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How I Overcame Islamophobia

(This article was first published in the English daily newspaper Telangana Today, on 5th May 2020)

One day. That is all it took. For what? To overcome my Islamophobia. How? Before that, a little background, though these days everyone understands what one means by Islamophobia. Still, here goes.
“Do not talk to strangers” is what I was told when I was attending school during the 1970s. I would assume this is what all school kids are told by their parents. Thus, from early childhood on the “stranger” becomes a symbol in our forming consciousness for the “Other” who acquires the signification of something or someone that is foreboding and threatening and hence to be suspicious of and avoided at all costs.
And, as we grow up, distrust and suspicion continues to be there about these so-called “others” because we tend to interact less with “others” who do not belong to our class or caste or gender or religion or region etc. What makes this a vicious circle is that, given that we avoid close interactions with these “others” they continue to remain strangers to us. And, as long as they are strangers we cannot consider them as one of “our own” and we do not get to know them enough to overcome our biases, prejudices, ignorance, and fears centring on them.
Fast forward to the recent present and the troubling “others” for me as for some Hindus these days seemed to be the “Muslims” as a group, not so much in a virulent form as perhaps for some, but still something that did not make me feel comfortable when I thought about “Muslims” as a group, though, to be sure, at an individual one-on-one level I could get along with them excellently having many close friends among them. Of course, I felt they were not helping matters by inbreeding all sorts of problematic characters such as terrorists, and also we as Indians have the past excesses of the Muslim “invaders” and rulers to come to terms with. And, what’s more, in the past I had tried to read the Quran and after reading about 50 pages or so I came away with the impression that here was a religion that was being intolerant towards the so-called kafirs or unbelievers and even talking violently of putting them to the sword if they do not convert.
In this milieu of feelings I have remained for many years, especially one can say since the time these issues have started to crop up in recent times on mainstream and social media. Of course, there are a few family members who did not seem to suffer from Islamophobia. The takeaways from conversations with them was that I was having these biases and prejudices towards Muslims as a group because I was looking at them as a monolithic group, and I was reading Quran as a text by myself, ignoring how it gets read and interpreted in diverse and critical ways in the Muslim communities themselves.
Fast forward to a couple of days back. I came across this Harvard Online course “Islam Through Its Scriptures”, which was being offered for free on the edX platform. It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to get to know Islam better, and I thought thereby I might get over my Islamophobia. And I enrolled for the course immediately.
The Harvard course is a self-paced one, with 10 lessons in all. After the first few lessons I was beginning to feel maybe I did a mistake by enrolling. But then I plodded on. And the moment I started to read about Sharia or Islamic Law the magic started happening. I discovered that the Islamic scholars were adopting a very nuanced, analytical and interpretative and symbolic approach to arrive at the codification of laws by relying not only on the Quran, Sunna (biography of Prophet Muhammad) and Hadith (the sayings and actions of Prophet Muhammad) but also on their own exegesis, interpretation, independent reasoning etc., which traits earlier I thought were mostly confined to the West and non-Islamic societies. They were like “Us”.
In case you are curious, the course said the sources of Sharia or Islamic Law were these four:

  • Quran
  • The Prophet’s Sunna and hadith
  • Consensus
  • Techniques of qiyas (analogy) and other reasoning such as istislah (public interest) and istihan (juristic preference)

This realization only got reinforced when I saw two excellent videos in the course on Sharia by the Islamic scholar Dr. Jasser Adua (you can look him up on Youtube). He made an interesting observation that when he and his team developed some metrics to rank countries on compliance with principles of Sharia he found that countries like Canada and Sweden ranked almost at the top and far higher than any Muslim-majority countries ostensibly under Sharia law. He also touched upon the hierarchical principles guiding their team’s recommendations for Sharia law.
Now, I am not prescribing that you take the Harvard course, but I will say that it is only by getting to know the “Others” in all their diversity that you can overcome your prejudices. To do that I will suggest that as Hindus you should take a close look at how you classify, interpret and judge the wrong actions of some Hindus whereby you do not blame or demonize Hindus as a group but would apportion the blame to those particular individuals or groups responsible for the crimes. That is, you do not look at your own group, whether it be your caste, class, religion or region, with a monolithic lens by making blanket stereotypical statements about your own group. Similar considerations you need to learn to apply to people of other groups, the “Others”. If you do that, you will see your biases, prejudices, fears and phobias dissolve away.
The author holds degrees in MBBS (Gandhi medical College, Hyderabad, India) and MA (Economics), The Johns Hopkins University (MD, USA). He is a Writer and Poet. He blogs @
Preview his poetry at Philosophical Roller Coaster: A Book of Poetry
His other two books are:
“Happiness and Consciousness: Your Guide to Enlightenment”
“Western Philosophy: A Book of Poetry”