I have always been fascinated with Islam, this richly colorful and grossly misunderstood religion and culture that has formed a large part of our history and identity as a nation.
Growing up, I often found myself wondering about the veiled women that I would see on TV and in the streets, and our yayas’ and neighbors’ derogatory remarks about “the Muslims”, wondering what was so bad about this group of people that they (and “the Bombays”) were often used to scare us into obedience. When I would see images of mosques and Islamic architecture on TV and in the encyclopedias that kept me company as a child (yes, kids—we had those at home), I would stare at them in awe, thinking about the kind of work that went into them and the architectural genius that it took to create such intricate details. Shifting my attention between Islam and Buddhism, I would ask my mom why kids couldn’t choose their religions and had even asked, ever so innocently, if it were possible to choose my own religion once I was grown up. (In fairness to my mother’s open-mindedness, she didn’t panic when I asked that question and even said “yes” in response.)
I didn’t end up converting to Islam, but the fascination continued on to adulthood. In university, where I had minored in Hispanic Studies, I often found myself daydreaming about Granada, Andalusia, and the Alhambra, telling myself that I would someday visit these enchanting places. To this day, I am enamored of the rhythm and the seemingly rich textures of the Arabic language, enjoying Persian and Arabic music as much as I enjoy flamenco (which was also rooted in the Moorish and gypsy cultures), and wanting, in all earnestness, to learn more about this culture that we in urban Philippines (and many parts of the Westernized world) know so little about.
I have even told my husband this: when we have kids, I would want them to grow up alongside Muslim children and live in a more tolerant, understanding world. I am grateful that he agrees, and that he loves their music and culture as much as, or even more than, I do.
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It was timely, then, that I caught TIME Magazine’s issue entitled “Travels through Islam,” their annual “summer journey issue” that delved into the life and travels of Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Islamic scholar and wanderer whom the legendary travel writer Pico Iyer calls “the father of travel writing.” Battuta left his hometown of Tangier (which, incidentally, was the street I grew up in) in Morocco for Mecca in 1325, when he was only 21 years old, but he didn’t stop journeying after Mecca and traveled on to Constantinople, Delhi, and even all the way to China and back, covering as much as he could of what was then known as Dar al-Islam, “the abode of Islam”. Battuta’s travels took him 28 more years, and as Iyer writes in “A Voyager for the Ages”, “he seems to have begun by taking a journey—and then found that the journey had taken him over.”
What struck me about Battuta’s Islamic journey was what was penned here by professor and author Reza Aslan, in the piece “World Wanderer”:
“… for [Battuta] and his contemporaries, Dar al-Islam connoted more than mere geography. It was above all else an ideal, an aspiration, a shared sense of consciousness held by a global collection of like-minded individuals who maintained more or less the same beliefs and practices and who, as such, composed a single, unified, and divine community: the ummah. This is what the pilgrim and the merchant, the warrior and the peasant would have understood as the source of his or her own identity…
“Although the Muslims made up the majority of Dar al-Islam’s population, and while the norms, values and customs of the people aligned with the fundamental precepts of Islam, it was the enormous diversity of the ummah scattered across these lands that so struck Ibn Battuta.”
Aslan calls the diversity within Dar al-Islam the earliest form of globalization as we know it today. To me, this brought on a realization that Islam is far, far richer than what we perceive it to be, with shades and nuances that cannot be simplified or generalized as mass media do today. Reading on, I discovered that Islam, during its Golden Age, was responsible for advancing education, economy, global trade, and culture, in what historian Marshall Hodgson says “came closer than any other medieval society to establishing a common world order of social and even cultural standards.”
It all seemed so glorious then. What happened? Why has the label “Muslim” brought with it too many negative connotations, and why does a society as cultured as this one tolerate, or even encourage, such violence as the world has experienced in the last decade? The rest of the magazine explores how different Islamic countries and communities—from the Muslim community in Granada, Spain, to the young moderates in Turkey, to “radicals” in Kerala, India—are confronting challenges brought on by the push and pull of tradition versus change, in a world crying out for tolerance and peace.
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Here in the Philippines, peace has been as elusive as genuine progress, if not even more so. War in Mindanao has raged on for nearly half a century, with this conflict now known as the second-longest-running conflict in the world, only next to that in Sudan. Last Thursday, shades of hope emerged as President Benigno Aquino III met with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chair Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim, in a move that was both praised and criticized by different sectors of society. My former boss, Senator Kiko Pangilinan, called it a “great leap forward” and a “bold, daring… out of the box move” to finally end conflict in the Philippine South. (Read the full statement here.)
There are many things that I still do not understand about the conflict in the South, just as there are many, MANY things that I do not understand about Islam. But I do know and believe this: regardless of our religion, race, culture, and many other beliefs, there are far more things that unite all human beings than separate us. At the core of many of our conflicts are the need to be recognized and heard, the need to be understood, the need to live and move around freely, the need for our rights to be respected…
Am I being too much of an idealist in thinking that we could someday live and move around in a world that is more understanding and less prejudiced? Maybe so, but I think it would be less human of me to stop hoping.