Who is a Muslim?


The achkan

In a world beset by terror strikes by Islamists and demonstrations against what we perceive as a threat to our liberal values, I, as a non-Muslim and a secular idealist, have decided to define what a Muslim and Islam means to me, for the simple reason that I live in a multicultural society and have friends practising different religions.

I feel I owe it to them to clarify my stance on how I perceive Muslims (which is, I feel, a very restricting description of a person), following several attacks by Jihadists, who belong to a religion which is coincidentally practised by peace-loving people around the world.

My Background

For the sake of the argument, I will also begin with my religious identity. I am a Hindu by birth, although holy texts state that Hindus lose their caste and hence their religion once they cross the ocean. I am therefore, a heathen, but I don’t think India’s right wing Hinduists will have anything against counting me in.

I come from a broad-minded, secular family and have lived in a very multi-cultural and diverse India and am now based in multicultural Germany where the debate on Islam and cultural tolerance is very vibrant (to use an euphemism.)

It is before my India visit that the attacks on Charlie Hebdo- the satirical French magazine occured. Then I read an opinion piece by a journalist who said her Muslim identity was restricted to apologizing for terror attacks. This spurred me into action- maybe the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were actually forcing Muslims to rethink their religion- and urging non-Muslims to rethink Islam.

Which brings me to my first rendezvous with Islam:

My first Muslim

It was a sunny day, shortly after my sixth birthday. I was at school- the Holy child Girls’ Convent (which my uncle called the Holy Animals’ because I jumped around like a monkey, he said). Sister Norma was teaching us Hindi. A se Achkan or A for Achkan, Sister Norma read aloud, explaining that an Achkan was a long, black, high-collared jacket worn by a Mussalman.

I went home with my newly gained knowledge, asking my mother if she had ever known a Mussalman. “Of course,” she said, “Ask K. Uncle, he is a Muslim.” Uncle K., my Dad’s best friend was like part of the family. Until then I hadn’t known that this man in a tweed coat was a Mussalman.  When I asked him about his Achkan, he said they were high-maintenance and that, as a university professor, an Achkan was not very practical.

Going by my first Book of Hindi Alphabet, Uncle K. Wasn’t a Mussalman because he didn’t wear an Achkan, I concluded.

Muslims through the ages

-by which I mean, Muslims as I perceived them when I got older.

When I turned 13, suddenly everyone around me was interested in poetry- mostly because they fell in love. The boys who got the most attention were those who were adept in Urdu poetry- who had hordes of girls gathered around them because they could pronounce complicated Urdu words without the “Hindi” touch that we all were so bored of. Urdu meant Muslim, it meant Lucknow and Old Delhi, where Kings and courtesans would meet and sing about love and life.

Urdu- and Islam- were synonyms for the poet, Mirza Ghalib, his lost riches and his quest for salvation at Chandni Chowk (literally the ‘Moon’ square) and the Muezzin calling at the break of dawn at Jama Masjid, Delhi’s landmark mosque.

And it meant the Taj Mahal and the sufi saints who spoke of falling in love with the divine. And Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last poet- king of the Mughal Empire, who gave in to British rule.

Islam was the Red Fort- India’s symbol of independence- synonymous with the excellent biryani and kebabs served at Karim’s in Old Delhi.

Religion’s ugly face

In 1992, “kar sevaks,” Hindu extremist activists climbed up on the roof of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in northern India, breaking its centuries-old dome with hammers and stones. I was 13 then and for the first time, I realized that religion was not just about good food.

The Babri demolition was followed by riots in many parts of India and by serial bomb blasts in Mumbai – revenge for the Babri tragedy.

Somewhere in this confusion, we went to school and read all about India’s independence, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim league, the formation of Pakistan as a land for Muslims, Gandhi’s helplessness and India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru’s political ambitions.

And all along, we had our poetry sessions, our love affairs with Pakistani television serials with their well- dressed and impeccably mannered men and women.

Taliban and co.

I was a fresher at university when the Taliban took over Afghanistan. At the time, we only thought of them as barbarians- conservatives who didn’t let women show their socks or similar weird stuff. Quite like some Indian college principals who banned women from wearing jeans or anything colourful because that would “attract men.”

Then 9/11 happened, when jihadist barbarians rammed airplanes into New York’s World Trade Center.

Like the barbarians in 2002, when more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims were killed in Gujarat. And then we had the Mumbai attacks in 2008, the Peshawar attack on children and this month, the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Back to my question: Who is a Muslim

Needless to say, until last week, I was thoroughly confused about my stance in this whole Islamic maze of terrorists, terror victims and normal people who I met every day and who just wanted time to relax and unwind after work.

I felt, if I didn’t have an answer to this question as to what a Muslim meant to me, I would be a hypocrite. Like so many people I know, I didn’t want to be someone who looked into a Muslim friend’s face while thinking all the while that they were terorrists in secret.

So who’s my Muslim?

I still haven’t found the answer, but I have a strategy.

One, I will remove religion from the equation. My Muslim friend Shazia could kill for a pashmina shawl and my friend Waseem is obsessed with designer clothes. They are less Muslim and more consumerist- as far as I am concerned.

Like Naeem, my hairdresser, who is a gay and obsessed with making money.

Strategy two: I will go back to my alphabet days and make a strict list of who constitutes a Muslim for me. The criteria are: 1. Should wear an achkan, 2. Should be able to recite Urdu poetry, 3. Should be able to make kebabs and biryani.

If I think about terrorists of the Islamic State using these conditions, they don’t qualify at all. They have no creativity and dress like Alibaba’s 40 thieves.

As for my Muslim friends: they get two out of three- most of them don’t wear achkans. They are 66 percent Muslims.

And to this day I haven’t figured out why Sister Norma claimed that Mussalmans wear Achkans.  The only person I ever saw wearing one- in a photograph- was Jawaharlal Nehru. And he was a Hindu.


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