Muslimness – shifting boundaries

Muslimness is an elusive state of being. There are watertight strictures of the theological identity defined by men, interpreted as the Sharia, on the one hand; and the broad political and cultural sense of the self, on the other. Identity, in any case, is a messy affair: shifty, shifting and eventually, imagined. While 9/11 placed Muslims at the centre stage of global politics, the broth had already been simmering in the cauldrons of biased academe and pop reality mirrored through the blood-thirsty lens of corporate media.

So what is it to be a Muslim? An inflexible bag of rituals? Or a cultural sense of belonging or a deeper dogma ingrained in young minds? I have never considered myself anything but a believer, a ‘practicing Muslim’. This has never been at variance with my secular and inclusive pretensions, despite the fact that the clergy in my country considers secularism akin to atheism, a sort of mirror image of the Pakistani political foundation. The clerics translate secular as la-deen , at best irreligious, and at worst, godless.

Ironical that this business of religious identity is articulated in a land that was the crucible of the secular Indus Valley civilization, non-militant Buddhism and a peculiar version of South Asian Islam that spread via the Sufi khanqahs and was a sort of amalgam of the Central Asian with the ancient South Asian. Even more ironical is the reality, neglected and veiled, that lived Islam is located around dargahs , tribal codes and customs which are irreligious in their own way. But who cares? Referred to as the world’s most dangerous country, Pakistan, according to the pundits of global opinion, is a haven for Islamic terrorists. Collateral damage, therefore, is kosher and a necessity to undo the unstated part of the ‘axis of evil’.

Labels and more labels. On the global shelves such products sell well and work in favour of a war machine hungry for energy resources, territory and blood.

It was a glorious autumn afternoon when a United Nations colleague rushed into my room in a ramshackle municipal building south of Kosovo, not far from the bastions of orthodox Christianity in northern Kosovo and Serbia. “Planes have hit the World Trade Center”, he said. An hour later we were glued to the television sets.
The greatest clichè of our times is how 9/11 changed everything, but like many other clichès, this was true. At least for Muslims across the globe. For weeks, I lived among endless debates and hushed insinuations about the Muslim global problem.

All of a sudden my Indian colleague, a closet Bharatiya Janata Party supporter, threw the gauntlet of my messed-up identity as a Pakistani Muslim at me. It had suddenly become a South Asian menace. In every drawing room conversation, we were described as inheritors of the barbarian invaders. The script was being polished for all that was to follow. The Westerners in the United Nations Mission, though, were more careful with their choice of words. They privately confessed the folly of engaging with the Taliban. I was quick to remind whoever would care to listen that Jihad and Taliban were simple imperial instruments, and not the Muslim behavioural archetype.

The Kosovars, too, were stunned. Overwhelmingly Muslims, they shared no cultural affinity with the Taliban brand of Islam. Kabul was thousands of miles away and they only had a vague empathy with the bombed Afghanis, especially the nameless civilians who, trapped in cross-fire, had nowhere to go.

We had a mosque next to the municipality building; a Turkish-Ottoman style grand structure. I attended several Friday prayers whose simplicity was no match for the boisterous South Asian ritual. Old men with Turkish caps would be dressed to pray and almost all the believers came wearing Western clothes. What got me wondering was the mosque leader, a gregarious man, who would be found in the local pub during the never-ending evenings of that little town. This was a little unpalatable for a Pakistani. One day I asked him about his rationale for blending alcohol with Islamic practices. There was laughter in response. I never got a rational answer.

At Jakarta airport, I noticed a letter from the Interior Ministry pasted on the wall. It directed airport authorities that nationals of countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and yes, Pakistan, need security clearance before the issuance of visas.
This was a shock to my notions of Islamic brotherhood (fed to us by school textbooks and the media). The official explained my potential security threat in a roundabout way. I was irked that this was happening to me at Jakarta airport, not JFK or Heathrow. Making an effort at self-control I managed to get out of the situation quickly. It helped to invoke Islamic fraternity and show resentment towards the Western media’s stereotyping tendencies. Though, what really was the quick ticket to avoid harassment was probably that I was carrying work-status cards of an international development organization.
As we drove through the capital of the most populous Islamic nation, the lack of religious symbolism was unbelievable. There was hardly any show of Islam despite the fact that this nation is home to several active fundamentalist groups. The bar signs and thronging tourists made the culture appear inclusive and liberal. My next destination was Yogyakarta, a city that defines the spiritual nodes of Indonesia’s most populated and influential Java Island.

Jogja’s physical and cultural landscape derives directly from the omnipresent and living volcano, Mount Merapi. The place has grown under its awe-inspiring shadow for 10, 000 years. Villagers living on its slopes refuse to leave even though the last time the volcano erupted was just two years ago. They are bound by the mystical powers attributed to the mountain. These powers are seen through lightning, thunderous clouds and days of ash-rain. This paganism mixes with the locals’ devotion to Islam in an unexpected and fascinating form. On Friday, mosques are full of devotees, and as they rise from their prayers the social chit chat alludes to magical stories and the powers of Mount Merapi. How are such devout Muslims so steeped in their local culture? “This must be the South Asian Muslim identity crisis”, I thought.

