was the quid pro quo between Africa and Arabia: Africa gave protection to the Arabs. In turn, the Arabs shared their faith and their knowledge with Africa.

It was the year 613 CE, nine years before the Hijra. Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) was still in Mecca. Mighty was the struggle he was engaged in, teaching the message of the Unity of
God and the brotherhood of man to a people steeped in layers of ignorance.  As conversion to Islam gathered momentum, so did the persecution of the Muslims. Conditions became so harsh in Mecca that the Prophet ordered a group of Muslims to migrate to Abyssinia, across the Red Sea from Arabia. There the Christian king received them with honor and gave them protection. Two years later, in 615 CE, a larger migration took place. Many were the well known Companions who were a part of this second migration. The second group stayed in Africa for fourteen years, returning only in the year 629 CE, long after the Hijra (622 CE) and the establishment of a Muslim community in the City of Madina.

This pattern of migration continued after the passing away of the Prophet (632 CE). The civil wars that ensued over the succession to the Prophet generated successive waves of refugees. Africa always had its arms open to those Muslims who were at the losing end of armed conflicts and were fleeing the heavy handed persecution by the victors.  The Indian Ocean was the connecting link between the Arabian Peninsula and the coast of East Africa, called the Swahel (or Sahel) in Arabic.  It became the conduit for men and women seeking refuge from the political upheavals in the Arab world.

After the assassination of Hazrath Ali (r) in 661 CE and the tragedy of Karbala in 680 CE, the Umayyads consolidated their hold on the Arab Empire and relentlessly persecuted those who had supported Ali (r). Any sign of dissent was mercilessly crushed.  Resistance to this oppression, flowing in the body politic like a subterranean stream, surfaced sporadically but each time it surfaced, it was brutally crushed. The lineage of Hazrath Ali (r), the Shi’a Imams and their followers were always suspect in the eyes of the Omayyads who used every coercive means at their disposal to extirpate any sign of dissent.

The kharijites (al-khwarij) who had opposed both Muawiya and Ali (r) were the first group to face the wrath of the Omayyads. Unable to withstand the pressures, the kharijites split. One group moved west to North Africa and settled south of Tripoli, Libya. Another migrated to Oman (686 CE) and from there sailed down the coast to East Africa. In their new homes in Africa, they gave up their violent ways and turned their attention instead to charity and prayer (ibadah). Hence they were called the Ibadis.

The political climate for the Shi’as, and others opposed to Omayyad rule, improved somewhat during the reign of Khalifa Omar bin Abdel Aziz (717-719 CE) but deteriorated rapidly for the worse after his death by poisoning.  During the reign of Abdel Walid Hisham, a group of Sayyeds (descendents of the Prophet) migrated to East Africa and settled at Mogadishu. Wherever they went, they established mosques and halqas (centers of learning). The purity of their hearts and the nobility of their character attracted people and a large number accepted Islam.

The Abbasid Revolution of 750 CE turned the power structure of the Islamic world upside down. The victorious Abbasids pursued the Omayyads with a vengeance. It was now the turn of the Omayyads to flee. One of the Omayyad princes, Abdul Rahman I, escaped to Spain where he founded the Omayyad Emirate (751 CE). Other Omayyads fled south taking the oceanic route to the Swahel and settled along the coasts of Somalia and Kenya.

In the tenth century, the political edifice of the Islamic world was rent asunder from the Shia-Sunni split. The Fatimids (a branch of Shia Islam), challenging the authority of the Abbasids of Baghdad, marched out of the deserts of North Africa and soon overran Egypt and the Hejaz. In the tenth century, their sway extended as far east as Multan, currently in Pakistan. There were also many splinter groups among the Fatimids. One of the extremist groups, the Karamatians rose up in Yemen. Moving north, they sacked the city of Mecca in the year 930 CE, removed the Hijr e Aswad from the Ka’aba and carried it off first to Basra and then to Bahrain (it was brought back to Mecca by the Abbasids in 952 CE). People of Yemen and the Hejaz scattered. Some found refuge in the Swahel, settling down in cities as far south as Tanzania. Excavations on the Pate Island in the 1980s confirmed the presence of Muslims in East Africa as early as 830 CE.  Faza on the northern coast of Pate Island was a major center of commerce until it was destroyed by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.

