Being Muslim and Indian go hand-in-hand. You don’t need to compromise your faith
There is no issue in wearing religion on your sleeve, but your commitment to secular ideals has to be unflinching.
- Total Shares
A common Muslim in India is at a crossroads; he is torn between finding the appropriate balance between committing to his faith and trying to make sense of the negative rhetoric and stereotypes the society conjures about him and his religion.
Currently, there are people arguing for civil rights of Muslims, and also those who want to smear their entire faith and say that Islam is an inherently violent religion.
It’s easy to be bigoted when you’re ignorant, so the easiest way is education.
This isn’t so much a battle of what it means to be a Muslim in India. It’s a greater battle between broader India, of how tolerant and open-minded it will be about minorities, about Indian values of democracy and secularism, about recognising how true they want to be to the Indian values of openness and freedom for all.
The distorted images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam among non-Muslims and partly from the failure by Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable: hatred feeds on hatred.
Ignorance of Islam exists both among Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims, misunderstanding Islam, fear it. They believe it threatens their most basic values. Fantasy, conjecture and stereotypes replace fact and reality.
Similarly, Muslims have their own misconceptions. They, reacting to the hate and fear of non-Muslims, create a kind of defensive posture within their societies and a combative environment built on militant rhetoric. There is no issue in wearing religion on your sleeve, but your commitment to secular ideals has to be unflinching.
The secular fabric is growingly becoming fragile as hate leaders from both sides keep spewing fire, thereby accentuating the majority-minority fissures. Many on either side don't believe in either tolerance or moderation and are determined to follow the age old adage "paying them in their own coin” too literally.
In this heat and misunderstanding, the voices of peace and tolerance are drowned. We need sanity in all quarters to let the truth prevail.
Religion is often portrayed simply as a social or political construct, although for millions of people, religion is a daily practice, and the very real framework of an understanding that connects human lives to a spiritual reality. Their faith is the prism through which they view the world, and their religious communities are their central environments.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of faith in the lives of so many. It is evident that most people around the world would prefer to live in peace than in conflict. Yet, often the only religious voices on the front page are those speaking messages of hatred or violence, especially in stories about conflict or social tensions. But at their very core, all religions espouse peace, tolerance and compassion.
One of the best ways of breaking down barriers we have erected between faiths is building relationships and getting to know each other. It’s not just a platitude, although it actually is a verse from the Quran where the Lord says He made us different so we can get to know each other.
In the Quran, the Lord says He made us different so we can get to know each other. Photo: Reuters
Taking that verse to heart and getting to know other people and coming together on issues that are common to all of us can synergise a new spirit of bonhomie. We’re all concerned with education and poverty, growing inflation, surging unemployment and taxes, where we can find common ground and work towards a better world and better future for all of us.
Your constant companions are either your office colleagues or your neighbours across the fence - I think it’s about relationships. And it’s kind of hard to hate someone that you know personally.
There is much in common among people, both in terms of ideas and in terms of the society they occupy. It is this which needs to be explored. We need to be able to see the other and say “we understand you are different, but we also understand the difference”.
There is ample scope for reconciliation if only we are willing to avail of the myriad opportunities confronting us. Despite the many superficial differences, all our deeper and more permanent values are similar. The respect for knowledge, justice, compassion towards the less privileged, healthy family life, and the need to improve the here and now are commonalities that can be explored.
An ordinary Muslim carries a lot of weight on his shoulders; having a lot of responsibility. Having responsibility to his own community and responsibility to his fellow Indians to not only convey the right impression of Islam but embody the Islamic teaching of social justice and compassion and charity.
You have to be an exemplary, upright and righteous individual; people are going to look at you and judge other Muslims based on that interactions. I have to be on my guard all the time because I know people are looking and they generally are going to associate any actions I do as a human being as representative of my religion.
We’re all ambassadors of whatever we are. You’re an ambassador to your faith and ideology as you live your lives. It is not what you profess or preach that matters; it is finally your conduct that defines you and your thoughts. Your public perception is built over a period of time and is shaped by the uniformity in your speech and behaviour.
Any dichotomy is bound to erode your credibility and your loyalty to your faith can very well be misperceived as disloyalty to national values. The cardinal values that underpin your faith and your patriotism are normally shared by each other: ethical conduct and pluralist character.
Muslims need to take a larger role in calling out the media when the anti-Islam campaign is at its crescendo. We have to start saying we’re not going to stand for this anymore. The media has to start looking at its role in how it’s perpetuating the anti-Islam bogey. We all get branded.
We are all for free speech. But free speech comes with responsibility. I would suggest that Indians need to start asking more questions. They need to talk to Muslims who are practising the religion and not to self-styled "leaders" of the community. It is not the Muslim clergy that has to be the centrepiece of Muslim aspirations or his mindscape; every common Muslim is a stakeholder and his voice must be assigned appropriate weight.
Muslims need to reach out to their neighbours, but they also have to reach out to their own people so that mutual interactions can help refine their own perceptions of other communities.
Religious belief is often portrayed as the inevitable enemy of tolerance. This caricature is deeply mistaken. Tolerance is a virtue that requires deep religious or moral conviction. Moreover, it is rooted in a conception of the self that is rich enough to ground respect among diverse people.
The virtue of tolerance leads to a type of behaviour that is conducive to cohabitation with people of deeply different beliefs and practices from one’s own. This disposition requires nurturing through exposure to various scriptures and the writings of great sages in order to neautralise our natural inclination to view and reject the other as a burden or threat.
