The famous Disney story of Beauty and the Beast hit cinema screens in early 2017. In the American musical romantic fantasy film (co-produced by Walt Disney Pictures and Mandeville Films), Belle (Emma Watson), a bright, beautiful and independent young woman, is taken prisoner by a beast (Dan Stevens) in its castle.
Despite her fears, she befriends the castle’s enchanted staff and learns to look beyond the beast’s hideous exterior, allowing her to recognise the kind heart and soul of the true prince that hides on the inside.
As I observed the storyline and script to this famous Walt Disney production, I couldn’t help but view the film from the perspective of what is currently unfolding in the “House of Islam.
Beauty vs. the Beast
If one turns on the mainstream media and observes the coverage of Islam and Muslims at large, it is often associated with incidents of violence, rage, anger and terror.
The media is almost in a state of fait accompli when it comes to ascribing any acts of violent extremism-terrorism and inter-linking it with Islam. Often, an individual or group of individuals’ names will be flashed across our TV screens often with pseudo or authentic “Muslim names” or acronyms, and the auto attacks against the body of Islam will thereafter begin in situ.
Juxtaposed against this media mirage is the depiction and mouthpiece of the overwhelming majority of the 1.6 billion Muslims across the world who affirm that Islam is a religion of peace, love and humanity and hence a depiction of beauty par excellence.
One asks, which of these two depictions is the truth and which one perpetuates “fake news” about Islam?
What Depiction of Islam do You Believe?
The depiction of Islam is flashing before our eyes overtly, covertly and subliminally via the 24-hour news media is the age we now live in. Whether it is the blowing up of the Buddha statute in Afghanistan by the Taliban, to the taking hostage of school girls by Boko Haram in Africa to the discriminate and indiscriminate killings of innocent individuals by groups such as Al Qaeda and now “IS, ISIL or Daesh.”
What we see across our TV screens and what others who are sadly at the end of these acts of barbarism and brutality witness is a nihilistic beastly Frankenstein monster who is hell bent on causing as much death, pillage and destruction that is possible.
Interlinked in this matrix are individuals that are now acting either on their own independent volition or via small segmented groups that seek to cause damage and destruction to the other. They then either seek to claim a superlative or pseudo allegiance to some of the groups whose names have been cited above as a validation for their acts of criminality and terror.
Sadly, the recent Manchester Arena Attack by Salman Abedi and what we are told is a network of co-conspirators fulfils this very narrative. On other occasions, representatives from the groups cited above will proclaim that an act of terror was coordinated and instigated through them so that they can claim the brownie points for the wanton destruction of innocent individuals.
Inculcated in all these poisonous acts is a quest to instil fear amongst the masses. More often than not, at the time such an individual or group commit acts of terror, you will often hear or later have a news reporter testify that the protagonist shouted the words “Allah Akbar” at the time they decided to commit or unleash their carnage.
When a layman, who has no deep grounding in the tradition of Islam and whose only medium of understanding the faith is via the mouthpiece of the mainstream media, he will no doubt be connecting the dots that these beastly acts that are committed by these multiple terrorist groups are all being committed via the auspices of Islam.
On ‘Radical Islam’ and Takfirism
They may also conclude that these acts have a pretext or authoritative justification within the Islamic tradition, and hence that’s why these multiple individuals and groups are on a mass rampage to carry them out!
This depiction of Islam is now conventionally being coined by our mainstream politicians as “radical Islam,” intertwining Islam and radicalism in the same brush. Some political commentators and analysts will pontificate that this radicalism is inter-connected and rooted in the whole body of Islam, while others will claim that this is a gross misrepresentation and that a small segment are hijacking the principles of the faith.
Whereas certain administrations like the Obama administration were careful not use this phrase, it is now becoming the language of acceptability for our mainstream political parties in the U.S. (Republican) and in the UK too (Conservative and UKIP).
The beastly depiction that we sadly see across our airwaves day in day out is linked to groups such as the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Da’esh (IS, ISIS, ISIL as is commonly termed) to name a few from recent history. There are many other offshoots groups around the world who would ascribe to a similar ideology with the odd regional variance.
What is rooted in these groups’ ideologies or creed is the principle of takfirism, which in layman’s terms one can coin as “my way or the highway.” That is the idea that anybody, be it an individual, group or nation that does not ascribe to their views is an outcast and needs to be excommunicated or exterminated.
This rigid, narrow and destructive understanding is one of the core reasons that such groups venture on their global rampage, causing mass pillage, destruction and carnage. Many theological commentators of the Islamic tradition proclaim that this ideological creed can trace its roots to Wahhabism, a creed pioneered by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), who was a religious leader from Najd in central Arabia and rejected certain common normative Muslim practices that he regarded as amounting to either religious innovation or polytheism.
Other commentators would go further back in history and proclaim that this ideological creed can be traced back to the time of the Kharijites, which was a group who defected and rebelled against the third and fourth caliphs of Islam, Uthman (576-656 CE) and Ali (601-661 CE) and the rulers of the Ummayad and Abbasid caliphates in 644 and had been foretold by the final Prophet of Islam that they should be exterminated where and whenever they emerge.