Through these centuries, there was a constant influx of traders from Oman and Persia into the Swahel. The immigrants had contacts in the lands they came from. Trade flourished. Africa offered Ivory and gold. The Arabs offered Yemeni textiles, Omani pearls, and Arabian (Yemini) incense. There was also a three way trade involving spices from the southwest coast of India and silk from China.

Trade, commerce and the two-way movement of people attracted the attention of kings and noblemen as well. Circa 1000 CE, Prince Ali Ibn Hassan al Shirazi of Persia migrated to East Africa along with his entourage of courtiers and supporters. He disembaked in Mogadishu, Somalia but his reception by the local elite was cool. Sailing further south, he landed at Kilwa in Tanzania.  He purchased the island from the Bantu king and established a trading post there.

The commanding location of Kilwa on the north-south sea lanes of East Africa gave it an advantage over rival trading posts. In time, Kilwa grew to be the most important trading center in East Africa. The political clout of the city grew in proportion to its commerce. In the twelfth century, Sultan Sulaiman Hassan, the ninth in the lineage of Sultan Ali ibn Hasan, captured the port of Sofala at the mouth of the Zambezi River. Sofala was the export center for the gold and ivory in the Zambezi River Basin. Control of this wealth gave the sultans of Kilwa enormous political clout along the Swahel and they extended their sway all along the coast, from Kenya to the Zambesi River and south. Included in their domains were Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa, Comoro, Sofala and the cities along the coast of the large island of Madagascar.  Kilwa carried on a brisk trade with cities as far away as Oman, Cochin (India) and Acheh (Indonesia).  Using the Astrolabe, the Kilwans developed precise navigational maps of the Indian Ocean.  Commerce made the African cities prosper and the sultanate of Kilwa rose to occupy an important place among the trading kingdoms that dotted the Indian Ocean like pearls around a half moon.

The free flow of people created a cosmopolitan culture wherein the immigrants and the Africans freely mixed with each other. The Arabs and Persians melted into the African milieu and a new culture arose amalgamating the best that Persia, Oman, Arabia, Yemen and East Africa had to offer. This was the origin of the Swahili culture. In time the Swahili language grew incorporating Bantu grammar and a rich Arabic and Persian vocabulary. It remains the lingua Franca of the people of East
Africa and is the declared national language of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, the Comoros and the Congo. The impact of Swahili culture and language is to be felt as far away as the African American population in the United States. Examples are the celebration of Kwanza as a holiday and the use of Kiswahili names by a sizable number of African Americans.

The far flung Kilwa sultanate was a free association of commercial interests between the major trading cities in the Swahel. The sultan was the nominal head of this association. Each city enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. The decentralized structure allowed each city to build its own trade relations with the Bantu peoples of the interior. The coastal cities exported Yemeni, Persian and Indian textiles to the interior and imported in turn ivory and gold. The region prospered.

Ibn Batuta visited the East African coast in 1331-32, traveling through the Sudan and Yemen, then on to Zeila (Eritrea), Mogadishu (Somalia), Mombasa (Kenya) and further south to Zanzibar and Kilwa. Ibn Batuta found the inhabitants of these cities to be very affluent. He records that they wore fine cotton clothes and intricate gold jewelry, prayed in domed mosques and dined on fine porcelain from China. Their cities were peaceful, with no outer fortresses, offering a warm and open welcome to the merchants from distant shores.

In the fifteenth century Kilwa went into decline because of court intrigue and internecine fighting. Ambitious viziers made the sultans their puppets and became de facto rulers. Sensing the corruption and turmoil in the capital, the associate cities in Sofala, Malindi, Mombassa and Mozambique sought to distance themselves from Kilwa and become independent.

