How Prophet Muhammad Was Ahead Of His Time

Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s teachings, which first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in seventh-century Arabia with entrenched notions of superiority

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Shortly before he passed away, Prophet Muhammad spelled his moral and ethical mandate for Muslims in his last sermon. He essentially reiterated his vision that was pivotal to his successes against possibly all odds. The Prophet declared all humans descended from Adam and Eve and there is no superiority ‘of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, a white person over a black person, or of a black person over a white person.’ He called for treating others justly to ensure that no one would be unjust to his followers. ‘You will neither inflict nor suffer inequity […] you have certain rights over your women, but they also have rights over you. […] Treat women well and be kind to them […]’

Equality was the essence of the Prophet’s last address and his life-long egalitarian teachings, which first resonated with marginalised people such as women and slaves in seventh-century Arabia with entrenched notions of superiority. He challenged inequalities based on kinship, tribal affiliation, wealth, and triggered ferocious opposition from the elites such as Umayya, whose slave Bilal, an African, was among Islam’s first converts and prominent members of the budding Muslim community. Umayya tortured Bilal, who was known for his euphonious voice, to force him to renounce Islam. He would place a rock on Bilal’s chest to have him fall in line. Bilal, who was known to be close to the Prophet, refused to give in. He would go on to have the distinction of giving the first public call for prayers or azan to Muslims and marrying a woman from an important Arab clan.

Bilal’s social mobility illustrated how the Prophet transformed Arabia with social justice at the core of the transformative change he effected. He created a society, which took care of its weak and treated them with respect, uprooting an oppressive power and social structure that accorded an individual low or high social status as per nasab (kinship or lineal descent). The change did not come without trials and tribulations. The Prophet’s own turned against him. The persecution he faced forced his flight to Medina. He suffered assassination attempts and wars by much stronger adversaries. But he struck a balance between idealism and pragmatism, which helped him win him over even his worst enemies. He ended a cycle of reprisals and constant warfare and ushered in unity, order, peace, and justice. The Prophet united warring tribes and gave them a sense of community to eventually have them welcome him back to the city of his birth—Mecca.

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The Prophet, who founded the first Muslim state of Medina, was way ahead of his time. The Medina Charter, which many consider the constitution of this state, best illustrated this. The charter outlined the political rights and duties of the state’s inhabitants. Medina, one of Islam’s holiest places as the Prophet’s final resting place where the first Muslim community was established, was governed under the principles of socio-political justice enshrined in the charter. The charter sought to end conflicts among tribes and maintain peace among all its inhabitants – Muslims, Jews, Christians, and pagans.

The charter declared no Jews will be wronged and will be treated as one community with the believers. It sought to protect the religious rights of non-Muslims and was known as Sahifah Medina or Dustur Medina in Arabic. It was perhaps the first such written document incorporating religious and political rights. The charter specified means for conflict resolution and sought to promote mutual respect and acceptance. It underscored Muslim commitment to human lives and religious minorities in line with Quran’s mandate for Muslims to respect all previous messengers such as Jesus and Moses and to honour their followers. It recognised equality and the right to peaceful coexistence with all groups getting protection and rights to live as per their beliefs.

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The Charter had its roots in infighting, which the Prophet ended by unifying communities. Muslim scholars have sought to revive its spirit to end the political violence in the name of religion, particularly since the 1980s in the name of fighting communism, which boomeranged and sparked a virulent form of Islamophobia. In January 2016, they put their heads together at a conference in Morocco reaffirming the values enshrined in the charter. Moroccan King Mohammed VI, who hosted the gathering, underlined the charter promoted unity, pluralism, and religious freedom. He sought the revival of its spirit for a more peaceful and inclusive world.

The Prophet also signed a charter of privileges with Christians in 628 and pledged them freedom of worship, movement, and protection in the event of war years after Ethiopia’s Christian kingdom offered asylum to some early Muslims when they faced persecution in Mecca. The Prophet allowed Christians from Najran in modern-day Saudi Arabia to worship in his mosque when he ruled Medina. The treaty he signed with the Christians pledged ‘there shall be no interference with the practice of their faith. […] No bishop will be removed from his bishopric, no monk from his monastery, no priest from his parish.’  The treaty reflected the Quranic spirit. The Quran says God protects ‘monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is much mentioned.’ It calls Jews and Christians the ‘People of the Book’ 31 times and also refers to them as alladhīna ūtū al-kitāb (those who have received the Book), ahl al-dhikr (the people of remembrance). The Quran also addresses the Christians as ahl al-Injīl (the People of the Gospel). The Quran mentions the Jewish holy book Torah 18 times as a true revelation and source of guidance and wisdom.