Sceptical accounts of religious diversity undermine this religious grounding of tolerance and threaten the very diversity they wish to preserve. The Judaeo-Christian-Muslim conception of creation in the image of God is a powerful catalyst for shaping a mindset that is conceptually very essential for tolerance. The same pluralistic approach of the Abrahamic faiths should be reciprocated by other communities.
It is worth quoting Dr S Radhakrishnan, the philosopher President of India: “What counts is not creed but conduct. By their fruits ye shall know them and not by their beliefs. Religion is not correct belief but righteous living. The Hindu view that every method of spiritual growth, every path to the Truth is worthy of reverence has much to commend itself." (The Hindu View of Life, 1962).
The Quran lays stress on tolerance and compassion and calls upon its believers to respect the religion and faith of others. It allows freedom of worship to all, even the pagans. The admonition, in this regard, is very clear:
“Say: O ye that rejects faith,
I worship not that which you worship,
nor you worship that which I worship,
and I shall not worship that which you worship,
not will you worship that which I worship,
unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.”
Several of the Qurans principles bear mentioning here.
The Quran asserts that monotheistic religions derive from the Divine: "The same religion He has established for you is as that which He enjoined on Noah - and what We now reveal to you - and enjoined on Abraham, Moses, Jesus, saying, 'Establish the religion and do not become divided therein'." (Q42:13).
The Quran further states: "Say, 'We believe in God and in that which He has revealed to us and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, the descendants and that which was revealed to Moses, Jesus and that which was revealed to the prophets from their Lord. We make no difference between one and another and we bow in submission to Him'." (Q2:136).
Thus, the Quran makes the belief in all prophets - from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to Jesus - incumbent upon Muslims. All these prophets should be respected, as should their followers.
Every Muslim knows that he/she is a product of an Indian cultural milieu and has an opportunity to contribute in some way to this experiment called INDIA by drawing from a heritage that has benefits for everybody. I realise that given the popular perception of Muslims, that is a difficult thing to do. But I believe the Indian spirit of innovation and optimism allows us to take on that challenge.
Real patriotism is demonstrated through the timeless values of Indian civilisation - fairness, justice, tolerance and pluralism. Photo: AP
Every day I see some representation of me in the media. It’s a difficult thing to escape. I can’t hide from my Muslim identity because the media shows it to me every day. So I can either withdraw into my shell or I can respond to that conversation, and so it’s made me a tougher person, to be honest. It’s also forced me to interact with people so that they understand my reality.
I think if people feel that their lives are enriched by my presence, that’s the best way to fight it. If they feel that whether it’s because they have a Muslim friend or feel their life has been enhanced by a Muslim in some way, that’s better than any PR campaign or public service message.
There’s always a certain level of bias initially when people meet you. I think that the main challenge is having those conversations and getting people to a place where they stop seeing me just as a Muslim, but a fellow Indian and person of faith.
Being Muslim and being Indian are compatible and go hand-in-hand. You don’t need to compromise your faith to prove your patriotism; real patriotism is demonstrated through the timeless values of Indian civilisation - fairness, justice, tolerance and pluralism.
What is the path ahead? By spreading information and having difficult conversations. In my life I’ve had people say to me, "I don’t know any Muslims but I’ll remember you when I see the news." I hope that people realise Muslim Indians are very patriotic and love India; we see it as our home.
I’ve spent my life in public sector service because I believe in the values of this country. I hope people know that there are many Muslim Indians that feel that way. They have to be given an opportunity and to be trusted. They will always redeem this trust as they have done all these ages.
The famous Persian poet Saadi Shirazi best surmises the Quranic ethos of pluralism in his celebrated poem Bani Adam:
"All men and women are to each other
the limbs of a single body, each of us drawn/from life's shimmering essence, God's perfect pearl;
and when this life we share wounds one of us, all share the hurt as if it were our own.
You, who will not feel another's pain, you forfeit the right to be called human."
(Gulistan, translated by Richard Jeffrey Newman - Global Scholarly Publications 2004).
Then we have the famous verse signifying the essence and spirit of dialogue:
Guftagu band na ho Baat se baat chale
Subah tak sham-e-mulakaat chale...
Regzaron se adavat ke guzar jayenge
Khoon ke dariyaon se hum paar utar jayenge
(Keep the dialogue going, one word leading to another,
The evening rendezvous lasting till dawn
We shall cross the deserts of hate
And bridge the rivers of blood).
(Ali Sardar Jafri - Sarhad)
Muslims should not face a situation of dichotomous loyalties and take inspiration from Maulana Azad who was president of Indian National Congress during the negotiation of independence and was a key ally of Gandhi and Nehru.
“I am a musalman and am proud of that fact. Islam's splendid traditions of 1,300 years are my inheritance. I am unwilling to lose even the smallest part of this inheritance. The teaching and history of Islam, its arts and letters and civilisation, are my wealth and my fortune. It is my duty to protect them.
“As a musalman I have a special interest in Islamic religion and culture, and I cannot tolerate any interference with them. But in addition to these sentiments, I have others also which the realities and conditions of my life have forced upon me. The spirit of Islam does not come in the way of these sentiments; it guides and helps me forward.
“I am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality. I am indispensable to this noble edifice, and without me this splendid structure of India is incomplete. I am an essential element which has gone to build India. I can never surrender this claim.
“It was India's historic destiny that many human races and cultures and religions should flow to her, finding a home in her hospitable soil, and that many a caravan should find rest here. Even before the dawn of history, these caravans trekked into India, and wave after wave of newcomers followed. This vast and fertile land gave welcome to all, and took them to her bosom. One of the last of these caravans, following the footsteps of its predecessors, was that of the followers of Islam.
“They came here and settled here for good.”