Soul searching in the month of Ramzan
By the time this issue reaches you, Ramzan would be in its last week. So, perhaps it would still be topical to share some random religion-related thoughts in the month dedicated to piety and charity. Apart from fasting during the day and feasting at night, most of my family also gets busy with distributing food and clothes to the poor and needy as charity is one of the five pillars of Islam; the other four being faith, which basically implies belief in the oneness of God, prayer, fasting during Ramzan and pilgrimage at least once in a person’s lifetime to Mecca. Adherence to these five principals determines your Muslimness, if there is a thing like that. Hence, all Muslims must do these to ensure that their account books remain favourable on the Judgement Day and they can be allotted permanent residency in Paradise. Ironically, how the Jihadi short-cut to paradise was established is a mystery, as Jihad, whether Akbar (spiritual) or Asghar (physical), does not find a place among these five pillars. Clearly, it was not considered important enough to be made mandatory for all Muslims. Of the five tenets, except for one, all emphasise the personal nature of the religion, basically, you and your God.
And the one where the religion ordains you to reach out to others is charity. Mind you, charity is compulsory in Islam, but somehow in this age of terrorism, the Muslim stereotype does not include a benign person handing out alms. Instead, the most identifiable image is that of one sporting the longest and the thickest of beards with a skull cap either spewing venom or spouting fatwas, when he is not devilishly plotting a jihad.
While even I plead guilty of succumbing to this stereotyping, I don’t think the fault is really mine. The blame rests with those Muslims who are contributing in the creation of these stereotypes. For instance, a few weeks back, some family obligations required me to meet a marriage prospect for a cousin. Since we live in the same city I was asked to pitch in to give him a look over before signalling the rest of the family to plunge into the matrimonial matter. His CV was impressive. A post graduate in information technology, he had done university from the US and was currently working in the Gurgaon-based office of an American giant. His interests included white-water rafting, camping and mountaineering and he claimed to disappear at least once a year to the Himalayas for some adventurous holiday. Already favourably disposed towards him, I reached the coffee shop at the appointed hour and started my wait. A little distance away on another table was a man in round spectacles periodically looking in my direction. With a skull cap perched on his head, he had a thick, unkempt beard reaching his abdomen. He also appeared to be waiting for someone. After about a wait of 20 minutes we moved at the same time. He was the prospect. I gasped.
He spoke impeccable English in a well modulated voice with a slight American twang and I had great difficulty focussing on his face because the words and the accent seemed to come from another body. I was also slightly embarrassed being seen with him. What if I bump into somebody I know? In a coffee shop bursting with young girls in spaghetti tops and boys in low waist jeans we were an odd pair. He sensed my unease and became defensive about his appearance. Out of pique, I refused to be apologetic about by pre-conceived notions and stereotyping. We didn’t part very amicably. I didn’t say it to him, but what bothered me was the attempt to create a Muslim identity, when Islam does not lay down identification marks. Prophet Mohammed wore a beard, so did his companions to emulate him. But, in the seventh century Arabia, it is unlikely that there were many implements available to shave one’s facial hair conveniently. Moreover, given that the Prophet and the early Muslims had to be on the move in hostile circumstances, vanity couldn’t have been a priority. Similarly, covering one’s head in the sandy heat of Arabia was more about convenience than an effort to create a physical identity.
I am not an authority on Sikhism, so I will not comment on the Sikhs’ need for a physically distinguishable identity, but as far as Muslims are concerned, blame must go to the Tablighi Jamaat for trying to create a parallel world for the Muslims. Instead of the five pillars that form the basis of Islam, it has laid down six fundamentals, borrowing faith and prayer from the original. While Islam does not talk of proselytising and lays emphasis on piety and charity, Tabligh’s focus is on propagation of the religion and creating a certain look for the Muslims emulating the prophet. This rigidity eventually leads to intolerance and complete refusal to question what one has been asked to follow. It also creates a class of people who convey that we are different and we will not assimilate, take it or leave it.
In the dark years preceding World War II, the Nazis required the Jews to wear an identification mark so that they stood apart from the Aryan Germans. Today, unknowingly, Muslims are doing it to themselves.