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It Hurts to Be Muslim, Too

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Watch The Linguists, a documentary about two really smart men who travel across the world to record dying languages because they cannot save them. They feel, express and implore, we should have: We should have tried to preserve the many different ways in which people perceive the world, the means to translate disordered affairs into stories, philosophies and motivations. As the world becomes more and more alike, that is an impulse I wish more of us had, a regret we may in decades come to be pained by. But how can such great differences be preserved, let alone considered? Who will pay for their maintenance? Who will house them, protect them and, dare I suggest, advance them?

This all comes to mind because I'm reading Melanie Thernstrom's The Pain Chronicles. Thernstrom is a fantastic writer. Her descriptions of suffering, of agony and of torment are beautiful, horrible, surprising and captivating. It began with a day of unusually vigorous swimming, provoking a fierce and persistent pain. From there she explores her attitude to pain, her fear and distrust and confusion about it. She records how across history humans have sought to understand, accept and deal with pain. She talks about how modern medicine upended religion and ritual and set us on a new path toward pain not as mystery but as conquerable enemy.

Except her own pain, which would not be subdued. Acute pain, we're learning, is not the same as chronic pain. For me, it cuts a little too close to home. I've often faced a range of illnesses, a stream of assaults, finding new flaws in my prematurely aged body (I remember feeling old in high school and not thinking that particularly troubling) with calendrical regularity. So I can sympathize with the impulse to ask "why?" In the past (or, at least, not in her non-religious present), we might have asked: Is God punishing us? Elevating us? Purifying us?

Hating on me? I'll confess I've asked the same. When one is (comparatively) energetic, but then feels a decline, it takes longer to get back to normal. It is flummoxing. It is, after all, a message of mortality, and I imagine very few people either contemplate it extensively or have the courage to. But, as the great narratives that elevated the cosmos over the individual have given way, there is an aspect to pain that is especially terrifying. That is for me and for Thernstrom, when the body breaks down just because it does, and no doctors or specialists can tell you (or her or me) why it is that one system isn't working like it should. Like it did.

Thernstrom explores the different ways in which the world's peoples perceived pain, and how pain was often at the core of piety. Often, pain was redemptive, transcendent -- it marked an opportunity for improvement or potential for salvation. So it is too bad that she barely talks about Islam. Doesn't Islam, its texts and histories, have something unique to add? At one point, she quotes from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), but in the footnotes we find the reference is from Donald Meichenbaum's Cognitive-Behavior Modification. Somehow, I imagine, she could have done better. Muslims feature twice in the index, the last Prophet of Islam just that once and Islam not at all.

Thernstrom presumes the empirical attitude was born with Western science, and emerged against religion -- prior to the 1700s, there was almost no attempt to systemically understand the world outside us -- in part because she's only looking in one place. Can we, in this day and age, set out to write a story about the science and spirituality of suffering and not include a serious perspective on the lived culture of a huge number of the world's inhabitants? Are we still writing as if our narrative is the narrative of Judeo-Christian tradition? (Mostly the latter). But is it her fault? Where would she turn? Should she know to do so? I see the fault, but do not know where it begins.

Her very rich, and all the same very enjoyable title, lacks a perspective that could have tempered or challenged many of her conclusions. Muslim scientists pursued advances in math, chemistry, neurology, immunology, optics, opthalmology, physics, architecture, agriculture and myriad other fields. Their mentality cannot be assumed to mimic Western empiricism, but nevertheless one could fairly make the case that Islam's burst of creative inspiration helped feed Europe's revival. Of course, Islam was not, in and of itself, only on Earth to prepare the ground for another civilization. But cultures, like bodies, are interconnected systems. Too often we have refused to learn that when one part of the world is in pain, others are forced to share the misery. (The leg bone is connected to the hip bone...)

And this is why we must do more to preserve the contributions and perspectives of other religions and philosophies. By "we," I mean those of us in the humanities, if the humanities haven't been fatally undone by coldly economic utility. But I also speak to Muslims (these days, I suppose, I also have no choice but to speak for Muslims). We must make sure our heritage does not go missing from the wonderful histories of ideas, concepts and emotions of which The Pain Chronicles is one very excellent example. Because, at the heart of it, Melanie Thernstrom is asking a question about suffering -- an existential concern that is, not surprisingly, individualized. She and I are products of a time when individuality is far different even from what it was when our country was born.

We process pain through the lens of our self-perception.

How did empiricism exist without romanticism? Science without modernity? But they did, and perhaps we can mend some rifts by understanding how. The question of suffering appears in cultures and across places in different forms, shaped by the environments of the times. For the survivors of the Holocaust, those who perished in the camps and suffered pogroms in the centuries before, the question of God's abandonment of His people must have come up. Suffering is often collective. The question of black suffering is of course a deep one (for a Muslim perspective, Professor Sherman Jackson must be read).

And for Muslims more broadly, the question might be: What has gone wrong with the Muslim world, with Muslim communities and societies? Why have they, of late, been faced with so many trials and hardships, and achieved so many ostensible failures? Can Muslims even suffer individually, when the temptation is to assume our rigid, practically necrotic homogeneity? Partially, this is an absence of accurate information, a reliance on sources unfamiliar with Islam, sources thus unable to resist the simpler, uglier or more depressing narratives. Sources that may guess we have nothing to offer the world and so make us, like pain, invisible.

But there's also a rebuking reality about this question: What God is doing to us? With us? For us? Because there are many different kinds of pain: the pain that wears away at our bodies, or the pain that wears away at our selves, grinds us down and makes us wonder if we are somehow less than whole, flawed, doomed and cursed, left behind and watching the world move on and ahead. The pain of many little cuts, blows to the ego, to pride and to self-respect, a constant barrage of miniscule or muddled slights. These are the worries that continue to plague and sap too many Muslims, and many other minorities, and while it may not be easy to offer answers, we should preserve what thoughts the faith once produced and still offers. Or Muslims shall remain as they are: out of the conversation, past consideration and in agony to be so excluded.

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