Islamic scholar Muhammad Baqir visited the College of William and Mary Wednesday, Sept. 18 to speak in a panel sponsored by the College’s COLL 300 initiative. In his talk, Baqir touched upon a variety of social, religious and spiritual topics and described how they fit into broader conversations on intercultural expression, as well as within this semester’s COLL 300 theme of human migration and movement.
Assistant Professor Christine Nemacheck introduced Baqir and welcomed him to the College by providing a brief overview of the COLL 300 program. According to Nemacheck, the COLL 300’s cross-discipline breadth is designed to maximize student exposure to complex global topics, while also pushing students to get outside of their comfort zone in pursuing intellectual experiences on campus.
“… COLL 300 is designed to take you out of your everyday life on campus, perhaps make you a little uncomfortable in terms of things that are new to you, and to bring the world to William and Mary,” Nemacheck said.
Baqir began his talk by walking students through his life chronologically, starting from when he was in his mother’s womb. He stressed that the strangeness of life is apparent from the moment of birth, when it becomes impossible to avoid defining yourself based on your relationship to others. He said it becomes necessary to take some leaps of faith in order to adjust to a new environment.
“From my mother’s womb, I was born … I came to the world in Singapore, in 1965,” Baqir said. “They told me it was 1965, no infant ever knows when they were born. Someone else will tell you when you were born, this is your father, and this is your mother … and you will never know if they are really your parents or not.”
In Singapore, Baqir went on to pursue basic schooling and undergraduate coursework in naval engineering before leaving the country as a young adult. With Southeast Asia behind him, Baqir moved to Iran, where he began studying Sufism and Islamic philosophy. These educational experiences ultimately led him to move back to Singapore after eight years in Iran, only for him to relocate yet again to Indonesia shortly afterwards, where he began teaching at an Islamic college in Jakarta.
In addition to his professional teaching, Baqir began working at Jakarta’s central prison last year, where he counsels and teaches inmates. The experience highlighted Indonesia’s severe economic stratification, and reminded Baqir of the difficulties with the human experience.
“It’s divided into two kinds of prisoners, of inmates — the poor ones and the rich ones,” Baqir said. “The poor ones have to live in a very small space … there is no space even to sit, they have to stand.”
While Baqir found working with prisoners gratifying and validating, he alluded to several less cherished life experiences that have caused him to reevaluate his relationship with God and that forced him to reconcile his deeply held religious beliefs with life’s unfair realities. When he first returned to Singapore after spending eight years in Iran, Baqir taught students to obey God and to realize God in all aspects of their daily life. Baqir then faced an existential crisis in his personal relationship with God when his personal life began deteriorating.
“My life didn’t go so well … everything was a mess, this is what I thought, is that God has not been taking care of me,” Baqir said. “I really hated God at that time, because I’m doing His job at the same time, I’m doing His job for Him, I’m teaching people to recognize Him, and to know Him, and to obey Him and everything, but He’s not providing for me.”
Feelings of dread and helplessness in Baqir’s relationship with God led to him abandoning religious scripture in his professional teachings. He began preaching from the heart instead of from official, canonized texts. But preaching from the heart was not received well, which forced yet another reconciliation with his career and with his religious devotion.
“I tried to give that speech from my heart, and after the speech, friends came to me and said ‘there’s something wrong with your speech, usually it’s so good … what happened to the speech? It’s not quality at all,’” Baqir said. “… and then I realized, I have nothing in my heart.”
Now, when delivering holy lessons, Baqir looks to something different in guiding what he says: the expressions and experiences of the people present around him.
“Now, if I have to give a talk, even a seminar or something, I don’t bring anything, I just bring a small piece of paper, an empty piece of paper, and when I give a speech I look at faces … the faces will tell me what to say,” Baqir said.
Baqir concluded his talk by illustrating how migration and movement have been purposeful themes to him both personally and professionally, and he elaborated upon the nature of ‘spiritual migration’, which is the belief that human souls inevitably flow back to God once their time on Earth is complete.
Students who attended the lecture appreciated Baqir’s willingness to address challenging topics head-on.
“The speaker emphasized self-awareness and consciousness of one’s path in a way that I had never thought about before,” Nitya Labh ‘22 said.