I. I hate winters.
The one in 1962 was particularly bad. Months of sub-zero temperatures, they skated on the frozen Thames that year – just as Dickens wrote. And the snow! It piled up everywhere and refused to budge, week after week. How on earth could one play guli danda in weather like that? Try as I might it was impossible to shape a snowball into the pointed guli, the torpedo shaped piece of wood, to launch into orbit with a determined whack from the danda, a large flat stick. The snowballs disintegrated on collision with any hard object. Anyway, how can anyone attempt to shape a decent guli through thick gloves with frost bitten fingers that refuse to respond? At home, when I was there, winters were cool respites from the heat. A childs life was spent outdoors marauding with friends, winter was just the addition of a sweater. Now this was home and life outdoors was a painful obstacle course. Not for the first time I ran indoors on the verge of tears.
She ran her fingers through my hair, melting the frozen coconut oil that had given a sculptured look to my hair. I know its very cold, baitay, she said, and it could get colder. You will need something to protect yourself from the harsh European winters, something that warms you from the inside and keeps the cold at bay, something that anchors you to your being. She pulled up a chair and I sat on her lap. Urdu poetry is our most cherished inheritance. It will warm you when everything around you turns into ice. With one arm around me, she picked up the aging, well thumbed copy of Diwan-e-Mir.. Flicking through the pages, her eyes came to rest on a particular poem. She began to hum, the humming turned into words, the words turned into fire, and I was engulfed: Look you: it is emerging from the soul of my heart! Where is this smoke coming from?
My mother was distraught when she learned that my father was leaving for England. He had to go, he said. But there was nothing to worry about as we would be joining him within a year or so – as soon as I find a job and a place to stay. Within a week of his announcement my father was gone.
It took us a year to work out why my father had to go. The strike was broken. His fellow union leaders were arrested by the martial law administrators. The biscuit factory where he had worked as an engineer was closed down. We received regular letters from him but none of them actually described what he had discovered in London. Then, one day I received a parcel; it contained a number of books none of which I could read, all of them bearing the legend, The Great Books of Mankind. Also enclosed was a short note. Dear son, it read, I know you will find it difficult to read these books, but do try your best. When you come to London, you will meet my friend Lady Birdwood.
Who is this Lady Birdwood?, I remember asking my mother. The answer was long and involved, just the kind of tale from family history that I most enjoyed. It appeared that my grandfather served with the British Army against the Chinese during the Boxer rebellion under the command of a certain Lord Birdwood. The British were impressed by his courage and gave him the title Sardar or Leader. Eventually, Sardar became our surname. Originally, we were Durranis, descendants of Nadir Shah Durrani, a Persian warlord whose most noted achievement was the ransack, and subsequent capture, of Delhi. Sardar seemed less bloodstained then Durrani.
I struggled with the books that my father kept sending me. Sometimes I was helped in this endeavor by my aunts and other regular visitors to our house. I started with Black Beauty. One of my aunties read Treasure Island and Kidnapped aloud to me. Ploughing through Oliver Twist and David Copperfield was a real chore. Wuthering Heights marked the outer limit beyond which I refused to further immerse myself in great literature. Much better to read the dreaded Biggles, old chap! Then I made the independent discovery of the much more approachable escapades of the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, ripping fun!
This eclectic introduction to the English language came with a whole set of associations. I came to think of England through the aura created by what I read. It seemed that England was indeed the centre, possibly the original home of what it claimed were all the great books of mankind. In the pages I stumbled over were all the polite civilities, and the high flown notions of justice, fairness, democracy, order. They were the objective of the high minded all inclusive search for human betterment, the refinement of the mind through science and learning. All this was encoded in the hopefulness with which my father dispatched the books to me and the struggle that went into reading them.
We joined our father two years later. We left Karachi on a bright sunny day and arrived in Hackney on a dark, rainy night. My father had rented two rooms in a terraced house in Randlesham Road belonging to a West Indian couple. Mr. La Verne was a quiet man who spent most of his evenings in the pub. Mrs. La Verne was a big, gregarious woman; I found it strange that she called me Love. Love, she would call me, would you like to watch television?. Then she would escort my sister and I to one of our neighbours who had television. I sat glued to a wobbly chair watching Gunsmoke, Rawhide and Bonanza, interspersed with all our favorite advertisements. Murray Mints, Murray Mints, Too good to hurry mints. John Collier, John Collier, the window to watch, BumBumBum Esso Blue. During the year that we spent at the La Verne house, Lady Birdwood was supposed to come and see us several times. But she always failed to materialize.
It was only when we moved in to a bigger accommodation in nearby Hillsea Street, under the auspices of a white landlord, that the Dowager Lady Birdwood first came to see us. A tall, elegant, meticulously dressed woman, she was accompanied by a playful dog. No sooner had she arrived, than she complained of a smell. Its called curry, I told her in my broken English. She stayed only a short while and left without eating the dinner that my mother had spent half a day preparing in her honour. Before leaving, she placed a couple of pamphlets in my hands and issued a stern order: You must learn to speak pukka English, she said grinding her teeth, and do read these books.
Right in front of our house on Hillsea Street, was the Millfield Primary School. But I never saw the inside of the school. No sooner had we moved to our new address than I began to have strange pains throughout my body. I hated sweaters, pullovers, overcoats, scarves, gloves – all the paraphernalia that while protecting one from the cold also makes one indistinguishable and hence invisible to the outside world. Despite all my parents efforts to cover me with layer upon layer of protection, I would go out in my kurta pajama or the cheese-cotton shirts that we brought with us from Pakistan. The pains increased, and I began to forget all that I had learned naturally – to run, to walk, to laugh. Eventually rheumatic fever was diagnosed and I was hospitalized for almost a year. In Hackney Hospital, the doctors kept me firmly attached to a bed: the only thing I could do was to lie horizontal and read. And I read. All the time. And every thing. I read Lady Birdwoods pamphlets on immigration, on the Jewish conspiracy and on the Holocaust. I read the copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and a book called The Longest Hatred that she sent me through my father. I read the copy of the Bible that some visiting missionaries had left by my bedside. But most of all I read the Urdu books that my mother, fearing I would forget the language, kept discreetly leaving behind everytime she came to visit. Many of them were historical novels: the magnificent Akhri Chatan and Mohammad bin Qasim by Nasim Hijazi, which deal with the early history of Islam; the novels of A R Khatun and Razia Bhatti, mostly about the pain of migration, racial and ethnic hatred and adjusting to change; and my all time favourite, Sadiq Siddiquis Andulus kay do Chand (Two Moons of Andalusia), an epic saga of the rise and fall of Moorish culture in Spain. Occasionally, my mother would treat me to, what she called more serious books: texts on Indian history, eyewitness accounts of the Indian Mutiny, the Indian assessment of the Raj; classical works on Islamic thought, Sufi wisdom, translated anthologies of Islamic literature; and diwans of Urdu poets: apart from Ghalib and Mir, I devoured Diwan-e-Zafar, the tragic poems of the last Moghal Emperor of India. Then there was an Urdu translation of the autobiography of ibn Sina: he had mastered, he told me, Plato and Aristotle by the age of ten. My age, I thought!
