A Life’s Work Battling Religious Illiteracy

Image of Ali Asani

As prejudice toward Muslim Americans heightens, a Harvard professor welcomes the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of Shia Ismaili Muslims, and a champion of pluralism

Ali Asani is once again disheartened about the destruction of another cultural treasure as a result of narrow exclusivist mentalities taking root in nations all over the world. In the Middle East this exclusivism is associated with the upsurge of tribalism that threatens the very existence of nation-states. When the self-declared Islamic State recently decimated the iconic Arch of Triumph in Palmyra, Syria, Asani was horrified but not surprised. We are suffering a worldwide “clash of ignorances,” he said, as people of different faiths and cultural traditions fail to understand and engage positively with their differences and, instead, in their intolerance seek to eliminate difference by destroying “the other.”

Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim languages and cultures at Harvard and a faculty affiliate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, recently sat down for an interview about this dangerous global climate and his own influential academic work fostering literacy about Islam and Muslim cultures through the arts. Our conversation preceded the arrival of His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam (spiritual leader) of Shia Ismaili Muslims. The Imam has been invited to deliver the Weatherhead Center’s prestigious Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture at Harvard. His ideas on pluralism and calls for the urgent need to foster better understanding between cultures have been a significant inspiration for Asani. The term “clash of ignorances” is drawn from the Aga Khan, a major advocate of the same peaceful reconciliation that Asani’s work in Islamic studies attempts to move us toward.

In his Harvard office, Asani was surrounded by floor-to-ceiling books, many by his favorite poet, the famous thirteenth-century Muslim Persian mystic Mawlana Rumi, whose stunning poetry is embedded in a framework of Islamic mysticism that draws on the Qur’an and the traditions of the prophet Muhammad. It has touched people from diverse backgrounds by universalizing experience because, as Asani said, such is the nature of poetry and, indeed, the arts.

Asani’s own teaching and scholarship draw on a broad range of disciplines, as he approaches the study of Islam as far more than theology and doctrines. His research focuses on Shia and Sufi devotional traditions, and many of his books examine the artistic expression of mysticism, such as Celebrating Muhammad: Images of the Prophet in Muslim Devotional Literatures (co-authored with Kemal Abdel-Malek) and also, Ecstasy and Enlightenment: The Ismaili Devotional Literatures of South Asia. Asani uses sound, visual, and literary arts to transcend ideological barriers and provide an opportunity to engage with different cultures. His approach was shaped by his mentor, Annemarie Schimmel, one of the twentieth century's most influential scholars of Islam. On the basis of her experiences living in different Muslim societies and studying their literatures and cultures, she believed passionately in drawing on the power of the arts to educate and transform. She was fond of quoting the German philosopher Johann Herder (d. 1803) who wrote “From poetry we learn about eras and nations in much greater depth than through the deceitful and miserable ways of political and military war-histories.”

In our conversation, Asani spoke about the overwhelming cultural and religious illiteracy in society today. To secure our future, we must change the ignorant ways in which people perceive and imagine each other, he said. Stereotypes and humiliating caricatures must be replaced by understanding and respect for different perspectives. Never has that mattered more than it does today, he said.

Q: You’ve spoken about religious illiteracy in the United States, particularly around Islam. When you arrived at Harvard from Kenya as an undergraduate, what did people in the United States appear to know about Muslims?

A: There were huge gaps of knowledge, not only about Islam but also about Africa. People just had no idea of even the basics. Their view of Islam was distorted, and this was 1977, way before 9/11. They knew nothing of its heritage, cultures, and civilizations.

Most of my fellow students, for instance, did not know of Rumi. His mystical poetry, for me and for many Muslims, embeds some of the esoteric teachings of the Qur’an and of the Prophet Muhammad. I thought, “How is it that a person of such significance in the Muslim world is totally unknown here?”

Coming from Kenya, where I was familiar with the strong ethos of cosmopolitanism permeating the culture of the Swahili people, I was surprised to find there was nothing in the curriculum about the diverse cultures of Africa. I thought, “Where are the cultures that I come from? Where are they reflected here?”

Q: And so you decided to make a career of raising awareness about Islam?

A: When I started teaching Islam, my greatest challenge lay in addressing the stereotypes and misconceptions that had profoundly influenced my students. I soon came to realize that one of the bigger issues I was confronting was not just ignorance about Islamic history and thought but a prevailing global illiteracy about the nature of religion and culture and how the two intersect.

Religious illiteracy is very dangerous for our society. It leads to thinking about religious traditions as monoliths. By obscuring diversity and difference, it dehumanizes and stereotypes and it leads to prejudice and fear that endanger the whole project of democracy—since democracy cannot function if you’re afraid of your neighbors who happen to be different from yourself. Those are a few of the reasons I went into teaching about Islam.

Q: How did the arts come to play a role in your teaching?

A: As I started teaching and encountered stereotypes about Muslim societies among my students, I gradually began exploring the role that the arts, broadly defined, could play as bridges to promote understanding and foster religious literacy. I also came to realize that the arts play a significant role in the way in which people experience religion. They are central—not peripheral or marginal—to the construction of knowledge. In developing this perspective, I drew upon and developed the work of my mentor, Annemarie Schimmel.

