The Banishment of Wisdom

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I AM not very fond of conspiracy theories. There was some ire and annoyance over the insistence by the usual conspiracy-theorizing lot that there was a ‘foreign hand’ behind the bloodbath of Christian citizenry in Peshawar. But I am not trading in conspiracy theories for the time being.

What unsettles me is the fact that whoever the puppeteer, the puppets that act it out and allow themselves to be manipulated are one of us – people like you and me. What makes the heart miss a beat is the perturbing, eternally-staring-in-the-face How? and Why?

For if a single individual can give his life to wreak destruction on innocents with such brazen, insensate brute-force like a mechanized killing monster with a human face, my hair stands on end and I wonder, what went wrong?

I can make the connection between the mindset that can ready itself to kill another of a different creed out of searing, blinding, dehumanizing hate and the mindset that rejects the teaching of the History of Religions in schools. The difference is that while the former is deprived of privilege and marginalized by a society stratified by class, the latter is urban upper-middle class, privileged by education.

In a country where life and honour are dirt-cheap; where bare survival is a struggle; where economic indicators are abysmal; where prejudices and hate abound and where foreign interests play out undetected, the fact that the teaching of Religious History became the hottest issue on the social media for weeks is deplorable. It is an unfortunate testament of the times. It signifies a rabid, jittery, paranoid sense of insecurity about the faith we profess.

On a certain level it is somewhat understandable given how after 9/11, Islam as an identity has been put on the defensive. A terribly uninformed dominant narrative speckled with blind spots has been globalized. The political and intellectual assault of the strident secular clique on the Muslim world has created a reactionary conservatism arising out of insecurity and fear of loss of identity in a world that functions on the pernicious ‘West versus the Rest’ schism.

The disastrous consequences of this reactionary conservatism are appalling.

The prevalent attitude of religious chauvinism and hegemony among Muslims and the manic enthusiasm to monopolize and legitimize a single unvarying and unaccommodating interpretation of religious truth is born out of the Heart of Darkness where Hubris sits enthroned with its clay feet. Righteousness degenerates into Self-righteousness, giving way to a sneering narcissism that gazes at its own magnified image trivializing all others. It creates a terribly blinkered worldview that excludes and oversimplifies. It is afraid of intellectual scrutiny, aware of its untenability. It is intolerant and unrelenting.

And in the thick of this melee what we most brutally sin against is Islam, the ethos of whose tradition is vilely distorted and misunderstood; whose call is unheard in a deafening clamour of clash and confrontation and vain argumentation.

Doubt and questioning need to be appreciated as stepping stones to genuine faith and in fact the foundation of secure faith. Such secure, poised faith can also be an antidote to religious fundamentalism. Ibrahim A.S’s journey to the truth recorded by Allah in the Quran begins with questioning and grapples with a doubt that is thoroughly human and inescapable. Ibrahim (A.S)’s faith was inexorable and passionate because he had reached conviction after genuine questioning and honest inquiry.

Faith is not imposed or policed. Faith is not attained through voluntary partial blindness to the complexity of life. Faith cannot be seated in the narcissistic self. Faith is not attained without seeking, inquiring, discovering and wrestling with doubt. Those who shrink from the effort will always have the faith of the verbal testament, the external facade. And it will always give them the delusion of being Holier than thou. It will always be supercilious, self-righteous, condescending and hegemonic- and pathetically superficial.

A Christian delegation from Najran consisting of Christian theologians and priests visited the Prophet (SAW) and undertook exhaustive religious discussion with the Prophet (SAW). The delegates were treated honourably although none chose to accept Islam. The Prophet (SAW) concluded a peace treaty with their Chiefs and Bishops, which guaranteed rights, liberties and protection.

In another instance, the Prophet (SAW) asked Zaid bin Sabit (R.A) to learn the  Hebrew and Syriac languages in order to engage with the Ahl ul Kitab (Jews and Christians). He was appointed to communicate and correspond with non-Muslims.

The two batches of students who had completed the course at the private school where the Religious Studies course was taught had views on the subject that are deeply insightful about the raison de etre for experimenting with a project of the sort at the school level.

Maryam Ahmad of class IX said studying the course ‘answered my question, Why Islam? We cannot just blindly follow a religion, we have to know why we believe in it.’

Eman Imran of class VIII said the course helped her not to judge and stereotype unfairly those who believe differently. It also made her understand that faith is embedded deeply in the hearts of mankind and religions express this faith in many ways… but most importantly it taught her why Islam is actually a universal faith and why we have chosen to be Muslims.

The controversy over the teaching of Religious Studies that included faiths other than Islam also resonates with pertinent questions about the role of an unruly commercialized and sensationalist media. The program that first raised the issue was based on a set of lies, half-truths and exaggeration in order to stoke conservative religious sentiment to score brownie points in order to increase viewership. No one was really concerned about ascertaining the truth of the spurious claims from a dubious source of information.

But there are still bigger questions that echo even after the hype dies down and we move on to other issues for drawing room small talk. There are vital questions that arise about the aim and methodology of religious instruction in schools. In a world teeming with ideas that influence, interact, integrate, rebound and abound, diversifying a programme of religious instruction in order to put Religion in perspective through its evolution over eons, the power of the God idea and the universal essence of revealed religion that Islam fulfils, perfects and protects is right after the Quranic call to “ Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with ‘Hikmah’ (wisdom) and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.” (16:125)

Hikmah , the verse says, is the key: a deep wisdom and sagacity and a profound insightful understanding of ideas, issues, human psychology and society and how religion bears upon it; a sense of caution, a humility, a gentility. In the midst of all this grand mess, the greatest casualty has been Al Hikmah. The greatest unmourned tragedy is the banishment of ‘Hikmah’from our wretched lives.

Maryam Sakeenah is a Pakistan-based independent researcher and freelance writer on International politics, human rights and Islam. She divides her time between teaching high school, writing, research and voluntary social work. She also authored a book ‘Us versus Them and Beyond’ analyzing the Clash of Civilization theory and the role of Islam in facilitating intercultural communication.

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