Lost in Tradition

Javed Ahmed Ghamidi, an Islamic scholar hailing from my home country, Pakistan, recently paid a visit to US. I actually ended up attending one of his public programs organized at the Muslim Community Center in Santa Clara, California.

Ghamidi is living in Malaysia these days as his life is in danger in Pakistan. Of course, there is no place for scholars like Ghamidi in Pakistan, who are interested in the reconstruction of religious thought prevalent in Pakistan. 


I was hoping for a more interactive session with Ghamidi and believed that Pakistanis living outside Pakistan might have easier access to him. I was, however, thoroughly disappointed.

The program was officially called “In Conversation with Javed Ahmed Ghamidi” and it started off with the arrival of Javed Ghamidi and Dr. Saleem Shehzad, who is one of Ghamidi’s close associates. I was impressed with Javed Ghamidi’s punctuality as he got on the stage exactly at 11 o’ clock.

After Ghamidi and Dr. Saleem settled in, a welcome note was given by a man, who, if I recall correctly, was the President of the US chapter of Al-Mawrid: the Islamic research organization and institute formed by Ghamidi. Once the welcome note was over, Dr. Saleem was asked to carry on the proceedings. At this juncture, I realized that the format of the program was not to my liking.

Basically, during the entire program, Dr. Saleem was asking Ghamidi many questions and Ghamidi provided answers to those questions. The audience were not directly given the opportunity to ask Ghamidi any questions. Instead, interested audience members had to write down their questions on paper cards and hand them over to a bunch organizers roaming around. The organizers might have acted as a first layer of filtration possibly weeding out uninteresting or controversial questions. I don’t know if that happened but I strongly suspected that it might have happened based on an incident I will narrate further in this post.

The question-cards were subsequently given to Dr. Shehzad Saleem on stage, where he further sifted through the cards, applying an additional layer of discretionary filtration before deciding which questions merited a response. I knew I had no chance of asking the 2 questions I had prepared since the time I found out that Ghamidi will be in the Bay Area.

Even though I knew that the chances of my question being asked were slim, I gave it a shot and wrote a question I had in mind. My question was about a TV program featuring Ghamidi in which he critiqued the works of Karen Armstrong. The entire program is freely available on YouTube:

The whole program is in Urdu and I will not bother translating it in English. The gist of Ghamidi’s critique was that the conclusions about God and Islam reached by Karen Armstrong are a result of adopting an erroneous research methodology. Ghamidi further stated that if asked, he will provide an answer as to what is the right way to do research on Islam. This comment by Ghamidi made me wonder that the “right way of research” would require some yardstick, some “other way” to assess its validity. And that yardstick/other way would require yet another way to assess its validity, so on and so forth ad infinitum. It appears like a classic case of infinite regress. My question, therefore, is as follows:

How can the infinite regress be resolved and how can one determine (if one can determine at all) about the existence of one absolute, universal, unchanging right way of researching Islam that will be axiomatic like a mathematical expression such as ‘2+2=4’?

I submitted the question-card to one of the organizers, hoping against hope that my question will be asked. That never happened. What was more disheartening, however, were the level of questions being asked by Dr. Saleem. The questions were of the following kind:

1) How does Islam view dogs? Is it okay to keep dogs as pets?

2) As per Islam, how much pocket-money does a husband need to give to his wife?

3) Is it okay to take mortgage, Islamically speaking?

4) How should we prepare for the upcoming holy month of Ramadan?

Listening to questions like these, I was reminded of a couplet my Allama Iqbal, the translation of which is:

The truth has been lost in absurdities,

And in traditions is this Ummah rooted still.


It is unfortunate but this is all the Muslims seems to care about. No body it seems (or as Dr. Saleem Shehzad made it appear) was interested in asking questions related to fundamental beliefs of Islam or the ideology of Al-Mawrid institute for that matter.

Dr. Saleem did ask some relevant questions such as famous ‘argument for remedying of injustice’ given by atheists to undermine the existence of God. Ghamidi just rehashed one of his standard replies to this question saying that this world has not been created by God with the intent of serving justice. Justice will be given on the Final Day of Judgement. Case closed. Period.

The session was supposed to end at 1:30 but the organizers cut it short and wrapped up the discussion around 1:10 pm. Ghamidi thanked the audience for coming in and listening to him and a few final remarks were made by the same guy who delivered the welcome address. He concluded by saying that the stage is now open for people to come and get their photographs taken. As soon as the session ended, everyone swarmed like bees over Ghamidi and most of the people were interested in getting their photographs taken with Ghamidi.

