An Exploration of Today's Islam

Stranger to History    by Aatish Taseer

xxiii+323 pp. Graywolf Press, 2012  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

      "Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their sons, and the hearts of sons to their fathers, lest I strike the land with destruction."
        (conclusion of the Book of Malachi)

    This is an unusual, illuminating and personal book, a search for the essence of Islam and an exploration the ways in which it is practiced, wrapped in a son's attempt to reconnect with an absent father, while also seeking his own cultural bearings.

    Aatish is the son of Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer, a Moslem, and an Indian woman of Sikh background. Both parents were highly educated but never married legally, and when Aatish was two, they separated, probably because of the different societies from which they came. Salmaan later married and raised a Moslem family in Pakistan, while Aatish stayed with his mother in India, received a good education and became a successful writer. He kept in touch with half-siblings in Pakistan and with relatives on both sides of the border, but wondered, to which society did he really belong?

    Formally, at least in Moslem countries, Aatish was automatically a Moslem, on the strength of having a Moslem father. But could he accept that definition? This book describes his travels through a number of Moslem cultures--Arabia (where he undertook the Haj pilgrimage), Turkey, Syria, Iran and Pakistan--in each seeking out people and experiences relevant to his search, in each searching for the soul of Islam. To a Western reader seeking to understand Islamic faith and culture, these travels are the core of the book.

    The father was deemed a Moslem moderate, opposed to extremism while holding fast to Islamic roots. At one time Aatish may have hoped to find a common ground in the Sufi tradition, a part of Islam which may come closest to the Quakers. Western India, before it became Pakistan, used to be a stronghold of Sufism. But as he discovers in Arabia, Iran and also Pakistan, Sufism is now often persecuted and has been displaced by various brands of extremism. In Iran--where his visit ends with a summary expulsion from the country--he finds an official faith which is little more than a cover for tyranny. In Arabia and other Moslem countries he finds a yearning to "return to the past", to the society of Mohammed and the centuries that followed.

    In those places he is often told that if only all society (indeed, all the world) adopted true Islam, all social problems would be solved. So close to the line of another creed, "if only true Communism prevailed, we would have an ideal society!" When I visited Moscow, decades ago, someone set me right: "We never had communism. We only had the Mafia." As present-day news stories suggest, Islamic society is not evolving towards utopia, either.

    At the end of his travels, Aatish spent time with his father's well-to-do family, though the father himself was barely approachable. In 2008 Salmaan was appointed governor of the Punjab, probably because of his middle-of-the-road attitude, and three years later he was murdered by one of his guards, while other guards did nothing to protect him. The murderer was showered by enemies of Salmaan with money, food and flower petals; billboards honored his name and at first the legislature would not even pass a motion of condemnation (though at the trial which followed he was condemned to death).

    This interesting story is told in a somewhat disorderly fashion, but its message seems clear (it might have been adapted from a personal diary, and dates would have been useful). How lucky are we, living in a culture of religious tolerance, with a strong wall separating religion and state! Western society became like this only after enduring centuries of murderous religious conflict; Islam, it seems, still has to graduate from that school. India may be further along, which may be why its society seems to leave Pakistan further and further behind. But religious extremism still exists in both India and the US: Aatish'es story shows what can happen when it becomes dominant.

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 25 April 2013