Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Batuta, Al-Ghazali and others are but a few of the great scholars who sat on their transports and left the comforts of their homes to travel the world, armed only with the bare essentials, a notebook and pen. This journey is founded on and progressing in line with a similar philosophy – to seek knowledge and increase understanding. This research endeavour is called Journey into Europe and it is part of a longitudinal study based on a quartet (the first being Journey into Islam, the second, Journey into America, the third, the award winning, The Thistle and the Drone and this being the fourth research project). The leader and principal investigator of these projects is very appropriately the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University in Washington DC, Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed.
The Journey into Europe team led by Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed is a small but select team comprising of experts in the field on contemporary Islam, politics, gender, Muslim women and so on from different parts of the world like Pakistan, the UK, and America. Some of the team members have been students of Professor Ahmed and have worked with him over the last decade. It is of significant interest that although some of them are non-Muslim Americans, their understanding of Muslims and Islam is nuanced and sophisticated. What is important about this study is that the combination of an international team led by an expert trained in the CSP (once elite services of Pakistan) allows for precision and uncompromising quality. Additionally, the previous practice has commonly been for western academics to analyse their own and the society of others, and thereby speak on behalf of the people studied. Here we have a leading Muslim scholar – respected by people from different faiths for his bridge-building efforts – analyzing Muslims in European society, which gives the study a nuanced and more empathetic approach.
[quote]Here we have a leading Muslim scholar analyzing Muslims in European society[/quote]
This Journey has brought us together from different ends of the world from America to South Asia, joining up in London. Each of us is committed to our goals and has dedicated the three months time of our summer vacation to this project. We strongly believe it will help increase understanding within our world today. Our Journey has thus far taken us to London and then Cambridge where we interviewed the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams and founder of the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish and Jewish-Christian relations, Dr Edward Kessler. Next stop was Bradford where we met the Muslim Mayor, members of the community and the Council of mosques. In Edinburgh, we interviewed a wide range of academics and leaders of many communities, including the First Minister, Alex Samon who gave a brilliant analogy of our study, which in his opinion is like the Scottish tartan that brings all the colours of society together, not apart.
The night we arrived in Belfast, the First Minister, Peter Robinson – a friend and supporter of the priest who had just made a blazing controversial statement about Islam in public, and the media was abuzz. Without taking a moment to rest or to adjust to the new environment, Ambassador Akbar S. Ahmed was on air with BBC and several other channels to comment on the situation. Sahibzada Yaqub – a brilliant and wise South Asian diplomat who spoke nine languages – had told Ambassador Ahmed once that in his opinion Ambassador Ahmed always finds himself in the belly of the whale in the most difficult circumstances and yet find a way out eventually. This reminded me of the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson called Ulysses, sometimes quoted by Ambassador Ahmed.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought…
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods…
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
After a packed back-to-back day with the media and a lecture organized by The Centre for Conflict Transformation at Queen’s University from which many people were turned away due to over attendance we left for Dublin. Dublin allowed us to interview, meet, and visit the homes of many people from the Muslim and other faith communities. We had the opportunity to visit the Jewish museum and see how as a minority, Jews tried hard to fit into the majority society of the UK while privately and quietly trying to maintain their religious identity. The London Jewish Museum Director interestingly told us that the Muslim community taught her how to be strong in faith and more open and bold. Spain – Cordoba, Granada, and Melilla were rich and vibrant with ethnography and the core for our thesis on coexistence, despite the Mediterranean timings of late lunches and siestas! The winning of the FIFA world cup while we were in Berlin made our fieldwork on identity an alive and thrilling experience and we, coincidently, celebrated at iftar with an impressive array of dignified and intelligent Ambassadors from the Muslim world, including the Turkish Ambassador – a glittering dinner-event organized for Ambassador Ahmed and our team by Syed Hasan Javed, the Pakistan Ambassador in Berlin. In verdant scenic Heidelberg by the river Neckar, Professor Wiqar Shah, the Iqbal Professor, showed us the “Iqbal Street” and also took us for a walk along the street where the great Muslim philosopher lived. The previous evening, Professor Shah hosted an iftar with typical lavish Pukhtun hospitality.
Despite the relentless schedule, logistics and exhaustion involved, everyday is a learning experience. Our next stop in the project is Bosnia and as the news brews with the anniversary of those horrific mass murders and rapes in Europe’s own backyard, it is with a heavy heart that I look forward to interviewing Bosnian victims and empathizing with them as fellow human beings and sisters.