There are over 50 Muslim-majority countries in the world. There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, almost a fourth of the humanity. Nationally, politically, economically, and culturally they are so diverse that only religious frame is inadequate to explain them. Yet, there are attempts by religious movements in the world that attempt to construct a single Muslim grand narrative that undermine national and cultural identities of the people.
Historically, clergy has played a central role in providing legitimacy to Muslims kings, monarchs, sultans, and military dictators. Unlike Europe, North America and Latin America, the role of Muslim clergy in providing life-oriented education, standing for civil rights or being a voice of the dispossessed is rarely recorded. What are the causes of such noticeable absence? Are there ways to mobilize Muslims for nonviolent social change?
One plausible explanation is, currently Muslim countries are suffering from a crisis in narrative. Historically, we see a promotion of history writing among Muslims as a central grand narrative that glorifies conquest, impose excessive taxes on non-believers and peasants of the conquered land. Local people, their traditions, cultures, and voices are remarkably absent from the conquest narratives. In South Asia, we see Arab, Turco-Afghan and Mughal conquest, all covered under a single frame “Muslim,” the religion of the conquerors.
History as it is written is a collection of popularized stories, genealogical tradition and battle narrative of the conquerors backed up by power. This type of conquest narrative portray Muslims of South Asia as the “distinct outsiders,” a unitary people, separate people from the locals. It is appropriated by contemporary radical Islamists who conduct violent jihad against non-Muslims and Muslim sects.
However, Islam in South Asia had not been spread among people under the sword of warriors. It reached the masses through Sufi saints who carried messages of equality and love. Sufis created a syncretic tradition incorporating Hindu, Buddhist and Muslims mystical values that created fellowship among believers transcending religions. This syncretic tradition of popular Islam is rooted in India, Bangladesh and also Pakistan.
Among Muslims of the contemporary world, we seldom find an inclusive moral figures whether theologian, politician or educationist such N.F.S. Grundtvig, M.K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Paulo Freire, and Nelson Mandela; a Dane, an Indian, an American, a Brazilian, and a South African with universal humanistic ideals and nonviolent actions. We also don’t find an equivalent of Latin American radical Catholic “Liberation Theology” on the side of the oppressed among the Muslim clergy of the world.
However, we find Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, nicknamed Bacha Khan, a Muslim politician of undivided India popularly known as “Frontier Gandhi”. Inspired by Gandhi, he had mobilized a 100, 000 strong nonviolent force in opposing the rule of the British Raj and its colonial police and the army and facing long prison sentences. But the great Khan’s legacy as a nonviolent Muslim icon and an advocate of solidarity among people of different faiths, is less known among Muslims of the contemporary world.
Promotion of the knowledge of such glorious legacy and creation of new ones are badly needed in this age of glorification of religious intolerance, hatred and violence in the world. Following such legacy together with others, Muslims can educate, empower and serve people as followers of a great religious tradition of the world.
Mojibur Doftori is an executive committee member and chair, Writers at Risk Committee of Finnish PEN. He is also a member of Vapaa-ajattelijat. Kirjoittaja on valtiotieteiden tohtori sekä kasvatustieteiden ja kansainvälisen kehityksen asiantuntija