Sunday, October 6, 2013

Attack on Christians and the 'Comparative Religions' Controversy


Maryam Sakeenah

I am not very fond of conspiracy theories, even as they abound in this part of the world. There was some ire and annoyance over the insistence by the usual conspiracy-theorizing lot that there was a ‘foreign hand’ behind the bloodbath of Christian citizenry in Peshawar. But I am not trading in conspiracy theories for the time being.

 What unsettles me is the fact that whoever the puppeteer, the puppets that act it out and allow themselves to be manipulated are one of us; the actual perpetrators in this bloody instance just as in so many others of the past were one of us; sons of the soil- people like you and me. What makes the blood stop in its tracks and the heart miss a beat is the perturbing, eternally-staring-in-the-face How? and Why?

For if a single individual can give his life to wreak destruction on innocents with such brazen, insensate brute-force like a mechanized killing monster with a human face, my hair stands on end and I wonder, what went wrong?

‘And if anyone of you would punish and lay the axe on the evil tree, let him see to its roots. What judgement would you pronounce on him who slays in the flesh and yet is slain in the spirit? And how persecute you him who is a deceiver and oppressor and yet in himself is aggrieved and outraged?... a single leaf turns not yellow but with the silent assent of the whole tree. So the wrong-doer cannot do wrong but with the secret will of you all.’ (Kahlil Gibran).’

 “Ah, woe is me, to have seen what I see!”

I think I understand. I can make the connection between the mindset that can ready itself to kill another of a different creed out of searing, blinding, dehumanizing hate and the mindset that rejects the teaching of the History of Religions in schools. The difference is that while the former is deprived of privilege and marginalized by a society stratified by class, the latter is urban upper-middle class, privileged by education.
In a country where life and honour are dirt-cheap; where bare survival is a struggle; where economic indicators are abysmal; where prejudices and hate abound and where foreign interests play out undetected and unchecked making it a mere pawn, the fact that the teaching of Religious History became the highlight in the news media and the hottest issue on the social media for weeks is deplorable. It is an unfortunate testament of the times. It signifies a rabid, jittery, paranoid sense of insecurity about the faith we profess.

On a certain level it is somewhat understandable given how after 9/11, Islam as an identity has been put on the defensive. A terribly uninformed dominant narrative speckled with blind spots has been globalized. The political and intellectual assault of the strident secular clique on the Muslim world has created a reactionary conservatism arising out of insecurity and fear of loss of identity in a world that functions on the pernicious ‘West versus the Rest’ schism.

The disastrous consequences of this reactionary conservatism are appalling as have been brought out through this episode.

Pride is a delusion born out of a subconscious awareness of inadequacy and vulnerability. The prevalent attitude of religious chauvinism and hegemony among Muslims and the manic enthusiasm to monopolize and legitimize a single unvarying and unaccommodating interpretation of religious truth is born out of the Heart of Darkness where Hubris sits enthroned with its clay feet. Righteousness degenerates into Self-righteousness, giving way to a sneering narcissism that gazes at its own magnified image trivializing all others. It creates a terribly blinkered worldview that excludes and oversimplifies. It is afraid of intellectual scrutiny, aware of its untenability. It is intolerant and unrelenting. Hajrah Khan writes, "This power-play is ironically running deep within each of these schisms themselves: Sunnis lashing against Sunnis, Shias against Shias, Salafis belitting Salafis, Sufis mocking Sufis and the battle goes relentlessly on… the truth now is not about ideology. It’s about power. “My” truth should triumph. And this truth is nothing but an empty and usually an autonomous assertion. And an assertion can never wholeheartedly convince and give comfort. And truth – Islam – is a matter of the heart, and should bring comfort."

I was shaken when a friend who counsels parents confided in me that ‘Religious parents have failed to pass on the real values of Islam and their kids are clueless about and disinterested in Islam.....the pity is that instead of recognizing their fault they blame the ‘unIslamic’ institutions.’ And again, I am not surprised.

And in the thick of this melee what we most brutally sin against is Islam, the ethos of whose tradition is vilely distorted and misunderstood; whose call is unheard in a deafening clamour of clash and confrontation and vain argumentation.

