Monday, March 24, 2014

Back to Teaching About Islam, But Hopefully With a Difference!

Yoginder Sikand

Having ‘worked on’ religion as a so-called ‘academic’ for 20-odd years, one day, I decided to call it all off!  I won’t go into the details of exactly what transpired, but, gradually, the utter futility of much of what I had been doing for much of my life—writing, researching, publishing, and conferencing about religion and religious-based communities and so on—began to dawn on me. All of this, in fact, had turned into a source of livelihood—and lucrative one indeed! I was invited to conferences, often set in star hotels in ‘exotic’ locales, to speak on subjects related to religion. I applied for, and was granted, several research projects and fellowships to ‘study’ various dimensions of religion. I wrote books on these issues and churned out articles like a machine, which added considerably to my income. I earned ‘big’ degrees from ‘famous’ institutions, where I supposedly conducted ‘in-depth scholarly’ research’ of religion and religious communities.

Yet, all of this had miserably failed to transform me as a human being—in the positive sense, I mean. What I read and wrote and heard others pontificating about may have made me a more ‘informed’ person, but it certainly did not, in any way, make me a better human being. On the contrary, in fact, it made me worse than I already was! Too much ‘knowledge’, like too little of it, can be a very dangerous thing indeed. It can really go to one’s head! You are touted about as an ‘expert’, and you yourself start ardently believing that myth! Hardly anything titillates the ego more than ‘knowledge’!

You won’t believe how glad I am that I took that decision to quit academics for good!
It was during this phase of my life that the utter absurdity of something else that I had fervently believed in all this while, struck me. I had grown to see everything around me in starkly negative terms, so much so that I could hardly see anything good in anyone or anything at all (besides myself!). Much of that judgmental-ism was psychological in origin, of course, but it had also to do, in part, with a tendency in some ‘critical’ circles to focus only on problems, real or imaginary, being wholly blind to the innumerable possibilities and positivities that God has blessed life and the whole of the cosmos with. All I could see around me were ‘problems’ after ‘problems’—in  other people, in society, in the country, in religion, in various ideologies, in every nook and cranny of the world—in short, everywhere!
It was as if there was nothing in life worth celebrating! And, in my foolishness, I saw my writing work as my own small way of helping to solve those problems. That, of course, was another crafty trick of the ego. What a major ego boost it is, to see yourself as an indispensable do-gooder or ‘social reformer’! And when such ‘social work’ gets you a well-paying job and whole host of perks, you can very easily be deluded into passionately believing your self-created myth, hook, line and sinker!

I had come to see the world and everyone around me negatively and hence as the object of my bitter criticism. But there was one thing that was exempted from this pervasive negativity—and that was me! It was as everyone was a problem that needed critique, reform or help, but myself! Never in my whole life had I ever turned within. Never had I felt the need to introspect, let alone to make amends for my faults and foibles. It was always the ‘other’ that was, for me, ‘problematic’ and supposedly in need of reform. As for myself, well, I just could not see any warts, let alone realize the need to cure them! If there were any problems with me, they were all, I insisted to myself, caused by others (including by ‘the oppressive social system’), and so they could be cured only if others were. There was nothing I needed to do to cure myself!

To cut a long story short, the world that I had inhabited for many years was rudely shaken, and, for the first time ever, I was forced to confront the immense negativity that I harboured within. If there was anyone I needed to change, I now understood, it was myself!
It was at around this time that I re-discovered the writings of a man whom I had first met many years ago, but whose value I had then failed to appreciate—the New Delhi-based Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. At the age of almost 90, Maulana Saheb remains a prolific writer and speaker. Author of some 200 books, on various dimensions of Islam, he is one of the leading advocates of inter-community dialogue as well as Islamic dawah or ‘invitation’ at the global level. He heads the Centre of Peace and Spirituality, which, drawing inspiration from the Quran and the Sunnah, the practice of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon Him), aims at promoting the culture of peace through mind-based spirituality (for details, see

Although I had met Maulana Saheb on several occasions in the past, and even had the honour of interviewing him several times, there were things about his approach to religion that I did not quite like—and this is putting it rather mildly. I just could not agree with his prioritizing personal transformation over ‘social reform’, introspection over social critique, and reformism as opposed to ‘revolution’, with his advocacy of patience in the face of difficult challenges, with some aspects of his critique of the political interpretation of Islam, with his seeming silence on ‘socio-political oppression’, with what seemed to me to be his blaming ‘victims’ for their own ‘misfortune’, and so on. He was, I had then summarily concluded, sociologically naïve, or even ‘counter-revolutionary’, and perhaps even a willing tool in the hands of ‘oppressors’, variously defined.

But just as I was going through this major crisis of meaning in my life, God led me to re-read the Maulana. As I began to read him, the significance of his understanding of Islam opened up to me. At last I had found someone who spoke to my heart, whose understanding of Islam made full sense to me, and who helped me revive my lost interest in Islam! The reality of all those many things that I had earlier found ‘problematic’ in the Maulana’s writings  became clear to me as I read on and it dawned on me how beautiful and meaningful his understanding of Islam truly is!
Having decided to quit my academic career, I wandered about, pretty aimlessly—two months in Arunachal Pradesh, a month in Rajasthan, three months in Himachal Pradesh and so on, trying my hands at various things, till I grew tired. At 47, even if you have never wanted to ‘settle down’, your energy levels are declining and you could well do with some ‘stability’. I was in need of a place where I could be myself, spending my time in peace and quiet and doing my reading (mainly, these days, of the Maulana’s copious writings). And that’s how I came back to the Henry Martyn Institute, Hyderabad, where I had taught many years ago—in the mid/late 1990s.

God has been immensely kind to me in bringing me back to the HMI. It is just the place I needed. I have a delightful room in the hostel to myself, cheerful people around me, a wonderful office space, and more. Being here, I have ample time to do my reading and occasional writing work, besides contributing to some of the activities of the institute—mainly taking classes for the students of the 9-month Diploma in Islamic Studies and Interfaith Relations and helping develop some new programmes. It is beautiful and touching the way people here, from different religious, class and ethnic backgrounds, work, laugh and pray together!

But I am clear that I am not back here to do what I had been doing for 20 or more years—engaging in the academic study of religion. As I mentioned above, I was blessed to realize the absurdity of such study if it does not transform you into a better human being. And this absurdity is something that I try to alert with my ‘students’ (co-learners, actually) to. I’ve shared with them how for me, studying and writing about religion turned into a source of livelihood, and I urge them not to repeat the same mistake. Neither the Prophet Muhammad nor Jesus (may peace be on them), nor any other man or woman of God ever acquired spiritual wisdom through reading massive tomes on theology, I tell them. Not one of the prophets went to a seminary! In fact, many of them were totally unlettered. None of them had a BD or an M. Th. or a Ph.D. from the Harvard Divinity School or Umm al-Qura University, Saudi Arabia! True knowledge of religion is not to be had just from books.

The measure of a person is not how much he has, nor how much he knows, nor how many books he has written or how many fancy degrees he has earned. Put very simply, the only measure of a person is the quality of his faith and actions—and I think that’s something most religions agree on. Studying religion can only be worth it if it helps us in that respect, I often remind my fellow learners at the HMI (and myself, too). And I do hope they agree!  

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