I recall a deeply ingrained memory from about 20 years ago. I was a teenager and like many people from my background and diaspora, I visited Pakistan. I was suffering from a very bad skin problem and at the behest of my Aunt, I was told to visit a dermatologist. Like all cultural idiosyncrasies, this was no ordinary Doctor. This was a Doctor with a “healing hand!” Of course it was. The place I was staying at was like Ayn Rand’s wet dream. A thoroughly colonised estate surrounded by clean roads, imported green lawns, flowing electricity and roads with road names. It was a peculiar oddity because the surrounding area outside of the heavily guarded ‘colony’ was nothing but arid land and poverty, a personification of modern Pakistan. One is the reality and the other an idea of a colonial occidental utopia. So I went to see this Doctor. In I went and sat behind a curtain. I was called in. My Aunt sat with me. This was due to the fact that the Doctor insisted that she not sit alone with myself. All I saw was her eyes. Even her hands were covered. As I analysed this oddity, I ruminated the purpose of this disguise. Was it to protect her identity? Or protect her from gazing molesting male eyes? Who was she? A doctor? A female? An alien? Finally, I realised that I was not the colonised being, she was. Like many of my generation, I was placeless. After her prognosis on my condition. She said something that has stayed with me forever. It has haunted my psyche and became an ingrained echo in my ears, reminding me every day. This is what she said;
‘Women don’t care about men’s looks, they care about what’s in their pockets.’
There was no indication or context for her to say that. I was firmly taken aback and thoroughly disgusted. At this juncture I must say, that I don’t think I’m a bad looking guy and I scrub up well once I’ve had a shower. This isn’t so much that she hurt my fragile ego. it was more than that. What it did do was cement my worldview of identity. This faceless thing had resorted to making Islam a foreign idea for me. My subconscious never trusted a woman covering her face/identity like that ever again. I felt, they were victims of an idea of Islam that formed through defences against imperialism and vitriol. Furthermore, what she said had hurt. If you, who dress up like an unknown object, distil your religion to justify material mechanics. Then surely, the Islam you practise is just a façade. A curtain like your Niqab (face covering), hiding the monster beneath. The monster of false worship and lies. Dare you reveal your identity, as that would reveal your true self. We all wear masks everyday in our lives. Hiding our hidden insecurities and monsters.
My journey with identity continued throughout my life and this is the intellectual place of where I am today.
I often wonder at the fluke of our inherited identities struck upon us like heavy things that burden us or privilege us. None of these things were chosen for us. Especially when it comes to religion and race. I do believe in our age these two identities have become intrinsically linked.
More recently, I’ve been soul searching due to the recent ‘burkini’ debacle and the recent terror attacks. Many of us who call ourselves ‘Muslims’, are in fact culturally Muslim. We have no idea how we got here and why? ‘Here’ being our physical bodies as well as our intellectual decline. Instead, we will get defensive at the slightest accusation at our collective Islamic self.
Being born into Thatcher era Britain, into a Pakistani Muslim family has certainly given my generation an interesting prism to view the world. I grew up with racism from the far right, teachers were still exercising light disciplinary punishments, schoolyards were a fertile ground to learn of all the ills of colonial reactions. Being called a ‘paki’ was commonplace. Fights between Sikhs, Muslims and the ‘Gora’ (white people) were a daily occurrence. I was acutely aware of where my place in society was. My inferiority complex was complete. The mental conditioning of the ‘other’ was beaten into me at home and outside. I was a ‘paki’ outside and at home the western ‘gora’ was a decadent, wasteful, shameless animal. My narrative was a comfortable one. But, like others of my generation. We didn’t find a kindred spirit in our South Asian relatives, countries or social mores. We didn’t find a home in a society that couldn’t accept our colour either.
Then, we found Islam.
The Islam we found was a panacea to our ills of integration. Our solution to the problem of marriage to our Pakistani cousins and a political rebellion to the ‘oppressive west’. This became more acute during the Bosnian war and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Our youngsters felt angry at the West’s lack of action to the massacre of Bosnian Muslims and treatment of Palestinians. The reality was that much of that was exploited and hijacked by the Saudi imported Wahhabi belief. We became puppets on a string. Treating the world in a simplistic mono morality.
