Revisiting a sacrilegious domain that is fraught with fear


 By Jamal Hasan  

 The aftermath of September 11 tragedy has opened up the floodgate for dissecting and scrutinizing all the available religions of humankind.  And of course, Islam is not left out in this process. 

 Many pundits, religious scholars or commentators in the western world hesitated to touch the sensitive issue of critiquing Islamic belief systems. Two things refrained them from initiating any such discourse on the "untouchable" subject of scrutinizing Islam.  One is the political correctness that had already evolved in multiculturalist western societies. The other is sensitivity of the billion plus Muslims of the world who are not used to peek into the uncharted territory of "sacrilegious discourse," which many Muslims thought to be injurious to their mental health. 

 In the new reality of openness of dissecting Islam, quite a few western commentators are showing overzealousness in singling out Islamic scripture as the only religious text that still contains call to violence.  Not everybody is following this pattern though, that I must say.  In this context, allow me to cite a few lines of a recently published essay in the Washington Times.  

Jonah Goldberg wrote on October 24, 2001, "For some, Muslim mindset leads to violence."  While discussing the violence aspect of religious texts, Goldberg wrote, "At one time or another all religions have been nasty.  For all of the passages in the Koran that have been used to justify violence, one can just as easily find passages in the Jewish or Christian Bibles justifying violence.  The difference is that Europeans and Americans, broadly speaking, no longer have the desire to use religion to justify violence.  Vast numbers of Arabs, North Africans and East Asians still do.  Our inquisitions are in the past, their inquisitions happen every day. Much of Muslim world simply lives in a different time than in the West. Oh sure, some of the big cities, with their cars and satellite dishes, may look modern.  But their culture is horribly behind the times."  In other words, Goldberg is implying that people of Jewish and Christian faith may not take their respective religions quite literally.  For many of them, they may accept their texts with a grain of salt. 

 Unfortunately, for millions of people of Islamic faith, blasphemy is such a buzzword that it can trigger a violent outburst autonomously in no seconds. Some analysts may blame this mindset as the main hindrance to progress in Muslim societies.  The Hindus have their share of intolerance in the age-old inhuman caste system in the societal domain.  Nevertheless, they are showing more and more signs of tolerance in theirs antiquated belief system.  When an Indian artist of Muslim heritage drew a nude portrait of a Hindu Goddess who personifies art and education, there was an outcry in parts of India. But soon the controversy subsided and the artist is now alive and well roaming freely all over India.  What could have been the aftermath if the artist dared to enter the Islamic cultural space?  One of my friends of Hindu heritage told me an interesting story.  He went to a Saraswati Puja a few months ago.  The priest and his spouse were the guests of honor in the festivity.  While the priest was busy performing the Puja, his spouse was utilizing the time chitchatting with some of the worshipers in a different room.  The most incredible thing was utterances that came from the priest's spouse mouth.  She said to the devotees, "Ram was a homosexual and Krishna was nothing more than a womanizer."  I asked my friend about the reaction of the devotees, if they jumped to the priest's spouse to choke her to death. My friend's reply was there was no negative outcome.  It seemed as if nothing extraordinary happened in the Puja Mandap. 

 If you care to do an exegesis, you will observe that many of the educated Hindus are not apologetic of Krishna's philandering escapades.  Some are even critical of Ram's social behavior especially when he subjected his spouse Sita to undergo a test of her marital fidelity by walking through an open fire.  However, their critical scrutinies do not throw them into atheists' camp.  Many of them still believe in the basic tenets of Hinduism. In a sense, they are quite tolerant as far as scrutinizing their faith is concerned. 

 The other day, I was watching "Mission Impossible," the movie on TV.  In one sequence, the character played by Tom Cruise threw away a copy of the Bible from the computer table to the floor.  He showed his casual approach to the "Holy book" as if it was just an ordinary book.  I do not know if any evangelical Christian group raised any outcry for showing such disrespect to the Bible.  Can you possibly imagine what could have happened if it had been a Koran instead of the Bible?  The zealots could have burned the movie theater to the ashes.  And don't kid yourself! 

 Let me also do here a short exegesis of Serrano’s art that stirred a controversy as his expression of artistic freedom touched upon sacrilegiousnesss of the Christendom.  Believe it or not, with the able help of American taxpayers' money, the National Endowment of Arts put the Serrano exhibit in New York City.  The controversial art that drew criticism was Jesus in a bottle of urine ( Many of the US lawmakers expressed their outrage and disgust in congressional hearings. However, their opinion centered on not to get rid of the artwork, rather not to fund such "sacrilegious" artwork with American taxpayers' money.  They therefore drew a line of distinction. The similar situation happened in New York City again.  The famous New York Museum of Modern Art had a display of African arts.  One of the exhibits had been Mother Mary covered with the elephant dung.  Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani understandably had boycotted the show; nevertheless, the exhibition was allowed to continue.  Imagine, what could have happened if both of these art works touched upon subjects relating to Islam!  Many of the readers may remember the famous lawsuit of the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) against U.S. Supreme Court.  The CAIR wanted to get rid of the frieze of Prophet Muhammad which was an important Supreme Court artifact. The Supreme Court's desire to keep the frieze of Muhammad, the Justice, prevailed. CAIR probably learned to be tolerant a little bit, I may say. 

 Let me now get to the final part of my brief exegesis on religious tolerance.  A recent PBS documentary covered the linkage between Judaism and Christianity.  The documentary showed a dramatization of Jesus Christ's circumcision.  Jesus, a born Jew, ought to have been circumcised before third weeks of his birth.  This ritual had been historically a social custom in Jewish community for thousands of years.  Many religious scholars find significant similarities between Islam and Judaism.  It is as if the two religions are two sides of a coin.  How male circumcision became part of Islamic tradition is a puzzle to many. There is no evidence that Prophet Muhammad's ancestors of the Quraysh tribe followed this ancient Judaic practice and there is no historical clue to support this notion.  Yet, as male circumcision became part and parcel of Muslim social practices, many Muslims in South Asia even fondly call it Mussalmani or Sunnat.  Although Jesus Christ was definitely circumcised, most of the Christians of the western world did not embrace the ritual as part of their faith.  Could these contrasting scenarios be the possible flight paths to probe another historic riddle?


 Jamal Hasan writes from Washington, DC.






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