The Importance of Religious and Cultural Literacy in a Cosmopolitan World

Last night I attended a lecture given by Professor Ali Asani, an Islamic Studies expert at Harvard University. “A specialist of Islam in South Asia, Professor Asani’s research focuses on Shia and Sufi devotional traditions in the region.” The topic of his lecture last night at Habib University in Karachi was “The Importance of Religious and Cultural Literacy in a Cosmopolitan World.”

The professor is very soft-spoken and thoughtful when he lectures, but I and the entire audience of at least 200 people, students, faculty and guests, were hanging on to his every word. In a time when Islam is so vilified in the West, and when non-state actors are striking out at innocent and vulnerable people in countries both secular and Islamic, we really needed to hear his viewpoint.

I’ve summarized his main points below, as best as I can remember them. I took notes and photographs of his slides. While his focus was on how Islam is received in the West, you could easily turn all those points to how we as Muslims understand and perceive people from religious minorities in our own countries.

First of all, people need to learn to think critically about religion, and critically about difference.

In fact, The Quran actually says that difference is a form of divine genius as stated in Surah 49:13 “We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.”

Today, we see an illiteracy of religion and culture, what Edward Said called the Clash of Ignorance in his famous rebuttal to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations.We see people who are ignorant of the fact that religion is embedded in a complex cultural matrix, where political, economic and sociological actors play a big role in shaping religious expression

Here are some manifestations of this religious illiteracy:

  1. equation of religion with devotional practice, rites, rituals and ceremonies
  2. the essence of religion is perceived as located in sacred texts
  3. religious traditions are seen as timeless, unchanging and monolithic
  4. religions are seen as actors having agency: “I think Islam hates us” as per Donald Trump, although Islam is not a person with emotions and there is no one Islam.
  5. the use of religion as the exclusive lens to explain the actions of an individual or community
  6. an entire religious community is held responsible for the actions of an individual

Scripture is problematic because people interpret scripture. And their education, culture, gender, economic background and much more influence their interpretation. We always have to ask who is interpreting the scripture? If you’re talking about Islam, what Islam are you talking about, in which country, practiced by whom?

We can see that movements like Taliban and ISIS are products of modernity and global dynamics. There is no precedent for movements like these. They are proof that religion evolves and changes, sometimes in directions divergent of the original path.

Here are some of the dangerous of religious illiteracy

  1. democracy cannot function if one is ignorant and afraid of one’s neighbors
  2. it diminishes respect for diversity
  3. results in stereotypes and dehumanization
  4. marginalization of minorities leads to radicalization
  5. this can be exploited by ideologues to promote “extremism” and “fundamentalism”

People who think Islam is all about ideology know nothing of the deep but quiet personal faith of most Muslims: a personal private Islam that is not imposed on anyone. Professor Mohammed Arkoun wrote of the “Silent Islam” – which Professor Asani termed as the “silenced Islam.” This is the deep personal, private Islam which is not imposed on anyone – versus “Loud Islam”, the ideologies of Islamic revivalism (which are actually secular in nature). They are much more concerned with politics and the world than the personal relationship with God that is meant to be the goal of every Muslim.

Professor Asani went on to say that the sonic, visual, and literary arts are central to Islamic expression and practice. Most people learned their Islam through the senses; listening to Islamic recitation of the Quran, for example. Or observing the world and nature in order to find signs of God’s existence (sight, hearing, touch, smell, etc.).

He gave an example of his own mother who insisted that every morning the first thing to be heard in the house was the recitation of the Quran on Radio Pakistan (all the way in Nairobi). This was the manifestation of her personal faith and relationship with God, and this is in fact how most Muslims have their first experiences with Islam. Not through reading and the introduction of ideology but through the personal love and devotion of their own families.

The word Quran means “recitation”; I’ve noticed myself that we often we confuse the word “read” with “recite”. Professor Asani pointed out that the Quran was first and foremost an oral and aural text: something to be recited and listened to, and then taken into the heart, rather than a text to be read and absorbed through the intellect. Listening (Sama) is communion with the Divine.

He went on to discuss the concept of beauty in Islam, and said that aesthetics is a sign of Divine origin: beauty and symmetry the two greatest values of Islamic art which are also present in nature.

The most appreciated art in pre-Islamic Arabia was poetry. When the Prophet came with his revelations, his biggest rivals were the poets. He himself was called a madman, a sorcerer, and a poet. And yet it is verses of the Quran which have replaced the hanging verses of pre-Islamic poets on the Kaaba. In early Islam, there was a conflict between the poetic and the prophetic. 

Yet later, Rumi, the great Persian theologian and poet, became one of the foremost authorities on the Quran, with his own Masnawi on the curriculum of most madrassas – unthinkable today. (Yet people who speak Farsi are able to quote Rumi and have all grown up with his poetry playing a major part in their education and culture). Professor Asani noted that Rumi in the West has become vastly popular, yet sanitized of all mention of Islam (see Rozina Ali’s essay “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi” in the New Yorker).

Finally, Professor Asani outlined his own contextual/cultural approach for teaching Islam to his students. Its main points are to:

  • Consider religion as a phenomenon that is deeply imbedded in all dimensions and contexts of human experience. It is intricately interwoven within complex webs of contexts: historical, political, economic, social, literary, artistic, etc.
  • Religion therefore requires multiple lenses through which to understand its multivalent social/cultural influences
  • Conceptions of religion are dynamic; as contexts evolve and change, religious ideas and institutions change. 

I came away from the lecture thinking what a relief it was to listen to the viewpoint of someone with such a sophisticated understanding of Islam, and the authority to make a huge difference in how it is perceived in the West. But at the same time, it feels like we’ve got hard work ahead of us, especially in the years to come. And we in Pakistan, who often think we know everything there is to know about Islam, have got a lot of unlearning and relearning to do. 

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