It was into this fragmented political structure that the Portuguese thrust their dagger. Vasco da Gama circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope in 1498. His goal was to find a sea route to the spice trade of India, bypassing the Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa who had hitherto controlled that trade. Vasco da Gama visited Mozambique and then Kilwa. Sailing further north he touched Mombasa and then Malindi.  It was from Malindi that he embarked on the last leg of his voyage. The Muslims of East Africa knew the Indian Ocean well and understood the monsoons that enabled them to ply this vast ocean.  Vasco da Gama enlisted the help of an African Muslim mariner Ahmed ibn Majid. Taking advantage of the southwest monsoons, he sailed across the Indian Ocean, and landed at Cochin on the Malabar coast of India in May 1498.

The discovery of a sea route to India from Europe, bypassing the land routes through the Middle East, was a major event in world history. Europe was now in a position not only to benefit from direct trade with Asia but more importantly, threaten the Arab and Muslim Middle East with military encirclement. From a global perspective, three major events took place in rapid succession towards the end of the fifteenth century.  They signaled the end of the medieval period and ushered in the era of European ascendency. In 1492 Granada fell and the Muslims (and Jews) were expelled from Spain freeing up the southwestern flank of Europe from Muslim encirclement, a prospect that had haunted Europe for seven hundred years. It was also in 1492 that Columbus made the European discovery of America and opened up the vast resources of the New World to European exploitation. Then, in 1498, Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India.

While Vasco da Gama opened European doors to the riches of Asia, the event proved to be a disaster for Muslims. It was not just trade that the Portuguese were interested in. They were intent on destroying Muslim influence in the Indian Ocean and imposing their brand of Christianity on the peoples of Africa and Asia. Their tool was the inquisition that they and the Spaniards had used with devastating effectiveness against the Jews and the Muslims in Andalus (1492-1498). Vasco da Gama used his first voyage as an intelligence gathering mission. He returned in 1502 at the head of a heavily armed flotilla of ships mounted with cannons and blasted his way across the coast of East Africa to India. The prosperous cities that dotted the rim of the Indian Ocean were trading posts. They had no defenses against an enemy attacking them from the sea. They fell one after the other before the Portuguese onslaught. The East African sultanates were in political disarray. Some of the cities, like Sofala, surrendered to the Portuguese. Kilwa resisted and was blasted and occupied. Arriving on the coast of India, the Portuguese flotilla engaged in wanton acts of piracy on the high seas. In one recorded instance, they captured a ship carrying Indian pilgrims to Mecca, butchered every man, woman and child on board and impaled a lone Egyptian mariner to the cross. The Hindu Raja of Cochin (the Zamorin) sent his ambassador, a respected Brahmin, to negotiate. The Portuguese cut off his nose and ears and sent him back to the Raja demanding total submission. When the Raja refused, the Portuguese bombarded Cochin and carried off scores of Indians as slaves.

In a short period of twenty years, the Indian Ocean turned from an ocean of peace to a theater of war. It had existed for a thousand years as a conduit of trade in which the peoples of the littoral states, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists alike interacted with each other. Now it became an ocean of conflict and insecurity. Destroyed were the coastal cities that had been built up over a period of centuries for commerce and trade by Africans, Arabs and Persians alike. In their place sprang up fortress towns with parapet mounted Portuguese cannons facing the oceanic trade routes. The Portuguese captured Goa, India in 1510 and made it the base for the expansions of their fledging Indian Ocean Empire. The onslaught continued through much of the sixteenth century. In 1511, Malacca (Malaysia) fell. Chinese Macau, which fell in 1557, marked the limit of their reach.

It was not until 1578 when an Ottoman Turkish armada engaged a Portuguese fleet off the coast of Tanzania and inflicted heavy losses upon it that the Portuguese menace was contained. It was the same year that the Portuguese king Sebastian was killed in the Battle of Al Qasr al Kabir in Morocco and Portugal became a protectorate of Spain. Moreover, Portugal did not have the resources to control and police a vast body of water like the Indian Ocean. For all these reasons, a stand-off prevailed for a hundred years between the Portuguese navy and the navies of the great land powers of Asia, the Moguls of India, the Safavids of Persia and the Ottomans of Turkey. This power balance lasted on the high seas until the ascendency of the Dutch and then the British in the eighteenth century. It is not commonly appreciated that it was the Ottoman naval effort in the Indian Ocean (1560-1578 CE) which preserved the Muslim influence on the coast of East Africa north of Tanzania while the coastline south of it continued under Portuguese control.

