One day. That is all it took. For what? To overcome my Islamophobia. How? “Do not talk to strangers” is what I was told when I was attending St Paul’s High School in Hyderguda, Hyderabad, during the 1970s.
Thus, from early childhood, the “stranger” becomes a symbol for the “Other”, who acquires the signification of someone who is threatening and hence is to be suspicious of and avoided. As we grow up, the distrust and suspicion continue to be there about these so-called “Others” because we tend to interact less closely with “Others” who do not belong to our class or caste or gender or religion or region, etc.
What makes this a vicious circle is that, given that we avoid close interactions with these “Others”, they continue to remain strangers to us. And, as long as they are strangers, we do not get to know them well enough to overcome our biases, prejudices, ignorance, and fears centering on them.
Fast forward to the recent present. The troubling “Others” for me, as for some Hindus these days, seemed to be the “Muslims” as a group, not so much in a virulent form as perhaps for some, but still something that did not make me feel comfortable, though, at an individual level I could get along with them excellently having many close friends among them.
Of course, I felt they were not helping matters by inbreeding all sorts of problematic characters such as terrorists. Also, we as Indians have the past excesses of the Muslim “invaders” and rulers to contend with. And in the past, I had tried to read the Quran and could not connect with its language of seemingly overt intolerance of “Others” such as kafirs or unbelievers.
In this milieu, I have remained for many years. Of course, there are a few family members who do not suffer from Islamophobia. The takeaways from my conversations with them were that I was having these biases and prejudices towards Muslims as a group because I was looking at them as a monolithic group, and I was reading the Quran as a text by myself, ignoring how it gets read and interpreted in diverse and critical ways in the Muslim communities themselves.
Change of ‘Course’
Fast forward to a couple of days ago. I came across this Harvard online course “Islam Through Its Scriptures”, which was being offered for free on its edX platform. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to get to know Islam better, and thereby get over my Islamophobia. I enrolled in the course immediately.
The Harvard course is a self-paced one, with 10 lessons in all. After the first few lessons, I was beginning to feel maybe I did a mistake by enrolling. But then I plodded on. And the moment, I started to read about Sharia or Islamic Law, the magic started happening. I discovered that the Islamic scholars were adopting a very nuanced, analytical and interpretative approach to arrive at the codification of laws.
For this, they were relying not only on the Quran, Sunna (biography of the Prophet Muhammad) and Hadith (the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad) but also on consensus, and techniques of qiyas (analogy) and other reasoning such as istislah (public interest) and istihan (juristic preference). This sort of interpretation and independent reasoning, I hitherto thought was confined to the West and non-Islamic societies. But, lo and behold, they were like “Us”.
This realisation only got reinforced when I saw two excellent videos presented in the course on Sharia by the Islamic scholar Dr Jasser Adua (look up on YouTube). He made an interesting observation that countries like Canada and Sweden ranked almost at the top on their metrics of Sharia compliance and far higher than any Muslim-majority countries. He also touched upon the hierarchical principles for deriving Sharia law.
Cultural Studies Method
To backtrack, my initial expectation was that the course will acquaint me with certain verses in the Quran, which were similar to the ones in Hindu scriptures like the Upanishads. But, to my dismay, the professor said that they will not cover what is “true” and “false” in the Quran, but rather discuss how the Quran gets read, interpreted and interwoven across different historical periods based on the complex sociocultural interactions.
This approach to the study of a religion is what Diane L Moore of Harvard Divinity School calls the “Cultural Studies Method” (google her article “Overcoming Religious Illiteracy”). And yet, the method worked.
Towards the end, there was a video in which Egyptians are travelling in a bus. One of them recites a verse from the Quran. Then, someone else picks up the recitation, and so it continued, almost like our anthaksharis. What struck me was that their intense absorption and transcendence is something I experience listening to Ghantasala’s devotional songs. By Jove, they were like me. The Egyptian faces no longer seemed foreign to me.
Now, I am not prescribing that you take this Harvard course. But, I will say that it is only by getting to know the “Others” in all their diversity and similarity that you can overcome your prejudices. To do that I suggest that you take a closer look at how you classify, interpret and judge the wrong actions of some Hindus, whereby you do not demonise Hindus as a group but apportion the blame to those particular individuals or groups responsible for it.
That is, you do not look at your own group, be it your caste, class, religion or region, with a monolithic lens by making sweeping stereotypical statements. Similar considerations you need to learn to apply to people of other groups. Then your biases, prejudices, fears and phobias towards “Others” will dissolve away.
(The author is content writer, blog @ https://selfrealization.home.blog)
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