With the entire Middle East ravaged by overtly religious wars, religious persecution reaching ever new heights in Pakistan too, add to that the plight of American Muslims hoping to not be discriminated against in Trump’s America— the correct understanding of religion and culture is probably the only way towards establishing a more plural world.
This was discussed at the Habib University on Friday at Harvard University professor – on Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures - Dr Ali Asani’s talk on importance of religious and cultural literacy in a cosmopolitan world.
To break it down, Dr Asani started off with explaining religious illiteracy as one that equated religion with its practices, such as religious traditions, rituals, and rites as well as its scriptures, or taking its traditions to be timeless and monolithic.
He further explained that many took religions as actors having agency - the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.
This he explained was precisely what Donald Trump’s tirade against the Muslim community was based on.
Judging the actions of an individual or a community through an exclusive lens and holding an entire community responsible for actions of an individual, were among Dr Asani’s explanation of religious illiteracy.
Such narrow-minded analyses of religions he added were bound to fail democratic systems, and increase disrespect for diversity, breed stereotypes and dehumanise a society. Explaining it in words of the renowned Indian philosopher Amartya Sen, Dr Asani said humans were not uni-dimensional, but were a product of various social and other factors.
However, differentiating between devotional expressions and the study of religions, considering them internally diverse and not uniform was stated to be a literate understanding of religion.
He further explained his point stating that it was this approach that was needed to understand the various trends of Islam. “Be open to perspectives and not be orthodox,” he observed.
Dr Asani further added that we needed to take religion as an entity that evolves, as opposed to something that remains static. It had an influence on culture, does not exist in isolation or private but is embedded in politics, he added. “You cannot separate it out”
Further clarifying the concept of religion, the Harvard professor explained that contextual and cultural studies approach was important to analyse a religion. A religion was rooted in all dimensions of a society: its history, its art as well as its politics, hence, the factors were important to understand what religious practices were exercised in which country.
This could easily be understood by the difference in religious practices of the Muslims of the sub-continent than the one’s residing in the Middle East.
Drawing an important analogy he stated that nationalism, a concept that had nothing to do with religion, had in Muslim countries of late come about to be a cohesive force.
Citing another approach of Algerian philosopher Mohammad Arkoun, Dr Asani stated that he differentiated between the ‘Silent’ and ‘Loud’ Islam. While the former was more about what was in the heart, the latter was more politically vehement.
Making another important point he said majority of the Muslims did not derive their knowledge of Islam from scriptures, but earned it through three central means of expression and practice: Sonic, Visual and Literary arts - recitation of divine scriptures as well as calligraphy being two symbols of that.
Further elaborating on non-violent Islam, Dr Asani discussed the systemic erasure, by the West, of Islam from the poetry of Rumi, the most widely read Muslim poet in the West.
“Rumi’s thinking was deeply ingrained in Quran. In the 13th, 14th and 15th century his Masnavi was a part of the Madrassah curriculum.”
However, he pointed out that it was not just the Western world but Muslim countries also did not have his poetry as a part of their educational curriculum. “Engage people in the aesthetics, the extremism would itself go away.”