A group of Vidyajyoti students met with Dr Syed Zafar Mahmood for a theological interaction. Dr Mahmood is the founder president of Zakat Foundation of India [www.zakatindia.org], Interfaith Coalition for Peace [www.icpindia.org], Iqbal Academy India [www.iqbalindia.org] and God’s Grace Group of Educational Institutions. He graciously gave us time and shared with us his faith based reflection on Islam and Muslims in India.
General understanding of Islam
The conversation began with Dr Mahmood asking the audience as to what they understood as Islam. They talked about Islamic worship, to acknowledge Allah as One God, the Creator and Judge, the Only One who is worthy of worship. Every Muslim is commanded to pay attention to ‘Islam’ (submission), external acts, obeying what God has commanded; ‘Iman’ (faith): more interior, believing in what God has taught; and, Ihsan (extra-goodness) or islah (self-correction) interiorizing the divine commands so that they give shape and expression to an upright, good life– going beyond the minimum to integrate all that God has revealed and commanded into every aspect of one’s behavior.
The five pillars
The five pillars of faith include:To testify that ‘there is no god except the God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God. This is Shahada, the expression of faith. The other pillars are five prayers a day (salaat or namaz), poor tax (zakat), fasting during the month of Ramzan (saum or roza), and pilgrimage to Mecca (Haj) for those who can afford that physically & monetarily – after fulfilling their personal & family obligations. The obligatory belief includes One God, His angels, His books, His messengers, the last day and His power.
Extraordinary Conduct (Ihsaan)
Dr Mahmood noted that often the significance of Extraordinary Conduct (ihsan) is not emphasized by many Muslims even when they explain their faith to others. This is very much liked by God. He reminded his listeners of the Qur’anic verse (2:177):Virtue does not consist in whether you face towards the East or the West; virtue means believing in God, the Last day, the angels, the books and the prophets. Virtuous are those who, despite their love for it, give away their wealth to their needy relatives and to orphans and the very poor, and to travelers and those who ask [for charity], and to set slaves free, and who attend to their prayers and pay the alms, and who keep their pledges when they make them, and show patience in hardship and adversity, and in times of distress. Such are the true believers; and such are God-fearing.
Christians appreciate the Muslims’ commitment to prayer. It is truly humbling to find Muslims offer namaz in appointed times wherever they are: in trains, in train stations, hospitals, and in shops. They also value their dedication to fasting during the month of Ramzan and paying zakat and feeding poor. Such loyalty in worship is quite impressive.
However, most Christians know little about the attitude with which Muslims are expected to prepare for worship and the obligation of right conduct that is demanded of them. We were very happy to hear these dimensions of faith from Dr Mahmood. We were certainly inspired and challenged by these three aspects of Muslim prayer. It is certainly enriching for a Christian to watch Muslims who give witness to and practice their faith.
This invites a Christian to be deeply aware of the mystery of Christian worship that beckons a worshiper for an actual encounter with God, a personal fellowship and relationship with the One God both Christians and Muslims worship. Christians believe that Jesus the Messiah invites Christians to worship this one God as our loving father in heaven. Christians are invited to worship God as Father and participate in His love and Grace through Jesus the Messiah.
Rahman and Rahim
Dr Mahmood made special mention of ‘Rahman’ and ‘Rahim’, which are Allah’s names reflecting His qualities encompassing various dimensions of His mercy. As Rahman, God grants a favour that is prayed for; as Rahim, He bestows a blessing even if it is not asked for. Both these words are derived from the basic 3-letter Arabic root RHM that means to show mercy. Another Arabic word used un Quran is ‘Rahm’ that literally means mother’s womb. Its plural ‘Arhaam’ indicates the set of one’s relatives.
Neighborhood and the Extended Family
Dr Mahmood explained that as a Quranic term Arhaam means the near and far relatives of a human being. The believer is under obligation to be proactively good to all of them. Dr Mahmood also mentioned a couple of other basic concepts of Islam as follows. According to the Quran (11.7) God’s purpose of creating humanity is to test as to who among the human beings are more serviceable to the fellow creatures. When the Prophet was asked by his companions as t how much should they dedicate for God’s pleasure, God revealed (2.219) to him to tell them that they should dedicate to God (the poor & needy) whatever they have that is beyond their need. Likewise, God has ordained that the wealth within the society should keep on circulating so that it does not get concentrated among the rich alone (59.7). Twin canvases have been prescribed for doing good deeds namely one’s Extended Family (Zawil Arhaam) and one’s neighborhood (Al-jaar). On these two canvases, Dr Mahmood’s articles in Speaking Tree, Times of India can be read at.