This leech that founded its way into my generation was initially reacted upon by our parents with their backward religion of singing songs in mosques, poetry recitals, rice biryani sessions and Milad (birthday of the Prophet) celebrations. Little did we know, that this polarisation was a reaction against our parents foreign culture. From a religious perspective, it was merely a cultural expression of their ‘brelvi'(an Indo-Pak Sufi Sect) religion. I find nothing wrong with that expression on a superficial level. Whilst our parents were just happy to see us pray, they did not see the seeds that were planted many years ago and where it would lead us to where we are today.
They had no idea.
How would they know who the Ahle Hadith, Hizb u Tahrir, Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood were. To them, they were just Wahhabis who didn’t respect the Prophet. Not realising, that the problem was legal, theological and philosophical. A seed planted so many years ago that it became the monster it is today. Those whispers about all that Saudi money, billions thrown into silence serious academia was thwarted by this hostile takeover of a version of Islam which lay dormant for centuries. Like a twisted phoenix it arose in our age to poison the well. So much so, that the line was no longer visible. I didn’t know for years who stood for humanity and mercy. I became tired of the consistent contradiction within the religion. I had a problem with the Prophet marrying a 9 year old, stoning adulterers, capital punishment for apostates, women rights and archaic illogical rulings that defeated rationality. So appalled that I left my religion secretly. My bows and prayers were just for show. I hated my Imams who couldn’t even speak English, who couldn’t explain a simple common sense proposal. ‘Common sense’ I learned was not allowed. As humans were too inferior to understand the reasons behind certain things. Eventually, I became a Quranist for the longest period of my life. My brain simply couldn’t correlate the idea that Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) were divine, because they simply were not. They were an array of some good things and some wretched things that contradicted the Quran and insulted the intelligence. Things did come full circle eventually and I reconciled my beliefs with a more pragmatic approach. An approach where we all need to stop looking at secondary texts/sources at face value. A high level of scrutiny is necessary in every level of religious information.
In essence, my reaction to the faith was not dissimilar to how my generation reacted against the mixed messages of our parents and our academics. They adopted an Arabised, ‘camel culture’ version of Islam and I adopted a surgically excised version of it. Both were a decolonisation of the East and West. Both were without any interpretation, both were new innovations. One was calling to the ‘golden’ age and the other for extreme liberalism or perhaps an appeasement to the land that finds my faith so foreign.
I realised once I was born again, that we were left with two extreme polarities. Salafism or ‘moderate’ Islam. This dichotomy presents a divisive force onto our generation today, presenting in a divorced identity. Ultimately, my allegiance now isn’t to the Quran, God or his Prophet. It is an absolute allegiance to the truth. That is by proxy the greatest allegiance to my faith.
A further exacerbation my generation of British Muslims of Pakistani origin felt were the social problems inherent in our South Asian culture. We learned a hard line version of Islam. Growing up in that version of Islam tore us apart with the extreme contradictions and dichotomies presented to us whilst growing up. The worst and most harming of these polarisations is the false message of progression and wealth. We were taught not to mimic the ‘dirty’ gora(white westerner) due to his inherent misguidance and bestial nature. We consciously separated ourselves from everyone – to the delight of the English person, as it’s clear they wanted the same thing and thought the same of us as we did of them – yet we were taught to learn from their institutions and to garnish ourselves with a western education. We were taught to forsake the world and its material wealth – yet South Asian culture was ostensibly measured by how much wealth you had. We were taught that music is haram, yet indian films weren’t, decadent displays of wealth are wrong, yet you’re judged by the money and power you have, not free mixing of sexes, yet love poetry and films were abound with the rebellion of love, double standards of love, marriage and expectations – we were however expected to just marry whoever our parents chose. They of course, had raised their offspring to medieval levels of obedience. They didn’t even know us, yet they could choose the right person for our life partners? Yes, the gora(white man) is bad, anything western is bad, yet marrying a fair skinned woman is not frowned upon, yet complaining about the white man is acceptable. He is the vilified ‘other’ that we also claim to be.
This frenzy of puritanism can be explained as a logical reaction to colonial rule and a fervent fight for self-determination. As much as I can rationalise and understand that, it was implemented incorrectly. We adopted a puritan, extreme version of Islam and associated that with culture. The truth is when our parents came to the UK – the idea of a ‘Pakistani culture’ was a murmur. It was a new creation. What we had in fact adopted was neither Pakistani culture or Islamic. Our parents had reinforced their belief that Islam provided all the answers. They ‘religiousised’ everything i.e. we bought religion into everything. You can’t even make a cup of tea without someone telling you the correct ‘Sunna’ way of doing it. In confusion, all of this made my generation into drug dealers at worst and empty vessels of a capitalist machine on the other. Unfortunately, we got so torn up we did things in the quiet shadows of the night. Many of us saw ‘white’ women as fair game and dealing drugs because we operating in a system that we felt wasn’t fair to us.
