Scholars and intellectuals form a community – no matter where they live; their learning and seeking of truth unites them in a bond that is hard to break. This was the philosophy that Ibn Battuta lived by, and I put this to test recently. True to my old habit, I tried to read up as much as I could about the country I had always wanted to visit. While Lonely Planet satisfied my travel curiosity, I looked for something more substantial, in terms of intellectual rigor, so turned to Mernissi, a famous scholar from Morocco – who did not disappoint. Dr. Fatima Mernissi’s Islam and Democracy – Fear of the Modern world, is a classic in Islamic studies and offers an unparalleled insider’s perspective on Islam in the Muslim world. I then decided to write to her – on a whim- and did so, about three days ago, on arrival here in Rabat. For those who do not know her, Mernissi is one of the most important Islamic feminists alive today and is a trailblazer, who has contributed to understanding gender dynamics in the Islamic world.
Not only did Mernissi invite me to meet her, but also recommended that I meet two of her friends/colleagues who are working on civil society issues in Morocco. I jumped at the chance and went to meet her, with Fabiola. The entire meeting with her lasted about three hours and spanned several topics. A gist of the same is offered here.
The first thing that struck me about her was her enthusiasm and intellectual vitality, despite her advanced age – she was born in 1940. She had the curiosity of someone half her age and the depth of understanding and knowledge that only comes with age. On knowing my Indian and Arab heritage, we spoke about the ways in which the Indian subcontinent was connected to the Arab world, through trade, commerce, and intellectual endeavors. The Indians played a key role in translating many of the classical Greek texts to Arabic during the Andalusian era, circa 11-13 centuries A.D. I also learned that there are over 50 words for love in Arabic, while there are only 12 in the English language. Some of them include Al Mahabba ( Affection), Achaghaf ( Infatuation), Al Kalaf ( fondness), Achaju ( Distress), Al huzn ( sadness), Al araq (sleeplessness), Al law’a (ardent love), Al huyam ( bewildering passion) among others. She also handed us a booklet of calligraphy that captures these 50 words, beautifully illustrated by the work of an artists, Fatima Louardighi and Mohamed Bannour.
Her love for Islam and the Arab, North African culture and heritage is evident in her work as well as her life. An avid reader, her apartment was full of books, paintings, and handicrafts – all made locally. I did spot an elegant painting, of medieval India that decorated her living room.
We spoke about the Arab spring and her ideas of the uprising were also somewhat eclectic. She seemed very optimistic about the uprisings and how they are creating a counter-movement to violent extremism. “The youth fighting in Syria and Iraq is misguided and manipulated. They must be reformed and given opportunities to integrate and not punished,” she added. While the Western media and some in the Arab world also paint a very negative image of what is going on, Mernissi seemed very optimistic.
“The dream of forming a global cosmic village may have failed in the 1960s and 70s, but I am confident that it will take place again and Islam will be the factor responsible for it,” she added. In this perspective, the global digital technologies are playing a key role, she added further; pointing to the success of TV Anchors and musicians such as Amr Khaled, who is not only successful but also rich, thanks to their religiously attuned music and performances. She also spoke of the re-emergence of Adab, which could loosely translate as ‘respect’ or ‘way of dealing with others’. This has roots in the 9th-century Arab world, under the Abbasids, who expanded travel, ethical behavior and also the discipline of self-teaching. Caliph Al Mansur the second Abbasid ruler launched a huge translation project from Greek to Arabic and Sanskrit texts. In this way of thinking, the stranger was to be treated as an equal of oneself, she argues. In Jahiz’s book “The art of communication and demonstration” (Kitab al-Bayan wa Tabyin) written in the 9th century, Adab – through treating the stranger as one’s equal was the key to learning, discovery and also empowering oneself.
Sufism is key in transforming this idea of movement and regenerating oneself, Mernissi pointed out. The travels of Sufis to the far East not only spread Islam but also aspects of culture, religion, and sciences that were unknown to them. My own family’s heritage is one of travel – around the South Asian and Middle Eastern regions. Had my ancestors not traded and worked as mercenaries, I would not be here.
Quoting from her favorite Sufi scholar, Ibn Arabi, Mernissi said “The principle of the universe is movement…if it stops moving it will return to non-existence”. This seemed to sum up my travel agenda too. A befitting principle to follow in a globalized world of travelers and seekers.
Speaking of the ‘image’ problem that Islam and Muslims face, Mernissi pointed out that this needs to change. Much of the distortion of Image can be fought by looking critically at what we are being told. “For instance, look at what Picketty and other economists are telling us today. They are using the language of ethics and morals – the very essence of all religions. So, why is religion getting a bad name?”, she enquired.
Mernissi also took us on a short guided tour of the poor district in Rabat, the Yacoub Mansour neighborhood – where pirated CDs, jewelry made in China, and other locally made handicrafts were sold – on the streets. It reminded me of the similarities with the bazaars in India or in Mexico. And all through the short trip, she kept asking the shopkeepers, “ Where do you think these two are from,” and for the most part, they kept saying “They look like they are from here”. It was reassuring to know that I and Fabiola actually blend in. The chaos on the streets, the noises, and pets on the street reminded me of India and of what I have seen/read of Mexico. We were surely feeling at home and it was good to be reminded that we did come across as the next-door neighbors. It seemed to be a great start to learning more about this fascinating country.