Alternative interpretations

EducationWorld July 2019 | Books

Searching for a King — Muslim Non-Violence & the Future of Islam, Jeffry R. Halverson, Potomac Books; Rs.1,622; 172pp

Books reviewWhether one likes it or not, and irrespective of the origins and causes, it is a fact that Islam is increasingly being associated with violence worldwide. In this timely book, Jeffry Halverson, an Islamic Studies scholar and historian of religions, currently teaching at Arizona State University, USA, persuasively argues for a different narrative of Islam, based on a commitment to non-violence. Recent icons of non-violent activism, such as Martin Luther King Jr. (which explains the word ‘King’ in the book’s title) and Mahatma Gandhi, have parallels within the global Muslim community, says Halverson even though they are not as widely known as they should be.

Halverson deplores the widespread belief that Islam is intimately connected with violence as a means of resolving grievances. Although this is not a Muslim-specific phenomenon, he admits that a culture of violence is widely prevalent in most Islamic countries and communities to redress socio-political grievances and catalyse socio-economic reforms.

But according to him the belief that Islam propounds violence is a “simplistic farce”. “It is a form of false consciousness. The perpetrators of violence are actually enacting the source of their own discontent as an erroneous means to alleviate it.” Halverson refers to the terrible destruction that Muslim societies themselves have experienced as a result of war and atrocities in the name of Islam.

For the negative global image of Islam, the author squarely blames the clergy. All religions, he explains, are interpreted by clerics according to their own subjective and contextual needs and interests. There is no uniform interpretation of a religious text, and all interpretations are divergent. Consequently, there always will be contending explanations supporting rival conclusions. This means that just as some might interpret a religious text to advocate violence, others might interpret the same text to propagate the contrary. “Violence is found in the sacred texts of nearly all religions; it simply depends on where one looks,” he says.

To amplify his interpretation hypothesis, Halverson cites the diverse ways in which the word ‘jihad’ is differently read by extremists and advocates of Islamic non-violence. While it is popularly interpreted as punitive violence and/or armed conflict against infidels and unbelievers, others define it as an internal struggle to develop the virtues of charity, equality and compassion to counter the radical discourse of jihad, says the author of this thought-provoking polemic.

The unique proposition of this book is that it demonstrates that the narrative of non-violence is available to Muslims within their own religious traditions and heritage. Halverson presents his case for the compatibility of Islam and non-violence by citing the teachings of five modern Muslim champions of peace from different parts of the world. All of them believe, or believed that passive non-violence is “fully compatible with the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad,” writes Halverson.

One of the most remarkable advocates of non-violence for effective socio-political transformation was Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1987), the Pathan leader who was a close and valued colleague of Mahatma Gandhi. Halverson provides interesting glimpses into the life and worldview of the ‘Frontier Gandhi’, who, while strongly rooted in Islamic traditions, enthusiastically embraced people of other faiths and believed that non-militant means were the only appropriate way to solve complex socio-political conflicts.

Another advocate of Islamic non-violence Halverson profiles is Shaykh Jawdat Saeed. An alumnus of the Al-Azhar University, Cairo, a respected centre for Sunni Islamic studies, Saeed has extensively critiqued politics-centric interpretations of Islam and investigated non-violence within it. According to Saeed, manipulation of the jihad concept “has probably caused more harm to Muslims than any other malpractice”. Therefore, he says that those who justify coercion and bloodshed in the cause of Islam “must be quelled with any possible means,” not only because they are terrorists, but because “they are also trying to distort and corrupt Islam”.

Yet another exemplar upheld by Halverson is the late Muhammad ibn Mahdi Hussaini al-Shirazi (1928-2001). Born in Najaf, Iraq, into a family of Shia religious scholars, Al-Shirazi preached that “just as the soul is stronger than the body, so too is non-violence, since it is the weapon of the soul, and so it is more powerful than the weapon of the body, which is made of matter”. In his discourses he narrated stories of early Muslims who personified non-violent resistance to oppression. In response to critics who highlight the battles fought by Prophet Mohammed and the military campaigns of his successors, al-Shirazi explains them as the “lesser of two evils”, comparing them to “when a patient reluctantly agrees to undergo a surgical operation to amputate a limb in order to prevent greater harm to his body and health”.

Nevertheless, during his ministry al Shirazi differentiated between the days of the Prophet and the contemporary age of nuclear Armageddon and climate change in which harmony and cooperation are more important than ever. He preached that non-violence is more than simply non-aggression. ‘And if you forgive, it is closest to righteousness.’

In the preface to this enlightening discourse, Halverson expresses hope that his book will help foster greater discussion and awareness among Muslims about the power of non-violence and its Muslim champions. That may go a long way in countering violence in Muslim societies and in the world more generally, while prompting Muslims and others to appreciate the rich possibilities inherent in the Islamic tradition of peace and goodwill as a path to conflict resolution. In researching and writing this alternative interpretation, Halverson has done Islam and its decent, law-abiding and compassionate adherents a great service.

Roshan Shah

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