Pakistan celebrates Allama Iqbal’s birth and death anniversary in an annual ritual of official platitudes, making Iqbal into the ideologue of the two-nation theory. Iqbal’s progressive, indeed revolutionary views embodied in his passionate poetry are buried under the dead weight of clichès. For instance Iqbal disdained Mullahism, celebrated the living principle of movement and vitality in Islamic thought; and emphasised ijtehad (intellectual/scholarly interpretation) of Islamic teachings through a modern parliamentary framework. Lack of ijtihad has impoverished the development of Islamic thought.

It is indeed a tragic irony that in the homeland Iqbal dreamt of, the mouths of those talking of itjehad are forced shut by the very religious zealots who were ridiculed by Iqbal. In the famous series of lectures – The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam – Iqbal held:
“…but since things have changed and the world of Islam is today confronted and affected by new forces set free by the extraordinary development of human thought in all its directions, I see no reason why this attitude [ finality of legal schools ] should be maintained any longer. Did the founders of our schools ever claim finality for their reasoning and interpretations? Never…The teaching of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessor, should be permitted to solve its own problems.”

What Pakistan appears today is not the dream that Iqbal articulated for a separate homeland for the Muslims of India. The extremists who now wave their flags on government buildings propagate a version of Islam that Iqbal always resisted.

Fourteen centuries ago, it was Hussain (AS), the grandson of Mohammad, who led the dissent against the emergence of the Empire and the Church in Islam, and his martyrdom made him an everlasting symbol of egalitarianism and democracy. Hussain (AS), his family and associates gave up their lives struggling to uphold the right of Muslims to select their leader, to resist the emergence of monarchy and to protect the central Islamic tenet of brotherhood and redistributive justice.

But the ruling classes undid a tribal republic created by the Prophet (pbuh) where blacks, the poor, non-Arabs and minorities co-existed with Arab Muslims. When Islam founded an Empire, a clergy was born that had no room for the radical faith evolved in Makkah and Medina. The leading scholars were coerced or co-opted by the Empire. The horrific treatment meted out to the dissenting scholars such as Imam Malik and Abu Hanifa testify to this distortion.
Even a brief visit to Malaysia is enough to explode the spin-doctored myths woven by the mainstream Western media, portraying Muslims as intolerant and inward-looking. Malaysia, under the shaping hand of the charismatic Mahathir Muhammad, emerged as an economic miracle in the 1980s. The country gained independence a decade after Pakistan’s independence and at the time was poorer than most developing countries. Yet during the twenty-one year rule of Mahathir Muhammad it was transformed into a prosperous and progressive place, a testament to plurality and co-existence within the Islamic framework. Malaysia’s twenty-five million strong population is a baffling mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Ibans and Kadazandusuns, among others. While the Malays constitute a marginal majority (over fifty per cent) of the total population and are, generally, practicing Muslims, the other groups practice their beliefs with equal freedom.
Notwithstanding this impressive achievement, Malaysia has its own share of communal tensions: The north-eastern Kelanten state – not enjoying the same fruits of economic progress as the rest of Malaysia – is ruled by Islamists. Though authoritarian, Mahathir gained legitimacy due to the consistent inclusive development that he delivered.
In Malaysia, as in Indonesia, women are a numerous and visible working force. Women in head scarves are commonly seen in hotels working as waitresses and receptionists. These modest yet equal participants in the country’s economic and political life go to the mosques and pray in the same room as men. I wonder how a certain maulvi I heard in Lahore would react, given his statement that the Almighty would not accept any prayers that a woman made outside the confines of her house.
Dr Mahathir has been a vociferous proponent of ijtehad in Islam. To quote from an interview he gave in 2006. “Unfortunately, for a long time, they closed the door on ishtihar (ijtehad). But it is not something wrong, it has been done before. Perhaps we should revive that discussion.. . today we see Shias blowing up Sunni mosques, Sunnis blowing up Shia mosques, we see a lot of antagonism between the different sects and yet they all claim to be Muslims . . . they consider different sects as not being Islamic. But if we go back to the fundamental teachings of Islam, then we eliminate the differences in interpretation; perhaps it would be easier for us to get along together, to be brothers and sisters in Islam. In that way I think we can be united, and of course unity is strength, and at the same time we can utilise the whole potential of the Muslims.”
Mahathir’s words are sharp and chilling. As a Pakistani Muslim, I wonder who will articulate such a vision in a region that houses an enormous Muslim population – a disparate, heterogeneous mass of humanity which is both inward-looking and maligned.
A longer version of this essay was published in The Third Frame (Spring 2009), a quarterly journal of Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi.

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