Similarity with Christianity
A Christian student can recognize that the Hebrew word raham that refers to the WOMB (of God who is also motherly). The present writer mentioned this conversation to Prof Aloysius Pieris SJ a noted theologian he responded with great appreciation for such conversation saying: “ … and the expression El-rahum, translated as God of mercy or merciful God, literally alludes to God’s WOMB-LOVE and in place God complains against Ephraim and would punish him (Israel) but her womb does not allow it.
Obviously this seems to bind Muslim and Christians together since the deep sense of love is a common attribution, which we both believe in, God reveals in both scriptures. Of course the consequences of this discovery should result in merciful womb-love in us (both Christians and Muslims) with regard to those of other faiths, those who harm us, those who do not agree with us. If Christians had practiced this womb-love towards Jews and Muslims in the early centuries, Christianity would have been more credible than it is today”.
Sachar Committee – Current Muslim status in India
Our conversation with Dr Mahmood then turned towards the report on “Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India”. This report was prepared by the Prime Minister’s High Level Committee constituted vide PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) Notification dated 9 March 2005. The Report was submitted on 17 November 2006. Since the high level committee was headed by Justice Rajindar Sachar, this report is generally known as Sachar Committee Report (SCR). Dr Mahmood, then a Commissioner &Joint Secretary to the Government of India, was appointed as Officer on Special Duty to get the report prepared and done.
One of the members of the Christian delegation asked him about SCR. Dr Mahmood responded by saying that SCR highlighted the fact that the nation has failed to ensure proportional participation in the governance for its largest minority group. The fact is that though Muslims comprise 13.4% of the national population, their representation in government jobs is merely 4.9% and even that mostly at lower levels. The reason, the Report draws our attention to, is that Muslims across the country have less access to educational facilities, particularly higher education. The large deficit in education and employment has impoverished Muslim masses. Also there is a general perception of bias against Muslims.
It is worth noting that before Independence the Muslim royalty did not treat the Muslim masses any better and after Independence Muslim masses were victims of benign or deliberate neglect. It will be helpful here to understand caste dynamics present among the Muslims. Though Muslims regard Ummah, their inter se brotherhood, as an important religious value, there are cultural limits to it in India. As the Indian society is caste ridden Muslims in India too are caste ridden. Consequently, it can be said that there are three layers among Indian Muslims: while the Ashraaf remain among Muslims in the upper layer like the upper Hindu castes, the Ajlaaf are the counterparts of the Hindu OBCs where as the Arzaalremain at the bottom of the hierarchy like scheduled castes. The Muslim politicians too, while eager to take up emotive identity related issues, are not keen on the real socio-economic issues of the community. The Muslim clergy, the Ulema are also focused on identity related issues and not on socio-economic issues. Anti Muslim pogroms launched by Hindu chauvinist groups have devastated Muslim owned business over the years. While the Muslims are targeted during the riots, they are discriminated against during the post-riot scenario. Harsh Mandar’s report of 2011, “Promises to Keep” says that the Government and its representatives neglect Muslim localities and do not adequately invest in infrastructure in those areas. Dr Mahmood informed that the SCR has strongly recommended that the diversity in population should also reflect in national and state government structures.
Dr Mahmood recapitulated vital suggestions made by the Sachar Committee: Enhance Muslim participation in Governance, nominate Muslims in local level bodies, enhance diversity, evolve a transparent diversity index, link incentives for educational institutions, private sector, builders etc. with diversity index, facilitate creation of common public spaces for interaction among Socio-Religious Communities, enhance diversity in work, educational and residential spaces. He also highlighted the identity, security and equity related issues of Muslims in India. Above all, SCR recommended that the faulty allocation of Muslim predominant parliamentary & assembly constituencies as reserved for SCs even though there is very low SC population there, should be referred to the Delimitation Commission for timely removal of these anomalies. That would restore justice to Muslims that has been denied to them for more than six decades – since 1952.
