By Hasan Suroor
Jun 10, 2015
My late lamented grandmother, a devout namaazi-parhezgar Muslim, arranged many of her activities around the waning and waxing of the sun. Certain things had to be done "suraj urooj hone se pehle" (before sunrise), some "suraj ghuroob hone se pehle" (before sunset), and some "suraj ghuroob hone ke baad" (after sunset).
I can very well imagine what her reaction to the surya namaskar controversy would have been. Tying her dupatta tighter around her head – an indication that she was trying very hard to suppress her anger -- she would have said:"Ahmaq hain sab; paani dalo inpar" (they're all fools, damn them).
This doesn't mean she believed in sun worship. In fact her sun-centric routine was entirely consistent with her strict adherence to Islamic beliefs, and she would have strongly protested any attempt to force her to go against them.
I’ve dragged my poor grandmother into it only to underline the absurdity of the controversy that has erupted around the Narendra Modi Government's planned Yoga and surya namaskar programme in schools to mark the UN International Yoga Day on June 21 to which some Muslim groups have objected calling it un-Islamic.
After the All India Muslim Personal Board (AIMPLB) threatened a nationwide agitation and planned to move the Supreme Court against “compulsory” yoga and surya namaskar in schools, the Government clarified that the participation in it was entirely voluntary. But now a group of sadhus from Haridwar have threatened a counter agitation if the programme is diluted.
"We would not tolerate any compromise with surya namaskar… Those trying to play with Hindu religion will not be forgiven," Swami Harichetanand said.
The fact is that the row has nothing to with religious beliefs -- and everything to do with divisive politics of the worst kind. A classic time-tested trick by Hindu and Muslim right-wing elements to try and feed on each other in the name of religion.
Many Islamic practices and rituals are arranged around the movements of the sun. Four of the five daily Namaaz offerings are linked to its rotation -- fajir (dawn), zuhar (noon), asar (late afternoon), and maghreb (sunset). Likewise, Ramadan fast starts before sunrise and is broken at sunset.
This, of course, is all very different from sun worship which is what surya namaskar, invariably accompanied by recitation of Om, is. . And as Islam forbids any form of worship other than worshipping Allah, some of the more conservative Muslims might have a problem with it. But should it be turned into such a big issue as to merit a nationwide agitation, and appealing to the highest court in the land?
That’s where politics comes in.
Actually, it is misleading to describe AIMPLB’s threatened protest as a "Muslim" reaction. Its grandees who took the decision represent nobody but themselves. And this is evident from the fact that apart from the usual suspects such as the likes of All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s Asaduddin Owaisi, few muslims have come out in its support of the Muslim Board’s call.
On the contrary, even as its leading lights were busy milking the surya namaskar row, young muslims were protesting outside its offices in Lucknow questioning its narrow minded agenda and demanding a say in its affairs. They also criticised the closed-door meeting at which the resolution on the surya namaskar issue was adopted, according to a report in The Indian Express.
Most Muslims I spoke to in a quick phone-around didn't seem to care so long as nobody was forced to do it. My own nephew, Kaif Mahmood, a young academic, who is heavily into yoga said:" I've practised yoga for over a decade and it is one of the most important aspects of my life. I have no problems doing the surya namaskar or chanting a mantra. If God is more concerned about which direction your head is bowed in rather than what lies in your heart when you perform that pose, and at all other times, then I doubt if he/she is a god worth worshipping at all. The God that I know is less concerned with such external superficialities. At the same time, as a liberal I fully support anyone's right to not have any kind of practice imposed on them, however absurd their reasons for objecting might be, as they are in this case.’’
Sultan Shahin, Editor of NewAgeIslam website, dismissed it as a “wholly unnecessary controversy."
“As for expressing gratitude to the sun by saluting it, I don't see any harm. After all, we are not an ungrateful people. We thank God and all His manifestations for being kind to us and provide us with sustenance. Ingratitude is one of the meanings of kufr. An ungrateful person is called Kafir in Islam. However, Wahhabi-Salafi Muslims who have objection can always skip that part. It's not mandatory," he said
So, there you’re. It is a controversy got up by two sides of the same sectarian coin.
On the one side, we have a government which instead of focusing on delivering its tall election promises chooses to stage a stunt which, for all its apparent innocence, is heavily loaded with political symbolism; and at the other end there are self-styled keepers of the Islamic flame waiting to seize any opportunity to use it to advance their own interests.
The government's aggressive promotion of yoga is clearly politically motivated. For all its secular virtues, the fact remains that yoga is deeply rooted in Hindu spiritual tradition. That many Muslims practise it or that the Christian West has embraced it in a big way (there's even a U.S. court ruling rejecting objection to it on religious grounds) doesn't take away its Hindu roots. And I’m sure the Sangh Parivar will be the first to protest at any attempt to deny yoga its Hindu heritage.
So, when a party which has assumed the mantle of Hindu cultural nationalism seeks so zealously to promote something like this on such a big scale it assumes a political complexion. And, it knows what it is up to. It’s waving the red rag in the face of the bull on the other side of the sectarian divide hoping for a “reaction’’. And the other side is only too happy to oblige.
This is not the first time that such a row has erupted. There was a similar slanging match last year when some BJP ruled states tried to make singing of Vande Mataram compulsory in schools provoking Muslim protests. As now, it was also portrayed as an innocuous move. After all, it was just a patriotic song. 'What was wrong in singing it?' asked the Sangh Parivar somewhat disingenuously.
Well, if it was only about singing a patriotic song why Vande Mataram given its controversial history because of which it was not chosen as the national anthem? Why not Jana Gana Mana? What can be more patriotic than the national anthem?
The answer is: it’s the politics stupid.
Surely, the surya namaskar kerfuffle will end like the Vande Mataram tussle did—after serving its political purpose. But, readers, do keep watching this space. More of the same should be coming soon.
Hasan Suroor is the author of India’s Muslim Spring: Why Is Nobody Talking About It?