Islam as lived

I’d like to begin my first blog entry with a (modified version of a) speech I delivered at a Unitarian Universalist Church in the US last week. This speech was delivered as part of a session called “Diversity in Islam.” The speech also summarizes my religio-cultural background and limited understanding of Islam:

My life experiences have led me to the conclusion that Islam is not a monolith. I happened to have been raised in a family that was very diverse in its understanding and appreciation of Islam. I was exposed to three different versions of Islam while growing up, typified by my aunt, mother and father.

My aunt, who lives with us, can be best described an orthodox, Sunni Muslim, who, at one point in her life, was also a great supporter of a conservative Islamic political party. The party believes that Islam is the perfect system of life and that all human affairs should be dealt with in the “light of guidance handed down to human beings, from first to the last prophet who is Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).”

My mother, though Sunni, has a soft spot for the Shi’ite sect and is also greatly into Islamic mysticism i.e., Sufism. In fact, she was a murid (follower) of a Sufi saint in India, who passed away a few years ago.

My father is what I would call a liberal Sunni. He has a very progressive and open outlook towards life. He was and is greatly fascinated by science and was the person who motivated me to adopt a scientific attitude myself. Despite being so liberal, he still confesses his belief in Islam and maintains that humans are spiritual creatures.

I, on the other hand, have ended up with beliefs quite different from my family members. I am a Muslim, only perhaps, in a vaguely cultural sense. For all philosophical and practical purposes, I consider myself as a freethinking agnostic. The existence of Allah is a big question mark and so is the claim that Islam is the complete truth. I further believe that all religions, including Islam, may have something useful to offer to humanity. However, I believe that it is extremely difficult (if not utterly impossible) to determine which religion, amongst all others, is the Absolute truth for all of humanity, for all times to come.

Anyway, this digression aside, the most important lesson I learned growing up under the influence of various Islamic schools of thought was that of tolerance. Even though my aunt, mother and father followed their own interpretation of Islam, none of them ever tried to impose their personal interpretations on each other. They sincerely held their set of beliefs and lived their individual lives in accordance of what they believed in. From the specifics of each of the three belief systems, tolerance was one of the most important principle I was able to abstract.

As I grew older, I saw yet another version of Islam in my surroundings. What separated this version of Islam from the three versions practiced at my home was that it was extremely intolerant. This version of Islam, which is known by various names such as Wahhabism, Salafism, Islamic fundamentalism, seeks to assert itself as the real Islam and lacks the quintessential tolerance of the more orthodox, mystical and liberal versions of Islam.

It is saddening to see the stupendous growth of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan over the last few decades. I cannot imagine a world without religious tolerance. To be able to freely express one’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof) is, according to my understanding, an inalienable human right.

As a freethinker, I cannot pray to the Theory of Everything, for I doubt it will respond to my prayers. I can, however, like John Lennon, just “imagine all the people, living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.

Thank you.

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