Monday, March 28, 2022

Stranger to History: Aatish Taseer’s Journey through Islamic Lands

By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam March 25, 2022 Main points: 1. This essay reviews Aatish Taseer’s book, Stranger to History 2. It focuses on three main points that the reviewer thought important and are shared by a larger number of Muslims across the world ----- Stranger to History (2009) is an account of the journey through Western to Eastern Islamic lands in Asia. The author, Aatish Taseer, embarked upon this journey to understand what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world. Taseer begins his adventure from Turkey to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan. Each country represents a unique relationship—which is determined by their political realities—with Islam and offered an array of experiences that Taseer has talked about in this book. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (d.1938), the founder of modern Turkey, set out on a course to implement a strict form of secularism in the country, disallowing Islam, and the expressions of Islam to be exhibited in the Turkish society. However, with time, Islam managed to reappear from the peripherals that it has been diminished to. Unlike the Turkish society, Islam was always allowed to flourish and dominate public life and was also used to legitimize the decades-long dictatorship and monarchy in Syria and Saudi Arabia. Iran has also a different story. In the previous century, the country was ruled by a monarchy whose ambitions to modernize the state and its pro-West policies brought the monarchy in conflict with the Iranian ulama and other disgruntled factions of the society. Eventually, a revolution occurred in 1979, the monarchy was overthrown, and an opportunity opened up for the Ulama. They captured the state and renamed it the Islamic Republic of Iran declaring Iran as an Islamic state. Pakistan’s emergence coincided with a dreadful carnage of millions of people which was followed by the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947. This modern state was founded on a romantic idea of creating an ideal Islamic state. Since its foundation, it insisted upon its Islamic identity. Taseer’s book is rich in providing detailed observations and comprehensive accounts of interviews and casual discussions that he had with local people during his journey. This journey is not viewed through Muslim eyes. Taseer does not claim to be a Muslim. He was born out of an unconventional relationship between his mother, Tavleen Singh, a famous Indian journalist, and his father, Salman Taseer, a renowned Pakistani politician, and businessman, which he called a love affair. Taseer was brought up by his mother in a non-religious environment in India. Therefore, as he mentions in the book, in order to understand his father’s religion, i.e., Islam, he undertook this journey. Along his way, he found sometimes frustrated, sometimes scared, and sometimes both, young Muslims, suppressed under the name of secularism and Islam. His non-religious and liberal sensibilities acutely observed how in police-state, such as Syria, and Iran, people are afraid to open up about the political problems of their countries even to their friends lest they may be spies and informants to the establishment. And how frustrated Muslims in Islamic states commit acts that are immoral and contradictory to their religious claims. Even though the whole book is an interesting read, I would like to focus on three important points here. Nostalgia Muslims long for their past. A past where pristine Islam helped Muslims nurture an advanced and powerful civilization—a golden age. A past where Muslims dominated the world. it is a romanticized idea that imagines that the Islamic world in the past was a unified entity where Muslims of all sorts lived together. It overlooks the differences, the conflicts, the bloody battles that Muslims fought against each other in their past. Taseer detects the air of this nostalgia in his conversations with some students in Turkey. They believed that the continuity of this golden age was ruptured by the Western invaders who established new world order in the Muslim lands with an ambition to spoil Islam. The idea of a golden age of Muslims as a unified powerful community remains attractive to the modern religious Muslims who feel oppressed at the hands of the western aggressors. These students talked about the need of bringing back to the Islamic world order to counter the western one. It is a yearning that many Muslims in the world share with those students. History is either romantic or cruel for many Muslims. Other than a loving memory, history reminds Muslims of their suffering and loss. When in Syria, Taseer observed how some Bosnian Ulama manipulated historical events of the banishment of Muslims from Spain in order to illustrate the sufferings of the Bosnian Muslims. Even though, the title of Taseer’s book, Stranger to History, implies that it is he who is unfamiliar with the history of his father’s religion. But an analysis of Muslim behaviour to their history would reveal that it is they who have forgotten their own past except for some