By Mohammed Wajihuddin and Insiya Amir
Nov 7, 2010
As a practicing Muslim, Urdu journalist Hasan Kamaal prays five times a day, fasts during the month of Ramzan and donates the mandatory 2.5% of his income as zakat or charity. But when his neighbours on a leafy Bandra lane in Mumbai celebrated Diwali on Friday, Kamaal joined in enthusiastically.
Kamaal says it's all part of "sharing joy". He describes the festivities: "Like in the past, this Diwali too, my daughter Sameera kept a few diyas on our doorstep. The flickering diyas looked so beautiful." Kamaal grew up in Lucknow, a city whose syncretic culture had Hindus and Muslims enjoying fireworks displays, lighting lamps and kite-flying contests.
Likewise, in Nagpur, the Rassiwalla family, which belongs to the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim sect, celebrated Diwali by opening their account books. Starting the year's trading book on the Hindu new year is traditional among Hindu traders but it is hallowed custom for the Rassiwallas too.
"We check for a favourable time on our calendar and open our books on Diwali, except that instead of 'shubh labh' we write 'Bismillah'," says Asghar Rassiwalla, head of the family. He adds that this custom is now no more than a symbolic gesture because the new books only start to be used a few months later, in April, when the new Indian financial year begins.
The Rassiwallas are hardly unusual in the Bohra community. Most Bohra traders open new account books on Diwali because their community expressly approves of this. Many also observe other Diwali traditions. "We have been living in a predominantly Hindu colony for the past 40 years. I can't imagine Diwali without gainda phool, diyas, rangoli and crackers. My workers even have a Lakshmi puja," says Zubair Popat, who owns an advertising agency in Delhi. "My family absolutely loves Diwali. How can anyone not?"
If Popat and the Rassiwallas are not unusual among Bohras, the Bohras are not unusual among India's many diverse Muslim communities. There are others, for instance, the Ismaili Khoja, a trading community spread across mainly India and Pakistan, who converted to Islam from Hinduism. "Maybe it is because like all good businessmen, we believe that when in Rome, do as the Romans do," reasons Mumbai diamond trader Alam Merchant. "And of course, there is the fact that our lineage lies in Hinduism, so the traditions have passed on through generations regardless of religion," he adds.
Is this an elastic quality unique to Indian Islam? Perhaps. It is certainly true that Indian Muslims, through centuries of interaction with India's dominant religion, Hinduism, have adopted several Hindu customs and traditions.
Weddings are a case in point. A qazi solemnizes the nikah, ritually recites Quranic verses and delivers, post-nikah, the khutba or sermon. Ideally, a Muslim wedding ends there. Not in India. Elaborate pre-nuptial ceremonies including haldi and mehndi, and post-wedding song and dance of late, feature in Muslim weddings, much like for Hindus.
The Quran does not recommend offering lavish food to wedding guests but Indian Muslims are often seen to outdo their Hindu neighbours in serving up multi-course feasts. Some little time ago, Muslim clerics in Hyderabad threatened to boycott weddings if more than one variety of biryani was served up.
"Celebrating marriage with a feast is not an Islamic ritual. It has reached Muslims from the Hindu custom of bhoj. But now it is part of Indian Muslim custom too," explains Mumbai-based social commentator Zaheer Ali who has written extensively on India's Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb or composite culture.
Indian Muslims' adoption of aspects of Hindu custom goes much beyond Diwali and weddings. Monotheistic Islam prohibits idol worshipping but many Muslim artisans ply a trade that goes against this — they carve beautiful idols of Ram, Krishna, Durga and Ganesh. Some Muslims find nothing unusual in playing characters in Ramleela and Krishnaleela.
Clothes and ornamentation are another indicator of shared practice across religions. The more conservative Muslim may advocate purdah, but many Indian Muslim women customarily wear saris, apply sindoor if they are married, their wrists heavy with bangles. For Muslim men, especially in the hinterland, dhoti-kurta rather than pyjama-kurta, is the preferred costume.
With Hindu customs and traditions so much a part of life for some Muslim communities, amazing examples of syncreticism crop up every day. Just last week senior Congress leaders Digvijay Singh and Ghulam Nabi Azad inaugurated a multi-specialty hospital in Mumbai. It is owned by former Congress MLC and businessman Muzaffar Hussain. The programme began with a group of sari-clad Hindu nurses, singing a Sanskrit song to welcome guests. No one objected.
Source: Times of India, New Delhi