Public Comment

First Person: The Metamorphosis and Evisceration of Islamic Progressivism

By Rizwan Rahmani
Monday May 03, 2010 - 10:39:00 PM

While I was brought up in a very traditional Muslim environment during my early childhood years, my views on religion have changed drastically. Now I am more of an agnostic who is verging on atheism. I don’t believe there are going to be multitude of Hoors (indescribably gorgeous women of paradise) in the offing for me after I die and go to heaven eventually – I am sure I have to endure some fire and brimstone! Having been brought up traditionally, I do have a unique perspective of looking from inside out without really being an insider. 

During my teen years in India, I saw a much more progressive Muslim world around me than what I see now. My dad was a good example of all that progressivism: he got a good education and became a doctor (physician). He worked in India for a bit, and got a chance to work in Oman in 1968, and went there leaving his family behind in hopes of freeing us from somewhat of a grim future. But even then, as evident in my father’s case, the Muslims in India stood a good chance of doing well if they worked hard despite being a minority group: my uncle did his masters before settling down in the family business. No one on my uncle’s side of the family has done better education-wise since then, and that was forty years ago! 

After some tattered schooling and some failed academic endeavors, my father sent us to a boarding school in Aligarh (a university town) for education along with our sister who was attending a girl’s college which was also there: he was an alumnus of the University so he saw it fit to give us the same opportunity. Aligarh Muslim University was very progressive, liberal, and cosmopolitan despite being steeped in traditions (no one was allowed to wear the traditional cotton trouser and top other than mid Friday in public unless it was accompanied by a long formal coat). There was a particular code of behavior when it came to interacting with seniors, and language was to be used in a refined manner. I often got chided for improper diction and pronunciation.  

There were quite a few international students at the campus. Although I was attending a university affiliated high school, I had access to the university and its facilities, and I knew more than a few seniors with whom I often socialized. I used to go the university gymnasium and the recreation rooms of the dormitories, where I played bridge, billiards, table tennis, and roller skated. I use to talk ad nauseum about movies, music, science, poetry, and general knowledge: While people were somewhat religious, it was never discussed or proselytized. I couldn’t attend the University language clubs but there was a German, a Russian, and a French club at the University. There was even an equestrian club. I also went to see plays and old films at the Kennedy center: an art and culture hub of the campus, and so named because it was built by a grant from the United States. The area in and around the campus was teeming with tea houses, cafés, and restaurants. There were annual functions, shows, dinners, performances. The campus was a far cry from my narrow-minded and religious early childhood that I had witnessed when I lived at my grandparents’ house. When I went back to visit this very same campus after fourteen years, I hardly recognized it. Gone was the impeccable use of the language, along with proper attire or behavior. The buildings and gardens too looked a bit dilapidated. But the most notable change was the whole atmosphere: It now emanated religious austerity and regression, and attitudes seemed rather pedestrian. 

The news of my sister attending college elicited vociferous ridicule and gossip from our relatives and friends of the family. They thought my father was committing a faux pas, and his aspirations for his daughter were out of step with the cultural mores of the time. But they thought it was heretical effrontery when she decided to study further: The general consensus was that a post graduate study was an abomination for a Muslim girl and for her to get married immediately the only honorable option.  

While at college, my sister was very chic for her time, and wore the latest fashions and prints. She had quite a few western outfits (bell bottoms and all) – something she can’t even imagine wearing today! She didn’t wear hijab (head covering), and very few other Muslim women wore it back then. But more educated women definitely eschewed hijab, opting to cover their heads during religious ceremonies and somber occasions only. All her daughters wear hijab now, and my sister won’t afford them the same chance at higher education that she herself had three decades ago: a decision I don’t think is entirely hers but there is certainly complicity. 