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The four Khulafa Rashidun (rightly-guided) caliphs Abu Bakar, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, the Prophet’s close companions, succeeded him and laid the foundation of Islam’s Golden Age, which produced icons such as polymath Ibn Isa, known in the West as Avicenna. The period between the eighth to eleventh century marked the high point of this age marked by great strides in science and learning. For Islamic science expert Glen M Cooper, this era profoundly affected the development of empirical science. Cooper has argued the West ultimately became the heir of those scientific developments. For him, contributions of Muslim scientists to medicine and the flourishing of science during the Golden Age of Islamic civilisation can be explained, in part, by basic Islamic religious beliefs and practices. British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili wrote scholars and scientists of the Islamic Golden Age are no less worthy of mention in the history of science than Aristotle, Galileo, Newton, or Einstein. Among them, Ibn al-Haytham was the greatest physicist in the 2,000-year period that separated Archimedes and Newton. Polymath Al-Bīrūni is regarded as the Da Vinci of Islam. Mathematician and astronomer Al-Tūsi influenced Copernicus while Ibn Khaldūn is known as the father of social science and economic theory.

The golden age was the most remarkable period of scholarship and learning since Ancient Greece when the Islamic Civilisation spread across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Muslims produced rich literature, thought, and contributed to science. The quest for knowledge was among the primary goals of the Muslim rulers when Christian Europe followed outmoded teachings and Arabs mastered science. In an essay titled Questions on Natural Science Englishman Adelard of Bath, who left behind his traditional education at the cathedral schools of France and travelled to Antioch (Turkey) in the 12th century, cited the blind adherence of Europeans to intellectual orthodoxy. He wrote that Arabic science has freed man to explore the natural world with his own faculties and reason as a guide.

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Medicine became a part of Islamic culture that espoused sound health. ‘Make use of medical treatment, for Allah has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease: old age,’ the Prophet advised his followers. Muslims over the centuries drew on traditional practices to make their medicine the world’s most sophisticated by the 10th century. The Islamic culture fostered a tradition of book-making that transmitted knowledge from one place to another when Europeans languished in the intellectual darkness. Crusades were a manifestation of this darkness for which distortions about the Prophet were used as a justification in an attempt to eliminate Islam and Islamic Civilisation.

The misrepresentations persisted even as Europe overcame its inferiority to the much intellectually advanced Islamic world to dominate the world. They gained a fresh currency in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The incendiary comments of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have put a spotlight on these distortions. They echo medieval crusade chroniclers’ distortions in a futile attempt to overshadow an extraordinary legacy, which could be the panacea for many of the contemporary problems provided Muslims, in particular, understand its essence—justice and equality.  

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Lack Of Ideological Fidelity Helped Imran Khan’s Rivals Oust him

Most political parties in the united opposition have been defined largely by political expediency, which made it easier for them to come together

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Shehbaz Sharif, 70, is all set to be elected as Pakistan’s next Prime Minister following Imran Khan’s ouster. A three-time chief minister of the most populous Punjab province, Shehbaz Sharif is the younger brother of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was allowed to go to the UK in 2019 for treatment but has not since returned to serve his prison term for corruption. Shehbaz Sharif, who also faces serious graft cases, is the joint opposition’s prime ministerial candidate. He was nominated for the post since his brother and his political heir, Maryam Nawaz, are ineligible for the post because of their disqualification following conviction of corruption. Shehbaz Sharif’s son, Hamza Shehbaz, too faces corruption charges. He is expected to take over as Punjab’s chief minister. 

Shehbaz Sharif was asked to take on the mantle of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N), the second-biggest party in the national assembly, when his brother was disqualified over corruption charges linked to the leaked documents that showed his children owned properties in London. An investigation into the Sharifs’ assets followed. It emerged Nawaz Sharif also withheld his Dubai-based employment in the nomination papers for the 2013 elections.

