Once, not every long ago, I had the opportunity to travel to three Muslim countries in the span of a few months – Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. This, I must confess, proved to be a mixed blessing. While travel for the sake of leisure or a journey into the unknown is a uniquely uplifting experience, travelling for work with colleagues or as part of a delegation can be a burden sometimes. To top it all, as an Indian Muslim travelling to Muslim countries one carries the weight of an additional cross: that of religious versus national identity. What is one to do in such situations?

Does one wear one’s identity – as Muslim Indian or Indian Muslim – on one’s sleeve? Does one drop, or at the very least camouflage, one’s religious identity in favour of a national identity, especially when the delegation is an official one – as in the case of the trip to Saudi Arabia?

Even if one were to leave aside religion for a minute what about culture – that sorcerer’s bag of mixed tricks? What does one do with the cultural affinities one spots at every turn, links in a centuries-old chain that can make one cringe with embarrassment or feel fit to burst with pride – often within the space of a few minutes? Let’s say you leave aside religion and culture for a bit, there is still the vexing issue of history and a shared past. What is one to do with so many conflicting, clamorous calls? Too many questions, and very few answers, or at least none that leave me feeling entirely sanguine at the end of my travels.

What does emerge, however, from these three trips is a valuable personal discovery. In fact, several equally valuable, discoveries. The foremost being that while we in India have our troubles and vexations, others in our immediate neighbourhood are no better off. If there is consolation in comparing notes, clearly in India we have not done too badly for ourselves by placing our national trajectory on a firm footing. By holding on to the staff of secularism, even if sometimes it means doing no more than paying lip service, we have managed to keep many of those demons at bay that today plague those among our neighbours who made religion the cornerstone of their national identity.

Also, our Constitution, with its rock-solid checks and balances, is perhaps the finest gift, bequeathed to us by our founding fathers. A well-crafted, meticulous Constitution, particularly one that safeguards the rights of the minorities, is clearly no less precious than the Gifts of the Magi, gifts that these three countries under consideration are bereft of, not to mention a fully functioning democracy.

Then there is Islam, the common thread in these countries, and common to us in India too. The common perception of Islam as a monolith, unmarked by internal differences and unrelieved by regional or local variations is as untrue here as it is in India.

I was struck afresh each time by the regional, ethnic, linguistic differences and the pride people take in their distinctness – be it of food, dress, language, idiom, custom, in each country. I met people of various inclinations and denominations – Shia, Sunni, liberal, fanatic, tolerant, intolerant, Wahabi, Hanafi...the Monotonous Monochromatic Musalman is, quite clearly, a myth. In Pakistan, for instance, people have stopped talking about muhajirs and locals. Time has a great way of introducing new inflections in old questions. When asked, ‘Where are you from?’ the question is understood to mean ‘Which part of Pakistan are you from?’

Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan – an Islamic state torn between dictatorship and democracy, a kingdom of warring tribes cobbled together and united under the banner of Unitarian Islam, and a Muslim Republic recovering from the ravages of four decades of internecine warfare, respectively – each carry an additional “M” to their Muslim identities. Interestingly enough, this additional M, unlike the M for Muslim tag, evokes a spectrum of reactions, ranging from mirth, ridicule, fear, dismay, even shame.

In the case of Pakistan, it is M for Military; it is everywhere and its presence is pernicious and all pervasive. In Saudia, the M is for Moral Police or the Organisation for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. These self-appointed custodians of moral propriety can accost and question unaccompanied women and haul people into mosques at prayer times.

During my visit they had arrested a Filipino nurse on charges of “immorality” as she was “caught” dining with a male colleague. (Saudi law does not permit mixing of sexes in public places. Unrelated men and women caught at a restaurant can be punished with four months in jail and one hundred lashes, the same punishment applies to a man and woman found in a state of khulwa or seclusion.)

In Afghanistan, the M is for the Mullah who, while no longer as powerful as he was during the heyday of the Taliban, continues to wield authority and exercise great charismatic powers at least upon illiterate, impoverished, unemployed youth.

Feared and hated in equal measure, these three Ms have spawned a sub-culture of jokes.

Everywhere I went, I sought out people who have their own favourite M jokes to tell. The one I heard in Pakistan about the military is not just hugely funny but illustrative of a people’s ability to laugh at those who seek to subvert their civil rights: A group of high- ranking military officials is sent to a certain European country on a weapon-buying spree. They sleep through a presentation on the latest missile technology and when the floor is opened for Q&A, one General wakes up, rubs his eyes and asks groggily: “M-16? Whazzat? I want it...if it is a corner plot.”

At the end of my travels, as I return home I am reminded of this couplet by the noted Urdu poet Shahryar:

Iss natije pe pahunchte hain sab hii aakhir mein 
Haasil-e-sair-e-jahaan kuchch nahin, hairani hai

In the end everyone comes to the conclusion
A voyage of the world reveals nothing but surprise.

Mingled with my surprise at the sights and sounds is something altogether unexpected; there is the heartening discovery that history is a better glue than religion. The ties that bind are ties of a shared past and the persistent feeling of déjà vu and empathy I felt all through the travels through these countries had more to do with a common past than a common religion.

Excerpted with permission from But You Don’t Look Like A Muslim, Rakhshanda Jalil, HarperCollins India.