It is instructive to ask how a small country like Portugal could project its naval power as far away as China. The answer must be sought in the state of naval technology in Europe and Asia. The Andalusian Christian powers, the Spanish and the Portuguese, mastered the art of mounting cannon on board ships. It required an understanding of how to keep gun powder dry under the salty, humid conditions at sea. The Asian powers did not have this know-how. Secondly, the Europeans knew how to sail against the wind which gave their ships an advantage in close combat. Third, the Asian powers invested very little in their navies, content with the riches on land. China, the only Asian power which had shown its prowess at sea during the great voyages led by Admiral Ho (1402-1424 CE) had long since withdrawn into itself after the death of the Ming emperor Yongle. The Great Moguls never made a serious attempt to build a navy. The Safavids mounted a concerted effort to recapture the Straits of Hormuz from the Portuguese which they did in 1615 CE with some help from the British navy but it was a limited local engagement. The Ottomans did build a powerful navy (1540-1600 CE) which challenged the Spaniards in the Mediterranean and the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean but their interest tapered off in the seventeenth century.

It was left to the sultans of Oman to challenge the Portuguese sway over East Africa. In 1698, Saif ibn  Sultan, Imam of the Ya’rubi dynasty of Oman captured Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya.  In the succeeding years, the Omanis advanced down the East African coast and consolidated their hold on all the territories between Mogadishu in Somalia and Sofala in Mozambique.  Thus the Muslim sultans regained political control over the Swahel. In 1741 the Sa’idis succeeded the Ya’rubis as the Emirs of Oman. In 1837, Sa’id bin Sultan shifted his capital from Oman to Zanzibar. Under this able monarch, the East African region was integrated into a common market.  The Swahili language received royal patronage while Arabic was the state language. Trade, commerce, culture and the arts flourished. Schools and madrasas were built all along the coast. Trade fostered business relations with the interior and conversion to Islam gained momentum in the African hinterland. The sultan founded the new cities of Tabourah and Ajjuji and worked ceaselessly to establish friendly relations with the heads of the neighboring states.  Further north, the emirate of Lamu (Kenya) flourished. It became renowned for its fine wooden structures, intricate jewelry, cloth, musical instruments, and the fine arts.

After the death of Sa’id bin Sultan, the Omani kingdom was divided between his two sons. One of the sons, Majid Ibn Sa’id inherited the Swahel while the other, Thuwaini Ibn Sa’id kept Muscat and Oman. Sultan Majid was a far sighted monarch and continued the wise policies of his father. He founded a new city, Dar es Salaam, as the capital for his kingdom. Through deft diplomacy, he kept at Bay the British and the other European powers who had consolidated their hold on much of Asia. During his reign, Islam was at its zenith of influence in East Africa.

Colonialism was a spreading virus. Sultan Majid passed away in 1870 and his successor Sultan Bargash lacked the wisdom to govern and stave off the contagion of colonialism. An independent East Africa was too much to stomach for the British who had consolidated their Indian empire.  The British navy was the mistress of the seas. The other European powers were not far behind in their quest for colonies and actively worked with the British to divvy up the continents of Asia and Africa.

Kaiser’s Germany, moving in collusion with Great Britain, colonized much of Zanzibar between 1883 and 1885. The sultan was left was a narrow stretch of land surrounding his capital. The Portuguese extended their sway to the north and occupied all the territories up to Cape Delgado. The sultan was hemmed in. In 1886 he accepted the protection of the British over the coastal strip north of Wenga while the strip to the south was ceded to the Germans. Further concessions followed in succeeding years. In 1889, he accepted British protection over Zanzibar. He then sold Dar es Salaam, Kilwa and Lindi to the Germans for four million pounds. By 1894 the sultanate had completely disappeared and its place taken by British, German and Portuguese colonies.

