After countless acts of Islamic terror, the recent being the Paris massacre, one would have expected some introspection by Muslim clerics and leaders about the cardinal principles of their religion, some feeling of guilt. There are Western guilt, American guilt, German guilt, capitalist guilt, Hindu guilt, etc. But where is Muslim guilt? After all, this is a religion that spread by the sword, decimated civilizations, killed and enslaved millions, and enchained women. The handful of Muslims who acknowledge these facts are ostracized and often accused of apostasy—a crime punishable by death in Islamic law.
While guilt-peddling is a despicable activity punishable by death—and is a favorite of Leftists—guilt must be seen as a product and function of the core ideas, ideals, mores, and values of a civilization, nation, community, or any other collectivity. The play of these ideas, ideals, mores, and values in collective consciousness causes moral progress and decline, remorse and hubris, guilt and unthinking indulgence.
Western guilt has been associated with the chief tenets of Christian theology. But the root of guilt may not always be Christian. Consider the case of the ancient Indian Emperor, Ashok Maurya (r. 274-232 BC). He felt “deep remorse” at the bloodshed caused by the Kalinga War (261-62 BC)—a feeling that brought sea change in his policies and administration, mellowing the warrior king to adopt nonviolence as official policy, focus on public works, promote education, and generally make public life more genial. This was a far cry from the spitefulness that was the hallmark of the earlier phase of his rule, for which he acquired the epithet Ashok the Fierce.
Over two millennia later, owing to its exposure to the grand Enlightenment ideas, Hindu society underwent a metamorphosis. The social reform movement in the nineteenth century attacked caste barriers and helped emancipate women. A byproduct of the turbulence in social psyche was Hindu guilt. This resulted in, among other things, the unrestrained expansion of affirmative action and a draconian anti-dowry law.
Reforms in Indian society happened because the polity, society, and intelligentsia of India rightly accepted that there were communities (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the official parlance) which had been historically discriminated against. There were social, cultural, and even religious factors responsible for the discrimination and, therefore, they needed protection and official patronage for uplift. Similarly, there were multifarious factors responsible for discrimination against women.
After some time, however, guilt, the illegitimate child of heightened consciousness, took over the reins of public discourse and political action. The denouement? Caste-baiting, much like race-baiting in the West, has become a tool in the hands of most retrograde politicians in India. In Indian society, caste distinctions are getting blurred because of natural integration, economic development, and the imperatives of modernization—and caste-perpetuating politicians are trying to divide it.
In the case of Islam, however, neither is consciousness ennobled nor is there any danger of guilt pangs. There is finality about this religion: Muhammad, as the ‘Seal of the Prophets,’ was the last and greatest prophet; the Koran is the word of Allah; the Hadith are the sayings and teachings of the Prophet. There is no moral perplexity, no doctrinal ambiguity, no theological confusion. No scope for questions about the fundamentals—and frightful retribution for doing so. There is a clear correlation between human progress and asking questions; a civilization in which questions are not asked or tolerated ossifies. In Islam, questions are not asked and answers are not given; instead, the faithful get prescriptions and proscriptions which they are supposed to follow in letter and spirit.
Now, Burkeans like Russell Kirk also favor prescription, but individual liberty is never absent in Western conservatism. In Islam, on the other hand, there is no scope for human freedom. Etymologically, ‘Islam’ means submission—that is, submission to the will of Allah. And it is Muhammad and the clergy who make the will of Allah evident.
This submission is not just a matter of theology; it permeates Muslim customs, traditions, social conventions, cultural norms—in short, it permeates Islamic modus vivendi. Islam is a complete world in itself, with every aspect of the life of the faithful tightly regulated and monitored, even the behavior in bedroom and toilet. It is also a totally closed world. Muslim clergy ensures that it remains a closed world, much to the suffering of millions of Muslims who favor liberty and openness in life, culture, and religion.
At the heart of the problem the purists like Salafists and Wahhabis who preaches the most unchanging form of Islam. Financed by oil money and promoted by the most reactionary mullahs in India, they frown at even a hint of freethinking, exegesis, and assimilation with other non-Islamic cultural and spiritual traditions. Many Indian schools of Islam dislike the purists, but the latter are in ascendance.
With its intellectual tradition having become pedantic and society stultified, India was also somewhat closed in the early nineteenth century. But its intellectualism, though stodgy and barren, had not been replaced by a totalitarian weltanschauung, as was the case in what became the Islamic world.
Like an invasive species (e.g., water hyacinth) which unbalances ecology and destroys diversity of a habitat, Islam dispenses with the underpinnings, wellsprings, and fonts of pre-Islamic and non-Islamic cultures and civilizations. The pagan Santa Claus became a Christian icon; local deities and customs blended with the great tradition of Hinduism; but the advent of Islam meant the demise or marginalization of all that was pre- or non-Islamic. Worse, it is considered blasphemous to seek solace in anything other than Islamic: since Islam is the absolute and only truth, a journey outside it is anathema. Or so the Salafists believe; few Muslims dare to challenge them.
So, with all wells dry, contact with the external world forbidden, and radical exegesis practically ruled out, the only reservoir left to draw intellectual and spiritual sustenance from is that of pure Islam. It is a well-known fact that Salafism opposes speculative theology (kalam). The religion of the desert causes cultural, spiritual, and philosophical desertification. Neither heightened consciousness nor guilt can grow in a desert.