When I recovered, I was sent to a convalescent home for children in Broadstairs. Every day of the six months or so that I spent in Broadstairs, was divided into four parts. In the morning, I would learn to walk again: with the aid of nurses, I would take short, gentle, wobbly steps up and down the hall way. After lunch, I would play cricket. I would be totally uninvolved in the game till it was my turn to bat. Then, I would be taken by the nurses and placed in front of the wicket where I stayed till the game concluded. Since I could hardly walk, a runner was assigned to do my running. Within a few days, I became one of the most hated boys in the home. After tea, I would sit with the staff nurse and talk about what I had read or was reading. Nurse Scott was, it seems to me, the most beautiful woman in the world. She was slightly chubby but quite tall. She had classical features just as Sadiq Siddiqui had described in the Two Moons of Andalucia. Indeed, she was one of the moons. She said she was a socialist; and she tried her best to answer my questions. Sometimes when she could not answer my questions, she would go and look for a book and then read out appropriate passages to me. In the evening, I would sit in a rocking chair and think. I could feel an inexplicable anger building up within me. I would conjure up pictures of Lady Birdwood as churail, as one of those ferocious demonic women that try to entrance the hero in all Urdu fairy tales. I was also seething with anger against my father.
When I rejoined my family, I discovered that Lady Birdwood had became a regular visitor to our house. She would come at least twice a month, always with her dog, and during each visit she would make it a point to correct and improve our English. Then she would start lecturing my father, who would occasionally nod in agreement, but would never utter a word. Before leaving, she would inquire about my progress and ask whether I had read all the books she gave me.
The day after I returned from Broadstairs, I walked into Brooke House Secondary School at Clapton Pond and asked to be enrolled. The School secretary to whom I presented my request was astonished but eventually allowed me to see the Headmaster, Mr. Harris. He was a very gentle and considerate man, who, I would later learn, loathed punishing his pupils, but the lack of discipline at the school often left him no choice. Mr. Harris asked me to come back a couple of days later and take an intelligence test. I failed the test – miserably – and consequently joined the bottom stream: 1.6. I had problems at the school right from the start. By far the worst of my problems was Mr. Brilliant, our history teacher. He looked like Einstein, without the mustache, and thought himself pretty clever too. First, I found it difficult to understand how Mr. Brilliant could talk about Victorian England without talking about what Victorian England did to India and Africa. Then, I found his account of the Indian Mutiny too difficult to swallow. But most of all I resented the fact that he was not interested in my history at all: Not in the syllabus, lad. Cant talk about it. I became so incensed with Mr. Brilliants inflexible approach to history that, one day, I stuffed all his textbooks in my desk and attempted to set fire to them. I was brought before Mr. Harris who, reluctantly, administered six of the best.
But it was not just at school that I had problems. It was clear to me that I was not accepted on the streets. The walk to and from school was the most painful part of my day. The gangs of youths I encountered on my daily journey had discovered a new game – Paki bashing. I was the perpetual guli to their danda. I made it a principle to fight back and frequently arrived home with cuts and bruises, and on notable occasions, even with a broken nose and then a leg. I was learning that being British meant foregoing essentials parts of ones anatomy. At school, they castrated chunks of your history. On the streets, they took lumps out of you. It is only over time that I have begun to understand the significance of the lumps considered appropriate for excision and why they could not be conceded. It was in response to this determined process of extraction that I began to learn about proactivity, the resistance that defines the nature of my Britishness.
Not all resistance is aggressive. When all my contemporaries seemed to be gladiators on some new battlefield I found that, as before, my friends were all old people. But there was something very different about the old people I befriended around Hackney. I could not understand why society excluded them and left them lonely. All the old people I knew in Pakistan were the opposite, they were happy tyrants engaged in exercising great power over large families which kept them endlessly busy and at the hub of all affairs. When we moved to Seaton Point, in the white heat of urban renewal, I could look down from the 17th floor at little old ladies standing mournfully at the entrance of adjacent blocks. Why dont they have anywhere to go?, I wondered. Why do they come out of their flats, all dressed for an outing and just stand there?
This was not the mystery I had begun to imagine. The enigma was resolved one day on walking home from school when I stopped to chat to one of the sentinels. Little old ladies found it difficult to battle against the hurricane force winds that whistled between the tower blocks. They had to wait for a convoy to form before setting out across the windswept concrete oceans that separated them from the nearest shop. And thats how I became involved in the Hackney Citizens Rights: at my stall each Saturday in Dalton market, I got to listen to the complaints of old people no one else seemed interested to hear.
There was more than instinctive warmth for old people in these friendships. Or perhaps the instinct was not quite what I expected or thought at the time. These old people in Hackney were like me in ways I only now begin to rationalize: uprooted migrants, people stripped of the community and associations that sustained them, flotsam cast aside by the grand ideas of a society that knew it all and knew it knew best. With these old people and their rambling stories, tortuous complaints and vibrant memories you could see the underside of the utopia Britain proclaimed itself to be. The landscape these old people inhabited was one encrusted by hypercritical cynicism. I was becoming part of the old peoples Britain; a marginal, excluded, unremarked Britain – but one that knew it was real, and that its reality gave the lie to the fictions the nation maintained about itself, to itself and to the rest of the world.
