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In search of the real self

Faith and cultural identity are becoming confusing in this day and age. Zahur Zaidi writes.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2011 22:05 IST

On a trip to Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Indonesia, I saw the most beautiful ballet - a two-hour Ramayana performed with the Prambanan Temple (dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) as the backdrop. The following day, on a visit to a yoga centre, I was proud to see Indonesian boys and girls practising yoga.

One of them, wearing a jilbab (the Islamic head scarf) and otherwise proficient, declined to do the Surya Namaskar. After the class, Dinna Saraswati (that was her name) explained that as a Muslim, it was against her religion to pray to the sun. Yoga for her was only a 'physical exercise'.

My host for the evening was Indra Kusuma, a Javanese member of the Ramayana ballet troupe. While he was wearing a skull-cap, his son Mohammad Anas was clad in a T-shirt that had Che Guevara's grim expression printed on it.

Later in Jakarta, a friend who had worked as an engineer in an oil company in West Asia said that Indonesians were unusual as far as their practice of Islam was concerned. While bidding him goodbye, I said 'Khudahafiz', the standard north Indian Muslim way to bid adieu. My friend said I should have said 'Allah hafiz' as Khuda is a Persian word while Allah is Arabic.

In the village located on the fringes of Awadh in Uttar Pradesh, where I come from, we grew up hearing both bhajans and azaan. My grandfather wore a dhoti when at home and also headed the organising committee of Dhanushjag - our village ballet organised during Dussehra.

Islam is my religion but we always participated in Ramlilas, Holi and Diwali. Flip through the pages of Islamic history and you would encounter Salman Farsi - a companion of the Prophet. Salman was Persian and remained one till he died. His association with the Prophet did not make him Salman Arabi.

In Egypt and North Africa, Afghanistan and Iran, the advent of Islam changed religious beliefs but cultural practices more or less remained the same. To my ignorant mind, there was no conflict between faith and cultural identities.

Suddenly I notice people trying to rectify my ways. Because we are Muslims, all of us must be recognisably Islamic (read Arab). Because Islam and Arab are interchangeable or maybe because only an Arab can be Islamic. I am a Muslim but my first name is not Arab. So what am I? Looking for answers I came across this quote from Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who said, "I am a Muslim and profoundly conscious of that fact that I have inherited Islam's glorious tradition of the last 1,300 years. I am not prepared to lose even a small part of that legacy. But I am equally proud of the fact that I am an Indian… I am an essential element, which has gone to build India. I can never surrender this claim."

My doubts have been laid to rest. Indra Kusuma, my Indonesian friend, your name is fine and you do a great job performing Ramayana ballets everyday. And as for you my Indian friend in Jakarta, I would only say, "Khudahafiz!!"

Zahur Zaidi is an IPS officer posted in the Indian embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The views expressed by the author are personal.