I can gladly say this our Muslim Voices in Contemporary Literature seminar, has been one of my most cherished bonding experiences at Harvard. As I am writing this, we are playing Dreidel to celebrate the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, while listening to Atif Aslam’s rendition of Tajdar-e-Haram (from Coke Studio Pakistan). It is Tuesday 7pm, and we are in Barker 211. To be in a class with so many nationalities, religions, and life experiences is a unique situation in itself, but to be in a class where we actually share these differences with each other, is beautiful.
I think the most poignant fact that I will remember from this course is watching Professor Asani introduce the Aga Khan, and then hearing the Aga Khan speak. The Aga Khan, descendant of the Prophet himself, invoked some of the ideals we had spoken about in class through Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry. The idea that Islam, and maybe religion in general, is about civilization, growth, progress, was absolutely new to me. We always think of religion as a culture of the past – almost backward in some cases. But here, the Aga Khan spoke about Islam as a faith that promotes development. He used his position to build schools, and hospital and better welfare in struggling communities. I think this is the future of religion. I think this is how we should all see religion, as a path to a better tomorrow. And this is the message that will always stay with me from this class.
Through this class, I think we have all learnt to think about religion in a different way. We’ve learnt that yes, religious history matters, but what also matters is looking at the cultural development of a religion. This would be a more cultural studies approach. Through a cultural studies approach we can better understand why today’s misconception that the patriarchy is rooted in a specific religion is particularly flawed. The patriarchy is a socialized way of thinking, that arose out of the cultural environment, and must not be attributed to Islam – or any other religion. I had never known that the reason women cover their hair in Islam is because through history hair had been sexualized – not only in Muslim societies, but in Western cultures too, where women had to wear bonnets to cover their hair. I was most awed by the Pakistani feminist poetry we came across in We Sinful Women, especially Four Veils and a Chadur (Chador aur Char Dewari). Before taking this class, I was never very sure about the way Muslim women perceive the hijab, and was always under the misimpression that it was forced upon them. This misconception was portrayed through the media, and through some governments, that decided to ban face veils and burkhas, suggesting that they were “saving” Muslim women from oppression! But, after speaking to some of the Muslim girls in our seminar, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that often, Muslim women choose to wear certain hijabs because it makes them, personally, feel closer to God. Or they choose to wear it because it makes them feel independent underneath it, like Layla in Madras on Rainy Days. My favourite interpretation was the one that said that hijab is a covering, and does not necessarily mean a type of clothing, but can be anything from makeup to superficiality, that masks one’s true self and essence from society. All of these views must also be taken into consideration, before we come to snap “moral” or “right” judgments about issues that we are otherwise very ignorant about!
Having said that, I personally still do not agree with mandatory hijabs, as is the case under Taliban governments. It is also the case in Iran, where hair must be covered at all times. In such cases, it only forces women to rebel against their cultures, and allows other societies to judge the religion based on Iran’s supposed interpretation of it. In fact, this class was absolutely vital in my understanding of Sharia Law. I really enjoyed learning about how Sharia Law was rooted in its acceptance of different points of view, such that imam’s were allowed to have their own interpretations on religious matters, which were all considered valid interpretations of Islam. In this case, Islam would be open to interpretation, and would not be as rigid as some governments have made it today. In fact, by allowing different imams to hold different perspectives, it also prevents individuals in Islam from holding too much religious authority. This, I think, is the perfect example of conveying how Islam does not condone vying for wealth or power. Rather, in an Islamic Caliphate, the Caliph is not the utmost religious authority, because religious scholars focus on religion and do not care about material wealth or positions of power. I was most surprised by this, as I was always thought the Ayotallah was the highest religious authority, and he was in – by religion – expected to hold the ultimate power, as is in Iran. I did not know that Ayotallah Khomeini, himself, wrote the doctrine that gave him that power!
We spoke about incidents that pained us all in the class, such as the Paris attacks, or the Syrian refugee crisis, or even the rise of ISIS. But we spoke about it – not out of hate for any one community, as people tend to do on media platforms, but out of understanding their origins – and whether they truly align with the religion they claim to come from. Religion does not dictate violence though, we do. Religion is not a self-serving entity but is only a guide. We choose to interpret it the way we do, we choose to make of it what we do. We, therefore, must accept the responsibility of our interpretations. We should be held accountable, and we cannot blame our actions on any religion, or religious authority. Similarly, those committing violent crimes in the name of religion – they are the ones to blame. Not their faith, or their community, but them! It devastates me to see Syrian refugees being blamed for the very atrocities they are trying to escape from. I think this is an issue that we spoke about in class, which we will all continue to address until the crisis is solved. I think the class gave us a good grounding and foundation, to address such sensitive topics, without sounding ignorant.
In terms of dictating people’s lives, it always upsets me when people use religion as a justification against homosexuality. Madras on Rainy Days was beautiful in its portrayal of Sameer, as a man so conflicted within himself, that he tried to suppress his sexuality by lying not only to society but also to himself. Personally, I think religion is a personal journey that one has to experience individually. Yes, organized religion brings like-minded people together, who share a faith and ideology, to celebrate festivals together as a community. But religion is as internal and external, and nobody can dictate to you how you feel. Rather, I don’t think God would want to dictate our lives, because we are biologically all different – emotionally and physically. I think internal religion is essentially one’s relationship with God, and that must partially depend on the way we have been brought up, by our society, by our experiences. As a result, everyone shares a different relation with God, and a different understanding of religion. To some it might mean praying five times a day, as it makes them feel closer to God. To others it might be a casual conversation with God before sleeping – like Persepolis does, as a child. Both these relationships are equally connecting, and beautiful, and we need to learn to accept different religious experiences without invalidating some against others.
This brings us to the importance of respecting difference – different genders, nationalities, origins and opinions! We need to try to create a society where difference is celebrated, instead of ostracized. Furthermore, we must realize that difference does not imply superiority of one against another. Rather we must find equality within differences. What I think was fantastic about our seminar, is that because the topic was quite niche, only people who were genuinely interested in it applied to take it. As a result, we ended up in a class where everybody truly wanted to understand different religious traditions, and perspectives. I loved when we listened to the different renditions of the Quran, and Ashley compared it to the Gospels in Christianity. And I loved when we found Islam and Judaism’s shared roots. As a result, I was fortunate to learn about the revolution in Egypt, the Israeli perspective of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the difficulties of people in colour in the United States of America, and many other personal experiences. I got to celebrate the festivities, and foods, of so many different societies, while sharing a part of my own Indian, Hindu background. I think our class can be a representation of an ideal society – one that respects each other’s views – even when they contradict with each other, and celebrates difference.