Lady Birdwood was trying, slowly but surely, to indoctrinate me with the ideology of exclusiveness, the rationale of exclusion. Here she was, the grand lady, straight out of some 19th century novel, on her visits to the deserving. But her message had nothing, or seemingly nothing, in common with those works of the great tradition, the great books of mankind I had read. They had taught me of the need to be included. They were the umbrella of great ideas under which everyone should try to find a place safe from too much glare of the sun. The great books of mankind were the civilization to which all peoples had to aspire, because all else was darkness and silence.
On one particular visit, Lady Birdwood concentrated on a exegesis of the recent rivers of blood speech by Enoch Powell. Powell is right, she said, Britain is in danger of being swamped by immigrants. As most immigrants do not and cannot speak proper English, as their uncouth cultures are totally alien to the green pastures of England, as their eating and hygiene habits are so different from ours, theres bound to be strife. There will be running battles in the street. Then she suddenly turned round and spoke directly to me. Zia, would you help? Would you join us in our crusade? I sat motionless. Lady Birdwood continued. Join the British National Movement. It would be such a coup to have a young Asian amongst us. I sat motionless. We are about to start a new magazine. It will be called New Times. We are looking for people to help us with it. You can write for it. And help us distribute it. I looked at my father who was looking at me – there was no expression on his face. Lady Birdwood fidgeted: What do you say? I looked at my father again: this time there was a smile on his face. Not a grin but a suppressed, gentle smile. A smile that spoke directly to me. A smile that gave me permission. Erupt, volcano, erupt. There was an explosion.
Lady Birdwood was stunned. Perhaps she had not expected an articulate and reasoned, but ferocious and loud, attack from this, this – a mere Asian teenager. Perhaps she thought she was getting through to me and was shocked at the extent of her failure. Her pale face turned white, and as I continued my denunciation, she became visibly more and more tense rapidly becoming so rigid that the nerve of her face stuck out like the canals on Mars. I spoke without pause, without commas or full stops; and stopped only when I finished. Sensing that something was wrong with her mistress, the dog barked. Lady Birdwood patted the dog, turned away in visible disgust from me and looked at my father. There was a smile on his face. A smile of relief that slowly spread across his face and became a wide grin. Without saying a single word, Lady Birdwood put the leash on her dog, got up, corrected her composure, and glided towards the door. My sister ran out in front of her and opened the door for her. As Lady Birdwood walked out of the door, my sister shouted out, And I hate your dog too. We never saw Lady Birdwood again.
But Lady Birdwood has always stayed with me. In her contradictions there is something essential about the Britishness that has surrounded me since I came to this home. It is something this home has never allowed my Britishness to attain. Lady Birdwood is and was then a woman full of unresolved, unperceived, unanalysed incommensurables, as such she was not an aberration of Britishness but its quintessence. I am reminded of this by recently reading that she has been fined for disseminating exactly the same literature she used to insist I read. Racism, as overt as that preached by all her hate literature is merely the flip side of the Great Tradition, the underlying but unstated message of The Great Books of Mankind that I read in my childhood. It is the notion of civilization as a one way street, an inexorable path of progress that must take all peoples towards the same pinnacle, by the same route. The definition of what it is to be civilized would have been no different for me had I never left Pakistan. It would always have been what it is: an extrapolation from the experience and history of western civilization, the defining, over-writing civilization of domination that literally dominates not just the globe but the minds of all the worlds peoples.
I have been part of a rapidly changing Britain. But my overall experience is of the changeless nature of Britain. During my adolescence in the heady 60s and 70s, it was conventional for the young revolution to pour scorn on the old ways. Let it Be, there will be an answer, Let it Be. Todays answer to my Britishness is as quintessentially confused, unresolved and unaware as Lady Birdwoods. The politics of identity and its champions have ensured that my presence has rippled through the metropolis of erstwhile empire. Sadly it has left the crumbling heart of that empire shaken, but hardly stirred. The identity I am alleged to have helped forge is an eclectic choice from among an infinite set of possible, potential identities. Personal choice, shifting allegiances, fragmentary, partial people are the order of the postmodern day. Who are these people, the British? Without self-analysis, and unaware of self as ever they were, they are still convinced they are the centre, the unwritten orthodoxy that measures and positions everyone elses identity.
Thats what civilizing mission is all about: to give people identities, not to enable them to discover their own. Such labels as immigrants, Pakistanis, Asians, Blacks are ways of retaining and managing control. Chunks of my being are declared appropriate and fit to be included in the Britishness that is imposed upon me. Now, as in my childhood, bits of my physical and historical being are extracted and discarded; artificially created, superficial identities are grafted. You are thus supposed to behave according to the grotesque stereotype that has been created out of you.
Racism is an abstract term for an abstract personless situation. In real, personal relationships, racism is unease and a certain kind of fear about what the other person may do. It is the actual inheritance of stereotypes that are at large in the culture and its history and in the air we breathe. It does not preclude people interacting, but it surrounds their meetings and dealings with uncertainty. Thats real racism: the package deal of identity British people see sitting on my shoulder whenever they talk to me, their certainty about what I must really be like, that I must at some point conform to the expectations they have created for me. It is a certainty that denies me the right to be sure of who I am, to know that I am not the person British society takes me for.
In the midst of all this fuddled, fudged thoughtlessness I am really British. I am British because I have had to become self-aware: consciously alive in my identity which is not a shifting, infinitely alterable array of poses and positions, a collage of associations. Britain has made me the person I am because of the enduring human need to be whole. Like the old people I befriended during my youth, I live my reality, and like them, I would not allow others to dictate what my reality is. That is why I am such a problem, and pose such a threat that I must be marginalised. Nobody else ever intended that I, or anyone like me, should be self consciously British and proud of it.
Of course it never occurred to anyone that I would consider myself British because I am also self-consciously Muslim, and proud of it. The obligatory daily ordeal by news media gives one no option but to be conscious of ones Muslim identity. Part of a vast new diaspora, I read of and watch the turmoil within the Muslim world, the plight of Muslims everywhere from Palestine to Bosnia. Hardly a day passes without Islam being in the news, or the news throwing up some question that disturbs the complacency of the conventions of my Muslim inheritance. Where I live and how I live gives me no option except to be conscious of my Muslim identity. I dont take being a Muslim as a given; for me, being a Muslim is a challenge.
