The other day I tuned into a Q & A, a popular programme on all our South African Muslim radio stations. This is where a titled cleric tackles listeners’ religious questions.
Generally speaking, I would say that these programmes serve a useful purpose. A wide range of issues are usually dealt with, and I’m sure many of those listening are enriched and comforted by the answers.
But sometimes things go awry. We’re all human, we’re all prone to error, and when you make one on the airwaves – as sometimes these sincere and earnest men do – your blunder is digitally transmitted into hundreds of thousands of homes.
However, Islam is a forgiving religion. If your mistake is underlined by genuine good intent (we are judged according to our intentions) Allah does not punish you, and if anything, rewards you for your exertion.
But it’s not the forgivable faux pas I take issue with here. It’s the obscurantist, absolutist agendas that slip insidiously into these programmes that bother me. And I use the word “obscurantist” – which in essence means “incomprehensible” – quite deliberately.
Let it be said that I bear no disrespect to those who study, or who are scholars of Islam. But, at the same time, I’m sure they will agree that I’m entitled to seek clarification guided by the conduct and decorum of adab ul-Ikhtilaf (differences of opinion).
For when a man of the turban publicly pronounces, for example, that non-Muslims who eat the flesh of a pig will become like a pig, I think I really do have a right to ask why.
On this particular show, the Q & A scholar was rattling off his opinions. He seemed to know his subject matter. Qur’anic verses and prophetic sayings tumbled off his tongue in formulaic profusion.
I listened to him. A young lady had embraced Islam, and she wanted to know whether she could go to church to attend the funeral of her mother.
I know the answer, I thought. The scholars agree that we can attend the funerals of our non-Muslim parents. Chapter 23 of the Qur’an exhorts without any prohibitionary phrases that we have to honour our parents.
No, the woman could not attend the funeral of her mother in the church, said the Q & A scholar brusquely.
I listened in astonishment.
This woman’s mother was from, as he unsubtly intimated, the “community of unbelievers”. As Muslims we could not associate with them or their rites, he said, quickly spouting a Qur’anic verse.
To say that I was taken aback would be an understatement. It wasn’t just that his response totally lacked context, was deficit in equilibrium of argument or that it was contemptuously patronising. It was his lack of compassion that got to me.
Even I could see that it was a poor and insensitive answer. What on earth would this women’s family think of us Muslims – hard-headed, hair-splitting and dogmatic down to the bitter end?
I began to seethe with irritation, and then injury.
A year previously I’d lain my own father, a cautious Christian, to rest and the issue was close to my heart.
My father, who so graciously accepted my embracing Islam decades ago, had in that time never said anything derogatory about my beliefs. And not unlike the Prophet’s grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, had supported me in times of severe hardship.
Ironically, this was a hardship caused by the Muslim community. And, let it be said, if it wasn’t for my father’s unquestioning generosity then, I don’t where I would be today.
Yet here was a fatwa cowboy telling me, in as many ugly words, not to pay homage to the passing of my parent, a man who’d taught me that honesty and integrity should be my watchwords from the cradle to the grave.
As far as I was concerned, not attending his funeral – or honouring the rites of his passing –would have been tantamount to extinguishing his spirit, deriding his faith and killing him off as part of my family. Was this what the Q &A cleric desired? To simply eradicate any memory of my father just because he wasn’t Muslim?
Indeed, wasn’t it the Prophet (s) who’d said that his very own parents, Abdullah and Amina, had died on their fitrah – their primordial state of Islam? This against the background of the Salafi-Wahhabi literalists of Saudi Arabia grossly declaring them unbelievers.
I’m not qualified to say anything about my parent’s spiritual state, but surely I have the right to believe that he was Ahl ul-Kitab (the non-hostile People of the Book such as Sabians, Jews and Christians) whom the Qur’an expressly says we have to respect.
It rankled that I should be instructed not to pay due homage to the passing of my father in a church. Would I be less of a Muslim if I did? Did I lose my iman, my faith, when I mounted the pulpit, as his eldest son, to deliver his funeral oration?
I’m confident that the Prophet Muhammad (s) wouldn’t have thought so.
For here was a truly merciful exemplar who stood up for the funeral bier of a Jew; here was a kind man who refused to rise to anger when an ignorant Bedouin urinated in his mosque; here was a gracious guest who happily dined with his Christian hosts; here was a legislator who even told his Companions that their non-Muslim neighbours had rights over them.
I wondered whether this Q & A cleric realised that people like me had embraced Islam for its compassion, and not because of our anger. I do not have any less respect for Christianity, and nor through my tolerance for the church does it mean I have abandoned the tenets of tawhid, the indivisible attributes of Allah, or the Messengership of Muhammad (s).
The point is that Islam found us, we moved down the road of the soul, and our Islamic ethos – unlike his – is not informed by exclusivism.
And if it’s any consolation to those who might take offence at what I’ve said about attending the funerals of non-Muslims, there are explicit traditions dealing with the issue. It has been related via the Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shaiba that when Abu Wa’il’s mother, a Christian, passed away the Caliph Sayyidina ‘Umar told him to ride in front of the funeral procession.