Craving Middleness

By Maryam Sakeenah

I travel across two worlds in my 20-minute commuting distance between both my workplaces: a modern religious school and a private grammar school where scions of Pakistan’s moneyed elite are privileged with quality education in tune with modern needs. The mindsets I deal with, the attitudes I encounter make for 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. Fidelity to the sacred is the highest value promoted and readily accepted – at least ostensibly – in an environment designed to actively encourage it. At the grammar school, the central value is free thinking and critical inquiry rigorously promoted by the administration. The curriculum is built around and disseminates post Enlightenment Western perspectives and metanarratives, with the fundamental premise being that of morality being relative, and of individual liberty being the highest value to be protected and safeguarded. Students are taught to invariably seek answers and explanations through logic, and question where the logical basis for an assumption seems unsatisfactory. While the tendency is generally positive, its universal and indiscriminate application may in fact be reminiscent of the cold, rock-hard post-Enlightenment Rationalism that post-Modernist thought struggles to throw overboard for some of the infamous disasters attributed to it.

It strikes me each time in my Religious Studies class I raise a point from within the Islamic tradition that requires acceptance through faithful submission. While the classes are delightfully interactive and invigorating with questions, debate and discussion, the same may also at times afford a glimpse into a stark, gaping abyss that lurks at the heart of this kind of education that carries the baggage of post Enlightenment thought.

I happened to mention in the course of a class discussion, the fact that the wearing of gold for men is strongly discouraged in the mainstream Islamic tradition, and was showered with sceptical comments on the rationale of the ruling that bordered on impertinence. ‘But guys look so cool with all those accessories, and what about those gorgeous wedding rings? What’s just so 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 – ‘God-consciousness’ (taqwa) – not attainable through the Logos alone.

The Western logocentric worldview ruthlessly drilled into these minds that privileges objective, empirical knowledge and rationalist thought over the intuitive ‘mythos’ does not help create the sentiment that can make the daily prayer an act of loving labour. Judged and perceived by the logocentric yardstick, worship rituals ‘lose the magic’, reduced to an arduous, necessary undertaking that doesn’t quite help in the business of life. Moreover, the prioritization of individual liberty as the core value makes the demands placed by religious belief on personal behaviour and conduct become confining and restricting. The ascendancy of Logos over Mythos 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 through the exercise of the mythos therefore is unappealing to the highly intellectualized mindset produced in modern urban schools. This also explains the rising incidence of Atheism in Pakistan’s institutions for the ‘privileged elite’ – high schools, colleges, universities. Encouraging a culture of questioning, critical thinking and non conformism to convention, this kind of a ‘privileged’ education makes Atheism an exciting alternative many like to consider with some seriousness and express with an audacity that becomes admirable in that educational context.

William Eggington writes in ‘How Religions Became Fundamentalist’: “One of the functions of religions was to teach people that the transcendent nature of ultimate reality was such that no human could ever, in principle, come to know the ultimate truth. What is crucial to grasp is that this core principle simultaneously sustains the existence of mythos and logos as two separate but equal domains of knowledge; for if the ultimate, all-encompassing questions are by nature infinite, if human knowledge in principle cannot grasp everything, then practical, objectifying logos is simply not relevant to such discussions, and the holistic, metaphoric standards of mythos have their place. Likewise, to the extent that modernity has allowed mythos to be pushed aside by the practical successes of the scientific method, the axial principle of the transcendence of ultimate knowledge has been weakened. But it is this principle that more than any other works to defend humanity from the dangers of its own certainty.”       

By ignoring and excluding the ‘mythos’ and 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 had 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’ above and beyond that abyss. Pascal famously said, ‘above the logic in the head is the feeling in the heart; and the heart has reasons of its own that the head cannot understand…’

On the other side, there is a conspicuous absence of religious discourse in our part of the world that can respond to or even grapple with this heightened propensity for questioning and demanding rational explanations. The rising numbers of young atheists across Pakistan’s higher education colleges and universities therefore is no surprise.

