Between wishful thinking and theological imperatives: The case of Suhana Syed
Following her recent performance in a reality show in a private TV Channel, Suhana Syed, a 22 yr old young woman from Karnataka has suddenly found herself shot into the focus of Media limelight. Syed sung a Bhajan (Hindu devotional song) addressed to the Hindu deity Lord Balaji in a contest in Z Kannada channel and under the unanimous verdict of the panel of judges was applauded as the symbol of ‘Hindu-Muslim unity’.
Understandably, a Muslim woman, with her hair covered in a Hijab, in mode Islamique, rendering a devotional song in praise of a Hindu deity was the very picture of the composite India which we all yearn to see. Yet, not everyone took an appreciative view of a matter. A Facebook Group, under the name of ‘Mangalore Muslims’ subjected Syed to vicious trolling and poured vitriolic diatribes upon her for her actions, which, allegedly, were blatant transgressions of Islamic religious principles.
Quite predictably, support for Syed started pouring in from all quarters and her critics were subjected to a barrage of condemnation. Veteran journalist Barkha Dutt cited the tradition of Sehnai maestro Late Ustad Bismilla Khan performing before the Vishwanath temple at Benaras. Among other instances of the like, mentioned in this context, were Mohammed Rafi’s renditions of Bhajans addressed to Hindu Gods Ram and Hari. So much so, under this deluge of collective ire, most of the controversial comments and criticisms posted online were deleted by the group.
So far we have a happy ending to an ideal fairy tale. A young braveheart stands up for a just and honourable cause, she incurs the wrath of a group of extremists and bigots who make her a target of their attacks, the entire nation rushes to the defense of the damsel-in-distress and the perceived villains are rebuked and forced to shut up. Until we have further developments in this regard it would be a futile exercise to add yet another epilogue to this well analysed story. However, a totally different perspective of the incident seems to have been surprisingly overlooked.
Radical Islamists, extremists, bigots, fundamentalists, deviant moral policemen, inter alia, were the standard adjectives employed by the Indian intelligentsia in their knee-jerk condemnation of the tormentors of Syed. As a matter of fact, this binary of ‘extremist vs liberal’ is a popular analytical tool of pundits all over the world while dealing with religious affairs in general and those concerning Islam in particular.
Secularists in South Asia, for that matter are quite fond of celebrating the unique syncretic tradition of South Asian Islam. The Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh who authored Majma-ul-Bahrein (Mingling of Two Seas) on comparative religion and had the Upanishads translated into Persian, Sant Kabir whose Dohas or couplets decried both Hindu and Islamic orthodoxy, the Punjabi Sufi mystic Baba Bulle Shah whose poems reverberated with Vedantic overtones, and many more are hailed as the torchbearers of Hindu-Muslim unity in the subcontinent.
No wonder, Suhana Syed, with the Hijab on her head and the Bhajan in her lips represented, nay, personified this unique composite and catholic character of South Asian Islam. As opposed to this brand of liberal Islam, there is yet another version of Islam in South Asia that is a little less accommodating in character. Once confronted with this exclusivist, puritanical version of the Islamic belief system, intellectuals, by and large, either maintain a golden silence or at the best belch platitudes.
Yet another tactic has, of late, become quite popular in the more articulate quarters of the Literati in this part of the world. Blame it on Wahabism! Thus anything from the Islamic world that comes into conflict with the Shibboleths of the liberal secular establishment is attributed to a the influence of the intolerant Wahabi ideology, a direct import from the Arab world, which, untempered by time and space, found its way in the subcontinent and is alien, and more importantly, dangerous for the communal harmony of multi religious societies like the ones in India and in her immediate neighbourhood.
It is not the intention of this article to elaborate upon the Liberal-Extremist divide of South Asian Islam. Indeed, it is difficult to provide objective definitions of the terms ‘Liberal’ and ‘Extremist’ without having a thorough knowledge of Islamic philosophy and theology. Some would point at the sheer absurdity of the enterprise, given the fact that Islamic culture itself is not a monolith and is characterized by spatial and temporal heterogeneity.
However, all said and done, the fact remains the Islam is a well organised religion without any ambiguity pertaining to the basics of the belief system. Almost a millennium and half after the introduction of Islam in the Indian subcontinent it was not quite irrational to expect at least the educated sections to have some degree of familiarity with the basics of the religion of their Muslim neighbours. However, from the superficial and juvenile arguments articulated from the learned quarters it appears that far from drinking deep, the wise men of this part of the world did not even care to taste the Pierian Spring of Islam.
Whenever an individual has to embrace the Islamic faith he or she has to recite the ‘Shahada‘ or the declaration of the testimony. The act involves declaration of the fact that no one else but Allah is worthy of worship and acknowledgement of the peerless status of the Almighty. Ascribing any partner (‘Shareek‘ in Arabic) to Allah, in other words, worshiping any entity along with or other than Allah constitutes Shirk, the worst possible crime in Islamic worldview, a crime that deserves no mercy in this life or the next. Over this concept of uncompromising monotheism of Islam, called ‘Tauheed’ (Oneness of God) in original Arabic, there is and never was any shred of subjectivity across the length and breadth of the Muslim community all over the world.
This is exactly the reason why there was a countrywide protest from a large section of Indian Muslims over the issue of forcing Muslims to sing ‘Vande Mataram’, the national song of India. The song, after all, was an ode to the deified Mother India. This is exactly the reason why Muslims consider Jesus Christ a Prophet of Allah and not the coeternal Son of God as Trinitarian Christians do. This is exactly the reason why the new version of the original Ram Dhun, a hugely popular devotional song in praise of the deified Legendary Indian hero Ram (considered to the incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu), endorsed and popularised by Mahatma Gandhi, for having equated Ram, a mortal, with Allah, is pure and unadulterated Shirk from the Islamic point of view.
Despite the best of her intentions, the fact remains that Suhana Syed sang a devotional song addressed to a Hindu deity. If the “Mangalore Muslims”, whoever they were, interpreted this action as Shirk, one wonders where and how they went wrong.
Establishment of communal harmony in the religiously diverse Indian subcontinent is a sacred and desirable goal. This article does not have the slightest intention of contaminating this noble enterprise with any kind of cynicism whatsoever. The sole objective here is to highlight the fact that in most of the inter-religious discourses, especially the ones involving Hindus and Muslims, we rarely put ourselves in each other’s shoes. With all our wishful thinking we construct a reality of our own imagination, seldom congruent with the reality that actually exists. Herein lies the root of all cognitive dissonance.
The Henotheistic Indic worldview and the Monotheistic Abrahamic worldviews are not necessarily mutually incompatible, but they are different nonetheless. As long as these differences remain unacknowledged and unanalysed, confusion and misunderstanding will dominate all Hindu-Muslim discourses and a practical solution will continue to remain a Chimera.
The author is a JNU alumnus and is currently employed as an Officer of the Government of West Bengal.