Ismat Chughtai (right) with Indian actress Rekha. (Source: Ashish Sawhney Papers, Mumbai, India)
“Islam is rotten to the core,” snapped a fellow guest at a recent wedding after I shared that my doctoral dissertation was about Indian Muslims. We’ve all heard similar claims—that Islam is essentially violent, totalitarian, and unenlightened. Attacks carried out in the name of Islam, and the intense media attention they engender, continually reinforce these views. Yet, these polarized perspectives miss one basic point: Islam is a human institution. It has been constructed and lived by human beings who continue to have the power to shape it. By highlighting the complexity of Muslim thought and experience, we take away the ideological power that extremists seek.
One of the most striking aspects of current debates about Islam is the similar understanding of the essence of Islam among violent Muslim extremists and anti-Muslim bigots. For both groups, Islam is a narrow, rule-bound entity that has an unchanging core. Yet, as discussed by the late Harvard scholar Shahab Ahmed in his book What is Islam?, we are all focusing excessively on the restrictive discourses within Islamic texts to the exclusion of the explorative and creative elements of Muslim civilization. Indeed, the Islamic world’s rich heritage of art, literature, philosophy, music, and dance provides a powerful alternative to the narrow, legalistic, and exclusionary understandings of Islam that fuel violent extremism.
For Urdu-language fiction writer and Indian cultural critic Ismat Chughtai (1911-1991)—perhaps the most popular woman writer in one of the most widely spoken languages in the Muslim world—being a Muslim did not take anything away from her identity as a citizen of a secular state nor did it detract from her social justice activism. In a 1990 interview, she said, “As for . . . bogus Shariat laws, I would refuse to take my case to a court where the evidence of one man is treated as equal to that of two women.” Chughtai’s views stemmed from a belief in the equality of men and women and an unwillingness to accept misogynistic legal norms simply because they were deemed to have “orthodox” religious backing. She was even tried for obscenity under British colonial law for her 1942 short story “The Quilt” due to its depiction of the sexual relationship between two women. For Chughtai, and many Muslim writers like her, the true goal of literature is to represent the day-to-day struggles faced by people of all religious backgrounds, genders, and sexual orientations based on an unwavering belief in human dignity and equality.
This humanism is not limited to the modern period; in fact, we find examples of it throughout Islamic history. In early centuries, thinkers such as Ibn al-Muqaffaʻ (d. 757 CE) questioned the value of individual religions, writing, “I have decided to limit myself to those deeds which all men recognize as good and which are in agreement with all religions.” Highlighting the idea that we belong to one human family, the Persian poet Saʻdi of Shiraz (1210-1291) wrote in his influential Gulistan, “The children of Adam are like the limbs of each other, since they were created from a single essence.” And the ability of different castes and religious communities to work together during the reign of the Indian Muslim ruler Jahangir (reigned 1605–1627 CE) so impressed Sir Thomas Roe, King James’ envoy to the Mughal court, that Roe argued in British Parliament for the English to take up a similar position of tolerance toward ethnic and religious minorities. These examples of exchange, dialogue, and acceptance are potential models for the principles of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience today.
The policy implications of this history are manifold. On the one hand, we must ensure that educational systems around the world include source materials from Muslim societies not only in courses on religion, but also those on music, art, dance, and literature. Second, we should not accept that our only options in Muslim majority societies are so-called “illiberal democrats” or authoritarians. It is condescending to claim that Muslim societies are somehow exceptional in not having the ability to produce truly democratic institutions and leaders.
According to some of the loudest and most violent among us, Muslims cannot live within secular governments. This is fundamentally incorrect. We must condemn and combat violent extremist movements in the name of Islam, yet these movements do not define Islam’s history and need not define its future. We—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—have a choice in how we define Islam. It is dangerous that most of us are deprived of a broad education in Islamic history and culture. This lack of knowledge allows demagogues on all sides to caricature Islam in a narrow way and attempt to claim its past and future for their own disastrous ends. In moments of despair, we all wonder if there is any hope we will be able to stem the tide of extremist violence. I draw inspiration from the Muslim writers, intellectuals, and activists who have, and continue to, champion human rights, gender justice, and pluralism.