Sunday, July 26, 2009

My Experiences of a Model Muslim Community

I. preliminary remarks
At the outset, I place on record my sincere gratitude to Fr. Paul Jackson S.J and others with whose guidance and interactions I am able to articulate my experiences in the form of an article. As a Catholic student of Christian Theology, my intention in writing this article is neither to glorify Islam, nor to criticize it, and much less, to propagate it. It is an expression of the insights I gathered during my interactions with our Muslim brethren in Sasaram town and in Murlipur village, in Bihar within a limited time. Since it is my first-hand experience, I bring this out for further reflection and contemplation, for my personal growth and for others to react to and to reflect upon.

II. My primordial ‘ALLAH’ EXPERIENCE
Since my childhood somehow or the other I had chances to be with Muslims, especially during my school days. I used to have a few Muslim friends. I found no difference in them, either in their physique or in their friendship towards me. They too had the same heart as I had. Except that I saw them going to school on Sundays, when we had Holidays, and, while we wore pants and shirts, they dressed up in Kurta and Pajama. Today, when I think of Islam, the thought that comes to me at once is the grave and the green flag in my village that I used to notice every day. By and large, through newspapers and other media, I have been bombarded with ideas that Muslims are enemies of our nation, butchers, foreigners and unpatriotic in every way. My innocent prayer was that the Muslims must be destroyed. I had a strong prejudice against Muslims and slowly lost my regard for them. This is just one side of the story.

The other side is still more bleak. I was careful to avoid such people lest I become a prey to them. I never dared enter their mosques, much less converse with them. I did all this and more with the deep prejudice that I gathered from external agents. Now I admit that my prejudice and other negative feelings against Muslims was out of my ignorance, and I feel deeply sorry for them. One may question as to what makes me say this.

Keeping this as the base, I had gone to experience the Islamic faith practiced in and around Sasaram. In the beginning, I was reserved and anxious as to how to proceed with my meeting and conversation with the maulvis. In the process, I became conscious of the fact that the maulvis or the believers shared about Allah or anything related to Islam because they were CONVINCED and placed their full TRUST in Allah as representatives of the ONE Islamic COMMUNITY. They believed that Allah was with them and they spoke on behalf of Allah.

This is the primordial Allah experience, which has not only transformed my life but also made me realize as to how I should direct my life in service of the people of Bihar.

1. Allah for Muslims and Non-Muslims
Wherever we shared our experiences, the question that most of them found hard was, “Who is Allah for you?” We do not have the best of answers as we thought we could. Even the best of teachers in the three Madrasas answered that ‘Allah is the one whom we cannot see in this world but in the life to come’. Interestingly, when S.M. Asghar, a retired teacher, was asked about his personal experience of Allah, he had something entirely different to share. For him, Allah is no-where and now-here. He is right inside every single person. This is his experience of Allah and has very little to do with the cultural dimension of his Islamic faith. Observing the different types of answers, doubts began to emerge within me. The book of the Quran, the prophets and other Islamic teachings, are the fruit of the religious experience of someone or of a few people in the past, for example, the prophet Mohammed. How does his religious experience still bind Muslims or those who follow Islam? In all these the teachings, though directly meant for Muslims, also help anyone who is in search of truth. It is built on basic human values and the ways to reach the transcendent. Therefore Allah is not only for Muslims, but also for non-Muslims, provided they follow his footsteps. It is not enough to read the Quran to be a Muslim, but rather it is one’s pattern of life and trust in Allah, because Allah is everywhere, all potent, omniscient, great, powerful and merciful.

2. Quran: A study from the heart and a way of life
We had the fortune of visiting three madrasas, namely, Dar ul-Ulum Furqania, Dar ul-Ulum Khairiya Nizamiya and the Reza Academy. The first madrasa comprised of different grades with the maximum of 40 boys, and the second madrasa had both girls and boys. The Reza Academy follows a normal school pattern and syllabus. Moreover, there are more than 10 academies and other small madrasas in Sasaram. In all these students are taught the Quran from the age when they join the academies. They are taught Urdu and Arabic. Its contents have been guaranteed by Allah in Sura 2:2: "This is the Scripture whereof there is no doubt..."

