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Founders & Futures

After it became our permanent home, I decided to learn everything I could about my new country. I turned 7 years old a few weeks after my family moved to the United States, and emboldened by their risk-taking attitude I put aside my homesickness and let my curious nature take over. My mother, an educator in her native Pakistan who didn’t speak English but navigated the maze that is the New York City subway anyway, would look for scholastic shops, buying me picture books, coloring books, rife with doe-eyed cartoons of Presidents past and my favorite, the glorious Statue of Liberty. When I met Lady Liberty herself, I toppled over. It was my first visit to Ellis Island and my uncle told me, “She’s been welcoming people here for a long time.”  It may have been because I looked straight up from the base of the pedestal and subsequently fell right down, but I like to think I lost my balance partly because I was starting to form the weighty narrative for these United States.

I was enrolled in a public school where the kindest librarians and teachers took me under their wing.  While many lessons and instances reinforced my nascent understanding of the United States, I particularly remember my third-grade teacher remarking on my close friendship with an Indian girl, Dee. “If you had stayed in South Asia, in your own countries, you would most likely would have learned to hate each other.” Her words puzzled me, but I didn’t yet know about the senseless animosity of the two South Asian rivals. I was in junior high school when my mother gifted me a Pakistani history book. Titled “The Short History of Pakistan,” it was five inches of crumbly sepia-toned pages bound in a gray hardcover and full of the misspellings of the Queen’s English that I had learned to reject. I didn’t get through the first chapter. History became a lifelong love, but it seemed age-appropriate South Asian history wasn’t easily found. American history remains a passion of mine to this day, and I have grappled with both the accomplishments and agony of the American experience. It is my experience that Americans are continuously contending with their history, using their perspective as a tool in outlining their future.

The final song of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dazzling musical Hamilton begins with General George Washington counseling the audience “Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory: you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Christopher Jackson, a talented black theater actor, told the General’s story with poise when the show premiered on Broadway, but it was challenging for him to reconcile playing the Founding Father with the man who played a powerful role in perpetuating slavery. How could it not be? Here was a man who won a war in the name of freedom and liberty yet maintained a stony silence on the issue of slavery. On the face of it, his silence is a miserable fact to accept, especially since we know there were prominent voices calling for abolition, including his right-hand man, Alexander Hamilton. But there are other facts, too, that need consideration, and without whose consideration, we cannot have a full or even substantive judgment of the Father of the Nation.

This is when Walter Fisher’s communication theory, narrative paradigm, comes to work. The paradigm champions storytelling – that oldest of man’s communicative styles – as the most persuasive and meaningful form of communication. To be successful, Fisher argues, a narrative requires both coherence and fidelity. Coherence in turn necessitates the resemblance between stories and the credibility of the characters while fidelity asks whether the events described are factual, reviews the reasoning patterns followed by the characters, and how the argument in the story affects the decision-making of the listener.

We know, thanks to the work of countless historians, archivists, researchers and educators that Washington’s sentiment on the issue of slavery evolved over the course of his life. We know he was born into a world dependent on slavery; his own father was a slave-owner as were many people he would count amongst his closest friends and advisors. We also know that by the time of the Revolutionary War, he was troubled by the degrading consequences of the slave trade and vowed never to sell a slave as cattle in a market. There is remarkable coherency to his change of heart; a multitude of biographies with primary sources document his wish that someday Congress would enact a plan to phase out slavery. If we review the fidelity in this case, we can understand his reasoning to remain silent: in the late 1770s, Vermont and Massachusetts outlawed slavery while other states debated gradual emancipation but several Southern states, in particular South Carolina and his home state of Virginia, balked at the idea of following suit. He observed the deep political divisions and recognized the best solution was to maintain silence and encourage compromises.

Though he privately may have supported universal freedom, he would always meet the issue with silence in his official and public capacity. His silence, we can infer was what he thought was his best chance to grant the nation a future. He could never extricate himself from this conundrum during his life, and still cannot in legacy. But for Christopher Jackson and millions of others, these insights offer assistance in reconciling the man with his mission. In fact, Washington’s home, Mt. Vernon, has opened an interactive exhibit titled “Be Washington: It’s Your Turn to Lead,” where participants hear from Washington’s advisors, including Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Henry Knox before deciding the course of action for actual events Washington faced. None other than Christopher Jackson narrates the exhibit. There is not an easy reckoning to be had here – there cannot be – but there is an impassioned debate revolving around narrative that remains relevant to this day. That debate is only possible because of how we treat our most revered figures, no one is above reproach in American history.

It is inevitable I should compare the American experience with my Pakistani one. My family along with hundreds of others, would celebrate Pakistan’s Independence Day on August 14th with concerts and bazaars set up in New York City. That is when I first saw the likeness of Quaid-e-Azam (“Great Leader”) Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In his official portraits, he always wore a somber expression, intense dark eyes under his fur karakul hat (now popularly known as the Jinnah cap). This tall, thin man was a brilliant legal mind and quickly rose through the ranks to become the most successful Muslim barrister of India. His political ambition was undeniable; he threw himself into reorganizing and reinvigorating his Muslim League political party after a poor showing in elections. He debated Mahatma Gandhi and his Indian counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru, opposing almost everything about their plans for a post-British country. Jinnah presided over the Lahore Resolution of 1940, calling for a new state to be carved into Asian geography. For this reason, Jinnah became the champion for millions of Muslims.

No one could have anticipated the brutality and unspeakable violence that would befall South Asia during Partition. It is estimated one million people were killed before the mass migration of Muslims and Hindus was complete. I have read accounts of railway stations awash with blood, box cars full of dead Hindus leaving modern-day Pakistan, and lifeless bodies of Muslims murdered while fleeing modern-day India. It is one of the painful periods of human history. I have often wondered what Jinnah thought or felt when he saw this level of viciousness and fanaticism. Did he ever regret calling for a separate land for Muslims? Was his goal to found an Islamic state of sorts? Surely he recognized not all Muslims could leave India, and some Hindus were destined to remain in Pakistan. What exactly was his vision for this country he brought about?  These questions are taboo in Pakistan, because they go against the state-fueled – and only acceptable – narrative.

The theory in stark opposition to Narrative Paradigm is Rational World Paradigm. I can distill the differences of both with this: narrative paradigm argues we experience a world full of stories, and we must choose among them based on coherency and fidelity, while rational world paradigm understands the world through an almost linear series of logical relationships uncovered through reasoning.  There is perhaps no other plot as compelling to a nation than the tale of its genesis, and the state is usually deeply invested in the legacy. In the case of Pakistan, the state has maintained total control of the linear arguments behind the existence of Pakistan, and along with it, co-opted Jinnah’s legacy.

History in Pakistan is taught via rote memorization, standardized in textbooks to promote a fictional past. Academics and historians, inside and outside the country, have criticized the national curriculum for its historical revisionism. For example, it is difficult to find information on the Indus Valley civilization. In its place, a fantastical myth exists to tie Pakistan to an Islamic past, severing all ties to a wondrous multi-ethnic and multi-religious antiquity dating back thousands of years. Subsequently, there is generally no detail given to the spread of Islam in the subcontinent or the conversions, many under duress, of the existing mainly Hindu population. School books in private institutions, public school systems and the religious madrassahs carry overt anti-Hindu sentiments, fueling Indophobia and casting doubt on the loyalty of the country’s Hindu and other minority faith citizens. Adding to this is a 1976 government proclamation that all textbooks should, among other things: 1- acknowledge a global network of enemies working against Pakistan, driven by India and 2 – emphasize Islamic virtues of obedience and submission (which works superbly with rote memorization). It was the religious zealot plus military dictator, General Zia ul-Haq, a maniac with designs to formulate an Islamic fascist state, who decreed the 1976 history book proclamation, but all successive governments have kept it alive.

What would Jinnah say? Rigid education teachings – in a country where reading for pleasure is not common – is the only access point for education, and that includes information on the Father of the Nation. It is almost taboo to discuss the personal life of Jinnah, because frankly, the details can torpedo the harsh narrative of the Islamic Republic.  Muhammad Ali Jinnah was born into the Ismaili sect of Islam, and he converted to Shia Islam as an adult. The fashionable and brilliant lawyer socialized in the highest circles, and had friends across the religious spectrum. He married the Ruttie Petit, the daughter of a successful Parsi businessman and close friend, creating a societal scandal because of the differences in age (he was 41, she was 18), and religion. In a case of the apple falling right by the tree, his only child Dina was raised Muslim and would go on to marry Neville Wadia, a son of Parsi man and Christian woman. They wed in a church. These are two of the most important people in Jinnah’s life yet the state-run narrative has purged their details from the history books. No one tells their story.

Both personally and politically, there is ample reason to doubt Jinnah would have supported the ideology the state has ascribed to him – and certainly not the discriminatory and violent attitudes against minorities.  In his first Presidential address, he made it clear to the people of Pakistan that “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Jinnah had a vision for what his Pakistan would be, but the tragedy is he was not able to serve as its leader for long. He delivered this speech on August 11th, 1947; he died September 11th, 1948.  Unlike George Washington, Jinnah did not have the opportunity to make formative policy decisions afforded to him. He did not leave behind essays, speeches and state manifestos to set as precedent. It is then remarkably easy for an ideology and mission to be attributed to him. Unlike the culture in the United States, Pakistani society does not participate – and most likely would not entertain – a critical perspective of the Founding Father and other notable members of history.