I don’t believe we had a choice in the past. Some of this is due to the Saudi funded mosques, which are in abundance. If you open your mouth as a Muslim spokesperson, you’re guaranteed to be provided with ‘free’ books and support from the evangelical tentacle that is Wahhabism. Our bookshops are burdened with hefty books on Islam which are so myopic in their outlook, it beggars belief. Like a set of automatons, a computerised system of life. Our youth who are looking for an identity find it in the world of violence and this cult-like imported Bedouin Islam. So what is the solution beyond this quagmire?
The reality is that all ideology and dogma is flawed. I remember listening to Rabbi Harold Schulweis and he said something interesting.
“God doesn’t create religion but he creates a universe and within that universe, he creates this unique individual who is, indeed, beautiful in potential, he has within him this image of God, which is capacity, potentiality to improve, to transform the world as it is. And from where did he create this clay? The midrash, which is the Jewish creative imaginative exegesis, said he created it not from the north or the east nor the west or the south, not from Mecca or Jerusalem or Washington… And now the question is what is this human being going to do with shaping that world? So he didn’t create religion. But we create religion. And this is, it seems to me, our tremendous problem.”
From an Islamic perspective this is true. Look at Islamic law. Not Shariah, but Fiqh(Islamic jurisprudence or legal theory) – it is vast and tumultuous in its various interpretations and rationale. Which is a good thing. Shariah is the system of God. It is a divine ordinance, that we’re trying our best to interpret according to the flux of time and place. The reality(ies) will always remain with him.
So what do we do if we’re constantly deconstructing and decolonising our faith? Aren’t we in danger of intellectualising the religion or on the polarising hand, creating a binary version of the religion, that is stripped away of all reason and logic?
I come from a prism of thought that we recognise beauty in all its forms. Scenery, attractiveness, smells, inspiration, music – all of this is inherently beautiful. We don’t need to rationalise why we find these things beautiful. If we bounce of that precedent and come to religion with that understanding, then you will not accept an iteration or interpretation which insults beauty.
We bring our own morality to our sacred texts. In other words, the text doesn’t make you a moral person. This is self-evident throughout history. If you’re not viewing Islam through human kindness, mercy and current social mores, then you’ve adopted the same oppression on yourself as other systems of absolutism have done. We often talk about differing paradigms of processing thought and over complicate matters. However, often the truth is right in front of us. Paradoxically, it’s also hidden beneath a labyrinth of voices and text.
We need to look beyond finding identity in puritanism and fossilised jurisprudence.What we mustn’t do as this generation of Muslims is adopt religion as an identity. That is not who you are or what makes up the parts of who you are. Otherwise, we’ll end up rabid literalists or nihilistic vessels who adopt whatever ideology that is fed to us.
So what are we? Where do we go from here?
Be a human first. A human who sees beauty.
Our identities can be a form of disability, and to varying degrees we are all overtly or subtly disabled. I didn’t choose to be a man, Asian, Pakistani, Muslim or my name. All of these are a form of crutches we carry false pride in. That is until we come to a crisis. We are also judged by caricatures that we’ve perpetuated by ourselves. The greedy Jew, the lecherous Arab, the gangster Asian and criminal black. Often they’re not reinforced by us, but by our attitudes of our own insecure identities. i.e. you don’t know who are you are, so you pick on others to make your demons quieter.
All of these identifiers are not chosen. So when I strip away all these totems that we parade as “us”. What is left? Only the interconnectedness of our souls as one. True unity of humanity. If you can see beyond your crutches of sex, creed, colour, status and especially our tribal alliances(which in reality are fear mechanisms to protect ourselves). You will see the real person hiding or cowering behind their false identities. Don’t judge me by my physical presence of how I look or dress. Look at my soul and you will see yourself and everyone else in humanity.
These dichotomies divide us, sure we should address them, but the onus of peace and understanding is on the one being oppressed unfortunately. That is the meaning of Islam(if indeed islam means peace). That is why we surrender in prayer. Blaming orientalism and western imperialism is just, but separating yourself from that equation is not the solution. We are the solution as one whole being. That is the meaning of life in my humble opinion. Let’s take off us our masks, stop drip feeding morality like it’s a tablet and start thinking for ourselves. You are more than the person who looks in the mirror. You are every reflection of every person who has ever walked this earth.