This piece appeared in the book For The People, By The People: Muslim Voices, Human Lives: An Anthology, edited by Sabah Hadi. The book is available on Amazon. You can buy it here
Not too long ago, while house-hunting in New Delhi, I happened upon a whole set of people who were educated and rich and seemed seemingly less conservative. They were polite, courteous, affable and charming till they came to know who I was. “Nawaid? A Mohammedan?” a middle-aged aunty, a doctor by profession, who had misheard my name as Navneet, tried to clarify. “Yes. A Mohammedan.”I sighed. That aunty was not the only one. I had had such conversations numerous times before.
It was only a matter of a few minutes when she shut the door on me and I walked into the daylight, hoping to meet someone who wouldn’t discriminate against me because of my religious identity. I am a Muslim, but I don’t sport a beard. I wish to put it on record that I revel in this identity of mine. It might sound a bit overweening and religiously conceited, but I feel Islam immensely informs and enriches the whole of who I am.
While I often seem to relegate my other identities — national (an Indian), regional (a north Indian), ethnic (Urdu-speaking Sunni, if I can at all call it ethnic) or professional (a journalist) — to secondary importance and, at times, even colossal insignificance, my identity as a Muslim subsumes all my other identities and affects all my other aspects of living.
Even as Islam continues to be demonized world over (by people who can’t tell Islam from Muslim and who revile an entire religion, failing to differentiate between faith and its followers) for the conduct of a handful of so-called Muslims, it’s comforting and reassuring to know that Islam continues to be the guiding lamp in my life, governing the various ways I conduct my life. Everyday.
Over the years, reading the Holy Quran and excerpts from Hadith, I have crystallized Islam’s basic tenets and have deduced this phrase to define it: An ultimate way of life. Today, at some deep, subliminal level, Islam governs the daily choices I make. Islam instills in me a sense of good and bad, right and wrong. Among the many virtues of Islam, it’s the levels of tolerance that gives it a rare distinction. It’s a pity that people today talk of Islam and hatred in the same breath. If only they knew what Islam really is all about!
“You don’t look like a Muslim,” I’ve heard this far too many times to bother about what it means any more. Each time an acquaintance or a stranger brings up my being a Muslim, it is more often than not, mired in a warped, preconceived notion that reeks of rank stereotyping and, even, ignorance.
If I’m a Muslim, I must eat biryanis every day. If I’m a Muslim, I must know what all places in Delhi (where I have been living for the last eight years) you can get beef from. If I’m a Muslim, I must listen to qawwalis, frequent all the dargahs that dot the city. If I’m a Muslim, I must grow a beard, wear a skullcap. If I’m a Muslim, I could have four spouses, any or all of whom I can divorce at will:Talaaq, talaaq, talaaq.
If I’m a Muslim, I must be pro-Pakistan, pro-Kashmir, pro-Palestine. If I’m a Muslim, I must have a soft spot (read affinity) for every Muslim, even though he’s a Mujahideen or a terrorist. If I’m a Muslim, I must believe in the supremacy of the Khan trio in Bollywood. If I’m a Muslim, I must think of every non-Muslim as a kafir (non-believer) and not make efforts to mingle with him/her.
In short, if you’re a Muslim, you can only be that and nothing else. Everything else takes a backstage. If you are a Muslim, people often refuse to consider that, just like a person of any other religion, you’re a human being first. Why couldn’t they just let you and your religion be? This is a question I’m still trying to find answers to.
Today, while I constantly worry about my place in the world, I also have my gaze fixed on the hereafter. I worry for both lives. As a Muslim, I’m acutely aware that every single good deed counts. I am also acutely aware of the impermanence of things. I see this world as a transient place, its people as mortal souls destined to decay, who will all be brought to life on the Day of Judgment, and ushered into heaven or condemned to hell based on their good or evil deeds.
Today, I am a Muslim not because I was born into a Muslim family. I am a Muslim because I chose to be one. It’s an identity that, I must confess, I have thrust upon myself with unrestrained joy and overwhelming pride.
But, damn, I don’t look like a Muslim. That brings me to a question: How exactly should a Muslim look like?