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In an article in the Independent following Sharif’s ouster in 2017, Kunwar Khuldune Shahid noted it ‘could bolster a culture of accountability and uproot the dynastic politics epitomized by the Sharif family.’ But another return of the Sharifs has proved dynastic politics has deep roots in Pakistan, where no political party actually has any real commitment to ideology. Most political leaders have shown little ideological commitment. They mostly inherit leadership and end up passing it on to their children. Kinship and patronage networks have more salience. The Sharifs have been in and out of power since the 1980s and have repeatedly survived thanks to a mastery of these networks, which permeate every aspect of society. Kinship plays an important role in voting patterns. A Gallup survey in 2008 showed that 37 percent of rural and 27 percent of urban voters attended community meetings to decide whom to vote for.

The Sharifs belong to the influential Amritsari-Kashmiri community. They have built their alliances with other communities such as the Arains. The Arain-Kashmiri alliance has been so formidable that except for two, all mayors of Lahore since 1947 have been from these two communities. The Sharifs have also stitched other similar alliances. They also have a business empire and base among traders in Punjab, where around 60 percent of the country’s population is concentrated.

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In a 2012 article, Pakistani journalist Amir Mateen wrote that the Amritsari Kashmiris virtually run Lahore and their political influence extends even farther. He wrote that Sharif’s family has encouraged pockets of Amritsari Kashmiri power in every major city of central Punjab. Kashmiris have always held key Cabinet posts in Sharif’s government. His move to name fellow Kashmiri Ziauddin Butt precipitated the coup that cut short his second term in power in 1999. The deep pockets and business empire of the Sharifs allow them to nurture kinship and patronage networks for an assured base, which has helped them make repeated comebacks.

The ideological flexibility of the Sharifs has also helped them. Nawaz Sharif started as a protégé of military leader Zia-ul-Haq, whose conservatism makes him the most hated ruler among the liberals. Nawaz Sharif has transformed from the darlings of the conservatives three decades back to that of liberals now. He has cultivated a favourable image among the liberals including through his continuous advocacy for better ties with India and supporting the minority rights.

In 2017, Nawaz Sharif chose a Hindu temple complex in Punjab’s Katas Raj to warn hardliners against preaching animosity while calling hate-mongering unlawful. He promised the welfare of minorities and reaffirmed his belief in equal citizenship at a function following a Hindu ritual at the centuries-old complex associated with Shiva. In December 2016, Sharif re-named a centre at Pakistan’s best-known university after Nobel laureate Abdus Salam from the Ahmadiyya community, which has been persecuted in the country. Sharif’s government got the Hindu Marriage Bill passed in September 2016. In November 2015, Sharif attended a Diwali function that began with the recitation of Hindu and Muslim prayers and promised Hindus he will support them even if their oppressors were Muslims. Sharif’s government also executed Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated Punjab Governor Salman Taseer over alleged blasphemy.

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Sharif is known as an infrastructure-obsessed and pragmatic businessman-politician, who has given Pakistan perhaps the best network of motorways in the region. He liberalised Pakistan’s economy in the 1990s. Sharif’s pragmatism had him join hands with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) despite a bitter history of adversarial politics in the 1990s.

Former President Asif Ali Zardari, who now helms PPP, has been known as ‘Mr Ten Percent’ for the deals he cut for contracts when his wife Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister. He defines the idea of politics as an art of the possible. Zardari has been jailed over corruption, smuggling, and murder charges. But he has also continued to remain relevant thanks to a separate set of kinship alliancesThese ties favour traditional parties. They are stacked against politicians such as Imran Khan, who has commanded little sway in villages, where kinships are a bigger factor. Against this backdrop, the Pakistani polity is largely bereft of any real ideology with power the end for most political parties and means for making money. Nawaz Sharif continued denying owning flats in London but has been staying in one of them since 2019.

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Zardari, who played a key role in stitching together the alliance against Imran Khan and has also been accused of offshore assets, was handed over PPP’s leadership on the basis of the will Benazir Bhutto is believed to have left before her assassination. Their son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is most likely to be PPP’s prime ministerial candidate for the next elections. He will be the third Prime Minister from his family if he is able to get the post.

