The stories with compassion as the moral that people like me grew up on as children need to be told and retold for a peaceful future of co-existence that growing Islamophobia threatens
Years before Islamophobia became a fact of life and tarring Muslims with the same brush par for the course, I grew up in the Himalayan valley of Kashmir in the 1990s on stories that drove home the foundational Islamic value: compassion.
The stories were an important part of training children, especially in families such as ours that held Kashmir’s religious leadership position for centuries as the descendants of Sufi saints.
My favourite of these stories was of the woman who would curse and throw garbage at the Prophet Muhammad every time he passed by. When the routine suddenly stopped one day, the prophet made it a point to see the woman and found she was sick.
Garbage-throwing was nothing in comparison to the mutilation Hind, who was his opponent before converting to Islam, subjected the body of the prophet’s favourite uncle. The prophet forgave Hind too along with several others who wronged him.
Compassion is the moral of these stories.
The story of African slave-turned-muezzin, Bilal, illustrated another foundational Islamic idea of social justice. Bilal was one of the first converts to Islam and a prominent member of the nascent Muslim community.
Islam’s egalitarian message first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in Arabia, which was then infamous for entrenched notions of ethnic and tribal superiority. It challenged inequalities determined by kinship, tribal affiliation, and wealth.
Islam’s propagation prompted fierce opposition from the elites including Bilal’s owner Umayya, who would torture his slave by placing a rock on his chest to have him renounce Islam.
Bilal was known for his beautiful voice and went on to earn the distinction of giving the first public call to Muslim prayer. He married an Arab woman from an important clan. Bilal was among those closest to the prophet, making him the symbol of social justice.
Bilal’s story is a reminder of the core Islamic mandate of the creation of a society that takes care of its weak and treats them with respect.
The honour given to Bilal of making the first azan symbolised the uprooting of the oppressive power and social structure. Kinship or lineal descent called nasab determined an individual’s low or high social status under this structure.
The story of the prophet’s employer and later wife Khadijah illustrated the importance of gender equality. Impressed by the prophet’s reputation as an honest man, Khadijah employed him to take care of her business spread from Mecca to Syria and Yemen.
Khadijah was widowed twice before proposing marriage to the prophet. He was 25 and Khadijah was 40. The prophet only confided in Khadija and her Christian cousin when he is believed to have begun receiving revelations as the prophet.
Many of the early converts to Islam were women—impressed by the idea of equality—when the prophet began preaching two years after he started receiving revelations.
The prophet’s message was revolutionary for its time. The women got the right to acquire property, something that eluded their European counterparts for centuries.
The prophet’s saying that ‘go as far as China if you need to acquire knowledge’ underlined the importance of universal education. He declared education compulsory for women and men when the right to educate oneself, for instance, in India was a privilege only for a priestly class.
The prophet loved animals. He is once believed to have cut a sleeve of his coat to ensure that a cat napping on his arm was not disturbed while he had to rush for prayers. The prophet is said to have told a woman she would find a place in paradise despite being ‘sinful and evil’ for saving a dying dog and giving it water.
Until a perverse form of jihad backfired on the West and became the only thing defining over a billion Muslims to fuel Islamophobia, for real Muslims, the idea meant a struggle with the biggest being against the evil within.
The words for fighting or war in Arabic are qital and harb. Jihad appears in the Quran 41 times while dissuasion from fighting 70 times.
The United States introduced its perverse form in the late 1970s to fight communism. It pumped millions of dollars into textbooks full of violent images and teachings for Afghan schools.
According to The Washington Post, the primers ‘filled with talk of jihad’ featured ‘drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers, and mines.’ They served as ‘the Afghan school system’s core curriculum’ and even the Taliban used them, steeping ‘a generation in violence.’
Islam’s humanising elements have not disappeared overnight. It is just that goepolitcs since the 1980s accelerated the dehumanisation project.
As Sophia Rose Arjana shows in her book, Muslims in the Western Imagination, there has been a long history of imaginary Muslim monsters who have aided the dehumanisation of the Muslim other.
India’s governing Hindutva movement has borrowed liberally from this tradition. As a result, the alleged conduct of ruthless empire builders who happened to have also been Muslim has been used to further this dehumanising project.
The project conveniently ignores the glorious legacy of spiritual Islam in Sufism and true heirs to the prophet such as Bulleh Shah, Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti, Baba Farid, etc.
The Islamic world’s ‘deficiencies’ are used as a stick to beat Muslims with, while positive examples from Muslim countries such as Indonesia are conveniently ignored.
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country, where 12.9 percent of the world’s Muslims live. It is secular with a heavy Hindu influence exemplifying its pluralism. The influence is disproportionate to the number—1.7 percent—of Hindus in Indonesia.
Indonesia’s national airline is named after Hindu god Vishnu’s vehicle, Garuda. Its currency notes once carried another Hindu deity Ganesh’s picture. Ramayana and Mahabharata have a deep imprint on Indonesian culture. A Saraswati statue stands outside the Indonesian embassy in the world’s most important capital: Washington DC.
The business of generating Television Rating Points for advertising revenue over the last nine years, in particular, has also been aligned closely with the dominant Islamophobia project in India.
A set of previously obscure bearded men have been integral to it. They mouth the most unreasonable positions on complex issues such as triple talaq while a fraction of 0.56 percent of divorced women in India is the victims of the unIslamic practice.
In the process, the Muslim stereotypes are strengthened for the benefit of the party in power, and the real issues of disenfranchisement, lynching, and lack of justice are obscured. It keeps the Muslim bogey alive and those who can ‘put Muslims in their place’ firmly in power.
Against this backdrop, the stories that people like me grew up on as children need to be told and retold for a peaceful future of co-existence that growing Islamophobia threatens.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide