M.N. Roy on Islam

Islam is certainly the most misunderstood religion. The tragedy lies in the fact that occidental scholars and their oriental proponents

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Islam is certainly the most misunderstood religion. The tragedy lies in the fact that occidental scholars and their oriental proponents, who are so illustriously famed for their open-mindedness, objective research and empirical analysis, are so preoccupied with their preconceived notions while dealing with Islam that after considering their hypotheses, a knowledgeable person has no option but to remain stunned in bewilderment. It is an irony that not only exponents, who are denigrating Islam, but also the people who in their best intention are ‘glorifying’ Islam, are guilty of such biases.

M.N. Roy was a scholar of a global repute, born in 1887 in Bengal. He was one of the staunch nationalists in his early youth, who later became an intransigent communist as per the prevailing tide. As a communist he was among the intellectuals who reinterpreted Marx’s doctrine according to the changed circumstances. He also took part in several Cominterns and graced several offices in Moscow after 1917 Revolution.

Differences with Lenin and later Stalin provided him with an opportunity to rethink on his communist obsession that ultimately led him to found what he referred to as Radical Humanism towards the fag end of his life. He remained an obfuscated intellectual throughout his life with switching-on different ideologies until his very end. He also commented on Islam on various occasions and his Historical Role of Islam is an epitomisation of his ideas on Islam. This book was published in 1939 – a period when he was searching for alternative theories other than communism. May be if he would have lived for yet another decade (he died in 1954) he would have once again changed his ideology from Humanism to anything else; may be Islam; because Humanism proved to be even greater a failure than communism which he so ruthlessly criticised in the last phase of his life.

While treating Roy’s Historical Role of Islam, my criticism shall seem to be scattered but it is because of the fact that while articulating the role of Islam Roy was too confused (as he should have been) as he was trying to interpret Islam with his materialistic gaze, which is not possible at all. In the endeavour he ends up denying revelation and other objects of Ghaib i.e. unseen in Islam. He is grossly under the illusion that Islam was nothing but the natural outcome of the prevalent conditions of the Arabian Peninsula in the 6th century.

First a few of corrections; he used ‘Mohammedanism’ for ‘Islam’ and ‘Mohammedans’ for ‘Muslims’ throughout his booklet, which is again based upon the misconception that Muhammad (peace and greetings of Allah be with him) had founded the religion called Islam in the 6th century C.E. – which is indubitably erroneous. He said that Muslims originally came to India as invaders – and this again is a false accusation; for Arabian traders arrived in India much before the invasion of Mohammad bin Qasim.

Roy wrote the book as in his views (true to a large extent), “there is no other example of two communities living together in the same country for so many hundred years, and yet having so little appreciation of each other’s culture. No civilised people in the world are so ignorant of Islamic history and contemptuous of the Mohammadan religion as Hindus”. He confessed, “Expansion of Islam is the most miraculous of all”; he raised the most pertinent yet bewildering question: “How did that stupendous miracle happen? That has been one of the most baffling questions for historians.” Roy’s booklet is the answer to this question in accordance with his own materialistic and ‘revolutionary’ understanding.

Roy did not hesitate in saying blatantly, “Islam was a necessary product of history” and “the aspiration of the Arab merchant produced the monotheism of Mohammad” and “Islam like any other religion, was the product of the conditions of the time” and more explicitly as, “the spirit of Islam was not invented by the genius of Mohammad; nor was it revealed to him. It was a heritage of history conferred on the Arabian nation. The greatness of Mohammad was his ability to recognise the value of the heritage and make his countrymen conscious of it”.

I am citing Maulana Maududi who answered such type of “intellectual” allegations most cogently when he wrote, “No personality in the world which is not a product of his times but this person (i.e. Prophet)… By far stretching you may say that history of Arab at that point demanded a nationalist leader, who could unite the tribes and by invading other states, would have found an Arabian imperialism. That means an Arab nationalist leader – well versed in all Arab traits of the time i.e. callousness, bloodshed, hypocrisy, treachery – by all means he would have made his nation happy and would have left an Arab empire after his demise. Hegel’s and Marx’s historical materialism cannot provide any justification beyond this. How can historical or dialectical materialism prove that at that time a person was born who taught values and ethics, who purified souls, eradicated superstitions and biasness, who looked to humanity beyond his nation and generation, who founded a socio-political system not only for his nation but for whole humanity. How can you dub such a personality a product of history of his times?… in fact the people whom you generously dub as makers of history are nothing but the creatures of history, the maker of history is only this one personality (pbuh)”.

