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OUTLOOK INDIA, January 16, 2004

A 'Hyper-Masculinised' Islam?

The spatial context of our growing up played an important role in characterizing the Islam we grew up learning. The diminution of the women's role has removed the poetry, ambiguity, and humility that my generation commonly experienced from the religious experience of my young students.


A couple of years before I took retirement from teaching at the University of Chicago in 2001, I had an experience that I never had before. A young Muslim -- the son of successful South Asian parents living in the United States -- lingered behind after the class. Then, as he was leaving the room, he turned around at the door and asked: "Mr Naim, why don't you pray?" I was taken aback. The subject of my or anyone's not praying -- or for that matter of praying itself -- had never come up in the class. I had, however, never joined the Friday prayers that were -- and still are -- held on campus regularly, which the two students apparently attended.

In surprise, and also succumbing to a wretched habit of mine, I responded with a facetious remark: "I guess because I don't have a desire to go to Paradise." The young man said nothing further, and left. The subject never came up with him again. Then, a few months later, another young man of a similar background asked me the exact same question. Taken again by surprise, I gave him the same response, adding something, as I now recall some five years later, about avoiding the kind of people who claimed to be destined for Paradise on their own authority. He too didn't pursue the matter further. But the two encounters left me thinking, not about the question but that the question was actually asked by the two young men.

Given my own background, I could have expected a question about prayers only from someone who was of my age or older, someone also very close, and within some relevant context. Or it could have come from some total stranger, like some member of the Tablighi Jama'ats that keep visiting Chicago. I didn't expect it to come from my young students. What made them ask me that question? I thought about it and came up with some answers. Then I realised that what was bothering me was something else -- a different question: What made these young men think that they could rightfully ask anyone such a question?

I grew up in an upper-middle-class Muslim family in a small North Indian town. My father had first studied for a few years at the Firangi Mahal, the famous Sunni Muslim seminary at Lucknow, then gone on to study in a government highschool. Our family had some other ties too with the Firangi Mahal, and one particular former classmate of my father was a frequent visitor at our house. But I didn't learn my religion from my father or his friends. I learned it from Apa and Ammi, my mother and grandmother, respectively. I never saw my father observe the requirement of daily prayers until he was on his deathbed. But Apa and Ammi never missed any of the five daily prayers; neither did Mama, our beloved nanny, who had come as a young widow to work for my mother, almost as a part of her dowry.

Ammi taught me how to pray; she also had me read to her from two books. One had stories about the many Biblical prophets that the Muslims also revere, the other was a wonderful biography of the Prophet Muhammad, especially written for children. A maulvi came every day to teach me how to vocalise the Qur'an. I 'read' several sections of the holy book, and memorised some twenty or so shorter súras in order to perform the daily prayers. I was encouraged to pray, but no one forced me. I prayed when I liked, and I liked it when I prayed. It was in those days that I was taught an unusual lesson by my grandmother, my father's mother.

As I recall it now, my father's Shi'ah cousin, whom we called Bashir Baba, had come on one his frequent visits. He lived in a village and frequently had court cases to attend to in the city, at which time he stayed with us. On these visits he was quite often gently teased by my father's other cousins for being a Shi'ah. We were all Sunnis. On that day, Bashir Baba was sitting inside, in the zanána, where he had come to pay his respects to Ammi. As the time for the late afternoon prayer approached, various members of the family went off to pray. Bashir Baba did not. I must have got up to pray myself, but I can't be sure now. In any case, not seeing him get up like others, I asked him, "Won't you perform the asr prayers?" He made some vague remark, talked a few more minutes with Ammi, then went back to his room in the men's section of the house. Ammi then asked me to sit down beside her, and in her firmest voice told me never to question anyone about prayers.

As I recall it now, she said, "You can never know what reason a person might have for not saying his prayers. Remember, that is a matter between him and Allah. You must never force a person to say something about his prayers. You might only embarrass him - and for nothing."  The lesson that my grandmother taught me was, apparently, not taught in the families of my young interlocutors. Neither did they learn it elsewhere. The more I thought about the matter the clearer something became to me: the crucial thing was that I had learned my religion from the women in my family while the two young men had learned it from their fathers or from the men at the local mosques.

I grew up observing the Islam of the women, which was practiced by them without any direct influence of a male member of the family or any male outsider. It included the shari'a rituals of prayer and fasting but also many other expressions of devotion and piety. It included celebrations of saints, remembrances of dead elders, recitations of religious verses, and a whole lot more. What was most important about these practices, as I only much later realized, was that they did not reflect any self-consciousness that was imbued with power and authority.

On the contrary, they expressed, on the part of their practitioners, a profound sense of humility and need. I should perhaps emphasize the first word. Humility before God and His elect was definitely the strongest impression I received from the religious acts of my grandmother, mother, and the other women in the family. There was never about them a sense of being someone special before God as Muslims; in fact, for them being a Muslim meant that one was humble and uncertain about one's final fate where God was concerned. No doubt that attitude was also connected, as I see only now, to their own position in the household as women. No matter how great a control they had in the zanána and in family matters, the bottom line for them was to accept what the men decided. That said, it was still true that during the formative years of their children's lives, when both girls and boys lived in the zanána, the women played a very significant role. After all, in such households, adult men spent much of their time away from the women and, consequently, also away from their young sons.

What I describe above was not unique to me. Until not too long ago, that was the common experience for most children of the so-called shurafá who grew up in houses that contained two distinct separate spaces: the zanána and the mardána. I don't think I'm exactly going out on a limb if I claim that the spatial context of our growing up played an important role in characterizing the Islam we grew up learning, as must also be the case now for the two young men who questioned me.

American houses do not have separate zanána and mardána sections. (Neither, for that matter, do the houses and flats in contemporary South Asian urban centres.) Now women and children live in spaces where men - husbands and fathers - are constantly present and, consequently, persistently dominant. Men now play far greater a role in deciding what must constitute religious or spiritual life in these new sharíf households. At the same time, these men and women also live where at mosques and Islamic centers they are constantly told - and shown in concrete terms - that giving religious instruction was a male prerogative - be it by the men heading the households here, the touring tablíghi jamá'at, or the imáms brought over from South Asia to lead local congregations. Even the girls, it would appear, are now growing up more dominantly influenced in religious matters by their fathers and other males, than used to be the case 'in the old country.'

The diminution of the women's role has removed the poetry, ambiguity, and humility that my generation commonly experienced from the religious experience of my young students. Let me reiterate poetry and ambiguity, for much of the wisdom in the zanána  consisted of poetry, proverbs, and oral traditions; they contained elements of ambiguity and allowed for contestation of one set of verses or proverbs by another set.

Whereas the adult men who exemplify religion for the young Muslim men and women in the United States are seemingly feeding them a scriptural Islam that is exclusionary - filled with sectarian self-righteousness - and, far from being inspired by humility, is aggressively focused on having power and holding on to it.

And its insistence on its own certainties are breathtaking, both metaphorically and literally. A 'hyper-masculinised' Islam -  it is a crueler version of the old patriarchic Islam, and it desperately seeks to have and hold power mainly at the cost of its women and children. Consider the recent histories of Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Pakistan and you will see the role this new Islam has played and is still playing. Ponder to think over why it is that the first actions of any self-proclaimed 'Islamic' state is to control the minds of its children and the bodies of its women.

C. M. Naim is Professor. Emeritus, South Asian Languages & Civilizations, University of Chicago


asr prayers: late afternoon prayers
shurafá: the socially upper-class people, the gentry
the zanána and the mardána: the women's section; the men's section
sharíf households: genteel households of shurafá

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