As a research student of Islamic Theology, Quraan and Hadis (not Hadith, is a compilation of Muhammad’s teachings) and having taught Arabic and Persian at premier universities across the globe, the recent alleged instances of forcible conversions in our neighbouring country pain me no end. Despite being a complete non-believer, I believe in religious eclecticism. Before I descant upon this issue of conversion in Pakistan, let me be a bit candid in stating that at this specific juncture of human civilization, the entire world seems to have become a religious battleground and the believers of all faiths have suddenly become unnecessarily assertive about the supposed ‘supremacy’ of their respective faiths. This is creating rifts among themselves. Moreover, the whole world is suffering from Islamophobia. So, demonising Islam has become people’s favourite hobby-horse. Nowadays, whoever indulges in it, gets unconditional support from a very large group of like-minded people. That doesn’t mean no conversion has ever taken place in Pakistan. There have been cases of conversion in Pakistan, reported by its own media, especially print media and by broadsheets like ‘The Nation’, ‘The Dawn’, ‘The Express Tribune’, among others. But this is common in a theocratic state. A few aberrations and anomalies here and there cannot be ignored or airbrushed. Neither should they be accorded extra importance. Qur’an says ‘La Iqra Fid Deen’ (There’s no force or coercion in religion) and ‘Lakum Dinakum walaya deen’ (You’ve your faith, I’ve mine). Today, Islam is the most misunderstood religion in the sense that its ijtehaad (free and fearless inquiry) and tasawwuf (mysticism, mostly practised by the Sufis) have been severely restricted, nay hijacked, by sects and sub-sects that cropped up in the last hundred and fifty years. American scholar of Islam, John Renard of St Louis University is of the opinion that often the conversions to Islam get reported but innumerable conversions to other faiths are conveniently as well as deliberately ignored. We’ve psychologically programmed ourselves to seeing and condemning conversions in Islam because that gives us an excuse to pan it.
A world-wide synchronised and choreographed propaganda against Islam has tarnished its image and traduced its lofty philosophy over the years. One must remember that the quiddity of Islam is peace and submission. It’s the very essence of the youngest of all three Semitic faiths－Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in that order. The very act of sajda (ritualistic genuflection) underlines the surrender (but not capitulation).
Islamic mysticism, at times even more profound than Upanishadic mysticism of Hinduism, believes in the unity of mankind regardless of any gender specifications, religious affiliations, nationalistic considerations and racial concerns. Jalaluddin Rumi of Balkh (1207-1273) believed: Yaan inn bilaaf neem iztaf/Yaan az tazmeen neest deen (We’re all same/The different faiths are mere labels). Dr Allama Iqbal says the same thing in his exalted Urdu couplet: Haqeeqat ek hai har shai ki khaaki ho ya noori/Lahoo khursheed ka tapke agar zarre ka dil cheerein (The basic reality is unchanged and unalloyed/The blood of sun oozes out when you cut a particle’s heart open). Elsewhere, Iqbal says, ‘Zahid-e-tangnazar ne mujhe kaafir jaana/Aur kaafir ye samajhta hai ke Musalmaan hoon main/Ae chashme-odoo mujh ko hiqarat se na dekh/Jis pe Qudrat ko bhi hai naaz woh insaan hoon main’ (The hidebound preacher thinks that I’m an infidel/And the infidel thinks that I’m a Muslim/Oh, so parochial souls, don’t condemn me because I’m a human, even the god is proud of).
The problem with the exegetes of Islamic scriptures and philosophy is that they’re literal interpreters and not contextual analysts. They also have an issue with the Sufis and their (generous and metaphorical) interpretation of Islam. Often my non-Muslim students and colleagues studying Islam ask me what does this Quranic verse mean: Kuffaar La Aitebaar…. (Literal translation: a kaafir or infidel is not to be trusted). They randomly quote it to justify Islam’s aversion to the followers of other faiths. Then I’ve to quote Iqbal to comprehend this verse in a holistic manner and not out of the context. He says:
Kaafir ki ye pahchaan ke aafaaq mein gum hai/Momin ki ye pahchaan ke gum usmein hai aafaaq (An infidel is one who’s lost in worldly affairs/And inside a true Muslim (Momin) the whole world gets lost). In other words, even a Muslim who is not on a righteous path can be called a Kaafir or Infidel! From the perspective of philology and Semitic Semantics, though the word ‘Kaafir’ has its etymological root in the word ‘Kufra’ (Blasphemy/Sacrilege), it also means an individual who’s full of ungodly traits: In iz’daz imno-kufra (an irreligious person in Syrian Arabic which’s still prevalent in spoken and written Arabic of that region). So, how can one say, that the ‘controversial’ verse in Qur’an descended on Muhammad to persecute who didn’t embrace Islam? In fact, Islam does believe in Vertical Conversion (Tarazat-e-mustaqeem) and not always in Horizontal Conversion (Tarazat-e-munhani). Vertical Conversion (according to mystics) is the enhancement of one’s self rather than increase in numbers. Khud ko taraash kar itna nikhaar/Musalman se Momin ban ja mere yaar (My friend, refine yourself to the point/That from a mere practising Muslim, you become a true human). It’s worthwhile to mention that the word Momin has two parallel and prevalent meanings: A true Muslim and an individual of integrity and moral rectitude (refer to Lughaat-e-Arabi by R E Cornell, Riyadh University Press, 1999).
Western scholar of Islam and the greatest authority on Ghalib, Sir Ralph Russell very meaningfully wrote that the much-maligned Pan-Islamisation is narrowing of Pan-Humanism of Islamic tasawwuf. That’s the reason, Al-Furqaan (Koran) categorically calls the Almighty: Rabbul-Alameen (the god of the entire universe) and not just Rabbul-Muslameen (the god of Muslims only).
The Persian mystic Hakim Sanai says the same thing, albeit poetically in classical Pahalavi (precursor to Persian): “Shoon abda banda-e-khuda eest/Makhlooq ya abd ummat-e-khuda zeest” (Why should I worry that many are still not Muslims?/We’re all offspring of the same god and he only knows the best).
To sum up, “Khuda ki baatein Khuda pe chhod de/Hindu ke bhi gale lag, jahan kahin mile “(Leave god’s ways to god/Hug a Hindu, wherever you come across). Wish, we all could think so liberally in these vicious and venomous times. Remember, ‘Before god on the Day of judgement, you’ll be stripped of all your religious insignia.’
Lastly, as a researcher of Semitic Religions and Civilizations, I too have felt many a time that Islam is more sinned against than sinning. Having studied Islam and Semitic faiths for many years, it’s my perception that Samuel P Huttington’s over-hyped and unnecessarily glamorized ‘Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of the World Order’ created a wedge between Islam and the rest of the world, precisely, the western world. This wedge unfortunately got widened following 9/11, that universally maligned Islam. This is indeed sad. In this age of religious dichotomies, differences and rampant misinformation, it is all the more imperative to disabuse oneself of the fallacious beliefs and prejudices that have become inveterate in all of us and impacted our collective thinking with a dangerous, nay lethal, tilt. We seriously need to get rid of them for the survival of mankind.