And then there is that other world. At Pakistan’s traditional religious schools (madrassahs), the ‘Dars e Nizami’ – a religious studies curriculum that dates from Deobandi seminaries in 18th century India – is taught. Although it is inaccurate to say that this curriculum is stuck in the medieval past it originated in, given the many new ideas and course contents added to it since, the fact remains that these new course contents deal largely with the refutation of the concepts of other religious schools of thought and sects. There are many madrassahs that also include in the course, a heavily lopsided critique and refutation of Western ideas. This threatens to develop exclusivist tendencies as well as what Sociologists would call a ‘world-rejecting’ orientation that pits the religious graduate against a monolithic and ‘otherized’ world full of false, evil and deviant ideas. According to Dr. Tariq Rahman, “Thus, while on the surface the madrassa curriculum is medieval and unchanging, in reality it changes to refute whatever seems to threaten it. This threat might be from alien religions or philosophies but the fact is that the madrassas do counter it. The madrassas, then, are not static institutions. They are not buried in the past; they are active and dynamic institutions which have seen themselves as being besieged since British days and which are still fighting against the external world.” (The Education of ‘Maulvis’: the Dars e Nizami debate)

The other half of my day is spent at a religious 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. However, lacking a comprehensive curriculum for a modern Islamic school competing with the urban private school and yet promising something unique in terms of faith, educators at the school face an uphill task. Without the necessary educational basis consisting of traditional aqeedah (the Islamic creed/belief/doctrine/theology) and tazkiyah (ethics, spirituality) science that can help students internalize the values the school aims to impart, these well-intentioned educators’ attempts to mould Muslim personalities in what is seen as an increasingly valueless society become reduced to a superficial imposition. This external emphasis without the internal grounding triggers off among students a variety of responses. Taking for example the issue of the Islamic dress code, the responses range from zealous espousal of it by a small minority, to reaction against the perceived imposition by asserting rejectionist behaviour on the contrary. There are many more that docilely accept the dress code, not understanding or appreciating its symbolism and significance, hence taking it as a matter of course. At best, many of these schools mushrooming now in urban centres, present an alternative environment for students to study much the same that they do in the regular schools, with desperate attempts to include religious jargon, uphold religious form and ritual. The advantages of the ‘Islamic environment’ promised by these schools are debateable, given its islandic and insular nature in a diverse, jostling external environment that the students of such schools eventually have to find space in the midst of.

However, all said, these kind of modern Islamic schools cannot and should not be so easily dismissed. This kind of school is a response by sincere, educated, religiously inclined novices to the world-rejecting outlook of traditional madrassahs, the obscurantist tendencies of religious clergy and the exclusivist teaching of fiqh (juristic) schools of thought adhered to by respective madrassah administrations. The modern Islamic school is an attempt to bridge gaps, and hence tries to fulfil an important need. However, these schools are in a nascent state, often employ amateurish methods and need to evolve towards maturation.

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 upon a head-on collision course. It is frightening because these ‘cultures’ overlap the stratification of the society along the lines of social class. This means that the university graduate possesses the cultural capital that eventually makes him monopolize resources, sit at the helm of affairs and control policy, even when his value-system is at the fringes of an otherwise deeply conventional religious society. He is poised for the control over the generation of ideas and opinion-making, and constructs inroads into the media and the academia. On the other hand is the culturally deprived religious seminary graduate whose fewer career prospects and the constant fear of poverty complicates the situation for him as he perceives himself as disempowered and reduced to a social underclass. The resentment this breeds means that he may not always react to this predicament in ways that may be measured and moderated. It means the existence- far from peaceful- of two clashing cultures and ideologies pitted against each other in this society. Often the clash is intellectually played out as the discourse and rhetoric emanating from both sides hardens against each other and becomes increasingly intolerant and damning towards the other side – be it from the religious or the secular-liberal fanatic.

