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Momina Cheema 
Harvard University Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations 
Application Essay 


Having lived in the subcontinent and the middle east and received a critical liberal arts education from the U.S., my reasons and motivations for pursuing an M.A. in Indo-Muslim culture are both a means of coming to grips with my own cultural identity(ies) and with the nature of the contest to redefine and reinterpret the symbol of “Islam” in global geopolitics.

I believe that examining the depth of Indo-Muslim culture is necessary to understand contemporary debates about the Indo-Islamic condition, especially in light of today’s political and religious institutions that are trying hard to polarize communities based on purist cultural identities and to dismantle all traces of a composite culture. Cultural identities in present-day South Asia have been conditioned by a history of the separation of and privatization of religion from “public life” in the states of capitalist modernity, and through colonial discursive and institutional practices which communalized and categorized the Indian peoples. 

Careful study of the literary and cultural texts of medieval India invites the reader to be critical in interpreting the past and reveals the nuances and complexities of a time when the cultural identities of most people were not rigidly divided into Hindu or Muslim. It also demonstrates how Indic and Islamic world views interplayed and often converged. 

Islam is not a monolithic and systematic doctrine which played itself out uniformly in all historical moments and places, and it is necessary for us to examine the actual manifestations of the forms that “Islam” took in India and the ways in which Muslims lived out their lives in order to avoid revisionist accounts of history and contemporary polemics. 

This program at Harvard appeals to me because of its interdisciplinary approach towards understanding Indo-Muslim culture as a larger historical, religious, linguistic, aesthetic and literary project. Harvard has a superior collection of experts in the Islamic tradition, aside from the inspiring legacy of Dr. Annemarie Schimmel. This program is a perfect fit for my intellectual interests and is unique within the American academy. 

The experiences which led me to my research ambitions have been accumulating throughout my life. I was born in Lahore, the first center of the Persianized Indo-Muslim culture, and was introduced to Sufi modes of thought through my grandfather, who belonged to the Chishti and Qadri orders. It was through him that I was first exposed to Persian literature, as the language not only dominated court culture but became the principal language of Islamic mysticism. He directed me towards theological and philosophical writings of various Sufis of India and the verses of mystic poets sung in devotional Sufi music such as Qawwalis. I would read the mathnavis of Maulana Rumi as well as the couplets and riddles of Amir Khusrau. My mother was also involved with Sufism and professed herself as belonging to the Naqshbandi order. She would share with me some of the regional writings of Sufis, several of whom were women, and would herself pen poetry in Punjabi. It was through her that I became fond of the verses of Sultan Bahu and Bulleh Shah. 

I was touched by the spiritual and emotional dimensions of mysticism which cut across the dividing line between Sunni and Shi’a, and often between Muslim and Hindu. Although much of the writing focused on spiritual “truths” and the poetry expressed notions such as an intense consciousness of God, ecstatic union with the Beloved, and the pain that comes from loving the Divine, there were secular aspects to their works that had a broader appeal as they touched upon universally existential questions and concepts. The Sufis of India were able to facilitate intellectual development and creativity in the cultural sphere and bridge the distance between Islam and the indigenous traditions. The finest of Sufi literature provides contemplative and reflective insights on human nature which transcend the limitations of time and place, and can illuminate and appeal even today. 

During secondary schooling in Pakistan I studied the works of some of the greatest poets of India such as Meer Dard, Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Mir Taqi Mir and Muhammad Iqbal whose verses were often penned in highly Persianized Urdu. Indeed it seems that Persian literature flourished brighter in India than it perhaps did in its native Iran. I was deeply moved by the power of poetry in conveying not only the fruits of mysticism but also as a vehicle for expressing the imaginations and ideas of Indian Muslims. 

Before I was able to complete O-levels in Pakistan, our family moved to the U.S where I finished high school and later attended Duke University, majoring in literature with a minor in history. There, I took various courses related to Islam as embodied Muslim practices and surveying modern Muslim populations, in particular exploring important and often contentious issues in South Asian history. I also took courses of an interdisciplinary format dealing with the impacts of colonial rule, the imperial matrix of power and the racialization of peoples, places and languages which transformed and divided the modern world. 

It is my hope that a Master’s degree in Indo-Muslim culture will help to firmly ground me in the subject area and allow me to pursue scholarly work and a future doctorate related to the critical historical and literary study of Islam, and the Indo-Islamic tradition in particular. I also desire the further training to prepare myself for working with the South Asian community and to aid in addressing the complex historical and contemporary issues which affect the region. My passion for studying and exploring the depth of the Indo-Persian and Indo-Muslim literature and thought, as well as my general affection for the spiritual and cultural treasures of the region are captured beautifully in this couplet penned by Amir Khusrau in reference to the Indian subcontinent: 

Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast, 
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast. 

If there is a paradise on earth, 
It is this, it is this, it is this.