By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
The other day I was at a friend’s office when a fat little man barged in unannounced. He introduced himself as the manager of a religious seminary, located in a nearby slum. He made some polite noises and in a while caught the attention of my friend’s colleague, whom he didn’t seem to have met before. They began talking about this and that and then their conversation turned into what I really find most upsetting—a loud theological harangue.
You should have seen the fat man huff and puff and look all so very agitated as he insisted that God should be referred to by the particular name in which He is known in the scripture that the man believes in and by no other name whatsoever. To do otherwise was, as far as he was concerned, a heinous crime, a really major sin. But he didn’t stop there. Not only did he ardently believe that God had one special personal name, which alone denoted Him, but he also insisted that only those who followed the religion that he did (and, I suppose he held, the same sect, too) were acceptable to God and would be transported to heaven on their deaths. Presumably, therefore, God detested all other folks and they were bound to be punished in eternal hell simply for following other religions or even for calling God by other names—or so the fat man seemed to be firmly convinced.
Now, as far as I am concerned, the names we use to refer to God are linguistic devices that humans, who have to employ language in order even to think about God, use. The Ultimate Reality, in the ultimate analysis, is, I suppose, Nameless, but I don’t see any harm at all if you refer to It by any appropriate name you like. “Just as you call H2O ‘water’ in English, pani in Urdu or Hindi and neeru in Kannada”, my friend’s colleague unsuccessfully tried to argue with the agitated man, “God can be known by various names—they all refer to the same reality.”
But the fat man wasn’t at all convinced. Though, of course, I was repelled by his arguments and demeanour I could understand why my friend’s colleague failed to win him over. He had, after all, been carefully trained in an extremely literalist understanding of his religion, which he was passing onto the children he taught in his seminary. They, too, would be groomed to think like him, just as he must also have been programmed by his teachers before, and so on.
It isn’t that the fat man was a sort of isolated, eccentric case. Most people who adhere to a literalist and narrow interpretation of their religion share the same sort of bigoted attitude in varying degrees. The fervent belief that their religion alone is right, that all other faiths count for nothing in God’s eyes, that they and their co-religionists are the only one’s destined to heaven and the rest of humanity to hell gives them no small psychological comfort, boosting their self-esteem and instilling in them an extreme sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority. It convinces them that they are destined to access everlasting goodies in heaven, which only they and those who think like them will enjoy. It also gives them enormous perverse delight to think that other folks will be punished forever in hell simply because they didn’t believe exactly as they did. It isn’t difficult to understand that such an attitude doesn’t at all conduce to good relations with people of other faiths and can be easily tapped to foment conflict.
If you want to get just a hint of how widespread literalist understandings of religion really are, try this small experiment. The next time you spot a Hindu, make it a point to greet him with a ‘Salaam!’, and wish the next Muslim you see with ‘Shanti!’ I’ll bet you they both would be horrified, shocked, or, at least, visibly uncomfortable. The Hindu might think you’ve mistaken him for a Muslim by Salaam-ing him and the Muslim might think you’ve hurt his feelings by using a ‘Hindu’ term to greet him!
Now, ‘Salaam’ and ‘Shanti’ actually mean the same thing: Peace, the former in Arabic and the latter in Sanskrit, and it’s only because many people have got fixated on certain terms, drawn from certain languages which they consider holy, and have invested them with particular religious and communal significance that the Hindus and Muslims you might try this simple experiment on may react in this way. And, in doing so, they might think you’re actually trying to needle them or even insult them instead of wishing them peace!
If you want to probe deeper into the conflation of language/culture and religious identity and see how an extreme sort of obsession with certain terms, drawn from certain languages and texts considered as sacred, serves to keep Hindus and Muslims apart, try greeting the next Hindu and the next Muslim you meet with neither ‘Salaam’ nor ‘Shanti’ but, instead, with the English ‘Peace’. You can be sure that neither of them will get at all agitated—simply because for some reason or the other the English word ‘peace’ doesn’t appear to them to be invested with any religious significance, unlike its equivalents in Arabic and Sanskrit. Nor does it appear to them to be indelibly linked to a particular community, for which it serves as a signal of its identity.
The same is true for various terms used for God. Generally, Hindus and many Muslims might freely use the term ‘God’ without any hesitation, but it is unlikely for a Hindu to refer to God as ‘Allah’ and even rarer still for a Muslim to speak of God as ‘Bhagwan’ or ‘Ishwar’. This is because even though ‘Allah’, on the one hand, and ‘Ishwar’ and ‘Bhagwan’, on the other refers to the same Ultimate Reality (as far as I am concerned), some Hindus and many Muslims might not agree. On the contrary, they might see the term ‘Allah’ as specifically ‘Muslim’ and ‘Ishwar’/’Bhagwan’ as exclusively ‘Hindu’. Some extreme literalists among them might even go so far as to insist (and as the fat man must have believed) that Allah and Ishwar have nothing at all in common and that they are two entirely different, or even radically opposed, beings or phenomenon or powers. And so they would think—as the fat man did—it sheer anathema for God to be referred to by any name other than the one generally used by their co-religionists.
The conflation of language and key terms drawn from a particular language with religion and religious identity is, alas, all too common. This is often marshaled by different sets of religionists as a boundary marker to build barriers between themselves and followers of other faiths and it almost inevitably leads to conflictual relations with them. And, equally tragically, this linguistic idolatry leads to a denial of the notion of the universality of God, whom different sets of folks, obsessed with the belief in the infinite superiority of their faiths and the worthlessness of others, seek to appropriate as, allegedly, exclusively their own.