The theological commentators would point out that It is this variance from the mainstream normative teachings of Islam that is raising its ugly head in our current times across multiple theatres and platforms around the world.
What Mainstream Islam and History Says
The mainstream normative body across the Muslim world is totally at odds with the depiction of Islam that has been described above and one that has become a common feature across our mainstream media. They would testify to the amazing beauty of Muslim heritage that lies at the core of the tradition, where wonderful positive contributions have been made across multiple disciplines throughout the ages.
Disciplines such as the arts, culture, humanity, education, science, astronomy, environment and health to name a few. In terms of how the history of science and civilization is taught by many educational systems today, we learn about the Greeks, the Romans, the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution and Modern-Day Civilization, and we are led to believe that the periods from around the 5th to the 16th centuries were periods of intellectual darkness with very little advancement.
This period is commonly termed as the “Dark Ages.” Such a perceived understanding of the history of science and civilization is far from the reality of what was taking place in history during this time. In the 5th century CE, we were witnessing the development of Roman, Chinese and Indian Civilizations.
During the period of what is termed the “Dark Ages,” the Muslim world had witnessed one of the greatest intellectual revolutions in history, where advancements were made in so many different fields from around 650 CE until the 17th century at least. It was during what is commonly termed as the “Dark Ages” some of the most wonderful contributions Muslim have made to our heritage from a classical and contemporary perspective took place.
Muslims have played a leading role in terms of inventions ranging from spectacles, carpets, pens, coffee, shampoo, garden, botany, flowers and in the field of education in Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Geography, Algebra, Art, Astrology and Biology. Grand institutions and major systems of learning were pioneered and set up such as The House of Wisdom in Baghdad, Iraq by Caliph al Mansur (reigned 754-775) but came to prominence during the reign of his son al Ma’mun (reigned 813-833), where leading scholars from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths studied and spread their wisdom around the word.
Consider also the University of al-Qarawiyyin (859 AD) located in Fez, Morocco which is often categorized as one of the oldest existing, continually operating and first degree awarding educational institution in the world according to UNESCO, founded by a woman Fatima al-Fihri.
The mainstream normative House of Islam features spiritual and poetic luminaries like Rumi (1207-1273), who has been described as the most popular poet and bestselling poet in the United States, philosophical giants like Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), and scholars such as Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201-1274) a great Persian scholar.
In fact, Professor George Saliba proved that Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) a renaissance and reformation era astronomer who formulated the heliocentric theory that the center of the universe is the Sun well before Newton’s time in fact plagiarized from the works of Tusi.
In medicine, we have scholars such as Al Razi (854 -925), who led the way in treating diseases such as smallpox, to Ibn Sina (980-1037) better known in the West as Avicenna — a great physician and philosopher who wrote the book The Canon of Medicine. There was Al-Biruni (973-1048), who was instrumental in working on the theory of various drugs and their classification.
In agriculture, Muslim engineers produced a hydraulic machine called the “noria” to develop and improve the water supply in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. We have the beautiful architectural buildings such as Alhambra Palace in Granada-Andalucía, Spain which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site to the beautiful mosques such as the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) in Turkey and the Badshai Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan to name a few.
The mainstream normative Islam features contemporary leading personalities and organizations, who continue to make positive contributions in a range of fields. The Muslim 500 features the 500 most influential Muslims around the world.
There are leading sports personalities such as the late, great Muhammad Ali, who is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century to Sir Mohammed Farah CBE; multiple Olympic gold medal winner and Muslim sportswomen such as Dalilah Muhammad who is the first American woman to win a gold medal in the 400 meter hurdles, not to mention numerous Muslim footballers and other Muslim sportsmen and women who are playing a positive role in their respective fields.
The challenge and struggle of our generation is which face of the House of Islam will triumph? Will it be the beautiful face briefly outlined above or the beastly dimension that will continue to dominate our airwaves? One very much hopes that just like the Beauty and the Beast story line, where the Prince and Belle host a ball for the kingdom and they dance happily ever after into the sunset, that the story line of the Islam also has a beautiful ending,
Hopefully it is the face of the beautiful inner core based on principles of humanity, peace, love, wisdom and justice that suppress and supersede the misrepresented depiction that has been espoused by the fringe groups across our societies and airwaves for far too long. For this to materialize, the Muslim world cannot rest on their laurels and pontificate on the legacy of the past, but needs to be inspired by this legacy to bring about positive contributions to our societies.
The media battle between what is fake or authentic news about the Islam will continue in our global milieu. State, mainstream media-social media, societal actors and stakeholders all have a key role to play by allowing a platform for the beautiful mainstream normative face of Islam to be showcased and institutionally normalized and the beastly face that is monopolized by the extreme fringe to be stifled.
This will be a positive step towards the aspiration of a better world for all based on the principles of humanity and peaceful co-existence.
Kaleem Hussain has an academic and practical background in Law, Economics & Government Studies, Warwick University, Warwick Business School, UK. He is a Research Associate (FSTC) and a Global Diplomats Forum affiliate. Hussain is active in. inter-faith, counter extremism, peace, diplomacy and reconciliation initiatives to bring communities together at a local, national and international levels.