Lesley Hazleton notes that after receiving the first revelation, the Prophet (SAW)’s first reaction was doubt, awe, even fear. And yet this experience became the bedrock of his belief. Doubt and questioning need to be appreciated as stepping stones to genuine faith and in fact the foundation of secure faith. Such secure, poised faith can also be an antidote to religious fundamentalism. Ibrahim A.S’s journey to the truth recorded by Allah in the Quran begins with questioning and grapples with a doubt that is thoroughly human and inescapable. The questioning and doubting that he began with, and the reflection and reasoning he exercises until faith is realized has all been recorded by Allah as the natural journey of the human self from questioning and seeking into the certainty of faith. Ibrahim (A.S)’s faith was inexorable and passionate because he had gone the whole way; he had reached conviction after genuine questioning and honest inquiry. The faith he was blessed with as the ultimate reward for his courageous quest was profound, whole, robust. “Thus did We show Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and the earth that he be one of those who have Faith and certainty. When the night covered him over with darkness he saw a star. He said: "This is my lord." But when it set, he said: "I like not that those who set." When he saw the moon rising up he said: "This is my lord." but when it set he said: "Unless my Lord guides me, I shall surely be among the erring people." When he saw the sun rising up he said: "This is my lord, This is greater." But when it set, he said: "O my people! I am indeed free from all that you join as partners in worship with Allah. Verily, I have turned my face towards Him Who has created the heavens and the earth ‘Hanifan’ (unifocally) and I am not of the Al Mushrikeen (those who worship others besides Allah)."

Faith is not imposed or policed. Faith is not attained through voluntary partial blindness to the complexity of life. Faith cannot be seated in the narcissistic self. Faith is not attained without seeking, inquiring, discovering and wrestling with doubt. Only through making this precarious journey is the sweetness of faith relished. Those who shrink from the effort will always have the faith of the verbal testament, the external facade. And it will always give them the delusion of being Holier than thou. It will always be supercilious, self-righteous, condescending and hegemonic- and pathetically superficial.
A Christian delegation from Najran consisting of Christian theologians and priests visited the Prophet (SAW) and undertook exhaustive religious discussion with the Prophet (SAW). The delegates were treated honourably although none chose to accept Islam. The Prophet (SAW) concluded a peace treaty with their Chiefs and Bishops, which guaranteed rights, liberties and protection.
In another instance, the Prophet (SAW) asked Zaid bin Sabit (R.A) to learn the Hebrew and Syriac languages in order to engage with the Ahl ul Kitab (Jews and Christians). He was appointed to communicate and correspond with non-Muslims.

The two batches of students who had completed the course at the private school where the Religious Studies course was taught had views on the subject that are deeply insightful about the raison de etre for experimenting with a project of the sort at the school level. Maryam Ahmad of class IX said studying the course ‘answered my question, Why Islam? We cannot just blindly follow a religion, we have to know why we believe in it.’

Amenah Raza of class VIII confided that she had often been confused about existential questions but studying the course made her understand the superiority of faith in God, and that answers will come to us if we learn to ask the right questions.
Eman Imran of the same class said the course helped her not to judge and stereotype unfairly those who believe differently. It also made her understand that faith is embedded deeply in the hearts of mankind and religions express this faith in many ways... but most importantly it taught her why Islam is actually a universal faith and why we have chosen to be Muslims.

The controversy over the teaching of Religious Studies that included faiths other than Islam also resonates with pertinent questions about the role of an unruly commercialized and sensationalist media. The program that first raised the issue was based on a set of lies, half-truths and exaggeration in order to stoke conservative religious sentiment to score brownie points in order to increase viewership. A naive, gullible populace tuned into the media matrix bought into all the sensationalism, creating hype over an utter non-issue. No one was really concerned about ascertaining the truth of the spurious claims from a dubious source of information. 

“O ye who believe! If a wicked person comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest ye harm people unwittingly, and afterwards become full of repentance for what ye have done.”(49:6)

But there are still bigger questions that echo even after the hype dies down and we move on to other issues for drawing room small talk. There are vital questions that arise about the aim and methodology of religious instruction in schools. In a world teeming with ideas that influence, interact, integrate, rebound and abound, diversifying a programme of religious instruction in order to put Religion in perspective through its evolution over eons, the power of the God idea and the universal essence of revealed religion that Islam fulfils, perfects and protects is right after the Quranic call to “Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with ‘Hikmah’ (wisdom) and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.” (16:125) 

Hikmah, the verse says, is the key: a deep wisdom and sagacity and a profound insightful understanding of ideas, issues, human psychology and society and how religion bears upon it; a sense of caution, a humility, a gentility. In the midst of all this grand mess, the greatest casualty has been Al Hikmah. The greatest unmourned tragedy is the banishment of ‘Hikmah’from our wretched lives.

Ibrahim A.S prayed: "O my Lord! Bestow Hikmah (religious knowledge, insight, right judgement of the affairs, power of decision making) on me and join me with the righteous.” (Surah Shu’ara, 83-85)