Sunday, July 26, 2009

My Journey to the World of Islam
Sr. Shanty,OLP

When I heard that I had to go to different places and meet Muslims in their homes, work places, schools etc., I was reluctant and did not feel comfortable about it. Being a woman I had the feelings of uncertainty, insecurity, yet, on the whole, I felt challenged. When I reached Aurangabad for this purpose, people, especially women, looked at me with wonder. I went around asking different questions, and interacting with different people. I also began to wonder at them, especially, “Why are the women not allowed to go out?" Why do they cover themselves completely? As the days passed by, I grew in knowledge of their religious practices and customs, which evoked a lot of respect and reverence towards them. Being with Muslims enabled me to know them better and I count it as a marvelous experience for me. It has left a positive impact in my life and opened my eyes to look at them without prejudice as my brothers and sisters. Many of my misconceptions were clarified. Their faith in Allah, their faith experiences of Allah, their knowledge of the Quran, the importance they give to the teachings of Prophet Mohammad, prayer etc., were very inspiring. Indeed, it gave rise to different questions about my way of life, my religion, belief system, knowledge about religion and the Scripture. The above mentioned experiences paved way for me to have a new understanding of Islam.

Belief in Allah – The One True God.
The belief in the One God, or Tawhid, is the fundamental doctrine of Islam and serves as the foundation of all other beliefs. A Muslim believes that Allah alone is ‘the Lord’, ‘the Creator’, ‘the Sovereign and the master’ of all affairs. He alone is ‘the Absolute’, ‘the Ever- living’, ‘the Eternal’, ‘the Originator’, ‘the Fashioner’ and the cause of everything in the universe. He has no father or mother, brother or sister, wife or children. Muslims experience Allah in their lives very tangibly. He heals, saves, protects. He fulfills their needs and desires. He is lovable and compassionate. At the same time, He is just. According to each one’s deeds he/she will be judged, and he is gracious and merciful. Allah knows everything. He has no form or body. Nobody has seen Him, but the saints have seen ‘his light’. The earth cannot hold the vision of God, because He is Almighty and all powerful. Bano believes that Allah is so concerned about our welfare that even the evil will be turned into good. He provides everything and owns everything. He knows what is best for us. In the difficult moments of life, Allah is present and has a plan for each one of us. I as listened to that, I found that they experienced Allah in each moment of their lives, though often they were not aware of this fact. Every second, every minute, every hour He is present. Without him there is nothing existing. These explanations and understanding helped me to affirm myself that there is only One God, but understood by the human beings and religions differently.

According to Mahmood Alam Ansari, Allah is everything and all-powerful, so that we need to surrender our whole being to Allah. We need not be doubtful or confused but surrender to Him who has created us. Muslims show that they know and obey Allah through practicing the five pillars of Islam, looking after the old and sick, wife, children, paying due respect to fellow human beings, dealing with everyone as said in the Quran, by performing one's own duty well, by listening and helping the needy etc. The way to know the Will of Allah is to live according to the teachings of Prophet Mohammed, the Last Prophet of Allah, because he has seen the ‘Light of Allah’. The majority of the people whom I met had deep respect and love for their religion, the Prophet and the Holy Quran. They were sure that Islam is the perfect religion. Therefore, there is no need for any kind of change.

The Allah Experience of some of Our Brothers and Sisters
I encountered many people of various life situations who shared their unique Allah Experience with us. Their faith in Allah and in the Quran was amazing. Bano, a housewife shared how her prayer was answered. She cried, read the Holy Quran and prayed to Allah with faith and love with the intention of getting a job for her husband and to live a dignified life. Her prayer was answered when her husband got a fine job, and now they are living happily .She also insisted that both joys and sorrows come from Allah. Therefore, we must thank Him in all the situations of our lives. Because Allah knows what is good for us.
For Mohammad Khan, a personal encounter with Allah which made a radical change in his entire life. He was depressed and was at the point of committing suicide due to the problems he faced in his life. He had no job; his daughters were yet to be married, but he had no source of income. Gradually he started to read the Holy Quran with faith; going regularly for prayer; and surrendered himself to Allah. Then, he experienced peace in his life; one of his sons got a job abroad; two of his daughters got married; and slowly the other problems were also solved. He got a good job and experienced a change in his life. In his own words, “I left Allah, but He did not leave me…”