The Germans organized their colonies under the name of Tanganyika.  However, their colonial empire was short lived. After their defeat in World War I the Germans surrendered their colonies to the British except for Rwanda and Burundi which were handed over to the Belgians. The areas under British control were reorganized into the modern states of Kenya, Uganda and Malawi. Somalia resisted under the determined leadership of Shaikh Mohammed Abdullah Hassan (1899-1920) but his endurance was no match for the vast resources and firepower of the British Empire. The resistance was crushed and Somalia became a British protectorate. It was occupied briefly by the Italians under Mussolini during WWII.

European colonial rule did not go unchallenged in other parts of East Africa as well.  Al Abushiri of Tanzania led a revolt against the German occupation in 1887-88. The uprising was crushed and Al Abushiri was publicly hanged by the Germans. There were revolts against the British in Malawi and Uganda, and against the Belgians in the Congo.  This was the political-military front. More important was the resistance to European cultural imperialism. Christian missionaries appeared on the heels of the colonizers and set up proselytizing missions. Conversion to Christianity was encouraged by the Portuguese by force and more subtly by the British, the Belgians and the Germans.  The language of instruction in schools and in official transactions was changed from Arabic to English and other European languages. The Muslims were suspicious of the European schools and stayed away from them. This had the impact of excluding the Muslims from government jobs because the state machinery now worked through English, French and Portuguese. On the other hand, those who attended European schools rose to occupy the new strata of the bureaucratic elite, the government functionaries, judges and teachers. The Arabic schools, lacking state support, fell back on local community support. As poverty spread, the support of these schools also decreased, catching the Muslims of the Swahel in a downward socio-economic spiral.

Faced with this cultural onslaught, the Muslims of the Swahel waged a valiant struggle, setting up their own Qura’nic schools. As the European administrations built roads and improved communications with the interior, the Muslim ulema used the opportunity to open Islamic schools in the interior. In the ensuing contest for new converts, the Muslims, with the simplicity of their religion and the sincerity of their efforts, were more successful than their Christian counterparts. But they lagged behind in education, jobs and the technical disciplines.

The Second World War sapped the strength of the European colonial empires. When India gained its independence in 1947, the British lost the Indian army which had provided the muscle power to keep their other colonies at bay. Independence of the African countries followed. Tanganyika gained its independence in 1961 followed by Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda in 1962 and Kenya in 1963. Zanzibar also gained its independence in 1962 but it was overrun by troops from Tanganyika who invaded and slaughtered a large number of Muslims. Malawi gained its independence in 1964 and Mozambique was free in 1974 after a long and protracted armed struggle.

Independence was welcomed by all the peoples of Africa. Here at last they were free to chart out their course through history and take their place in the comity of nations. However, due to the legacy of colonial rule, the Muslims of the region faced specific challenges in the educational, cultural and technological fields. The difficulties varied from country to country but there were also common threads that ran through them.

Security has been an issue with the people of the Horn of Africa. The long drawn out war between Eritrea and Ethiopia took its toll. Since the 1990s, Somalia has been beset by foreign invasions and internal instability making it impossible to reconstruct a civil life. Chaos reigns. The people suffer. The situation is far from stable even as of this writing.

Education has been a continuing challenge for the Muslims. The colonial administrations created an education system which clearly favored those who attended missionary schools over the graduates of the Qur’anic schools. The disparity in education continues to this day and is reflected in the number of university graduates. Muslim children graduate in far fewer numbers than is warranted by their numbers. A vicious cycle of poverty and lack of education has taken its toll in Mozambique, Somalia and Malawi. The Muslims face a dual challenge: How to teach their children the Qur’an and Islamic disciplines and at the same time advance in the secular, technological disciplines to compete with the rest of the population. This is the same challenge faced by Muslims wherever they live as a political or cultural minority.

