Situated at the point of convergence of ancient Iran and Turan (the Turkic world) Herat, a city in western Afghanistan, epitomises the rich ancient culture of Central and West Asia. Herat or Hairava, as mentioned in Avesta (the holy book of Zoroastrianism) is, according to Afghan historians, derived from Aria or Ariana , the ancient kingdom flourishing about 1500 B.C. The area formed a rout for the armies of Cyrus and Darius of Achaemenid Empire. In 330 B.C. Alexander the Great turned it into Alexandria Ariorum after conquering it. Herat acquired fame as an urban centre in 11th century in Islamic Khorasan that would retain its cultural significance for centuries despite the ruptures brought about by devastating invasions. It produced scholars like Khwaja Abdullah Ansari and poets like Amir Ali She’r Nawai who are a source of pride for the city even today. It represents the history of the ancient east that was rich in science, arts and culture. Thus, it was not surprising to see Herat as a venue for the conference on “Islamic Civilisation; Stagnation and Renaissance”.

The conference held on October 2 and 3 was hosted by a non-governmental organisation, the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. Actually it was a part of the Herat Security Dialogue held every year for the last four years by the aforementioned organisation. At first sight it appeared a bit strange to see a nexus between the theme for the current year’s conference in the format of security dialogue. But the thrust of the conference was to underline the significance of the cultural factor in the maintenance of peace and achieving progress in the region. An eight member Pakistani delegation comprising of people from diverse social backgrounds participated in the conference. The Pakistan delegation was led by Mr. Raoof Hassan, the head of an Islamabad based NGO, Regional Peace Initiative, that has facilitated bilateral Track 2 dialogue between the civil society representatives of Pakistan and Afghanistan over the last few years Actually a bilateral dialogue did take place between the two countries after the international conference).

Scholars, experts and intellectuals from fifty countries took part in the two-day conference. In eight sessions spread over two days, dozens of speakers discussed themes like ‘Moral & Political Dimensions’, ‘State and Challenges of Muslim Women’, ‘Islam and the Rest, Confrontation’, ‘Misunderstanding and Dialogue’, ‘Afghanistan’s Transformation Decade ( 2002-2014) Opportunities & Obstacles’, ‘Media, Education & Law ‘, ‘Herat School, Concepts, Practices & Contemporary Relevance’, and last but not the least ‘The Way Forward’.

There was broad support for synthesising tradition with modernity, promoting dialogue between civilisations, strengthening tolerance by getting inspiration from Sufi tradition and encouraging Muslims to excel in modern sciences. Some of the sessions were particularly impressive. In session on ‘The State & Challenges of Muslim Women’ all the four speakers, Ambassador Fauzia Nasreen from Pakistan, Ms. Nahid Farid MP from Afghanistan, Ms. Alessandra Fiorentini a social scientist from Italy and Saliha Bin Ali, a Belgian of Syrian origin enlightened the audience by pointing out various challenges faced by Muslim women in their countries or area of study and the experiences of the struggle of women in facing them. Issues like child marriage, exclusion of women from decision making processes and using religious extremism to reinforce patriarchal traditions were flagged as common. The Italian social scientist shared her study on Central Asian women’s experience of using folklore and spirituality for defending their rights. Saliha Bin Ali, whose son was killed by joining extremist militancy, is helping families in saving their children from the influence of religious extremism. Both the speakers had interesting case studies to share. There was a consensus on the need for women empowerment as a prerequisite for a renaissance in Muslim countries.

Another session that attracted particular interest was about some indigenous concepts, practices of South Asia and their contemporary relevance. Dr Sayed Akbar Shah from Jamia Milia Delhi enumerated commonalities among the mystic traditions of different eastern religions. Speaking in chaste Persian, he pointed out that originally religion was there to save humans. But after the rise of certain distortions a perception is created where humans are supposed to be there for saving religions. Dr. James Caron, Professor SOAS London presented interesting study of sociopolitical movements informed by indigenous social experience and the idea of spirituality. Of particular interest was his analysis of the Bacha Khan led Kudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) Movement that mobilised a large portion of the population on the idea of selfless service. He also threw light on the efforts of Bacha Khan and Haji Sahib of Turangzai for educating the children of poor and common people in the early 20th century as a means for social empowerment. He added examples of social movements like the one led by Abdu Rahim Popalzai for organising sweepers in Pakhtunkhwa and the other led by Moulana Bashani for using indigenous experience and religious arguments to mobilise peasants. He described Sufism as social technology that mobilised the oppressed through spiritual logic against oppressive hierarchies by equating colonialism, feudalism and absolutism with ‘Nafs-e-Amara’. He thought most of such movements faced setbacks at the hands of theory and practice related to statism. The poetry of Jalalabad-u-Din Balkhi (Roumi) was widely quoted, recited and sung with music through out the conference. We know that some of his poetry and thought can be condemned and rejected by the contemporary ideologues of Wahabism and Salfism. But the Maulana’s poetry is still deeply rooted in Central and West Asia apart from also having a universal appeal.

After participating in the conference one could not help feeling the disconnect that Pakistan has developed during the last few decades with the rich cultural tradition of Central and South Asia by over gravitating towards the Middle East. And alas, even from the Middle Eastern traditions the choice of our religious hierarchy has not been the ‘Uloom’ (sciences) but retrogression. Iqbal had rightly pointed out the gravity of the situation in the development of nations when they are afraid to embrace new ways of life and tend to cling to the beaten path.

(These are my impressions of the proceedings of the conference. The official and more authentic report will be published by the organisers).