BY AHMAD ALI KHALID ON AUGUST 23RD, 2011
For a self proclaimed religious society we are incredibly reserved when it comes to talking openly and frankly about our own religious experience and journey. It is almost an unwritten law in many Muslim majority societies and communities to voice any sort of doubt in one’s religious convictions. It becomes blasphemous to even speak about the injustices committed in the name of faith out in the open. But this creates a religiosity that is based on hypocrisy and whose principle mechanism is not love or compassion but moral policing and coercion.
Without freedom there is no Islam – it is as simple as that. But talking about our own experiences, journeys, tribulations and trials should be part and parcel of a healthy society that takes religion seriously. Take for instance Al Ghazali’s work, ‘Deliverance From Error’, or in the Christian tradition, St. Augustine’s work, ‘Confessions’. Both these works are considered great pieces of literature that document the intense and very personal nature of religious experience. And that is exactly what is missing from Pakistan today – the idea of religious experience. The idea that one has to go through a journey and a voyage of discovery to truly make sense of one’s religious convictions – because the impression given by televangelists like Amir Liaquat is that faith can be magically received by a simple telephone call or by paying others to pray for you. In Pakistan, faith has been turned in a cold commodity, devoid of spirit, removed from humanity and can be bought and sold for the right price.
We must revive the tradition of talking openly and compassionately about our own religious experiences to humanise religion and to realise that we as human beings will always stutter, err and falter. Instead of seeing religious doubt as a crisis we should see it as an opportunity. It is an opportunity to deepen our relationship with God and is a chance for deep religious meditation – which is of course the lesson of Ramazan.
In our own time, it is American convert Jeffery Lang who bravely carries on this tradition of candidly asking questions aloud. His two works, ‘Struggling to Surrender’ and ‘Even Angels Ask’ are the hidden gems of modern religious literature – they are beautifully written with a rare sense of honesty and many of the questions he raises are the ones I have always had. But he not only questions some of the existential aspects of faith, he also takes aim at the performance and conduct of Muslim communities and highlights some uncomfortable parts of the historical tradition of Muslim jurists and scholars.
What is the point of brushing under the carpet the questions that we have? Without doubt faith becomes stagnant, lazy and dogmatic – it becomes a thorn rather than a rose. But to keep the rose alive one has to be vigilant and compassionate to maintain its beauty and fragrance. And so it is that with doubt faith grows and becomes a little wiser and more thoughtful.
Other instances can be seen in religious gatherings which are meant to act as study circles for the faithful to deepen their knowledge. Unfortunately knowledge is the furthest thing from the mind of the preachers who organise these gatherings. The sole purpose of the person in charge is to make others feel worthless, useless and belittle them not only in the eyes of human beings but also of God. Questions are unwelcome in these gatherings – they are seen as outbursts of the devil himself.
Furthermore, Pakistan’s culture of televangelism gives us a picture of dogmatism in the nation. When Ramazan should be a time of asking deep questions about spirituality, faith and humanity these televangelists shut all doors to rational thought and instruct their avid followers in a course of religious zombificiation. Audiences grip on to every word of these television personalities reducing the scope and meaning of Ramazan into a self-righteous lecture rather than a time of exploration.
And that’s just the point. Reading the cultural trends surrounding Ramazan one can say that for a religious nation Pakistan has a deeply impoverished sense of spirituality. Many Pakistanis proudly point to the Sufi heritage that is said to define Muslim religiosity in Pakistan but there is very little example of that in the media trends. There is a very cut-throat approach to religion in the media. There is almost a capitalistic approach where in order to drive up viewer ship the sermons become fierier.
It’s a familiar scene on Pakistani television. Turn your TV on and there standing proud and tall, with a halo on his head and white doves dancing in his beard, trumpeting his call of salvation and hope to all that would lend an ear the preacher radiates strength from the pulpit. The preacher talked and his audience merely nodded in complete silence. Amidst the thunderous words of the preacher, faith was made subservient to political power, reason lost its place, and dissent is frowned upon as blasphemous.
But perhaps the greatest obstacle to asking candid and difficult questions is our continued obsession with the ‘West’. We have become paralysed by the constant bombardment of conspiracy theories to the extent we have lost the ability to ask questions. If you raise a point about women in Muslim societies the classic retort it ‘x number of women get raped in American every second/minute/day/year’ and therefore we are superior. The most pressing need in Pakistan is to disengage from this obsession with the ‘West’ and then ask the real questions.