Africa is a resilient continent. It has endured and has survived some of the worst tragedies experienced by humankind. The Muslims of East Africa, citizens of their respective countries, realize that what is past is past and are looking forward to the future. There is emphasis on modern education.  The enrollment of Muslims in schools and universities is increasing. In Uganda, for instance, the Uganda Muslim University was established at Mbale with the help of the Ugandan government and the Organization of Islamic Conference. In secular Tanzania, Muslims have a respectable presence in the legislature and the judiciary. There are numerous Islamic organizations in each of the countries of the East Africa. Assistance from the oil rich Gulf countries has helped some schools. Participation in the Hajj from the Swahel has been increasing. The Muslim Personal Law is accepted as a source of jurisprudence for Muslims in most East African countries.  The Law itself is undergoing continual scrutiny to apply it to a modern, technological age.   There is hope that this vital part of the Islamic world will successfully overcome its political, educational and cultural difficulties, rise to the occasion and will creatively contribute to the broader community of man. A great civilization always does.

Sadat Hassan Manto (1912-1954)

Sadat Hassan Manto (1912-1954)-A Story Teller or a Shattered Mirror of the Human Soul?

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

“Behold, We created the human in the most noble of molds”, declares the Qur’an. “Then, do We abase him to be the lowest of the low”. Many are the writers through the centuries who have written about the best that is in humankind: love, chivalry, valor, sacrifice, forgiveness, compassion, wisdom, truthfulness, honesty, integrity, forbearance and courage. There are only a few who have walked into the dark side of man, looked at it straight in the face and have described its contorted, ugly image to the rest of the world. Sadat Hassan Manto was one such writer. And that is the secret of his distinction.

Asked to explain why he wrote, Manto said: “First, I write stories because I am addicted to it the same way as I am addicted to drinking. If I do not write, I feel as if I did not put on my clothes, take a bath or had a drink. It is not I who writes a story. The reality is that the story writes me. I am not a very educated man even though I have written more than twenty books. I sometimes wonder who it is that has written such beautiful stories against whom so many law suits have been filed. When the pen is not in my hand, I am only Sadat Hassan Manto who does not know Urdu or Farsi, English or French. The story is not in my head; it is in my pocket about which I am not even conscious of. I strive with my mind to extract a story. I even try to be a story teller. I smoke cigarette after cigarette but the story does not come out of my mind. At last, I get tired and fall asleep….”

Manto is not for the timid or the weak of heart. His writings are not for the squeamish. He jabs his sharp needle deep into the recesses of your soul until you scream. You want him to stop but he does not stop. He is like the doctor who is out to perform catharsis on every evil dot in your heart.

Manto has been called a Nafsiyati Afsana Nawais (story writer of the soul). This description does not do justice to his genius. The soul has many stations. It can be inclined towards the good as well as the evil. Manto was most properly a story writer of Nafs e Lawwama (the dark side of the soul). Even this description falls short of capturing the essence of his writings. He was most properly a mirror of the hypocrisy that surrounds the evil in society. His sharp pen does not spare anyone, the high or the low, the left or the right, the ruler or the ruled, the capitalists or the communist, the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or the Christian. He is a humanist par excellence, secure in his perspective from a high plateau that transcends race, religion or national origin. Writing about the partition, he observes: “The locality wherein I live has many Christians. They are of many shades of color, from white to totally black. I have seen black skinned Christians who consider themselves conquerors of India along with the white British…

During the Hindu-Muslim riots, whenever we stepped out we had two sets of caps. One was a Hindu cap and the other one a Muslim cap. When we passed through a Muslim locality, we put on a Muslim cap. And when we passed through a Hindu locality, we put on a Hindu cap. During those days we also bought a white Gandhi cap which we carried in our pockets. Whenever we felt the need for it, we would hurriedly put it on. In times bygone, religion was in the heart. Nowadays it is in the caps. Politics also has descended into these caps. Zinda bad topiyaN (long live the caps).

In his drama As You Like It, Shakespeare wrote:

All the world is a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

History is not merely an edifice chiseled out by great men and women. Even human being who walks on earth chisels out a portion of it and is a contributor in the grand struggle of man on earth. As the Qur’an puts it:  “God does not cause to be forgotten the movement of an ant on a rock in the dead of night”.

