Sunday, December 28, 2008

Time To Rediscover Islam's Original Message

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

This is perhaps the only spectacle of its kind on the planet; the sea of humanity constantly surging, swirling and revolving around a square majestic structure. This ritual has been going on for thousands of years following in the footsteps of Prophet Abraham.

The sight of men and women in white going around the black-robed Kaaba during the annual Hajj and at other times throughout the year never ceases to awe, inspire and fascinate. There's not a more majestic and humbling sight in the whole wide world.

You don't have to be a believer or even get close to the Kaaba to be part of the surreal, inexplicable experience. No one remains unmoved and unaffected by the sight of the faithful from all parts and corners of the world - black and white, tall and short and rich and poor - submit themselves before God as equals in the brotherhood of faith and humanity.

As Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of the U.S. Congress who performed Hajj this week, told CNN, you forget who you are - black or white and American or African - and where you come from when you are before God circling the Kaaba in a two-piece unstitched garment.

Indeed, nothing else celebrates the oneness of humanity and universal brotherhood as the Hajj does when more than 3 million pilgrims from around the world undertake the journey of a lifetime to the holy city of Mecca.

Interestingly, the Hajj does not commemorate something the Prophet of Islam did or ordained. By undertaking this passage to Mecca, mandatory for everyone who can afford it, Muslims retrace the historic journey of Prophet Abraham and his immortal sacrifice near the Kaaba thousands of years ago.

Abraham is greatly respected by the Jews and Christians. All Jewish prophets and Jesus Christ are related to the Patriarch who came from Iraq. He is also revered by Muslims as the architect of the Holy Kaaba along with his son Ishmael (Ismael to Muslims) and ancestor of the Last Prophet.

By retracing and reliving Abraham's journey, pilgrims experience his unquestioning faith and willingness to sacrifice what was most precious to him, his only and beloved son when ordained by God in a dream. How Ishmael was rescued last minute is a separate and equally fascinating story.

What really interests me is how the three great monotheistic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - are inextricably linked to each other and are united in Abraham.

Notwithstanding the long history of crusades and conflicts spanning several centuries, the three religions have much more in common than their followers care to admit.

Listening to the Eid sermon from the Grand Mosque in Mecca this week, one was once again struck by the number of references to the prophets and scriptures that are sacred to both Christian and Jewish people as well as Muslims.

Why is the world then ignorant or not adequately aware of this aspect of Islam - this all-embracing quality of the much-maligned and misunderstood faith? In fact, today not even many Muslims are familiar with this generous spirit of tolerance and acceptance that suffuses their faith. Or at least once did.

Later that day, Eid night rather, during my restless channel surfing, I came across "The Message," the 1976 magnum opus of Moustapha Akkad about early Islam on local television network. Akkad, known mostly for his Halloween movies, later produced another landmark epic in "Omar Mukhtar: The Lion of Desert," played with great panache by the inimitable Anthony Quinn.

The gifted Arab American filmmaker somehow manages to capture the true spirit and character of Islam in "The Message" despite the ideological and religious red lines that constantly challenged him.

Akkad, who introduced Islam to Hollywood without stereotyping it and championed its humane message in movie after movie, was killed in a terror attack in Amman in November 2005. Tragic irony or what?

While nothing can perhaps ever do justice to recounting the ordeal of early Muslims in Arabia, "The Message" featuring greats like Quinn, who plays the Prophet's uncle Hamza in the cult movie, comes closest to offering a rare insight into how Islam won over the Arabs to spread far and wide within two decades of its dawn.

The force of the unlettered Prophet's own extraordinary personality epitomizing the universal message he brought swept Arabia and beyond in his own lifetime.

After the Prophet's death, it was not the cutting edge of Islam's sword - as many like to believe - but the revolutionary nature of its message and its liberating teachings that conquered the world and hearts and minds everywhere; the message championing the unity of God and humanity and preaching simple but universal basics like honesty, equality, justice and above all accountability for one's actions.

It was this revolutionary message that opened doors for the early Muslims wherever they went - from Persia to Spain and from India to Indonesia.

Contrary to what its many detractors allege, Islam did not spread to far corners of Asia, Africa and Europe riding on the military conquests of the Mughals, Turks and Afghans but thanks to the endearing simplicity, honesty and truthfulness of Arab spice traders who were enthusiastically welcomed on the coasts of Kerala, Malaya and Java.

Today as this great faith increasingly comes under attack from within and without and a tiny fringe of extremists pretends to speak on its behalf, it's time to go back to basics. There's never been a greater need to revisit and reinvent Islam's universal and humane message.

We can confront historical injustices and grievances and the centuries of exploitation long inflicted on the Muslim world only by returning to the benevolent and just teachings of this faith. You cannot deal with injustice by greater injustice. Only the force of justice can take on injustice. Two wrongs can never make a right.

Targeting and victimization of innocents to avenge historical wrongs is not only morally repugnant but also violates the fundamental teachings of our Prophet and the spirit of Islam and all that it stands for.

From Palestine to Iraq and from the Middle East to the Far East, Muslims can find peace and justice only by following the path of peace and justice. There's no other way. Wrong means cannot take us to right causes. It's time to revisit and rediscover our faith. It's time to go back to basics.

(Aijaz Zaka Syed is Opinion Editor of Khaleej Times.)

Source: Muslim World Today


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