Craving ‘middleness

Published: April 1, 2012

Two distinctly different schools give a glimpse into the deep contradictions of Pakistani society. PHOTO: FILE

I travel across two worlds in the 20-minute commute between my two workplaces: a modern religious school and a private grammar school where the scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are educated. The mindsets I deal with make for an interesting comparison. At the religious school, the concepts of the sacred and the profane as defined by absolute religious morality are the framework for all thought-patterns and behaviour. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum disseminates post Enlightenment Western perspectives and meta-narratives, with the fundamental premise being that of morality being relative, and of individual liberty being the highest value to be protected. Students are taught to invariably seek answers and explanations through logic.

This tendency strikes me each time, in my Islamic Studies class, I raise a point that requires acceptance through faithful submission. While the classes are delightfully interactive, they also afford a glimpse into the baggage of post-Enlightenment thought that this kind of education carries. I mentioned in a class discussion, the fact that, for men, wearing gold is discouraged in the mainstream Islamic tradition, and was showered with sceptical comments on the rationale of the ruling.

“But guys look so cool with all those accessories, and what about those gorgeous wedding rings? What’s wrong with this? I mean, I don’t see the point,” said a particularly spirited young lady.

I am also very often asked to suggest quick and easy ways to help students get regular with the daily prayers. And I always find myself unable to provide short and easy solutions, because the will to express adoration, submission and reverence to God in the daily prayer is engendered by a deep humbling sentiment within oneself, and there are no shortcuts to that.

The Western logocentric (based on reason) worldview drilled into these young minds does not help create the sentiment that makes the daily prayer an act of loving labour. Judged and perceived by the logocentric yardstick, worship rituals are reduced to an arduous, necessary undertaking that don’t quite help in the business of life. Moreover, the prioritisation of individual liberty as the core value makes the demands placed by religious belief on personal conduct confining, to say the least.

The ascendancy of Logos over Mythos (myths, whether religious or not) interprets existential questions as objectively knowable, reducible to ‘facts’ and explainable by ‘empirical evidence’. Religion with its core principle of a Transcendent Unknowable Absolute Truth intuitively experienced is, therefore, unappealing to the highly intellectualised mindset produced in modern urban schools.

By ignoring the need for religious narrative and myth, our educationists have made young minds incapable of developing an appreciation of aspects of religion inaccessible through pure Logos. Iqbal said, “Reason is the lamp that shows the road, but does not mark the destination” — for the destination lies beyond the abyss that is intractable to reason, and requires the ‘leap of faith.’

On the other side, there is a conspicuous absence of religious discourse that can grapple with this heightened propensity for demanding rational explanations.

And then there is that other world. Although it is inaccurate to say that the Darse Nizami curriculum taught in madrassahs is stuck in the medieval past it originated in, the fact remains that most course content added over time deals largely with the refutation of the concepts of other religious schools of thought and sects. Many madrassahs also include a heavily lopsided critique and refutation of Western ideas. This threatens to develop exclusivist tendencies and a ‘world-rejecting’ orientation that pits the religious graduate against a monolithic and ‘otherised’ world full of false, evil and deviant ideas.

The other half of my day is spent at a modern Islamic school that struggles in its attempt to protect values sanctified by religion in the midst of what it sees as an amoral morass in the wider society. Without the necessary educational basis of traditional aqeedah (the Islamic creed/belief/doctrine/theology) and tazkiyah (ethics, spirituality), these well-intentioned educators’ attempts to mould Muslim personalities in what is seen as an increasingly valueless society become reduced to a superficial imposition. There is external emphasis without internal grounding, reflected in the example of the Islamic dress code. Many at the school docilely accept it without understanding its symbolism, hence taking it as a matter of course. Mushrooming in urban centres, these schools present, at best, an alternative environment for students to study much the same that they do in the regular schools, while desperately trying to include religious jargon and uphold religious form and ritual.

To be fair, this kind of school is a response by sincere, educated, religiously inclined novices to the world-rejecting outlook of traditional madrassas. However, the advantages of the ‘Islamic environment’ promised by these schools are debatable, given its insular nature in a diverse, jostling external environment that students eventually will have to find space in.

The madrassah-educated Deobandi muqallid (exclusive follower of a school of thought) whose speech is laced with religious jargon and references to religious authority, and the English-speaking Social Sciences/Humanities student quoting Dawkins and Hitchens represent two ‘worlds’ rubbing shoulders in this society. These two cultures created by two widely differentiated education systems are all set for a head-on collision course. It is frightening because these ‘cultures’ overlap the stratification of society along the lines of social class. This means that the university graduate possesses the cultural capital that eventually makes him monopolise resources, sit at the helm of affairs and control policy, ideas, opinion-making even when his value-system is at the fringes of an otherwise deeply conventional religious society.

On the other hand is the culturally deprived religious seminary graduate whose fewer career prospects and struggle with poverty reduces him to a social underclass. The resentment this breeds may create a reaction that is not measured and moderated. It leads to the existence of two clashing cultures and ideologies which are pitted against each other. Often the clash is intellectually played out as hardened, intolerant discourse and rhetoric levelled at each other from both sides.

I crave middleness in a society pulled taut at the seams. The poise of ‘middleness’ can be reached through the understanding that concepts considered ‘secular’ and ‘Western’ and hence diametrically opposed to Islam may not actually be so. Reason and rational thought, democratic values, pluralism and humanism ought not to be pigeonholed as ‘Western’ or Islamic but as shared and universal. However, given our faith-based demands and cultural-religious context, these values must be interpreted and understood as distinctly envisaged by the Islamic tradition. This is where the need and role of the ulema (Islamic scholars) comes in.

