My husband sits next to me on the steps outside the Imperial Gates of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. The sky is overcast and there is no breeze. It is as if the world itself is hushed by the breath-taking splendour of our surroundings.
‘Allah Akbar. Allah Akbar…’ Suddenly, the melodic call for Asr prayer spills from the imposing minarets of Aya Sofya. The sound reverberates with a lyrical beauty that silences the crowds streaming in and out of the buildings around us.
There are occasions in one’s life, when, what has been, what is, and what might be, unite in total harmony and the moment is enough; a rare privilege in these changing times. I feel the pull of this moment as the call for prayer is echoed by several minarets that repeat these centuries-old words. “It’s harmonised,’ says my husband quietly.
Such occasions demand reflection. Recent travel around Turkey has rekindled powerful childhood memories which were the gifts of an Islamic upbringing. My sister and I, the designated readers to a family devoted to the written word… the long hours of Ramadan… the heat of the sun and the warm breezes conspiring to lengthen the day-light hours… taking refuge in the shade of the trees… an enchanted world where imagination and spirituality reigned.
The biography of Prophet Mohamed. The Thousand and One Nights. The legendary exploits of Amir Hamza. It was a realm of jinni and giants, dragons and dancers, invincible heroes and indestructible holy men. As much as our lessons in Islam and the daily reading of the Quran, these stories developed our connection to the community of Islam and the understanding that our collective heritage was something of which to be proud.
And it is an undeniably proud heritage. At the peak of its culture, its artistic and intellectual accomplishments influenced the entire world. What is most striking about the spread of this culture is that it was open and inclusive; its horizons were wide and flexible. Muslim philosophers helped the spread of Greek philosophy into Europe; Baghdad became the medical centre of the world having translated into Arabic works from several non-Islamic cultures. Huge progress was made in chemistry, physics, astronomy and mathematics.
It is sufficient to remember that the decimal system of numbers which allowed the scientific explosion of the later centuries was passed on to Europeans by this rich culture. Islam’s was the quintessential knowledge-based civilisation.
But these were not the only signs of its positive engagement with the wider world. Muslims were well known seamen and travellers. Improved methods of map making and geographical nomenclature were passed on to Europe by Islamic geographers such as al Idrisi and Abdallah Yaqut. Almost a century before Columbus and De Gama ventured on their explorations, Ibn Battuta documented his travels which were to become some of the best ethnologies in the world.
In a week of frenzied sight-seeing in Turkey, I have seen how the Ottoman Empire, at a much later date, continued this sense of inclusiveness and tolerance. Aya Sofya itself was once Emperor Justinian’s great Christian symbol of temporal and spiritual power in Constantinople. When Mehmet the Conqueror came to power, he simply had the church converted into a mosque. He did not feel the need to vandalise the building or smash it to the ground. Its beautiful mosaic work is testimony to the fact that religions can co-exist in proclaiming the bounty of God. But more than that, it was a statement of confidence and maturity; that Islamic culture – its teaching, its art and its literature – is powerful enough to withstand other ways of thinking and behaving.
My generation of Maldivians grew up confident and strong, nurtured by the greatness of this culture combined with our own Maldivian heritage. But we were the lucky generation. Less than half a century later, the religion, that was the basic building blocks of our childhood, is struggling to find its place in the Maldives. It would seem to be suffering from an extreme loss of confidence.
Although the answers are complex, we need to ask ourselves why such a profound change has taken place. Perhaps the most important reason for this is the cynical pact that the Saudi royal family made with the politically troublesome Wahhabis. The result of this is that a primitive, isolated, desert-based, and distorted version of Islam came to be the state religion of Saudi Arabia. This of course would not have been important if Saudi Arabia did not become the dominant, oil-rich American ally of the Middle East. This meant, what should have been a minor piece of political wheeling and dealing in a poor, uneducated Arab backwater, instead became the dominant evangelising force of Islam in the late 20th century.
But the reason is merely academic now. In recent years, the Maldives has been ‘gifted’ with mosques and madrassas funded by Saudi money under various guises. Groups of Maldivians have been converted to radical Islam. They have shown very little interest in the broad, all-encompassing values of the religion or how a religion and a culture interact over centuries, as it did in the Maldives, to produce a way of life that is unique and worthy of our respect. Just as fear and intimidation are the weapons of their choice, their focus is on selected dogma that suits their inward looking version of Islam.
They would have us believe that to save the faith, Muslims should ignore change rather than learn to live with it. Their romantic hankering to return to a time when women were dependent and servile is dangerous and unrealistic in the 21st century. Islamic dogma was never intended to be exercised in a vacuum; in the Quran, Allah is consistently and forcefully associated with terms of compassion and mercy, both of which should work closely in the interpretation of religious dogma.
I am not an expert in Islamic Law but I have no trouble claiming that for generations of Maldivians, Islam was, and still is, a call to live a good life. But this concept of living a good life has been high- jacked by a group of self-appointed people who have selected isolated facets of the religion and reassembled them to achieve their own bizarre social and political agenda. What has a good Islamic life to do with a preoccupation with facial hair or a propensity to drape one’s entire body in metres of black cloth?
In the absence of any strong, open objection to this new version of Islam in our midst, or any healthy debate by more moderate Islamic scholars in our country, the radical elements have prospered. They have organised themselves to a degree where many Maldivians, with different points of view, are afraid to speak out. There are shades of Pakistan and Afghanistan here. In Afghanistan the Taliban killed over 10,000 moderate Muslims so that they alone could claim to represent Islam and thus dominate their society. In the Maldives, they have infiltrated the political arena by shamelessly changing allegiances as they see fit. Disproportionate to their electoral success as a political group, their voices are the loudest in condemning people who do not fit into their narrow version of Islam.
I would like to believe that MP Dr Afrasheem’s shocking assassination was not related to his moderate Islamic views. But it would not surprise me if it was. Unfortunately violence is often a way of life for those who can only see things in black and white. So, unless their intense motivation to take the country back into the Dark Ages is contained, the fate of the Maldives will become synonymous with countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan- arid landscapes of abject poverty, punctuated by mindless violence. It will become a hell on earth except for a joyless few who see that hell as their exclusive way to heaven.
If Islam is to stay relevant to the new generations of Maldivians, it has to go back to its Maldivian roots. Here, Islam has always been moderate, caring, sharing and inclusive – a combination of cultural and Islamic values that served us well in the past. In a world literally drowning due to the greed of its inhabitants, the values of our Maldivian ancestors who managed to live more cooperative and less selfish lives are hugely relevant to our 21st century society.
As I leave the steps outside the Topkapi Palace, I remember my own maternal grandfather – Kudahuthu Mohomaidhi. This beauty would have moved him, just as it does me. He was a devoted Muslim who spent much time in prayer and the reading of the Quran. However, this was not all he did. What he earned, he gave away to others. When neighbours, friends and family members needed support, he was their first port of call. He accepted change with a readiness that surprised me. In his youth he was a great sportsman; as he aged he became fascinated by wood turning, jewellery making and gardening. His mind remained open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. He celebrated life. But, he died on his prayer mat. He was an exemplary Muslim Maldivian; a combination of what is best in both.
Such role models are not limited to the past. There are thousands of Maldivians living good, generous, tolerant and positive lives today. I am privileged to know several such people. These people do not need to live claustrophobic, intolerant, self-centred lives to be good Muslims.
Heaven can be achieved without making a hell of this world.
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