When I was 10 years old, I asked my Islamic Studies teacher, then a mandatory course in Pakistani secondary schools, a question.
“Why if on the day of judgement, we realize that Islam was wrong, and some other religion was right?”
Her answer “Islam was the last of all Abrahamic religions. It was perfected, fixing the loopholes in other religions. It is complete, and thus cannot be wrong”
I felt silent for a few seconds, but then asked a follow up question.
“But what about children who are born in non-Muslim families. What’s their fault? Isn’t it unfair that we are born into the right faith from day one, whereas the others are born into the wrong faith from day one?”
She did not reply.
That was the first of many moments in life where questions about Islam were left either un-answered or poorly answered.
Understanding the Islamic faith, like virtually all other religions, small or big, takes time. Because religious belief is essentially theoretical in nature, it is open to different forms of interpretation. For some, the belief becomes an active part of their lives, a manual that guides them every single day. For others, not so much.
From being completely apolitical during my teenage years, to becoming an erratic Marxist later, the impact of Islam on my life has been minimal. Despite the indifference to practicing the religion, reading about the faith to get answers and discussing the Islamic belief system, has always fascinated me. What has fascinated me further is the relationship of left-wing politics with the Islamic faith.
While stating that left-wing politics promotes an anti-religion sentiment might be untrue, its relationship with the Islamic Faith, a religion that does not exactly promote a secular lifestyle, is contradictory.
One of the criticisms of left-wing politics in the western world is the apparent soft approach towards Islamic Radicalism, and the fact that a person speaking out against Islam in any form or fashion being branded Islamophobic. Despite this, even within the left, there are sections that vehemently speak out against Islam and its apparent rigid nature.
Unfortunately, both sides, the ones that defend Islam and the ones who speak out against it, are doing this debate a disservice.
The Islamic faith, like all other religions, is not the absolute bearer of truth. There are areas within the Islamic Faith that are inspiring, and should be followed. Likewise, there are other areas that should be denounced.
On the positive side, Islam’s focus on economic equality is brilliant.
Zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam, is meant to discourage the hoarding of capital and encourage charitable giving instead. Not only is Zakat obligatory on Muslims who have the required financial resources, it promotes a more equitable redistribution of wealth and fosters a sense of solidarity in society. The first Muslim Caliph Abu Bakr introduced a guaranteed minimum standard of income, or in others words, the modern minimum wage.
The significance of a minimum wage cannot be highlighted enough. Not only does a respectable minimum wage make perfect sense in a society that desires the well-being of its inhabitants, research has proved that a minimum wage helps reduce labour turnover and improve organisational efficiency, with just a slight, if any, rise in costs. This debunks the common myth that a minimum wage is not economically viable since it is a burden on the employer.
While the Caliph Abu Bakr introduced the concept of a minimum wage, the concepts of welfare and pension were incorporated in Islamic Law during the same time too. Caliph Umar, who succeeded Abu Bakr, introduced multiple welfare programs during his time. Economic equality was extended to everyone, including Umar himself. He lived an extremely simple life, and set limits on the wealth for public officials, so the common man and governors were indistinguishable. Umar also introduced Social Security which included Unemployment Insurance, a concept which did not begin in the western world much later, retirement pensions, Waqf ( a charitable trust were wealth from the individual or the few to a social collective ownership) and food rationing – all policies geared towards achieving economic equality in society, which is a core feature of almost all of left-wing politics. These policies continued into the time of the next two Caliphs, Uthman and Ali, essentially making Islam’s Rashidun Caliphate ( the collective term used for the first four Muslim Caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali ) the world’s first major welfare state.
On the negative side, Islam’s record on issues related to women and reaction to critique of ideology, is extremely deplorable.
While the extreme oppression of women in Islam, where they apparently have the same rights as a piece of rock, is based on fabrication passed on through misinformed preachers over the years with nothing to do with actual Islamic scripture, the fact remains that women and men, even during the best of times, are not treated as equals. The interpretation of Islamic teaching, regardless of the source, is extremely patriarchal in nature.
Even though the concept of Purdah (female seclusion), pre-dates Islam as it was practiced among the Druze, Christian, and Jewish communities in the Middle East, it has become an active part of Islam. A a Muslim woman is prohibited from marrying a non-muslim man, whereas a muslim man is permitted to marry a non-muslim woman. Muslim women are also not permitted to lead a mixed gender prayer congregation, and they do not have the right of verbal divorce from a marriage, even though men do. Arguments pointing out to leaders such as Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and Sheikh Hasina in Banglaesh as proof of the progressive status of women in Islam are weak, since both women came into power courtesy of strong political dynasties.
Islam’s stance on minority rights and critique of ideology is even weaker, since converting to another religion is punishable by faith. There is absolutely no space for critique of Quran, Prophet Muhammad or Islamic Ideology in general, since it all falls under blasphemy.
In short, the world is not black and white, and religion is no different. The Islamic Faith exhibits both positive and negative sides. It is pertinent to highlight the positive side, but similarly it is also vital to criticize the negative side so these grave shortcomings can be addressed, and if at possible, fixed. While a broader understanding of Islam is critical in order to separate the positive from the negative, the left must not allow itself to take a narrow approach on such a critical issue.