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Lifting curtains off traditions in search for reason


“How is the fasting going? Hope it isn’t too hot there in Hong Kong?” asked a concerned friend of mine one weekend. “Oh, I don’t usually observe the fasts,” I replied. “But you used to in school? Is it since things got difficult, you stopped believing in religion?” “Not really. I am choosing to understand my religion first, before I choose to follow it,” I answer. And that understanding has been a much more rigorous journey, with its questions and validity tests. 

Religion has always been a relatively easy subject in my life. I come from, as could be termed, a liberal Muslim family. My parents pray five times a day, but not devote endless hours to additional prayers. We visit heritage mosques and durgahs and participate in religious ceremonies.

As kids, we had an early introduction to monotheism and the non-existence of any other deity, followed by the basic five tenets of Islam. We observed the important dates, read the holy text, learnt the Quranic verses, were introduced to the Prophet and his life and narrated the historical events defining the Twelver Shia sect of the religion.

Mother would help us learn the names of the twelve Imams and moral lessons from their time. Battles of good over evil, just versus unjust, were the core principles of most Islamic lessons, channelled as stories and legends. Abrahamic tales of Noah’s ark and Moses’ staff were reserved for afternoons with grandmothers. Concepts of frugality, charity, patience, hard work, optimism, kindness and above all being conscientious were ingrained as life principles through religious sentiments.

And along with it followed the rituals and traditions. Praying every day, observing fasts, attending Majlis in the month of Muharram, commemorating the Prophet’s birthday and other auspicious dates. That was it. That was the limit of being a practising Muslim. You did not have to bother too much with other stuff. And religion would not interfere beyond that in your life too.

Until it began doing so.

As I turned older, I recognised that my birth religion had a set, prescribed expectation of living life a certain way. Especially for women. There were rules regarding women’s praying routine; the clothes we should or should not wear; the person we can or cannot marry, etc. Some rules were cited from the Quran, so no room for any argument was left. Others were prescribed as acts which define a Muslim identity, later transgressed into restrictions. Of course, I was not supposed to have boyfriends, of course, I was not supposed to wear short dresses, of course, I could not stay out late in the evenings.

The idea of being a Muslim started getting defined by what you show on the outside than who you are on the inside. 

And I don’t exactly know, where did it all begin. We began with understanding the soul of the religion but ended up being characterised by its body. This was characterised with episodes through my growing up years, which most of the Indian middle-class Muslim families, must have experienced too.

Every month of Ramazan some kid would observe his/her first fast, which was a celebratory event. Iftaar (the meal after completing a day’s fast) was a feast, gifts were exchanged, new clothes were worn, guests were invited. What exactly was the reason behind fasting, apart from it being a tenet of Islam, was never asked, never answered. Being a core principle of the religion, was a reason enough. There were clear instructions for people who could not fast. Illness, old age, and menstruation and pregnancy exempt one from fasting, but he/she needs to provide for a month’s meal requirements to an impoverished person.

But what about people who do not want to fast? No, invalid question.

As we grew up, some of us managed to finish reading the entire Quran in Arabic. The aim here was to finish a text in a foreign language, ensuring each Arabic word is pronounced right, with barely any idea of what the word means. Feasts were organised, the cleric who guided through Quran’s recital was generously thanked, and a star was added to your profile, confirming you as a credible source on Islam. This blind fluency in Arabic has created a generation that can read and often recite Quran’s verses with minimum understanding (mostly through translation).

I call us the ‘generation of Arabised parrots’. 

Same goes for offering daily prayers. You prostrate and recite Arabic verses, raise your hands above and pray. But as much as offering namaz has been deemed important as a submission to God, it is the prerogative of each one who follows it, to know what we are chanting. Offering prayers because the religion prescribes so, is as good a reason, as studying MBA because corporates demand so. Praying is a very personal commitment one has to what one calls God. And no one should force you into having that conversation.

Offering namaz is not a chore, not something you brag about, rather a deliverance you choose. 

