As much as the world, and particularly the English-speaking world oriented in Western customs, considers the evident barbarism ravaging all the lands west of India and east of Israel, we sometimes forget that things were not always this way. A simple way of re-examining the premise is to consider the evolution of poetry across the Islamic world.
In my travels, I have come across multiple examples of the sheer beauty evoked in this poetry; but perhaps more pertinently the signature style of cynical albeit good-natured humour underpinning this poetry. A few years ago, a dear friend forwarded to me a series of couplets that explained the Islamic quandary against alcohol (the Quran prohibits the consumption of alcohol by all the faithful) but in the nature of a fictitious exchange between great poets.
I am not familiar with these languages (mainly Urdu and Persian – or Dari as it is referred to), so it is possible there are multiple mistakes; even so the exchanges with the translations provided were most enlightening and entertaining:
Ghalib Sharab Peene De Masjid Mein Beth Ker,
Ya Wo Jagah Bata Jahan Khuda Nahi
(the poet Ghalib – Allow me to drink alcohol sitting in this mosque, or tell me the place where there is no God)
Response from Iqbal Masjid Khuda Ka Ghar Hai Peene Ki Jagah Nahi,
Kafir K Dil Mein Ja Wahan Khuda Nahi
(Pakistan’s national poet Iqbal responds: the mosque is house of God not a drinking place, go to the hearts of infidels where there is no God)
This elicits a response from Faraz Kafir K Dil Se Ayah On Ye Dekh Ker Faraz,
Khuda Mojood Hai Wahan Per Usay Pata Nahi
(Faraz clarifies: I have been and seen the hearts of the infidels, God lives there but they know it not)
And on this debate goes on, at least on the internet with others posting various couplets explaining one point of view or the other. Truly staggering is the sheer weight of opinions, but also the inherent beauty of the language itself. This online debate featured primarily Urdu poetry, but if it had extended to Persian then Khayyam’s Rubaiyat would also have featured. A favourite stanza from Fitzgerald’s quatrain XI in his first edition (and XII in his 5th edition):
Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
But why all the fuss about alcohol, and why does it matter for Islam today? From my viewpoint at least, the debate over alcohol represents a wider discussion on the place of Muslims within Western societies, more so when we consider the naturalized citizens within Europe and the US who hail from traditional Muslim backgrounds.
For avoidance of doubt, I am not discussing here the individual’s abstinence from alcohol for that is very much a personal choice everyone is entitled to, but rather the efforts by various organizations claiming to represent Islamic interests who try for wider social bans in the countries where the communities have moved to.
There have been more than enough sensational headlines about Muslim communities – and they apparently do have a habit of congregating or concentrating in specific city areas – attempting to enforce sharia laws particularly with respect to the sale and consumption of alcohol in these areas. I am not going to refer to any specific headlines, but suffice to say that there have been more than enough of those in the past few years to warrant a general change in public perception towards Muslim communities in Western countries from tolerance to either fear or hostility. In turn, these emotions have fuelled the rise of far-right or anti-immigrant political parties in countries such as the UK, Netherlands and France.
From personal experience, I can certainly relate to the assimilation of Muslim communities into their adopted homes. Many a Frenchman of Algerian descent has sat across and broken bread with me (and some have even quaffed wine). I cannot recall any finger-wagging about French culture in these meetings, even when we examined a number of related topics such as the American invasion of Iraq which the French President Chirac refused to join.
When the horrific attacks on Charlie Hebdo offices occurred in January this year, I spoke to a few of my French friends including a number of Muslim ones. None provided any defence of the attackers, and all were equal in condemning the attackers – but very specifically only the attackers, not the wider Muslim community in France. They saw the terrorists as agent provocateurs attempting to sabotage the position of French Muslims, not the defenders of Islam they pretended to be. Ironically, others including Garry Trudeau picked up this line of argument about “socially responsive humour” – something that I wrote about subsequently.
There is thus overwhelming evidence that Muslims not only adapt well to their adopted lands, but also internally have a wide body of work across prose and poetry with which to engage in constructive debate on the various aspects of their own religion.
Sadly though, this picture isn’t supported in the real world where we tend to objectify the extremes and spare little thought to the middle ground. Within Islam itself, the forces of unquestioning loyalty to the writings in the Quran are almost exclusively funded by the Wahhabi / Salafi school of thought that is funded by the Saudi royal family. This group forms the intellectual underpinnings of various terrorist organizations including the Islamic State and al-Qaeda even if ironically those organizations seek to overthrow the same Saudi royal family – ‘As you sow, you reap’ and all that.
The travails of the Saudi royal family though are of little consequence to me; as an energy consumer in the rest of the world I am fairly neutral about buying from a Russian or a Saudi, whatever they may represent is of little consequence within the confines of my car’s fuel tank.
Then again, stifling dissent or even discussion on the wider principles of Islam – that becomes everyone’s business especially when Muslim communities emerge from immigrant populations: here, the forces unleashed by Wahhabi / Salafi schools are at their most pernicious. The effects are obvious not just in terms of young French or English Muslims joining the IS movement but also in terms of lower standards of public debate within the community on the guiding principles. Even as the communities enjoy various new freedoms – democracy, human rights, welfare payments, healthcare – these are often exported back to their countries of origin. That is the reason counter-forces – such as those seeking to impose sharia laws in East London say – have deleterious and long-term consequences both on the immigrant population who are quickly sidelined by the host population but also on the potentially positive effects that these immigrants in their countries of origin.
Thus, pluralism in immigrant Muslim populations across the West may well turn out to be the key intellectual battleground of our age.
Looking at the range of political reactions so far in terms of groupings, from last month’s elections in the UK to the ongoing debates in France and the Netherlands as well as the US ahead of its elections next year; I cannot but feel a large degree of despondency.
- Left-wing parties tend to pander to Islamic leaders
- Right-wing parties have tended to demonize the communities
- Within this continuum you also have the loony left (George Galloway and his Respect Party which thankfully lost in the UK come to mind) as well as the rabid right (Geert Wilders and others of his ilk)
- There is virtually no political party whose leaders engaged immigrant communities on the subjects of internal reform; indeed none even encouraged debate within the communities as they appeared too scared of losing marginal votes that could spell the difference between winning and losing a constituency
Hence the despondency – even as courageous individuals inside the community try to stoke the forces of debate, politicians remain blissfully indifferent in a battle that is actually quite critical for the long-term stability of their own countries. My suggestion to them is that if you cannot do it with prose, at least try with poetry as the Urdu poets have done. Engage, open up, debate and discuss. When all else fails, invite the dissidents for a drink, quoting them Ghalib once again:
Umar bhar ‘Ghalib’ yahi Bhool karta Raha,
Dhool Chehre pe Thi, aur aina saaf karta raha….!
(Through his life Ghalib repeated the same mistake, the dirt was on his face and yet he kept cleaning the mirror)
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