Inkwells, the Queen’s Bath and the Pursuit
of Happiness: An American Journey - II
(Commencement Address by Dr S. Amjad Hussain
at the University of Toledo, May 6, 2007)
Since the fateful day
of September 11, 2001 my task as an op-ed
columnist has taken on new urgency because
I sense an expectation by some of my fellow
citizens that I should condemn my religion
for the crimes of some of the followers of
Islam. It would be like throwing out the baby
along with the bath water.
Nine-Eleven destroyed much of the amity that
Muslims had developed with other religions
in America. More than that it has critically
silenced a meaningful dialogue between Islam,
Christianity and Judaism.
Islam is being blamed for the misdeeds and
horrific acts of certain groups who call themselves
Muslims and claim their nefarious inspiration
from the same sacred text that I have cherished
and followed all my life. So when I hear a
blanket condemnation of my religion, and for
that matter any religion, by those who ought
to know better, it affects the very inner
core of my being as it would, I am sure, affect
you if the roles were reversed.
Through out history man has invoked the name
of God to wage war against others. Time, reason
and tactics might be different but invoking
the name of God remains constant. A poem from
WWI illustrates this point rather well. It
was written by the English poet Seigfried
God heard embattled nations sing and shout
‘Gott strafe England!’ and ‘God
save the king!’.
God this, God that and God the other thing-
‘Good God!’ said God, I’ve
my work cut out!’.
Like two huge tectonic plates Islam and Christianity
have collided many times in history and the
reverberations from this collision were felt
far and near and to this day we see those
fissures visible in as distant places as the
Middle East, the Balkans and parts of Europe.
But there have also been times when Christians
and Muslims and Jews rose above their religious
differences and worked in harmony. For five
centuries from 750 CE to 1258 CE, the period
of history known as the Golden Age of Islamic
Civilization, one sees an unprecedented cooperation
and collaboration between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Together they spawned a dazzling explosion
of arts and sciences in Damascus, Baghdad,
Cairo, Spain and a few centuries later in
India during the Mughal rule.
Looking at those accomplishments even through
the fog and haze of present day distrust and
paranoia they look dazzling. It was made possible
only when there was active participation of
all citizens of the realms and when Christian
and Jewish voices were heard along with those
Pray tell, why then the same religion that
provided a milieu for such cooperation and
collaboration is now being called the source
of all evil in the world? Faith and reason
have become the buzzwords now when discussing
Christianity and Judaism. But those concepts
were put to test and followed by Muslims centuries
before the Reformation. No, there has not
always been the clash of civilization as popularized
by Samuel Huntington.
This leads to the invariable question: What
The simple answer is that colonization of
the Arab and Muslim lands by the emerging
European powers of the 15th century changed
In the post Colonial era in the Muslim and
Arab lands a mindset has developed that tends
to blame all their shortcomings on the effects
of Colonization. Lost in this rhetoric is
the fact that we the Muslims have also lost
our intellectual and scholarly pursuit.
Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, had famously
said that the ink of a scholar’s pen
is more sacred than the blood of martyr. In
a macabre reversal of that noble saying, for
some, the blood of a terrorist has become
more sacred while we have let our inkwells
run dry. Add to that the political injustices
that have been meted out, from Palestine to
Kashmir to Chechnya to Kosovo to Afghanistan,
and you have a perfect milieu for disenchantment,
extremism and terrorism.
Now what all this geopolitical turmoil has
to do with you, the newly minted graduates
of this university?
I respectfully submit that it does.
It would be an understatement to say that
the world has changed and has become much
smaller in the past 50-years. What happens
in one corner of the world affects us all.
But we have lagged behind in our approach
to and understanding of the world that once
used to be remote, distant and somewhat exotic;
a world we used to access through the pages
of the National Geographic or BBC Radio. Now
it is up close, in the face, real life and
in real time.
All of us are given choices in life. Many
times the choices we make determine our destiny
and our legacy. Those choices make the difference
between a life spent in pursuit of happiness
that is not limited to the plethora of choices
available in the grocery store and a life
spent in pursuit of happiness that makes a
difference to others.
