On the phone, from his fluent English and the number of times he uses “like” mid-sentence, you would think Zaid Patel is a college kid. When you meet him, though, this 28-year-old looks older than his years. In his white kurta-pyjama, cap, a beard, and the weight of his visiting card that reads, President, Islamic Information Centre.
Two years ago, this Commerce graduate from Mumbai’s Burhani College, set up this centre in Andheri which arranges “Islamic programmes” for both “brothers and sisters,” runs a free library of books and VCDs on Islam and offers free Arabic classes.
“I was an apolitical Muslim, scared to ask questions,” Patel says until he met one Dr Zakir. Patel was only 15 then but he says Zakir convinced him about the connection between logic, science and the Quran. “Many centuries ago, the Quran had foreseen science as we know it today,” he says, “and it offers answers to all problems around.” He quotes chapter and verse as he argues his case even if it’s the need for the hijaab (“it’s pragmatic,” he says, “read Chapter 33, Verse 59”).
So how does this square with the current debate over the need for reforms in the religion? Patel evades a direct answer. As a follower of the Ahle Hadees school (which essentially says that all debate or interpretation of the Quran must end and Islamic jurisprudence be based on valid teachings and actions of the Prophet), he is motivated about what he believes in and is fighting his corner till you tire. “Those who spread terror in the name of Islam are simply un-Islamic,” he says. “What is needed is a revival of the true fundamentals of Islam.”
No one has chronicled the extent of this “revivalism” but interviews with several Muslim clerics, teachers and professionals, suggest that Zaid Patel isn’t alone.
Whether a sense of persecution leads to revivalism or if the revivalism has led to the community being further marginalised is a difficult question. But they admit that there are some disturbing straws in the wind.
For one, several middle-aged and young Muslims, like Zaid, are now increasingly ending meetings by saying Allah Hafiz, as opposed to Khuda Hafiz, (Khuda is the generic God, in Persian, Allah the specific Arabic word.) The significance is more than semantic.
In recent times, a lot of the “back to the basics” argument in Islam (in the subcontinent at least) can be encapsulated in the march of the phrase “Allah hafiz”. Says Firoz Batatawala, a garment exporter from Jogeshwari — the same neighbourhood that was home to the dozen who were detained in Amsterdam — and also member of the World Sufi Council: “This is Saudi-isation of Indian Islam. It’s on the rise as more people are going to Saudi Arabia for work, their children are employed there, and they think all that is being practiced there, the Sunni Wahhabi Islam, is a purer form of Islam, something quite alien to the form of Islam that came to Kashmir, or even western India, through trade, the more inclusive way. God has 999 names in Islam. Shall we now say Rahim-Hafiz?”
But this Gulf diaspora couldn’t be the only reason.
A certain sense of siege has also played on the Muslim psyche to force the community to become overly defensive — and insular. No one knew that flamboyant film director Mahesh Bhatt’s mother was a Shia Muslim until the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Today, his cellphone ringtone is his film Gangster’s song Ya Ali.
“I did this because it reminds me of my mother’s constant refrain. The sense of persecution that Muslims experience is what compelled me to assert my Muslim dimension and make a film based on my parents’ inter-communal marriage (Zakhm).”
But there are others who don’t buy this explanation. Says Javed Anand of Communalism Combat: “Non-Muslims had taken to Khuda Hafiz. This should have been allowed to be. Why change it? Many problems in fighting the stereotype about Muslims has been the closeness of the community basically due to the clerics’ unwillingness to debate, look beyond.”
Nowhere is this unwillingness to look beyond more evident than on the grounds of Shuklaji Road which houses the Jamia Qadriya Ashrafi Madrasa, home to over 100 adolescent boys, most of them poor and orphaned. Set up in 1996, it offers courses such as Alim Fazil, Hafiz and Qari and the virtues of the Quran. The day begins with early morning fajir prayers and is then clocked according to namaaz timings. The only break in the evening “is for those who wish to play a bit of cricket”, says Shakeel Ahmed Ashrafi, the khadim (worker) here. The Naazim or Director, Mohammed Umar Sufi, says: “The Quran has it all, ibadat (prayer), rozi-roti (bread and butter) issues, behaviour, it is the perfect book, duniya ka nichor hai isme (the essence of everything is here)”.
But isn’t this disorienting for young men growing up in Mumbai in 2006 who may wish to be part of the world outside, a world of jobs and job interviews. The retort is quick: “Why do you think the Quran does not allow for well-rounded students?”
The students here aren’t allowed to watch TV or to interact with girls or even watch a movie. Eighteen year-old Abdul Qadir is an ace student, he has spent two years here and says the Quran has taught him all he needs to know about contemporary times. He doesn’t appear enthused about either Shah Rukh Khan or Irfan Pathan — otherwise popular, especially with young Muslims — and says that he couldn’t care less. “Why should they be our role models?”
Even the winds of change are tentative. Director Sufi says he is keen to introduce computers, “some amount of English,” and would be delighted if his boys became doctors, professionals, but hastens to add: “Hamare mazhab pe aanch nahin aani chahiye. (Our faith must not be tampered with).” When asked if this insularity and this obsession with faith can fuel anger, Sufi says vehemently “No, in Islam, you are taught to swallow anger, not go about avenging wrongs.”
For poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar, this betrays a sense of denial. “Huge protests were held here against the Danish cartoons. If there was so much concern about besmirching the name of the Prophet, then why did we not see protests against the use of Mohammed’s name in Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist outfit? That would have sent the right signal.”
—(Tomorrow: The Missing Muslim Women)