Sunday, August 28, 2011

Muslim on the Run

"After Partition, many Muslims stayed behind in Bihar instead of joining Pakistan. It's an impoverished, mostly agricultural state that is considered somewhat backward by most of Bombay's middle class, and Akhtar is part of a large migration of young Bihari men who have come to Bombay in recent years to find work. He tells Cassim that he's never met a foreign Muslim before, or anyone who is partly from Pakistan; the idea of an educated, well-traveled Muslim is exotic and interesting to him." - excerpt from 'The Girl from Foreign' by Sadia Shepard

I am an educated, well-traveled Muslim, and I would be fine with that except I don't know what being a Muslim means anymore. In Oman it meant something else - reduced school hours in Ramadhan, lots of government holidays, and weekends that conveniently fell on Fridays. There were Sudani Muslims, Egyptian Muslims, Indian Muslims, Phillipino Muslims, Omani Muslims. They all wore their own national clothing and ate their own kinds of food. Masjids were beautiful, grand, clean. In America, Islam was reactionary, so Arabised, so structured. I discovered a new word - zabiha. The Muslims there would look at me funny - you don't know what zabiha is? I'd only ever heard of halaal. I didn't wear a scarf, and I would feel slightly insulted that people were surprised to find out that I was a Muslim because I didn't wear one, as if I was inadequate, not doing Islam quite right. But I was raised in the Middle East! And the more vicious public debate about Islam got, the more I withdrew philosophically into Islam, arming myself with answers to questions that I had learned to anticipate, questions that ordinarily only a scholar should have been expected to have the answers to. Islam, Islam, Islam, Islam. Bismillah-i-rahman-i-rahim. Five pillars, 1-2-3-4-5. Zakaat 2.5%. Polygamy permitted not recommended. No concept of holy wars in Islam. Back off, back off, back off. Self-proclaimed defender of the faith, the Islamic Joan of Arc, brothers and sisters across the Ummah unite. Yes, we can!

Except this past year, I plunged into mainstream India, dying to be set free from the flat two-dimensional Islamic person I'd started to see myself as from the eyes of those around me. I wanted to be more than an example of Islamic pluralism, more than someone's token centrist Muslim friend, see momma she's not a terrorist, she's quite reasonable, she doesn't even wear a scarf, she drinks Pepsi and goes to the AMC and likes Billy Joel.

This whole past year in India I have not had the time to sleep or dream even. There aren't so many Muslims around in mainstream India anyway. If they are there, they keep to themselves in their secular speech patterns and professions. They acknowledge each other in silent ways, but they daren't step over that fine line. They'll smile at each other and then look away, they'll say hello and you both know why but will not admit it. You've been noticed, you're been watched over, but neither party will do anything more about it. And what a relief that is. Nobody wants to talk about religion in this secular space where everybody dresses and talks the same. It's exhausting, it asks more questions than gives answers, and we're a tired, tired, tired country. I was so grateful that I was just another Indian face whose face and language was suspiciously Muslim-like, but everybody was so busy that at the end of the day, everybody just wanted to talk light. What a relief it was. Nobody had any religious expectations of me, nobody poked and prodded my wilting soul for justifications. We're all just too busy, everybody just wants to be left alone in peace. We all really just want to have a job and an Internet connection and the occassional trip to the mall or the theater or Bangkok.

But then a Muslim girl from Kashmir told me she looked up to me, I'm guessing because I was educated and well-travelled. Me? But I don't wear a scarf. I'd fled halfway across this blessed planet of ours just so that people would stop seeing me as a Muslim. Do you know that this whole year I almost never said as-salaam-alaikum or Khuda haafiz to anybody? I never even said insha Allah or masha Allah, and I never said Allah ka shukar in jest the way I usually do. I never said yaar, Khuda ke liye when someone was getting on my case. I didn't want to. Then when I started wanting to, I didn't. I didn't want to stick out again, I didn't want to sound different again. I wanted to be like everybody else, frivolous and carefree, without worrying about the Day of Judgment or if the French were curbing the rights of Muslim women to express themselves.

