One of the pleasures of Islamabad is to shop at Saeed Book Bank; and part of that pleasure is to marvel at the idiosyncratic filing approach through which they organize their offers: you find sound scholarly studies next to dusty volumes of oriental British officers, you find the latest epistemological critique of Hadith exegesis next to coffee-table selections of the "true sayings of the Prophet". What I found, among all this, is Sadaf Ahmad's study of Al-Huda and upper-class urban Pakistani women.1Much of what she wrote chimed well with my own project in Lucknow, but these lines in particular stuck (12f):

Rubina, whom I had known most of my life, listened as I told her about my research plans, and then quietly informed me that she had joined Al-Huda the month before. The time I spent in Islamabad was the time Rubina took the one-year diploma course there, which allowed me to get a very close look at the process she went through over time and to see what changes the Islam she learned about and engaged with at Al-Huda brought to her ideology, her behavior, and her relationships. one of the relationships that changes was our own. She was the only "subject" I allowed myself to argue with freely.

[...] It was after a number of conversations - and after being repeatedly told in different ways that "the Muslim way" was the right way and only those individuals following the "right" path will be granted entry into heaven, no matter how good a human being they were otherwise - that I began to realize the futility of arguing. Each of us was upholding and functioning from within a very different ideology and worldview. As Kalyani Menon articulates, describing her own experience with women in the Hindu Nationalist Movement in India, "The disagreements were not just differences of perspective, but rather differences of principle that struck at the very basis of our constructions of morality, of right and wrong, of worldview" (2002, 43). I did not have faith in the doctrine and ideology she had complete faith in, nor did she in mine, and in that difference lay a vast distance between us.

A few pages later, Ahmad specifies more precisely one of the key differences between her and Rubina - namely the extent to which they acknowledged and appreciated difference (15f):

Tehmina, one of the women who did not let me interview her, [...] told me she could tell that I was approaching the whole issue of religiou srevivalism form outside the belief system. As she put it, "You can go and interview a thousand people, and you still will not find the answers you are looking for. [...] You'll only find the answers, you'll only understand the truth, when you open your heart to the Qur'an, as these women have done."

Such an argument is based on two premises. The first one is that all the women who engage with the Qur'an or Islamic discourse have similar experiences. If my study were based on such a belief, I would have taken the assertion of the first woman I interviewed [...] and generalized it to everyone else, in effect stopping my research before it began, depriving myself of a more complete and complex picture that, in the end, the women I spent time with provided. The second premise of Tehmina's assertion, which is intertwined with the first one, is that the purpose of my research is to attain a truth that can be acquired only experientially. But is it not the experiential component itself that prevents the existence of a singular objective truth?

This latter contention - and Tehmina's or Rubina's inability to subscribe to it - chimes well with some of my own experiences, encounters and struggles in Lucknow, where I not only try to find out what it means to be Muslim and to belong as Muslim (being firmly convinced that these things are far from self-evident, and also far from uniform), but also likewise pay particular attention, and indeed intend to celebrate, the diversity of the phenomena I encounter.

By now you will have guessed it: the following comments on the "limits of romanticism" are not about falling in love and splitting up. The hearts are just a teaser to lure you into this post. Rather, with romanticism I refer to a strong undercurrent of my methodological approach: I believe in true understanding though I do not believe in a unitary truth. I believe in deep engagement. I am, in that sense, haplessly romantic about my work (which you could either see as pre- or post-modern, as pre- or post-colonial. Feel free to label me otherwise...). But I increasingly realize the limits of romanticism as an epistemological stance. What follows are some musings about these limits. What can you do if the people you research don't relate to your questions because they subscribe to very different (i.e. unromantic) epistemological ideologies?

As I stated before, Sadaf Ahmad's writings chime with much of what I came to describe as "middle-class spirituality", but more importantly, she also opened my eyes to what I so far framed as a mere "access problem". As some of my regular readers know, I often felt that people in Lucknow did not connect to my research question, that I can not get through with what I want to do, that I can not communicate effectively what I want to know, etc. More: I increasingly got the impression that some of my interlocutors don't know what I ask of them when I ask them to introspect; their mode of self-fashioning and identity formation apparently does not work through self-reflection. Which I find highly disturbing and irritating and non-sensical - and which I still hope is merely my own inaptitude and a sign that I am still scratching on the surface.