Khan’s obsession with holding traditional politicians accountable had almost all political parties, including PML (N) and PPP, close ranks to bring him down. The united opposition of assorted parties even included Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, which has been accused of being funded by foreign intelligence agencies to orchestrate unrest in Pakistan’s northwest. Most political parties in the alliance have been defined largely by political expediency and that is why it was easier for these parties to coalesce despite identifying themselves as conservatives, secularists, centrists, leftists, etc.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the leader of Pakistan’s biggest conservative party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), best exemplifies this expediency that helped him remain part of the power structure for over two decades despite a limited base. Imran Khan’s ascension pushed him into the political wilderness in 2018. Rehman earned the ‘Maulana Diesel’ sobriquet in the 1990s when he cut a diesel franchise deal with Benazir Bhutto in return for support after an ugly campaign to prevent her from becoming the Prime Minister in the name of Islam. He stoked anti-American sentiments but in private lobbied US envoy Anne Patterson for American support for his prime ministerial ambitions. At a dinner Rehman hosted for Patterson in November 2007, an aide of his told the envoy that all ‘important parties in Pakistan had to get the [American] approval.’

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In a leaked 2007 cable, Patterson wrote Rehman is known for ‘wily political skills.’ She added she was told Rehman’s ‘still significant numbers of votes are up for sale.’ Patterson wrote Rehman enjoys ‘being courted by both [military ruler Pervez] Musharraf and [Benazir] Bhutto and sees himself increasingly in the lucrative position of being kingmaker’, if not the Prime Minister. Patterson added Rehman wanted to be ‘more engaged with the US’ and to lobby the Congress and American think tanks. She wrote Rehman appeared worried about whether the US would deal with him if he became the Prime Minister. He cautioned Patterson ‘not to put all the eggs’ in Bhutto’s basket. Months later, Rehman got his brother a lucrative ministry in the PPP government that was formed in 2008.

Given the track record of his opponents, Khan’s allegations of an American plot to oust him will have resonance and keep him in contention for a comeback despite his governance failures and mismanagement of the economy.  

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan

Why India Will Like To See The Back of Imran Khan

Khan’s archrival, Nawaz Sharif, has been consistent in his conciliatory approach towards India

Narendra Modi and Imran Khan at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Kyrgyzstan in 2019.

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Cricket has been among the few common grounds through decades of mostly hostile ties between India and Pakistan, which have fought four wars over the 70 years of their existence as nation-states. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s greatest cricketer ever, once epitomized the potential of sport in bridging divides. A debonair sportsman, Khan enjoyed a fan following in India that no Pakistani could now dream of emulating. A part of his appeal stemmed from his background. Khan came from the upper-class westernized elite, which has admired the idea of India that its secular and democratic founding fathers articulated. The admiration was reflected in his early days as the Prime Minister until it perhaps became clear to him that India has fundamentally changed under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s rule.

The BJP leadership has no time or inclination for the niceties of their secularist predecessors. It has reshaped India to the extent that there are now no common grounds between the two countries. Khan, who has become increasingly intemperate, has since the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in August 2019 and prolonged siege of the region made fiery speeches against India. He has repeatedly referred to the origins of the BJP’s parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He has highlighted at international fora how RSS drew inspiration from the Nazis in the 1940s and linked it to the situation of India’s 200 million Muslim minority.

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Khan’s belligerence has brought him into the crosshairs of BJP-RSS’s well-oiled cyber warriors, and much of India’s media allied to the country’s ruling establishment. His critics, including Khan’s second wife, have for years been given generous space and airtime to essentially dig out dirt on him and project him negatively much like Indian opposition Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Khan is now no exception and has joined the long list of Pakistan politicians, who have been seen as villains in India. The list includes Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and Benazir Bhutto. 

Pakistani leaders are more unpopular in India when they are in power. Jinnah tops the list of villains in India as he led the movement for the creation of Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is known in India for talking about a 1000-war and for nurturing Pakistan’s atomic programme for parity with India. He vowed to make the bomb even if they had to eat grass. Benazir Bhutto is blamed for her role in the insurrection against India in Kashmir in the late 1980s. She has been back in the news in India after a speech for her on Kashmir featured in a controversial Indian film, which has been accused of stoking hatred.

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In a speech at the UN announcing the end of the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto resolved to fight for his country’s honour and blamed India for aggression. Bhutto warned they have the resolve, the will to fight for a ‘righteous cause’ irrespective of Pakistan’s size and resources. Benazir Bhutto, who was also articulate and western-educated like most of her predecessors and Khan, resorted to rhetoric against India in her early years of politics before India ceased to be relevant to electoral politics in Pakistan. Unlike them, three-time prime minister and Khan’s archrival Nawaz Sharif has been consistent in his conciliatory approach towards India.

