A blog by Sara Surani

Throughout my time in Ali Asani’s course “Muslim Societies in South Asia: Religion, Culture, and Identity,” I was heavily immersed in literature concerning the numerous elements that contribute to the emergence and persistence of Islam in the Indian subcontinent.  While the course addressed themes of religion and culture, it was also a religiously enlightening experience—I not only learned about Islam in a South-Asian context, but I learned about the history of my ancestors. Although my personal practice of Islam unfortunately consists of balancing on a fragile wire between commitment and convenience, religion continues to prevail as a central aspect of my identity.

I like to believe that I am a person of faith. I do not wear my religion on my sleeve, but when someone asks about my religious affiliation I proudly declare I am a Muslim. However, recently, current events have challenged my faith—not my faith in my religion, but my faith in humanity. Now, when people ask me what my religion is, I hesitate before responding. I look around before opening my mouth. I become cautious of my surroundings. I no longer declare those four words I was confident exclaiming to the world. Sometimes, I even stutter.

This Wednesday, I was riding on the MBTA to MIT to meet a friend for coffee. The ride from Harvard Square to Kendall Square, where MIT is located, is less than five minutes. Sometimes, I even try to time the ride to see how fast it can get there. Personal record? Four minutes and fifty-seven seconds. This Wednesday, I was timing the ride on the T when I heard the woman next to me ask a simple question: “Are you Muslim?” It was a question that was all too familiar to me. It was a question I was incredibly comfortable with. However, this time, I didn’t feel the same level of comfort. This time, I stuttered. “Um, ye-yes,” I started before gathering my incoherent thoughts, “Yes, yes, I a-am. I am a, um, a Muslim.” I was instantly anxious about what she would say. But she didn’t respond. She just moved one seat further away from me and motioned her giggling toddler, once playing between the empty seats, to come closer to her. She looked towards me, and I expected a biting remark. What I received instead was a look of fear. She didn’t say anything, but her silence said it all. I wasn’t sure how to feel.

Last night, I experienced the same feeling of emotional uncertainty. After getting coffee with a blockmate, I was walking in Harvard Square towards Johnston Gate. It was cold, so I draped my purple plaid scarf around my head. It didn’t look like a hijab, but I could understand the resemblance. While walking, a stranger pointed and yelled, “Fuck you! Go back!” Aware of the reality that the Square is a bustling place where people yelling obscenities is not outside the norm, I ignored the man at first. He probably wasn’t talking to me. For some reason, something in his voice made me turn around. I wish I didn’t. When I stared at him, he stared right back at me. He only said three words: “That’s right. You.” I didn’t understand at first. Me? Why me? Go back where? At first, I didn’t understand the connotations of his impulsive words. But, when I understood, my thoughts were even more aggravated: But I don’t even look Muslim? Why would he think I’m Muslim? Just because I’m brown? How can he stereotype me a certain way just because I look like I have ancestors from South Asia? How could he just assume?

The last question I asked myself made me stop and think: How could he just assume? I immediately recalled all of the times I assumed something–whether in a religious context or not. In the moment, I recalled my assumptions and perceptions about what it is to be a Muslim. Later, while reflecting on the event, I recalled some prior assumptions I had about Islam: Urdu is more Islamic than Hindi. Islamic poetry can never be sensual. The more conservative, the more Islamic. As I recalled all of these assumptions I once had regarding Islam, I couldn’t help but realize how ignorant I used to be. In reality, there is no right or wrong Islam and the history of Islam is not a monolithic one. Rather, there are different histories and different perceptions of Islam. It is very easy to slide into a monolithic history or perception of Islam. However, it is critical to keep an open mind and learn about Islam in different cultural contexts, rather than through a check-box approach where you come in with a concrete definition of what is “Islamic” and “un-Islamic.”

In order to further reflect on these ideas explore these fluid concepts, I decided to focus my blog on three distinct but interconnected themes: love, separation, and identity. Although these themes seem abstract and often indescribable, I realize that these are underlying concepts throughout the course. Love is not only expressed through literature, but it is one of the most constant factors of solidarity that impassions individuals and unites them. Separation encompasses notions of distance and the unfortunate reality that no matter how similar we are, our differences will sometimes divide us. Lastly, identity is a theme that is not only embodied by the languages we speak, our physical appearances, our political and religious views, and our mindset, but it also comprises of how we interact with people who are similar and different from us.