But I now realize (after reading Sadaf Ahmad's lines quoted above) one more reason for why I feel so uncomfortable with this - which has to do with an underlying assumption: I want my participants to fully comprehend what my work is about, so that they can make informed choices about their participation therein. I ideally want them to assume my own viewpoint as a scholar, and look from that point upon their lives and biographies and desires and fears etc. This, I believe, is both a very post-colonial and a very romantic notion of field research - and I wholeheartedly subscribed to it.

Until I realized: some of my interlocutors can't engage in this romantic way to my research, and even if they can, they won't. Sadaf Ahmad midway through realized that the women of Al-Huda did not only share very different views on gender issues, the rift was far more fundamental: she and her participants differed in their basic epistemologies. Ahmad thought there can be "views" on gender - the women she worked with didn't. She thought everything, including the self, is open to critical (self-)enquiry, and that such an endeavour would be productive - they shielded some things from critique, and found it detrimental to think beyond a certain line. Detrimental to their faith.

I think something similar might go on in some of my conversations and relations in Lucknow: what I thought would merely be pragmatic issues of translating my specific academic questions into non-academic language really are - at least to an extent and towards some people - issues of the incredibility and incomprehensibility of these academic questions in the first place. And this incomprehensibility stems precisely from the fact that some of my interlocutors rely on an epistemology very different from mine.

One of the consequences of this realization is that I really need to understand these differing epistemologies (strange as they may seem to me, adding to my long and growing list of open questions) and say good bye to the hope that all people are romantics. To many, home, belief, belonging etc are - home, belief, belonging precisely because they are not critically reflected - but rather self-evident. And what is more important: the fact that I might find "things being self-evident" to be only one among several epistemological choices, and a stance one can choose to take or not, can only seem very odd to them (even if I knew, that is, how to translate "epistemological choice" into street Urdu...).

The second consequence flowing from this is that I can probably not hope for the kind of democratization of ethnographic knowledge production that I aspire to, at least not in the form initially envisioned. Apart from the problem that I do not get the data I like to get as easily as I hoped, this failure to democratize knowledge is really part of why my "access problem" bothers me so much. The fact that at least some of my interlocutors can and will never really understand what I am doing pains me, and creates a huge divide between us, which makes it very hard to write, especially on intimate issues such as those I am concerned with in my project. Having ten scholars around me to engage in epistemological discussions or other fancy academic endeavours would not relieve me - I know they would be able to relate to my work, but what I really would want were my interlocutors to relate to it. All of them. Which many don't and some simply can't - because they don't share enough of my underlying epistemological assumptions.

Of course, and gladly, there are other means to connect to the people I work and live with, and very romantic ones to boot. We are baking cakes, distribute Afghani Badam (acquired, in fact, very close to Saeed Book Bank), and simply share the shade under the Banyan at Rifah-e-Aam club. One can connect to others without talking about epistemology - which probably is anyway only an attractive option for academic weirdos like me. Fortunately, there are other, equally romantic, possibilities to engage. They do not relieve all of the pain of being on the exploitative side of global knowledge production (I still would want all of my interlocutors to fully grasp and appreciate what I am trying to achieve here). But still: sharing the shade is probably the best way to while away the limits of romanticism (but feel free to make further suggestions below...).

In the end, I can thus only agree with something else that Sadaf Ahmad wrote (20/17); I hope the very same for my own scholarship as well as for my profession as large (remaining, as I are, haplessly romantic, still in love with the possibility of true engagement and deep understanding in a world of vast, and at times fundamental, differences):

Hearing the intolerance for those individuals who were different and for practices that I consider to be the lifeblood of a culture was painful. Imagining the future of a society in which this intolerance was on the rise was frightening. [...] But a reliance on rigorous self-awareness [...] and a commitment to understanding do make it possible to bring forth women's experiences and points of views. [...] As such, I do my best to share their voices through their stories and comments. But I also make my own voice heard. Sometimes our mutual voices overlap; sometimes they do not. The stories are theirs; the larger analytical framing is mine.

And it probably has to be that way - this is the limit to romanticism.