Hijra Diaries, Part 1
"We have to go back"
I tend to agree with Kat that bloggers don't necessarily owe their readers an apology for absence, but an apology you all will receive nonetheless. I'm sorry for the radio silence, as it's been an extremely busy time for me. Some of you may have heard me mention in my interview over at Wisdom of Crowds that I was planning on soon hitting the eject button on America and moving myself and my family over to a Muslim country. And I am very happy to report that this is indeed what has happened.
Unfortunately, you will now have to read through this post to learn more about where I've ended up, and why.
What has hijra has come to mean to me?
I suppose I'm what they call "third culture kid," though the very phrase conjures up in my mind a type of try-hard hipster aesthetic that tries to pay homage to America and the "old country" while doing justice to neither—and then to go ahead and have the gall be proud of it. (If you want to inject pure third culture cringe into your veins, all you need to do is watch this video).
This post is aimed at born Muslim children of immigrants like me, and not so much at converts who have longstanding roots in this country—that post will be for another day.
My parents came to America in the 1980s from Pakistan. In many ways, they were economic muhajirūn. And Pakistan itself is the product of the largest and bloodiest flash hijra the world has ever seen. This post will not dwell on the partition, but I can't impress on you enough how much its memory weighed heavily on me during my moving process—I started writing this very post from Istanbul on August 14th, 76 years after the fragile heart that is Hindustan was left shattered.
Up until my parents came to America, my forefathers pretty much never left India for generations and generations. Though a select few were familiar with English as a professional language, they did not think or feel in English. Unlike myself, they likely never ate halal hot dogs or marshmallows or attended ISNA conventions. When I speak with or interact with my parents or my relatives overseas, their entire chaal, their way of carrying themselves, immediately reveal that they are made of different stuff.
Growing up, this bothered me deeply in a way that I could not fully articulate as a young person trying to make sense of it all. In hindsight, I can see that I was acutely aware of how different this society would inevitably have me develop from my parents. I understood their foreign tongue perfectly fine, but I could not speak it super well, much less read it. I did begin to pray five times a day from an early age, but mostly because I was a good kid who wanted to please. "We may live in America," my parents would say, "but we are Pakistani." Becoming "American" was codeword for morally and religiously repugnant. I originally chalked this up to the reflexive anti-American sentiment in vogue with post-colonials of their generation. But as I grew up, married, and had kids of my own, I began to deeply resonate with it, but for different reasons. As of this writing, these reasons have returned me back into the bosom of Dar al-Islam, far away from an America in abject decline.
Before my parents' tongue and culture, there was certainly another tongue and culture which is now forgotten, and countless ones before those. To wax romantic then over each and every life that led up to mine would essentially be ancestor worship. What Islam gives each and every human being is a method to respect and pay homage to those that came before them, while also not tying them to each and every one of their mores. It teaches that Allah ﷻ bore all of us into a certain age and place for a reason, while also sending Prophets to give humanity guidance it needed for each age and place. With the advent of the Final Prophet ﷺ, God ﷻ gifted us a linguistic and conceptual base recipe enabling of universal human flourishing called the Qur'an and Sunnah.
Most people do not need to become scholars (ulama) to understand how to live by the Qur'an and Sunnah. This is because Muslim scholars, creatives, and intellectuals developed ingenious modes of transmitting knowledge and values that were not purely academic or theoretical in nature.
A few examples may help here. Most Muslims throughout history did not read mutūn of fiqh at the hands of the ulama. They were taught how to pray and read the Arabic script by their parents or their local elder. They were not taught about the 17 types of ikhtilaf on every single fiqhi mas'alah, they were simply told, "do this and don't think about it too hard." This is how the madhhab-institutions of fiqh, kalam, and tasawwuf effectively transmitted knowledge to the masses. These institutions have outlasted and will outlast every state and empire, despite the fact that most Muslims do not study Islam in an organized and formal manner. Said otherwise, they are the true deep sub-state structures of Muslim societies—what I call the Shadow Caliphate, and what many of the ulama have referred to as the khilāfah bātinah. (I'll be writing on this specific concept in the future).
The Muslims' vernacular languages and scripts, too (such as Farsi, Urdu, Hausa, Javi, Ottoman, etc), were filled to brim with Arabic loanwords, most of which have Qur'anic basis. So much of the Muslims' traditional clothing, food, and social norms as well are, to the discerning eye, inspired by a love for the Prophet ﷺ and generative of a culture engendered by widespread Shari'ah adoption. Take, for example, actions such as sitting on the floor, eating with the hands, honoring visiting guests, memorizing and sharing great poetry, or engaging in dhikr whilst standing, sitting, or walking. These are things the Muslims still do to this very day, and they don't need to become legal jurisprudents (fuqaha) to come to an appreciation of their utility.
As opposed to weirdos like me, Muslims are not actually supposed to be autistically cerebral about everything. The behavioral norms of a deeply Muslim culture become so deeply rooted in a people that they act upon it unconsciously, to the point where "the right thing" is never really open for a societal debate as to its merits, because the idea of debating such obvious truths is a clear waste of time to everyone, even to those non-Muslims living in Muslim lands. The Good and the Shari'ah become synonymous.