selective stories for their nostalgic pleasure. Insistence on Trifles Muslims believe that Islam is a complete way of life, meaning that Islam has fairly something to say for everything that you do in your life. So long as this idea of living life by following a religion strictly to its minute injunctions remains personal, it does not do any harm to other people. But as soon as a state shoulders the responsibility to force people to follow the trifles that are considered parts of the religion, it becomes a device to control and censor the lives of its citizens. In Saudi Arabia and Iran, Taseer observed how religion was used to control the lives of normal people and curtail their freedom. Taseer recorded an incident that occurred while he was performing his Umrah, an off-season pilgrimage to Mecca. He said that he was wearing some religious strings from some temples and Sufi shrines around his neck and wrists. Suddenly, a fellow pilgrim approached Taseer and his Saudi friends who were helping him to perform Umrah. The pilgrim said to them that they should make him remove those things. Similarly, another incident that he recorded was narrated to him by an Iranian girl. It was about some religious police who tried to seize her dog only to kill him afterward and were stopped once her uncle bribed them to go away. These anecdotes demonstrate how states, such as Iran, in the name of religion, control the lives of their people. As a result, people become rebellious and start hating the state religion as is the case in Iran. Taseer quotes one Iranian saying, “(In Iran) People were very connected to religion even though the government (the monarchy) was not religious. But now that the government is religious, most of the people want to get away from religion. They see it as killing people, putting journalists in jail. That is the true religion. It is very hard for me to say I am a Muslim. Most of the terrorists today are religious. I prefer to say I have no religion.” (p.185) When religion becomes a tool for oppression at the hands of a government, it loses its sanctity for the people. Islamic Renaissance In a conversation with his half-brother in Pakistan, Taseer observes that Pakistanis, or at least his half-brother, were hoping that their religious leaders would bring an Islamic renaissance, just like the one that brought about by monks in Europe, which would bring again the civilizational glory of Islam. And then he makes an interesting remark, “In his (Taseer’s half-brother) excitement, he forgot what constituted the kind of renaissance he was thinking of. He forgot the industry of those European monks all those centuries ago, translating books from Arabic into the European languages. I’d been to enough madrassas in my life, in enough places, to know that the majority not only ignored books outside the Islamic past, they ignored the Islamic thinkers too; they taught only on Book.” (p.222) Taseer is right in his analysis. Based on my experience of the Indian madrasas, since I have spent many years studying there, I can argue that their exposure to education, not just modern but religious as well, is very limited. Madrasas have failed to achieve their objectives. Due to their flawed educational system, they are unable to impart proper religious education to their students. Madrasa students are illiterate in their own field. This ignorance is exhibited through their disengagement with the serious religious issues that Muslims are facing today. Islam is a complex religion. Its source, the Quran and Traditions, cannot be read atomistically in closed walls, as is the case in India. Nor can it be entwined with politics. Islam needs a serious and intellectual approach for its interpretations. In Muslim lands, people attach themselves to Islam either emotionally or politically, which is bad for both, the religion, and its followers. Even though, Taseer rarely engaged with political Islam in his book, he commented once on the disastrous consequence that political Islam had caused in some Muslim countries. He writes, “What I had discovered in Iran, and had sensed in Syria, was how violent and self-wounding the faith could become when it was converted from being a negative idea, a political and historical grievance against the modern world, into a positive one.” (p.206) Taseer’s book looks deep into the moral and psychological problems that Muslims are facing today, their conflict with the modern world, and sometimes, with their own. ---- Mohammad Ali has been a madrasa student. He has also participated in a three years program of the "Madrasa Discourses,” a program for madrasa graduates initiated by the University of Notre Dame, USA. Currently, he is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of interest include Muslim intellectual history, Muslim philosophy, Ilm-al-Kalam, Muslim sectarian conflicts, madrasa discourses. URL: New Age Islam, Islam Online, Islamic Website, African Muslim News, Arab World News, South Asia News, Indian Muslim News, World Muslim News, Women in Islam, Islamic Feminism, Arab Women, Women In Arab, Islamophobia in America, Muslim Women in West, Islam Women and Feminism

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