Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
Jahan, a Muslim woman, has been a well-known face in Kolkata cinema. The ruling
Trinamool congress gave her a ticket to contest parliamentary elections.
Muslims voted for her overwhelmingly and consequently she was elected with a
handsome margin. The majority of Muslims who voted for her had no religious
issues with her although they knew that Islam prohibits women from acting in
cinemas or in any other form of the entertainment industry. The conservatives
always had their reservations about her but she won despite their resistance.
turned when she married a Jain and that too without converting him to Islam. To
make matters worse she married him according to all the Jain marriage rituals
and in full view of the shutterbugs. The image of a Muslim woman dressed as a
Hindu-Jain bride was perhaps too much for a section of Muslims. Those who had
voted for her earlier now starting calling her a ‘traitor’. Some even started
abusing her for marrying outside the religion. The Ulema, as always, proclaimed
that the marriage was illegal as Muslims are not allowed to marry outside the
community without the other person converting to Islam. The undertone was that
she was co-habiting with a man without any social or legal sanction.
matters worse, Nusrat Jahan entered the parliament with sari, bangles, Sindoor
and Mangalsutra to take oath as a new member of parliament. The Mullahs were
quick to condemn her appearance and attire and pointed out that the articles
that she was wearing were all Hindu symbols and that by doing so, she had hurt
the feelings of Muslims. Some were more charitable, arguing that it was a
matter of personal choice, but added in the same breadth that she was not
dressed as a Muslim. Muslim women are not supposed to apply Sindoor or even
wear a Mangalsutra which is a mark of being married in the Hindu tradition. As
if to poke a finger in the eyes of conservative Muslims, Nusrat Jahan
subsequently attended a Hindu ritual at the ISKCON temple in Kolkata which
further alienated any Muslim support which she had. Writing in the Urdu daily
Inquilab, its editor Shakeel Shamsi implied that she will lose next time she
contests from the same constituency as Muslims will no longer vote for her.
will tell whether she loses or retains her seat, but the whole episode has
thrown some questions which Muslims as a community need to think about. Muslims
need to answer why is it that when a Muslim woman dons the vermillion and a
Mangalsutra, she is immediately condemned as being as a non-Muslim? What is this
conception that there is a particular dress code for Muslim women? From where
has this perception arisen in the first place? Is there a Muslim dress code in
the first place? Muslims are perhaps the most diverse religious group in the
world. Wherever Islam has gone, it has adapted to local cultural traditions.
The cultural tradition of India is mostly Hindu so why is it a problem when
Indian Muslims adopt Hindu cultural traditions. In fact, Muslims should call
Hindu traditions as their own since they have been part of this cultural
complex for centuries now. For many centuries, this was the received wisdom of
average Muslim men and women in India.
today we see a conscious desire to separate from our own cultural moorings.
There is an attempt to argue that religion and culture cannot be separate
entities in Islam. This certainly is a new ideological construct which did not
exist before. There are many Muslim regions in the world which are currently
experiencing this painful process of getting alienated from their own cultural
traditions. Indian Muslims are no exception; there are similar debates going on
in even Indonesia and Kazakhstan.
this argument is fallacious and a-historical. Islam grew in a particular
cultural context which was Arab. It is natural therefore that the dominant
Islamic culture will lend itself to a certain Arab bias. Islam and Arab culture
are so finely interwoven that it is difficult to separate the two. And that’s
why within the Arab mind, there is no separation between religion and culture:
they are one and the same. However, for non-Arab contexts, this becomes a huge
problem. Because the more Muslim one becomes, the more one is expected to move
closer to an Arab orthopraxis. The
consequence is that Indian Muslims get alienated from their own cultural
contexts which start to erode the already feeble pluralism in the country.
Non-Arab Muslims need to ask a simple question: If Arabs were not expected to
give up their culture when they embraced Islam, why should they (the non-Arabs)
be so willing to give up their cultural moorings? For example, since Islam is a
proselytizing religion, Muslims have always worked towards converting people.
In India, it is common that when a Hindu converts to Islam, he is immediately
given a ‘Muslim’ name. Now, Muslim history itself tells us that none of the
original converts to Islam changed their names. Abu Bakr, Umar and other
companions of the prophet never changed their names after becoming Muslims.
They had Arab names before and even after they became Muslims. No one felt any
need to change their names. So why it is that non-Arab Muslims must insist that
a convert’s name should be changed? Why can’t Ramesh Kumar be an acceptable
just one facet of a cultural complex. Our dress patterns, our folk songs are
all our cultural heritage and there is no need to jettison them just because
one becomes a Muslim. However, this is not acceptable to the conservative Ulema
who by arguing that religion and culture should be the same, are in fact
fighting an ideological battle to control the minds of the Muslim community and
make them appear as a separate religious and cultural entity. That is why it is
not acceptable to them that Nusrat sports certain cultural markers associated
with Hindu religion. But this certainly needs to be called out. By allowing the
Ulema to set the agenda, Muslims are actually harming themselves in the long
It must be
told that the Ulema are not the only ones that need to be called out. The Hindu
right wing, which is currently toasting Nusrat Jahan, would have reacted very
differently if the characters in the current episode had been different. Just
for a minute imagine a Muslim man marrying a Hindu actress according to Muslim
traditions. All hell would have broken loose and accusations of love jihad
would be levelled against the man. Like the Islamists, the Hindu right wing
also works overtime to weaken Indian pluralism. In their intense hatred of
Muslims, these Hindu right wingers do not realise that they are like
carbon-copies of the very same Islamists that they claim to oppose.
Alam is a columnist with NewAgeIslam.com
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