Insight: Autobiography

The version published in the magazine, Intellect, is edited and slightly abbreviated form of the one given here:
Published in Volume 2 Issue 4, April-May-June 2010, Intellect Magazine  See Page 63: In the Spotlight

Insight Interview: Dr. Asad Zaman

Like most children in my generation, I was brought up in a “lukewarm” Islamic background, with only lip service paid to Islamic ideals. My father entered the movement of Tableegh when I was about fifteen, too late to affect my basic outlook and views. However, the indirect exposure to Tableegh did heighten the contrast that I saw between the message of Islam and the way of life of the Muslims.

When I arrived on the shores of Boston at the tender age of sixteen to start my Bachelors in Math at MIT, I had the common and widespread beliefs about the superiority of the world leaders, the Americans. It was clear to me that we in Pakistan (and the Muslims as a whole) were underdeveloped and backwards in all ways – material and moral. The Americans were better people: more just, kind, friendly, honest, brave as well as far more knowledgeable than us in technology, science, philosophy, social affairs etc. etc. I was eager to absorb all the learning they had to offer, so that I too could become like them in all ways.

Almost the first dilemma I faced was that many of the ways being taught were entirely outside the pale of Islam. Throughout my life, I have always tried very hard to maintain consistency between my thoughts, beliefs and actions. Unlike many other Muslim students in a similar position, it was not an option for me to adhere to my religious beliefs but guiltily and sneakily act in ways which conflicted with Islam. The message of atheism, and arguments against religion and against the existence of God were very much a part of the intellectual environment, and it was easy for me to pick up a few of these, and adopt them as a reason for rejecting Islam. It was much later in life that I realized that these arguments became attractive to me only because my heart was filled with the desire to follow the lead of the Americans in directions prohibited by Islam. I learnt this lesson later from the work of Tableegh: the intellect is a slave to the heart and so one cannot spread Islam by making good arguments, or finding contradictions in Christianity. Instead, one must make others fall in love with Islam, and they will find their own reasons to convert.  The only way to do this is to develop the love of Allah, and His Prophet s.a.w., and His Deen in our own hearts as hearts communicate with other hearts.

Abandoning Islam, the religion I had grown up with, was not an easy step. I remember a week of mourning for all that I had believed in. That there would be justice in the end, so all the oppressors, murderers and thieves — (Zalimeen) — would end up paying for their misdeeds. That someone was watching over us, and would take care of us in our times of need, and would reward our secret good deeds. There was some one to turn to when no one else could help. All of these comfortable beliefs, built into our nature (fitra), had to be abandoned. The world was a cold, cruel, and harsh place. The despair that this leads to is eloquently captured in this passage from a leading atheist, Bertrand Russell, which accurately reflected my feelings at the loss of faith:

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

It was Russell’s belief that religious people are cowards, because they cannot face the harsh realities of existence that he outlines above; that courageous people must accept these realities and learn to live with them. I was determined to be one of the brave. The philosophy of Existentialism, which I read in one of my courses at MIT, articulates most clearly the full consequences of atheism. Sartre, a leading existentialist philosopher, encourages people to realize that they are completely free to choose however they want to behave. Those who think they are constrained to act morally, or compassionately, or in socially responsible ways, deny their freedom and act in “bad faith”. I was not aware of the tremendous amount of human misery created by this encouragement to rise “Beyond Good and Evil” – the connections have been spelled out clearly in “Modernity and the Holocaust” by Zygmunt Bauman.

Many of the thoughts that we think of as our own personal private ideas are actually products of sweeping forces of history. The last half of the twentieth century was the final phase of a process of erosion of religious values in the West that had taken about three centuries to complete. When all religious barriers were swept away, the self (Nafs) emerged as the only god to worship. It was in the seventies that many philosophies which glorified greed and selfishness became widespread and popularly accepted. For example, Ayn Rand preached the “Virtues of Selfishness,” and a group of bestsellers like “Looking Out For Number 1” insisted that it was the moral duty of everyone to look out for their own self interests, and not to be concerned about others. I was swept along with the current, and pursued this philosophy much more aggressively than others, because of an inner compulsion to practice what I learned to believe in . For this reason, I was also much more spiritually damaged than others who were subject to the sameinfluences, but instinctively resisted.

