I remember the first time I stepped into the premise of Islamic Library at Fatehgunj, Vadodara,Gujarat, where I was pleasantly surprised to find a group of well-read and humble young men in skullcaps. After exchanging the usual pleasantries, I shot off: “Why do you make your women wear hijaab? What makes you marry more than one woman? Why do you slaughter animals? Why do you call us kaafirs? What makes your God better than our God, so much so that your shahada proclaims, there is no god but Allah?” My queries were as endless as the differences between the two communities.
Having poured my heart out, I looked around everyone’s faces. A little voice told me a riot is hiding in ambush. The thought scared me, amused me, awed me, froze me, and then confused me. I kept staring at the man sitting opposite to me. He raised his hand (thankfully not to hit me) and rested it on my slumped shoulder saying, “The basic purpose of opening this library is to clear such misconceptions about our religion.” I was relieved. I was in good company and there were full chances of my returning home safe and sound. The assurance of the man fuelled my urge to probe further.
“Isn’t it time you people shun those outdated doctrines and rituals? Why don’t you embrace the change that this generation has to offer?”
“A religious scripture isn’t a newspaper that keeps changing everyday. We have to obey what Allah has commanded to us,” said the man in a firm tone.
“So does my religion. But my religion does not proclaim – there is no God but Ram. Call him Krishna, Jesus, or Allah – Ram exists everywhere,kankanmein Ram, as they say”. “That’s a politician’s idea of Hinduism. Your religion, like ours, speaks about oneness of God in great detail,” said the man.
A guy intervened and said that their religion doesn’t force them to marry four wives or eat non vegetarian food. “How many Muslims have you seen inIndiawith four wives?” he asked, and further told me that the word ‘Kaafir’ is not an abuse, but is derived from the word, ‘kufr’, which means to conceal or to reject, and is hence another word for ‘Non-Muslim.’
The man in charge of the Islamic Library stated that the Qur’an first asks men to observe veil by lowering their gaze on being confronted by a woman. It later asks women to draw veils over their body and guard their modesty. He looked into my eyes and asked, “Now tell me how many men you find who actually lower their gaze on being confronted by a woman? If they don’t do that, what’s wrong if women cover themselves up? Why are we criticized for asking our women to wear burqa?”
The enlightening experience made me a regular at Islamic Library every Sunday. Hence began my weekly debate sessions. The members increased, so did arguments. The more curious the members were, the more heated the arguments got. It was pure fun and I was enjoying every moment of fighting tooth and nail for protecting the honour of my religion. That Sunday was no exception. After all, I had an interesting topic to discuss – “Secularism”
I began my Sunday debate session by asking “Do you think we are living in a secular nation?” My question was no less than a conch shell marking the beginning of a holy war. The next thing I knew was I found myself being bombarded by a nuclear-missile-query: “Do you know the definition of the word, ‘secularism’?” asked an elderly man.
“Of course I know, it means a country that allows its citizens to follow their own religion.” I muttered. The words were too feeble to feign confidence. I kicked myself for not bothering to even consult a dictionary meaning of the word. I excused myself and made a narrow escape under the pretext of an urgent work that my mother had assigned to me. The word ‘secularism’ kept haunting me all my way home.
To my utter surprise, the dictionary meaning of the word was nowhere close to what our politicians proclaim our nation to be. There are two meanings of the word, ‘secular’ – Worldly spirit, views, or the like; esp., a system of doctrines and practices that disregards or rejects any form of religious faith and worship. Well, I’d dare not callIndiathis kind of secular republic. It dawned to me that this kind of secularism sounds an interesting idea with a lot of meat in it.
Imagine a day in such a ‘secular nation’. This would mean pulling down posters of all those sermonic ‘Aasharam Bapus’ and ‘Morari Bapus’, settle the Babri Masjid dispute, and trash the investigation papers of Godhra carnage. Imagine the plight; or rather fury of religion-based groups and institutions. What will be the agenda of next elections if not uniting two communities who seem to have been at loggerheads since the time the two nations got separated?
Eureka! I’ve got a solution that can herald a true secular nation! Separate Indian system from religions and make each citizen’s religion a personal affair. What if we stop mentioning our religion in our school certificate, curriculum vitae, and passport? What makes it so mandatory for a person to disclose what God he worships? Why not make it a personal affair, just like one’s virginity? As the popular stand-up comedian (I call him a reformer) George Carlin would like to put it: Thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself.
“We might lose our identity, you’d say.” But isn’t the word, ‘secularism’ losing its meaning under the cobweb of ‘Political Hinduism’ which proclaims, “Hindu- Muslim Bhai Bhai, only to later become “Hindu- Muslim thaai thaai?”
Let’s face it; we’ve tried the second and clichéd meaning of secularism we learnt by rote in school, “The belief that religion should not enter into the functions of the state, esp. into public education”. We all know how ‘efficiently’ we’ve succeeded in achieving this kind of secularism. So how about creating a ‘secular nation’? – A nation with a system of doctrines and practices that disregards or rejects any form of religious faith and worship.
My friends at Islamic Library may not like the idea. It will surely put an end to the Sunday debate sessions. No more arguments, revelations, similarities, and differences. No more jehad for them, and no more dharm yuddh for me. Just think of it, there’s nothing to lose. We’ve already lost much, isn’t it?