Irrfan Khan and call for introspection in Islam: Why we need to encourage more like him

Irrfan Khan is one of India's finest actors. He is also a brave individual. Like most Bollywood actors, he could've remained sheltered in a cocoon, appearing only at manicured PR events. But he deserves high respect for stepping out of comfort zone and delving into one of the most important conversations of our time.

The question whether there is a need for introspection among the of practitioners of Islam and whether it is amenable to reform to prevent it from being used by hate-mongers who claim to follow a more austere, stricter reading of the scripture, are facets of a greatly polarizing but urgently needed debate.

And this debate is crucial for not only the world at large, but also for Muslims themselves.

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, at least 70 percent of all deaths in armed conflicts around the world in the last few years were in hostilities involving Muslims. In 2013, nearly 12,000 terrorist attacks took place globally. Most of these were in Muslim-majority countries, and many of the others were carried out by Muslims. Significantly, by far the most numerous victims of Muslim violence — including executions and lynchings outside the purview of these statistics — are Muslims themselves.

Irrfan Khan. Reuters

Irrfan Khan. Reuters

According to a study by PEW Research, the Washington-based nonpartisan think-tank involved in social science data gathering, religion-based terror is on an upswing. Of the 198 countries included in the recent study, 82 nations (41 percent) had religion-related terrorist activities in 2014, up from 73 (37 percent) in both 2012 and 2013. In 22 of the 82 countries, the terrorist activities were limited to recruitment or fundraising. But in 60 countries, religion-related terrorism led to injuries or deaths.

Empirical data is hostage to a time lag but the figure wouldn't have come down in the last two years.

In a space of just a few days in this very month alone, crippling terror blows and mass murders were reported from diverse locations in the world.

In France, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the truck attack that killed 84 people, injured more than 200 and brought carnage to a Bastille Day fireworks celebration in Nice.

In Afghanistan, a weekend suicide bombing engineered by the ISIS in Kabul targeting the Shiite Hazaras minority killed 80 people during a peaceful demonstration and maimed hundreds more, making it one of the deadliest attacks in the Afghan capital in more than 10 years.

And in a place where bloodshed no longer makes news but peaceful days do, a suicide bombing killed at least 21 people and injured 35 others in a residential neighborhood in northern Baghdad. Once again, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack on the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya.

Sunday's Baghdad attack followed a deadlier one earlier this month when a suicide truck bomb driven by an IS operative ripped through the Karrada area of Iraqi capital, killing more than 200 including many women and children. Most of those killed had just broken their Ramzan fast and were busy shopping to celebrate Id-ul-Fitr.

There is little doubt that Islam is in the grip of a crisis. Rights activist, social reformer and author Ayyan Hirsi Ali, whose calls for reformation in Islam has met with persecution and death threats, writes in Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, one of her three books on the topic:

"There are many millions of peaceful Muslims in the world. What I do say is that the call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam. Moreover, this theologically sanctioned violence is there to be activated by any number of offenses, including but not limited to apostasy, adultery, blasphemy and even something as vague as threats to family honor or to the honor of Islam itself."

It must be pointed out that only a very small percentage of the adherents, maybe about three per cent (according to Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations) believe in the militant strain of the faith. The vast majority of well over 1.6 billion, or over 23 per cent of the global population, are peaceful and law-abiding.

Also bear in mind that Islam is the world's second-largest religion after Christianity and the fastest growing. PEW Research points out that if current demographic trends continue, the number of Muslims is expected to exceed the number of Christians by the end of this century. It implies, therefore, that a huge number of people in the world who follow Islam are pious, peaceful and do not support terrorism in the name of their faith.

But the crisis exists, has even been exacerbated and it looks verily as if those militant 48 million speak for the billions because, as Hirsi Ali points out, "the majority of the otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts… The killers of Islamic State and Nigeria’s Boko Haram cite the same religious texts that every other Muslim in the world considers sacrosanct."

This is where the question of doctrinal reformation comes in. Since most Muslims around the world are extremely unlikely to respond to the call for amendment from whom they consider as 'apostates' or 'infidels' (unbelievers), it stands to reason that the call for such a movement must come from within the community, preferably from those who practice the faith in all honesty and who are pained by the bloodshed in the name of Islam.

This is a question India, too, must deal with. By the year 2050, India, while remaining a Hindu majority nation, will become the country with the world’s single-largest Muslim population with 300 million practitioners, surpassing Indonesia.

The actor hasn't said actually anything revolutionary and has been understandably extremely cautious about his statements. Still, his raising a few questions from a personal standpoint — as a practitioner who thinks discrepancies have crept in and preachers and followers must introspect — has resulted in a furious debate with many, not unexpectedly, calling for him to "shut up and concentrate on movies".

During the promotional event for a movie, Irrfan had made some comments about the practice of animal sacrifice in Islam, stating that increasingly, Muslims are "performing these rituals without knowing the meaning behind them."

"The meaning of Qurbani is to sacrifice something which is close to you instead of any goat or sheep which you just buy to sacrifice. Before sacrificing we should share a bond with that thing otherwise just killing of an animal will not serve the purpose.”

He also raised his voice against Muslims remaining "silent on the issue of terrorism." In a recent Facebook post after the Dhaka terror attacks, the actor said that such incidents happen because of a lack of understanding about Quran's true teachings and that in such a situation, Muslims shouldn't stay silent.

For his troubles, Muslim clerics like Maulana Abdul Wahid Khatri, state secretary of Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind, have advised him to concentrate on his film career rather than interfering in religious issues.

"He should keep his mouth shut as he has no knowledge about the religion," said Sher Qazi Khalid Usmani, Jaipur's Shaher Qazi (chief jurist).

During a TV debate in a popular show on Monday night, Irrfan was cornered by self-styled intellectuals and clerics for calling for a greater democraticisation within Islam. For his honest, critical approach, he was bullied and duly cornered.

Irrfan: "Is suicide a sin in Islam?"
Cleric: "Very big"
Irrfan: "Then how do they fool people into believing that it can lead them to jannat?"

The actor — perhaps understandably because he was taking a professional and even personal risk — hastened to add that his interpretation is a very personal one and he needs "no support from anyone" in his quest to "seek the true meaning of Islam" but even by talking about some issues, he has served a very big purpose. He has initiated a debate.

Irrfan may not be the reformer many hope he is and the entire debate might even be an offshoot of a promotional event around his film but this quibbling over motive is ingenuous. Public figures like Irrfan needs our encouragement.

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Updated Date: Jul 26, 2016 13:26 PM

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