Though one may criticize Muslims for their literal interpretation of the Quran, yet s/he should note that the Quran is meant for internalization and personalization, not for mere lip service. It sinks right down into one’s being and it is witnessed to through one’s life. To dramatize this truth, the teacher brought a boy in front of us and mentioned that even if the book of the Quran is burnt, yet the Quran (in its letter and spirit) lives on in him.

I foresee three types of dangers when he explained these events. First, if Allah is eternal, then how can the Quran also be eternal? There cannot be two eternal things existing at the same time. Secondly, it seemed to me that every individual is subordinate and secondary to the book of the Quran, including Muslims. Thirdly, one becomes a slave to the Quran. There is very little possibility of human freedom in such an outlook towards the Quran. The Quran can become a way of life, but not at the cost of one’s life. It is written in human language so that humans can understand and apply its values in their lives. Therefore, the Quran is a way of life.

3. Self-righteousness
They always wanted to infuse in us the truth that they have learned and are living by their sole truth, that Islam is the true religion. Out of zeal or enthusiasm, the teachers praise Islam to the sky by putting down other religions. This was visible especially when they shared about their relationship with the Jews. They prefer Christians to Jews when they want to share many of their religious sentiments, feelings, commonalities and experiences. They do this just because Jews did not believe in Allah or in any of the prophets and, worse still, they killed some of them.

4. Burqa: A symbol of safety or insecurity?
While we moved from place to place, we found women wearing Burqa, especially in the town. I distanced myself from women for many reasons. It is not that I kept them away from my interaction but rather 'they' were kept in such a social condition. This was noticed especially when we visited their houses. It is the women who prepare tea and set the table but it is the male who serves the host. They say that Muslim women wear Burqa so that they could be safe and secure from other men who would easily get "seduced". There are two points of concern here. First of all, Muslim women rarely go out, and, if they do, they wear Burqa. They feel that it is sign of protection from other men. But, what about the feelings of these women? Are they not also seduced by men outside? The Burqa that prevents male seduction can become a window for the women to have sexual feelings for themselves. Therefore, it is only a one-way process. Secondly, it is meant for protection only from others. Often, they are ill treated by their own husbands and kept as a commodity to be used. The Muslim community is androcentric and patriarchal. A Burqa may protect a Muslim woman from other men, but very seldom from her own husband. It is not the same story in the village. In Murlipur, women are free to express their concerns, have a say in the decision of the family, and move around freely. Here they are more protected and feel very safe. The wearing of a Burqa should be left to the individual's decision.

Having appraised the reader of some of the aspects of the Islamic faith and practices in Sasaram, I would like to present in depth the aspect of Communion and Unity among the Muslim and the Hindu brethren.

According to the 1991 Census, of 2,900,685 people, there are 2,625,871 Hindus and 270,866 Muslims living in Sasaram district, with the percentage of 90.53 % and 9.34% respectively.

Our tour to many Madrasas, Masjids and interactions with persons, enthused our further search towards the truth found in Islam. We went to different academies and Dar ul-Ulum not as inquisitors or as accusers but as Catholics who are still in search of the TRUTH in other religions. It helped us to be more open to the TRUTH also found in other religions. One interesting thing to note is that whosoever enlightened us always fell on the same line of thought with respect to the Hindu brethren. In very few cases, we noticed how they contradicted themselves with regard to other areas of Islamic faith.

1. Hindu temple/Sher shah’s Tomb and Saraswati / Eid Festivals: a symbol of Unity
From the historical point of view and from Islamic world, Sasaram is famous for the two tombs built by Sher shah and his son Sultan Islam Shah Suri in 1545 A.D. Sasaram is one of the rare towns where there is a cordial relationship between the Muslim and the Hindu communities and where the media has no religious feelings so far.