Status of women
Dr Mahmood also fielded questions on Muslim women. He stressed that the perception of self-imposed restrictions on Muslim women today are neither based on the teachings of the Qur’an nor the prophetic traditions. They are local cultural elements that entered into Islam as practiced in India. His attention was drawn to the critical Quranic provision “men have a rank above women” (2: 228). Some orientalists say that this verse indicates the superiority of the male over female. Dr Mahmood clarified that this verse only documents what the whole world has always known and will keep on knowing till the world lasts. That is, because of her comparative natural frailty and weakness, woman is not as physically strong as the man and, hence, he has greater responsibility to protect the woman. Much later Shakespeare reaffirmed this through his universally appreciated statement: ‘frailty thy name is woman’. So much so that the entire female gender is accepted to be the ‘weaker sex’.
Scriptural allusions clarified
The Christian friends in conversation with Dr Mahmood asked how to understand the Qur’anic text that deals with belief and ethics that are open to two different interpretations. As per verse 2: 62, the believers – the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans – all those who believe in God and the last Day and do good deeds – will be rewarded by their Lord; they shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve. Another verse 5: 82says: The nearest in affection to them are those who say, ‘We are Christians’.That show Christians in a positive light. Whereas 9:29 says: Fight those among the people of the Book who believe neither in God, nor in the Last Day, nor hold as unlawful what God and His Messenger have declared to be unlawful, nor follow the true religion – until they pay tax willingly and agree to submit. In response, Dr Mahmood explained that here Quran really says that when, despite their claim to belong to the People of the Book, they were hostile towards Islam and Muslims, and collaborated against them with the polytheists, God allowed the Muslim state to fight against them. However, once the state had subdued them, it should accord them full protection of all their civic rights and religious freedom. Moreover, the People of the Book were exempted from military service and fighting with the enemies; this was something for which Muslim citizens were responsible. Muslim citizens also had to pay the Zakat, the prescribed alms-due. In place of the Zakat, the non-Muslim citizens of the Muslim state (the protected people) were charged with the payment of the jizyah, which was the tax of protection and exemption from military service. It should be noted here that only a Muslim state could declare and carry out war; no Muslim individual or group had the right or authority to do this.
It was also brought to the attention of Dr Mahmood that another Quranic text confuses the reader with two interpretations. Verse 5: 34 says: We prescribed for them in (the Torah): a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and a wound for a wound. But, if anyone forgoes it, this shall be for him an expiation. This verse allows a believer who has suffered injustice to take revenge but also adds that to forgo one’s right to retribution will bring atonement for one’s sins.
Responding to this question Dr. Mahmood told his listeners that retaliation is based on absolute equality of rights – whether the rights are those of the head of the state or a common citizen, the richest or the poorest, the noblest of people or the most common of them – and, therefore, is absolutely just. This is why the Quran declares that there is life for people in retaliation (2: 179). As retaliation is based on justice and absolute equality, only the injuries for which an exact retaliation is possible can fall under the system of retaliation. For this reason, as it would be risky to retaliate for a broken bone or injury to the skin, such injuries are punishable by indemnification.
Dr Mahmood added that although retaliation means absolute justice and equality, it is not good in itself though it is aimed at securing basic individual rights and providing compensation for the violation of the same. So, one whose rights have been violated can either demand retaliation as a legal right or, raising himself or herself into a higher orbit of ideal conduct, forgo that right. This forgiving is included in the category of the Islamic ideal of ‘Ihsan’. Quran encourages people to forgo retaliation and gives the glad tiding that a person who forgoes the right of retaliation has done a good deed which will atone for one’s sins, in proportion of the greatness of the right that has been forgone. For example, a person who saves the life of another shall be considered as having saved the lives of all humankind; in the same spirit, if a person has the right to demand retaliation for a murder but forgoes it, the person will gain great reward as if he or she had saved the whole of humankind; thus he or she will have his or her sins forgiven to that extent.
It was very inspiring to listen to Dr Mahmood. One of the Christian participants thanked Dr Mahmood for his giving time to share the light of his faith that brought to them a new understanding of Muslims and Islam in India and the world. She praised the depth of spirituality of Dr Mahmood that reflected his commitment to Faith and his duty towards neighbors. The interaction was extremely fruitful.