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So, this is a topic that is extremely close to my heart. If you cannot tell already the Wheatish ladies are complete suckers for religious harmony,peace, and co-existence. We hope you are too, dear readers.

A while back, I found it disconcerting to hear from some of my mother’s aunty friends that all of a sudden they were against the idea of Mehndis (similar to Sangeet or Gayee Holud, etc.) They claimed it was a “Hindu” tradition and had no place Islamically. As far as I understood, and still take this stance, the only provisions given Islamically are the contractual part of marriage and not spending out of one’s means for a wedding. The rest is open to interpretation, and that is intentional in order to make it easier for people to be able to practice religion with flexibility. If Islam is supposed to be a global religion, then why the sudden obsession with hatred towards anything cultural, as posed in this small anecdote? I understand that there are lots of misinterpretations of religion by too much mixture of cultural ills, but one of the biggest goals in Islam is to be cross-cultural.

Anyway, sorry aunty, I enjoy all of those cultural traditions. Last I checked, Pakistani Muslims share culture with Hindus, as many of them migrated from India, and they, you know, share borders. Additionally, there are more Muslims in India than Pakistan, and therefore, they will naturally share some traditions with Hindus. These are the types of traditions that do not make them all that different from one another. I still have much to learn about Hinduism, and even Islam, but what I find is that too many people amongst South Asian Muslims have some rigid beliefs about Hindus.

This rigidity is made even more obvious by this “I do not participate in X activity because it is ‘too Hindu'” rhetoric. Like most, they too hold the misconception that Hinduism is an idol worship religion, and perhaps this is something developed in the psyche since childhood. Yet, living in a society like the US where there is a higher level of coexistence, it is embarassing to see these ignorant sentiments prevail. In fact, it is a paradox because the same people who think Desi culture and everyone in the “motherland” is so backwards, practice the same “backwardness” by buying into this very misled ideal about segregating oneself from other religious groups to feel “more Muslim”.

My parents would be annoyed when my brother and I went to Hindu festivals, such as Diwali or Holi. We never understood why, and the only rationale we received was that we were trying to be like Hindus. When I asked what this meant, usually the response was that we were engaging in idolatry and essentially not representing ourselves as “Muslim”. In hindsight, I came to realize that my parents never really lived amongst Hindus to understand, and unfortunately, their ideas about Hinduism were shaped by partition sentiments. Anyway, partition is a post for another day so I will not delve too much into that.

Singing puja songs (Om Jai Jagadish, and one of my favorites, Raghupati Raghav from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai) from Bollywood movies was haraam, and my parents would be more annoyed that I knew those songs and sang along. It just never made sense to me because I had Hindu friends and enjoyed Bollywood films. I have heard some Pakistanis claim that watching Bollywood films is an example of straying from Islam and supporting Hinduism, but I always felt uncomfortable with this idea too. I still love Bollywood, but of course, I have much more of a slant for older Bollywood songs and films :).

As I show above, from childhood, I always felt a curiosity to participate in the activities, rituals, and ideas of other religious groups, but sometimes that felt stifled. Sometimes I rebelled against the stifling, and sometimes, I would cower and follow the status quo, but now I embrace my curiosity and cannot help but feel disdain when I hear the sentiments above expressed. I could not get myself to believe that my Hindu friends were just ignorant idol worshipers. As a teenager, I felt the need to defend them when I heard people call their religion “a bunch of comic books” or “fantasy tales”. I still feel that way today, and I hope that if or when I have children, they will never hold these types of beliefs.

Moving onto the second part of this post, I present something that has contributed to this South Asian ≠ Less Muslim paradigm.

The idea of the Arabization of Islam was something that I discovered while writing my senior honors thesis for undergrad. By no means is that the greatest work of my life, but I am glad I flirted with it in my first form of scholarly work. So, why is it relevant to this post? Coming from South Asia, where so many religions live together (especially in India), I am phased by some of the attitudes that have become much more prevalent amongst South Asian Muslims. I am sure they have been around for a while, especially post-colonial, and some time before it, but I will not go too much into the history here.

Along with many who have already said this, I too am starting to find that more people feel that by saying more Arabized phrases and wearing Arabized clothing, they are able to distinguish themselves as Muslim and feel that they are on the “Islamic” path. I find this to be a more recent phenomenon and much more sensationalized with the advent of globalization. Unfortunately, many are claiming it as a more “enlightened” approach. I claim it, rather, as one of the factors causing further disintegration of religious harmony not only in South Asia, but also Southeast Asia (read some of Baladas Ghoshal’s work in the link at the bottom of this post to understand my claim, as it is certainly not something I innovated).

