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Nusrat Jahan Reminds Muslims that Religion and Culture Must be Dissociated

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

12 July 2019

Nusrat 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.

The tide 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.

To make 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.

Only time 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.

However, 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.

However, 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 Muslim name?

Names are 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 run.

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. 

Arshad Alam is a columnist with


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