I was a bodily follower of the religion until I became restless with the one-sided clerical knowledge available to me. Religion was always defended in the face of an argument. Why? A 1400-year-old religion can have a gamut of flaws, but does questioning them, make me less of a Muslim than others? Is questioning the practices so counter-productive that it could cause tensions within families? Is human’s individuality not important in the face of prescribed notions?

The viability of any religion stands only up to a point where it instils ideas of humanity. An expectation of anything beyond that is then religion being used as tradition, culture, or simply as a life guru.

The dos and do nots, the haves and have-nots, which the Quran prescribes have an underlying reason to it. Fasting in Ramazan was devised as a means to instil self-control and discipline. Muslims abstain from eating between dawn and dusk, as a means to develop better mental and physical capacities, have a stronger willpower, control one’s impulses, avoid gluttony, and devote time to prayers. Fasting is thus a means to that end.

However, these discussions are rare within families, and lesser understood when you do not fast. 

In fact, it becomes difficult to justify this argument when everyone simply doesn’t believe in your choice of life. What’s the point of being a Muslim if not observing Ramazan? There have been difficult conversations, heated arguments and serious judgments of one’s ethics, based on how one chooses to observe the religion.

The constant challenging to one’s choices has created trust issues within families, shrinking the space for being oneself and eventually choosing to lead dual lives, inside and outside one’s home. I have encountered several young Muslim men and women, who choose to hide their life choices from their parents, to avoid uncomfortable conversations, and confrontations. This works initially, as both the parties are happy, but in the end, both suffer.

Islam, as a religion is based on the premise of ‘Ummah’, which is defined as – “a fundamental concept, expressing the essential unity and theoretical equality of Muslims from diverse cultural and geographical settings.” And within this definition lies the importance of accepting everyone who chooses to call themselves a Muslim. You cannot question how one follows it, or not follow it.

Islam is a lifestyle, not just a prescribed form of practices.

The underlying concept of each practice is improving human endeavour by imbibing values of humanity and sustaining them. If you simply ignore those aspects under the garb of following traditions, then the religion loses its relevance. Every person has the right to decide how they believe in their religion and deserves respect for that. You can opine your views on it, but not sideline it because it does not sit well with your ideas.

The best way for any religion forward is thus, unbiased knowledge and open discussion. 

The concept of ‘ijtihad‘ espouses within Muslims the spirit of enquiry and rational thought. Ijtihad highlights the importance of individual thought-based action, deeper understanding of religious functionings, and probing questions around science and philosophy. It allows Muslims to have a stronger critique of religious practices, learn their foundations in the hope of developing a well-argued and compassionate knowledge of religion. I believe that ijtihad thus opens pathways to embrace modernity and globalisation without losing its essence in an advanced age and time.

The more I read about Islam through various authorship, the more I find its distinguishing characteristics that are impossible to sum as one channel of appeal for everyone. Despite that, families and communities, groups and organisations, try to institutionalise it, and caricature it as one glove fits all. No, it doesn’t and it won’t ever perhaps. The more it is force-fed, the more resistance it will garner, creating a community of disengaged and disinterested youth.

Authors like Reza Aslan, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Marjane Satrapi and Christopher de Bellaigue, have through their works, provided readers with facets about Islam, which lead to further introspection and debate of how the religion has evolved. One might not agree to all arguments, but that is exactly how it can be accepted as a part of life, rather being shunned away or worse, followed without reason.

I am still learning and growing in the shadows of umpteen questions around my life choices as a Muslim. It’s a journey that has enriched me with knowledge, reasoning and deliverance, and made me more in tune with the religion than it did earlier. I no longer pretend to be fasting in front of my Muslim colleagues who’d naturally assume I am and that has given me immense peace. At the same time, I understand the lessons which are hidden underneath these traditions and hope to continue imbibing them in the years to come.

Mariyam Raza Haider

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A journalist by training, Mariyam Haider is a writer and performance poet in Singapore.
She is the researcher of the book The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age written by James Crabtree.
Her writing has appeared in Hindustan Times, Livemint, Feminism In India, New Asian Writing and Kitaab.

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