Roy forgot the meaning of ‘superstition’ when he argued that Muslims’ “devotedness might have been fortified by superstition” but he was coerced (to come to this conclusion) as he could not interpret correctly the significance of ‘unseen’ with his materialistic eyes. At several places M.N. Roy has exhibited his intellectual honesty but his inability to see Islam and Muhammad (peace and greetings of Allah be with him) from the eyes of Muslims has rendered all his conclusions astray. He though admitted, “The idea of social equity [propounded by Islam] was unknown in all the lands of ancient civilisations”, “that was a view far advance of time”. But how a man who was in his own view just a “product of history” can go so far ahead his time that his teachings are equally relevant for the pagan Arab and modern technological world of the 21st century? This question most unfortunately did not strike M.N. Roy’s mind.

M.N. Roy though later in his life propounded what is known as radical humanism, he was earlier a die-hard communist. As a communist in mind and blood here too he tried incongruously to interpret Islamic history from the ‘stomach’s point of view’, when he says, “economic necessity demanded termination of the proud but ruinous virtue of internecine wars, and diversion of the traditional Saracen valour in more profitable channels. The idea born out of that necessity eventually crystallised into ‘religion of Mohammad’ ”. But here M.N. Roy is clearly mistaken. Qureysh hardly had to fight any wars as other tribes did; they were most respected as they were custodians of Ka’bah. Unlike others their trade caravans were provided with safe passages even by the burglar tribes. On the other hand because of constant tribal feuds; the trade and economy of Qureysh flourished. In other words they were prosperous at the cost of others. They were already thriving economically; their talents were well occupied in profitable channels of trade. Then if a ‘prophet’ has to be born for M.N. Roy’s economic necessity, he must have born in other suppressed, impecunious and war-ridden tribe entertaining economic conditions at least inferior to that of Qureysh!

M.N. Roy carried his above mentioned canard hypothesis to the pinnacle when he alleged, “Historic cry [Islam] was raised by the caravan traders of Arabia who had stood outside the ruinous conflict of arms and beliefs, had prospered economically and progressed in spirit”. One can rightly point out towards the discrepancy in the two above mentioned arguments of M.N. Roy but let’s not deal with that but with the substance of the argument. Nothing would be more ‘ahistorical’ rather ‘unhistorical’ (as two are different) than to say that historical cry of Islam was raised by the “caravan traders of Arabia” – Bilal, Suheb, Ammar and majority of people who upheld Islam at the very early stage were not traders but poor, downtrodden slaves. The Prophet himself sacrificed his lucrative trading business for his mission. All the chieftains, merchants of great-repute-and-wealth of Makkah opposed the ‘newly found’ religion (exceptions of Uthman and Abu Bakr etc. apart) – in unison. One of their arguments however ridiculous, for this opposition was that, “people who are congregating under your banner are inferior in ranks and standing in society”. Looking at the facts analytically one can wonder that on what pretext M.N. Roy concluded so drastically.

In the ‘causes of triumph’ he values greatly the tolerance of Islam. He mentions nominal taxes (jizya), attitude towards deviated brethren (non-Muslims), temples-monasteries-and-mosques side by side and rightly sums up, “It is altogether a misconception that the Arabian progress was due to the sword alone. The sword may change an acknowledged national creed, but it cannot affect the conscience of man.”

Pointing towards another cause, he rightly observes that unlike the other religions before Islam, “Islam stood for freedom and equality” and it was a great source of inspiration though under materialistic fervour he went on to comment what we can never appreciate, “Indeed the paradise of the Arabian Prophet was nothing but an ideal of the life of happiness and enjoyment to be attained [only] in this world.”

M. N. Roy seems to be blasphemous in his endeavour to prove the Prophet a ‘Great Man’ and strategist when he asserted, “Mohammad realised that it [his teachings] could not be made acceptable to the warring Arabian tribes unless it were backed up with a supernatural sanction. People enjoying the bliss of ignorance and thinking in terms of preconceived notions, could not be convinced with any other argument. The will of minor gods could be overwhelmed by the will of a greater and all powerful God” and “if the supreme God was not there he has to be invented. That was the chain of the Mohammad’s thought” – (God forbid).

Though the teachings of prophet Muhammad (peace and greetings of Allah be with him) and the Qur’an are enough a proof that they could not have been produced out of limited knowledge that human beings possess, in fact every thinker who thinks on his own ‘i.e. without direct divine guidance’ has his own share of discrepancies and blunders which are result of his limited knowledge and narrow farsightedness. This is universally true from Socrates and Plato to Sartre and Nietzsche; from Galileo to Newton and Einstein. Despite this fact, i.e. apparent and lucid as well, ‘intellectuals’ before M.N. Roy also yielded to such foolishness.