Mrs. Arshiya Sultana experienced God in each moment of her life. For her, Allah is everything. Her income for a month is Rs 800/ and she found it hard to meet all the needs of her children. One day, when it was time for her daughter’s examination, she had to submit the application form along with Rs. 1000/, which was impossible for her to pay at that time. She was in a helpless situation and was confused about where to turn for help. In her desperate need she turned to Allah and cried: "To whom shall I go to borrow the money? Show me a way, otherwise my child will not be allowed to appear for the exam and she will lose one year of education.” The same day evening one of her relatives came to her home and spent the night with them. The next morning, just before he left the house, he gave Rs 1000/ in her hand and said, “See I have brought nothing for your children, so buy something with this money...” Hearing this she was wonderstruck. It was a God Experience for her. As she shared this experience with me, tears were falling down from her eyes, and from mine too. For her, Allah is like a mother who beats the child for doing something wrong, but the child, who is so dependent on the mother, holds her tightly, crying while it is being punished. Seeing the total dependency of the child, the mother feels compassionate towards the child, holds and keeps the child close to her heart, lovingly embraces and showers the child with her kisses. And the child feels comforted, accepted and forgets about the punishment. As I listened to the Muslim brothers and sisters I became more conscious and clear about my own God Experiences.

Women in Islam
‘When a person has a beautiful diamond so valuable and precious, he/she will keep it safely locked up in a box or in a cupboard so that it will not be stolen or destroyed’. Women in Islam are so precious and valuable that no one wants to expose them to the public; this is the reason why the women are wearing burqa. Though Allah has created both the male and female equal, society gives her more importance and value as she is more fragile. Another explanation of the practice of Purdah was more interesting. Usually the sweets are kept closed, if it is kept open, then, the flies come and sit on it, eat or spoil it. Women are beautiful, therefore men get attracted to them; to prevent it, women must wear Purdah. Mrs. Arshiya said that at the time of Mohammad the condition of girl children was not of survival but of doom. They were buried alive or were not taken care of. Prophet Mohammad raised their status from that miserable condition. He treated women as human individuals. However, he could not give them equal status. He said “It is the husband that maintains the wife; hence he is superior to her. She has a duty to obey her husband." The majority of the women whom I met were in favor of purdah. In the past, I had been thinking of the practice of Purdah as something negative. To my surprise, both men and women described their understanding of this practice positively and also the advantage of it.

Burqa - a Blessing!
A burqa is a blessing to them as it covers the women completely. When the women are clad in burqa men are unable to recognize them and they behave with them in a proper manner. They do not become a scandal for the men to get attracted. It keeps them away from the malicious and wrong attitudes of men. ”As there are possibilities for men to get tempted by the structure of our body we need to cover ourselves so that we will not become the source for them to sin,” said Rabia Khatoon. According to Mr. Alam, both males and females are created by Allah differently, so they cannot be equal in any way. There is a natural instinct in us to have attraction for one another. If we find a girl who is wearing burqa and a girl who is in a T-shirt and jeans, naturally people will pay attention to the latter. Therefore, burqa gives more safety for women.
A burqa covers the entire body of the woman so that she is not exposed to extreme weather and dust. Thus it prevents her from falling into various kinds of sickness, especially of allergies, which are the outcome of dust, sun and cold. A burqa gives them respect in society. A woman who wears a burqa is considered to be one who obeys the Holy Quran, the teachings of the Prophet, and the traditions. Therefore, everyone respects her.

Purdah does not prevent the all-round development of women. They can do everything being in purdah. Purdah is not an obstacle for women to do their various duties and jobs. Rather, it gives them more safety and convenience, so that they can concentrate more on their work. It enables them to be more effective in their respective areas.

The Role of Women in Decision-Making.
As in any other religion, and typical in India, women in the families are allowed to express their views, but may not be taken into consideration. Ultimately the decisions are made by the man in the family. Limited education, having very few opportunities to interact with the society, and lack of experience, are some of the reasons why women do not play important roles in decision-making. “Men take the decisions on behalf of us, aiming at our welfare, so we are not worried about our absence in the decision making” said Zakira.