The challenge is to walk a tightrope. To fall, in any direction is fraught with danger. On one hand there is the slough of disaffection nourished deep in virtually every Briton on the potentially hazardous topic of the Muslims; and on the other is the vast world of Muslims ready to be offended, or hurt or maddened by omissions or commissions of which I am easily capable. To be a British Muslim means teetering on multiple broncos of identity, concentrating on holding myself upright, with head held high.
My Muslim consciousness lives with the fact that everyone else in Britain is blithely oblivious of what a Muslim is. There is an age old stereotype that lies buried in the subconscious of most people in Britain, rather like the herpes virus – it is there, ever present, and nothing seems able to cure it. Its presence becomes known only when it is triggered. Whenever Muslims make their presence felt in Britain (for example, by making a demand, say for Islamic schools), whenever an Islamic issue emerges in a distant part of the world, whenever Islam is seen as a threat to (Western) civilization, the herpes virus is activated, the Muslims become an unbearable irritant that must be scratched, scraped, chafed. Muslims everywhere now acquire familiar contours: bearded Mullahs waving scimitars, irrational fanatics with a propensity for chauvinism and brutal violence the lot of them. This conventional portrait of Muslims has a deep resonance in the British mind. Otherwise rational and respectable individuals of both the Left and the Right have not the slightest qualm at parading it as an objective, learned, universal representation. The invariance of this Pavlovian response makes me think that ultimately Britain is not comfortable with having a thriving Muslim community in its midst.
My Muslim consciousness is also a reactive, or proactive, product of the overt representation of Islam by contemporary Muslims. Muslims everywhere exist in a time warp; the interpretations of Islam that predominate pertain to the so-called Golden Age of Islam and were first arrived at least a thousand years ago. Islam has been frozen in history, for centuries it has been denied the oxygen of new interpretation, its thought and traditions – from being dynamic and life enhancing – have been fossilized and preserved in stone. To be a conscious and conscientious Muslim today requires constant struggle against obscurantism, against chauvinistic interpretations, against legal opinions that have served their purpose in history, against traditional notions direly in need of transformation, against blind imitation, against the tyranny of out-of-context quotations and anecdotes. The challenge of being a Muslim today is the responsibility to harness a controlled explosion, one that will clear the premises of all the detritus without damaging the foundations that would bring down the house of Islam.
Perhaps this is the common link between my British and Muslim identity, two volcanic imperatives with me the molten and merged lava flow they generate. When I examine my Muslim identity, it is like excavating through a series of volcanic strata, burrowing through overlaid layers that form the ground on which I now stand. My early schooling in Islam was through my mother who taught me to read the Quran as well as the basic tenets and rituals. There is nothing special in this, it is so conventional one might even neglect to mention the fact. It is an experience repeated in households the world over, the Muslim world that is. The intimacy of ones Muslim identity is its domesticity. As I learned from my mother, so I have watched my wife teach my children. Through this most resilient tradition we are always closing the distance between Islamic identity and ourselves, hopefully so that we can take it deep inside ourselves.
I learnt to read the Quran and its sounds percolated deep. Yet like the majority of Muslims the world over I read the Quran without knowing the meaning of the words; I was taught, and read, the Quran as a Pakistani struggling with Arabic as a second language. What is closest to home is a sphere of meaning that constantly challenges my understanding, that I must exert myself to know. Application of energy has never been my problem. From an early age I began joining in on a wide diversity of activities. The Hackney Citizens Rights group was counter-balanced by the London Islamic Circle. I was Chairperson of both even though I was the youngest member of both. Not just a joiner, it seems I am innately attuned to being an organiser.
The London Islamic Circle met at the Regents Park Mosque, a kind of mini united nations where Muslims of every shade and variety from every possible source gathered. If Hackney gave me a distinct feeling of being British, Regents Park gave me citizenship of a whole world and made me acutely aware of and involved with this worlds problems. Unlike many a nascent activist of the 60s and 70s for me the world and its problems had an intimate human face through the friends I acquired. To this day wherever I go in the world there is always an old friend I can look up, and an intriguing number of them have become powers to reckon with in their home countries. Back then we were all young, eager, concerned and committed; what we had to discuss endlessly every Saturday night was how to make a better world. The conundrum was how Islam would feature in and fashion the transformations we considered urgently needed. The thread that bound us together was the conviction that the status quo in the house of Islam was unsustainable.
To be agents of change it was not sufficient just to be a young and committed Muslim, one had to acquire an effective Islamic education. So in my late teens, I became a pupil of Jafaar Shaikh Idris, a Sudanese scholar. Jaafar is a gentle giant, a calm colossus with the most winning smile that crinkles around the tribal marks on his face. He was working for his doctorate in philosophy at Oxford, under no less a luminary than Popper, and was pursuaded to teach me, and a few others, on a regular basis. We met every Thursday, for a period of over seven years, in a usra group: according to tradition we would sit in a circle around the Shaikh while he systematically educated us in Islamic tradition. He took us through the classic texts: commentaries on the Quran, early biographies of the Beloved Prophet, books of authentic traditions, monumental works on Islamic jurisprudence and philosophy. Jafaar taught me all that – but he also taught me something else: the meaning and relevance of tradition in shaping a Muslim identity.
