Part - III
So what does this deepening crisis of scholarship mean for us as a people – South Asian Muslims – in our daily lives and social experience while living within South Asian countries or as diaspora elsewhere?
The absence of a critical mass of scientists, social scientists, historians and scholars means weak generation and impartation of knowledge, a lack of a sense of history and an incredibly small number of formidable thought leaders who can encourage people to question their preconceived notions. Meaning thereby that our individual and collective psyche, which not only determine our actions and reactions but are beginning to define us as people, are guided by three things – prejudice, isolation and rage.
A significant number of South Asian Muslim women and men are among the most prejudiced people I have come across. Let me accept that there are other communities of people in the world whose majority may well be equally prejudiced but, one, I am naturally more interested in my own lot, and, two, the alarming thing about our people is that their prejudice is on the rise. They have strange ideas and understanding about people of other nations and faiths.
In Pakistan, one can understand that due to a certain kind of homogeneity in terms of belief and a lack of exposure to other faiths and peoples. But you would find almost similar, if not the same, ideas about others being subscribed to by most South Asian Muslims – particularly those living in the diaspora. Spending time with other people and communities at schools, workplaces or public areas, and exposure to different lifestyles and behaviours have not helped our people to the extent that they should have.
Undoubtedly, Pakistan is the worst among all in that sense and the Pakistani diaspora is even more prejudiced and hardnosed when it comes to understanding or dealing with any kind of difference. But you would find the same patterns of attitude and behaviour among Bangladeshi and Indian Muslims. Indian Muslims are perhaps marginally better off, one reason them being a minority and the other being exposed to a completely different faith like Hinduism or other religions like Christianity and Sikhism since their childhood.
But in South Asian Muslim societies or communities overall, there is this increasing prejudice against everyone who is different from them. This is based either on ignorance of how other individuals and societies think and behave or due to a paranoia that is partly their own failing and partly imposed upon them by this new wave of Western politics based on imperial hegemony.
However, for whatever reasons and doings of your own or others, if you have cultivated inherent universal prejudice against all those who look different, speak differently, pray differently or do not pray at all, you will be blinded to the possibilities of finding companions, friends, allies and partners in other communities. That leads you to the impossibility of a dialogue with anyone who is or seems different, and a stasis in any kind of understanding of a collective human society, culture and civilisation.
The prejudice against others is rooted in the certitude that what we believe in and practise makes us not only superior to others but that we are the only ones who are on the right path in this world. This self-righteousness does not stop at the level of religion but takes us down to the level of sects, sub-sects, schools of thought within sects and sub-sects, and even to a very narrow interpretation by a particular institution or individual in some cases.
When I was in Delhi a few years ago for a conference at the Jamia Millia Islamia, a postgraduate student was delegated the responsibility of guiding me around the city. After my session at the conference, since I knew a little bit about Delhi from before, I took an auto rickshaw on my own and went straight to Dargah Nizamuddin to pay my respect to Ghalib, Amir Khusro and, finally of course, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia.
When I met that young man again, he expressed displeasure over my going to the dargah since it was a wrong practice. According to him, I should have visited the Tableeghi Jamaat’s markaz instead which has been opened very close to the dargah and where he could have taken me to meet some scholar. Then a few non-Muslim women students at the Jamia, whom I met when speaking to a class the next day, told me that some of their Muslim class fellows do not engage with them at all.
In 2015, when I spent some months at the University of Iowa in the US I also travelled and met many Pakistanis. The general nature and composition of Pakistani diaspora in North America is different from the one in the UK and Europe. There are many more educated professionals in the US than in the UK. I had thought they would be different from the people I had come across in the UK in terms of their knowledge and understanding, view of the world and openness to new ideas and opinions.
Unfortunately, there was very little difference. For instance, one whole evening at an educated Pakistani household was spent on why ‘Khuda Hafiz’ must not be used as a pleasantry by Muslims and why Afghans and Iranians are misled because they still do that. There was also discussion on children must be discouraged to hold the fork in the left hand when using a knife and fork to eat. To my surprise, I met very few American Pakistanis who had even a single non-Pakistani or a non-Muslim friend. A Pakistani woman told me that she would not like her children to mingle with non-Muslims, eat their food or go to their parties.
One may argue that personal anecdotes should not be generalised and of course not everyone thinks the same way. But when you see how the youth is being radicalised across South Asian Muslim societies and communities and how we face isolation within the comity of nations and within the global human society as a whole, these anecdotes are not isolated incidents but show us a pattern of how ignorance is on the rise.
South Asian Muslims are bringing isolation upon themselves. But what to do when we have religio-political leaders with limited intellect and a lack of sense of their times; such leaders tell cheering supporters in Pakistan that Muslim countries should shun the UN and create their own union. Sirajul Haq conveniently ignores the fact that his Jamaat-e-Islami has always enjoyed a special relationship with those Middle Eastern Muslim countries that are now flying planes to Tel Aviv and boosting their trade ties with the rest of the world. But the abstract South Asian Muslim desire to create a Pan-Islamist movement fails to fade away even after it is obvious that no one else is interested.
The insistence of segregation within the larger world has a bearing on the South Asian Muslim mind, our children and young people. We are producing uninformed, myopic, socially inept and confused generations. Some simplify their existence by espousing extremist views or joining outfits professing these views. But most live in confusion because not only does the world move at its own pace, but three quarters of the world practise faiths or believe in ideologies which are different from our own. Even within our faith, there are sects which in our minds pose us more danger than outsiders.
Therefore, the prejudices we have cultivated and the isolation we have imposed upon ourselves continue to enrage us. We are angry. We are unhappy. Without seeking knowledge and scholarship, nurturing of minds that question and challenge and developing an attitude for understanding and dialogue, we are heading towards total destruction.
The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.