After an year or two of self-consciously practicing complete selfishness, thinking only about what I wanted and putting all my efforts into achieving these goals, I came to the realization that I had become spiritually empty. I realized that I would not want to live in a world that was populated with other people like myself, where no one cared for me at all. People value most highly being loved, respected and cared for by others.Those who selfishly pursue their own goals can never get the happiness they seek, because we can get love only when we are able to give love. A personal crisis made clear to me that my life philosophy had made me desperately unhappy; exactly the opposite of its promise. The lyrics of a popular song haunted me as I went through a second existential crisis: “I have came to doubt all that I once held was true – I stand alone without beliefs …” At this junction in my life, I realized that I did not know who I was, what I was meant to do with my life, what should the goal of my struggles and striving be, how I should behave towards others, etc. etc. etc.

I actively started to hunt for the Truth, a philosophy or religion that would give me what I was looking for.By then, I had sufficiently distanced myself from Islam that there was no longer a question of simply “reverting” back to Islam. I was determined to search objectively and give all religions and philosophies an equal chance. At this time I was in California, pursuing a Ph.D. in Economics at Stanford University.California was full of people looking for meaning in life in many strange directions.  I overcame childhood indoctrinations against Christianity and Hinduism and read Bhagavad Gita and the Bible. I went to anencounter group, which was a moving experience, and also studied Zen Bhuddism, which appealed to me a lot. In the aftermath of the hippie movement, there were many humanitarian philosophies for self-fulfillment and enrichment that I also studied.

In being fair, objective and impartial, I also gave Islam a chance and read the Quran. I was struck by a passage about Ibraheem a.s. and how after mistaking the sun, moon and stars for God, he prayed that:

لَئِن لَّمْ يَهْدِنِي رَبِّي لأكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْقَوْمِ الضَّالِّينَ
Unless you guide me my Lord, I will surely be among those who go astray.

This appeared to match my state exactly – searching for the Truth without any certainty about where it lay– and I adopted this prayer as insurance. Should it turn out to be the case that Islam was the correct religion, I would be able to say to God that I asked you for guidance; it is not my fault if you did not respond.  As I learned later, God does exist and does answer prayers, as He did mine. Around this time, I read a biography of Imam Ghazali, which made a big impact on me. After writing Ihya-e-Uloomuddin, hewrote that I have acquired all worldly knowledge currently in existence, but there remain the Sufi’s who claim to have a non-intellectual type of knowledge that can only be experienced. I intend to devote the next ten years of my life to acquiring this experience. If they are right, I will gain valuable knowledge. If they are wrong, I will learn this also and denounce them to the whole world. I was struck by the commitment required for the acquisition of valuable knowledge; Ghazali committed 10 years of his life just to see if Sufism was valid or not. I also had read elsewhere, in the course of my search for the truth, that the Deen of Allah is precious, and requires sacrifice and struggle on our part.

As if in answer to my Ibraheemi dua, I felt that I was being awakened at the time of Fajr – totally contrary to my habits and without any apparent cause. The idea came to my heart that just a dua is not enough; I must make a bigger commitment (like Al-Ghazali) to be granted the guidance that I was seeking from the God I did not believe in. I decided to make two offerings. Since I seemed to be woken at Fajr, I would make Fajr regularly. Also I looked through the many sinful things I was doing and decided to give up those I thought were the most offensive to Allah. One positive and one negative commitment for a few years was the sacrifice I offered for guidance. So started a strange period of my life where I was making only one prayer, Fajr, regularly, but even after an year or two, I did not feel any internal change, inspiration, or any reduction in doubts about the existence of God.

