Amritsar: City of golden grandeur

Sikhism weaved liberal, inclusive commonalities of Islam and Hinduism

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Jun 03, 2007

If you are looking to beat the heat, Amritsar is perhaps not the place to go. But, if you are interested in history, want to celebrate diversity, and if you are looking for a hair-raising experience of nationalism, the city of Golden Temple is the place to go.

Though the city offers a combination of charms, Golden Temple attracts maximum tourists to Amritsar. Drawn by the majestic pull of the Golden Temple, diverse devotees add to the grandeur of the place.

Among other things, the sanctum sanctorum of the temple has an uncanny resemblance to a Sufi Dargah, understandably so, the genesis of Sikhism can be traced to a critical point of time in history, when the subcontinent was fragmented on communal lines.

The religion beautifully, as illustrated by the Sufi Imprint, weaved the liberal, inclusive commonalities of Islam and Hinduism to leave an indelible impression on India, at the height of Bhakti and Sufi movements.

While you may get engrossed in realms of devotion, don’t forget to taste the modest but delicious langhar, inside the temple premises. The langhar —  served on the extreme left corner of the temple — represents the essence of Sikhism. I find it an affirmation of inclusiveness and equality of human beings — the cornerstones of Sikhism and the reasons for its birth.

Another religious attraction in Amritsar is the Durgiana Temple. It is unique; unlike a Hindu Temple. Built in the 1930s, its architecture is influenced by the Golden Temple. The Temple rises from the midst of a tank and has canopies and the central dome in the style of a Sikh Temple. Politician and educationist Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya had laid its foundation stone.

The Jallianwala Bagh in the vicinity of Golden Temple is another major attraction in Amritsar. Walking down the path of the Bagh, I was transported back in time to the centre of India’s nationalist movement. It is where a brutal General of the British Army slaughtered scores of men, women and children. The massacre, however, roused the conscience of a subjugated nation and intensified the urge for freedom.

I rounded off my visit to Amritsar with a visit to the Wagah border. It hosts a unique ‘Beating the Retreat’ ceremony; probably unparallel anywhere else in the world. The soldiers on either side of the international border virtually stamp their authority on their respective sides of the border. The atmosphere is virtually filled by the nationalistic fervour, with patriotic songs and sloganeering trying to outdo the same on the Pakistani side.

While the sun sets on the Pakistani side, the numerical strength of Indians outdoes Pakistani and overwhelms the audience with the ferocity of the patriotism and raises them in one go to salute the unfurling national flag and chant in one voice: “Bharat Mata Ki Jai’’.

Courtesy: The Economic Times



Stories of compassion, equality & humility Muslims grow up with

The moral of the stories is to drive home the centrality of Islam as a faith: compassion

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Aligned closely with India’s political mood has been the business of generating Television Rating Point for advertising revenue over the last three and a half years. A set of previously obscure bearded men have been integral to it. They mouth the most unreasonable positions on complex issues like triple talaq while a fraction of 0.56 per cent divorced women in India are the victims of the un-Islamic practice. In the process, the Muslim stereotypes are strengthened for the benefit of the party in power and the real issues of disenfranchisement, lynching, and lack of justice are obscured. It keeps the Muslim bogey alive and those who can “put Muslims their place” firmly in power.

In this dehumanising atmosphere, it is difficult to imagine a set of stories an average Muslim grows up on. The stories include that of the woman, who would curse and throw garbage at the Prophet Muhammad every time he passed by. The Prophet made it a point to see the woman when the routine stopped one day as she was taken ill. Garbage-throwing was nothing in comparison to the mutilation another woman, Hind, subjected the body of Prophet’s favourite uncle to. He forgave her too along with several others who had wronged him. The moral of the stories is to drive home the centrality of Islam as a faith: compassion.

