Today I had some yummy pancakes with a cousin and his family. It was good to have a chilled out late Sunday chat and a big feed. There was another bloke there, around my dad’s age or possibly older. He was an interesting character. Quite knowledgeable and it seems he’s had a lot of life experience. But he also happened to be one of those people who always has to disagree with you. He was bemoaning the lack of manners and politeness in today’s society. I mildly suggested that this is what every older generation suspects of those younger than them, as evidenced by what people have been writing since ancient times. For example, I remember learning in Ancient History many years ago now of some archaeological discovery. Someone found tablets in Greece, an ancient version of newspaper op-ed columns, from some social commentator bemoaning the lack of manners of children in his society some thousands of years ago.
Our conversation went on, as it often does, to the issue of how to be better Muslims. Invariably this discourse assumes we have to be more like the Muslims of old. And, equally invariably, whenever that happens I tend to bite my tongue lest I convey some controversially common sense notions. Such as, whether we should take instruction from people who lived more than 1400 years ago given society has progressed somewhat. And perhaps those people of the past were not as saintly as we were led to believe. Perhaps they were flawed as only humans can be. Or, whether we ought to learn about things other than what we were brought up to believe. For, surely, don’t our beliefs get strengthened if they are challenged? And if they actually fail to stand up to scrutiny, shouldn’t we celebrate the discovery of something even more righteous and closer to the truth than what we previously believed?
But, no, I don’t usually say that because I know how the conversations end. I’ve had those kind of conversations too many times before. Nevertheless, it’s a matter of some concern to me. Not just here in Pakistan but among most of us Muslims. Why are we so obsessed with our narrow understandings? And I don’t here just mean narrow understandings of Islam. There is literally a whole world of ideas and perspectives out there. Most are not related to Islam. We should be mindful of them, even if we decide to reject any literal truth other perspectives might offer.
I suspect part of the reason is immediacy. If all politics is local then surely most religiosity is concomitant on your immediate experience. If you don’t meet people or experience things outside the immediate realm then, by definition, you’re ignorant of them. Moreover, I think as Muslims we have a lot of pride in our faith, even if we don’t necessarily practice it very much (which, I dare say, is true of most Muslims and I’m thankful of that fact). As a result, a lot of the emphasis on Islam is an attempt to show others that we are good people. I know a lot of ‘uncles’, for example, who like to tell everyone else that they know the best interpretation of Islam. I doubt this has very much to do with intellectual curiosity. Rather, it has more to do with the social traumas of men (and occasionally women), namely dealing with one’s insecurity in the face of social expectations. A life based purely on religious theology (which these days includes secular theologies) doesn’t easily allow you to consider options from outside that box.
Of course, most of what I’ve just said is not unique to Islam. But that shouldn’t dilute the message.