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Becoming Muslim

“The reigning preoccupation with Pakistan is with its military and the failure of democracy in the country,” explains Naveeda Khan, assistant professor of anthropology. “I wanted to write a book that had the ambition to legitimize Pakistan as a center of intellectual thought and creative expression.” That ambition has been realized in her new volume, Muslim Becoming, Aspiration and Skepticism in Pakistan, about religious aspiration and violence in Pakistan. Khan, who is from Bangladesh, returned to her region of birth to gather information for the book.

Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in the neighborhoods and mosques of Lahore and on readings of Urdu literature, legal history, and theological polemics, Muslim Becoming examines the influence of Muhammad Iqbal—the poet, politician, and spiritual founder of Pakistan—and his view of Islam as an open religion. Iqbal believed the goal of Islam should be for believers to collectively strive for an ideal society, even though it might not be attained. It’s the act of striving, Iqbal believed, that gives vitality to a community and that Khan believes lies within everyday life in Pakistan.

Naveeda Khan

“I wanted to write a book that had the passion to legitimize Pakistan as a center of intellectual thought and creative expression.”

—Naveeda Khan  

The book reveals the ways in which everyday life becomes fertile ground for profound insight on some of the major philosophical questions of our times: How do we live together? How do we give our consent to those who govern us? How do we acknowledge the claims of others upon us? And religion is the orienting philosophy of everyday life for many.

“When I chose to study Pakistan, it was partly because it was relatively understudied. I could actually say bold, original things,” says Khan, who joined the School of Arts and Sciences faculty in 2006. “Over the course of working on the book, Pakistan became hugely important to the world.”

Khan says she wanted her book to be useful for Pakistanis in understanding their history. Since it became a nation in 1947, Pakistan has matured to the point where serious reflection on some of the difficult chapters in the country’s history can be examined. Muslim Becoming dwells on some of these troubling episodes, such as when an entire group of Muslims—the Ahmadiyya—was labeled heretics by the state. “I tried to understand what the thinking was behind it, and how that tells us something about how the Pakistanis relate to Islam,” she says.

It’s ironic that Khan should write a book that attempts to portray Pakistan in a sympathetic light. She was born in 1969 in East Pakistan, which two years later became Bangladesh after a brutal war with Pakistan. Her own father was interned by the Pakistani army during the war. “Most people in Bangladesh still view Pakistan with great suspicion,” she says. “I wrote the book in part as an intellectual exercise, to show how it is possible to revisit Bangladesh’s historical past, to show how the idea of Pakistan did not belong to Pakistanis alone but was as much a part of Bangladesh’s Muslim makeup.”

The new book is a natural extension of Khan’s long-standing interests in the political formations, spiritual diversity, and material landscapes of the country. She began her career as a graduate student at Columbia University, with a dissertation on sectarian violence as it related to mosque construction in Lahore. Muslim Becoming explores the nature of religious observance in Pakistan and casts a positive light on the nation’s struggles with plurality.

Her next book will be about the subculture of itinerant Muslim farmers living on the silt islands in the Jamuna River, which bisects Bangladesh. In the Braid: Riparian Life and Climate Change in Bangladesh analyzes patterns of life that shift with the river itself. As the filaments of the Jamuna change, entire villages are flooded out, rendering settled farmers into itinerant ones. They return if and when the islands re-form.

“There is a form of life that has developed to which people become attached,” Khan says. It’s this devotion to place, despite the extremely challenging lifestyle it requires, that fascinates her. “It’s an incredibly risky life,” she says.