Auron ka hai Payaam aur, mera Payaam aur hai, / Ishq key dardmand ka tarz-e-kalaam aur hai!
Time was when “Imam” was perhaps the second most honoured title among Muslims, next only to Amirul Mu’mineen. But that no longer is the case. Nowadays, Muslims cannot wait to throw that time-honoured title on anyone anywhere just for the asking.
And there is no scarcity among Muslims of those who would all too readily yield to its lure, no matter how unreal their credentials for coming anywhere within light years of deserving it. If, in the process, that desecrates something as noble as the title “Imam,” so be it.
That is what happens to nations and peoples who lose their sense of history, identity and culture. After that, they generally end up as little clumps of straw on the flood of time and circumstance, no use to anyone – themselves or others.
Ghuthaa’ ka-ghuthaa issail
, as the noble Hadith puts it.
LEGENDS OF LEARNING
This perhaps the most glorious of all honorific titles of its kind in Islamic history – Imam – was once conferred voluntarily, and by near consensus, by Muslim people on such distinguished supermen of Islamic learning and human history as Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam Ahamad ibn Hambal, Imam Bukhari and Imam Ghazzali.
Generally speaking, among the qualifications required for this highest level of social and intellectual Islamic exaltation was scholarly excellence that towered over everyone else’s and service to Islam in terms of its vindication, defence and promotion that left all others humbled.
From an intellectual point of view, men who were recipients of this honour throughout Muslim history were prodigious and prolific scholars and writers. Many of them filled the world with their voluminous and weighty writing on practically every conceivable topic of importance to Muslims – and the world.
To get a comparative perspective, you can call them, if you want, the Aristotles and Einsteins of Islamic and other available knowledge of their time – except better and much greater in some ways.
And they were human geniuses beyond dispute. It was said about Imam Abu Hanifah that if he set his mind to it, he could prove that the pillars and columns in your house were made out of gold.
His teachings filled and swayed the world and continue to do so after 1000 years.
Books of Imam Ghazzali and Imam Suyooti fill libraries to this day. One can only wonder how they managed to do all that writing, in addition to everything else that they did, on such a wide range of subjects, in a limited lifespan, using no more than an inkwell and a reed pen that they continually needed to dip in ink.
Instruments of their writing and scholarship were primitive at best, and slower than the slowest snail on God’s earth, when compared to our newest electronic technologies of knowledge production and use. And yet the avalanche of their writing and scholarly output swept the world in all directions.
Socially and culturally speaking, they changed the Muslim Ummah and changed the world of Allah in which they were born, often for all times to come.
As a result, when Muslims of their time, and of subsequent generations, conferred upon them the title of Imam, they deserved it as fully as anyone ever deserved a title. What is more, they brought honour and lustre to that title.
Thereafter, Muslims throughout history treated this title – Imam – with greatest respect.
MUSLIMS OF PRE-PARTITION INDIA
Muslims of pre-partition (pre-1947) India mostly used Moulavi, Moulana, Aalim, Mufti or even Allaamah to refer to their Islamic scholars. When they used the expression Imam for someone appointed to lead Jama’at Namaaz in mosques, they carefully qualified it by saying Paysh Imam.
Some others elsewhere used whatever else they could lay their hands on: Mallam and what not.
The Arabs generally contented themselves with more neutral expressions such as Shaikh. Or they simply described the man’s excellence and stature using other appropriate words.
But they all scrupulously left the time-honored title of Imam alone.
Remember, Muslims invented the science of Jarh & Ta’dil, the principles of source criticism and evaluation.
THE GREAT SCIENTIFIC AND CULTURAL SELLOUT
I said Arabs. If you want me to say, as so many Muslims and non-Muslims around the world say, “Muslims of the Middle East,” instead of Arabs, I will say it, because I like to think of myself as a team player. But you need to help me by explaining to me you are going from what geographic direction to what.
Are you going from Mashriq (East) to Maghrib (West) or are you going the other way?
Let me say this too. Being a man of limited knowledge, I don’t know the full background or meaning of the words East and West. But I have a fair idea that the Arabic expression Mashriq means the place from where the sun – or whatever else it is that Allah meant – rises and its counterpart expression Maghrib means the place where the sun – or whatever else it is that Allah meant – sets.
That means, in terms of the functioning of celestial bodies in the universe, one is the place from where light dawns on the world. The other, in a sense, is where darkness spreads from.
So, say that again please, you are going from where to where did you say?
No, this is not a historical, cultural, economic or social commentary on the peoples and civilizations of the East and the West. No time for that here. Gandhi thought it was a good idea.
That was Gandhi. All I am doing is trying to understand these two expressions – East and West – in relation to their Arabic counterparts Mashriq and Maghrib, especially as the Muslims hurl them at me.
And then they slice up the pie even finer into “Middle,” “Near,” “Far” and what not.
MANY EASTS AND MANY WESTS
Besides, someone forgot to tell the Muslims the simple scientific principle that the earth is somewhat spherical in shape, well maybe with a little bump and a pull and a stretch here and there, which makes, depending on its location, proximity and position in the solar system, every direction East and West all at the same time.
Help me, thou physicists and astronomers! Did I get any of that right? We are not talking Einstein here, are we, by any chance?
If I did manage to get any of that stuff right, will you then allow me to recite here part of an Aayat that has baffled some of us for a long time? Actually a distinguished physicist-astronomer once asked me what it meant. Either about that or that other Aayat in Surah Ar-Rahmaan: Rabbul mashriqaini wa rabbul maghribain.
How do I know?
In any case, here are the words of the Qur’an I had in mind: Rabbil mashaariqi wal maghaaribi. I am almost in a trance as I say and write those words. That is how powerful they seem.
Paraphrase: I swear by the master of all those multiple directions in which the sun – or whatever it is that God Almighty meant by it – rises and sets.
Many Easts and many Wests, is that what it means, do you think? I have no clue.
Or as our wonderful ancestors – physical, intellectual and spiritual – used to say: Wallahu a’alamu bissawaab. Paraphrase: God knows what the right answer is.
Islam! What a beautiful culture of intellectual freedom and spiritual integrity it is!
MUSLIMS ARE A BLESSED PEOPLE
Muslims are fun people, don’t you think? Blessed by God and yet bewildered and confused when it comes to their role as God’s representatives on earth.
As people who have chosen Islam – if they did and do choose it – they will enter Paradise, if they continue to choose Islam until death. Provided God Almighty so chooses to dispose of their fate.
Muslims are thus a blessed people from that point of view. No doubt about that. A people bound for Paradise upon their departure from this world. But the question is what they do with this world before they leave it. And in what state and shape they leave it.
A world upon which God Almighty granted human beings dominion and over which he appointed them his Khalifah or representative.
I am not sure Muslims have gotten their act together on that score.
That is why I particularly love it when Arabic-speaking Muslims use the expression Ash-Sharqul Awsat to describe themselves and their geographic – should I also say cultural, political and spiritual? – location in relation to the rest of the world.
That is why every time a Muslim says Middle East, I say: Inna lillahi wa innaa ilaihi raaji’oon! What a great cultural copout!
What a victory for intellectual defeatism, geographical corruption and spiritual emptiness!