The Islam of terrifying fear
I read a disturbing story in the New York Times: In a village in eastern Punjab Pakistan, Anwar Ali, a fifteen-year-old boy, cut his own hand. Because he was so terrified that it was this doomed hand that caused him to “blaspheme” against his beloved Prophet Muhammad.
Is the longer version of the story, Anwar, the son of a poor laborer, was frequenting the local mosque. One night, imam Shabir Ahmad, made a little test for his young flock. Before the prayers, he asked, “Who does NOT love the Prophet Muhammad?” Poor Anwar just misunderstood the question. He thought it was about who loved the prophet. Hence, he enthusiastically raised his hand, only to realize in a second that he was the only one to do so. Embarrassedly, he put the hand down.
But the imam did not let him go, let alone comfort him. No, the fierce cleric rather screamed at the little Anwar, calling him “blasphemer.” Many others in the crowd reportedly also did so, yelling “Don’t you love your prophet?”
The poor boy fled in disgrace. It was this disgrace and fear, apparently, that made him chop his own hand that very night. Then he took it to the imam of the mosque, on a plate, to prove his innocence.
The imam soon got arrested, then released, then arrested again. “There is no physical evidence against the involved cleric, but he has been charged for inciting and arousing the emotions of people to such a level that the boy did this act,” the district police chief said reportedly.
Now, this story may be taken as the tragedy of a young boy, who will be crippled for the rest of his life. It can be, however, taken as an example of how religion, when it is based on terrifying fear rather than compassion and reason, can ruin lives, if not whole societies.
Let’s go back to the story and imagine how compassion and reason could have played out. When Anwar raised his hand mistakenly and felt embarrassed, the imam could have realized that the poor boy had only misunderstood the question. He could have told him there is nothing wrong, God already knows his good intentions, and he should not worry about anything. Such an imam would be conveying the image of a Compassionate (Rahim) and Loving (Wadud) Deity — both terms being attributes of God in the Quran.
Yet, what rather he conveyed is the image of a harsh, capricious, ferocious God. Which is probably a projection of his personality, but also the troubling religious culture he himself has been raised in. It is a troubling religious culture that is, unfortunately, very dominant in certain parts of the Muslim world.
Some could think that this is what Islam already is: A harsh religion with an overbearing deity. Not really. This is rather one interpretation of Islam, which has been there from the beginning, but not the only one. The Islam of rational theologians defined a very reasonable God, who would not punish humans without any intelligible reason. The Islam of Sufis defined a very lenient God, who forgave the worst sinners, let alone true believers.
The truth is that the Islamic civilization, at least in part, is going through its own Dark Ages. Just like the Christianity of the Dark Ages, whose culture of fear can be observed in the scary gothic cathedrals of Europe, this is a phase in the history of a major civilization. And just like the Christianity of the Dark Ages, this is a phase that demands a tremendous effort for reform and enlightenment.