Over time, this approach came to impact my pedagogy. I encourage students to approach their class projects in a different way by engaging in art-making to capture what they are learning. We read and discuss a text, after which I ask them to respond creatively, thus making their learning personal and reflective.

Such an approach is not the conventional way in which Islam is taught at universities, but instead is premised on the notion that as a cultural phenomenon, Islam, like any religion, is intricately tied to a web of contexts: political, social, economic, literary, artistic, and so on. It emphasizes that these contexts both influence and are influenced by religion.

Q: Could you give us an example of a successful project?

A: For instance, students in my freshman seminar study contemporary Muslim voices in world literatures through short stories, novels, and poems from different parts of the world. Students learn that the Qur’an is not just a book, it’s a performed text; the word means “recitation.” I play the students the same Qur’anic verse recited in different styles to show that through vocals you can interpret the nuances of the text in different ways.

In one instance, a student discerned a musical chord he thought was common to the recitations I played in the class. For his creative project, he used that chord to create a piece of music for the guitar and set lyrics to that piece. He called the song, “Desert Wind.” It was about a prophet in the desert, and the wind that was blowing was symbolic of God—a beautiful poem in which he reflected on the revelation of the Qur’an to a prophet meditating in an isolated mountain cave in the desert. In his commentary on the piece, he reflected on how sound can be a way in which one transcends the material and connects with the spiritual.

This was the insight of an eighteen-year-old who had no prior knowledge of Islam, a Christian student, I believe. But through the project, he engaged in a personal way with the aesthetics of the text. He took the particular and, through the aesthetics, universalized it. The process of universalizing breaks down fear and we say, “I get this, I understand this.”

Q: Do you find all types of students find meaning with this approach?

A: Yes I do. Muslim students who take my courses also find them eye-opening. Often they are familiar with Islam from a narrow ideological, sectarian perspective to which their families ascribe but they don’t always have access to the broader history of the diverse ways in which the religion has been interpreted and understood. The kind of learning that they engage with in my classes, by providing historical and intellectual depth as well as encouraging personal agency and creativity, has a profound impact on their understanding of what it means to be Muslim.

A Saudi student took my course, and it was very challenging for him because it meant thinking about Islam in a very different way from what he had been taught at the religious school he attended. He struggled with that. But at the end, he wrote to thank me for providing a window into a beauty about Islam that he had never realized.

Q. How do you believe Islam is perceived in popular society?

A: We are witnessing an ideological competition, a battle between different interpretations of the faith,which profoundly impacts popular perceptions of the faith. His Highness the Aga Khan espouses a cosmopolitan vision of Islam which embraces religious, ethnic, and cultural diversities. Others interpretations of Islam are ahistorical and acultural in their approach, often defining it through negative or purely ideological terms.

Several such groups are opposed to the cultural arts and music. They go around destroying our shared human cultural heritage. They have their reasons for doing so, grounded in their context, but their highly ideological and polarizing vision of Islam contrasts starkly with the Aga Khan’s vision,which promotes the arts through various initiatives such as the Aga Khan Program in Islamic Architecture, jointly administered by Harvard and MIT; the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which is engaged in restoring historic monuments in several cities in Africa and Asia; and the Aga Khan Music Initiative.

Q:  The Aga Khan talks about how important it is that we embrace pluralism to stave off ever-escalating tensions. Could you tell us more?

A: The Aga Khan talks about how the Qur’an itself embraces pluralism, diversity, and differences of opinion. For example, one verse says, “We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, that you may know one another,” or to that effect depending on how one translates it.

The purpose of God creating difference in human society—whether it is gender difference, or ethnic, or any kind—is supposed to be an occasion for learning and knowledge. Through that knowledge, as we engage with “the other,” we see that we’re actually engaging with other viewpoints and in the process coming to know ourselves better. It’s not meant to eliminate difference. It’s used to celebrate difference and engage with it in a very positive way.

Q: How do you feel the Aga Khan is perceived in the United States?

A: Often, people think of the Aga Khan as a billionaire. They see him as very rich and into horse racing, and sometimes they perceive him as part of the jet set.  Yet they have very little awareness of the tremendous positive impact that his work, particularly in education and health, has had on many societies in Africa and Asia. It seems that only people at the State Department and organizations engaged in development work, such as the World Bank and USAID, have recognized that the Aga Khan Development Network is an important force in social and economic development around the world.

This question also brings us back to a larger problem. Unfortunately, many people here are uninformed about what is going on in the Muslim world. The Aga Khan is one important leader; there are many others who are doing tremendous work, but the American public is just not aware. In a certain way, the slant in the media is to report the sensationalist. As a result, the fine work that’s being done quietly in development and education by many Muslims, either personally or communally, is often ignored. People often say to me, for instance, “You are presenting this very positive view of Islam but where are the moderate Muslims? How is it that moderate Muslims don’t speak out against terrorism and violence and gender discrimination?” And I want to say, “They’re out there, and they’re speaking out, but you can’t hear them.” So, my questions are: “Why can’t you hear them? Why have their voices been rendered silent so they don’t reach Western audiences?”