I was beginning to despair when another crisis arose. My brother was in a critical condition, and the doctors offered little hope. I made a deal with Allah: I will offer five prayers if you save my brother. I became regretful when the news came that my brother had been operated on successfully and was out of danger. I felt that this would have happened anyway and now I was stuck with five prayers instead of one.This experience led me to a better understanding of the nations who refused to believe even after being shown miracles. I learned that miracles by themselves do not lead to an increase in faith, which is an internal state of the heart. Despite regretting my deal with Allah, I honored my commitment, and started regular five times prayer. Gradually and imperceptibly, this practice led to reductions in my doubts about Islam, and an increase in faith. Again this is an important insight from Tableegh: Even though it seems logical to think that first we will acquire belief and then we will act upon it, it is actually the other way around. If we start acting according to Islamic rules, we will acquire the associated beliefs.

My previous association with Tableegh had led to the understanding that a deep and genuine commitment to Islam would lead to a lifestyle radically different from that of most Muslims.  A turning point in my life came when a Jamaat from Pakistan visited me in my office at Columbia University, where I was teaching at this time – around 1986. Like many Muslims, I had been deceived by the low intellectual content and simplicity of Tableegh. With some spiritual development, it became clear to me that the strong eeman of those who were speaking to me was on a level far higher than that which I had. Furthermore, this was a quality of the heart, and not accessible to the intellect. After spending ten days with a Jamaat in New York, many doubts that I had melted away  The main idea of the work of Tableegh became blindingly clear: our collective goal as an Ummah is the same as the goal of our Prophet s.a.w. – we must struggle to bring 100% Islam into our own lives as well as the lives of all human beings for all times to come. Furthermore, when we engage in this struggle while following the necessary adaab, Allah T’aala helps us and provides us with the necessary knowledge and characteristics required. While many other aspects of the work remained unclear, this was sufficient to give me the direction I was seeking.

Since that time, around 1984, my life has been a gradual progress towards absorbing the lessons of Tableegh and inner and outer transformation that the work calls for. The first forty days in the path of Allah gave me the feeling of coming out from the darkness into the light. For the first time, I understood what life was all about, and regretted having spent such a large portion of my life without this understanding. The methodology of Tableegh is very much learning-by-doing, and there is not much philosophy or intellectualization. This makes it possible for the lessons being taught to be absorbed on a large scale by people from widely different backgrounds. Tableegh provides a training of the heart, which I was eventually able to translate into the language of the mind. This translation was tremendously beneficial to me, in the sense that it gave me unique insights into current condition of the Ummah and also into the body of knowledge that I had acquired with so much effort in the West. After spending four months, my life can be described as the struggle to implement the lessons of Tableegh in my life. I confess that my failings have been much greater than my successes, but there is hope in that this is an ongoing process. In the rest of this essay, I will try to convey some of the central insights that I have acquired in the process of my association with Tableegh.

My western education had taught me that acquisition of knowledge requires the stance of a neutral dispassionate observer.  In Tableegh, I learned that the opposite was true: knowledge was the result of a passionate and committed struggle to change the world in the way shown by the Prophet s.a.w:

وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ (29:69)
29:69 And those who strive in Our (cause),- We will certainly guide them to our Paths: For verily Allah is with those who do right.

Allah T’aala promises to guide those who struggle in His cause. I learned firsthand how drastically the nature of knowledge changes when one struggles to use it for the purpose for which Allah T’aala has created us. This means that crucial aspects of knowledge cannot be conveyed through words and books but must be acquired through experience.

With hindsight, I came to the gradual realization that the knowledge I had acquired at the finest Western educational institutions was nothing compared to what I had learned through the work of Tableegh. At the same time that I was required take courses in Physics, Mathematics, and other technical subjects, I was also being taught what life was all about via living models of western society. Had I been more mature, or more committed to and knowledgeable about my religion, I might have been able to resist these damaging messages built into Western education. Julie Reuben, a professor at Harvard has written a book about how morality and character development were explicit goals of university education in the early twentieth century, but these goals were abandoned in favor of a purely technical education later on. I experienced this first hand as I absorbed lessons which were actually extremely harmful to me personally and also to society as a whole in the process of my university education.