I don't seem to understand the Muslims of India. I don't know why they live in ghettoes and why they can't just shake their demoralisations off of themselves and say I'm a bloody citizen of this country and let me see you tell me what to do. Why are they so hostile to the mainstream Muslims who are honestly just trying to make a living? I am not a traitor, I don't even belong to these people, this is only the first year I have lived in this country. I don't know how to look at my own self in India the way others do when they detect my religious identity and all the things it means here. No I don't think it is acceptable to dilly-dally on a court case regarding the demolition of a religious structure where public order is disturbed and oh, people are murdered or tyrannised. Is that a typical Muslim reaction though? I don't understand how to position myself between the Deobandis and Barelvis and the Sufis and the dargahs and the Syeds and all the others. I don't have special knowledge of the Mughal period, and I don't particularly feel too connected to the Ottoman Turks. I just want air-conditioning and regular water supply and no power cuts. I don't want to be a Sharia expert, I don't even want to deal with the autorickshaw driver who insists on charging me an extra 10 rupees. Theek hai, bhaiyya, jo aapki marzi. I want to be pretty, I want to smell nice, and I want to live in luxury. Do any of these things make me more or less of a Muslim? I don't know, I don't know, I still don't know what any of it means.


Anonymous said...

The state of Muslims in North India is pathetic because the elites of Muslims - the civil servants, the political leaders, rich businessmen - all migrated to Pakistan during the partition. Contrast that to, say Kerala, a state in South India, where the muslim league still exists and is a secular party and where Muslims flourish and thrive with their Hindus and Christians counterpart.

Or Tamil Nadu, where many members of the rowther muslim community are very rich.

Ofcourse, I am not saying there are no poor muslims in South India, just that they are better of than most north indian muslim. Historically too, south india has seen less communal clashes then north India.


When you accept yourself for who you are without thinking on it, without feeling good or bad about it, you'll stop running. That's how I did it.


You ask whether you are a Muslim. I am sure you are religious. But I don't think you are a true muslim yet. You've stopped aspiring to be a spiritual person - either because you don't realize the rut you are in and/or because you don't know how.

You are hung on the label of 'muslim' as part of your identity. You are hung on material desires - like A/C, looking good, wanting things easy etc - rather than being accepting with yourself and your situation. Perhaps you've even forgotten how to be accepting.

Think back to any moment in your life when you felt truly at peace. That moment of peace and contentment also was a moment where you didn't have any desires.

It's a large topic - and I feel I am becoming too preachy. And sorry if I was depressing.

(P.S: And if this sounds life Hinduism / Buddhism, you are right. Once you really look deep into these religion, you might be surprised how much they have in common with Islam.)

Khadija Ejaz said...

Interesting, that is the first time anyone has ever called me 'religious, not spiritual' (refer to And 'not a true Muslim yet'. I can add that to the other things I've been called: a terrorist, anti-patriot, a good Muslim, a bad Muslim, a closet agnostic, a closet atheist, progessive, secular, a fundamentalist, and all this when I was just minding my own business. Everybody, especially the Muslims, seem to have their own ideas of what being a good Muslim is, and the biggest problem is when they think they can get up and point a finger at you and try to tell you that you're not doing Islam right, but THEY are. And I'm sure it's understandable to be more concerned about one's physical comfort than the nature of one's soul when they have ants crawling over them at night in bed when it's too hot to breathe. I'm sure God, wherever he/she/it is, can understand that.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to converse in a medium like this because one doesn't have the benefit of the non-verbal cues that tell you a lot about the context and intention with which something is said.


Let's begin where I said, "I don't think you are a true muslim yet".

You yourself asked, perhaps rhetorically, "Do any of these things make me more or less of a Muslim? I don't know, I don't know, I still don't know what any of it means.".

I thought you might like to hear a strangers opinion ...

I don't know if you realize, but most of your posts that I've read all have an undertone of angst. And that leads me to assume that you're often not at peace with yourself and the world.

Spirituality, simply put, means to be at peace.

It doesn't mean that when you are spiritual you experience constant bliss and no sorrow or discomfort. In some ways, it means that you just accept - your feelings, your world, your situation.

Why are we Muslims to believe that everything is pre-ordained, that it is 'written'? Simply put, if you don't believe it, you refuse to accept. You refuse to accept that it was God's will. Naturally, when you are losing faith in God, how can you expect to be content?

There is a saying in the Gita - "Karm kar, phal ki asha nahin" - that also teaches the same.

When you accept things, and no longer desire it, you'll get it.

To put it crudely -
One is never attracted to a desperate person who wants you. Similarly, when you desire something, "it" doesn't want you. God is everywhere, in everything. To connect with God, your desires need to be unselfish.

(Sorry, don't know how else to explain ...)

Spirituality is the end result of any religion. Being religious is the means to it as it prepares your mind and body. But being religious without understanding it, and material desires that are purely to indulge our senses, make us weak.

As for how materialistic you are, you alone know the whole truth. You alone know how selfish / unselfish your desires are. I can only make a judgement call based on what you wrote.

For me, a "true muslim" is a spiritual muslim because he / she has finally understood Islam, and truly 'submitted' [accepted] to God. The opinion was without any negative connotations; you are religious, and thus, that much closer to becoming spiritual ...