Manto’s characters are not the heroes who won great battles or performed earth shaking deeds but the despised and forgotten of the earth, the murderers, dhobis (washermen), street vendors, the obscure, unrecognized, discarded players who walk on the canvas of history unnoticed. They loom large in his stories as life sized characters, no less heroic in their ignominy than the great heroes who fill the pages of history books. If life is an ocean, Manto does not write about the depths of the ocean but about the debris that the ocean washes out onto its shores. He portrays the scum of the earth as legitimate characters on the stage of history.

And Manto makes you, the reader, a partner in his story. By reaching out to the hidden recesses of your soul, he makes you, the reader, a character in his story. You cry as do the characters in the story; you suffer as do the men and women who grace his novels. He is a grand director of a movie in which the audience is as much a part of the story as the actors in the movie.

The partition of India deeply affected Manto. He migrated from Bombay, the city he loved, to Lahore in 1948. Three of his masterpieces, Thanda Gosht, Khol Do and Toba Tek Singh were cast against the horrors of partition and the bestiality that accompanied it. Recently, I watched a rendering of Toba Tek Singh and it brought tears to my eyes. It is the story of partition as seen through the eyes of a Sikh farmer in West Punjab who loses his mind at the thought of separation from his land and is thrown into a mad house (pagal khana). I recalled a novel Khoon ke aNsooN that I read as a child during the partition era. It was thestory of a young woman, abducted and abused but who ultimately triumphed and succeeded in breaking away and crossing the border.It is immaterial now as to which side of the border it was. It was a deeply human story.  As with many other books, Khoon ke aNsooN was later banned in India so as not to add to the communal passions already inflamed by the partition. Manto brings out the madness that had overtaken Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike. But even in the midst of such inhumanity, he does not lose hope in the common humanity that binds us and animates our higher self. He makes this observation: “In reality these people were the product of a peculiar circumstance. They were not used to killing and murder but the circumstances made them so. They loved their mothers. They had compassion for their friends. They were aware of the honor of their daughters and daughters-in-law. They were also God fearing. But all of this was destroyed by a circumstance. It was a circumstance that perhaps the heavens have never seen. It is futile to comment on what is past. But it is necessary that we reflect on its results, understand the subtle things that have arisen since. This is not something that critiques or courts can do. It is something that the experts of the soul can tackle, those who can dig into the depths of the issues and come up with solutions.”

Manto was a keen observer of the global political currents of his times. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the British Empire collapsed and two new empires arose: a land-based Soviet Communist Empire in Eurasia and a Global Capitalist Empire led by the United States. The divide between the two empires was ideological. An iron curtain went up around the Soviet Empire, erected in part by a capitalist west that was concerned about the possible contagion of communism and in part by Stalin’s Russia, fearful of the onslaught of western laissez faire capitalism. Pakistan, a poor, newly emergent nation, struggling with an enormous refugee burden, found itself locked in perpetual disputes with India and sought refuge with one of the superpowers. After flirting a little with the Soviet Union under Liaqat Ali Khan, the Pakistani establishment settled for protection from the United States. In the pact mania that characterized the Dulles era (1953-59), Pakistan joined CENTO, SEATO and other pacts and received a heavy dose of military aid from the United States.

Manto saw the societal risks in this military reliance. With a combination of satire and cultivated humor, he expressed his views on the potential impact of these alliances on his own corrupt society.  He was unsparing in taking to tasks the communists and the capitalists alike. In “Letters to Uncle Sam from your nephew Manto” he wrote: ”Dear Uncle! I had suggested to you that in answer to the cultural delegation from Russia you should dispatch a delegation of “pin up girls”. Spring is around the corner. Our people (in Pakistan) become extremely romantic during this season. In my opinion, if your delegation arrives during this season, it would be great….My dear uncle! I have heard the regretful news that your trade and industry is going through hard times. You are, by the grace of God, full of wisdom. Nonetheless, please do listen to the opinion of this foolish one. The trade and industrial contraction came about only because you stopped the Korean War. That was a big mistake. Do consider this.  Where will you sell the tanks, bombers, cannons and guns?….What is past is past. Start a war between India and Pakistan. If the benefits of the Korean War did not pale before this war, I am not your nephew. Do consider…India will buy your armaments and so will Pakistan…..”

