Select Page

AsaniThis article was originally published by about a Jan. 13 SAI event cosponsored with Habib University.

By Haneen Rafi

KARACHI: In an attempt to deconstruct negative stereotypes about Islam that are rampant in popular discourse, there is an urgent need to understand and propagate it from an aesthetic approach, said Harvard scholar Prof Ali Asani during his talk at Habib University on Friday.

While highlighting the importance of religious and cultural literacy in a cosmopolitan world, Prof Asani gave a nuanced perspective to the differences that set us apart, which have resulted in polarisations and created conflicts.

Prof Asani teaches Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard University, and is also the former Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Programme at Harvard.

In his talk, he explored ways in which religious illiteracy will not bode well for democracy globally. Prof Asani explained how there was an increasingly monolithic and reductionist perspective of Islam which propagates the ideological version of it rather than its practical aspects, widely followed and practised by billions around the globe, whom Prof Asani referred to as ‘the silent majority’. These Muslims, he stressed, practise their religion from the perspective of faith rather than ideologies that have gained traction in modern times.

According to him, fundamentalist groups have become the dominant, polarised understanding of Islam through the lens of terrorism. Prof Asani, however, presented a unique perspective on these intolerant entities. “Groups such as IS and the Taliban are a modern phenomenon and are a by-product of modernity. These show that the evolution of traditions in a certain direction have been caused by global dynamics. There are no historical precedents for these kinds of evolutions. This shows that traditions are evolving and are not static.”

Prof Asani then delved into the manifestations of religious illiteracy and one in particular, in his opinion, is “the equation of religion with devotional practice, rites, rituals and ceremonies.”

Another disservice religious illiteracy does to the popular interpretation of religion is that it equates religions as having agency.

“Islam is a construct, not an agency,” he explained. Yet popular discourse and the rising tide of fundamentalism and terrorism made people, especially those in positions of power, emboldened enough to claim that Islam was a threat, as if it was a living breathing entity, he said. As a result, he added, they propagated a harsh, prejudiced perspective to all those listening.

Prof Asani gave the examples of Trump and Putin as leaders who picked up the differences and used them negatively. Thus it was imperative to eliminate the “inability to know one another,” he said. “Difference is a sign of divine genius, and ignorance is at the heart of this negative polarisation that we are witnessing around the world.”

Another issue discussed by Prof Asani was about the dangers of religious illiteracy. “Democracy cannot function if one is ignorant and afraid of one’s neighbours,” he said. If this was allowed to flourish further, it would diminish respect for diversity, encourage stereotyping and dehumanising, and eventually result in the marginalisation of minorities, he added.

“Religious illiteracy can be exploited by ideologues to promote extremism and radicalisation,” he said.

The question of “why do they hate us” is reverberating all over and causing fear and paranoia. According to Prof Asani, this question brings to the fore two terms worthy of study: “they” and “us”. This polarisation into in groups and out groups, he suggested, ought to be eliminated by viewing religion as a phenomenon that is “deeply embedded in all dimensions and contexts of human experience. That it is intricately woven within complex webs of contexts — historical, political, economic, social, literary and even artistic.”

This encouragement of viewing religion through multiple lenses, said Prof Asani, was essential if one wished to understand its “multivalent social and cultural influences”. He said there’s a need to remove the blindfold of illiteracy about religion, and in his opinion, another effective way was to empower the silent majority, highlight how they practise their faith, and present Islam through its aesthetic facets including poetry and art in particular.

Published in Dawn January 14th, 2017