A virtue of disobedience
Review of A Virtue Of Disobedience by Asim Qureshi
We are the disobedient
and we have come not to claim what is yours
but what is and was always ours:
But no – not claim
for it was always with us
and our announcement of that
is the blasphemy you burn us for.
– Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, ‘A Virtue of Disobedience’
I start, like the author Dr Asim Qureshi himself, by quoting Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s eloquent words of poetry. If I had read nothing beyond these verses, I would have been satisfied that the book I was holding in my hands was a work of beauty: words so poignant and powerful that they move the heart and function as an urgent call to action.
The poem, which was commissioned especially for the volume, foregrounds the unapologetic and confrontational tone of the book. The themes of disobedience, of rewriting narratives and, essentially, of change, are conveyed in a voice that is sharp, eloquent and thought-provoking. As a writer, Qureshi is very clear about his opinions. His unapologetic, declarative tone is present throughout the book: ‘I will not wait. I will take my status as an equal for I know it is mine to take, without the need for an interlocutor to save me.’
The most significant aspect I admired about A Virtue of Disobedience was its invitation to participate with the text. Qureshi opens the book encouraging the reader to engage actively with the ideas posited inside: ‘[T]his is a conversation. I hope that if people honour me with time to read this book, they will think to meet with me and write to me in order to engage with the ideas I am presenting.’ This reflects the values I consider to reflect true scholarship: teaching others, calling them to action, and encouraging them to join the conversation by thinking about, and contributing to, the ideas they have read.
It was in fact my honour to read the book; these are some humble reflections on what I found most poignant.
The first chapter, ‘Illuminating the Heavens’ culminates with a beautiful metaphor based on light: ‘[T]he idea that you can be surrounded by complete darkness and all alone, but that inside us flickers a flame that, when given the oxygen of truth, is capable of illuminating the heavens.’
The theme of empowerment is established from the outset. In fact, the very act of writing, with it’s call to reflect, to explore, to share, to encourage, and to leave a legacy illuminates on both a micro and macro level. On an individual level, it kindles the flicker of hope, and the intention to act and to change. It is empathetic, yet encouraging. On a macro level, it creates hope and motivation through enabling a vision of collective achievement.
This theme of light features throughout the book. In a chapter discussing the act of witnessing, Qureshi cites the hadith which states that we should counter injustice through our actions; and if this is not possible, then through our words; and if this is not possible, then at least we should counter it through our thoughts. This, he reminds us, is about not ‘letting the flame go out’. It is this gentle yet firm motivation that makes the book so powerful.
One of the sections that I personally found memorable tackled the connection of time to trauma. The concept of time is deconstructed; Qureshi suggests that being conscious of time makes the world a prison. Once you become conscious of time – its ethereality and thus its value – you become captive to its limitedness and, ultimately, conscious of its power over you. The analogy brought to mind the hadith ‘This world is a prison for the believer and paradise for the disbeliever’. This always gives me perspective on our position in the dunya (temporal world), serving as a reminder of our ultimate aim.
This exploration of time was made yet more harrowing by Qureshi by giving the example of innocent prisoners, such as Shaker Aamer, who lost many years of their lives through being wrongly detained. Around the same time as reading A Virtue of Disobedience, I read (purely through coincidence) Abdul Salam Zaeef’s My Life with the Taliban and Albert Woodfox’s Solitary. Both of these works recount the lives of people who were unjustly incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, and exemplify the notion of the time lost to them whilst imprisoned. The strength of character of these individuals, and the integrity and wisdom that shines through in spite of the tribulations they endured, are amazing to perceive. It illustrates how the passage of time did not break them, but made them.
The book is full of such reminders that really hit home, and that stay with you long after finishing reading. Probably my favourite section, and the one that I thought was most compellingly and convincingly argued, was Qureshi’s demonstration of how the past informs, and remains relevant to the present. The most prominent of the many examples he gives describes how, in the Qur’an, Allah mentions stories from the past in order to inform and educate the present. Qureshi has an admirable knack for synthesising a broad range of examples to illustrate a particular point, and this discussion of the past and its significance for the present was particularly well done.
The only minor footnote that I would add at this point – and this was perhaps my only qualm about the book in general – was that the amount of information in the book can be somewhat overwhelming. The author quotes and discusses a wide breadth of material, and often I would read a long quote and become lost in thinking about it, thus losing track of where the chapter was going. I tried to counter this by reading only one chapter a day (this is difficult when you’re prone to racing through books!) and trying to take in that chapter’s key message and lessons before moving on to the next one.
The eponymous phrase ‘virtue of disobedience’ is exemplified via different examples throughout the book, but is specifically located in three ‘sites of resistance’: language, knowledge and community. In terms of language, readers are encouraged to challenge the influence of language, rather than permitting it to dictate one’s identity. Qureshi advises that language should be used to ‘assert our beliefs, dreams and existence.’ The second site, knowledge, is situated as a source of emancipation. Knowledge is also the believer’s religious duty. The final site – community – is situated as the ultimate site of resistance – and it is this sense of community that is described as key to the recovery of trauma sufferers. Collectively, these sites of resistance are where the narratives will be changed, where change itself will be sought. I, for one, can say I finished reading the book fully convinced of the virtuousness of disobedience (when and where it is necessary).
Towards the end of the book, the author writes encouragingly: ‘I meet too many good people to give up on the notion that change is a dream that we will always wake up from.’
This book is essentially about positive change. Qureshi has written a book that encourages change, written with eloquence and wisdom, and drawn from various experiences, lessons and literature. It is about changing narratives, changing perceptions and changing intentions. It is a call to every individual to change themselves, as part of a wider movement towards justice.
Shortly after purchasing this book and boarding my train, the person sitting next to me mentioned she had recently read the book, and told me about her positive impressions of it. We were talking about our reading habits and our recent reads, when she said something that piqued my interest: ‘We seem to consume books’. This gave me some pause for thought. What does it mean to consume books? Do we wolf them down, without chewing over the thoughts and sentiments expressed? Do we drool over covers and design? Can we recall anything substantial beyond the last, say, five to ten books we have read? And yet our reading shapes us – physically and mentally.
Reflecting on my own reading habits – habits that I am actively seeking to change to make reading more meaningful – made me admit that yes, I had previously ‘consumed’ books in some aspect. The number of books I have raced through is countless – and of a good number of these I am unable to recall anything other than a vague idea of its main takeaways; any good book, fiction or nonfiction, has something valuable you can take away from it. So as I started reading this book, I decided to consciously move away from reading as a ‘consumer’; rather, I tried to focus on recording the key themes of the book, reflecting on them, and pondering and putting into action the lessons that I learnt.
My musings in this article are a preamble to fully processing the many thought-provoking ideas in the book – indeed there are so many thought-provoking sentences that warrant rereading for further self-reflection and action. I encourage everyone to read this book, engage with it, and aim to improve their reading habits in general for the better.
Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I am changing myself. [Rumi]