It was 1999, and I was explaining my family background to an American girl in our residence hall in Oklahoma, USA.
"My mother has written books and poems in Urdu, and her father was a journalist and a freedom fighter. My own dad quotes Victorian English poetry at the drop of a hat, and I think the only thing he doesn't think twice about before spending money on it is books. All in all, seems like literary pursuits are our family tradition."
The White girl's eyes grew large.
"Wow!" she said. "And I thought you said your family was religious!"
She may as well have said "black is white". My mind drew a blank as I realised that some basic assumption of a common ground was amiss in this interaction of ours. I failed to grasp the girl's implication that religion and intellect were mutually exclusive. How did the presence, the choice of one completely eliminate that of the other?
That was my first encounter with the Western divorce between spirituality and academics. I encountered this notion repeatedly during the 10 years I spent in North America in every realm of life - education, politics, art, life & death. The very idea seemed to be the unspoken rule of modern Western civilisation; people were willing to kill and be killed for it. The air was thick with an invisible assumption I would have to decipher on my own. Over time I traced its origins back to the rebellion of Europe against its Church, rebellions also known as the Renaissance and Reformation movements. The battle between science and the spirit had begun...
...purely a European phenomenon though. For instance, secularism in America means the complete absence of religion from public life. If you are religious, then you are pathetically unevolved. In India, secularism implies the noisy coexistence of all ways of life as long as no one's stepping on anyone else's toes. But if you're an atheist, then there's something fundamentally wrong with you.
I was raised in a Muslim household. My journalist grandfather was also a Mufti, a lifelong scholar of Islam. We are religious - we believe in one unseen Deity. We also study languages and various sciences. We are avid book readers and spend our days discussing politics, art, literature, and theology. Through the faithful observation of science, we want to relish the creation of a God whose first word to His last prophet was 'iqra' - 'read'.
Read in the name of your Lord and Cherisher who created.
Created man from a mere clot of blood.
Read and your Lord is the most generous.
The One who taught the use of the pen.
Taught man what he knew not.
- The Holy Quran (96:1-5)
Of course, none of this occurred to my 18-year-old self back then. At that moment 10 years ago, two college girls stood facing each other, the East and the West, miscommunicating once again.