Book Review: The True Face of Islam, by Suleiman Khan
Name of the Book: The True Face of Islam
Author: Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (compiled and edited by Raamish Siddiqui)
Publisher: Harper Element, NOIDA
Over time, religious traditions come to be understood in multiple ways by those who claim to be its followers. This explains the proliferation of sects within every such tradition, each claiming to be the religion’s sole authentic representative. This interpretive diversity is not always simply a harmless intellectual phenomenon. Sometimes, it can be marshaled to fuel sectarian antagonisms, which can even take bloody forms—as has happened down the centuries.
Like many other religions, Islam has been, and continues to be, interpreted in diverse ways. Different Muslim sects and ideologues claim that their understandings of Islam represent the ‘true face’ of the faith. There being no living human authority that can conclusively judge between these conflicting claims in a manner acceptable to all sides, one can only say, as traditional Muslim scholars wisely used to, that ‘God knows best’. This does not mean a hopeless relativism, though. One could contend that interpretations of religion that reflect God’s attributes such as love, justice, wisdom, compassion and generosity, are truer than others, in that they reflect vital truths about God and goodness.
Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, the well-known New Delhi based Islamic scholar, has for decades been engaged in promoting an understanding of Islam that reflects these values—an interpretation of the faith that is rooted in love, compassion, and commitment to universal peace and harmony. In this engaging book—a collection of 38 short essays on various aspects of Islam—the Maulana deals with numerous issues that are central to discussions about Islam today, issues such as Islamic teachings about relations between Muslims and people of other faiths, religious pluralism, madrasas and ‘modernisation’, Islam, religious freedom and freedom of speech, Islam and politics, and Islamic norms about gender. There are also chapters on Sufism, the spiritual goal, the purpose of knowledge, and the role of Muslims in India. Much of the book is devoted to countering the claims of Islamist extremists on issues related to war and peace and the concept of jihad. The Maulana insists that terrorism, including the violence engaged in by self-styled jihadists, has no sanction at all in Islam and that it does not reflect the true Islamic understanding of jihad. In addition to rebutting, on the basis of Islamic arguments, the radicals’ hate-driven discourses about Islam, the Maulana highlights valuable Islamic scriptural teachings about peace and inter-community harmony.
One issue that one could differ with the Maulana on though is his understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature. In a chapter on Muslims and scientific education, he speaks of monotheism leading its adherents to look at nature not as something to be worshipped, but, rather, as ‘a thing to be exploited’, something ‘to be conquered’, an ‘object’ of ‘conquest’. This differs markedly from how many ecologically-sensitive religious scholars, monotheists among them (including several Muslims), perceive nature. To them—and rightly so—nature is a gift from God, not a thing to be worshipped, but, still, something to be respected, to be taken good care of by man and to be wisely and kindly harnessed. This reflects the understanding that man is God’s vicegerent on earth, charged with the responsibility of managing nature in the most caring, loving and responsible way—a vision of the man-nature relationship that starkly contrasts with the belief that nature is something that man must conquer and exploit. This latter belief is a major factor for the environmental crisis that besets the world today.
Overall, however, this book excels as a valuable resource for an understanding of Islam that is rooted in the sources of the faith—the Quran and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad—and that is of considerable relevance in the contemporary context.