Of course, so much has changed in the contemporary Muslim world, but I maintain strongly that there remains something qualitatively different about the Darul Islam. It took me time to take off my American Exceptionalism goggles and see this. I had to make a conscious effort to train my eye to develop pronoia instead of paranoia, husn al-dhann instead of su' al-dhann, to see beyond the annoyances of living in societies that are often times less "developed" at a merely material level. And when I began to reorient myself in this way, I began to see that there is still so much good among the Muslims. And as I began to appreciate this goodness, I began to grow in love for the Muslims wherever they are. I really do mean that. I have had the blessing of traveling to many different Muslim societies around the world, and they all have a place in my heart.
And I thought to myself: in our time of rapid moral collapse, how does all this beauty and majesty still yet persist? Who planted the seed of this beautiful flower, the scent of which I still smell every time the adhan wafts through my window? It was one man, the most complete human being, the supreme beloved of Allah ﷻ, the Final Messenger, Muhammad ibn 'Abdillah ﷺ, may my soul be his ransom.
As the poet once said:
در جمله جهان دیدم فیضان محمد را ** دیدم بهر ذره فرمان محمد راThroughout the entire world, I see the spiritual effusion of Muhammad ﷺ // I see every particle of existence following Muhammad's ﷺ teachings
در کسوت هر زاهد در طاعت هر عابد ** دیدم بهمه یکسر شایان محمد راIn every ascetic's tattered cloak, in every devotee's obedience // I see Muhammad ﷺ in all his glory, all at once.
A lot of fellow Western Muslims will often stop me here, accusing me of the thought-crime that is rosy quasi-orientalist nostalgia, to the point where I could begin to predict their words: "Yeah, things are bad here," goes the line, "but it's the same everywhere at this point, if not worse. The Muslim world is a disaster, anyway." Let me be exceedingly clear: this is nothing but the wheezing of a copium addict.
We have to realize that most people in my generation have been psy-op'd by our own parents into believing that America was the last hope for the world. We all love our parents, but we have to realize that they were part of a self-selecting group of people who's entire raison d'être for coming to the West was not an appreciation of its supposed ideals of liberty or freedom or whatever. That may have come later. But the initial motivation was fat stacks. Cash money. Racks. It was a mathematical choice for financial betterment. And to psychologically justify to themselves their decision to leave most of their family and culture behind, they felt the need to denigrate the "old country" and its supposedly "backward" ways to their children. Stay here, they said, become daktar or engineer, buy McMansion, do what is required of you as a Muslim. Then encourage your children to do the same thing, ad infinitum.
But as I achieved some financially stability and started to raise my own children, I realized that eventually this equilibrium could not hold. I could not see how my descendants would remain Muslim after a generation or two in the acid bath that is modern America, not without an explicit commitment to grassroots da'wa and community building. But again, barring tablighi jamaat, da'wa is not what most of our parents' generation came to America for. The vast majority of Muslims in America did not sign up for da'wa. I myself did not sign up for da'wa or grassroots community building, it is not my forté. I just want a place to be a normal guy who wanted to read, write, and live a Muslim life with my family. I saw that the writing was on the wall for my descendants unless I made a choice to reconnect us back to a Muslim society. (And before you ask, yes, I am well aware that ridda and irreligiosity exists in the Muslim world too, but this is a low-IQ objection that does not negate my point).
This journey of mine is an ongoing experiment, one which I hope to keep you all updated on from time to time. (The way I see it, no matter if I stayed in America or tried out a Muslim country, I'd be part of a social experiment). It may very well be that I end up running back and recanting everything I say here as the products of naiveté. But only time will tell.
Yes, there are immense problems in Muslim countries. But there are immense problems in America, too. You have to choose your basket of problems. I am willing to forgo, at least for now, conveniences like being close to my folks or Amazon Prime or large suburban homes. I have exchanged these conveniences for various inconveniences. But I have also exchanged numerous other inconveniences for a number of conveniences. So far, I am enjoying the trade immensely. The very idea that someone could leave America and genuinely enjoy another place more is deeply disturbing to many people. If that person is you, please continue to seethe.
At the same time, I hear from so many who are beginning to understand my perspective. They see that the world is in a very uncertain place culturally, economically, and geopolitically. Nobody has all of the answers. But through conversations and social experiments like this, we can help each other navigate through the darkness.
In this post, I did not touch upon my decision to make my new home base Istanbul. Why didn't you go back to Pakistan, one might rightfully ask? It is a very good question, but one that will have to be for another day, as this post is now far too long. (I also encourage you to check out my friend Thomas Abdul Qadir's highly substantive interview on precisely this subject). But I do want to say: if any of my readers are passing through and want to grab a çay together, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . We may not agree on anything, but a connection will be made, and that is valuable in and of itself.
Until next time,