It was this “intellectual-mirage” of orientalists that Maulana Maududi assailed in the following manner, “Let’s ponder over the fact that in the dark epoch of 1400 years ago, in the darker region of Arab. What was the source of the emergence of such knowledge, light, power, miracle, in one shepherd and merchant? You say that it is the product of his own conscience; I say that if it was so, (instead of prophethood) he should have claimed of being God. The world which acknowledged Ram and Krishna as gods, which posthumously made a god out of Buddha and God’s son out of Jesus, which even worshipped fire, water and air could never refute a claim of godhood by such an extraordinary person.”

M.N. Roy’s further insight into the source of Muhammad’s (peace and greetings of Allah be with him) teachings are worth laughing away. The great-great-great intellectual, renowned exponent and radical humanist here seems mere a road urchin that even lacks the rudimentary qualification of putting forth any scholarly argument with cogency and yes! decency. He referred to (God forbid) prophet’s meditations as mental aberrations and pathological state of mind. “Don’t worry!” by doing all this he ‘honestly’ didn’t think that his doing any disservice to Islam, he went on to add brazenly, “but that is how all religions are born. There is no reason to think Islam as an exception.”

His comments on the Qur’an too are baseless and I can bet that they are made without any serious study of the text. “Koran,” he says, “naturally, is not a work of any intellectual standard. It is full of crude ideas and fantastic speculations.” The remark I assume is the best explanation (Tafsir) of the verses 2 and 3 of Al-Baqra, “this is the book (of Allah) there is no doubt in it; it is a guidance for the pious (those who fear Allah), for those who believe in the existence of that which is beyond perception (i.e. unseen)”. Those so-called intellectuals who believe only in the existence of palpable things – things that are touchable, that can be measured, tasted and calculated and go on denying the very existence of anything beyond the seize of their five senses are most vulnerable to draw hasty and misleading conclusions as did M.N. Roy.

Further he tries in vain to prove that “Islam as a religion is irrationalism par excellence” and also pointed out to “highly irrational” idea of creation out of nothing; had he lived till the advent of today’s modern scientific discoveries he would certainly have mend his ways of thinking, while writing perhaps he was unaware of ‘science’ or the meaning of ‘irrationality’ that he was so audaciously exhibiting himself.

In the section of Islamic philosophy he appreciates rise of Islam’s power in the world when he unequivocally says, “The rise of Islam stands out not as a scourge but a blessing for the mankind.” But on the other hand out of all proportions he valued and appreciated Muslim philosophers and Islam’s emphasis on reason and knowledge by observation. To the extent that at one point he wrongly stated “the revolutionary idea of the common origin of all religions was conceived for the first time by the Arab [Muslim] thinkers.”

I said earlier that he didn’t study the Qur’an, because this idea was not founded by any Arab or Muslim thinker for that matter but by the Qur’an itself; “in the beginning mankind followed one single way. (Later on this state ended and differences arose.) Then Allah sent forth prophets…” (Al-Baqra: 213)

After this brief and sweeping yet overall scrutiny of M.N. Roy’s thoughts regarding Islam; one thing is very clear from the very outset: however western and like-minded oriental scholars boast of their capability of analysing things objectively when it comes to Islam they fail usually in doing so because of two reasons;

  • They try without any success to interpret all that is Islam from their material eyesight and end up propounding theories that have, even by far stretching nothing to do with the reality.
  • While analysing Islam they couldn’t put down their thick glasses of prejudice, may be of religion, class or civilisation and they treated Islam as an enemy civilisation that was nevertheless great but not an exception, i.e. it appeared on historical scene like rise of any other civilisation in the world and eclipsed or died its natural death.

While observing Islam people may even be impressed and appreciate the social programme of Islam as did M.N. Roy when he said, “By virtue of its social revolutionary character that it struck so deep a root in India” but unless they take out their dark glasses of prejudice, and study Islam, the Qur’an and Seerah not with a preconceived mindset of supporting ‘a specific’ theory and drawing ‘a specific’ end-result but to attain guidance; it is impossible for them to reach upon right conclusions.

Same yardstick also applies to the so-called Muslim intellectuals, who try to materially interpret the miracles of prophet(s) and other unseen(s) of Islam only to be called as ‘Rationalists’ in their circles. Such defeatist, pessimistic and despondent Muslims have even gone to the extent to theorise that (God forbid) nature is god, angels are nothing but the names given to natural forces, heaven and hell are nothing but to stimulate the pagans to act appropriately, and so on and so forth. These ‘Muslims’ are bent upon changing the Islam upside down, they stretch Islam like an unbreakable rubber to extend its circumference and include whatever they desire to include in it; same are the people who legitimise liquor and pork in the name of modernity and also dare to bring argument for this blasphemy from the Qur’an.

The need of the hour is to produce optimistic, confident and in Christian vocabulary ‘born-again’ Muslim intellectuals who are not only well versed in the modern intellectualism but are also capable of presenting Islam not contaminated with popular propaganda of biased media and ‘scholarly’ fallacies. Isn’t it fardh e kifaya?