Tradition is the force to be reckoned with in the life of every Muslim and in the Muslim world at large. Tradition, the word evokes a solid object, an edifice of layers of old stone gone quite cold, and now being worn bare through overuse. This is not to say that tradition does not have many pleasing aspects. A few years ago I was making a series of television programmes in Malaysia. One of the Faces of Islam we had engaged to appear in the series was Jaafar Shaikh Idris. He was due to fly in from Pakistan to record his interview. When he arrived he was dressed in his traditional Sudanese garb, snow white cotton gelabeyah topped with white turban, he had lost his luggage enroute, including the suit he planned to wear for the interview. What is more he had allowed himself to be persuaded to have his distinguished, graying hair hennaed while in Pakistan. This traditional specific, hennaing gray hair, had turned, as it sometimes does, his hair a brilliant orange. He was the walking nightmare of a studio lighting man. What better metaphor for traditional innocence abroad? Calm, collected and compliant as ever Jaafar allowed himself to be whisked to a shop to be rapidly outfitted in suit, shirt, tie and shoes and thence to the makeup department, where the only answer to his orange dilemma was to have his hair painstakingly mascaraed. As usual Jaafar smiled and laughed through it all while everyone else was wilting from nervous exhaustion. At last he settled himself into his chair and was microphoned up for the interview. Then the hidden, underground explosive power took over. For there is nothing inert and lifeless about the understanding tradition evokes in his mind. A series of very sharp and pertinent expositions with the volcanic force to overturn the most determined complacency or sweep aside the most naked power ploys was set forth with the most gentle, humble, humourous and lucid clarity.
When I was sitting in the usra circle I liked the sense of timeless continuity of this simple tradition. But tradition itself became a monumentally oppressive force upon me. History is not just continuity; it is an increasing burden, for the most part unrelieved by the gentle intelligence of a Jaafar. Through his teaching and the discussions it provoked I came to realise that tradition is a complex and rich idea. But the wealth of connotations of our Islamic tradition have been buried under the overpowering edifice of an official tradition consciously fashioned out of its worst features. Where Jaafar gave us the spark for thought and discussion most official Islamic education promotes taqlid, the blind following of received unwisdom. Official tradition has been crystallized into a power ploy, a territory meticulously mapped out and signposted as a reserved enclosure for the exclusive use of the faithful. The boundaries and signposts are policed by the ulema, the ones supposedly learned in the traditional sources. Their vision is a straight and narrow path circumscribed by an endless list of dos and donts that obviates any need for thought or even personal reflection. When in doubt the Muslim should simply go to the leader and be told what is to be done. My problem was the array of so called leaders I encountered did not even understand the questions I asked, let alone how to find a prepackaged answer from the traditional storehouse.
By the time I got to university I was able to become an officially active member of FOSIS – the Federation of Students Islamic Societies in UK and Eire; I had been unofficially involved for sometime. In the late sixties and early seventies, the Federation boasted several thousand members from almost every Muslim country. Many of the members were also active in the worldwide Islamic movement. I was brought into direct contact with the two main strands of the Islamic movement: the Jammat-e-Islami of Pakistan and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. With the help of elder brothers, I embarked on a detailed study of contemporary Muslim thought. I devoured the works of such leaders of the Islamic movement as Maulana Maududi and Syyed Qutb, their numerous followers as well as their critics. I was plunging ever deeper into a realm of ambiguities.
On the one hand I was a student, allegedly reading physics at the City University at the height of flower power and student empowerment through protest. On the other I was spending a great deal of my time with my Muslim brothers whose preoccupation was the antithesis of letting it all hang out. I belonged to both, but was an enigma in both spheres. To fellow British students my Muslimness seemed out of place, while to the brothers my left wing agenda and concerns seemed inimical to their approach. Not for the first time I found myself the only person not in the least perplexed by such a provocative and helpful juxtaposition of ideas and influences.
One other thing was clear: the modernist Islam of the brothers left me cold. In particular, I was disturbed by their instrumental piety – a piety that combined prayer and (self) righteousness with efficacious technology and naked political ambitions. It seems to me that modernist Islam, like official traditional Islam, has imbibed the worst aspects of modernity. It is so gung-ho about the concept of modernising to appropriate the power of the West it excoriates that it has never paused to analyse let alone question what makes the modern world tick. An Islamic A bomb? Why, of course, they say, lets have one, quoting an hadith, an isolated statement of the Prophet, to cover their paucity of intellectual or moral rigor. But where, I keep asking, is there a Muslim ethical debate on nuclear power and its uses and abuses? Where some wrestling with the concepts and ideas that generate the powerful instruments of modernity? Neither in the lexicon of modernists nor traditionalists comes the stark reply. Indeed the modernists seem so set on getting to the point of power and dominance of the West that they effortlessly assume all the aspects of modernity I have consciously rejected: instrumentalism, progress (in the case of Islamic movement political progress) at all costs, expedient use of power and fear and loathing of those with a different perspective. Worse: modernist Islam rests on a foundation of traditional thought from which all the life-enhancing juices have been filtered out.
Both traditional and modernist varieties of Islam leave me frigid because they fail to engage with contemporary concerns. For me being a Muslim means engaging with the world, understanding it, changing it, reforming it; not living in a distant past or some artificially bought over, bussed in modernity. Both of these dominant brands of Islam look at the world with an atomised, black and white lens. They skim over the surface of what perplexes me in the modern world and assume if they call a thing Islamic all will be well. Why? The answer was provided at a seminar I attended in Chicago by a most convinced alim, traditional scholar. While the rest of us had been passionately and vociferously debating hot issues of moral and ethical complexity for days he had sat quietly. Maddened by his silent, contented expression eventually I turned to him and demanded his views. Brothers he said surveying the room with a beatific gaze (and ignoring the female participants) we have no any problem – the ulema have answered all questions. While some engaged in a pantomime exchange of Oh no they havent to his Oh yes they have, I made a mental refusal to shut up shop. Neither for the first nor last time I resolved that someone had to assume responsibility for the unasked questions this otherwise totally innocuous product of the Islamic reservation had made virtually unaskable.
Over the years the no any problem syndrome has become a standing joke I share with group of friends. It is black humour, laughing at our nightmares to keep us going through the endless crises. The worst thing is the world belongs to the No any problem brigade, those who offer the battered and bemused Muslim communities the ready-made, packaged, Islamic-state-on-a-plate scenario. This is why wherever traditional (for example, Iran) or modernist (for example, the Sudan) Islam has triumphed, the introduction of so-called Islamic injunctions has led to an increase in injustice and oppression. I tend to agree with ibn Tayymiah, the classical Muslim political scientist, who argued that it is better to have a just un-Islamic state than a unjust Islamic one!
