By Arshad Alam for New Age Islam
20 July 2012
What is in a name? Perhaps much if we listen in carefully. A couple of years ago, some Muslims in Malaysia objected to Christians using the name of Allah to denote God. Almost as if they had a copyright over the usage of the name Allah, these Muslims argued that since Allah was the name of their God, only they (the Muslims) could use this word.
The controversy over the usage of Allah is not unique to Malaysian Muslims; shades of this contest are present elsewhere too, including in India. Muslims alone can decide whether the word Allah will belong specifically to them or will be available universally for other religious traditions as well. Islamic scholars have always posited Islam as a universal religion and Allah as the God of all humanity. Post the Malaysian controversy, this sure started looking very unconvincing.
But why is it that a section of Muslims decide to reduce a universal God to a Muslim God? Does it say something about their own selves; about what kind of Muslims they are and what kind of Muslims they want to become?
During my visits to my hometown in Bihar, I could not help but notice most of my friends using the word ‘Allah hafiz’ in place of the more traditional ‘Khuda hafiz’. Curious to find out the reason for this change of terminology, I was told that the name of Muslim God was Allah and so it was proper for Muslims to use only this name.
The word Khuda was jettisoned precisely because it was inclusive and people from other religious traditions were also known to use that word.
It is the same anxiety, the same fear which beset the Malaysian Muslims. It is an anxiety about their religious identity, an anxiety which comes from interrogating the self as to what kind of Muslims they are. The echo of this vigorous re-examination of the Muslim religious-self is not confined to Malaysia or India, but rather is characteristic of Muslims inhabiting the Islamic periphery.
Thus beyond the Islamic centre of Middle East, the Muslims of the periphery are getting increasingly anxious over their religious identity. The Mahabharata reciting Muslim of Indonesia is in the process of become a fable; the shared space of shrines is under attack in the Central Asian Republics and Pakistan; the increasing presence of the burqa and the diminishing presence of vermillion on Muslim heads are there for all to see.
Muslims in the periphery are thus undergoing tremendous interpretive stress and are re-defining what it means to be a Muslim.
One part of this re-definition is the creation of boundary markers which clearly sets them apart from others. Aided by reformist organizations like Deoband, they are keen to jettison their own cultural location and specific histories. In the process, they are themselves getting negative about their tradition and cultural heritage; something they see as a polluting influence on their Islamic selves.
This search for ‘purity’ reorients them towards the Arabs, the supposed possessors of unalloyed Islamic selves. The Centre of Islam, with all its magnanimity, pumps oil money to fund mosques and madrasas, which will teach the peripherals what ‘true’ Islam is all about. What gets taught here is beside the point, but for the students what gets imprinted in their minds is a landscape very different from theirs. They learn of stories which have no relevance to their immediate surroundings, which have no roots in their cultural tradition.
To not know of the Muslim contribution to South Asian classical music and learn that music is not permissible in Islam is tantamount to uprooting a Muslim from his own historical self. To learn about the deserts of Arabia sitting in the rainforests Indonesia is symbolic violence. This violence deeply alienates the individual from his own social ecology. What then does one expect from these Muslims who are themselves products of violence?
It is unfortunate but true that more and more Muslims are getting detached from their own cultural moorings. This detachment and slow re-coupling with an Arab Islamic tradition is going to do immense harm to Muslims, especially those who are living in multicultural societies like in India. Gradually, this would lead to becoming estranged from our own surroundings and neighbourhoods which then leads to the development of negative stereotypes about other communities.
It is imperative for an Indian Muslim, not just to know about their rich historic specificity of living together, but also appreciate and participate in the lives of other communities. The process of slow Arabisation must therefore be arrested not only because it is politically necessary but also because of the simple fact that no community can lead a healthy life without a sense of rootedness. There is a need therefore for a context specific theology which is altogether lacking.
Spreading cultural awareness by excavating a particular community’s location in history and culture has been one of the important roles of the educated middle class. The tragedy of Indian Muslims is that their own middle class has abandoned this role altogether. Unfortunately, they are the ones most prone to the winds of Arabisation flowing through various information networks like the third rate discourse of tele-mulla Zakir Naik.
Arshad Alam is an author and writer, currently with Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi He writes a regular column for New Age Islam.