In order to convey love, I used two different examples of literature that express an individual’s love for one’s prophet: “The Bridegroom Prophet in Medieval Sindhi Poetry” by Ali Asani and Eaton’s “Sufi Folk Literature and the Expansion of Indian Islam.” Both of these examples reflect different portrayals of devotional expression. While Sindhi poetry describes love for the prophet as a more physical, sensual experience, Sufi literature and music portrays love for God as a spiritual journey–one that consumes the soul. This dichotomy between the two types of devotional expression exemplify how there is no right type of devotion. Although some types of devotional literature may yield judgemental undertones and criticism, this does not mean that one is more “Islamic” than the other. This reflects on the ideology that there is no right or wrong Islam. Although the Sindhi poetry may be deemed unIslamic, especially when juxtaposed with Sufi poetry, this is certainly not the case. Each style of devotional expression reflects a different religious tradition. In each tradition, the Prophet is depicted as an revered being of that tradition. In the example of the Sindhi virahini poetry I chose for this blog, the Prophet is depicted as Sindhi himself–he is not Arab, he is not the other. This illustrates the concept of the other and how in each each cultural tradition, individuals portray the Prophet as one of them in order to feel a deeper connection with Him. This also iterates the idea that local cultures and traditions within regions influence core ideas. As a result, the ideas and perspectives that are expressed are indigenous to the regions. As different cultural regions interact with one another, traditions of devotional tradition amalgamate, leading to syncretism. This syncretism also plays a vital role in acculturation and how traditions are shaped by their surroundings. Hence, these expressions of love and the way in which they are expressed form a central aspect of one’s religious identity.

Another theme that is reflected in this blog is the notion of separation. Although the concept that “differences often divide us” is prevalent in many pieces, the event that I chose to symbolize this idea is the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan. The reading I included to correspond with this event is Sufia Uddin’s book Constructing Bangladesh: Religion, Ethnicity, and Language in an Islamic Nation. I chose this reading over other readings because of the various elements the book incorporates in effort to define Bangladesh’s identity as a nation-state. Moreover, I chose this reading because the separation of Bangladesh and Pakistan holds personal importance in regard to my own family’s history. However, the idea of separation is not unique to just this historical event. Prior to Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan, Pakistan also gained independence from India. Although miscommunications and disparities in politics, economics, and ideologies played an important role in each separation, so did differences in languages, literatures, and cultures. These differences comment on different notions of defining identity and how sometimes separation comes to define our identity. This also emphasizes the idea that each separation tells a different story; each separation has a different history. However, it is critical to remember that notions of history are not linear. Similarly, notions of Islam are not linear. Because religion has so many layers, if you collapse all of these traditions and separations, you collapse all of the narratives. By collapsing the narratives, you collapse the diversity that is a defining element of Islam. Therefore, even though separations seek to divide us and sometimes sever bonds of unity among us, they also give us perspective. Separations and divides remind us that Islam is not monolithic, concrete, or explained by one definition. You cannot interpret Islam through the history of one country or one nation, you must analyze it from a multicultural and multi-contextual approach. There is not one language, one political structure, one ideology, or one culture that pinpoints Islam. Islam is syncretism. Islam is fluid. Each separation reminds us of this fluidity and reiterates how there is not one stereotypical identity for a Muslim. Rather, just like there are different interpretations of Islam, there are an unlimited number of different Islamic identities. This diversity in itself is not intrinsic to just Islam, but transcends to all religions.

The overarching theme that is pervasive throughout this blog is the theme of identity: gender identity, linguistic identity, cultural identity, intellectual identity, religious identity. In order to depict gender identity and the influence of gender on religious identity, I chose Farida Shaheed’s “Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back” and Peter Awn’s “Indian Islam: The Shah Bano Affair.” These two pieces portray how the culture of a society is influenced by how women are viewed. Furthermore, I incorporated reflections on Lawrence Ziring’s “Politics of Language in Pakistan: Prolegomena 1947-1952” and Rafiqul Islam’s “The Bengali Language Movement and the Emergence of Bangladesh” in order to illustrate how language influences one’s identity. These works were chosen to provide a unique lens to view language. Usually, language is seen as a unifying force that connects people of different identities. However, here, I attempt to represent language as a force that has the power to unite as well as separate. This idea challenges my previous assumptions of the power of languages and aims to challenge readers’ preconceived notions of language as well. In order to convey intellectual and religious identity, I illustrated and analyzed Fazlur Rahman’s “Muslim Modernism in the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent.” This work analyzed the dichotomy between structures that encouraged Muslim hegemony and philosophies that embraced a Western perspective. Personally, I struggle with a similar dichotomy as I balance on the wire between blind faith and religious commitment, and a culture of skepticism and convenience. Although these juxtapositions may seem like a result of cognitive dissonance, this is not the case. Rather, this conflict between two central perspectives helps contribute to the identities of many Muslims around the world. The quest for one’s intellectual and religious identities transcends beyond time and space, and alludes to the search for a universal truth.

These themes are not only significant to me, but they are also essential to gaining a better comprehension of Islam. As misconceptions of Islam plague societies view on this religion of peace, it is more important now than ever to open our minds and try to listen to one another’s perspectives. Maybe then people won’t yell profanities on the streets. Maybe then we won’t stutter when identifying ourselves as Muslim. Maybe then there will be understanding.

December 9th, 2015 at 11:58 pm