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Cultivating the Soil

Cultivating the Soil

Issue 1 Sept / Oct 2003

Charity, they say, begins at home. So let me begin with myself. I am becoming unbearable. Maybe it is age. We all get a bit grumpy as we get old. Receding hairline and those facial wrinkles you just can’t hide even with the aid of advance technology – even though ‘I am worth it’ - take their toll. And you get more and more hypersensitive.

But what I am most sensitive about is the fact that everyone wants to put me into a box. ‘What do you do?’ people ask and expect a simple answer like ‘I am an accountant, a doctor or a teacher’. I wish I was. To the next inevitable question, ‘where are you from?’, I always reply, ‘Hackney’. And the instant rejoinder, ‘But you look, so, so Pakistani!’, never fails to disappointment me. What? I can’t look like a Pakistani and come from Hackney and not have a cockney accent?   

Muslims too want to put me into a box. ‘Just what kind of Muslim are you?’, I have been frequently asked. My answer: ‘every kind’. But if you can’t be labelled as a ‘traditionalist’, ‘modernist’, a member of this or that Jamaat, or simply beyond the pale, people get upset. Somewhere I have written that I am several things; yet none of them. I am Pakistani, British, Muslim; I am a traditionalist, modernist and a postmodernist; I am scholar, writer, journalist, broadcaster, cultural critic, futurist and an intellectual to boot! I theorise, criticise and antagonise; and write about (almost) anything that takes my fancy. I want to be all these things at once – but am seldom seen as more than one thing. People are terrified of multiple identities; and suspicious of individuals who can be more than one thing with relative ease. They are uncomfortable with you if they cannot put you in a box. And there is no box on this planet that seems to fit me! But my plight is hardly unique. Most of us have multiple identities even if we don’t realise or appreciate it. We may be British Muslims but underneath we are all very different: Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, Arab, Turkish, Malaysian, Indonesian – the list is long. And we are eager – and rightly so – to retain our original ‘homeland’ characteristics: to be true to ourselves and our genealogy. And Pakistanis, as  we all know, are not just Pakistanis; they arePanjabis, Sindhis, Pathans, Muhajirs and God knows what else. Even as ‘Muslims’ we are quite different. We could be Deobandi or Bralavi, Ikhwan or Jamaat, inclined towards tabligh or active in politics, not to mention traditionalists, modernists, reformists, progressive or radical, and pro-this or anti-that.

If you think that these multiple identities are a recent phenomena, a product of our ‘postmodern’, ‘globalised’ world, think again. Muslims have always had multiple identities right from the days of the Prophet’s (s) hijra. Just look at the life of someone like al-Baruni, the tenth century polymath, or ibn Battuta, the fourteenth century globe trotter, and you will know what I mean. What is new is that our multiple identities have become problematic. Which brings me back to the box.  

It is because we want to put everyone and everything – including, most crucially, Islam itself – in a box that problems arise. We think that our way of doing things is the best way, our way of being is the only way, and our type of Islam is the only true, narrow and straight path. If things do not fit in our small box then there is something profoundly wrong with them. Hence the perpetual and protracted conflict between all varieties of Muslim groups. I think we Muslims need to rediscover the art of generosity. We need to realise that Islam is much bigger than our own, inevitably blinkered outlook, and amenable to multiple interpretations. We need to stop cultivating the soil thinking about Islam as though it was some sort of desert where only one arid interpretation dominates.

Instead, we should think of Islam as a garden. Gardens, by the very fact that they are gardens, consist of a plethora of different plants. There are all varieties of hardy perennials that flower year after year. Annuals and the biennials that have to be planted in season. Plants that provide various colours of foliage, or hedges and borders, or climb up fences, or play architectural roles. There are fruit trees, trees that provide fragrant and colourful flowers, and trees that fix the soil and provide shade. There are the grasses so essential for the lawns. And what would a garden be without the proverbial birds and the bees? And those worms and insects that both enrich the soil and require some form of pest control. The thing about a garden is that all this truly monumental variety of life exists in symbiosis: nourishing each other and ensuring the overall survival of the garden. Of course, the  garden has to be tended: the weeds have to be cleared, plants have to be pruned, we have to make sure that nothing over-grows – that is, no single interpretation becomes an overarching, totalitarian ideology - so much that it ends up suffocating and endangering other plants. Not for nothing is the garden the central metaphor of the Islamic paradise!

 So, rejoice in manifold interpretations of Islam and in your multiple Selfs. Be impossible. Be traditionalist or modern, Deobandi or Bralavi, Sufi or Salafi – but, above all, be generous. Let others flourish as much as you would like to flourish yourself. Let the numerous interpretations of Islam, the vast variety of Muslim cultures, past, present and the future, exist in symbiosis as though Islam was a global garden. As for me, I get sadistic pleasure out of terrifying people. And I do not have to do anything to achieve it. I just have to be myself.

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