Religion and tales of personal transformation

Hurmat Ali Shah reflects on his experiences and disillusionment with both religious fundamentalism and today’s vocal, militant critics of religious belief

Religion and tales of personal transformation
This Eid day I couldn’t wake up for the Eid prayers. I had gone to bed late and despite setting an alarm for going to prayers – and that too after a gap of years – I didn’t find sufficient motivation to wake-up and walk to the Islamic centre. Now, of course this isn’t a judgment – neither on myself or on those who do go or don’t go for Eid prayers.

But then there was a flashback of me waking up well before dawn, going to the hostel praying room and calling the Azaan. Then waiting for someone to join me and then leading them in prayers. Again, of-course, this is something which you might easily explain as part of a growing-up experience and especially for someone of my socio-cultural background. But for me that wasn’t part of the normal trajectory or merely a temporary phase. Those were eight years of my life. Eight years with a long beard, trousers raised, skullcap on head, tasbeeh in hand, being found in the hostel praying room and in the mosque near home. And those eight years were all my youth.
I find that whether we are dealing with fundamentalist Islam or New Atheism, part of both worldviews is an arrogant rejection of how human civilisations work

Posting a picture of “before” and “after” is an easy way to give the reader some idea of the transformation. But then, the dilemma is that this creates an unnecessary binary. That is a binary that says that how I was before is a past to be erased and a memory to forget. The personal journey in some way becomes a proxy of emerging from “darkness” to “light”, from unreason to reason, from a cult to a life of rationality. In fact, this is what the a lot of contemporary atheistic writings are all about: finding life and meaning by negating a past self and an experience which you shared with the society around. I believe that such a simplistic description of a journey towards light is as naive as the puritanical religious thinking that I myself once was in. Sure, telling that story can be done in a linear way – because that has the allure of being a rebel. But is such a linear way of telling a ‘transformation story’ not horribly reductionist?

But having created criticised the process of constructing stark binaries, I myself rest my argument on something of a binary here. I find that the puritanical strain of religion which I once followed is as wrong as the newly found faith in disbelief (which for some is the obvious alternative).They both work to erase the most crucial part of the human experience. The puritanical version of religion takes religion based on a few fixed dogmas and very little regard for the socio-cultural aspects and historical roots of a religious experience. The other side, let’s call it the neo-atheistic take, also is guilty of the same – in erasing and denying the cultural experience and the historical sense of meaning that association with a religion brings. I felt the same inadequacy in both ‘phases’ that one can go through.

The reader might wonder if my narrative is all about finding, losing and finding again a spiritual experience. And yes, if read linearly, that which I went through will come across as that. But perhaps, the inner feelings and transformations, given our social and cultural reality – and the politicisation of everything religious, and Islamisation of anything political or public – require a non-linear and complicated lens to decipher life experiences such as mine.

Perhaps the Enlightenment dealt in exhaustive detail with the spiritual and religious aspects of societies and cultures of the West – and provided an important critical lens to view it all. But the New Atheism born in the wake of the War on Terror is doing away with the sophisticated literature once produced by the Enlightenment. This new criticism of religious belief has limited the debate to few set notions of reason. In making a cult of “science”, the New Atheists are rejecting the philosophy that interrogates reason, the perception of reason and the workings of reason. It has become a discussion about purely personal experience: about science versus obscure myths.

For the New Atheists, you might well call it their Ibn Tamiyya moment – but working in reverse! Or maybe it is working in the same direction as the “reform” of Islam witnessed eight hundred years ago but rather than reverting to a fundamental text the reversion here is to a very basic and crude understanding of society and reason.

I find that whether we are dealing with fundamentalist Islam or New Atheism, part of both worldviews is an arrogant rejection of how human civilisations work. And if the problem is with “myths”, it is important to remember that human civilisations do, indeed, work on the basis of myths. You could argue that there are collective myths which can have great normative value and allow us to function as societies.

The reader must not think that I am apologetic for my religious-fundamentalist past. I have zero or very little connection to what I once was. I feel totally alienated from that self of mine. And memories of that part of life bring feelings of wonder, disbelief and astonishment. The alienation is that complete! Having grown up in a conservative environment where religion and going to prayers regularly were considered part of “being a good kid” rather than avenues for serious spiritual growth, I took the path to piety a bit early. But I was, like other kids, also watching the usual movies, cartoons and wrestling. Something happened when I was in F.Sc and I bid farewell to all the “worldly snares” of the previous life and put on the attire of piety. It was not only a transformation in looks but something deep inside had changed. I didn’t do the normal things – watching movies, listening to music, giving way to merriment or any other worldly pleasures. The only difference was that I was continuing with my education and that I was reading. I was reading a lot of Tafseer and Ahadith and anything of Islamic theology that I could lay my hands on.

But with reading, Tabligh also continued: going from door to door and inviting people to take the path of Allah and forego this material and mortal world and instead focus on Akhirat, the eternal life. Being moved to tears by each sermon of Tariq Jamil, yearning to meet Junaid Jamshed and Saeed Anwar one day and be blessed by the Noor in their face. These were the ideals – one wanted to be like them and to serve the faith like them one day. But I was different, too, because rather than simply reading only the ‘recommended’ text of Fazail-e-Amal (a collection of Hadith by the founder of the Tablighi Jamaat Maulana Zakariya, which is used by all and sundry in the TJ and reading any other text or engaging with another set of Hadith is strongly discouraged).

Instead, I used to ask questions. This curiosity, this wondering has never left me. I would read everything and question everything, until one day the questions didn’t have any answers and the people I used to sit with started avoiding me because of my questions.

The environment of piety I found myself in was based on a rudimentary understanding of religion and that was considered the pinnacle of being a good Muslim. For them, the more you learn, the more questions rise, thus the more your faith is “harmed”. My peers were skeptical of all culture then. They wanted religion in puritanical terms; in terms of ‘Arabiyya’. And I saw that rather than offering an interesting alternative, the New Atheists simply denied any cultural roots to religious experience and were running after a false glorification of a rootless future and demonisation of the experiences of a large part of humanity while reducing the complex realities of people’s lives to a set of beliefs.

My transformation story must be a binary to some and the transformation in itself will stand as a proxy fo some sort of contest between faith and reason – but that reading will ignore the social reality and the cultural association with a religion.

Religion, being part of the social and cultural reality, isn’t always easily reduced to marginal theological debates. In our times we find that there is a fervent debate about a particular kind of Islam, the use of blasphemy accusations as a tool to silence critics, the weaponising of public sentiments to suppress dissent and dissuade alternative viewpoints. I think now more than ever, it is important to understand the social and cultural underpinnings of religions.

In this time it may be very difficult to deploy the ideals and semantics of religion for a secular and progressive future because the mood of the mainstream politics has shifted in favour of a fundamentalist variety of religion – manipulated by many for their vested interests. But it is possible to open alternative avenues of debate and thus alternative imaginings of a future based on an egalitarian and tolerant interpretation of the religion of majority of our population i.e. Islam.

Yes, I don’t go for prayers as regularly as I once did – but I do miss offering the Eid prayers!

Hurmat Ali Shah is interested in the intersection of politics, society and culture