Women and Education
Young Zeenat, who is pursuing graduation, has many dreams about herself and the community in the area of education. The understanding of education of Zeenat is that educated women will have knowledge which enables them to reason out, speak boldly, confidently and convincingly. It helps to take decisions in various life situations. By using their intelligence they can discern what is good and what is evil, and then put their decision into practice. Education is in fact needed to enlighten the mind from the corrupt mentality. The Holy Quran says that girls also should be educated. In Islam, the major concern of education of women is not job oriented, but for daily life. When a woman is educated, she would bring up the younger generation in accordance with the education she received which leads to the broad-mindedness of the young. I found her as a liberated woman who had her own choice and views of life, yet remained faithful to her religion. Her father, Mr. Badre Alam, also enriched us with his wisdom and experience of life.

Marriage and Talaq
Muslim marriage is a contract. Marriage is considered as the first and foremost desirable goal of a woman’s life. The family ties are very strong and exercise considerable control over the choice of a marriage partner. The majority of women have total dependency on their husbands in economic, social and spiritual matters. Though Muslim women have the right to inheritance, divorce and remarriage, they almost never make use of them. A man is allowed to have four wives at the same time. However, he must be able to feed and maintain, and treat them equally. But a woman should have only one husband. When we discussed about talaq, Bano said: "A true Muslim, who believes in Allah and knows the values of Prophet Mohammed, will never say talaq. When a person pronounces talaq the whole cosmos is being affected. Talaq brings misfortune to the woman. She becomes a victim, and her status in the family and in society deteriorates”.

Women and Worship
“There are times when I long to go to the masjid and pray...” said Riswana Khatoon, a mother of two children, whose husband is a shopkeeper. “Going to the masjid is the business of men, so I don’t desire to go to the masjid at all” said Tarannun Parveen, a graduate, mother of two children and pursuing further studies. Muslim women in Aurangabad do not go to the masjid for worship. By interacting with the women I realized that though majority of them say that they do not want to go to the masjid to pray, at the core of their heart, they do desire and prefer to go there to pray, provided that there will be a secluded area for them. By denying the right to women to participate in the collective prayers in the masjid, they restrict their freedom of movement. The Holy Quran does not prohibit women from going to the masjid.

Jihad –The Holy War
During the freedom struggle Indians revolted against the British. For Indians, this very act was to defend our country, freedom and our rights etc., whereas, for the British, it was an offence /terrorism. In the same way, for Muslims “Jihad is the fight for our faith and to defend our religion” said Mohammad Ata Karib Khan. He invited us to his house cordially and shared his life and knowledge. Jihad, the Holy War, is a religious duty mentioned in the Quran. Today, Jihad is one of the terms which is most misunderstood, misinterpreted and practiced. According to Ms. Nayab, the computer teacher of St. Ignatius School, Jihad does not mean fighting with guns and bombs alone, but the sacrifice one makes to live a holy life, which is pleasing to Allah. For her, Jihad starts at home, the little sacrifices she makes to bring a peaceful atmosphere in the family, looking after the elderly people at home, praying five times a day faithfully and, with devotion, doing one’s own duty with commitment and sincerity, are a few examples. She also agreed that a few people take advantage of this institution, but the majority of Muslims are good. Unfortunately, the media project the Muslim Community as a whole people who are to be feared.

Zakat -Almsgiving
Generosity and concern for one's fellow human beings is vividly seen here. It is a very beautiful practice instituted by Prophet Mohammad .He reduced poverty by this practice. It is a system of utilizing a portion of one’s property towards charity. Every Muslim is supposed to give Zakat; it purifies the property of the Muslims and themselves. By giving zakat a Muslim is showing empathy to the poor and the needy. 2.5% of what one has possessed for a whole year should be given to needy people. It is also a way of doing penance for sins.