At a personal level, I saw my fellow students attitudes towards others to be selfish andexploitative, instead of caring and compassionate. Having absorbed the implicit message that professional accomplishment was the goal of life, I was shocked to learn of the really pathetic personal lives of many of the professionals I had thought to emulate. The general philosophy that individual goals are valued above social ones leads to betrayal of wives and families, violation of commitments of all types, and pursuit of personal and career goals even at expense of society. The purely technical education offered by the West does not teach us anything about the crucial parameters which govern how meaningful our lives are. In several crucial dimensions, the lessons of Tableegh were diametrically opposed to those which I had absorbed in the course of my Western education. These lessons showed me that the teachings of Islam are as fresh and as revolutionary today as they were fourteen centuries ago; they do not stand in need of updates for modern times. It is impossible to convey these experience-based lessons in writing, so I will just describe one of them.

In Jamaat’s we pursued people from all ranks of life, from those who were poor and powerless, illiterate, aged and infirm, to those from the highest strata of society, with equal intensity and seriousness of purpose. Every human being is an infinitely valuable creation of Allah, and within his heart he possesses the capability of the M’aarifat of Allah.

            Adopting a simple lifestyle, trudging up and down hills, and walking across rough terrains in pursuit of people to recruit for the mission of the Prophet, revives the sunnah of the Prophet, and teaches the lessons of equality and the respect for all human beings at a deep and fundamental level. What a contrast between this and lessons I had absorbed earlier, both from our nominally Islamic culture and reinforced by my Western education. An author who has studied the impact of an immoral education writes that “It was not illiterate savages, but graduates of the finest educational systems of the West who designed the gas chambers used to burn millions of innocent men, women and children in Germany.”  Specialized experts in most advanced genetic biology have created terminating seeds to help huge multinationals profit from the hunger of mankind in return for a salary. Physicists created weapons responsible for mass destruction of huge numbers of innocents and denied responsibility for the consequences of their use. Graduates of Yale and Harvard destroyed millions of lives in Vietnam and Iraqwithout qualms of conscience. Copying Western methods of teaching in Islamic countries has led to the development of similar sentiments in the Muslim youth everywhere. In earlier times, Muslims studied medicine to serve mankind. Infected by Western values, nowadays our youth seek to earn money from the misery of the sick. In the teachings of Islam, we have a treasure of a incalculable value, currently desperately needed: A methodology, demonstrated by our Prophet s.a.w. in action, to transform human beings from barbarians who buried their own daughters alive, to examples of the best behavior for all times to follow. As the Quran testifies, these people fed others while being hungry themselves, and sacrificed their personal lives to bring the enlightenment of Islam to all human beings.

As predicted in Hadeeth, Islam came as a stranger, and has become a stranger. In all dimensions of life (political, social, economic, and institutional) we are following western models. Even institutions rooted in Islamic traditions like Waqf and Madrassah’s do not retain the dynamic vitality they had in earlier times. However, there is no doubt in my mind that we are at a critical turning point in history. Western systems in all dimensions have broken down, and western leadership has become openly morally corrupt.Meanwhile there are signs of revival everywhere in the Ummah. Muslims are coming out of a long period of somnolence.  While physical liberation was achieved some time ago, the colonization of Muslim minds has not yet ended. However Muslims are starting to think for themselves, and reject hegemonic paradigms.Allah T’aala will perfect his Noor, and we will be most fortunate if we can be part of the process. The way to do this is to sell our lives and wealth to purchase the pleasure of Allah Subhanahu wa T’aala:

6:162 – –

قُلْ إِنَّ صَلاَتِي وَنُسُكِي وَمَحْيَايَ وَمَمَاتِي لِلّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ (6:162)

Say: Lo! my worship and, my sacrifice and my living and my dying are for Allah, Lord of the Worlds.