The story that illustrates Islam’s key idea of social justice is the honour a former African African slave, Bilal, was given as the first muezzin or the prayer caller. Nothing underlines the importance of gender equality more than the story of the Prophet’s employer and later wife, Khadijah. Impressed by the Prophet’s reputation as an honest man, she employed him to take care of her business that was spread from Mecca to Syria and Yemen. She had been widowed twice before proposing marriage to the Prophet when he was 25 and Khadijah 40. The Prophet only confided in Khadija and her Christian cousin when he is believed to have begun receiving revelations. Many of the early converts to Islam were women — impressed by the idea of equality — when the Prophet began preaching two years after he started receiving revelations. The Prophet’s message was revolutionary for its times; the women got the right to acquire property, something that eluded their counterparts in Europe for centuries.

The importance of universal education is underlined by the Prophet’s saying that go as far to China if you need to for acquiring knowledge. He declared education compulsory for women and men when the right to educate oneself was the privilege only for a priestly class in India. The Prophet loved animals and is once believed to have cut a sleeve of his coat to ensure that a cat napping on his arm was not disturbed while he had to rush for prayers. He is said to have told a woman she would find a place in paradise despite being ‘sinful and evil’ for saving a dying dog and giving it water.

Until a perverse form of Jihad backfired on the West and became the only thing defining over a billion Muslims, the idea for real Muslims meant to struggle with the biggest being against the evil within. The words for fighting or war in Arabic are qital and harb. Jihad appears in the Quran 41 times while dissuasion from fighting 70 times. The US introduced its perverse form in the late 1970s to fight communism. It pumped millions of dollars for textbooks full of violent images and teachings for Afghan schools. According to the Washington Post, the primers “filled with talk of jihad” featured “drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines.” They served as “the Afghan school system’s core curriculum’’ and even the Taliban used them, seeping “a generation in violence’’.

Islam’s humanising elements have not disappeared overnight. As Sophia Rose Arjana’s shows in her book ‘Muslims in the Western Imagination’, there has been a long history of imaginary Muslim monsters who have aided dehumanisation of the Muslim Other. The Hindutva movement has borrowed liberally from this tradition for its power politics in India. As a result, the alleged conduct of ruthless empire builders who happened to have been Muslim has been used to further this dehumanising project. The project conveniently ignores the glorious legacy of spiritual Islam in form of Sufism and true heirs to the Prophet like Bulleh Shah, Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti, Baba Farid etc.

That a substantial number of Muslims have no agency in large parts of what is erroneously labelled as the “Islamic” world has not helped either. Most of this world is swathes of personal fiefdoms of self-serving rulers. The rulers owe their existence to the lines Mark Sykes and Francois Picot arbitrarily pencilled on the Middle East’s map for Britain and France to get the German oil share in 1916. The territories were demarcated in such a way to allow the two countries build separate pipelines from Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea ports for oil concessions in return. The rulers do not draw their legitimacy from their subjects and cannot see beyond the interests of their families and tribes.

The so-called Islamic world’s deficiencies are used as a stick to beat Muslims with while examples of countries like Indonesia are conveniently ignored. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country, where 12.9 per cent of the world’s Muslims live. It is secular with a heavy Hindu influence exemplifying its pluralism. The influence is disproportionate to number – 1.7 per cent – of Hindus in Indonesia. Indonesia’s national airline is named after Vishnu’s vehicle, Garudam, its currency notes carry Ganesh’s picture while Ramayana and the Mahabharata have a deep imprint on the Indonesian culture. A Saraswati statue stands outside the Indonesian embassy in the world’s most important capital: Washington DC. These are the stories needed to be told repeatedly for a peaceful future of co-existence while Islamophobia and transnational terrorism are increasingly feeding into each other.

Courtesy: The Indian Express

In Good Faith: Tales that need to be told

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Saudi reforms: The realpolitik of change

Saudi reforms are a way to preserve its political order

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Sameer Arshad Khatlani

April 9, 2018

The global media has been abuzz with the pace of reforms in Saudi Arabia. And rightly so. After all the country has come a long way. From being the world’s only country to bar women from driving, it has now even made abaya, a loose-fitting robe that covers a woman’s body, optional. The country’s gender-segregation rules have eased dramatically. Once restricted to public-sector jobs, women can now even join the military. The percentage of Saudi women in the workforce — 22 — is now slightly less than India’s 27 per cent. A woman is helming the first fashion show in April that will bring top international designers to Saudi Arabia, which was until recently one of the world’s most restrictive countries for women.

