By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
Much of my childhood was spent stupefied by two great mysteries. One, the Carefree ad. I couldn’t fathom why a pretty young girl cavorting around town and claiming to be “very comfortable” in doing so would cause such a hushed silence to descend upon our living room every time she was on air. Further, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was that made her so comfortable. Surely it wasn’t just her t-shirt and skirt―other ads for similar products didn’t stir such apparent unease among the elder members of my family.
“Mummy, what’s Carefree?” I once inquired in a carefree manner, after convincing myself that it was nothing scandalous and I just had to ask. “You little good-for-nothing, you’ve been watching too much TV,” she shot back. “Go back to your books. Don’t you have an exam tomorrow?”
It would take a few years before the secret would reveal itself to me.
The second great mystery was the term “bade ka”. I heard it bandied about our house every now and then, most commonly on the dinner table. I could, of course, make out what it literally meant: “of or belonging to something big”. But for the life of me, I had no clue what this big thing was, or what belonged to it. Rather like Carefree, there was a hint of scandal every time someone would mention “bade ka”, a conspiratorial lowering of the volume even though everyone knew what they were talking about (except me).
Realisation dawned gradually: I learnt initially that it was some kind of meat, and eventually that it was beef. But again, it took a few years before I understood why it had to be spoken of in a hushed voice. Hindus didn’t eat it, and so it was impolite (and sometimes dangerous) to talk loudly or publicly about it.
Like some ancient puzzle, however, the knowledge only led me to new questions. Beef was not supposed to be particularly good quality meat, not as good as chicken and certainly nothing compared to mutton. It was also difficult to procure―someone had to specially go to the suburbs to fetch it―and just as hard to cook. Why, then, were we so obsessed with eating beef? What was the big deal?
The answer is not to be found in the annals of gastronomy. Salivatory glands and pancreatic juices have little to do with it. Eating beef carries a deeper meaning for Indian Muslims: it is a part of their self-definition, indeed a full 50 percent of it.
Sociologist Fredrik Barth has argued that communal identity lies at the boundary rather than what is enclosed within it. That is to say, we see ourselves primarily in terms of how we are different from others around us. These differences may have little intrinsic worth, but we strive to maintain them because they define who we are.
And so it is with eating beef for Indian Muslims. Poor in quality, difficult to obtain and hard to cook, it is still a must to eat simply because Hindus do not. The first Kalima restricts itself to the uniqueness of Allah and the prophet hood of Muhammad, and there is no reference to beef in the other four pillars of Islam either. Throughout the Quran and the archives of Hadith, it may be mentioned but only in passing. Yet, the eating of beef is the litmus test of being a Muslim in India.
Ask a recent convert. The change of heart is indubitably celebrated with invitations to spicy dinners abounding in all varieties of bovine chops and ribs. Quiz a Hindu who has wed a Muslim. No sooner has the Nikah been performed than the relatives start wondering if she has been indoctrinated into the cult of “bade ka”. Indeed, talk to any Indian Muslim if, in the process of growing up, he wasn’t once told he could hardly consider himself a part of the ummah if he shirked the venerable duty of consuming beef. “Amaan yaar, bade ka nahin khaoge to musalman kya hue?”
This is not true of Muslims anywhere else. An American Muslim, on spotting a beef steak diner on the highway, may simply continue driving without facing an identity crisis. Give an Arab a plate of stir fried beef, and he may have it or push it away without undue concerns about his afterlife. But not an Indian Muslim, for whom eating beef is half his religion.
The other half is comprised of his Arabic name. Muhammad, of course, is the preferred choice, followed by the names of other Prophets, the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet), the Tabi’een (followers of the companions) and the Taba al Tabi’een (followers of the followers of the companions). The more adventurous, almost deviant parents would push their children’s luck by choosing an Arabic word for its acoustic rather than theological value (Saif, for instance). But in Arabic the name must be.
Admittedly, Muslims around the world sport Arabic names, but no other Muslim community other than the Indian is quite so fixated with the practice. The Islamic Society of North America, for instance, can choose as its leader a woman named Ingrid Mattson without raising eyebrows. And Muslim parents in Indonesia can name their children Megawati Sukarnoputri or Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono without seriously denting their chances of becoming the President of the world’s most populous Muslim country.
But no such travesty can transpire among the Muslims of India. Again, this has more to do with maintaining differences than anything else. A Hindu would never have an Arabic name; hence an Indian Muslim must always have it.
To be a Muslim in India, thus, you need to devour beef―copiously and often―and have an Arabic name. A few other candid markers of difference, such as the burqa and the beard, have started challenging this duopoly in recent years, but little else matters. You may cheat people and lie to your heart’s content. You may even murder and maim. In the hearts of the solicitous Indian ummah, a Muslim you remain.
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.