Roza – Fasting
When we inquired about Roza, people were exceptionally happy to explain it to us. The fast during the month of Ramazan is known as Roza. It is regarded as a divine institution in the Quran. Therefore it is compulsory. Fasting in the month of Ramazan means abstinence from food, drink, smoking and sexual activity from dawn to sunset during the entire month. This fasting is obligatory for all Muslims, male or female, who are adults, sound in mind and physically fit. Women who are in the period of menstruation are not allowed to fast. Children who have not reached the age of puberty, the insane and the old are exempted from fasting. However, there are children who fast throughout the month like any other adult. Saira, a student of ninth class, described the story of a small boy who observed the fast and died towards the end of the month. The grieving parents were informed that the boy was enjoying the presence of Allah. This story has a great impact on the minds of children so that they observe the fast by their own decision! During Ramazan, a public recitation of the whole Quran is arranged in thirty equal parts after the night prayer. Every day of Ramazan they make it a point to give charity. The effect of Roza is that it enables a person to grow in holiness and closeness to Allah. It is a time to practice moderation, will power, and self-discipline. Mr. Mohammed Mansur Alam further explained that if the Roza is broken, they have to do one of the following: 60 Rozas; feed 60 poor people; or free 60 slaves. Roza is also a way to experience hunger and thirst, which enables them to have more compassion and help the needy.

Hajj- The Pilgrimage
I was fortunate enough to meet a woman called Nur Jahan Begam who had gone on the Hajj. Even though she was suffering from many sicknesses, she seemed to be very happy and radiant as I asked her to share her experience of visiting the Holy Places. She went to Mecca with her husband. When she was in Mecca, she forgot everything about herself and the family and all the other problems which she faced in her life. Allah was very much alive and close to her during this period of time in her life.
The Hajj is the last Pillar of Islam and it brings unity and solidarity. The pilgrims visit mainly four important places. Kaba, the sanctuary of Mecca is believed to be originally built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham and Ismail. There is a Black Stone inserted in the eastern corner of it. The pilgrims respectfully kiss the black stone. Zamzum is the sacred well which appeared when Ismail was about to die of thirst and Hagar found it and quenched the thirst of Ismail. Mina is the place where Allah tested the faith of Abraham, the father of Ismail. Arafat is the place where Adam found Eve after having been expelled from paradise and separated from one another. It is the place where the pilgrims ask Allah’s pardon and mercy. Nur Jahan said that the experiences in Mecca brought new life to her and her family, respect in the society etc. She said that she has the desire to go for Hajj once again before her death.

As I look back the days I spent in Aurangabad, they bring me tremendous joy and happiness. It was a golden opportunity to be with people who follow Islam and to interact with them, getting to know them, and also to communicate about Christianity, particularly about the consecrated life. There was a mutual sharing between us most of the time. I found that they were very eager and enthusiastic to explain about Islam that they were even willing to forgo some of their personal interests and time for this purpose. During this time once again I felt proud of my womanhood, as many, especially the women, looked upon me as somebody who is privileged and fortunate. Being a woman, I enjoyed a certain freedom and openness from them. I was allowed to enter into most of their houses and interact with the women and young girls. The family bond among them was surprising and inspiring The joint family system kept them very close to one another.

Syed Shahid Anwar Nadvi, the Imam of Jama Masjid, was very kind to me. We had three sittings with him during which he imparted his scholarly knowledge to me. Being a religious leader, he always maintained this position and treated us with a lot of respect and concern. Something remarkable about him was that, before talking to us about religious matters, he humbly acknowledged: “If anything is missing or not fully explained in what I say, that will be the shortcoming of me, not of Islam”. This statement increased my respect, not only towards him, but also towards Islam. Another person who took a keen interest and journeyed with us was Mr. Mahmood Alam Ansari, the computer teacher of St. Ignatius School, Aurangabad. He was very generous to us; contacting many people and introducing me to them, accompanying and directing us to different places and people. In fact, he took us to his house and shared about his life and family. I cannot forget Mr. Ata Karib Khan and his family, whose life revealed their tremendous love and respect for one another.

I thank Fr .Paul Jackson SJ sincerely for giving me this opportunity to learn about Islam in a unique way. This was a learning experience about Islam, getting to know them better and developing good relationship with them. The ‘Allah experiences’ of my Muslim brothers and sisters deepened my own faith experiences which showed me new dimensions in life. God, the author of life, is with me constantly, loving, protecting, guiding and challenging me. It is His compassion and mercy which makes possible my own existence. I also thank the Jesuits in Aurangabad for accommodating me in their wonderful and happy community and providing a good atmosphere, support and encouragement during my stay there. My stay in Aurangabad and the interaction with my Muslim brothers and sisters was a memorable experience.

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