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As he faces the toughest challenge of his political career, India will like to see the back of Khan even as New Delhi has no direct influence over Pakistan’s domestic politics. Khan survived an attempt to oust him after a no-confidence vote was blocked in Parliament on Sunday. The move has been challenged in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional and likely to be struck down. Khan separately recommended the dissolution of Parliament and sought a fresh election as he risked losing power as an alliance of opposition parties and defectors from his party closed ranks to oust him.

Modi flew to Lahore to meet Sharif in 2015.

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Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz, was set to replace Khan as the Prime Minister and pave the way for the three-time prime minister’s return to electoral politics by finding a way out to end his disqualification. He is most likely to continue Sharif’s conciliatory approach to India if he is able to replace Khan as the prime minister. Sharif’s friendly approach to New Delhi began in the 1990s when he came into his own after starting his career as military ruler Zia-ul-Haq’s protégé. Zia, who is seen to be the architect of anti-India insurgencies in Kashmir and the Indian side of Punjab, handpicked Sharif and ensured his rise as a national leader while he was still in his 30s. He tried to replicate his success against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the US help in Kashmir and Punjab. His protégé Sharif sought to turn his mentor’s policy towards India on its head and went on to sign the Lahore Declaration with his Indian counterpart, Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. Vajpayee travelled to Pakistan to sign the pact for peaceful co-existence years after his BJP led a movement for the demolition of a 16th-century mosque, which triggered one of the worst episodes of anti-Muslim violence and left thousands dead.

Sharif has repeatedly denounced the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan, which was fought months after the signing of the declaration. He maintained that the Pakistan Army planned the war without his knowledge and continued his conciliatory policy while he was in exile after his removal from power following a military coup in October 1999. Sharif backed unilateral visa-free travel for Indians ahead of the 2013 polls in Pakistan. He also called for demilitarisation of the world’s highest battlefield—Siachen Glacier—while linking his quest for peace with India to Pakistan’s prosperity. 

In its manifesto, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML (N) promised special priority to a peaceful settlement of outstanding issues with New Delhi while proposing to connect India with Afghanistan, Iran, and other energy-rich Central Asian republics via Pakistan. PML (N)’s promises came even as Islamabad saw India’s presence in Afghanistan before the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul in 2012 with suspicion and accused New Delhi of using the Afghan territory to stoke separatism in Pakistan. Sharif said he can even visit India without an invitation after his victory in the 2013 polls, which he saw as an endorsement of his conciliatory approach towards India. Sharif called his quest for peace with India ‘the cardinal principle’ of his foreign policy in his Independence Day speech in August 2014. Months earlier, Sharif flew to New Delhi to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony after the Indian leader was voted to power for the first time. He ended a tradition of visiting Pakistani leaders by refusing to meet Kashmiri separatists as per the wishes of his hosts.

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Sharif even developed a good personal rapport with Modi, who has used anti-Pakistan rhetoric to win elections since his days as a provincial leader in the western Indian state of Gujarat. This ensured a short-lived turnaround in the bilateral ties when Modi flew to Lahore to meet Sharif in 2015. Modi embraced Sharif at the Lahore airport’s tarmac before they walked hand in hand. The meeting held out hope for better ties. Sharif and Modi risked the meeting despite much baggage. Modi was banned from entering the US until he became the Prime Minister a year earlier on the grounds of violating religious freedom over his alleged role in the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 when he was the chief minister. Sharif’s risk was also greater as he hosted Modi in the absence of his national security advisor and foreign ministry officials. He drew flak for his contempt for institutional procedures as Pakistan is said to have no record of the meeting.   

Sharif’s attacks on Pakistan’s military establishment have gained him much admiration in India. They have earned him laudatory coverage in the Indian press, which largely sticks to the state’s line on defence and foreign affairs. The Indian media has amplified his criticism of Pakistan’s army’s leadership as part of a campaign against Imran Khan’s government. They have echoed the line that the army propped up Khan and had a role in the removal of Sharif, who was disqualified in 2017 after his family was found to have bought properties in upscale London through illegally obtained money through offshore holdings.

Sharif has been portrayed as a champion of democracy even as he repeatedly failed democratic tests during his time in power by slandering his rival, Benazir Bhutto, in the 1990s with organized campaigns to malign her. Jemina, Imran Khan’s first wife, faced a vicious anti-Semitic campaign allegedly at Sharif’s behest in the 1990s. Sharif harassed the media and got journalist Najam Sethi arrested. He influenced the judiciary to get his rivals convicted. His party attacked the Supreme Court. Sharif has also faced criticism for promoting dynastic politics and nepotism.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan