Degenerating the Faith
Being a Bangladeshi student in the urban west of the 1990s wasn’t easy.
Leaving home for a strange place — whether from a village in Maheshkhali for Dhaka University, or from Dhaka to foreign cities — is difficult for anyone in their late teens. And at any age, student or otherwise, it is hard to move to a city. Cities, metropoles that are cosmopolitan, dense with information to overload all the senses, and yet a depressing place where you are likely to be all alone amid the teeming multitude. You seek to belong, because you find solace as part of something that is bigger than your mundane existence.
The thing is, there just wasn’t much in the Bangladesh identity to attract many Bangladeshi students in the urban west of the 1990s. What was there that you could pin your existence on? 1971? Not particularly persuasive for a generation that came of age during the first salvos of the infantile history wars. Cricket? Well, winning the ICC Trophy was hardly an Hadrian achievement. And your local community? That was likely to be full of bitter uncle-types with whom life hasn’t been kind, and who in turn were not kind to each other in their quest to become head honchos of the local community — something that appeared to be a crowning accomplishment for many.
In that vacuum of identity, for many a lost and depressed young men — and a few young women too but mostly men, as young women hadn’t started striking out on their own quite yet —Islam was the solution. Some found salvation in Islam directly. Others came to the faith by a detour of intoxicated debauchery and troubles that accompany. Whatever your path, once you found Islam, you found peace.
For a while.
For a while, praying in a congregation, with brothers of many shapes, sizes, stations of life, gave you that sense of belonging that you so craved. You knew that you were part of something much grander than your petty self when your forehead touched the ground, when you sat upright on your knees, feet folded backwards, and turned your head this way first and then that way. For a while, you were home.
For a while.
Then for most people things changed.
Most likely, you finished your studies, started a career, got married, got a mortgage, got a kid or two or three You grew up, and you had all the tribulations of the grown up life. Your faith may have helped you when you discovered your mother had a terminal illness. But you didn’t turn to divine intervention for that promotion you really sought, or to repay the loan that you took out for that BMW X5. Now, you pray as often as you could, though in practice that means you pray only on Fridays, and even that when there isn’t a meeting you need to attend. You fast as many days as you can, though in the high latitude summer this means in practice often fasting on the weekends only. You are pretty diligent about your alms though, and you never fail to slaughter a number of animals every year. And as you approach 40 — likely to be the case if you went to university in the 1990s — you start planning for a trip to Mecca.
And every once in a while, as you see the news, you become aggrieved about the ummah.
That, dear reader, has been the case for most of us who went through the pan-Islamic phase in our youth. You see, most of us never actually read the Quran in a language we were fluent in. Sure, some tried it, and found the book pretty hard, and accepted that it was beyond our limited faculty. As for those few who persisted, two things tended to happen. Either they rejected the message altogether, claiming the holy book and the associated traditions to be fairy tales if not dangerous nonsense. Or, they embraced a literal reading of the book or a ritual following of the Prophet’s tradition.
As someone who found faith as a young man before having that faith degenerate with age, randomly picking up Ziauddin Sardar’s Desperately Seeking Paradise in a now-defunct Borders ten years ago, I thought I was reading about myself.
(To be continued).