If in the United States, the Founders are akin to Greek gods – awe-inspiring but flawed, full of the jealousies and idiosyncrasies of us mortals, then in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, they are idolized as prophets it is considered blasphemous to question. If in the United States the Founders are not above reproach, then in Pakistan, the founding leaders’ lives are above scholarship. How a nation studies its origins plays a significant role in determining how its people seek solutions for contemporaneous crises.  It is advantageous to study the founders and accept them for all their wisdom and limitations – political or moral. They are just like us, and so it stands to reason, we are just like them, capable of shaping our communities. Our role as the public is activated. However, when are taught the founders are sanctified and the truth obscured, our role diminishes to a submissive, unquestioning one. When history is taught as a linear sequence of events, independent thinking is stifled.

Pakistan has grappled with terrorism within its borders for decades; its government has long since held the country is on the front line of terror. And yet, the state’s history encourages a mythological past and narrative of exclusion that allow many people to easily negate criticism of the country. Both of Pakistan’s Nobel Prize winners, the physicist Dr. Abdus Salam and the brave Malala Yousafzai, are loathed in the country – he for being a member of a different Islamic sect than the majority of his fellow countrymen, and she for having supposedly manufactured her own near-death experience. There is no sense to these conspiracy theories, unless you believe in the linear logic dictated by the government and reinforced in all areas of social life. The leaders and activists who can see through the smoke screen are few and far between, and often at great personal risk. In the minds of many Americans today, the leadership of their country is far removed from the aspirational ideals they hold dear. The press is routinely degraded, the ugly forces of racism and xenophobia have reared their heads, longstanding allies shunned and rivals embraced, and in such an environment, conspiracies run rampant. But there is no submission or obedience here from the general public, rather there is a cacophonous echo of citizens decrying the current state or specific actions thereof at seemingly every turn.

The stories we tell of our founding fathers are the same stories we are continuing. Americans have fought (and continue to loudly fight!) to elasticize that hallowed phrase “We the People” to include a group of people far more diverse than the Founders could have imagined. Pakistanis have accepted the heavily redacted narrative of their history, reacting to inquiry or contrarian facts as though to a personal slight.

It’s all in who gets to tell the story.


Guest Author
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Sunny Ali is a fashion designer born in Pakistan and raised in New York with a Master's Degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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37 thoughts on “Founders & Futures

  1. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but in Islam, graphic representations of Allah and the Prophet are forbidden; study of the Prophet’s life is carefully curated and his mortal deeds are apotheosized. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jinnah is treated the same way (albeit not to the same degree): this conveniently allows the less desirable facets of his life to be elided while taking what’s left over from his memory and elevating it above reproach.

    , thank you so much for this fascinating, sobering, and deliciously dense compare-and-contrast essay. I shall eagerly hope for more of your writing to grace these pages.

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    • Hi Burt, you are correct, Islamic forbids any physical representation of God and His prophets and I’ve always been curious why there isn’t a backlash against the many depictions of Jesus and Moses, but the fury seems to exclusively respond to cartoon or other depictions of Mohammad. Since the genesis story for Pakistan have been wrested away by the right-wing and establishment to justify a Muslim homeland, applying the same treatment of Jinnah (you say Muslim champion, I say political prophet, to-may-to, to-mah-to) makes sense. It has most definitely been effective!

      And thank you! I hope to write more :)

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  2. This was great. It’s also the case that for a couple of generations, the way history was taught in Southern US public schools had a certain, um, focus. (And even after it lost that focus due to metropolitanization, it still had a ‘well, it’s complicated, you got to understand…)

    I imagine most Americans probably associate the karakul hat with Hamid Karzai, though that’s a presence that also seems to be slipping from the top of the public consciousness. (& if the internet & New York Times is to be believed from a few years ago, has not been adopted as a sartorial choice at all among the younger generation)

    It is also probably a curse that when anyone named Khan (probably like the 5th or 6th most common name in the world) is in the global headlines, as it is today, every American of a certain age can’t help but read that name with a particular inflection.

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    • Yeah, but as much as I am annoyed by said focus, it’s still quite different from a much more rigid and proscriptive way of discussion. The information was openly there and discussions were loudly being had in public fora, even if they weren’t in the mainstream (personally I suspect NPR/PBS *is* pretty mainstream, though, considering how many people outside their stereotype-demographic listen to them/watch them anyway – and heck! they have actual gov’t *funding*).