The centuries-old Sher Shah's tomb is, and continues to be, the sign and symbol of unity. Whoever goes to see the tomb also notices a Hindu temple within its boundary. I would look at this not as a sign of contradiction but as a sign of unity, as many talked about it in our interactions with them. It is true that there were disputes with regard to the sanctity of the place for both Hindus and Muslims. Every year the Hindus used to immerse the statues at the end of the celebration of Saraswati festival. Last year the celebration of Saraswati for the Hindus and celebration of Eid for Muslims happened to fall on the same day. There was a lot of friction between the two communities. The Muslim brethren took the initiative to end the fight and they told the Hindus that they would have the Eid celebration at home and would not disturb the Hindus in their celebrations. Hearing this, the Hindus felt uneasy. They said that if the Muslim brethren could sacrifice their joys for the sake the Hindu brethren, then they also could do the same. After much reflection, both agreed that they would celebrate their festivals without disturbing the other. Both joined in the celebration of each other’s festivals. Thus, the same day Saraswati and Eid were celebrated together. This is what we call Sarva dharm (Universal Religion) in practice. This says something about Muslims and their large-heartedness towards the feelings of others.

2. Jihad: A stark conflictual reality of the Self
The word Jihad has become a misnomer for a material and armed struggle, though it originated as a religious and spiritual term. It is taken at face value. The right definition of the term Jihad needs to be defined. Though Jihad has been used negatively and considered lesser Jihad (jihād al-asghar) in the religious sense of the term. Scholars still question the type of struggle the Quran speaks of.

In my conversations with the heads of various madrasas, Jihad was understood not just as a war between two parties, but a reality of the self. The word “Jihad” in the Quran is basically a fight with regard to the inner struggle of the self or jihād bin nafs between the good and evil. This is the greater Jihad (jihād al-akbar). It is more an inner reality than what meets the eye. The militant usage of the term has no place, even when the community is defenceless. This is what happened in Sasaram in the celebrations of Eid and Saraswati. The Muslims had to fight against themselves in their struggle to become good and as true followers of Allah. This is a struggle not restricted to a few individuals alone but binds the whole community. It is the task of each believer if s/he wants to be faithful to the teachings of the Quran. And the Muslim community in Sasaram is the best example of the true understanding of the term Jihad.

3. Inter-religious Dialogue: a means to foster an authentic human family
In our interactions with Muslims, we had the chance to explain the Church's position on Mary, Jesus as Son of God, and our relationships with Jews etc. They had answers to all our questions. It seemed to us that their answers were mostly derived either from the Quran or from the Hadith literature. It was sometimes a monologue. They seldom noticed the commonalities, while giving more stress on the differences in both the religions. In spite of such pitfalls, we found this dialogue is more practiced than professed in the ordinary believers. We awoke in them a way to build bridges among various religions. Our inspiration has its base in Sura 5:48: “We have ordained a law and a path for each of you. Had Allah pleased, He could have made you one nation: but that He might prove you by that which He has bestowed upon you. Vie with one another in good works, for to Allah you shall all return and He will declare to you what you have disagreed about”. This enabled us to arrive at a comprehensive and objective knowledge of each other’s belief. And the Sasaram Muslim community is ever open to any sincere and truthful dialogue with other religions.

4. Contradictions as possibilities of convergence
Right through my experience I felt a deep sense of openness and wide possibilities of making the many differences of the Christian and the Islamic faith into ONE platform. However, there are contradictions concerning the Trinity, the Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Divine Sonship of Jesus, Original Sin and Atonement etc. The values like Love, Generosity, Kindness, Charity, Equality, Happiness and Peace are common to both Christianity and Islam. Such initiatives and experiences of promoting authentic human values could be stepping-stones to bring about a close collaboration and combined efforts in building a mutual relationship between the Christians and Muslims in Sasaram town. This was very evident in my interactions with them.

