REFLECTIONS OF A SCHOLAR: I celebrated Idd with the ‘community of the book’

Friday September 8 2017

National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale

National Assembly Majority Leader Aden Duale (left) and other Muslim faithful during prayers to mark Idd-ul-Adha at Sir Ali Muslim Club grounds in Nairobi on September 12, 2016. PHOTO | DENNIS ONSONGO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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I told you about namedroppers, those snobs who delight in boasting about the high and mighty people they know. I seem to be headed towards becoming a notorious namedropper. But the truth is that when you have been around as long as I have, you end up being acquainted with many people, some of them important.

So, let me start by dropping two hefty names. One is Dr Fred Matiang’i and the other Prof Badru Kateregga. The main connection between these gentlemen and me is that they are my friends and academic colleagues. As for Dr Matiang’i, it would be superfluous to introduce him elaborately to any audience today. Suffice it to note that he currently holds two Cabinet dockets, Education and Internal Security.

Prof Kateregga, on the other hand, is today best known as the founding Vice-Chancellor of the Kampala University, which has campuses in many East African cities, including Nairobi. “Sheikh Badru” has been many things in his life, including a stint as Uganda’s Ambassador in Saudi Arabia. He has also been a long-time colleague of mine, at Makerere, at the Kampala University itself (where he was, understandably, my boss) and, prior to that, at our beloved Kenyatta University. At the Kenyatta campus, we shared a hedge across our back gardens, which our little ones interminably criss-crossed as they were growing up.

While at Kenyatta, Kateregga, a brilliant scholar of comparative religion, published a book called Islam and Christianity: a Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue. Co-authored with David Shenk, another colleague of ours, the text lives up commendably to the billing. I will not rush into claiming that it is the best book I have read on the subject, since I have not read much in the area. But I can say with confidence that it is an enlightening text, delivered with a sincere commitment and persuasive clarity by both scholars.

Curiously, it is Dr Matiang’i that set me thinking of Kateregga’s book again as I set out to celebrate Idd-ul-Adha (the feast of selfless sacrifice) last week. Dr Matiang’i, a man of letters and thus in the same line of descent as I, had just issued a directive that when it came to celebrating the Idd, only Muslim adherents were expected to observe it as a holiday. For the rest of the populace, it would be an ordinary working day.

Quite admittedly, these are no ordinary times, and CS Matiang’i and his colleagues must have had sound reasons for their guidance on the Idd celebrations. Still, I could not help a feeling of puzzlement, if not disappointment, that I, and many like me, would not be able to fully enjoy the holiday with our Muslim relatives, neighbours and friends.

Let me start with an honest admission. I love holidays, even at the risk of being called “lazybones”. The truth of the matter is that holidays, properly approached, are not occasions for indolence and idle self-indulgence. Rather, they are opportunities for us to do those good things for which the cruel workaday routines of our lives leave us no time.

Where in the working day, for example, would we fit in the time to look up our ageing parents and neighbours or chat with and console our ailing or grieving acquaintances and friends? Where, in the routine of school, office, factory or farm, do we find time to step or lean back and reflect on ourselves, our purpose and destiny?

“Life must go on, they say, life must go on,” as Imbuga’s Dr Seethrough bitterly puts it in The Successor. Thus the working life becomes that notorious rat-race, in which we narrowly pursue wealth, prosperity and prestige. Another of our immortal departed, Robert Serumaga, suggests, through his character, Mutimukulu (Mti Mkuu), in A Play, that we may end up “looking for rats to ride” in our relentless, “holiday-less”, workaholic pursuit for success. We will leave the “Praise Song to Holidays” at that for today.

More importantly, however, is that faith-based holidays (derived actually from “holy days”), at least a few of them, should be regarded as opportunities for social cohesion rather than as private concerns for this or that denomination. This is especially important in these days when many evil forces of division seem to be rearing their ugly heads and threatening to tear our societies and countries apart. If we leave Idd-ul-Adha to “those ones” today, and Diwali to “those others” tomorrow, what will happen when Christmas comes the day after tomorrow?

This is where Kateregga and Shenk’s book comes in. As its subtitle suggests, its main theme is: dialogue, an open exchange and sharing of what we believe and hold dear.

Given the fact that we belong to different persuasions, yet we have to live and work with one another, this generous and open-minded struggle to understand and accept one another is imperative. It is called ecumenism in some discourses. In other words, let us make serious efforts to understand what we believe and what our neighbours believe and practice and then, in our daily lives, emphasise those things that unite us.

In Islam and Christianity, for example, the scholars roundly disapprove of the narrow-minded tendencies to mutually exclude adherents of the monotheistic faiths (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) as “pagans”. It is from Kateregga and Shenk, for example, that I learnt that the three actually belong together, according to Islam, as ahl-al-kitab (the community of the revealed scripture).

It is with the community of the book that I observed Idd-ul-Adha and it is with them that I will celebrate Christmas and Easter, as I have always done. Incidentally, I did not defy the CS’s directive. I just went off to one of my East African homes where the Idd is a universal holiday. But then, how many of us are blessed as I am?


Prof Bukenya is a leading scholar of English and Literature in East Africa. [email protected]