      No one had to be secretive about their opinions of the founders, at least not in large cities, because they could get in a lot of trouble if they were found out…

      Being Howard Zinn is just not *possible* in Pakistan – at least, not to the best of my understanding based on Pakistani diaspora friends and acquaintances.

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      • To be clear I’m not talking about the history circa American Revolution / Constitutional convention timeframe. The curriculum for that in basic public education has always been more or less consistent througout the US.

        I’m talking about something that happened later.

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        • OH. Yeah, that’s fair although if we’re talking modern day, I still think it’s different…. in the 40s, not so much…)

          Btw, did you change the original comment (as would be your right to do and as I frequently do to mine)? I think I was responding to an earlier, less clarified version…. but maybe I just didn’t read carefully.

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          • I might have added to that first paragraph beyond the first sentence after hitting submit not before, but I’m not sure now. I’m usually good about puting an ETA when I do more than correcting spelling errors and grammatical train wrecks, but I might have missed it in this case.

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    • The thing I’ve noticed about teaching history in the United States is that it is very geographically focused.

      All of my Californian friends (at least the ones educated in public schools) speak warmly about the Mission project that they did around fourth grade or so. Missions being a big deal in Californian history. Being a K-12 New Yorker, we did not do a Mission project. We did learn a lot about Ellis Island, Jacob Riis/How the Other Half Lives, Triangle Shirtwaist, etc.

      When I was in high school in New York, we also had Global Studies I (Latin America, Asia, and Africa) for 9th grade social studies, Global Studies II was Europe from Ancient Greece until sometime after WWII.

      The problem of history that it is too big, too complicated, and too long to teach in high school survey courses but at least they tried a bit when I went to high school.

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      • This is a good point. History does tend to get regionalized. In West Virginia, were I grew up, all eighth graders are required to take West Virginia history, which I think is a good thing, but is obviously unique to the state to teach that material. It was interesting having children in schools overseas how differently things like history is approached.

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      • The problem of history that it is too big, too complicated, and too long to teach in high school survey courses but at least they tried a bit when I went to high school.

        Spot on. And it is a never-ending study, one we should all strive to outline with facts and fill in with stories, and perspectives. As you can see, I study at the Walter Fisher school. :)

        I also went to school, from K-college, in New York City. I still remember many details I learned of New York City’s history, from the Algonquin Native Americans, to the Dutch and onwards, because that was our state’s curriculum, I suppose, and I’m grateful for it.

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    • I absolutely agree that schools in the US differ in how they teach history, but that selective ideological take transcends the subject. I am always shocked (and more than a little horrified) at the inclusion of creationism in school books. I would love to read something deeper on this, please do share any resources you have/may come across.

      As an aside: Do you think most Americans would know what a karakul hat is?

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      • Not by name, but they would recognize one when they see one. But probably not which specific ethnic groups (or economic class) normally wear one.*

        In all honesty, I had to it up when I read this, because I was thinking ‘Isn’t that the same hat Karzai wears’ but wanted to be sure. I also just learned today that the stereotypical ‘Russian’ or brezhnev hat is also called this because it’s made from the same sheep’s wool.

        *most Americans are also probably not going to be able to tell by name what exactly a niqab, hijab, abaya, and burqa are (maybe the last more than others) unless they’re really paying attention. And again, I too just had to look it up to be sure and also get a consistent romanization of the names. (Accent marks are a lost cause for me, unless it’s the tilde on the spanish ñ, because you might have a really bad year without it)

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      • 1). Not surprising at all that different places teach history differently.
        Texas still teaches the Republic, which claimed the Eastern part of New Mexico. At the time, this was Apache lands where whites couldn’t settle. That changed with the U.S. cavalry coming in for the Civil War.
        New Mexico still teaches don Onate and Felipe II.
        I really don’t give a damn about some tea- drinking pilgrims. I don’t expect them to give a damn about me.

        2). You should recognize the same political rhetoric, without regard to what quarter it comes from.
        When I saw up close what “age-appropriate sex education” means in practice, I was cool with it (3rd grader going over the life-cycle of a butterfly).
        “Creationism” is just a keyword with much the same function.
        Do yourself a favor, and get your feet wet. Talk to someone actually going through it rather than the loudest of those yapping about it.
        Very much the same.

        3). Karakul, no.
        Always remember: Americans, as a people, are fairly stupid.
        Objectively, we would have been better off as Dutch, but I doubt the Dutch would take us now.