Because they are seriously out of sync with the contemporary world, both traditional and modernist categories of Islam have generated a perpetual identity crisis amongst their adherents. Muslims of traditional and modernist persuasions have to wear their Islam like a banner around their necks and proclaim their identity as loudly as possible at every juncture. This is largely done by overemphasizing what has come to be seen as the external manifestations of Islam – beards for men, hijab for women; rote prayer and formulaic pieties; Biblical punishments; and unconditional obedience to the leader – shouting banal slogans such as Islam is the answer and the Quran is our Law and by hurling abuse and venom at the West.
Both traditional and modernist Islam seeks to place a barrier between Muslims and their sacred texts. It is the interpretations of the classical scholars that have now become confused and infused with the sharia, or Islamic law, that is supposed to govern Muslim thought and practice. The problem with the No any problem notion is that it is not the historically bound answers of long gone vigorous minds that are important. It is how these thinking Muslims of the past wrestled with the questions of their time and place that we should treasure. It is my questions that bind me to the glorious history of Islamic civilization, and its tradition of provocative, fearless and determined thinkers, not the stock answers that seek to make the history of Muslim thought a permanent full stop. Sharia, the dictionaries tell us, literally means the way to a watering hole, it is therefore a source of unchanging moral and ethical principles that must be regularly revisited, an absolute reference frame to which questions must be subjected for analysis time and time again. By arrogating the monopoly of interpretation largely to classical scholars and partly to contemporary obscurantist, traditional leaders, the Muslim community has been cut off from the basic source that shapes its identity. To be comfortable with my Muslim identity, I had to go back to the source: the Quran.
The Quran speaks to me in its totality, it is its spirit, its principles and conceptual framework that I imbibe; not the list of dos and donts that the scholars have gleaned from it. The challenge of my Islam is to keep making that walk to the watering hole and constantly drink deep of its refreshment. Despite the several outer layers of Muslim identity that I carry with me – the Pakistani, the traditional, the modernist – it is the internalised Islam that is the essence of my true Muslim identity. And because I am quite comfortable with it, I am hardly aware of its existence. I do not have to parade it, underline it or wear it constantly above my person. Its just me. All of me. Including the bit that writes.
Like food, drink and sex, writing has become a biological necessity for me. It fountains forth, I wish…, most often it dribbles like a rusty faucet, but by whatever means of inducement, cajoling or excruciating pressure of posterior on chair Ive just got to scribble. When the mechanism dams up it is as though bodily functions are on strike, nothing feels, tastes or looks quite right. I cannot remember when I first recognised the basic necessity of this fundamental bodily function but the Hackney Gazette, Brook House Secondary school magazine, Sixth Form Opinion, Zenith the monthly magazine of Muslim youth and The Muslim, the FOSIS journal, all received early outpourings before I had realised the importance of the stream they had tapped. The joiner and organiser soon found himself pressed into service as an editor too.
In writing I am a majority of one, a totality, tackling problems head to head and after all the angst, anguish and agony – in a single bound I am free, setting the words on the page, setting my ideas straight. There were other brothers in the London Islamic Circle and FOSIS who shared my analysis of the Muslim predicament and felt like me. Together we concluded that the havoc caused by suffocating tradition and murderous modernity to Muslim societies is so extensive that it may not be possible, or even desirable, to repair and restore their existing social orders. Our task, as we conceived it, was not to be patchers and potchers but creative thinkers seeking fundamentally different, alternative social, economic, political and scientific systems for Muslim societies throughout the world. But how does one conceive new alternatives? We looked around someone to guide us, channel our youthful energies and nascent ideas in a positive direction. And settled for Kalim Siddiqui.
Siddiqui, then a Marxist writer with Trotskyite leanings, worked for The Guardian. He had just published a typically pugnacious book, Conflict Crisis and War in Pakistan, which had brought him to our notice. He received us enthusiastically, declaring: Yes! I would lead a new movement of ideas. He insisted that the new, avant garde Muslims, who were neither traditionalists nor modernists, should have an institutional base which would serve as a magnet, attracting like minded thinkers and writers. Thus was born the Muslim Institute; its function, as the full title suggested, was to undertake research and planning, conceive new Islamic social, economic and political systems and develop alternative visions of future Muslim societies. Siddiqui appointed himself the Director and I became the Institutes first Research Fellow. But hardly had the Institute started functioning, from Siddiquis house in Slough, than our brave new Muslim world started to look very old and familiar. The search for a potential leader was necessary because we had already been mauled over by so many of the self appointed leaders who abound in the British Muslim community. Each one of these leaders is convinced they are the answer to the multiple dilemmas of the Muslims, who, if they would only listen to the words of the leader, could instantly solve all their problems. Every organisation, whatever its impressive global title turns out to be a one man band dedicated to expressing the views and ideas of as single leader, repeated to the echo by a dedicated band of acolytes. We wanted a tutor, a mentor, a galvaniser, someone above and beyond the Muslim organisation syndrome. We got more of the same. Siddiqui too began to manifest his dictatorial tendencies. There was a mass exit of founder members within a few months and I, having raised a vast sum of money for the Institute, was totally sidelined.
During my FOSIS days, I had became close to Abdullah Naseef, a Saudi from an influential Jeddah family, who was doing his doctorate in geology. A warm and gregarious person, Naseef not only represented all the Arab virtues of hospitality and generosity, he also seemed to have synthesized the best of tradition and modernity in his personality, along with a wicked glint of humour at the absurdity of so much in Muslim circles that would twinkle when you eyed him across a crowded room. Naseef returned home to become the General Secretary of the newly formed King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah; rising rapidly to become the Vice-President and then President. When in 1974 he invited me to join the Universitys Hajj Research Centre the offer seemed too good to be true. It was a way out of Siddiquis tyranny and, Naseef assured me with his usual generous smile, I would have ample time to write. He was right. I did.
Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Makkah, is one of the fundamental pillars of Islam. Every Muslim is required, if he or she can afford it, to undertake the journey to Makkah at least once in their life. The word hajj literally means effort and the actual performance of hajj requires considerable physical and spiritual effort on the part of the pilgrims. The hajj emphasises the equality of all – men as well as women, black as well as white, Arab as well as non-Arab, before God; its the global Muslim fraternity in action. The hajj is the ultimate exercise in humility and submission, a total denunciation of materialism and violence. Its the most sublime, most elevated, most cherished part of a Muslims spiritual life. Research on hajj can only be done by those who have themselves performed the hajj. I performed my first hajj in 1975 and a further four in the subsequent years. The first time I simply went as myself; the second time I tried to assume the personality of a rural Pakistani to experience the hajj through the eyes of poor villager; third time, I traveled in comfort with a group of rich Saudis; the fourth time I joined a group of middle class Egyptians. But my last hajj was perhaps the most ambitious. I walked from Jeddah all the way to Makkah, across the desert and over the mountains, with a donkey. The idea was to follow the ancient caravan route and try and perform the hajj as it was performed, say, a few hundred years ago. When I and my donkey, Ghengis, finally completed our hajj, I removed my pilgrim garb (two towels wrapped around the body) and in considerable pride indulged in my first bath after three weeks on the road. This, I told myself, was something worth writing about. I could almost feel the mantle of special effort wafting down on me as I began to compose a first draft of my exploits. Not only had I returned to the remembrance of the past I had put a special imprint on myself by avoiding the horrors of the hajj ordeal by motorcade. As I wandered around Makkah, still crowded with pilgrims, I almost expected everyone to notice the special aura I exuded. Just then I was stopped by a brother asking for directions and in benign mood I engaged him in conversation. He was from Sudan, and had completed his first hajj – by walking all the way from his home village as he would walk all the way back! The writer I have become was saved and reconstituted right there and then by someone whose name I do not even know.
Hajj research wrestles with the predicaments caused by the rapid rise in the number of pilgrims. Piety, with ill distributed affluence and modern communication brings over two million pilgrims each year to Makkah, all anxious to stand on the same spot at the same time. This not only creates formidable problems of accommodation, transportation, health and safety, it is also having a devastating effect on the geology, ecology and the sacred environment of the holy areas. The intervention of modern technology in the form of new and better multi-lane roads, overhead bridges and spaghetti junctions was only making matters worse. Every technological solution produced a host of new problems. The most sacred territory of Islam was stubbornly defying all the logic of conventional, modernist solutions. And the conclusions one had to draw from research and experience where not things the authorities wanted to hear.
As the President of the University, Abdullah Naseef tried his best to shield me from its vast, Byzantine bureaucracy. An unenviable task. Diplomacy has never been in my repertoire, to me spades are shovels and I am without a scintilla of patience – easy meat for career bureaucrats who know a million ways to get their own back while keeping a sympathetic smile on their face. Without Naseefs protection I would not have been able to realise my plan to systematically travel around the Muslim world. Starting from Morocco, I methodically traveled through every Muslim country right down to Indonesia. I spent as long as I could in each country looking at its academic and research institutions and talking to scientists and administrators. In the February of 1976, at the age of 25, I sat down to write my first book.
I had gathered a truly awesome amount of material and I knew what I wanted to say but had little idea of how to organise it, shift through it, analyse it, turn it into a coherent book. After several months of agony, I turned in desperation to Kalim Siddiqui. His response was short and sharp. I am too busy to help young upstarts with their books, he said dismissively. Anyhow, he continued, the Muslim Institute is not big enough for two writers. I dont want you undermining my authority. Take your book and yourself elsewhere: you are not welcome here anymore. He paused to reflect on what he had said. Then, looking away from me, he uttered his final sentence through the side of his mouth: if you come back here again, you will leave with broken legs. The Muslim Institute was on its way to becoming a mouthpiece for the terror unleashed by the Iranian revolution.
In the classic Golden Age nurturing writers had been the strength of Islamic education and leadership. Now, there was nowhere and no one in the Muslim world I could think of to turn to. So I reached out to my Maimonides. I phoned Jerry Ravetz in Leeds. Get on the train, lad, he said, and well sort it out. I met Jerry when he was the Secretary of the Council for Science and Society, a high-powered body that studied and published reports on the social and cultural problems of science. He had rang out of nowhere to invite me to join the Councils working group on the information explosion. He was a reader in the History and Philosophy of Science at Leeds University. When I arrived we sat closeted for a few days while I poured out my problem and Jerry bobbled, bounced and flapped his hands, in characteristic fashion, as he engaged with my ideas. His advice was invaluable, but his enthusiasm was even more precious. Over the next year, in occasional meetings and by long distance Jerry simply talked me through the process of writing the book.
Eventually, the bureaucracy at the King Abdul Aziz University caught up with me. They simply refused to grant me an exit visa for any purpose whatsoever. Unable to leave Jeddah, I turned to the desert. Every weekend – that is Thursdays and Fridays – I would leave the city and spend the time in the desert with an assortment of Bedouin friends. Smoking my sheesha (hubbly-bubbly) amongst the sand dunes, discoursing on the nature of time with my nomads friends, I dreamt of an oasis: I developed a vision of a future civilization of Islam that fused life-enhancing tradition with the irrigating qualities of modernity. I wrote The Future of Muslim Civilization surrounded by the stillness of the desert, inventing new words as I went along to describe the movement of Muslim societies towards a desirable future. The book sealed my fate; it also expressed something very important about my relationship to the future. My Muslim civilization is an oasis at a crossroads, an open civilization inviting to everyone and closed to no-one, after all the vision it records could not have been conceived without my Maimonides, and probably not without Hackney.
On leaving my job at the King Abdul Aziz University in 1979, I decided to become a full time writer. I had no other option. It was my way of declaring my difference from other Muslims; my way of affirming my unique and distinct identity. I paid my bills by freelancing first for Nature and then for New Scientist but spent most of my time writing, traveling around the Muslim world and published another eight books in rapid succession. It began to dawn on me that while my work found much appreciation and praise in the West, most Muslims, for whom it was largely written, found it undigestible. I craved for criticism, yet none was forthcoming. Slowly I began to notice my intellectual loneliness… My friends from the London Islamic Circle and FOSIS had dispersed to the four corners of the earth, going by different routes to involvement with contemporary problems. I was on my own again, an enigma voyaging through a sea of ambiguities.