Nor is it wise to think that ‘progress’ has to ape the ‘Western’ paradigm and jettison religion like the post-Enlightenment West did — lock, stock and barrel. The panacea seems to lie in a rediscovery and reassertion of the values of social justice and human rights, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, rationalism and egalitarianism as given by Islam. Religious scholars must engage in the colossal task of reinstating this rather eclipsed Islamic discourse, evidence for which is voluminous in Islamic sources. This must be presented in the language and method that can reach out to the modern mind. Central to a solution is the understanding that answers have to be sought within the religious tradition of this society, and not outside of it. Trying to seek them outside of it is a self-defeating and mislaid endeavour.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 1st, 2012.

Reader Comments (11)

  • Atheist, India
    Apr 1, 2012 - 12:38PM

    Very well said. As a believer in logic, I can see the surprise and disbelief when I ask for any evidence for their word to word belief in the religious texts and mythologies. The religious dictates have just been accepted by the people and it is outright revolting for them to see someone questioning them.

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  • alibaba
    Apr 1, 2012 - 4:44PM

    wow the best peice of wisdom i ever read on express tribune

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 1, 2012 - 6:59PM

    This is a gift of British Raj to indian Muslims please next time try to write a why it happend
    after 1840 when english clevers build it these institutions and make there language English
    a official to india administration and then Hindus and Muslims started becoming THALI KA
    BEGAN means left islam and hinduism but never became a christian and its was reaction
    when scholars of north india decided to estaiblished Madrassah at Deoband U.P ..
    but i will say after crating pakistan our leader were visionless that never ever tried to make
    a one education institutaion where we can get a ibn Razi, Bu Ali sina, Ibn hitham, Jaber bin
    hayan they were sciensist and at a time scholars because in islam Reliegen and Dunya is ONE thing not two. and then mc calay clever and gora succeeded in there mission to
    break the unity of india.Recommend

  • @plarkin
    Apr 1, 2012 - 10:24PM

    @Ali Tanoli:
    Will you stop living in the past and dreaming about a greatness that disappeared when Islamic scholars refused to progress beyond the middle-ages? I’ll take logic, forward-thinking and science any day over rote memorization of religious tracts.

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 1, 2012 - 10:37PM

    @plarkin,
    I have one line for u if u understand it Ho jodah jo deen dunya se tau reh jathy hai changhezi.
    i guess u will get it. what happening right now in south asia specially pakistan its a whole
    changezi nothing more or less.Recommend

  • HollyCow
    Apr 2, 2012 - 3:35AM

    @Ali Tanoli:
    I accidentally gave you a recommend. I meant to respond. I’ve no clue what you’re on about. If by that you mean that weve moved away from “true” Islam in Pakistan then I can only imagine the horror we’d live under if Sharia was fully implemented. No freedom for our women to work, or get an education. People forced to wear ridiculous beards and flood level trousers. Doing that would restore us to wealth? Would our well-being index rival any European country? I’m sure you’d thing that life for you’d be great in the hereafter but I’d rather hedge my bets in this life. @Plarkin, I salute you and I’m following you on twitter. I think you might do me some good.

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  • Prof.Shahida Kazi
    Apr 2, 2012 - 10:20AM

    The golden period of the Muslims was the time when they embraced knowledge,education and scientific thinking and went all out in the search for scientific truth.They translated all of the extant knowledge of the Greeks, and other people who had gone before,wrote encyclopaedias of medicine,astronomy and other sciences,and established world class universities.We produced great scientists and philosophers who are recognised by the whole world.The downfall of the muslims started when they rejected science and logical thinking,and the “profane “knowwledge of the west,and relied only on the memorisation of the holy books and the following of meaningless rituals..Need I say any more?where do our so called religious teachers want to lead us?

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 2, 2012 - 4:52PM

    @Holly molly cow,
    what i am trying to say u dont get it the down fall of muslims started with making two education system by english and idea behind this consipracy was to divide the oness of muslims and make a diffrences so they fight forever in between and they succeeded u can see i am not saying that islam is left just for rituels breeding big beard and praying the namaz
    and going to hajj is your personal AMMAL what is the point is that our madrassah or school
    system should be one where all the subjects including quran and hathith included with maith
    science and geography but irony is one class is left for deen and another for dunya.
    and shame is after partition of india we should have a that school sys for all but it didnot happend and reason for this is our shurfah class want to keep this diffrence in class sys other wise there children can not rule the jinnah land.

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  • @plarkin
    Apr 2, 2012 - 5:56PM

    @Ali Tanoli:

    Your horrible vision of how education should be did come to fruition. Regardless of where you got an education in Pakistan we were all given doses of virulence. Not an iota of good comes from teaching religion. I could use stronger words but the censors of ET will descend with full force. Religion should remain in the domain of a person’s home. There’s no place for it in our schools, offices and public life. The west discovered this a long time ago ergo the difference in prosperity and happiness. @plarkin

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 2, 2012 - 6:42PM

    @plakin
    West has one of the top class theological Madrassa universities in the world catholic and yashive jews schools building are bigger than our five star hotels in pakistan or even bigger than zardari house and food for thought is when president elections comes in almighty america
    did u ever watched what they talked or how trys to get votes from conservatives class if not then u dont lived in west.

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 2, 2012 - 6:50PM

    @plarkin
    Reliegous education is importend for human morality and with out reliegen human being is worst than animal means changezis and in west catholic schools and church buildings are
    so tall and bright that some i think there are no body else in the world is more conservatives than them in faith based charity west is top of the line and calling others……………

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