The past few days, a voice within petitions me, “If you won’t reform yourself now, when will you reform?”
Everyone comments that Istanbul is so beautiful. Well, the parts that tourists visit are. As for the other 98% of it. Well it’s just your average sprawling modern metropolis. And not at all my cup of tea.
Interestingly, despite their mockery of religion, these national secularists are in fact following a religion all of their own, with its own set of sacred symbols, mythology, taboos, holy institutions and high priests. Spend any amount of time with them and you will find them as rabid and zealous as any fundamentalist, defending their saints and symbols with a passion. Sadly introspection is not highly prized here.
I used to be frustrated by a teacher’s understatement of his extensive studies with many a scholar over many years in many lands, and his refusal of honorific titles. But now I am amazed by the grand titles the new generation of teachers assign themselves on their carefully curated social media pages, with all their profound posts accidentally boasting of their knowledge, years of study, great teachers and learning. I think I now understand the humility of that self-effacing teacher, with his tiny circle and concealed reputation.
I think if I had inherited the Brexit mess and was faced with excruciating impossible negotiations lasting a decade, I too would probably call snap elections in the hope of losing.
Advances in technology and transportation allow us to be internationalists like never before. So it’s rather depressing that isolationist nationalism is on the rise everywhere.
The secularists and the religious are not that different really. They both have their sacred sensibilities, and lines you must not cross.
Freedom of speech is a precious thing. You notice it when you’re somewhere where you have to think twice before sharing what’s on your mind.
You can honour and respect a man who served his country well, without granting him absolute power. Historical parallels indicate that moves to consolidate power in the hands of one man will end in disaster. But who can argue with the bombastic masses, dreaming of a return to imagined glory? Legends are being written before our very eyes. Pious propaganda wins the day.
Another nationwide tour of celebrity scholars? I think I’ll give it a miss.
Too many at these events behave like off-balance teenage girls worshipping their boy-band pop idol. Except the adoring fans are mostly bearded men in thobes, and the boy-band, middle-aged male academics (yes, the organisers forgot to invite female scholars again).
Meanwhile, the scholars in our communities continue to attract an audience of one, because we really just crave edutainment and the opportunity to shower our idols in exaggerated praise, which must surely make them cringe and run for cover.
‘Oh yea of little faith,’ retort their disciples, reminding me to have respect for our scholars — the protectors of our religion.
And it’s true: I struggle with the personality worship in our community. We call these men giants, putting them on a pedestal we minions have little hope of nearing, and even when they speak of things about which they have no real knowledge, we stifle our own intellect, because clearly they know better, because we know nothing.
And so these bizarre spectacles unfold before us. Grown men grabbing hold of their hero’s coat tails. Groups of men forming constrictive circles around a man attempting to hold a private conversation, suffocating him. Selfies, autographs, copycat attar. Possession: claims of ownership, and exclusive intellectual rights. The weirdness is unending.
Surely you can respect your teacher and their knowledge without behaving like an infatuated teenager with a crush. Surely we can build balanced relationships with our teachers without the melodramatic adulation which turns a circle into a circus.
And, just maybe, if we’re really in search of sacred knowledge, perhaps we could go and sit at the feet of that humble sage in our community, who everyone shuns because, well, they’re not a celebrity.
Or is the pull of your darling dearest beloved just too magnetic to ignore? Is he a giant too colossal to neglect? Is his piety so contagious that only a swift sharp fervid dose will see you through until the next nationwide tour? Is this why we take our scholars and monks as lords?1
Have respect: of course, absolutely, no problem. But recall that praise belongs to Allah. Make room for contemplation and introspection, and take a step back. Is the frenzy surrounding the superstar scholar really the way it was meant to be? Or are we called to something greater?
- Qur’an 9:31 ↩