Martin Luther King Jr. had said, "Every
man must decide whether he will walk in the
creative light of altruism or the darkness
of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment.
Life's persistent and most urgent question
is 'what are you doing for others?"
So what would you do for others as you leave
the comforting and soothing confines of this
But before I suggest some choices I want to
tell you a fable from the East. In Peshawar
there is a street called the Street of Story
Tellers where, in a bygone era, caravans from
Central Asia would make a stop on their way
to the plains of India and beyond. There,
in town’s caravanserais, the
weary travelers were entertained by professional
storytellers. Hence my propensity to tell
stories. The story I am going to share with
you has its usual inferences and morals.
Once upon a time, (I love that fairy tale
beginning), there was a benevolent king whose
beloved queen fell ill of a mysterious illness.
Despite all efforts her health continued to
deteriorate. In desperation the royal physicians
suggested a milk bath. The king decreed that
each household supply a pitcher of milk for
the common good of the kingdom.
The town criers went through the labyrinthine
streets of the city and announced that every
household was to deliver a pitcher of milk
to the royal bath outside the city gates.
All through the night residents of the city--
peasants, artisans, professionals, traders
and shopkeepers-- carried clay pitchers on
their heads to the outskirts of the city and
emptied them in the royal bath.
When the first light of morning dissipated
the pitch darkness of the night the royal
attendants, to their horror, saw that the
bath was full but not with milk but with water.
Each household had assumed that one pitcher
of water in a bath full of milk would not
be noticed and it would not make any difference.
And it still does.
I would like you to keep this story in mind
when you go about making choices in your life
and carve out a comfortable niche for you
and your family.
There is enormous poverty and hunger in the
world and even in this country there are pockets
of deprivation. People are poor for no fault
of theirs. When you are asked to extend a
helping hand just remember this story.
There will be times in your life when you
will see injustice meted out to those who
cannot defend themselves. You will be called
upon to stand up for those disenfranchised
segment of our society. You must share with
them some of the milk you will carry.
You will also see bigotry and prejudice -
may it be racial, social, political or religious
- towards your fellow citizens. You will be
expected to stand up and scream bloody murder.
To look the other way would be like pouring
water instead of milk in the bath.
The fabric and texture of our society is enriched
by the presence of the arts, the music, the
community theater, service clubs, libraries
and such. As productive members of the community
you will be expected to help with your time
and your money. Just imagine if the Libbyes,
the Stranahans, the Knights, the Andersons
and the like would have remained oblivious
to the needs of this community. I hope you
will do your bit.
All of you have worked extremely hard to earn
the diplomas that you are about to receive.
This first-rate education will open the world
for you. You have reached this milestone with
the help of many people who have helped you
climb this difficult ladder. You ought to
remember the fable of the queen’s illness
and the pitcher of milk when you are asked
to help your alma mater. America is great
because of its institutions of higher learning
and institutions thrive when alumni become
part of their future.
And don’t forget your teachers who,
in all fairness, made you what you are. They
are the real architects of the America of
tomorrow but seldom get the credit or their
due for that awesome responsibility. We all
owe a perpetual debt of gratitude to these
noble men and women. Whenever you can go back
to your university, college, high school and
your grade school and say thank you.
Last but not the least you should also apply
the parable of the Queen’s bath when
it comes to your own family. Before the relentless
pursuit of success takes you away from your
primary responsibility as a son, a daughter,
a husband, a wife or as a parent do not forget
that charity does begin at home. Your family
would also need some of that milk.
Now I assure you it is not easy to balance
a big, seemingly bottomless pitcher filled
with the milk of human kindness, grace and
charity on your head and walk a tight rope
of responsibilities the rest of your lives.
But then the ceremony you are about to participate
in, has, hopefully, prepared you for this
To do so is the real pursuit of happiness
and to this hyphenated American the real meaning
of being an American.
In the end the choice will have to be yours.
To remain silent or oblivious should not be
one of the choices.
Let me conclude with the wise words of the
19th century American army general, poet and
orator Albert Pike: ‘What we have done
for ourselves alone dies with us; what we
have done for others and the world remains
and is immortal’.
I wish you the world.