As in the worst romances, at my lowest ebb serendipity took over. I began receiving letters and phone calls from places such as Stockholm, Houston and Ottawa bringing invitations to address Muslim gatherings. Invariably I would arrive at an airport to be studious ignored by a welcoming committee who would shoo me aside with Yes brother, well deal with your problem later, but were waiting for an important writer, he must have got lost. I would pester them persistently until I convinced them I was indeed the author for whom they were waiting. They would eye me suspiciously and cautiously and ask why I did not have a long gray beard and arched backed. It seems I have always been too young for the things Ive had to say. But after the initial awkwardness in each of these fortuitous trips I found myself blessed with a new friend, a kindred spirit who knew my aloneness because it was the same as theirs.
After a few dry years this slow meeting of streams achieved critical mass. The channel that brought us together was the formation of a new monthly magazine, Inquiry. I persuaded, brow beat and generally insisted that all my new friends become regular contributors – no was not a possible answer. Together we all began wrestling with words to find expression for our ideas. In Inquiry we were tempered in a common fire and eventually found ourselves in riotous assembly on the same flight to Chicago. Aloft over the Atlantic Ocean we made a pledge to become a group, it took the rest of the flight to determine what the group should be called – one of our members is a linguist with a penchant for etymology. We never discussed the function of the group – that was self evident: mutual support as the antidote to the isolation we had all endured. Ijmal, as we call ourselves, which means the beauty of synthesis, has been in existence for a decade. It is the most formally informal of groups, though it does have ground rules: every member must write. Inquiry, which brought us together is long gone, but the Ijmalis have kept going, they refer to me rather deprecatingly as the Tunku (the Malay word for prince) and I sometimes wonder whether they really appreciate what Ijmal means to me and has enabled me to achieve. For the pooling of our isolation has subtly changed my outlook. Together we have argued and discoursed, often sitting through the night in a noisy circle sprawled over the cushions in the living room of my house and my ideas, aspirations and creative vision has matured exponentially in consequence. Books and articles have been forthcoming from all the Ijmalis, and because there is Ijmal, we all have an image of an audience ready to receive our outpourings. The faceless, amorphous, personless void that initially made it so hard for me to write has acquired a character that makes a sense of communication possible. We have collectively forged a body of ideas on a broad range of topics concerning the future possibilities of the Muslim societies and the present potentialities of Islam in this rapidly changing, battered world.
Thanks to Ijmal I have indeed trekked out of the desert and reached a well water oasis. What is refreshed and sustained by this intellectual home is a new sense of my own identity, not just as a writer but the identity of myself as a whole person, an integral part of an array of communities. It is a beautiful synthesis: this composite self who belongs to many homes with passionate, tough love. But for a world ruled by a linear, binary dialectic, dominated by sequential techniques of quantification and negation and shaped by the perception and perpetual presence of the demonic Other, complex and composite identities are a constant source of irritant. I am not a problem for me; the process I have been forced to undergo has not been a self transformation, but a clarification and deepening understanding of the potential possibilities and unsuspected commensurabilities of all the heritages I am heir to. It is other people who have the problem. By profession other people are dedicated to the ideas that such composite self is impossible, or permissible only when fashioned in differently proportioned chemical recombinations, according to their recipe. There are fundamentalists and totalitarians on all sides whose definition of identity, nationality, culture, society, the nature and purpose of being deny ijmal, the infusion that sustains my joie de vivre. Whether it be right wing Britain or left wing British activism and race relations industry; traditionalist or modernist Muslims; secularist or libertarian ideologists or squads of post-modern intelligentsia – it is they who cannot deal with my ease with myself. From their variety and diversity of directions and approaches they all seek to delimit, to strictly define who I am and what I can, should or ought to be. Yet the oasis and synthesis of my self unfolds beyond arbitrary limits of other peoples horizons. They would have me permanently sprawled on pinheads of their own tangled misconceptions hidebound by answering the question of identity as they define the issue. But I have a life to live, a living to make, a contribution to offer, that cannot passively await other peoples readiness to allow my existence. So I say to all comers the world is richer and more varied than you imagine, now let us begin to tackle its problems from the place where we now stand. I cannot neither reconstruct nor deconstruct myself because I really am a British, Muslim, Writer.
It is autumn. Outside my house in North London the trees are disconsolately shedding their leaves in a gathering gloom. I sit in my eyrie, my study perched at the top of the house, planning things I will write. There is the book on rethinking Islam, an essay on Urdu poetry, another on postmodern religion and that review for The Independent. Then, there will be a third book to complete my trilogy on the future of Muslim civilization to be dedicated to my youngest son, as the previous ones have been dedicated to my older daughter and son. In the warm pool of light inside my study I have the confidence to write as an expression of my identity, that peculiar amalgam that has been forged, merged and nurtured by Britain, the whole gamut of the Muslim world and essentially by my friends. I have found my voice.
I turn and reflect on the gathering dark outside the window. In terms of multicultural expression it seems to me Britain has arrived at autumn without ever having had a summer. I think of Pakistan, in that climate autumn without a summer, where plants flourish, is impossible. In Britain a cold summer of stunted growth is a likely occurrence. The arrival of so many cultures within Britain in the years since the ending of World War II was a potential spring of new growth. but these seedlings have arrived at autumn, the autumn of neo Nazi revival across Europe, of racism, of perpetual prejudice, of the lack of forbearance without ever experiencing a summer, or only such a summer when winter-wear remains a necessity. It is as if everyone has kept hats and scarves and ear muffs on, so that they cannot hear, or can hear only muffled sounds they shape into old received patterns missing the nuances of a new language, a new kind of conversation. Thus Britain today is creatively stunted.
Out of remembrance of all that I am, I write, you can hear what I have to say only if you will. From the stereo the sounds of Muni Begum drifts into my consciousness. She is singing a ghazal, an Urdu poem, by Quateel Shafai:
On damp autumn nights, elusive tales enfold me. I remember.
Glimpses of past experience, memories of her youth. I remember.
As buds trembling to unfold, those blossoming lips
In an idle reverie their words come back to me. I remember.
I had forgotten who left me alone in this world
When I recall my past, one face emerges. I remember.
Road wearied feet, a few tears, loneliness, the dust of travel
Of my lost companion, every single feature I remember.
I, Quateel, the destitute, what have I to say to the world?
Yet in anothers strange story, my youth finds its voice,
Appeared in Other Than Identity: The Subject, Politics and Art edited by Juliet Steyn, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1997