Ramadan Musings: A Dash of Iraq, A Flash of Scripture

Iqra Bisme Rabbi (Read, in the name of your Lord) Qur'an  (Calligraphy by: marshal0.deviantart.com)
Iqra Bismi Rabbi (Read, in the name of your Lord) Qur’an 96:1 (Calligraphy by: marshal0.deviantart.com)

It’s weird – but also perfectly predictable – that I took to studying Islam after 9/11. Before that, my religious studies were limited to Friday morning sessions with the dreadfully-early Hujur (home-tutor of religion). He would summon the deepest ‘ain’ and ‘ghain’ sounds up from his epiglottis and look to me expectantly. I’d be lost in the shibboleth of ancient Arabic. Back then – it felt like a hereditary obligation, something done to please the parents and accumulate social currency for life’s negotiations: mom, if I read the scripture for an hour – can I stay over at X’s place tonight? If I memorize verses 6-10, will you buy me that silver revolver from New Market?

a student of islam in front of mosque
Childhood study of Islam was largely ritualistic for me (photo: Ed Cohen / NY Times)

Things changed for me when the so-called War on Terror started. There was a lot of social chatter about the Iraq War: Al Qaeda carried out 9/11 – so they bomb Saddam? Why even bother with the charade? It’s the oil – that’s what it is! It was as though Islam had been yanked down from some ancient pedestal – and into the real world. With real consequences for its beliefs. I felt as though part of me was being attacked – and I had no idea why (I felt that way). It felt like they could attack us because we couldn’t fight back. The formation of these binaries – us and them – was not conscious. Some part of my identifying with a broader Muslim World was surely motivated by a lifelong fondness for the underdog; some, by racial similarity. A great part must have been our Eastern brand of monotheism too – it just doesn’t feature in my memories of the time. But I do remember telling myself that I was bound to start forming uninformed opinions about these endless middle-eastern conflicts at some point if I didn’t try to learn more.

Like in Samuel Huntington’s predictions about concretization of civilizational identities – I felt myself turning inward for understanding. Nothing seemed more important than breaking out of the subaltern mindset (a state of imagined inferiority to Western colonial forces, culture and traditions). I had (what I thought was) an epiphany: our answers lie in the East, not the West. So after perfunctory readings of other scriptures, I turned to my own. This time, I didn’t bother with the Arabic, but rather picked up an English translation. If Muslim lands – Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan – were indeed under attack, then there had to be some answers in the Qur’an! If the Almighty was truly on our side – then he would tell me/us how to combat it ideologically and spiritually (like most others, I was always certain Al Qaeda wasn’t the answer).

The Iraq War got me reading the Holy Qur’an again.


Of course, the Qur’an had been an anticlimax. It had cryptic messages and endless repetitions. Nowhere had it talked about the East’s triumph over the West. Nothing in it had seemed to favor us. What it would talk about was how people would go astray and forget the fundamentals (and yet call themselves fundamentalists). It would take me month after boring month to even come close to scratching its surface.

In past five years or so – my quest for Eastern Glory has subsided. My obsession with Avicenna, Khwarizmi and Ottoman architecture has ebbed. Thankfully! I am beginning to see what Qur’an’s alter ego Al Furqan (criterion for right and wrong) means. The scripture puts forth certain commandments and criteria – but it doesn’t favor Arabs over Europeans, Yahya over John (they are the Eastern and Western versions of the same man) or Burqas over bonnets. I realized that for a very long time – I had been confusing culture & regionalism with Islam.

Fast forward to Ramadan of 2013, my views are vastly different: Islam is ancient. Forlorn. Unwavering. Loath to nepotism. It’s the Original Code. It’s a verb: to surrender. It didn’t begin with Muhammad, it was completed through him. Thousands preached the same Code before him – and whatever name we may give it today, the Code is the same. It glorifies the same Giver of Commandments and the bearers of His warnings. Just like Anglicization of prophets’ names (Daud-David, Yunus-Jonas, Isa-Jesus) doesn’t constitute a Western appropriation of their messages and deeds – the Muslimization of my name and culture can’t help me in adhering to the basic teachings of religion.

