Muslims praying for peace in a mosque in Kattankudy - AFP
The Easter Sunday terror attacks have opened the Pandora’s Box of questions on various aspects of Islam, its teachings and commands, amid an avalanche of Islamophobia, hate speech, distrust and scorn.
When the 9/11 terror attacks happened, a similar wave of Islamophobia swept the United States and the Americans began to ask questions about Islam and its alleged association with violence. Some white supremacists went to the extent of promoting nuking the Muslims.
In Sri Lanka’s mainstream and social media, a topic that was being discussed with much interest and the ridicule it rightly deserved is the reward of 72 virgins for the killers of hundreds of innocent people, including children. Does Islam preach this? Religious scholars will not be able to answer this question. The best they could say is that the Quran, the primary source of Islamic teachings, does not say anything about 72 virgins. True, it is not found in the Quran, which, the Muslims believe, is a compilation of the messages the Prophet received from God throughout his 23-year ministry, during which he and his followers suffered persecution, ostracisation, attacks and exile.
But the promise of 72 virgins is found in a book of Hadeeth, a term that refers to the sayings of the prophet and his traditions. Some Ulemas or religious preachers will not have the intellectual courage to admit this. This is because they still believe that Sunni Islam’s six main Hadeeth books were compiled by ‘infallible’ imams, even after modern-day Hadeeth scholars have dismissed thousands of ahadeeth -- plural of hadeeth -- as fake or falsely attributed to the prophet. The so-called reward of 72 virgins is found in a hadeeth book called Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, also known as Sunan al-Tirmidhi. Notwithstanding the presence of fake ahadeeth, both the Sunni and Shiite streams have their own canons. The Sunnis have six and the Shiites two.
It must be said here that in Islamic history, one of the biggest scandals is the hadeeth literature. Islam’s first four Caliphs, who assumed leadership of the Muslim community after the prophet’s death, opposed attempts to compile the sayings of the prophet.
The first to compile a book of hadeeth was Imam Bukhari, who was born in Bukhara in Uzbekistan some 200 years after the prophet had passed away. By this time, Islam had been highly politicized with rulers misusing and misinterpreting religious teachings to consolidate their hold on power.
From the people who he met, during his 16-year travel through the Arab-Persian region, Imam Bukhari began collecting the sayings correctly or falsely attributed to the prophet. The process began when he was only 16. He collected some 600,000 ahadeeth and, sifting through this large volume, he selected only about 7,000. His students claimed the selection was made on strict criteria such as the reliability of the chain of narrators or Isnad which usually goes all the way to the time of the prophet. Imam Bukhari’s compilation came to the public domain through a disciple’s disciple, after his death.
"The so-called reward of 72 virgins is found in a hadeeth book called Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, also known as Sunan al-Tirmidhi"
Following Imam Bukhari, several Hadeeth collectors appeared. They claimed they adopted a similar method to select or reject the sayings attributed to the prophet. Today, the hadeeth literature is analyse by intellectuals who say some ahadeeth are fake and incompatible with the Quran. An enlightened and famous hadeeth scholar was Sheik Muhammad Nasir-ud-Dīn al-Albani , who died in 1999 in Jordan. He opposed extremism and did not associate himself with any school of thought.
He spent his scholarly life identifying thousands of fake ahadeeth found in the so-called canons. The learned sheikh had classified the hadeeth on 72 virgins as ‘Munkar’ which means it needs to be denounced. Hadeeth scholars acknowledge that fake ahadeeth were the creation of the Zanadiqah or the heretics, sectarian fanatics, favour seekers, storytellers, ignorant ascetics and hyper-zealous preachers.
Using modern research methodology, Muslim academics have deducted that some ahadeeth do not conform to the text and the spirit of the Quran while some contradict each other. For instance, they point out that hadeeth literature about the punishment in the grave after one’s death was contrary to the Quranic teachings, just as the carnal claim of 72 houris for the martyr. It needs to be stressed here that, according to the Quran, those who kill innocent people while killing themselves are not martyrs, but serial killers of humanity as a whole. Suicide bombing is a late 20th century innovation or bid’a and it needs to be rooted out from Islam, though a handful of theologians have taken pains to endorse it strictly in the context of a fight against an occupying force or an invading army.
Given the damage ISIS and its followers have caused to Islam by their un-Islamic acts, the priority for Muslim theologians today is to gear Islamic learning towards intellectualism and rational thinking. Intellectualism demands respect for opposing views and ideas, while reason or rational thinking will enable to weed out false ahadeeth, such as the myth about the 72 virgins.
Rational thinking and intellectualism are not new to Islam. Described as the Mutazila or the rational school of Islamic theology, it flourished from the 8th to the 10th century in Iraq, the seat of the Abbasid caliphate. It was during this period that the Muslim world reached the peak of learning, making major strides in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, law, philosophy and literature. The fall began with the emergence of the Ash’ari theology, named after its founder Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari. It grew as a counterforce to the Mutazila and soon dominated Sunni Islam, producing in its wake Jihadi Imams such as Ibn Taymiyyah, Abdul Wahab and Syed Kutub. These imams’ teachings have become a manual for modern day terror groups such as ISIS.
To address the multiple problems the Muslims of this country face, Mainstream Muslim scholars, both religious and academic, representing different groups, need to unite to bring about a progressive Islamic theology based on the rationalist and traditionalist foundations. This is perfectly in tune with the spirit of Islam.
In the wake of the Easter Sunday massacres, the need to de-radicalise those who are romanticizing with a dangerous and inhuman suicide ideology has become not only a security priority but also a religious responsibility upon every right-minded Muslim theologian and civic-conscious Muslim in Sri Lanka. In Singapore, I understand, the deradicalisation process is carried out with the help of local Muslim scholars. Singapore’s state policy and surveillance systems aimed at communal harmony have also helped that nation to curb hate speech, inflammatory preaching and avert terror attacks.