I crave Middleness in a society pulled taught 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 may in fact be as characteristic of Islamic tradition as they are understood to be of modern ‘Western’ secular society. The two may not necessarily be mutually exclusive. Most of these values are shared and universal. However, given our cultural-religious context, these 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 in the least to think – as the secular-liberals tend to- that solutions to contemporary problems have to be found beyond religion, or that ‘progress’ has to ape the ‘Western’ paradigm and jettison religion like the Enlightenment West did – lock, stock and barrel. This narrow and superficial approach is the recipe for disaster that will understandably provoke a backlash from the religious sections of the society. The panacea seems to lie in a rediscovery and reassertion of the values of Islam that address contemporary issues – values that may not necessarily be averse to and against what many in the West may also have discovered and advocated: the values of social justice and human rights, tolerance and peaceful coexistence, rationalism and egalitarianism. Religious scholars must engage in the colossal task of reinstating this rather eclipsed Islamic discourse and narrative, evidence for which is voluminous in the Quran and the Sunnah (life and example of the Prophet PBUH). This must be presented in the language and method that can reach out to and address the modern mind. Central and most vital to a solution is the understanding that answers have to be sought (and are amply present) within the religious tradition of this society, and not outside of it. Trying to seek them outside of it is a self-defeating, mislaid endeavour.

Maryam Sakeenah lives in Lahore where she teaches Sociology and Religion at a high school and heads the O level program at an Islamic school. She also authored a book presenting a critique of the Clash of Civilizations theory. She is a social worker running an NGO which provides free virtual education to the poor.

An abridged version of this article appeared first in the Express Tribune magazine on April 1, 2012. The complete article is reproduced here with permission of the author.


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15 Responses to “Craving Middleness”

  1. Shariq Says:

    A very informative article I must say. Although I agree with some stuff that you wrote but I must ask you this: You mentioned that reason and logic is not ALWAYS applicable to Islam or any other religion for that matter. Why do you say that? If we simply take some things as given to us and not to be debated on, don’t you think that would send our society back to where it has been trying so hard to advance from? There are innumerable interpretations of Islamic laws and its up to the person to judge which ones are rational and make sense. If we don’t scrutinize these laws, how are we supposed to be actually free? How can we know what’s right if we don’t question? For example, the dress code in Islam is pretty controversial and there are many scholars who believe that covering the head is optional for women. And to me, their reasoning and explanation of Quranic verses make a LOT more sense than most other scholars. In other words, they’re much more logical. It doesn’t seem that they’re simply trying to mould words in order to make something ,that they apparently think should be there, obligatory. I am a Muslim and I reason and question every other “Islamic law” that is told to me. And I must say, it has helped me a lot in life. Now, I’m sure of what I believe in, rather than just blindly following it without any good justification. Beliefs without reason are mere preferences.

    Moreover, you mentioned how atheism is so rampant in Pakistan. Why is that so bad? Every person should be able to practice whatever he or she wants to as long as his beliefs and practices are not affecting others. Just because we are Muslims does not, in any way, give us the licence to make others follow our own faith. If, according to their own reasoning, some people are adopting atheism, it’s perfectly fine. At least they aren’t going around bombing people and killing “kuffars.” Reason and logic are in fact applicable everywhere including religion. If we don’t reason, we will not be able to arrive at the absolute truth that is somewhere out there. If some religious laws seem weird and contrary to common sense, its time we discuss and debate them and look at the sources more closely if we are to be free in the true sense of the word. The inhuman blasphemy law, which is nowhere in the Quran, being an example. Myths usually spawn prejudices and provide a good cover for biased, unreasonable and harsh laws to flourish in.

  2. SouthAsian Says:

    For the moment I have one observation about the “rising number of young atheists in Pakistan” leaving aside the matter of the extent to which that might be true.

    There was a time, say over a 1000 years ago, when there were no Muslims is what is now Pakistan. At some point their numbers began to rise. This must have been viewed with great concern by the majority of the time. Now we look back at the phenomenon in a very positive light as a testament to the superiority of the new faith.

    Here is the counterfactual proposition to consider: Is it not possible that a thousand years from now people would look upon the rise of atheism in Pakistan in a similar way?

    • Anil Kala Says:

      In addition I want to know is this really true i.e. rising number of atheists?