Despite all the protests my father stayed steadfast, and in my view, did right by defying his detractors. He certainly gave us (the eldest 4 of us) a very forward looking philosophy in life. When I left home for US to study, he never flinched while my mother’s wailing never ceased. My father was very outgoing, and socialized with all sorts of people. He attended cocktail parties while he was working in Oman, which was run mostly by British expats. He did socialize with the locals as well, sat in tents in the desert heat sipping Turkish coffee, and learning the etiquette of the Bedouins. Some of the guests at our house in Oman were British who loved my mother’s cooking. When I was in Oman, we attended Colonel Bosted’s yearly Christmas party: one of my father’s good friend and possibly a British agent. My mother grew up in a small town in India: she was modestly educated but conservative. But she learned to throw grand soirees, and make some fancy western desserts to entertain these guests. My father also organized lavish picnics and potlucks where everyone was invited and the sexes comingled. My mother was more religious than my father but she never raised an eyebrow at my father, and took part in these events enthusiastically. My father always encouraged us to interact socially, and he never lectured us or chastised us about religion. 

So what has changed in the last thirty years? Why are my younger siblings, who were raised in a more urbane environment, and had better education, are less progressive than my father? This phenomenon is not only limited to India: it afflicts the Muslim community everywhere. These are the same people who produced hoards of scholars, poets, philosophers, and scientists during multiple golden periods but are now obsessively preoccupied with a fourteen hundred year oldSharia (Quranic Laws) and Sunna (tales of the Prophet’s life and practices), overanalyzing anachronistic minutiae while the rest of world hurls towards modernism. Why is this group of people -- who ruled the entire Middle East and parts of the Near East, North Africa, and most of the Iberian Peninsula, who can boast among their luminaries people like Avicenna (Ibn Sina, the father of modern medicine), Ibn Battuta (a scholar who spent thirty years traveling and writing about his journeys, which were more extensive than Marco Polo’s), who were responsible for chemistry, trigonometry (furthering), algebra, cartography, nautical technology, and astronomy (many stars are still called by their original Arabic names), who gave us the numerals we use today, who translated the classics into Arabic (some of the only surviving texts from ancient Greece), and who produced forward thinkers like Al Khindi, Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Al Farabi (Alpharabius), Khayyam, Rumi, Ibn Sinnan, Khalil Gibran, and Al Ghazali to name just a few – now tenously enmeshed in a rigid, non-secular ideology that defies the logic and lucid thinking of the aforementioned illustrious names? 

I can go back into Islamic history and 911 to draw conclusions for the current state of affairs filling pages. But one has to merely look at the past thirty years to see the causes of this transformation. Thirty years ago this community was on a path of modernity, but now it looks to the past for outmoded doctrines to guide them into the future? This unrealistic attempt to bridge the Sharia to the current era has resulted in ideology that is mostly rickety and praetorian. This gives rise to extreme fringe elements that are free to interpret the Sharia for their selfish means. There is another reason for this rash rush towards an appearance of solidarity by reversion, and it is – that the Muslim world sees itself and its culture under siege by the west. It is easy to deduce these sentiments by the notable events which have taken place in the last thirty years. There was the creation of Israel in the heart of the Middle East some sixty years ago which displaced about a million Palestinians, and after the 1967 war it has become quite obvious to them that no one is listening to the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territory as they themselves are quite powerless against a military juggernaut like Israel (remember also that the Muslims faced towards Dome of the Rock to pray before Mecca). This one event has slowly festered into their psyche like a cancer over time: it has finally metastasized and spread throughout the Islamic world with the advent of information technology and global news in the last thirty years. Soon after this came the exodus of Palestinians into southern Lebanon and its occupation, and the Sabra Shatila massacre of the Palestinian refugees. The early nineties brought the four year siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica. The mid to late nineties brought two Chechnya wars, and the geographic and economic strangulation of occupied territories of Gaza and West Bank. The late nineties also brought the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Kosovars by the Serbs. This early millennium has brought the bloody wars of Iraq and Afghanistan (both of which still continue), the bombing of Lebanon, and the assault on Gaza which was declared inhumane by an independent UN war commission.  

The Muslim community has done poorly to keep itself off the media’s radar since 911, but the rhetoric of racially tinged ridicule of this community in the media, and the poor depiction of their culture has reached a new nadir (an Arabic term by way of Spanish). Almost nothing seems to be off limits to the comics and talking heads, and the cultural insensitivities are simply brazen. This sort of rhetoric does nothing to mend relationship with the west which is already quite deteriorated. Although I may not agree with the extreme isolationist reaction by the Muslim community for being calumniated, I can, however, see how this metamorphosis of ideology has precipitated in just thirty years.