Discovering Islam in Trump’s America
By Farhan Shah
At the beginning of September 2017, I arrived in Washington, DC to visit my father’s friend Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, and discuss my research for my upcoming master’s program. I should have realised that my visit would not simply consist of relaxed sessions over tea talking literary ideas on the East, as Ambassador Ahmed immediately turned my time here into a dynamic and interactive opportunity for professional and personal growth.
Before long, I was accompanying him to important meetings with State Department and British Council officials, as well as his interactions with the diaspora community and religious congregations in the eastern US.
Simultaneously, I was granted the opportunity to sit in on a couple of his classes on Islam and gain a brief insight into the college experience in America. It has allowed me to garner a sense of how much of a gulf we, as Muslims, have to bridge with non-Muslims in the West in our own capacity as individuals — unfortunately, not always with the direct guidance of dignitaries such as Ahmed. It also allowed me though to realise that reaching out and making friends can often do more to change attitudes than any government-funded awareness drive.
Ahmed’s class responds with enthusiasm to this multi-layered topic as he sparks the class’ interest by employing the Socratic method — constantly exchanging ideas and asking questions for the class to ponder. He also helped the students better understand the wide diversity within the Muslim world by explaining to the students the characteristics of the three categories of Muslim societies: the modernists who endeavour to balance their faith and keep up with the demands of the world today, the mystics who aim to realise the spiritual message of truth and constancy in the faith, and the literalists who try to recreate the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and live their own lives as closely relating to his times as possible.
Evident in America today is a very negative and close-minded perception of Muslims. Often they are seen as terrorists abroad or those who may perhaps sympathise with terrorists at home. The teaching of Islam, already difficult in a post-9/11 world, is now made all the more challenging in today’s America, a place where hatred and “othering” of people in society has become legitimised in complete contrast with the country’s pluralistic founding ideals. These binaries prevent Americans from not only engaging with an entire civilisation but also from being able to acknowledge the vast cultural, ethnic and socio-economic diversity that exists within it.
Not many students knew much about Islam. None of the students could say they had heard of modernist Muslims such as Jinnah or Sir Syed Ahmed Khan or that they even existed. They were fascinated to learn that a Muslim leader like Jinnah could even exist. Contrary to stereotypes about Muslims in America today, Jinnah was able to don a suit with a cigar in hand and win over 90 per cent of the Muslim vote in India. No preacher or mullah ever commanded such success at the polls, even though they were in the field against Jinnah — yet they are often portrayed as the only representatives of the faith.
The challenge of this class is thus to convert this absolute lack of knowledge into an understanding of a world that seems alien but whose principles and values are closer to home than these students may realise. The Muslim world is one-quarter of the global population. It simply cannot be ignored.
Yet, even as attacks on mosques, women, minorities and other vulnerable groups intensify in the US, it was heartening to see young American students genuinely wanting to engage with and learn more about the topic, excited about being taught by their Muslim professor.
I realised in these experiences there needs to be a broader understanding of how complex and nuanced the world of Islam really is. The challenge is to encourage the understanding of Islam through this modernist method.
These lessons are not only supposed to be learnt by people in a land far away — they must be reincorporated in our polity at home as well. The interactions with the Hindus forced the Muslims to modernise in South Asia. One may argue intense challenges from within exist in the Middle East. Even in Pakistan today, though, we must ask ourselves whether Pakistan itself is understanding Islam in this method or resorting to binaries and demarcating a nation which was created for the Muslims of South Asia with this compass? Neither we in Pakistan, nor the people living in America are reminded of this. Unfortunately, we are being hijacked today by preachers of intolerance and being accused of not doing enough against this barbarism — a lot of which has emerged due to the intricacies of geopolitics rather than some inherent lust for violence.
I am from Sindh in Pakistan — a land which put great emphasis on cohesion between faiths in society. In this land of Sufis, a common prayer taught to young children in the erstwhile Khairpur state was a simple “Allah — Hindu jo, Muslim jo, Sab jo khair kar.” — “O Lord, please bestow your grace on Hindus, Muslims and all.” This culture that is beautiful, hospitable and famously universal is also in danger of being wiped out.
These are authentic, indigenous values that we appear to be losing in Pakistan today — once more increasingly due to geopolitical reasons. They are not exclusive to Sindh. They are at the core of the existence of the federation, represented in its flag. The challenge is to carry forward Jinnah’s mantle, a modernist law-abiding man, who abhorred mob action and vigilantism — something which the self-described custodians of the faith express relish in doing.
At a dinner to commemorate Sir Syed in Edison, New Jersey, upon receiving the Aligarh Alumni Association of New Jersey and Pennsylvania’s Sir Syed Day Lifetime Achievement Award For Excellence in Literature, Poetry, Arts or The Sciences and/or for Outstanding Public Service, Ahmed explained how Ilm or knowledge is the second most used word in the Qur'an after that of Allah. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) said the ink of the scholar is greater than the blood of the martyr. This is the essence of Islam. It is so unfortunate how this narrative is pushed out of the mainstream.
Attending this gathering allowed me to reflect and think about the philosophy of teaching picked up from Ahmed. It solidified my own thinking on reaching out, as he does, with integrity and trying to remain available in my community, as I try to, in order to create a better understanding. This is a reflection of the finest traditions of Sufi South Asian Islam.
The challenge for Americans is to understand Islam as it is. The challenge for Pakistanis is to go back to a clear and honest understanding of the faith, not allowing it to be infiltrated and hijacked as it is today and confusing my own generation.
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