On the face of it, the feverish reforms look extraordinary. But they may not look so if seen in the backdrop of pragmatism Saudi rulers have followed since al Saud family patriarch Abdul Aziz founded the country in 1932. The kingdom was built with the West’s help on the ruins of the Ottoman Caliphate, whose caliph was considered as the global Muslim religious head. The threats to the Caliph’s sanctity had triggered the Khilafat movement in India.

Nothing illustrates Saudi realpolitik more than its deep ties with the US. The relationship survived the American betrayal of Arabs with Israel’s creation in Palestine with the US help in 1948. The betrayal counted for little in view of the protection the alliance with the US offered from rival Hashemite tribe in exchange for concessions offered to American oil corporations. By 1960s, the alliance was elevated to a level just below that of the Almighty. Crown prince, who took over as the king a year later, is reported to have told US ambassador Parker T Hart in 1963 that “after Allah we trust America”.

Common foes – secular Arab nationalists and Communism – cemented the ties. Use of Islam as a political and strategic tool became par for the course. President Dwright D Eisenhower assigned the Saudi king role of Islamic pope in the 1950s. The legacy injected the poison of sectarianism that was exported at a great human cost to counter the 1979 Iranian revolution. To cap it all, the promotion of a perverse form of jihad in the 1980s led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it unleashed nihilistic forces that continue to extract a heavy toll on Afghans, who are reaping the bitter fruits of the millions of dollars Saudis poured into the anti-Communist campaign. A large part of this money was used for preparing textbooks with violent imagery to radicalise a generation of impressionable young men.

The chicken came home to roost for the Americans in September 2001 and the so-called Islamic State (IS) reared its ugly head next door for Saudis in Iraq in 2014. The developments underscored the hydra-headed monster their adventures abroad had created. The IS’s rise has played a part in the Saudi course correction while it has more to do with ensuring stability and order the Saudi rulers have always put a premium on.

Conservatism was the state policy when the situation demanded so. The rulers have shifted their ground because it is in the interest of the maintenance of political order. The dipping oil prices have hurt the economy and affected the allocation of funds for welfare schemes and patronage, which have played a key role in the ensuring political status quo. Rentier economy is no longer viable, it must diversify to end the dependence on oil and keep the welfare schemes going.

Reforms are the key to the diversification along with the demographic realities that make them necessary. As many as 75 per cent people in Saudi Arabia are aged below 30 while the adult female literacy rate was 91 per cent in 2013. The people are conditioned to see the rulers as providers and the source of their luxuries, which make it easy for them to affect change. The clergy is no different. It has endorsed the reforms and has for instance conveniently linked issues like the ban on women driving to culture. Saudi Arabia earlier had the clergy even legitimise presence of 500,000 American soldiers in the country of Islam’s holiest shrines as a cushion against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and to end his occupation of Kuwait

Whatever may be the reasons. The reforms are better late than never. Their impact will be felt beyond the Saudi borders. The position of Saudi rulers as the custodians of Islam’s holiest shrines gives them a unique leverage over Muslims globally. The positive developments will for instance hopefully accelerate the pace of women emancipation beyond Saudi Arabia. They will help end – in some cases – the less than equal status the export of their conservatism has legitimised for women. The success of the Saudi reforms would also have to be measured in terms of its impact in reversing the poisoning of minds and returning to the essence of Islam: Compassion.

The focus needs to shift to the Islamic mandate of the creation of an egalitarian society based on kindness and forgiveness. The focus should go back to the bigger jihad, the struggle against evil within and to dissuasion from fighting (qital or harb) that features in the Quran 70 times against the reference to jihad (41 times). This real spirit of Islam underlined by the Quranic verse that calls the killing of an innocent akin to slaying the entire humanity must now prevail. And at all costs to rid the world of the scourge of terrorism and Islamophobia it encourages.

Courtesy: The Indian Express

The realpolitik of change

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