Can India, the last patch of sunshine, withstand the storm of universal hate?
Why it is that every time a Muslim talks about being a Muslim in the contemporary world, it becomes important to first disassociate yourself from the ‘overly faith-conscious, backward-looking, violence-prone majority?’opinion Updated: Aug 09, 2017 12:37 IST
Many people ask me how it feels like being a Muslim these days. Do I relate more to victims or to transgressors now that the fault-lines have become so hazy? Am I comfortable with my Muslim identity or am I, deep down inside, alienated from my imagined community? Do I at times feel like a person of colour from the Jim Crow era who would want to put up a sartorial disguise, wear a turban, primp his face up so that he could pass off as anything other than a person of colour. Do I feel uncertain and vulnerable like a George Eliot of our times who would want to take up a male-sounding name to confound the masculinities that have a problem with everything coming from a woman other than children? Do I at times also think about parting away with my identity to survive like a man, Jew by heart but Christian by looks? What is dearer to me – my passport or my faith? Or for that matter what is more challenging – being a Muslim in India or being a Shia in Pakistan?
I admit these are very difficult questions and with all that has been happening in our name across the world, and with all that is being done to us in return, the answers are far from being easy.
Sometime back when I read Naseerudin Shah’s widely-acclaimed piece on why Muslims are suspected en masse of being unpatriotic, I had thought of finding some answers there. But instead, I found a disclaimer, at the outset: ‘that I am not a practising Muslim, I have no memory of my Muslim upbringing and I am not even overly aware of my Muslim identity’.
Then I wondered, why it is that every time a Muslim talks about being a Muslim in the contemporary world, it becomes important to first disassociate yourself from the ‘overly faith-conscious, backward-looking, violence-prone majority?’ Who are we speaking for then? Are these disclaimers a part of the larger moral crisis that we are victims of, at a subconscious level, while we try to sound strong and morally correct?
I looked within and realised that while the ground is really shrinking from beneath our feet and there is little we can do about it, are we really ready to avoid these disclaimers, can we be less apologetic about our identities; are we ready to be what we are?
So I remember one day when I asked my father why he had agreed to name me after a Saudi king who was later on assassinated by his own nephew, also named Faisal, he referred me to an old, dog-eared notebook and told me a story.
The events after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the subsequent OPEC-led oil shock to Western economies had catapulted Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud to a cult status across the Muslim world, he had noted on the margins, while the main pages had numerological calculations all over. Faisal was seen as someone in the vanguard of this Arab-led assault, a rare man who had shown a fist to ‘anti-Muslim’ powers of the time. And because the legend had further rarefied while travelling to us all the way through Khyber Pass, we are talking about pre-WWW days here, in Pakistan they built a grand mosque in his name and in Kashmir we celebrated him in an even more lasting manner – by naming lot of new-borns - Faisal.
Those were ironically the times when Mohammad Yusuf Khan had already shot to pinnacle of fame under the screen name Dilip Kumar but my father had refused to take inspiration from that!
In a neatly-written birthday poem, at another place in this notebook, my father, a pious, practising Muslim, had surmised that this ‘Tuesday-born, starry-eyed Muslim boy’ would one day conquer distant, blue horizons in India like the man after whom he has been named did in the deserts of Arabia. This name in Abjad (corresponding to ABGD alphabet in Hebrew), a system of Arab numerology very popular in Kashmir, promised a very reassuring horoscope.
But two years back when I had to name my child, a ‘Friday-born, starry-eyed, Muslim-boy’, I was compelled to look for something more than history and horoscope. ‘How about Jami (The one who unites), one of the 99 beautiful names of Allah’, suggested my uncle. ‘Or does it sound Arab and will that be a problem? India is changing, so is rest of the world, and would you like a less Muslim-sounding name for him?’ he added with a grim face.
I was aware of the trend of taking anglicised or faith-neutral names for children, like Noor (light), Aman (peace), Aryan, Sahil (shore) or less Persian or Arabic sounding names like Sameer, Ayan or neologisms like AbRam or Semitic mononyms that point to an Abrahamic-connection rather than a clear Mohammedan pedigree – Adam, Harun, Abrahim, Isa, Ishaq. People said that in today’s world such names were more welcome at visa counters and placement kiosks. Names like Taimur, Osama, Saddam were pariah.
So we decided to name him Jami. It sounded Arab but since Jami (1414-1492AD) had also been a great Sufi saint and Persian Universalist, instead of being a ‘Wahabi’( irony is that these are the two major categories in which Muslims are these days boxed into!) I thought my child might also get a benefit of doubt one day and he would be seen as a ‘moderate’ Muslim, if people continued to be judged by their names in future also.
But then I am still not sure if we made the choice to be what we are, or if he will get that benefit of doubt as he grows up in a world where lynch-mobs are sniffing at your tiffin-boxes; where your nationalism is a substandard nationalism because you are only two hundred million people; where you will always be given a choice to settle on the other side of the border if your opinion is on the other side of the dominant discourse and where a good Muslim is someone who shuns his identity, his culture, his faith and his name and gets assimilated inside the stinking large gut of a failing democracy. I don’t know how this name will play out in future.
The world is changing but honestly it doesn’t matter to us as long as India remains anchored to its secular moorings. In this storm of universal hate, this country had to be the last patch of sunshine. But India’s possible drift towards a mono-cultural formulation from a multi-ethnic civilisation means that I might have to soon add disclaimers to my statements about myself or that I might have to do a Dilip Kumar on my child, and at this moment I am not even sure how to do that. There is this feeling of a broken covenant; there is a lump in the throat every time a man is lynched in the name of India and we are expected to be quiet and every time there is a terror attack and we are expected to speak up and condemn it. It does hurt. Let me say it at the cost of sounding heartbroken that it is hard to relate to an India that turns back on the fundamental promise made in the preamble to its Constitution.
Shah Faesal is an IAS officer serving in Jammu and Kashmir
The views expressed are personal