The Aftermath of the Christchurch Massacre,
An Opportunity for Internal Renewal
Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed
Seldom has a civilization stood at a crossroads as does the Islamic civilization today. On the one hand, there are challenges that the Ummah has seldom faced in the last 1500 years. On the other hand, it has seldom had an opportunity for internal renewal as it does today.
Scan the horizon from the east to the west and you will notice that Darul Islam has become Darul Harab. The lush paddy fields of Myanmar weep over the genocide of the Rohingyas., On the plains of Hindustan, you can be lynched for a rumor that you ate beef. In the mountains of Afghanistan, you are as likely to be killed by a bomb dropped from the air as by a suicide bomber who is your neighbor. Iraq has become an orphanage thanks to the devastations wrought by a merciless American invasion. In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition has rained havoc on a hapless population. The horn of Africa has long been embroiled in civil and foreign imposed strife. In the ancient hills of Syria, you witness a devastated land on its knees. Westward in North Africa, you find Libya, a country crushed by the weight of NATO bombardment. In a vast swath of earth, stretching from Yangon to Tripoli, it is the same story, destruction after destruction.
From New Zealand to San Diego, Muslims feel under pressure. Yet, in the midst of this period of trial and tribulation, we have also seen an outpouring of compassion, comradery and love, from every corner of the globe. Even those who were not sympathetic to the Muslims in the past have expressed their abhorrence of the massacre in New Zealand. The other day, at an interfaith gathering in Pittsburg, CA organized by my good friend and community leader Mohammed Chaudhry Saheb, a Catholic priest got on his knee and asked for forgiveness from a largely Muslim audience. A Catholic priest on his knee asking Muslims for forgiveness for the massacre in far-away Christchurch! This is indeed astounding in this age of Islamophobia.
The heavens reveal their Signs through history (“Soon shall We show them Our Signs on the horizon and in their own souls until it is clear to them that is the Truth” (The Qur’an). The current travails offer an historic opportunity for an internal renewal of Islamic civilization. Just as we use reaction wheels to correct the course of a spacecraft that is losing altitude, or correct the attitude of an airplane in a nose dive by applying a torque to a gimbal or an electric pulse to a control system, a civilization needs an occasional correction to keep it on-course its heavenly mandate. The Islamic civilization has lost its heavenly vision and has veered off-course. The subject is broad -based, embracing history, economics, sociology, politics, technology and interstate relations. However, as Mevlana Rumi said: You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the ocean in a drop. So, let us drive into the subject.
A brief excursion through Islamic history shows that the Ummah has faced many crises from the time of our Prophet Muhammed (sas). The passing away of the Prophet was a great crisis and the Suhaba overcame it with the establishment of the Khilafat. The assassinations of Uthman and Ali (r) were big challenges. The offshoot was the onset of the civil wars. The resultant schisms were never resolved and they continue to haunt the world of Islam even to this day. The eighth century witnessed a challenge from Greek ideas. The challenge was met by the emergence of the Hanbali fiqh and the intervention of Imam Ahmed. The Islamic civilization was pulled back to the center. Then came the golden period of Islam when science and civilization thrived until the thirteenth century.
The challenges faced by Muslims today are similar in many ways to those faced by Muslims in the thirteenth century. If one was alive in the year 1200, one would be awed at the expansive power of Muslim empires. Only fourteen years earlier, in the year 1186, Salahuddin had recaptured Jerusalem. Only nine years earlier, in 1191, the Ghorids had captured Delhi and had established the sultanate of Delhi in India. Only four years earlier, in 1196, the Almohad had defeated the conquistadores and reestablished Muslim sovereignty in Southern Spain. It was a period of triumphs.
