Dialogue on Islam

A section from Choose Your Metaphor, where along with a fellow traveler, I journey to the home of the “holiest man in Kashmir” and engage him in a three hour discussion about Islam.

“If you think we’re going to crash, just say ‘Allah’ and you’ll be assured of a sweet hereafter. Everything happens by the will of God, and I hope, inshallah, that we will make it. But it is not ultimately up to me.”

Inshallah (God willing) was Maqsood’s mot de vie, which he tacked onto the end of almost every sentence, ranging from what he wanted to eat for dinner tonight to eternal salvation to whether we would succeed overtaking the next car on the road. He wove through traffic like a drunken insect, leaving only the slightest margin of error when passing slower vehicles. For Maqsoood, this was perfectly normal, but I was a little less nonchalant about staring death down in the form of enormous Tata trucks flashing their headlights and honking their horns seconds before a potential collision. I considered asking him to drive more cautiously, since Rahel, my Swiss companion on the houseboat with whom I had traveled from Ladakh, decided to come along at the last minute, and I would have felt responsible for killing her. But at some point, I abandoned my reservations, and accepted that whether we would make it to this man was indeed out of our control.

You can often discern the specialties of a region based on what its roadside kiosks sell, and in Kashmir, there were two main industries as far as I could see: saffron and cricket.  Shortly after leaving Srinagar’s urban sprawl, we passed through tens of kilometers of shops selling saffron stands, freshly harvested from fields in the background, where dozens of hunched-over workers carefully extracted this most precious source of Kashmir’s wealth. Beyond this, we drove through a twenty-kilometer long display of cricket bats carved out of the Kashmir’s plentiful willows. Maqsood informed me that thousands of them were exported every year, and that they had a world-famous reputation, second only to a region in England. No matter what they were selling, all the roadside merchants seemed to be coated with diesel fume residue that they struggled to keep off their merchandise.

Apart from discussing these local details, however, we didn’t speak much at all. Like the crowd’s anticipation before a symphony performs, the car was filled with a pregnant expectation of what was about to happen. I dressed in the same clothes I had worn to the mosque, and my beard was even longer than when I arrived. While Rahel sat quietly in the back, I tried to prepare myself by asking the sheikh’s name multiple times, but could never quite remember it. Almost oblivious of how many times he had said it, Maqsood kept repeating his hope that this visit would get me on the right path– inshallah, of course.

For the home of the holiest man in Kashmir, I was rather surprised by the modesty of his compound. After two pious security guards peeled back the security gates, we parked the car in a shady corner of the courtyard. A mosque constructed in the same drab style I saw before stood at its center, flanked by several Bauhaus-style rectangular dormitories. Maqsood led us around the back of what looked like an administrator’s building, up two flights of stairs which I negotiated with little pain, and down a sunlit hallway.

We arrived in a simple room lined with books along all the walls, broken only by a small window looking out onto the courtyard. I looked a little closer at the titles, and remarked not only on the number of English volumes, but also that my own library contained many of the same books. I didn’t even have a chance to position myself on one of the plush floor cushions before a young boy offered us a pot of tea to satiate my craving (I had become quite addicted in the intervening days). Maqsood and I exchanged silent glances and smiles as we drank the soothing, warm brew.

When the sheikh entered, we stood up, and I wished him assalam aleikum with a handshake and a smile.  He briefly nodded at Rahel before Maqsood bent down to kiss his hand, and they warmly hugged each other while chatting in Kashmiri. When the obligatory questions about family finished, the sheikh switched into flawless English with almost no accent and said,

“So, Maqsood tells me that you are a philosopher, and that you have some questions and are looking for some answers.”

“Indeed I am,” I answered. “And thank you for taking time to meet with me. I’ve had many interactions with Muslims before that have all been very interesting, and now my path has led me to you.”

“Well, I hope I will be able to help you by removing your doubts, and, inshallah, show you the Truth in Islam.”

We sat down and Maqsood poured the sheikh a cup of tea, and we collectively sipped in silence. While drinking, I noticed that the sheikh didn’t loose the grand smile that stretched across his face that he had when he first entered. In fact, he retained this look of joy throughout our three-hour discussion. With his long, white beard that extended down from his round face, and his dark brown eyes set deep back in cavernous sockets, he resembled Gandolf from Lord of the Rings.

In the span of two minutes, I explained my fascination with Islam, including my time in Indonesia, and then I got to the point of why I was there. By way of seeing if we understood our metaphors in the same way, I asked, “I guess what I’m most interested in asking is, who or what is God for you?”

He responded with palpable enthusiasm, “For lack of a better way of describing, God is beyond the beyond. God is actually just a word we use to point to He who knows himself in himself. He is the ultimate creator of everything, of you and me and every atom of existence. Many people in the west have said that God is dead, and that science has come to take his place. But scientists can only manipulate molecules and uncover the reliable physical laws of God’s perfect universe, and never create anything new. Only He can create the miracle that exists within every one of your cells, that guides your life.”

Although I agreed with him on the impossibility of human creation ex nihilio, I held back my reservation that this should not necessarily lead one to posit the existence of an omnipotent creator. He continued,

“God is beyond need. Although He could have just as easily chosen not to create the universe, through His divine grace, every atom came into being. Through his divine grace, he sent us prophets, from Adam to Moses to Jesus to Mohammad (peace be upon all of them) to understand Him.”