His focus on the dark side of man and his outspoken exposure of the hypocrisy that pervaded society earned him the wrath of the mullahs and landed him in hot water with the political establishment. He was relentless in warning his countrymen against the risks of extremism. Many were the law suits that were filed against him both in pre-partition Bombay as well as post partition Lahore. He was accused of being a communist, which he was not. “I was upset with armchair communists and I could see through them”, wrote Manto, “Those who sat on their soft cushions and talked about striking with the hammer and the sickle”.  As for the religious establishment, Manto himself visualizes a conversation between two mullahs about him.

“Where does he bring in all this dirt from?” says one Mullah to the other.

“I do not know”, answers the second one, “He digs it up from somewhere, dives as he does in oceans of dirty water”.

“Come, let us pray that God deliver us from his accursed existence. There is deliverance in it for Manto himself”:

“O God! Cherisher of the worlds! The Merciful! The Bountiful! The two of us (Mullahs), sinful servants, pray with utmost humility that you take away from this world Sadat Hassan Manto, son of Gulam Hassan Manto who was a good, pious, God fearing man. He leaves aside the sweet smells of the world and goes towards the foul odors. He does not open his eyes to light. He trips and staggers in darkness. He is not interested in a person who is clothed. He wants to see the nakedness of humans. He is not inclined towards sweetness. He gives his life for bitterness. He does not even lift his eyes towards married women but he holds intimate conversations with prostitutes. He refuses clean water but bathes in filthy water. Where there are tears, he laughs. Where there is laughter, he cries. Those who blacken their faces with charcoal, he rubs them off and he shows them to us. He forgets You and follows around Shaitan who had refused to follow Your commandment.

“ O Cherisher of the worlds!  Lift this trouble making, dirt loving and mischief making man from this world where he is busy erasing the dark ink from the chronicles of evil doers. O God! He is a real trouble maker. The verdicts of courts are evidence for this. But these are only earthly courts. You lift him up and make him face the heavenly court and give him definite punishment. But do listen! He knows many tricks. Let it not be that You fall for one of his tricks. But You know everything. Our only prayer is that he should not be in this world. If he should be here, he should be like the rest of us who cover up each other’s sinful inadequacies.”

Manto offered a portrayal of humanity as it is, not as it ought to be. His was a mirror not of others but of ourselves. The analogy of mirrors is fundamental to our culture.  A Hadith of our Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) illustrates this observation:

Abu Jahal, a sworn enemy of the Prophet and of his Message, never missed an opportunity to annoy, insult or abuse him. One day, the Prophet was seated with the Sohaba (Companions) and was holding a Sohbet. Abu Jahal was walking by. Noticing the Prophet, he approached the blessed gathering and shouted aloud to the Prophet: “O Muhammed! We the men of Quraish are endowed with good looks. But I do not see those good looks like you.”  The Prophet said, “You have spoken the truth”. Abu Jahal departed. A few minutes later Abu Bakr (r) came in, sat down with the Sohaba and said to the Prophet. “O Messenger of Allah! I have never seen anyone more beautiful than you in all creation”. The Prophet said: “You have spoken the truth”. The companions asked: “O Messenger of Allah! When Abu Jahal said he did not see good looks in you, you said he spoke the truth. And when Abu Bakr said you are the most beautiful of creation, you said he spoke the truth. How can both be correct? Whereupon the Prophet said: “I am the mirror of creation. You see in me what is in your own soul.”

Such was the legacy of Sadat Hassan Manto who was born in Papraudi village, East Punjab in 1912 into a Kashmiri family and made his home at different times in Amritsar, Bombay, Delhi and finally Lahore. From the publication of his first short story Tamasha (1931) in Amritsar to his masterpiece Toba Tek Singh in Lahore he left a trail which in its piercing analysis of the dark side of the human soul is unmatched in any language. Fewer yet are the writers who have exposed the hypocrisy that surrounds the evil in their societies. Manto did this with honesty and integrity but never lost sight of our common humanity in the process. He was a citizen of the world, transcending race, religion and national barriers, the voice of the truly voiceless. Urdu literature is richer because of this genius.