Q: Do you feel the political climate here in the United States is becoming worse?

A: We are witnessing increasing polarizations in the United States. If you look at the economic inequities, they’ve just grown. The gap between the rich and the poor is very stark now, and the middle class has shrunk. We see movements, such as Occupy, protesting against the banks and big business. The Black Lives Matter campaign highlights ongoing racial profiling and brutality against African Americans and people of color by the police, notwithstanding the decades of progress made by civil rights movements. Muslim Americans have become targets of suspicion, fear, and prejudice by prominent politicians and certain media pundits. We see a citizenry that lacks confidence in a deeply divided Congress, paralyzed by partisan politics.

Such tensions undermine the very nature of democracy and endanger the nation’s harmony. In this regard, the Aga Khan’s call to globally to promote more inclusive nations that care about the quality of life of all their citizens—regardless of race, ethnicity, and religious creed—is of growing relevance to our nation. It is a message that of course resonates well with the pluralist ideals embedded in the Constitution and the civic culture of the nation.

Q: How do you perceive the state of affairs in a global sense?

A: There is a growing exclusivist mentality in many societies that is in large part a reaction against globalization and the increasing number of failed or failing nation-states. If you look at the Middle East, exclusivist mentalities have developed in recent years as nationalism has imploded. As are result, an us-against-them mentality has become deeply embedded in the region, often manifesting itself in sectarian tensions and violence. Groups like ISIS have emerged as populist movements, drawing support for their cause from a sense of a loss of power and humiliation, and also from those who seek a new supra-national political order. They regard nation-states created or supported by the West, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as foreign constructs that are governed by ruling elites who serve the interests of foreign masters and fail to meet the needs of their citizens.

This exclusivist mentality is also manifest in the United States. With the elections approaching, you have populist movements that are appealing to certain segments of American society who feel disempowered and who regard the current political establishment and its structures failing to reflect their narrowly constructed vision of America and what it means to be American. This loss of power and the desire to be a winner is creating hatred and intolerance for cultural and religious differences. Unfortunately, at the present time, Muslims have become the primary victims of this fear and prejudice.

You see it also in Europe. For example, in France, with the national front of Jean-Marie Le Pen targeting Muslims. There is a particular view of what it means to be French, which doesn’t have much room for cultural diversity.

You see another manifestation of exclusivism in parts of the Middle East, such as in the Gulf States where Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers are mistreated and exploited by Arab ruling elites, and have few rights, notwithstanding the fact that they are Muslim and co-religionists.

Q: Do you see any realistic solutions?

A: There are a number of solutions. We must ask: How do you create societies which at a basic level address issues of exclusion that affect people’s quality of life? Look at poverty. The Aga Khan places so much emphasis on pulling people out of poverty, which makes them feel included rather than excluded. If hope is to replace despair, people must feel included—economically, politically, and socially—in terms of healthcare and education. We must provide equal access to these things to citizens regardless of their background.

People ask why certain young Muslims in the West are joining ISIS. Some feel that it is due to religious fervor, but research shows that most of these recruits are religiously illiterate and their ignorance of traditional Islamic thought and mores makes them easy targets for extremism. Another aspect of the problem is that these individuals feel excluded from Western societies due to anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia. They have a feeling of humiliation and powerlessness, and an alienation exacerbated by lack of purpose. What attracts them to that side—and sometimes they are disillusioned when they get there—is the feeling that the extremist group will empower and respect them. You see how it is so fundamental to create societies that are pluralistic, ones that embrace difference, and that we have governments that are committed to providing a decent quality of life for all citizens.

You see these challenges in America today and all over the world. You see the rise of exclusivism, and you see these constructions of Islam as the dehumanized “other.” These types of constructions are very dangerous. As the Aga Khan demonstrates, it is important to provide an alternate discourse.

People are beginning to define themselves not on the basis of who they are and what they represent, but on the basis of who they are not. Our world is filled with groups who maintain this exclusivist mentality. We must seek solutions to the “clash of ignorances” that breeds this polarized and divisive mentality. We must help people become literate and pluralistic in their thinking about religion and culture. Only then can we truly proclaim e pluribus unum.

“Those who talk about the inevitable ‘clash of civilizations’ can point today to an accumulating array of symptoms which sometimes seems to reflect their diagnosis. I believe, however, that the diagnosis is wrong, that its symptoms are more dramatic than they are representative, and that these symptoms are rooted in human ignorance rather than human character. The problem of ignorance is a problem that can be addressed. Perhaps it can even be ameliorated but only if we go to work on our educational tasks with sustained energy, creativity, and intelligence.”

- His Highness the Aga Khan

Meg MurphyCommunications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

Ali Asani is a professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic religion and cultures and director of the Alwaleed Islamic Studies Program. His research focuses on Islam in South Asia, particularly Shia and Sufi devotional traditions in the region, popular or folk forms of Muslim devotional life, and Muslim communities in the West.

His Highness the Aga Khan will deliver the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi lecture, “The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World” on November 12, 2015. The lecture is co-sponsored by the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program, Harvard University. 

Photo credit: Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures works in his Barker Center office at Harvard University. Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office