I was in Mysore, the yoga capital of India. In one of the yoga teacher training courses that I was attending with ten different nationalities in the same room, a fellow yogi from the west asked the teacher, “Say I have a Muslim student in my class and he refuses to chant ‘Om’ in the beginning prayer. As a yoga trainer, what am I supposed to do?”
That had never occurred to me before. While that class ended, the question didn’t leave me for months.
I headed back to Delhi and there began my quest for Islam. As I began discussions and deliberations with my Muslim friends and workmates, I was intrigued even more to learn about the community which is nearly one-fourths of the world’s population. It was logical that if I wanted to learn about the faith, I would start by reading its holy text.
I started reading the English translation for Surah Al-Fatiha and Al-Baqarah – the first two chapters of the Qur’an.
“You might want to cover the book with a newspaper”, a friend remarked! “They say one who reads the Qur’an converts himself to Islam. I pray for you”, said another. For a moment, I started wondering if I had laid my hands on something that formidable. We have been celebrating Indian independence for seven decades now, but independence just from the British Raj. Another reform movement is what we need to gradually free ourselves from the shackles of ignorance. And for that, dire need is to understand different religions by reading their holy text. Before we go and put forth our opinions on public forums, the least we can do is not just read what these texts say in Arabic or Sanskrit, but also understand the exegesis through translations in our own languages.
Was I making an attempt to create that big religion comparison chart and have an opinion on what is right and what is wrong? No! My endeavor was to understand the faith which is not just so different from the one I have grown up to believe, but also the faith over which societies have been wrangling over for times immemorial.
My head muddles every time I sit down to watch these television debates hyperbolizing sensitive to sensational. With freedom of speech becoming a contentious issue in recent times, Islam is becoming a topic of heated debate.
As far as my memory serves right, I have grown up to believe that Muslim men can marry up to four wives, just for sheer merrymaking (!). The verses in the holy book have been seen as giving permission for, in fact promoting polygamy, but the condition for this ‘permission’ has remained ignored.
This verse has a strong context. In the aftermath of war, it was likely that men lost their lives, leaving behind widowed women and orphaned children. It is in this context that the Qur’an clearly states how men can marry from among (orphaned/widowed) women, two, three, four, but only if they can be fair and do justice amongst the co-wives. If they fear they can’t be just to all wives, then they should stick to monogamy which is the ‘safest course’. I think the book is very clear on this subject, that monogamy is the basis for normal relationships, while polygamy is only allowed as an exception, so that the needs of the wider community can be met.
Similarly, it’s quite a popular perception that Islam considers two female witnesses equivalent to one male witness. This is contextual again. In the patriarchal society of seventh century Arabia, women were lesser involved in the financial transactions of public life and hence lacked experience in this regard. Two women could not only encourage each other to become active participants in delivering public duty, but also stand for each other if any of the female witnesses was coerced, manipulated or forced to change testimony by the party breaching the contract.
Equally eye-opening it was, when I gradually began understanding the concepts of fasting, hajj, apostasy, marriage, divorce, charity, usury, domestic violence, and veil to say the least. I would do injustice to the very experience of reading the Qur’an if I impose my views and my understanding of these themes on you.
The holy text is urging to be read, urging to both Muslims and non-Muslims – to Muslims to not just blindly follow but understand what shapes their life, to non-Muslims to know what is true Islam and not bias their understanding on a series of unfortunate events. And I take the liberty of suggesting that as you read the Qur’an, pick the holy text of your own faith also, and you will be taken aback to see how Almighty is focusing on the same core message in different forms through different media. Astounded was I, as I read the Surah Al-Fatiha and the Gayatri Mantra, side by side. Commonalities of these spiritual paths have been lost in the haze of ‘organizing’ religions.
I couldn’t have agreed more with Robert M. Pirsig, who so beautifully said:
“You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”
So the holy text, be it yours or be it mine, as we like to classify, is challenging the reader to think about its message, ponder its meaning, and accept it with understanding rather than blind faith. In any religion, learning process can never be complete. As we grow our understanding, we will be surrounded with more and more questions, but it is the courage to seek answers to those questions, test and interrogate our ideas and experiences afresh that can add meaning to our reverence for our faith.