IN an age of violence motivated by belief, the topic of religious education makes many bristle. So when I met Sajid Hussain, a 31-year-old Shia scholar living a nameless life in a Sindhi village, I was sceptical and immediately uncomfortable. It so happened that I heard him address a gathering and I was immediately struck by how unusual his discourse was. After all, it’s not commonplace to hear a cleric speak with clear conviction, evidence and historical knowledge, about the vital importance of sectarian unity.
I decided to find out more and over the course of several months here’s what I discovered. Sajid was born to a Syed family and had a religious upbringing since his late father was also a cleric. After being educated up to the secondary level in his village, Sajid was sent to three madressahs where he spent a total of eight years between Balochistan and Punjab.
When he returned home, he volunteered to give children religious education at his neighbourhood mosque. Soon he began delivering majalis initially in his local area and then further out in the cities of Larkana, Sukkur, Shikarpur, Gambat and Karachi. His extended family of 14 adults and eight children live in a two-room home constructed decades ago on donated land.
Given the access, poor but educated persons can wield much influence.
Since the only source of family income was free wheat or rice that people routinely give to Syeds as a mark of respect to descendants of the family of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), Sajid grew up in abject poverty. He and his brothers recall night after night when there would be nothing to eat but their father would regale them with stories of the past — religious and otherwise — to keep them distracted, entertained and educated.
When Sajid began reciting majalis in big cities he noticed how his hosts would be unimpressed because of his inexpensive and worn-out clothing, his simple slippers and his unglamorous arrival by foot. He persisted, reciting without charge and making observations about the audience and the illustrious clerics who addressed the gatherings.
Seeing how his counterparts routinely rehashed old lectures, he decided to devote himself to research.
For this, he needed books. Despite the pressing needs at home, he often requested he be compensated in the form of books rather than cash when he recited a majlis. He was often dismayed when donors insisted he shouldn’t be reading books written by scholars from other sects and pressed in return that a well-informed researcher must be familiar with a range of texts.
Over time, he read over 600 religious texts and in the absence of an opportunity for a more formal education, this self-study proved invaluable. He researched topics from a variety of books, made copious notes and delivered authentic lectures which always carried within them the themes of sectarian harmony and non-violence.
As I talked to Sajid, the stereotype in my mind was quickly shattered. Unlike what I expected from a religious scholar, he was incredibly witty and impeccably polite. I often came upon him reading while sitting on a wooden plank in his noisy family verandah surrounded by piles of books he had no cupboard to store in. I heard him speak in public several times; his speech always deeply charismatic and his content always original and well thought out.
I brought people to meet him and I was surprised to find him open to being challenged on religious issues; he listened patiently and graciously to angry challengers and then politely and eloquently presented his viewpoint, backed with appropriate historical references. It was fascinating to watch educated and opinionated people walk away in near fury because they couldn’t bear to be outdone in argument by a village lad sitting on a charpai in a muddy courtyard sipping tea from a chipped teacup.
This got me thinking. If a scholar like Sajid was equipped with even sparse resources and some access, his influence on society and especially on our youngsters would be just what our society needs.
This isn’t difficult to do. He has a wish list of several dozen books which he can’t afford to buy. He needs a room in which he can concentrate on research and meet madressah students without the disturbances of a large family. A website could promote his moderate, progressive and peaceful viewpoint giving access to thousands. And instead of bringing the same old faces on television, channels could offer him a spot on their talk shows, religious discussions and interviews, giving him the exposure and opportunity he has so far been denied because of a lack of wealthy social connections.
Harnessing the immense hidden talent of an impoverished scholar will prove of immense value for the greater good. As Sajid often says: “There is no weapon greater than knowledge to fight sectarianism and terrorism. We must arm our people with this knowledge to stop this senseless bloodshed.”
The writer is a journalist and founder of Ali Hasan Mangi Memorial Trust.
Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2015