Syedna Ali, the last of the great Muslim Caliphs, is noted for both his courage and timeless wisdom. In fact, there is a whole collection of his thoughts titled Nahj Al Balagha (Pinnacle of Eloquence). There is a line from Nahj Al Balagha that my father used to quote: “Pay attention to WHAT is being said, rather than WHO is saying it.” Put simply, it means it is the message that matters, not the medium.
These days, as the world increasingly debates about Islam and its followers, I often find myself revisiting this piece of wisdom. On the one hand, we have these spectacular acts of extremist violence around the world — the most recent ones being the Nairobi mall siege, the despicable strike on a church in Pakistan and the latest outrage targeting college students in Nigeria — all ostensibly orchestrated by people seen as Muslims.
On the other hand, there are people like us in between, the so-called sensible majority, who insist whenever something like this happens that it has nothing to do with Islam and the perpetrators of these shameful acts cannot be Muslims.
So who should the world believe? More importantly, who really represents Islam? Us or Them? As a matter of principle, I agree with Ali that one should pay attention to the message, not the messenger. But does that really happen? It is all very well for us to protest that Islam represents and stands for peace — in Arabic it literally means peace — and mercy. It is okay for us to claim that the Prophet [PBUH] was sent as a Messenger of peace and blessing to the whole of mankind. We can go on claiming for all eternity that the Quran, the last revealed divine testament according to our belief, preaches universal brotherhood and that this is the first universal charter of human rights. But do we really believe in and practice what we preach?
Whenever we make these claims, the world does not openly question them; it looks at us, the so-called believers and walking representatives of the faith. And it is not terribly impressed by what it sees. In fact, it tells itself: “Okay, if this is what Islam is all about, we’re better off without it!”
We can shout from the rooftops that Islam is a religion of peace. But the world looks at us, its followers, who are far from peaceful and hardly the walking example of this great faith. Islam celebrates life and all the beautiful things that God has gifted us by way of this amazing planet of ours. And here we are, celebrating a morbid cult of death, inventing ever new ways of blowing ourselves up.
Look at the continuing carnage in Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria and elsewhere. The combined toll of attacks in Pakistan and Kenya in the past week or so runs into hundreds. Most of the victims in Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere have been Muslims. Just as many of those perishing in the Kenyan mall attack had been. And as far as I know, they had little to do with America’s global war of terror or the current and previous leadership in all these countries, if that was the driving force behind the attack.
I have been a fierce critic of this insidious, ubiquitous war and all that it has visited on the world in the name of democracy and freedom. And I have added my voice, for what it is worth, whenever possible to the world community’s outrage over the imperiousness of the empire and its casual trampling of basic rights and shared universal ideals and values over the years. The kind of shock and awe that innocent civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq have repeatedly suffered at the hands of western forces and trigger-happy boys with toys can turn ordinary people into ruthless terrorists. One would not be too surprised if some of these suicidal men who blow themselves up with a chilling, sickening frequency came from the northwest of Pakistan. You know the drill — cause and effect ... action and reaction etc. But even if you understand why these things are happening and why some desperate men are resorting to desperate measures, taking their own lives and those of others, are these actions in anyway justifiable? Does your own suffering and victimisation, or that of your loved ones, somehow give you the right to inflict the same on others?
Perhaps those responsible for these attacks have suffered too much to care about morality and the ethical justification of the whole business. If you have lost everyone and everything you love, you are beyond caring what happens and who suffers because of your actions. But does that somehow justify or in any way lessen the seriousness of these actions?
What was the crime of those innocent people quietly in communion with their God? What have Pakistan’s Christians got to do with the West’s crimes? What did the Kenyan shoppers have to do with what the West and its African allies have been doing in Somalia? What did the young Nigerian students do to deserve such brutality at the hands of Boko Haram lunatics? Or for that matter, what did so many Muslims do to be casually massacred on a daily basis, from Pakistan to Iraq, at the hands of the defenders of faith?
More to the point, what message does this send out to the world? We may go on righteously protesting that this has nothing to do with faith. But like it or not, such reasoning does not cut it. The world judges us by who we are, not by what we claim to be. If we stand for peace and salvation, our lives must attest to it and our actions must show it. It is as simple as that.
And this is not limited to the current ideological and political conflict. There is a huge gulf between what Islam preaches and what its followers practice in almost all walks of life. The great faith insists on universal brotherhood and equality of all human beings before God. It says all human life is sacred and warns taking one innocent life is akin to killing entire humanity. But what does our conduct demonstrate?
No matter what we say in our defence or that of Islam, ultimately we are judged by our actions, not by our words. For medium is as important as the message. And many of us, by way of our actions, bring nothing but disgrace to our glorious faith. So if Islam is still the fastest growing religion today, it is not because of us but in spite of us.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on Middle East and South Asia affairs. You can follow him on twitter.com/aijazzakasyed