Yet, within the span of a generation after the year 1200, the Muslim world encountered catastrophe after catastrophe. It is not commonly appreciated that the Crusades and the Mongol invasions took place at the same time and the simultaneous onslaughts of Christian Europe and the Shamanist Mongols well-neigh annihilated the world of Islam. in 1212, at the battle of Las Novas de Tolosa, Muslims lost Spain. It took a while for the Conquistadores to capture Cordoba (1236) and Seville (1248) but Spain was essentially lost in 1212. In 1219, Gengiz Khan descended from Mongolia and in a span of two years obliterated more than half of the Islamic world. A vast swath of Eurasia including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan up to the river Indus, Iran, Iraq, Anatolia and Syria lay in ruins. The Mongols were only stopped on the outskirts of Jerusalem at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1261 by Sultan Baybars of Egypt. So, within the span of one generation, the Islamic empires that extended from the Guadalquivir River in Spain to the Yamuna River in India shrank to the Ayyubid domains of Egypt and the Mamluke Sultanate of Delhi.
The destruction was total. Ninety percent of the population perished. Political and social institutions that had grown up over a period of five hundred years in the golden period of Islam were destroyed. Libraries burnt. Ulema beheaded. Dams and canals leveled. Agriculture disappeared. Towns and villages became pastureland for Mongol horses. In one instance, in the city of Bamyan in Afghanistan, Genghiz Khan slaughtered all the men, women and children. Not even the donkeys were spared; so much so that the Mongols called it the City of Sorrow.
And yet, in the midst of this darkness, Divine light made its appearance. The Qur’an declares: Throw the Truth upon Falsehood, and lo! Falsehood is crushed, and it is pulverized. How did the world of Islam overcome the challenges of the time? What can we learn from the thirteenth century that we can adapt to this century so that we too can experience a spiritual triumph?
It is not the body that contains the spirit; it is the spirit that surrounds the body, inside and out. Oppression brings darkness. And at the darkest hour, Divine light heralds the onset of a new dawn. Moses appears within the household of the Pharaoh. Justice triumphs over oppression. Truth prevails over falsehood. Human history revolves around this principle.
While the political structures were destroyed by the Mongols, and the madrassahs burned, the people of the spirit, those who had stayed outside of the state structures, were spared. These were the awliyah-the people of the spirit. They were the men and women who would encapsulate a heart and transform it in the mold of its own essence. Every human being has an essence (it is the khudi expounded by Allama Iqbal). A spiritual master grabs a heart and molds it in the shape of its inherent, God-given essence.
In the aftermath of the Mongol devastations there ensued a tug-of-war between Christianity, Buddhism and Islam for the soul of the Mongol. The Christians in the fray represented different denominations, the Latins from Rome, the Orthodox of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and the Armenians. For fifty years, between 1252 and 1302, the competition between the three great faiths was in full swing. It was a galactic struggle, a historical hinge that would decide the destiny of Eurasia and fundamentally alter the course of world history.
In the year 1252, six years before the destruction of Baghdad by Hulagu Khan, Baraka Khan, a grandson of Gengiz Khan, lord of the Golden Horde, accepted Islam. How did it happen? He met a great Shaikh, Saifuddin and received instructions in the spiritual dimension of Islam. Shaikh Saifuddin was a man of the spirit. He had a zawiya, a seminary on the outskirts of Bukhara. Prince Baraka Khan enrolled in the zawiya and received instructions on the spiritual and ethical tenets of Islam. Shaikh Saifuddin transformed the heart of Baraka Khan and molded it in the shape of its own essence. Islam triumphed. The Mongols who were destroyers of the Islamic civilization became its standard bearers. The oppressors became protectors; destroyers became builders and architects. As Allama Iqbal said it: Pasban Mil Gaye Ka’abe Ko Sanam Khane Se (The Ka’ba found its guardians in the house of idols).
History is a great teacher. The lessons from the thirteenth century must be read in the light of the Qur’an: indeed, with every difficulty there is relief. Verily, with every difficulty there is relief. Within darkness there is light and it is the darkest before the dawn.
At this moment in history, in contemporary times, the world of Islam sees itself enveloped in tragedies. The great Islamic community can wring its hands in despair and take comfort in the outpouring of sympathy from people of good will, or, convert the moment into a moment of creativity and internal renewal. It can look into the mirror and examine itself. Why is it that there is so much hatred in the modern world? What are the roots of Islamophobia?
