31 July 2006

Wednesday July 26, 2006

Shift in focus needed


I RECENTLY visited my favourite museum in Istanbul. The Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) was built in 537 AD as the most magnificent of churches by Emperor Justinian, filled with beautiful mosaics of Christian saints. When the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque.

At first the Turks preserved the mosaics and frescoes but in the 16th Century they plastered over the figures since Islam forbids human representations.

In 1935 the Ayasofya was turned into a museum and today it is remarkable not only architecturally but also because it is one of the few places where you can see Islamic symbols of worship alongside Christian ones. Our guide was proud to point out that the Ottoman sultans never destroyed the Christian artwork in the Ayasofya, recognising them as part of the heritage of their people. Restoration work is ongoing on the entire museum including the frescoes.

I realised that the respect and magnamity of the Ottoman sultans all those years ago must have been because they were absolutely secure in their faith. There was no need to destroy another religion’s place of worship, especially one so beautiful, when they had absolute confidence in their own faith and when they knew they would go on to build other beautiful buildings such as the Suleimaniye and the Blue Mosques. Such was the thinking of more than 500 years ago.

I wish people today felt as secure in themselves and their own faiths, and not see threats under every rock. It seems that if we so much as mixed with people of other faiths, or looked at icons of others, we are very likely to lose ours.

How weak we are, and how powerful we allow others to be! Therefore we need to be always penned in, protected by the most rigid of barriers. I read in wonder that according to some people, 100,000 Muslims have apostasized. How does one ever verify this number when if even one person seeks to change their religion, they will not be allowed to? It is a system guaranteed to ensure that we can never verify such numbers.

Why not focus on the more easily verifiable number, those who convert into the religion since these are very welcomingly registered?

It is a bit surprising that the very guardians of our faith are those raising alarms about the people we have “lost”. Does this mean they have not been doing their jobs? If they were CEOs of companies, this would constitute a loss and they would likely be fired. I get the feeling sometimes that we do know we are doing things wrongly, that instead of attracting people with a religion that promotes justice, equality, compassion and freedom, we are bludgeoning people with one that is joyless, uncaring, rigid and restrictive.

But for some reason, we are unable to return it to its true form because some people think that this dour interpretation is all there is. I have to wonder how a God that created so much beauty, wonder and joy in the world could be represented by such gloom.

So our insecurity leads us to keep the gates of the pen shut as tightly as possible, even as some of our people strain to get out. Yet in the Quran, God says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth has been made clear from error. Whoever rejects false worship and believes in Allah has grasped the most trustworthy handhold that never breaks. And Allah hears and knows all things.” (Surah al-Baqarah: 256)

And more: “If it had been your Lord’s will, all of the people on Earth would have believed. Would you then compel the people so to have them believe?” (Surah Yunus: 99)

The supreme irony of it all is that there have been those who have cast aspersions on the faith of the Muslims who defend the right of people to not believe. Yet if those same human rights defenders were to say, “Okay then, since you doubt my faith, don’t count me in this club”, the same accusers would refuse to let them be anything but Muslims. So the message is clear: it’s quantity, not quality. No matter how nominal or even unbelieving, let’s just keep everyone with the same label in the pen.

“So if they dispute with you, say I have submitted my whole self to Allah, and so have those who follow me. And say to the People of the Scripture and to the unlearned: Do you also submit yourselves? If they do, then they are on right guidance. But if they turn away, your duty is only to convey the Message. And in Allah’s sight are all of His servants.” (Surah Al Imran: 20)