I interjected, “If God is beyond need, then why do you pray to Him? Why does He care what you do?”

“God does not need our prayers, of course, but we do. In Arabic, the root of the word Islam is surrender. But this root also means peace, because there is great peace in surrendering the illusion of your individual will to God’s. When we pray, or perform any of the other obligations as outlined by the Holy Koran, we reorient ourselves from external distraction back into our own inner salaam (peace), which is our natural state. Of course, God wishes us to be at peace, and He gave us the means to find Him, for in Him, we find peace. Whether or not we follow these instructions is our choice.”

I agreed with him on nearly everything he just said, and recalled the conversation Yusuf and I had along those lines. I also felt that it was precisely a lack of ritual at the heart of my current troubles. A universal characteristic of religion is the stress on prayer, meals, or meditation, which all serve as a way to re-link (this is what religion (re-ligio) originally meant in Latin) oneself of the natural state of calm and quiet. Although I had noted the frequent occurrence of certain themes throughout many religions (the 40 days of fasting before spiritual revelation, the stress on structured daily prayers, etc), I hadn’t found anything suitable for myself.  The ritual of meditation wasn’t really doing anything for me to surrender my precious self, which seemed to be the primary goal of ritual.

At this point, Rahel spoke up to ask a related question about Islamic practice that had come up for both of us in previous days.

“Where does it say in your religion that a woman must be covered from head to toe?”

As intrigued as I was with Islam, this cultural appendage had offended my sensibilities (as well as many skeptical, postmodern Westerners). Kashmir was by far the most conservative Muslim land I visited, and after cruising around Srinagar for four days, I realized that Maqsood’s wife’s attire was actually standard. On the outside, this standard of feminine dress certainly looks like subjugation and misogyny (Rahel and I joked that it made the women look like walking tents).

But I also understood that this culture had a vastly different history and economic development. And I knew that it wasn’t something specific to Islam. Even women in Buddhism were also subject to discrimination, since nunneries are often given less funding than monasteries, and some male teachers believe that full enlightenment is possible only in a male body.  Perhaps this was just something about the “east” that someone from the “west” couldn’t really understand.

The sheikh responded, looking directly at me.  “A woman is like a diamond. You wouldn’t just carelessly leave a precious stone where everyone could grasp it, would you?”

I heard these words so many times to explain the position of Muslim women that it was like the men had simply memorized a taped public service message.

“The women you see underneath the covering- it’s their choice to dress like that. They are simply following the codes of behavior set out in the Koran. To be pious, proper Muslims, they adopt that style.”

“But if your wife went out with her face exposed, would you be happy?” Rahel responded.

Although both Maqsood and the sheikh dismissed this possibility, they also admitted that they would not allow their wives to enter public with anything but their eyes exposed.

The sheikh could sense our hesitation that bordered on scorn. He continued, “Look at your women in the west. It may look to you like we are turning our women here into objects of possession. But in the west, look at your beauty magazines and movies, and what they say a woman must look like. In order to be desirable, she must cover herself in makeup and dress in provocative clothing. How can a woman concentrate on God if she is worrying about these things, and if her culture presents to her this ideal of where her energy should go? And how can a man be expected to keep his inner peace if his mind is always distracted by the pleasures of the flesh? From its beginning in Arabia, Islam greatly improved the status of women, elevating them from mere property to the status of human beings, and still does today.”

The sheik was a charming man who spoke with great persuasion, and nowhere was that more evident than in his response to this question. Yet as charismatic as his manner of speaking was, I could only partially agree with them on this one, because I had seen reports about how some of the world’s raciest lingerie is found in Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries where the female dress code is strictly enforced. There, women feel even more pressure to make themselves “sexy” because if they didn’t, their husbands could marry another woman and potentially leave them with nothing. I wasn’t sure whether it was better for men to objectify women, or for the women to do it themselves.

I sensed that this exchange was becoming the equivalent of climbing up a tree without knowing how to get down. I could push my objections but wondered if there would be any answers that could get us far enough beyond our own cultural conditioning to see the logic of theirs. Plus, like the selfish man that I was, I had to admit I was more interested in the sheik’s theology than his views on feminism.  Fortunately, an escape ladder came in the form of the afternoon call to prayer, which forced us to drop the issue and head to the mosque.

I entered the mosque and mechanically performed the motions. This time, however, with all the questions raised by our ongoing exchange racing around in my head, I wasn’t able to loose my awareness that I was praying while I was praying. And the issue of trying to do it in a foreign language became more pressing: even if I was earning “points” with God for mimicking his Muslim worshippers, it didn’t feel like it did me much good to go through these motions that I didn’t really understand. Would I ever be able to know enough Arabic to make this meaningful? Was this really a ritual I wanted to get involved with? I remembered Buddha’s sermon “No dust, no ritual, no words, no blessings will save a man whose mind is not purified,” and wondered if I could ever feel completely grounded in a ritual if its purpose was directed toward a promised future state.[1]

The call to prayer was like a half-time break that allowed me to stand back and analyze the current status of the debate: the sheik hadn’t said anything yet that completely offended me, but neither had he said anything that truly convinced me. He had defended his positions with logical arguments, even if I didn’t fully agree with his conclusions. I still needed more evidence, and held out hope for that one line, that one revelation of something I didn’t know before, that would finally make something click.

[1] Easwaran, Eknath (trans). Dhammapada. Chapter 10, verse 141