by Modaser Shah
From time to time, one has to descend from the ethereal flights of imaginative thought into the rough and tumble of actual life and messy reality. What do Muslims think about this brutal murder in broad daylight of a British soldier by two Muslims, in the name, supposedly, of other Muslims who were victims of war? There is no answer to this question; one may as well ask: what do human beings think of this appalling deed? For Muslims are no more a monolith than are any other group of human beings. However, it may be that the Imam in England who was asked for his reaction about this incident, particularly whether he condemned it, may provide some clues as to the how certain Muslims think, or refuse to think, or even feel, about such things.
The thing about Sufis that differentiates them from many others was, and is, that they have not renounced their capacity for thinking. For some people, perhaps, it may not even be a conscious decision not to have one’s own thoughts, and slavishly follow what others have thought. For one’s own thoughts and feelings can be threatening to the maintenance of the status quo, whether internal or external. So this clinging to established categories can be thought of as a defense mechanism.
At any rate, the Imam is reported to have said that he condemned the root causes of the murder. One might speculate that to him the world was divided between good and evil, i.e., Muslim and Non-Muslim, the latter dehumanized into a monolith, not deserving much thought or sympathy, with respect to their individual circumstances, or guilt or innocence, whether the man was willfully carrying out cruel deeds or was just part of a system and was doing his job as part of that apparatus. As a matter of fact, to the religionist, individual considerations don’t count for much even for Muslims. Ideology, or ideologized religion, is what counts. The Imam might not care much about the two individuals as individuals; they might be important in so far as they did the deed in the name of religion and of co-religionists.
This is definitely not the Sufi way. The Sufis believe the individual to be of paramount importance, whether believer or non-believer.
The poet Allama Iqbal, generally supportive of struggle in the name of God and generally opposed to mysticism, could not completely foreclose elements of peace and mysticism in his personality, which are seen to come through in some of his poetry. I remembered the following verse when thinking about the murder:
When the sword is raised for what is not right, it is evil
Even the cry of “God is Great” (in that situation) is evil
The late Christopher Hitchens and his book (God is not Great) come to mind. Evil, or at least a potential for it, exists in the human mind and heart, and this reality has to be faced. Religion, other ideologies, and fields of human activity, can erase it, but can also house it, give it sanctuary. As with human experiences, there seems to be a dialectical interplay between opposing tendencies, as though seeking a synthesis.
One can hypothesize that Hitchens was struggling with the unwanted “believer” side of him, the shadow, as it were, just as the most fervent of believers may be carrying on an internal battle with their unbelieving side; but this internal struggle is externalized, as it is hard to contain and tolerate internally. Sufis, like Zen practitioners and philosophers, try not to avoid or externalize this struggle but attempt to become it—embody this ongoing struggle between faith and doubt, hoping to transcend it, like other such contradictions, inside or outside, psychological, social, political.
Khushal Khan Khatak, a Pashtun poet-warrior, who fought against the hegemonic Aurang Zeb (incidentally, a darling of the conservative religionists of the time) like Iqbal was not successful in totally banishing his mystical leanings from his poetry. Says he:
I have been a Kaffir (unbeliever) for you (addressing his Nafs,or base self) for forty years
Will you not be a believer with me for a few days?
This seems to indicate an awareness of the internal struggle between faith and its opposite that goes on in the human heart.
May the murdered soldier rest in peace, may his family find solace. And may the two murderers learn to own their internal struggles and torment rather than inflict it on others; this, I think, is what the Sufi would undertake.