Sohail Hashmi: Reconciling Differences Between Cultures
Sohail Hashmi is a self-described Liberal Muslim, born in Hyderabad, India, but raised in Savannah, Georgia. He is currently a Professor in the International Relations Department at Mount Holyoke College, specializing in Political Islam and the study of jihad. In his story, he shares his personal journey in the pursuit of knowledge from India, to Savannah, Georgia, to the Middle East, and beyond.
(Photo Credit: Leah Masci)
My family is from northern India, near the city of Lucknow. But I wasn’t born there; I was born in south-central India, in the city of Hyderabad. When my father initially came to the U.S., the plan was that he would finish his doctorate and come back to Pakistan, where he was already teaching. He was here [in the U.S.] for five years, and then he got an offer to teach in Georgia. So he brought my mother, my sister, and me over to the States; that was 1969. As the years went on, his and my mom’s thinking changed quite dramatically, because the situation in Pakistan deteriorated, especially with the civil war that took place and the political uncertainty in the country. So my father, at that point, decided to become a U.S. citizen, and the rest of my family followed after that.
My whole childhood—from age six until I came to college—was in Georgia. It was an upbringing in the Deep South. I was in second grade in India, but when I came to the States I was too young, so I was put in first grade. I vividly remember my first day of school—that was probably the most difficult experience of my entire life because I didn’t really know English. I was six years old and I was being taken away from the family that I had grown up with and being brought to a very different place. So I was thrust into this environment where I couldn’t really talk to anyone. It was kind of a traumatic experience. The first day, my parents dropped me off at school, and I remember realizing they weren’t there any more and I ran after them, chasing them in the hallway screaming. I think that was the only time I felt any real culture shock or trauma because right after that, I just felt completely at home and I loved my school. I really credit the wonderful teachers I had from the beginning who just took us in, as if we were part of the community. The whole community was very hospitable.
In some ways our family was isolated, in that we were the only Muslims growing up in that community, but we had a wonderful experience—I had a wonderful childhood. As I was growing up, I didn’t know there was a range of expressions of Islam; for me, Islam was what my family practiced. The first time I experienced alternative ways of being a Muslim was when we returned to India the first time. I was 12 at that point; we had spent six years in Georgia before returning to India. We spent five months there, so it was a long visit, and at that point I got to really see what a Muslim environment was like—in terms of the cultural and community-based aspects of the faith. I have a huge family in India, and many, many cousins, so just being drawn back into that kind of family fold was wonderful. It was hard coming back [to the U.S.] honestly, because after five months of being [in India], I was ready to stay. I just loved being with my family there.
I did my undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard, and that was a very different experience from my childhood in Savannah, Georgia. I studied political science because I was always interested in Middle East politics. My father had taught that subject and so it was constantly in my range of intellectual interests. Being in Massachusetts wasn’t, in itself, a very big shock for me, but what was eye opening was meeting other Muslims my own age—that was a really big development. I built very close friendships right away with Muslims who had grown up in the States. It was interesting to compare our experiences. Overall, I found that there was a lot of similarity in the way we approached our religion, and in our upbringing. We became very close because we felt we were fortunate to have been raised with those values; we really bonded over that.
One thing I feel very fortunate to have done is to travel extensively in Muslim countries as part of my dissertation at Harvard. Over four years I visited eight countries, and that was just a wonderful experience because I got to really see Muslim traditional scholarship in practice. I went to schools, universities, and seminaries in India, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, and Malaysia. I got to live the tradition that I was going to be teaching about, so that was one of the most beneficial experiences of my life and I’m glad to have had that opportunity. You often hear about all of the violence and the conflicts and so forth within Islam—you know, Muslims fighting other Muslims—but I got to see a very different side of Islam. I would consider myself to be a liberal Muslim. Islam is a very important part of my life, but there’s no doubt that I’m also very influenced by the values, the culture, and the openness of Western society. I really value being able to practice my faith in this culture, in this society, but I also want to share the blessings of Western, liberal, democratic society with my fellow Muslims because I think there’s a real need for openness and tolerance in Muslim countries and societies.
There’s a lot of need for reform, especially for women’s rights. People ask me what the main issues are, in my mind, that are central to Muslim progress, and I don’t think any issue rises to the level of importance as the expansion of rights for women, because if you have half of the population that is only semi-educated or completely uneducated, and that does not enjoy rights of basic autonomy and self-determination then you don’t really have a progressive society. You don’t have a society that is moving forward, you have a society that’s mired in the past.
There are also a lot of Islamic values that I think would be important for Americans to at least know about, and to think about. I think there’s still a very strong emphasis on respect and closeness of family; that’s a core value, it’s not unique to Muslims necessarily, but its still a crucial value of the Muslim faith. The promotion of the brotherhood of human beings is also important. Islam has, I think, a very good track record as a faith for speaking out against racism, and I think that’s certainly one of the reasons why many African Americans have found a conducive faith tradition within Islam that may have been absent in their Christian upbringing. Also, just in general, I would say focusing on the ethical side of life and having some self-restraint in terms of one’s own conduct and behavior is important.
As of right now, I’d like to continue teaching; I love my job, I love to teach, and it’s always exciting to have new generations, new minds who come to learn about the Middle East, about Islam. I honestly can’t imagine a better profession than the one I’m in now. They’ll have to take me out of here in a wheelchair because I’m going to try to stay as long as I can.