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.