History and the Sacred- Review of ‘Playing God’

Humans playing the role of God by taking matters that are to be left to God in their own hands.

Book Name: Playing God- Misreading a Divine Practice

Author: Dr. Shehzad Saleem

Publisher: Al-Mawrid, Lahore

Pages: 83

The rapid expansion of the Muslim rule in Arabia during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (sws), and outside Arabia immediately after his death, has bewildered prominent personalities who have studied that period of history. Philip K. Hitti in his treatise, The Arabs- A Short History, feels compelled to call this episode ‘magic’. This historic episode is used by the critics of Islam to point out the imperial political ambitions of Islam, and by prominent Muslim ideologues to argue the idea that Muslims are duty bound to establish an Islamic rule globally. This idea automatically pits Muslims against the rest of the world with Muslim religious movements clearly spelling out that their program is to replicate this episode of history in modern times. They believe it to be the primary objective of Islam. The book in review seeks to reinterpret the very nature of this historic episode, in light of an established practice of God concerning his Messengers, so clearly spelt out in the sacred texts of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The author, a student of prominent Muslim theologian Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, has attempted to present the ideas of his mentor related to this topic, in a methodical format.

The book, small in size but profound in the concepts carried within it, is divided into six chapters, four of which deal with the explanation of a Divine Practice, which the Qur’an refers to as the Sunnah of Allah. The last two chapters relate to the application of this fresh understanding on some thornier contemporary issues such as the punishment of apostasy, waging war against non-Muslims, the concept of Dhimmi etc. The author tries to show how the new understanding generates totally different rulings on these issues and how some directives of Islam do not relate to the non-Muslims of today.

In the first chapter the author briefly introduces the main idea behind his book. According to the him, “in order to understand divine religions, it is essential to comprehend a certain unalterable practice of God. This practice is nothing but a divine scheme devised and executed by God either through natural disasters or through His messengers and their followers and as such does not relate to the Shari’ah (divine law) revealed by Him. Simply put, it is: God, through natural disasters or through His messengers, punishes and humiliates in this very world their foremost and direct addressees who deliberately deny the truth communicated to them by their respective messenger, and rewards in this very world those among them who adhere to the truth. In the case when this humiliation takes place through the messengers and their followers, they act as nothing but divine weapons. As such, this divine practice must not be undertaken by human beings on their own. It is God’s retribution carried out by God Himself (Pages 5-6)”. Thus the author sets forth the basic idea of his book and it is on this ground that he titled it “Playing God”, i.e. humans playing the role of God by taking matters that are to be left to God in their own hands.

The second chapter deals with the “Statement of the Divine Practice” with textual evidences from the Qur’an, Hadith and previous scriptures, detailing this practice of God. The third chapter is titled “Realization of the Divine Practice in the Preaching of Messengers”. This chapter describes the methodology of this divine practice in the preaching mission of a messenger (rasool) of God. The author divides the mission of a Messenger into three phases viz. i) The Propagation Phase, ii) The Acquittal Phase and iii) The Judgment Phase. These phases are then elaborated and the reader gets a fair understanding of how the mission of a Messenger progresses from the first to the last phase, after which the Almighty pronounces His Judgment on the direct addressees of the Messenger.

The fourth chapter is titled “Realization of the Divine Practice in the Preaching of Muhammad (sws)”. This chapter analyses the preaching mission of Muhammad (sws) in terms of the three phases described in the previous chapter. The author quotes exhaustively from the Qur’an showing the way the Almighty meted out punishment to the disbelievers. This punishment was of varying degrees with the polytheists of Arabia being given the maximum punishment. According to the author, the nations surrounding Arabia, who witnessed this episode taking place in Arabia, also came in the purview of the Divine Judgment, with the Prophet (sws) writing letters to the rulers of these nations. In these letters the Prophet (sws) made it clear to these nations that Islam alone would guarantee their existence. Therefore, according this point of view, the campaigns launched by the companions of Muhammad (sws) in these territories were not wars to expand any system, but they were part of a divine practice unfolding itself through their medium. In view of this, Muslims after that time cannot wage wars to this end, because they cannot ascertain the completion of divine proof (Itmaam-al-Hujjah) on their addressees. As such, the only legitimate reason for a Muslim State to undertake Jihad today is to curb oppression and persecution in some other state whether Muslim or non-Muslim.

In the fifth chapter, the author applies this new understanding to some Islamic directives, and concludes that these directives relate only to the direct addressees of Muhammad (sws). They cannot be applicable to people after that period. Thus, in view of the author, the directives related to the punishment of Apostasy, the Dhimmi status of non-Muslims under a Muslim government, prohibition of friendship with non-Muslims, greeting non-Muslims in an inferior way, etc. are not related to our times.

The concluding chapter is dedicated to the relations with non-Muslims, and how the premises set forth in the book, if true, necessitate a drastic change in the attitude of Muslims towards non-Muslims. The author also concludes that the struggle to establish an Islamic State is not a directive of the Shari’ah, a view that will not be well received by the Muslims today. In the nation states where Muslims are in the majority and would want to abide by the Shari’ah, the author advocates only democratic means to achieve their objectives. In countries where they are in a minority, he calls for them to abide by the laws of their country as they are bound by a contract of citizenship. In case of persecution, the author advises the Muslims to migrate from their country, “if every peaceful effort to achieve religious freedom fails (Page 72)”. However, many questions that can possibly arise on this proposition, seeing the difficulties in getting refuge in other countries, are not addressed by him. The book ends with a call for converting the idea of “Clash of Civilizations” into a “Dialogue between Civilizations” and the author leaves some deep questions for the non-Muslim readers to contemplate over.

The book ends with brief biographical notes on three prominent Muslim scholars Hamid al-Din al-Farahi, Amin Ahsan Islahi and Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, who have evolved a new hermeneutic of approaching the Islamic texts that cannot be brushed aside lightly. The concepts propounded in the book are a challenge to the existing narrative of the Muslim religious thought that is failing to address the burning issues facing Muslims today. The book could have discussed the military campaigns of the first four Caliphs in more detail as it might cause the readers to question the whole thesis of this book. Nevertheless, the way in which the main topic is delineated by the author is very systematic and should be easy for people to grasp.

 Reviewer is Asst. Fellow (Hon.), Al-Mawrid

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