Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Faith of Interfaith


Muslims and Christians worked together against Apartheid.
Bishop Desmond Tutu and Shaikh Nazeem Mohamed, 1989.

THE other day a listener rebuked me on the station’s SMS line for expressing disgust that a local nashid group had been pulled off stage at a festival in Gauteng, in spite of the group having a contract from a Muslim impresario to perform at the event.

Apparently it was the old chestnut of music being forbidden, and some Mother Grundy’s raising enough of a ruckus to intimidate the event organisers into cancelling the performance.

However, the SMS message bearer had tackled me on another matter: didn’t I know, he said in the way of conspiracy, that these people (the nashid group) encouraged inter-faith marriages?  Didn’t I know that I was associating with haraam?

I must admit that I was perturbed, not about the personal criticism, but rather the gross insensitivity of the comment. The nashid group’s vocalist’s wife – a classical musician of international renown – has a Christian name, and I felt that the SMS was in extraordinary bad taste.

I can vouch for this person’s integrity and could only assume that the message bearer had, for some reason, been too angry to reason with himself. Had he realised, that as he had hammered out his SMS, how harsh and hostile his words were?

I feel I have to rebuke my detractor, not only on the issue of his rank bad manners, but on the fact that I’ve seen the nashid group’s subtle arrangements soften many hearts towards Allah – many more than those who scream haraam in SMS’s.  

One just has to wonder when we’ll fully realise the impact of such outbursts; unconsidered statements that ignore the vast body of Islamic studies on the issues concerned. It’s precisely this narrow-mindedness  that gives fruit to Islamophobic stereotype.

Part of the SMS correspondent’s beef could also have been that the nashid group has performed on interfaith platforms, another issue that gets up the noses of our ghetto Orientalists. For them interfaith is a necessary evil at best, and a crisis of unbelief at worst.

I always think it’s a great pity that our contemporary ills of ignorance and fundamentalism have blinded us to the inclusive – as opposed to exclusive – compassion of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and the fact that he is, as Qur’an says, “a mercy for all …”.   

This is further reinforced by the Qur’anic verses that are preceded by: “O mankind!” This imperative is a Merciful God talking to all of humanity, a human collective that He loves. His concern is for everybody, for all living beings.

And this is why I would venture that Islam is logically a faith of interfaith. Jibril, the Messenger Angel, carried the message of the Divine Pen to a prophet called Muhammad (SAW) for all peoples, for all beings and for all times. 

In fact, the historical evidence is so overwhelming that Islam is a Deen – a way of being that acknowledges the cross-pollination of Adam, Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and Jesus (as)  – that to deny it would be foolish.

Those who so loudly disparage interfaith need to remind find themselves, that on serious investigation, they will find themselves from the DNA of those who embraced Islam from other cultures and beliefs.

Madinah, the city to which the Prophet (SAW) migrated to escape Quraish oppression in Makkah, became the classical locus of faith drawing numbers into Islam from interfaith. For if people of other faiths had not embraced the Deen at the at the hands of the Prophet (SAW), there would have been no Islam.

Even before then, interfaith interaction had come into play. A group of Muslims had fled to Abyssinia where a Christian king, the Negus, had sheltered them. And the great Sayyidina ‘Umar, destined to be a Caliph, had been a polytheist when he’d set out to confront the Prophet (SAW).

If there’d been no interfaith tolerance in Madinah the Prophet (SAW) would not have attracted giants of Islam such as Suhail the Roman (a polytheist), Salman al-Farsi (a Persian Zoroastrian) and Ka’b al-Ahbar (an Arab Jew).

Even Islam’s concept of communal endowment, or waqf, has its origins in interfaith association. The Rabbi Mukhairiq from the Tha’alaba tribe, who fought with the Muslims at Uhud, made the Prophet (SAW) his heir. He died in battle and his property was made waqf.

Tamim ad-Dari, who as a Christian on his way to Madinah sold his camel to buy seven lamps for the mosque, was granted the lands of Hebron. Ad-Dari, who became Muslim, was only one of a handful of scholars (together with Imam Abu Hanifah) who could recite the 114 chapters of the Qur’an in one prayer cycle.

The point is that the Prophet (SAW) never spurned anyone who sought his company, dining at the tables of Christians and Jews, meeting their delegations and discussing important matters with them. A pillar in Madinah’s mosque, the Pillar of the Delegates, even commemorates this.

The Prophet (SAW) also married women of other faiths. How many of us remember that the Prophet’s (SAW) wife, Safiyyah, was a Jewess and that his son Ibrahim was born to Maria the Copt?

This supports the injunction that Muslim men can marry women of the Torah and Gospel. Arguing the greater sanctity of previous eras to oppose this, as some do, is baseless nonsense.

Of course, there will be those who will argue that the Qur’an warns about association and describes, in detail, the categories of those who try to subvert belief. But that is not to understand the specificity (khass) of those verses, which deal expressly with those who are antagonistic.

That is why Islam was the first civilisation to develop legislation dealing with the rights of those minorities under rule its rule. These people, the dhimmi, would enjoy the rights to worship, the rights to property and the rights to be self-governed on matters such as marriage and inheritance.

But to decry and debase those who are friendly to us, as my SMS critic has done through his misguided anger, is to deny our very own humanity. Those not hostile to Islam, as the Prophet (SAW) showed throughout his life, have to enjoy dignity and honour.