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Anil: The author would have to substantiate the claim. My own observation is to the contrary; the tide has been running the other way. Individuals who would have been religious in the cultural sense a few generations back are much more invested in belief now. One can look at the orientation of the officers in the armed forces and the bureaucracy to see the change over time.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Anil: This article conveys the prevailing opinion that the tide in Pakistan is running the other way towards a greater involvement in religion by the better off:

        “Though there are no statistics and most evidence is anecdotal, a new wave of interest in more conservative strands of Islam among wealthier and better educated women in Pakistan appears clear.”

    • Anil Kala Says:

      SA, I have been thinking about your comment. In another time some 1000 years back the rising conversion to Islam could have been viewed amusedly. Just as a large majority today views homosexuality quite indifferently, uninterestedly.

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Anil: I would like to believe that times would have been different 1000 years ago. Nowadays I find people amused by very little; rather, there is a lot of moral righteousness and moral anger. In any case, being amused and being indifferent and uninterested are somewhat different. And even there, I don’t see homosexuality being treated with indifference – look at the debates in the US where the demand for equal rights is being met with fierce resistance.

      • Anil Kala Says:

        SA, I mean at common folks level there isn’t such a hot debate going. Besides 1000 years back, Hindus didn’t consider themselves vast majority, they were a deeply fractured community on the basis of castes. Initial conversion to Islam would have been formation of just another group. Only when it acquired critical mass, they must have felt threatened.

        • SouthAsian Says:

          Anil: I agree that at the common folks level there is not much debate but that could be simply because some subjects are considered embaraasing or taboo in society. Recall Ahmadinejad saying at Columbia University that there was no homosexuality in Iran. Recall the controversies that broke in India on the publication of stories or the release of films on these themes. I can imagine that if in a family of common folks someone expresses the preference for a same-sex marriage the reaction would not be one of amusement.

          On conversions to Islam 1000 years ago you are probably right. My guess is that this issue started to become politically charged following the introduction of the census in India in the 1870s and the transition to representative governance centered around religion and separate electorates.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Here’s the fundamental dichotomy: the quest for knowledge requires dispassionate inquiry in which absolutely no topic is sacred or beyond scrutiny while Islam regards itself above scrutiny and demands absolute, unquestioned adherence. The two are mutually irreconcilable. A free mind would very much question Islam itself – after all, it’s nothing but a set of ideas. A free mind, upon finding Islam to be nothing but a political ideology masquerading as religion full of archaic and ridiculous notions would not hesitate in calling it out as such and treat it with the contempt it deserves. However, if your very intellectual sandbox is defined within the boundaries drawn by Islam itself, it can’t really produce too much wisdom, can it?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Anonymous: Are you claiming that there are some faiths that are more than political ideologies masquerading as religion full of archaic and ridiculous notions that free minds would not hesitate in calling out as such and treating with the contempt they deserve?

    • Anonymous Says:

      I guess I should have added : that is why there cannot be a middle path. One viewpoint encourages fearless inquiry into all questions. The other asks for unquestioned submission. How can the two meet? And what if the viewpoint that asks for unquestioned submission is actually nothing but just fraud and nonsense, as I suspect Islam to be?

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Well, are you claiming that there are some faiths that are *not* more than political ideologies masquerading as religion full of archaic and ridiculous notions that free minds would not hesitate in calling out as such and treating with the contempt they deserve?

  5. SouthAsian Says:

    “In 864 CE, the great physician, Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakaria al-Razi, wrote: “The miracles of the prophets are imposters or belong to the domain of pious legend. The teachings of religions are contrary to the one truth: the proof of this is that they contradict one another. It is tradition and lazy custom that have led men to trust their religious leaders. Religions are the sole cause of the wars which ravage humanity; they are hostile to philosophical speculation and to scientific research. The alleged holy scriptures are books without values”.

    Following a rich scholarly life, and a tenure as director of the hospital in Baghdad patronised by the caliph Abu al-Qasim Abd ‘Allah, al-Razi died quietly at his home in Rey, surrounded by his students. In modern India, his thoughts would have led him to a somewhat less pleasant end.”

  6. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Maryam: This might be of interest re your hypothesis:

    Does Analytic Thinking Erode Religious Belief?

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