In short, this trend shows that it has become common to associate being “More Muslim” with being “More Arab”. I understand Arab culture has influence in South Asia like Persian culture and many others that came before them. South Asia is heterogenous, and an evolving culture like many others now defined by “modern-day” borders. I also understand the Qura’an was written in Arabic, and translation really causes a loss in meaning. By no means should those meanings not be preserved. Still, Arabs have a culture too like South Asians, with both beautiful aspects to embrace, as well as social ills. By portraying Islam exclusively through an Arab lens in the attempt to “follow Prophet Muhammed’s (PBUH) example”, the bigger picture of his teachings never seem to be practiced. Rather, the focus is on the barbaric practices that surrounded his tribal Arab culture and time (practices Islam sought to end) or, on minute, daily-living examples labelled as “sunnah”. Unfortunately, these have somehow found their way into third party “authentic” Islamic sources such as the Shariah (and I am not going to sit here in argue the issues I have with it or the reasons that I do not see it in any way as divine law), which he was very well ahead of.

It is an unfortunate state of affairs because rather than pushing forward the Islamic practice of coexistence, what has been pushed forward is a self-interested practice of Arab cultural hegemony. Such a practice was quite obvious to me, even as a thirteen year old at Hajj. My vision of Hajj and of Mecca was a symbol of unity between Muslims of all cultures, but unfortunately one of the memories that still stands out to me was a veiled woman screaming haraam at me when strands of my hair slid out from my Arab-imposed hijaab and for my shalwaar kameez being too “figure revealing” simply because it was not an abbaya or burqa. Though I was never raised in Pakistan, or South Asia, for that matter, I was taken aback. Although I did not realize it when I was 13, I understood it as I became older through the following situation.

When I would see women come to mosque with an abbayya worn over their jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt, I thought, why? You have come to the mosque in what I always consider modest attire. What bothered me most though was when suddenly, someone would highly praise a non-Arab woman for wearing an abbayya as part of her daily wear. They would associate that choice with “further embracing” religion, when to me, I could never understand how the two were associated. My mother never wore an abbayya (a long draped cloak – sorry, that is the best way I know how to describe it), but I could never think to myself that she was less modest or less devout of a Muslim than a woman who did wear one. In fact, I always just saw abbayyas as part of Arab culture, not as indications of being Muslim. To me the basics of being Muslim and a good person came in prayer, in fasting, and most importantly in treating others well.

Going back to my Hajj experience, it felt strange to me to be in a Muslim country that accommodated so many pilgrims in one city, but outside of that, treated its non-Arab Muslim “brothers and sisters” as substandard slaves. Nobody should, of course, be treated in such a way, Muslim or not. Somehow, however, there was an inherent belief amongst Saudis that completely bothered me (and I am sure many non-Gulf Arabs can attest to this): a sense of unjustified pride in being from the same land as the Prophet, hence, a monopoly on what should define Muslim image and ideals. It is the same type of pride, for instance, that has brought on Berber rebellion within Algeria, Libya, and Morrocco. It is a complete disregard for the fact that while Muslims cherish the Qura’an in its original Arabic scripture for rituals and recitation, they hold onto Islam not because of that language, but because of Islam’s universal appeal of accepting all cultures and even other faiths.

In saying all of this, I am sure I will receive a reply of, well that is not Islam, that is Muslims. True, but does that somehow make it all better? I also do not intend in any of this to say that any culture is more superior, South Asian or Arab. Both have social ills that should never be defended in the name of any religion. Arab culture (and I recognize that this consists of different types of Arabs, from the Gulf to the Maghreb) deserves as much embrace as any other culture, but it is still a culture, and that does not make it “Islam”.

I sometimes wonder, with so much information and scholarship about Islam, why the need for a false sense of unity (via Arabized notions about what makes a person a “true Muslim” and what does not) surpasses the need for coexistence. Yes, religious communities should feel a sense of unity, but unity is not created by ignorantly distancing oneself from other religious groups. What I have essentially tied together in all of this post is this: over the course of childhood and now as an adult, coexistence remains important no matter how much people fight over religion. What always sparked my love for studying South Asia was not the corrupt politics or the volatility within its modern-day borders, but rather the religious and cultural pluralism. Despite all of the violence over religion, we forget that most people want to live a normal life and get along with their neighbors.

If that will keep me away from what deliberate separatists call “Heaven”, then I would rather stick to loving God by loving others on this Earth. We will see what God decides from there.

Great posts and articles related to the Arabization of Islam (if you would like to understand the concept better):

Searching for My Pakistani Identity by Jehanzeb Dar

Arabization: Changing Face of Islam in South Asia by Baladas Ghoshal

Although hyperlinked in this post: The Arabization of Islam by Fatemeh Fakhraie – who is extremely awesome by the way!