How I learnt where Islam ends, and culture begins

Published: November 29, 2011
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Most imams in Pakistan preach hatred and violence. However, a small segment encourage peace and mercy too. PHOTO: SHAHBAZ MALIK

Like the vast majority of Pakistanis, I was raised a Muslim. Being ‘raised’ Muslim, to my best knowledge, means that during my childhood and as I grew older, I was exposed to Islamic teachings. I had a maulvi sahab, I read the Holy Quran, learned how to pray and was taught the history and fundamental principles, or pillars of the religion.

Till my teens, I was in my opinion a good Muslim. I found it very difficult to lie, I gave charity, I prayed, I fasted, I respected my parents, and forgave those who hurt me. I was satisfied with my religious beliefs because they supported the good nature that I believed I had, and promised rewards for acts of kindness and worship which I enjoyed doing.

This all was soon to change.

As I grew older, I started paying greater attention to sermons that followed Friday prayers. That’s when I received my first shock; I remember it vividly even though I was only 14-years-old. The Imam said that all non-Muslims were infidels and that the entire world was to be brought under the banner of Islam even if it was by force. The feelings that overcame me after are hard to describe – I barely got through my prayers.

I decided to ignore what I heard and just move on, but as time went on, it only got worse. Speeches of hatred against Ahmadi Muslims gave me headaches especially because one of my closest friends was from the Ahmadiyya sect. Discrimination against Jews and western culture was a favourite topic in most mosques I visited, and above all justification and celebration for acts of terror like 9/11 is what brought me to my point of saturation.

The point of saturation was me going up to my parents and grandparents to confess my thoughts about what it seemed Islam was preaching.

I was terrified.

I didn’t want to sound like an ‘infidel’, but rather discuss perhaps the truth regarding religion and violence.

That’s when it all changed.

My grandfather who was very religious, and quite a terrific man, told me of the bigotry of modern maulvis. He told me that a major message in Islam is to educate oneself. He proceeded to quote the Holy Prophet (pbuh) to me and said that philosophy is just like a faithful camel which you can take with you wherever you go. These words stuck to me like glue, and after that day I spent many hours everyday studying Islam, reading various translations of the Holy Quran and also the hadith of the Prophet (pbuh) to the best of my ability.

I want to clear that not all Imams at the mosques I prayed in Pakistan spoke so violently. Many were moderate and chose not to speak on terrorism or tolerance, but instead talked about good deeds and forgiveness. However, they were a minority. After my own study I realized so many things in the society I lived in were cultural practices disguised under the banner of religion. For example I learned that Islam calls for modesty when one dresses , yet in many families women are forced to cover their entire bodies, faces included. I researched this back to a practice called ‘purdah’ (veil) in medieval India. This was done to restrict the movement of women and to lower their status as compared to men at a time where there was immense gender discrimination. I never found an Islamic teaching asking for such layering of a woman.

Another thing I noticed was women being married against their will. These women are  forced to leave their homes and live in their husband’s household with his family. Islam categorically forbids forced marriages and gives the wife the right to refuse to live with her husband’s parents or siblings if she chooses. But if a woman should make such a demand in parts of society today, she can expect the worst. Amongst some cases I have heard, a woman was once told that God would give her misery for denying her husband’s home, even though she was married forcefully and her mother-in-law was torturing her.

Honour killings and violence against Ahmadis are justified in Pakistan today using religion as well. The latter in my opinion is due to the lack of education, radicalism and misguidance, but the former is another cultural practice. I am certainly no religious scholar or expert on Islam; far from it, but nowhere in any part of the religion have I come across justification for such horrid acts of violence and lunacy.

The idea of writing this blog came to me, ironically, during Friday prayers at my university here in Illinois in the United States. In our prayer hall we had a special guest Imam. He was from Turkey and delivered an exceptional sermon on religious harmony, tolerance and equality. After the prayers I wanted to go speak to him. I broke the ice by telling him my last name was also ‘Agha’ and had family roots in Turkey. That turned out to be a good idea and we engaged in conversation. This man supported every argument I made about religion, peace, tolerance and equality. In fact he improved my arguments by making several references from the Quran regarding force and religion.

He told me I was quite right about societies preaching culture as religion. He explained how religion was one of the few things that requires faith in the unseen and that means believing in something that can never be ultimately proven scientifically. He said that because of this some people developed an unshakable trust in their religion, and so, if taught religion irresponsibly they could find justification of immoral practices that were a violent part of their ancient culture.

It all started to make sense. People in positions of power could mould religion in ways that they wanted, to support their ideas or practices because no one questions religion. In a similar way our history is often distorted in ways that makes us feel good about ourselves, hides our mistakes, or represents the past in a way we prefer. This is why we never hear of Pakistani aggression in a war against India, or massacres by us in East Pakistan. This is why a man like Jinnah who owned so many suits is always, in our memory, wearing a kurta and a hat. It’s all because the way we are taught history and religion is wrong. It is not impartial and it is evidently biased and presently the only way to realize the absolute truth is to educate ourselves. The difference between Molana Agha and the imams and maulvis back home was that he was very educated and put his religion before his culture.

The Islam I came to know made me liberal and tolerant. I have unshakable egalitarian values and I believe in freedom and justice for all. Yet, simply because of my religious beliefs people call me a hard-core rightist. I blame this on governance. Religion is a very sensitive issue, and in my opinion only people tested and qualified should be permitted to educate people in matters of religion. Why do parents trust maulvis with the task of teaching their children Islam? What qualification do they have? Sure, some may be learned and might teach well, but how do we know? Thanks to my maulvi sahab until I was 16 I thought according to Islam, the devil, or Iblees, was an angel. After self study I discovered he was actually a Jinn, and he could never have disobeyed God as an angel because angels do not have free will.

This says enough about most maulvis and imams. My contention with education in Pakistan is similar. I just want the truth, and I want it from people properly qualified who are willing to tell even the ugly truth, but they must be impartial. The truth needs to be told and maybe by doing this the true spirit of religion, which talks against force, hatred and intolerance, will come forward too. Maybe then one day we will not be looked down upon for promoting religious beliefs and it will not be a popular fashion to stray away from them. But for this, major reforms need to be made in the administration, and more importantly, in the syllabi. Until then we will never know our true history; we will never learn about the mistakes we made as a country; we will never know the true persona’s of our forefathers. Moreover, the world will continue to learn about the version of our religion that encourages violence. In this way, the true face of Islam that preaches tolerance and peace will, in times to come, be lost forever.

What a tragic thought this is. Tragic indeed.

Abu Bakr Agha

Abu Bakr Agha

A software engineer, musician, writer and activist from Islamabad, currently based in Chicago. He tweets @AB_Agha (twitter.com/AB_Agha)

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