By Irena Akbar
July 18, 2014
On June 30, the first day of Ramadan, my Facebook wall turned into a collage of pictures, graphics and status messages announcing the beginning of the Muslim holy month. The message “Ramadan Mubarak”, written calligraphically against a backdrop of a minaret or a crescent or a pack of dates, was shared by several of my friends belonging to varied faiths and living in different parts of the world, including India.
Hold on, how can someone living in India, and being Indian, ever say “Ramadan”? That was a point raised by one Facebook friend (not real-life friend), when she posted, “Aap sabhi ko Ramadhan, Ramadan Nahi — Sirf Saada, Sachcha, Hindustani ‘Ramzan Mubarak’!” In English, she meant, “Wish you all not Ramadan, but only simple, true Indian Ramzan Mubarak’. She later even suggested that those who prefer “d” over “z” are followers of “Saudi Islam”, and that choosing “Ramadan” over “Ramzan” is not just a spelling preference but a “political decision” of favouring Arabs over Persians!
Despite making her repulsion to “Ramadan” clear in her wall post, many people still wished her “Ramadan Mubarak” in their comments.
Ramadan is an Arabic word, and is pronounced with a “d”, not a “z”. But in Persian or Urdu, the “z” replaces the “d”. American and British English use Ramadan, while English-language dailies in India use both spellings. In India, most people say Ramzan when they speak Urdu/ Hindi, but many now prefer to use Ramadan at least when speaking in English. It’s a trend that has worried several “left-liberal” Muslims who “fear” the “Saudisation” or “Arabisation” or “Wahhabisation” of Indian Muslims. It’s not uncommon to see such Muslims declaring their allegiance to “INDIAN ISLAM” (yes, written in all caps) on their Twitter bios. It’s also not uncommon to see followers of “Indian Islam” rebuking fellow Indian Muslims for saying “Allah Hafiz” instead of “Khuda Hafiz”, and for breaking their fast in “Ramadan”, not “Ramzan”.
When “Indian Islam” followers rebuke Indian Muslims for “digressing” from their so-called version of the faith, they are no different from Hindu fundamentalists who demand that “Indian culture” be followed in our arts, and from the moral police who manhandle lovers for public displays of affection on Valentine’s Day. These examples may seem unrelated but have a singular theme: intolerance of everything perceived to be not “Indian”.
Who decides what is Indian? And could someone please define “Indian Islam”? Surely, Indian Muslims are as diverse as India itself, so shouldn’t there be a “Tamil Islam”, a “Bihari Islam”, a “Kashmiri Islam”, etc? Perhaps there are as many versions of Islam as there are varieties of Biryani cooked across India? Some followers of “Indian Islam” suggest that the Sufi branch of the religion, which emerged in faraway Turkey but found many takers in the subcontinent, is the only “peaceful” form of Islam. Those who don’t follow Sufi/ Barelvi branches are dubbed “Arabised”, “puritanical”, “Wahabi” and certainly not followers of “Indian Islam”.
As unclear as “Indian Islam” followers are about what they believe in, they are absolutely certain about what they do not believe in. Anything that is Arab, and so their nit-picking of “Allah Hafiz” and “Ramadan”. They conveniently forget Islam first came to India through Arab traders who arrived on Kerala’s shores. Those were peaceful chaps, unlike the marauding armies that had come from Central Asia and spoke Persian, the preferred language of the “Indian Islam” followers.
But it’s not history the “Indian Islam” followers are worried about; it’s the current “Arab-Saudi-Wahabi” influence that has them worked up. Sure, the Arab world is in turmoil, with crises in Iraq, Syria and Palestine nearing no end. Sure, there is the ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hamas, all Arab gun-toting militants who, by the way, kill hapless Arab civilians. But there is also the peaceful United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman — countries that host more foreigners than their own nationals, and have temples and churches along with mosques. Does not that speak of Arab tolerance? As for Saudi Arabia, it is intolerant of all faiths except Sunni Islam, but the kingdom hosts people of several nationalities. There are more Indian expatriates in that country than elsewhere, and many of them are not Muslim.
So, let’s not, in an attempt to prove our patriotism and secularism, run down the Arabs and Indian Muslims who prefer Arabic over Persian, or who don’t visit Sufi shrines. If “Indian Islam” followers think their anti-Arab, pro-Sufi stance makes them more secular and patriotic in the eyes of non-Muslim Indians, they are wrong. Almost all my Hindu friends have wished me “Ramadan Mubarak”, and are not bothered about my preference of “Ramadan” over “Ramzan”. In fact, since “Ramadan” is used by Westerners too, many young people think the term is “cooler” than “Ramzan”. Their preference has nothing to do with Arabic vs Persian/ Urdu.
In the end, it’s about the freedom of choosing to speak, to spell a word whatever way you want. And in democratic India, there can be no place for intolerance against exercising such freedoms. By the way, I say “Khuda Hafiz” and “Ramadan Mubarak”. So, am I a follower of “Indian Islam” or “Saudi Islam”? Let’s free the Indian Muslim of such unnecessary questions.