The choke hold

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I seek refuge in Allah from satan the accursed.

In the name of Allah Most Compassionate Most Merciful.

 

It was a beautiful summer afternoon as the eleven year old me strolled the scenic streets of the hilltop tourist paradise of Murree, Pakistan with my family.  Coincidentally, it was also the tenth of Muharram, thus the day for the Shia community to come out to mourn the slaughter of the Prophet’s (pbuh) grandsons.  My parents were unaware of the date, and brought along my aunt and uncle who were visiting us from another city.  At some point, my parents bought my younger sisters and me soft serve ice cream cones from one of the street vendors, which we devoured pretty quickly.  By the time I was done eating my cone, my hands were very sticky, and that left me feeling irritable the whole time.  I somehow got my parents to stop and let me wash my hands at a bathroom in a hotel I saw along the street.  So they stood outside the hotel close to the reservation office as I entered the hotel through the side doorway, walking past the narrow hallway, down to the bathroom, and until I finally washed my hands.

 

But as I walked back and reached the junction between the end of the hallway and the outdoors, I heard what sounded like gunshots, followed by the shouting, “Kafir, kafir, shia kafir!” (meaning: shia are disbelievers) followed by stomping of feet.  Before I could reunite with my family, a horde of men stampeded towards the hotel entrance, right where I stood.  Fear hit me like a tidal wave and I did the only thing I could think of at such a short notice.  I hid behind one of the French doors that stood open, pushing my body as far against the wall as I could.  As soon as I was tucked behind the door, I felt the pressure of the door against my body as a large crowd of men ran inside.  I was convinced that this was the party who started the confrontation and that they would hurt me if they discovered me.  I decided that once they ran down the hallway, I would quickly run out and look for my family.  I just prayed that they were safe and I would somehow find them.

 

But my plan got disrupted, as I felt a whoosh of air when a man swung the door away from my body, leaving me exposed.  He had a very serious expression on his face, and I feared for my safety.  I kept praying he would leave me alone and pretend not to see me, but instead, I saw his eyes on my face and noticed his hands coming towards me.  The fear and anticipation of pain was too unbearable, and so I broke down crying.  But instead of the harshness I expected to feel on my shoulder, I felt a gentle touch.  I stopped crying to find a man with a look of concern on his face, as he asked me where my parents were.  Through teary eyes I told him how I had come to wash my hands at the hotel and got separated from them during the sudden chaos.  As I related my dilemma, I could still hear some gunshots from outside, and even smelled tear gas seeping through the  corners of the doorway.  The man was very kind, as he gently led me through the narrow hallway that was now lined with people taking shelter from the chaos outside.  We turned into another hallway until we came upon the reservation office.  Relief washed over me as I saw my whole family, including my aunt and uncle standing safely, happy to see me.  My parents thanked the man for helping me find them and he gracefully parted from us.

 

The hotel management were more than courteous, as they welcomed us to their lounge and even served us a complimentary lunch at their dining room.  That day, I stood against the large glass windows of the hotel overlooking the beautiful valleys of Murree, and witnessed the beautiful landscape get defiled with tear gas and the sound of people firing weapons and chanting derogatory slogans.  Most of the people who ran in slowly left the hotel, but we stayed.  We stayed in the hotel for several hours, until the last of the hateful chanting, firing, and tear gas dissipated.

 

This was a story about what happens when people blindly follow a religious/influential personality.  It was a story of a people whose minds were in a choke hold by the religious “elite.”  Those people who spoke so hatefully of shias and even used weapons to intimidate those who dared to disagree with them, did not just do it out of the blue.  They were systemically taught to hate. They were also taught to be violent in order to make others submit to their viewpoint.  It may seem absurd that someone could actually believe that it’s okay to hurt another group simply because you don’t agree with their beliefs, but the truth is that it does happen.  It happens because many people feel a great affinity to Islam and as a result, end up believing whatever they are told by respected religious leaders.

 

According to a PBS webpage, only about 12% of Muslims are Arabs.  Also take into account that most non-Arab “Muslim” countries don’t usually teach Arabic as part of their curriculum, and if they do, it is usually limited to Arabic recitation of the Quran without meaning.  The situation gets more complicated as the interpretation of the Quran, competes with the collected sayings of the Prophet pbuh, the four surviving schools of Islamic thought from the medieval times, and the traditions acquired through the ups and downs of history.  This gives a lot of room to the religious leaders of the “scholar” class to step up and dictate to the masses what they should and should not be doing as devout believers.  They not only are able to dictate the dos and don’ts, but also list the essentials in what ever order of priority suits their opinions and agendas, which most of the times is the same as that of the religious scholars from as far back as a thousand years ago.

 

The result?  The masses end up confusing tradition as faith, and dissent is almost automatically seen as heretical and a threat to the “purity” of the faith which must be preserved at all costs.

 

But the thing is, that most Muslims scholars, especially those in the West are usually smart enough not to incite open violence and hatred towards those different from us.  They have other tricks up their sleeves to make us subservient to their ideas.  They simply use the rule of repetition to make people believe everything they have to say about Islam.  They don’t use guns or force to make us believe. All they do is keep repeating the same concepts over and over again, and when we go from mosque to lecture to youtube videos, all we hear and all we see are the same ideas repeated over and over again.  So when the spiritual choices are on a menu board like at a McDonald’s restaurant, we feel the comfort of the familiar, and feel threatened by anyone offering anything that can’t be ordered at a McDonald’s drive thru.  Any new thinking becomes scary and unacceptable because “I don’t know Arabic, and the scholars are more learned than me, so my safest bet is to follow what these pure and learned people tell me.”  Here’s some food for thought: you don’t have to know Arabic to be a good Muslim.  If you can’t learn Arabic, you can compare different translations, read a wide range of interpretations, and dare I say, use your own reason and life experiences to understand and apply the principles in the Quran and sunnah.  We need to open our eyes and see the irony of our current existence.  The Quran repeatedly ridicules those who blindly follow tradition, and praises Prophet Ibrahim AS, who despite being surrounded by blind subservience to irrational beliefs and rituals, was able to think independently in a critical manner, and thus saved himself and his wife from the darkness of ignorance.

 

We need to open our eyes and see that our faith, which was meant to give us mostly spirituality and some guidelines, has turned into a rigid, rule filled religion, thanks to the continuous campaign of the religious “scholars” and their followers.  It is about time we realize that the scholars or so called religious leaders have no power, except that which we give them by agreeing with and following them.  It is time to begin viewing their interpretations as part of a very wide spectrum that WE, the people, the regular Muslims, can and must constantly check and recheck against the core principles outlined in the Quran.  It is time we at least tried to escape this choke hold over our minds and spirits.  Our salvation depends on it.

“Do they not reflect in their own minds?…” (30:8)

May Allah make it easy for us to choose right over wrong. Ameen.

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