If one would ever want to visit heaven on this earth, I would recommend that s/he should go to Murlipur. It is a village twenty kilometers away from Sasaram town. It consists of more than 227 families of whom 55 are Muslim. There is a small Muslim community as compared to the Muslim population in the near-by villages. Other residents are mainly Hindus belonging to various castes.
I am still deeply affected by the hospitality I received by the Muslims and the Hindus of Murlipur village. Any stranger going to the village for the first time would agree with me. On the very first day, when we met Mr. Shahe Alam Ansari, a teacher of the local school, my feelings of joy had no bounds. I had heard about him, his family and his edifying life from my predecessors. Now I had the chance to experience him fully.

1. A friendship with no religious bias
Right from the day we arrived Mr. Shahe Alam Ansari told us that he had been waiting for us for the past one month. He has a close friend by name Sathinder, a dalit Hindu. We enjoyed the hospitality of both the Muslim and Hindu families. As these families were very hospitable, so also were the rest of the families in Murlipur. We had meals in the Muslim house and stayed in the Hindu house. We could enter into any family and greet or interact with them. They were very free with us. We could rarely distinguish whether one was a Hindu or a Muslim. My mind was corrupted and biased with a lot of religious discrimination, but theirs was not. Friendship has no religion. Rather, it goes beyond religion. The deep love between two friends (in this case, Mr. S.A. Ansari and Mr. Sathinder) brings two religions together. There is no diversion but convergence. This is what every religion does and is supposed to do. For me, it was a heavenly experience of meeting Allah and Ravidas together in these two persons.

2. ‘In persona’ Allah
Mr. Shahe Alam Ansari was always with us, except when he had to teach in the school. When we interacted with the villagers, and when we meditated on Allah very deeply, what I often found was that Mr. S. Alam Ansari was ‘in persona Allah’ (Allah in person). The invisible Allah was visible for me, and could touch and feel Him. This was the peak of my experience of Allah for me in the village of Murlipur. I could not but identify myself with Allah, especially in my relations with the Muslim brethren and Mr. Shahe Alam Ansari in particular. One among many aspects that touched me was his Zakat. He is so gentle and kind and generous with the very minimum he has. What is more impressive for me is that he lives with his family in a dilapidated thatched house and reaches out to people in need, irrespective of caste and religion. This is the type of holiness or benevolence I witnessed from his life. As a Muslim, he is aware of what the Quran says about being unkind in Sura 107:1: “It is he who turns away the orphan and does not urge others to feed the poor.” For him, charity is greater than the Pilgrimage to Mecca. For him Mecca is Murlipur, and the world given to serve him is Murlipur. This is how he seeks to do the will of Allah in his life.
At the same time, I found that sometimes it was easier for me to relate with the Muslim brethren in the village than in the town. At the depth dimension, I found it more difficult to believe in the conceptual and other-worldly Allah than in believing in the authentic life of the Muslims.
It is true that, in this mini heaven on earth (Murlipur), you may not find philosophers, but you will find followers of their faith in Allah or in Ravidass or in Ram.

3. Rich Symbolism: a sign of profound union and Communion
We are aware that every religion is comprised of rich symbols, and Islam is no exception to this. What makes Islam different and unique is the way the symbols are used and the importance given to them. I found no pictures of Allah or any images related to Him either in the Muslim house or in the Mosque. In my experience with Muslims in Murlipur, the most important moment is the time when the Muslim males pray in the Mosque. The community is invited for Namaaz, which is a symbolic gesture of calling on Allah and proclaiming that He is great. The ablution (wazu), different postures during prayer (rakat) speak volumes of their total dependence on Allah. Most importantly, all these symbols express the active participation, profound union of persons belonging to different economic status, social positions, race, cultures, language etc in Allah. Interestingly, these symbols have not changed culturally, socially and existentially. These symbols enrich the community dimension of the Muslims in Murlipur.

I always wondered as to how in the world the Islamic faith, with its literal interpretation of the Quran and conservative way of life, could attract more followers. From my experience in the village, I could say that it is because of the faithful community that keeps the Islamic faith alive. It is not because of human tactics and manipulations, but rather it is their faith reflected in their way of life as individuals and as persons belonging to ONE Islamic community. Let us learn from them and interiorize the experience of Allah in our life and society.

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