At this juncture, I got up from my seat and stood next to the stage, waiting and thinking what to do next. I knew I couldn’t get close to Ghamidi to have a decent one-on-one chat with him. I was also not interested in getting a photograph taken with him. So, I watched the tamasha as I waited patiently for an Allah-sent opportunity to arise to talk to Ghamidi. That never happened because as Tolstoy rightly wrote, “God sees the truth, but waits.”

A semi-bald, middle-aged man with a trimmed beard, who apparently was someone in Ghamidi’s inner circle, was standing on the stage talking to a young man about Islam and its interpretation. I resisted not to eavesdrop or join their conversation but somehow I ended up listening to a few sentences of their conservation. If I recall correctly, the middle-aged man was saying that there is no need to come up with one unified and codified, universal interpretation of Islam that will be endorsed and subscribed by every Muslim scholar. I reckon this was a response to a question by the young man possibly about a desire to reach the one true, eternal interpretation of Islam: the real Islam of Prophet Muhammad.

However, I must confess once again that I don’t know anything with certainty as I was not a part of their discussion. As I was standing so close to them and was constantly looking at and around the stage, it wasn’t long before the middle-aged man noticed me and asked me if I wanted to ask him a question.

This actually marked the end of his conversation with the young chap. The young man, as a final departing gesture and showing genuine interest in Al-Mawrid, asked the middle-aged man for contact details. The middle-aged man reached for his pocket, took out a card, which he said wasn’t his and wrote on the back of the card what he said was a link to the general query page of Al-Mawrid’s website.

At that point, the reality of the matter instantly dawned on me. Online forums and FAQ pages are something that anyone can google. What’s really needed is a human connection; an individual or a group of individuals that is willing to meet, discuss, clarify and educate people about Islam. Alas, this is not how it happens with people in general and Muslims in particular.

The middle-aged man, after turning towards me, asked me the question/issue I had in mind. He said that if I had an intellectual question, I should talk to Dr. Shehzad Saleem about it. I said I’d ideally like to talk to Javed Ghamidi directly but you can have a go at my question as well and it’s not a problem with me.

We started walking towards the prayer hall and I started telling him my question. Halfway into the question, he said that he did get to see my question on the question-card and I should continue finishing my question. This clearly shows that my question did first go through an initial round of checking before being passed to Dr. Shehzad Saleem, if it ever was passed.

Anyway, after I finished the question, the middle-aged man said that as Muslims, what is the yardstick, the standard by which we judge Islam? It is the Qur’an. At that point, we had reached the prayer hall and everyone was hurrying inside since the Zuhr prayer had started. Taking off his shoes, the middle-aged man said that we need to say the prayers first after which we can discuss our question. I said okay and allowed him to go in and say his prayers.

After the prayers were over, I went into the prayer hall and located him. As I approached him, he looked at me and almost instantaneously ignored me as he heard a group of people nearby speaking Pashto language. He immediately joined that group and started talking to them in Pashto. I was grossly offended at this juncture. This is one of the reasons why I have come to despise the more traditional Muslim mindset that has no conversational etiquettes.

I often wonder about the oft-spoken “Uswatun Hasana” of Prophet Muhammad. Uswatun Hasna is an Arabic phrase used in the Qur’an to describe Prophet Muhammad in the 21st verse of the 33rd chapter. It roughly translates as “excellent exemplar”, “good example”, “beautiful pattern”.


Prophet Muhammad is a great example for those who hope and remember Allah and the Last Day of Judgement. In other words, for every Muslim believer, Prophet Muhammad is the best example.

My own struggle has been to transform my character such that I become more caring and sympathetic. So far, I have, however, not made much headway. From a Muslim perspective, my lack of progress might be attributed to my lack of interest in seeking inspiration from the life of Prophet Muhammad.

But what about Muslims who sincerely believe in Prophet Muhammad like the person about whom I have narrated the incident? I have found it hard to come to terms with such Muslims, who completely ignore sincere questioners like myself and not provide opportunities to humanly connect with Islamic scholars.

These are just two small examples that demonstrate shortcomings of us human beings. But a Muslim should not be like this, theoretically speaking. Unfortunately, such is not the case. It seems that Muslims scholars are busy touting Islam and the Muslim Ummah is lost in tradition that is not even tradition. Islam, as practiced, appears nothing more than a bundle of contradictions, hypocrisy, lies, jokes and trivial nonsense. That’s all there is to it.