Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Enigma of Identity

The people of honor in pre-Islamic Arabian society were those who remembered the detailed family genealogy of the Arab tribes. They did not have records. Everything detailed was memorized. Abu Bakr (RA) was one such person. This tradition continued after Islam as knowing about one's parents and ancestors is considered important in our religion. Not that it is something to boast about, but it helps a person understand who he is, why is he the way he is and the what potential does this life hold for him in the historical narrative of this world.

Do you know who you are? Self identification is a process every individual undergoes in life. There are many aspects to it. These days people are quick to give out their business cards when asked "who/what are you?" But the job title is really just one aspect, which in a way fits you in our contemporary social hierarchy. In fact, this is an interesting question that we should all take time to ponder over because it is deeper than what it seems. It has philosophical, sociological, professional, historical, religious, political, educational, cultural, etc. dimensions to it that we should consider. It is relevant to any conscientious human being, especially to one who is trying to practice Islam.

I struggled with these questions throughout my early years. My ancestors were Afghan/Pashtuns who had settled in Pathan villages of North India over the centuries of Muslim rule there. My parents were born in India. They and part of their extended family had migrated to Pakistan after its creation. My father had left Pakistan in 1963 to come to the Arabian Gulf for work. It was here that he raised his family. I got educated in an International School with Lebanese roots in the Emirates, after which I left for the States to study Engineering. I could relate to a number of societies, e.g. Pashtuns, Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs (with all their variety), Americans, plus a whole range of nationalities living in the Emirates and part of the international student body in US universities, but I never felt I belonged or ever felt the need to belong to any one group in the full sense of the word. I have tried to be thankful for the diversity of my heritage/education and endeavored to pick up the good aspects from all my experiences, while discarding the negative influences.

Growing up we were all Cultural Muslims. The fact that I never studied Islam formally in school, was actually a blessing in disguise because when I finally quenched my thirst for it at graduate school in NJ, the freshness was like that a revert feels, while still having both Asian and Arab Muslim experiences to relate to. So in a way, I had the best of all experiences, alhamdulillah. I was able to discard a lot of the cultural baggage that born Muslims have while approaching Islam from the fresh perspective of a "revert". The self education that started then still goes on and may only end in the next world, insha Allah. Over the years, I find myself relating to the Salafist ideology more than others, but do not agree with their insistence on the rigid formalism in external rituals. I have found that by practicing Islam and undertaking all its various responsibilities, one gets to experience the bliss and inner understanding which comes in submitting oneself to Allah's (SWT) commands. Thus I do believe in spirituality. In fact it is what had initially attracted me to Islam. But it can only be achieved by following the practices that the Prophet (SWAS) taught us. Any other methodology to achieve spirituality is misguidance.

Professionally, I have studied Engineering, but throughout my career I have sought to keep building upon my strengths, by studying Computer Science, Geomatics, GIS, Petroleum Engineering, etc. My focus has been to provide a service to my employer that no one else can with the quality and capability that I can. I started my career off as a Computer Programmer after which I taught Computer Science to undergraduate and graduate students in a university as an Assistant Professor. Then I worked as a GIS Specialist in the Geomatics Engineering team in a Petroleum company. Currently, I solve Petroleum Engineering problems using GIS as an analytical tool in a new team in the same company. Again, as with my heritage, I do not see the diversity of my education and experiences as a problem, but rather as a blessing that makes me capable of solve real problems using different skills/perspectives that I bring to the team.

Politically I do not support any party or leadership in Pakistan, not even the religious parties. I do not believe change can come through the Parliamentary system, nor through terrorism. I believe real change can only come by following the Prophetic methodology of tarbiyya of the society. Until a critical mass of the population can be educated and reformed, no real change can be expected. Thus the pathway to political change is a change in the mindset and beliefs of the general population. This can be achieved through personal reform, education, social work, dawah, social outreach, etc. The real challenge is intellectual in nature. It is a battle of hearts and minds that need to be won. I believe the ends do not justify the means. Shortcuts do not work. Long term, well thought out, intellectually sound course of action is needed. Real, lasting change is slow, even though its result may seem quick when they eventual come. Every single person should be motivated to carry out personal reform, continuous education, social improvement, etc. Only then will the whole society and thus its leadership will reform.

Socially, Allah (SWT) demands that I play various roles in life. I am a son, a husband, a father, a brother, a son in law, a brother in law, a relative, a neighbor, an employee, a colleague, a philanthropist, a teacher, a social worker, a writer, a daee, etc. I try my best to play out each of these roles to the best of my abilities. I try to find out what my responsibilities are for each role and I try to check whether I am fulfilling all of them properly. I do not believe in being a workaholic or excessively focused only on my profession, to the detriment of other roles -- as society these days often demands of us.

All the above parameters, help identify who I am. I am reluctant to take just one or two of them and define myself. If I am forced to say something comprehensive about my identity in a phrase, I can only choose from: "A Slave of Allah (SWT)" or "A Follower of Muhammad (SWAS)" or "A Student of Life" or "A Traveller in Transit", etc.

Do you know who you are? Where did your ancestors come from? What good things can you adopt from them? What should you leave out? Have you thought out what your stand is on important issues in life are? What service to you want to provide in life? How do you respond to the major challenges to your time? What responsibilities do you have on others? How would you describe yourself in a phrase?

The answers to these questions started to become clear to me in graduate school in NJ in the mid 1990s when I discovered Islam, alhamdulillah. When will it be for you?