The global force of economic centration
The principal driver of global tensions in modern times is economic centration. This has been going on more than two hundred years. It is inexorable and is built into the system. Economic centration means the aggregation of the material resources of the world in the hands of fewer and fewer people. It has nothing to do with religion. State actors, be it in the Middle East or South Asia use the social and political turbulence created by economic centration to further their specific agendas. The little people, the ones who cause trouble such as the alleged terrorist in Christchurch in New Zealand, get caught up in the whirlwind created by economic centration. This is the age of Big Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, space travel, and information, misinformation, disinformation which is augmented and weaponized by technology and thrown at the masses. So, Muslims must show forgiveness, compassion and mercy to the little actors who are caught up in this gristmill. As Bulle Shah of the Punjab said three hundred years ago: Find someone to forgive so that God may forgive you. That is the first lesson, namely, understanding, compassion, mercy and forgiveness.
Reclaiming the high ground of knowledge and service
Secondly, it is a moment of introspection. We must look at our own house. We must ask ourselves: Who are we? Why are we here? What is the true purpose of Islam in the world? Why was Islam revealed through so many prophets until it achieved its perfection through our Prophet Muhammed (sas)?
Any position not based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet will ultimately be rejected by the Muslims. Therefore, the appropriate question is: what is the guidance of the Qur’an and the Sunnah for these times?
The Qur’an explains the purpose of human creation: I created not beings of fire and beings of clay except to serve me. Service is the raison-de’ etre for the creation of humankind Are we serving? The Qur’an enjoins universal justice. Do Muslims stand up for justice for everyone? The Qur’an offers the guidance: God does not love those who are extreme. Do Muslims avoid extremism? The Qur’an is clear about the purpose of a community: You are the noble community brought forth from mankind, enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil.
How much clearer can a hadith be when, through a hadith e qudsi it declares: I was an unknown treasure, and I willed that I be known, therefore I created. Are we acquiring knowledge? Scan the Islamic world from the east to the west. How much wealth has God bestowed on the Islamic world? So much of it literally floats on black gold. How is this wealth used? How many universities in Muslim countries are ranked among the top universities, let alone the top ten, let alone the top one hundred, in the top five hundred? The answer is: zero.
Knowledge is a gift from God. It does not perish with time. Knowledge breeds compassion, understanding and love. Ignorance breeds fear. The root of Islamophobia is ignorance.
Do Muslims follow Divine guidance and live up to Divine injunctions? If not, it is time for us to apply that corrective torque to our civilization, in a sense similar to applying a corrective torque to a spacecraft or an aircraft so that it gets back to its attitude and altitude. We must apply that correction so that Islamic civilization gets back on the course of its destiny mandated by the heavens, which is to excel in knowledge and serve the Divine purpose. If you serve your brother, and your brother serves you, you serve your neighbor, and your neighbor serves you, you serve the other communities and the other communities serve you, there is peace in the world. That is the high ground we must claim. That is the correction we have to make to our civilization. That is the opportunity we have in these trying times.
Indeed, this correction is not going to happen through the advent of one individual, a superman or a hero. I believe in the ahadith about the appearance of the Mahdi (as) and the descent of Isa (as) before the End of Times. But no one knows when the Judgment Day is. It could be the next moment, or, it could be eons away. Meanwhile, we earthly mortals must strive to create a better world, for ourselves and for others. As the Hadith extols: If you are on your way to plant a tree, and you know that the Day of Judgment is tomorrow, even then, go ahead and plant the tree. In this day of Big Data Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, space travel, microbiology, atoms, neutrons, protons, DNA and microbes, the appearance of a single individual who would rectify the ills of the world is unlikely. It is not going to come from the leadership of Saudi Arabia or Turkey or Iran or Pakistan, Indonesia or Malaysia. What is more likely is the emergence of a crescent moon composed of a million points of light. That crescent moon is composed of you and I, each one anchored firmly in faith, reinforced by patience and endurance, each a reflector of knowledge that serves humankind, so that if an astronaut from space were to look at the earth from heavenly distances, he would see the earth as a crescent moon, composed of a million points of spiritual light reflecting the Light of Muhammed. That is the calling of our times. That is the corrective torque we must apply to our civilization. In the twenty-first century, as it was in the thirteenth century, there are countless Baraka Khans waiting to hear the call of the spirit.