We pray and slay in it’s name – and it stands intact. We cast aspersions on infidels and still it keeps quiet. We fornicate, get drunk, over-invoice, malign ex-girlfriends, inject drugs, abuse bellhops / waiters and ignore ageing parents – and the creed remains unchanged. We think just because we are called Muslims – it’s okay to live like that. We have this unshakable belief that the Qur’an is exclusively about us. That it belongs to us! And here’s the thing – it doesn’t!!! It belongs to no one and everyone. It lends itself to anyone who’s willing to give righteousness a shot. Thus what one might possess is, at best, a measure / criterion – not dibs on the Kingdom of Heaven. That Muslims have reduced Islam to a sort of tribal affiliation – supposing it’s message to be meant for Arabs, Malays or South-Asians – is not an Islamic problem, it’s a Muslim digression.

We have NOT been given any club-like privileges just because we were born into a certain creed. Islam is action, not a family title. No one gets a hall-pass. You don’t have to be a cleric, wear a beard / Niqab (full-face veil) or hail from Arabia to know and practice Islam better than anyone else on the planet. It’s not support for Saddam or Palestine – but praising God and strict adherence to moral codes & principles that makes one a Muslim. Who’s to say a Christian missionary isn’t a better Muslim than the cleric who’s reciting Sehri-time verses at 3:34 a.m. here in Dhaka? Who’s to say some Buddhist boy in Tibet isn’t a better follower of Moses’ commandments? To end this rambling post, here’s a verse that hits the nail on the head:


O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted. (Holy Qur’an 49:13)

What? No ‘speaking Arabic’ or ‘supporting Hezbollah’? No ‘hating Freedom’ or ‘boycotting Israeli products’? That’s the reality: it’s righteousness or Taqwa – that’s the single most important criterion in Allah’s judgment. We, bearers of Muslim names, have no say in what constitutes it. It’s high moral standards are written in stone. On what might have been the Night of Destiny – Lailatul Qadr – I had felt like that’s my biggest lesson from the past 10 years: my understanding of Muslim and the Almighty’s definition of it are often not the same. It’s not an Islamic problem, but an error of judgment on my part.

Happy Eid-Ul Fitr to all.


  1. I couldnt help thinking how similar our journeys and understandings were/are…..making sense of religion and its place in the ‘big picture’. For many years, starting as a teenager, I saw religion as a prison that locked people into a particular ideology and way of being, mostly negative. For years i closed my heart to anything to do with capital R religion, believing it was only destructive in its outcomes. Now I think there are many paths and am more forgiving of myself and others ( try to be) and believe there is a positive place for religion in our world…….if only it wasnt so churned up,tied up and misinterpretted by our leaders

    • Thank you Trees – I’m so happy you decided to comment on this post. I had assumed people would be discouraged by the opening calligraphy and Arabic verse. I’m happier still that you shared a bit about your own journey here. It’s true that Religion is a bit of a prison – but then, what good social institution isn’t? Formal education, citizenship, marriage, parenthood – all restrict and shape our behavior. I’ve come to think that it’s easy to let go of all institutions and principles – do as we like without accountability. Adhering to strong principles is difficult – whether in the name of God, Religion or otherwise.

      I, too, feel we are all alike in our search for good and love of harmony. I guess what cleaves us apart is our politics – but that’s a story for another day. I truly love that we can appreciate each other’s positions without feeling compelled to pass judgment. That’s the beginning of peace and harmony. I just know there are millions more like us out there – and that makes me truly happy 🙂 Bless you!

  2. I felt as though part of me was being attacked – and I had no idea why (I felt that way).

    You know I felt the same thing.
    And I’m not even a Muslim.

    Thanks for explaining your journey.
    I guess if 9/11 and the over-reaction to it has brought many Muslims to a more complete understanding of their own religion it at least has a silver lining.

    • Hey Cabrogal – haha you sure picked on a key sentiment there! I think back to those times and think that the feeling had much to do with my identifying with an ‘Eastern civilization’ …some sort of pan-Islamist feeling perhaps.

      I always appreciate your comments and thoughts for their sense of clarity. Now I can appreciate your capacity to see both sides of the story too. Perhaps, some day you’ll share your journey with me/us. I believe it to be best to find commonalities and then determine exactly where we bifurcate in our thoughts. I’m glad that my Arabic scriptural adornments didn’t discourage you from absorbing the gist of my post 😀

      • I’m not sure why you’d think beautiful calligraphy would put anyone off.

        As to my own journey, it’s kinda confused.
        My blog is partially an attempt to work that out myself.

        I guess the short answer is it’s been a long journey from tolerant atheism (as opposed to the intolerant brand of Dawkins et al) to skeptical agnosticism (skepticism directed at my own beliefs that is), but that leaves out an awful lot.

        I see myself as a mystic and a lunatic (bipolar I) and I’m not sure there’s a distinction between the two.
        The closest short answer I have is probably this poem.

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