Degenerating the Faith (2)
Classical Muslim scholars used to divide travel and travel writing into two categories. First is what they called rihla — a description of what the traveller did, saw or experienced. Ibn Battuta’s travelogues are the best known in this genre. However, rihla can also be more than mere narratives and descriptions. They can form the basis of scientific enquiry. An example of this kind of rihla is the 11th century polymath Al Biruni’s description of India. Travelling under the protection of Mahmud of Ghazni, Al Biruni studied sciences and mathematics and wrote Tarikh al Hind — one of the most comprehensive books on pre-Islam subcontinent. In fact, great rihla, according to the scholars, had to have some analysis as well as description.
There is another tradition of travel and travel writing among the learned Muslims of yore, that of safr. Safr is the word for travel or journey in most north and east Indian languages, including Bangla. To the 11th century Sufi philosopher Al-Ghazali, safr meant any travelling through which a person evolves. To him, safr meant as well as the physical act of travelling somewhere, mixing with the inhabitants of that land, imbibing oneself with their customs and ways, and evolving into a person closer to Allah.
Al-Ghazali further categorised travellers: those who travel seeking knowledge, the best kind; the Hajis; the immigrants — the Prophet himself was an immigrant; and the refugees, the worst kind.
What is the line between an immigrant and a refugee? Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul have both written about the uprooting involved in migration. Both have noted that at some level or other, all migrants are really refugees. But for Naipaul, the uprooting is mostly a bad thing. Rushdie is open to the possibility of migration leading to something new. Migrants are works of translation, he writes.
Those of you who have read the Quran probably have done so in translation. Translation then can’t always be bad.
Ziauddin Sardar is a translated man, born in rural Punjab but growing up in the post-Raj London. He is also a well-traveled man, traversing the Muslim world over the past half century, looking for the meaning of his faith in today’s world. Appropriately, the sub-title of his semi-memoir is Journeys of a sceptical Muslim.
The pan-Islam identity came early to Sardar. As did political activism —he came of age in the 1960s, after all. He joined the Federation of Students’ Islamic Society in 1962, where he was introduced to the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami. The organisations vied for the control of FOSIS, with whom Sardar participated in protests against the Nasser regime’s execution of Sayyid Qutb of the Brotherhood and the Israeli victory in the Six Day War.
Sardar met Abul A’la Maududi in 1969, and immersed himself in the latter’s writing. Reservations developed quite quickly —the Maulana seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the world I inhabited…. he saw women as innately inferior…. opinions were uninformed, his reasoning rather shabby, and the utopia he had constructed … a non-place for non-people. Sardar found Jamaat members to be profoundly ignorant, in the deepest sense of the word.
Our paradise-seeking young Muslim was more attracted to the Brotherhood, including the slogan that Sardar wholeheartedly chanted: Allah is our objective / The Messenger is our Leader / The Quran is our Law / Jihad is our way / Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.
And yet, this too he started doubting: how can the Quran be the law if the law is to serve a dynamic society? —A book of eternal guidance, as the Quran describes itself, cannot be reduced down to a fixed set of laws.
From FOSIS and Islamist activism he became increasingly disenchanted —…group of Islamist friends were short on two things: self-doubt and forgiveness. The first led many to see the world in black and white. The second sowed the seeds of discord among us.
Turning away from political activism, Sardar sought personal piety and spirituality. Upon being visited by Tabligh Jamaat, he joined their dawa, and a adventures that you could totally empathise with if you ever been with the group. Sardar says in the very first page of his book:…when all else fails, the mosque offers a place of refuge he says in the first page—an idea that ought to resonate with any believer.
It’s not long before Sardar soured on Tabligh Jamaat’s ritualistic, formulaic pieties. For spirituality, he turned to Sufi mysticism. He couldn’t reject Sufism as such, given his own mystical experience. But the Sufism he saw in the 1970s appeared to him as nothing more than various guru cults of the era.
Not finding what he was seeking among the fellow believers of the Old Blighty, Sardar hit the road as the oil from the desert well filled the coffers of the monarchies and republics in the cradle of civilisation. Intermingling the history with the Nazari Shias, better known as the Assassins, with the post-oil boom pre-revolution days in Iran, the Gulf, Iraq and Syria of mid-1970s, Sardar’s account is full of premonitions of storms to come.
For a Muslim, all paths must lead to Mecca. So it was for the peripatetic Mr Sardar, who was offered a job in 1975 by the Hajj Research Centre whose mission was to protect Mecca’s traditional architecture from being bulldozed by the oil rich Saudis. Considering the Vegas-without-the-boobs that has been built around the Holy Cube, Sardar obviously failed in this mission. He tells us why it was a doomed mission. We get a scorching indictment of Saudi racism, and a searing critique of Wahhabism — we’ll come back to this.
As for the Hajj itself, Sardar leaves the reader with a sense of what it can mean to be a part of humanity that descends upon the Plain of Arafat. But can isn’t the same as does:
In the area where the devils are stoned, which has been converted on the unmistakable model of a multi-level car park, I was nearly crushed to death as a wave of pilgrims came toppling down, cascading over the edge of top level, propelled over this precipice by the weight of humanity behind them anxious for their opportunity cast out evil…. I was constantly harassed, shooed and beaten with a long stick by the religious police inside the Sacred Mosque. As I sat in the Sacred Mosque, reconstructed to resemble an underground station complete with escalators, the entire area was bathed in night-banishing light.
Even as he left the Kingdom, Sardar became even more determined to work for an Islamic revival. He helped a friend — one Kalim Siddiqui who later gained notoriety during the Rushdie affair — set up the Muslim Institute for Research and Planning, while the Islamic revolution and aftermath played out in Iran and beyond. Siddiqui became closely linked with the revolutionary Iran, sanctioning ‘elimination’ of all those who opposed the new rulers of Tehran as counter-revolutionaries. Sardar travelled to Iran to see things first hand, got stopped at the Mehrabad Airport on the suspicion of being a spy, and was deported. Meanwhile, Siddiqui threatened to break his leg if he ever approached the Institute.
By the 1980s, the nature of Sardar’s travel changed, even as that of his travails remained the same. He observed that this was the decade of conferences and seminars where the buzz word was ‘Islamisation’. As an active participant in the Islamisation-conference-circuit, he worked with a Pennsylvania-based Palestinian scholar, edited a magazine, listened to General Zia-ul-Huq describe humane introduction of amputation-and-stoning variety of the Shariah, and explored the practice of Islam in Red China and Kemalist Turkey.
In Pakistan, madrassah students denounced Sardar for being insufficiently Islamic on account of his lack of facial hair, while Osama Bin Laden made a cameo —A tall, thin Saudi, with a turban and a wispy beard. In China, he received a marriage proposal. The philosophical meanderings of these chapters are perhaps the weakest part of the book, but the discussions on the Shariah and its unequal treatment of women and the need and feasibility of an Islamic approach to secularism are among the most astute of observations Sardar makes.
As the 1980s drew to a close, the Salman Rushdie affair hit. Sardar tells us that even as he found Rushdie ‘unforgivable’, Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa made him … redundant as an intellectual. Implicit in the the fatwa is the proposition that Muslim thinkers are too feeble to defend their own beliefs.
Perhaps to escape it all, Sardar travelled east, to Malaysia, befriending Anwar Ibrahim, only to be dismayed by the ugliness of Malaysian politics, living in the rainforests of Sarawak to avoid being contaminated by globalisation, only to discover the village congregating to watch Terminator 2.
(to be continued)