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  3. Thank you, , for this piece. The comparison seems both apt and likely to lead to more thoughts as I turn it over in my mind in future.

    I hope we get to see more of your writing!

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  4. Kolohe: This was great. It’s also the case that for a couple of generations, the way history was taught in Southern US public schools had a certain, um, focus. (And even after it lost that focus due to metropolitanization, it still had a ‘well, it’s complicated, you got to understand…)

    Narrative paradigm – southern style. Also known as the facts be damned approach.

    EDIT: I do believe the topic at hand here is that pesky thing known as the Lost Cause.

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  5. There is an interesting history of the Founding Fathers theorizing about Muslims coming to the United States.

    The idea is that the founders wrote about Muslims coming to the United States and supporting it as a defense of the few Jews were already living in the United States at that time. I remember these essays from the Bush II admin.

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    • Many of the political elites from the Founders onward understand separation of religion and state in a way that modern liberals do, America is a secular country and everybody has a right to practice their religion. There is a quote from President Tyler that explains in 19th century language why freedom of religion means that Hindus and Muslims get to worship in the United States to. Many ordinary or even elite Americans always saw this as a bit of a wash and interpreted the United States as a Protestant and/or Christian nation despite the language of the First Amendment.

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      • Too busy to look this one up, but I don’t think “secular” is the correct label for the US government. Not saying it’s religious; I just think that secular has a specific meaning and only applies to systems like France

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        • “Secular” takes on different meanings in the United States and Pakistan. In the US, as you rightly say, the French government is seen as secular and if most political pundits are to be believed, far and away left of anything the US would ever adopt.

          In Pakistan, “secular” is a dirty word, it’s up there with accusations of treason or racial epithet. To deny the country it’s religious roots and the government as the enforcer of religiously-rooted laws is anathema in the eyes of the public. I’m sure there are maybe some zealous evangelicals in the US who feels similarly, but Pakistanis generally do not accept/respect the idea of secularism. Its meaning has been horribly misconstrued, and even it were correctly construed (is that a word? i dunno), it doesn’t jibe with the genesis of the country.

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        • From Oxford dictionary:

          Not connected with religious or spiritual matters.

          or from Cambridge:

          not having any connection with religion:

          We live in an increasingly secular society, in which religion has less and less influence on our daily lives.
          secular education
          a secular state

          Contrast with this from Dictionary.com:

          Secularization refers to the declining influence of religion and religious values within a given culture. Secular humanism means, loosely, a belief in human self-sufficiency.

          I think the 1st Amendment defines the U.S. government as officially secular by the first two definitions but the last may be what you’re thinking of re France. It’s like the difference between atheist and agnostic. So the old Soviet Union couldn’t really be considered secular because they held atheism as the official religion.

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  6. This is a very sensible and thoughtful essay on a subject that too often leads to our ancestors being savaged because they lived a long time ago and did what we probably would have done had we lived then. I’m betting you’re the only fashion designer with a Hopkins SAIS Masters. There’s probably a joke to be found there, but I can’t think of it now.

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  7. “Washington is the mightiest name of earth — long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty; still mightiest in moral reformation. On that name, an eulogy is expected. It cannot be. To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor, leave it shining on.” (A. Lincoln, Feb. 22, 1842)

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    • Thought 1: I miss the way people spoke.

      Thought 2: That most definitely comes across as deification, if it was your intention to make that point without a word otherwise from you.

      Thought 3: To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it.

      I disagree with this sentiment: Eliza Hamilton raised funds for the Washington Monument in a concerted effort to honor him and his efforts. We are the better for it, as we are better for all the scholarship that provides us with information. There is a level of sacredness that makes leaders untouchable, and that should concern us all. Same goes for Lincoln, I may add.

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      • Yeah, that was intended to convey an example of deification. It is an early speech and I think the rhetoric is clumsy, but it is one of the mist transparent examples of his advocacy of “political religion.”

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        • Absolutely.

          You know, I had an Islamic teacher who would come to our house after school and would teach us the Qur’an and also sometimes tell stories. I remember when he told me when the Prophet first heard the angel Gabriel, and according to my Qur’an teacher, the Mohammad was immediately like “I’m the Prophet? Perfect, let’s go.” (You’ll excuse the irreverence, I hope!) Years later, young adult me is reading a biography of the Prophet and it actually said there were accounts that when he first heard the angel Gabriel, he at first thought he was going mad and told no one, and then over a period of weeks fell into an overwhelmed panic about his divine duty. I actually find the much more human Mohammad far more sympathetic than the one who accepts his role as the savior of humanity. I mean, that’s a super tall order.

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