23 November 2011




Betinthorkoborgaathawoagoona". A loose English translation of this raw Sylheti is; "it is a sin for women to be in [a]cemetery". These were the words uttered by the officiating maulana while we were burying my mother few years ago. The maulana was trying to evict one of my sisters from near the open grave where we were about to lower my mother.Even though I was grieving and exhausted from extended international travel and the road trip from Dhaka to Sylhet, I was simply stunned by those words. My whole being recoiled, but I was way too stunned to actually react and say anything.

So, my sister left [the] cemetery (just a plot of land behind our village home), and we buried our mother. Later I asked the maulana (Miahsaab in Sylheti) about as to why he evicted my sister from the cemetery. He blithely said it was written in [the] Quran that women are unclean and should not be near anyone who may go to heaven. It took all my willpower not to simply break his little neck in two. However, Miahsaab's utterances forced me to look under the hood and examine the changing face of the religion that I grew up with.

Little background now. My father travelled around the country for his work. He was a police sub inspector who got posted to one remote police station after another every couple of years. I have five sisters and one brother, and we were all born in different places. Finally, my father resigned from the dead-end police job and moved back to Sylhet to start a little wholesale produce business. Throughout all these changes and all the packing and unpacking there was one constant: religious education aimed at making us more responsible and a sense of being kind to people that we met.

It came out in the form of monthly Milads, giving alms, and attending morning Quran lessons in Arabic (by rote). The Islam I remember from my childhood was woven into the fabric of our lives. We went seamlessly from Quran teachings to the pujas of our Hindu neighbours. My sisters (one more than the others) said their namaz, and then practiced singing and little dancing. No one thought any of those activities unusual, un-Islamic or contradictory to the world view of the practicing Muslims.

My grandmother used to wake up early to say extra namaaz and yet, she used to join in with the village women singing while husking rice on a Dheki. During the harvest time, there were all night rice husking parties accompanied by prayers as well as singing and dancing. The Islam that I grew up with was a richly textured religion that was part of the things I still love about my youth. Poverty, setbacks, migration to an alien world did not and cannot shake the pleasures of a tolerant world rich in personal contact and a little bit of mystery.

Something in the fabric of the tolerant Islam has changed and changed dramatically. Something evil and intolerant this way comes! I see changes in my own extended family. I have dubbed one of my sisters with three daughters and a son as the al-Qaeda wing of the family. They are all Hijabis and full of self-righteous indignation of virtually anyone else. They, and so many other people I know, now shun milads which brought so much pleasure and yummy treats in my childhood.

When we were teenagers, we used to go to "urus" at the Shahjajal's mausoleum (Dargah). This is more of a Sufi tradition and people from all walks of life would show up to celebrate for a few days. If nothing else this was a way to spend some time contemplating big and small questions that vexed our lives. It was easy to get solace by sending our prayers and wishes to God with Shahjalal as intermediary.

Well, now the new Puritans say these practices are verboten. They say those who attend the "urus," milads and so many other textural versions of the religions are sinners and bound for hell on an express train. These new-fangled Puritans seem to say their way is the only way and is the only way sanctioned by Allah and his Prophet. As if they have had a private conversation with the Almighty!

So, what has changed and is changing that is shaping the new intolerant worldview. When asked I think almost all of the Puritans will say they are Wahhabis and will take that very assertion as their authority on anything religious. So, who or what is a Wahhabi? Contrary to popular myth making Muhammad ibnAbd al-Wahhab was born in Uyayna, Saudi Arabia in 1703 and not in the time of the Prophet. Abd al-Wahhab studied Islamic history and jurisprudence in Basra (in present day Iraq) and developed a concept that Islam has been corrupted and co-opted by the various social norms of the time. He wanted Islam devoid of all local influences and accommodation as he viewed them to be heretic.

He came back to Uyayna in 1740 and attracted a following. His first act of "purity" was to level the grave of Zyadibn al-Khattab who was one of the Shahabas (companions) of the Prophet. He went on to decree the death of several women by stoning for adultery and [a] number of other gruesome punishment[s]. He was finally expelled by Sulaimanibn Muhammad ibnGhurayr, the leader of the Bani Khalid tribe. Wahhab was then invited to settle in Diriyah by its ruler Muhammad ibn Saud, who was looking for ways to expand his family's influence and wealth. A deal was made by which ibn Saud agreed to implement and enforce the teachings of al-Wahhab in return for acknowledging the Saud family as the temporal leaders of the movement.

Abd al-Wahhab takes his ideological cue from IbnTamiyyah (1263 – 1328). Tamiyyah lived in the darkest time for Muslim civilisation, during the time of Tartar and Mongol invasion. The sheer brutality of the Tartar invasion turned various Muslim rulers into passive vassals. The dominant world power of the day was suddenly turned upside down with the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate. IbnTamiyyah asserted that the fall of the Muslim world order was due to the abandonment of some yet to be defined values.

The Tartar rulers converted to Islam but they maintained the Yassa code for economy, politics, and jurisprudence whereas the personal conduct was governed by the Islamic code. Tamiyya declared that Jihad against the Mongols was obligatory and defensive. Regardless of the fact that most of the Mongols and Tartars since the days of Halaku Khan had converted to Islam. The rationale was that the Yassa code was a direct challenge to Sharia and must be fought.

Abd al-Wahhab gave the rationale to Ibn Saud and his family to seek independence from the Ottoman Caliphate (Empire if you like). During the long and slow decline of the Ottoman Empire, the Saud clan consolidated its power base using this radical and extreme interpretation of Islamic laws and justifying their unstinted brutality and conquests. They took help from the West when necessary (most famously/notoriously the Lawrence of Arabia). But, the goal was to create a dominant position for the al Saud family.

After the great decolonisation by the British Empire, vast tract of Arabia was sliced and diced to create various client states by the British. We come to 2011 in the state of fractured Arabia, and the dominant force there (Saudi Arabia) is hanging on by the thread of puritanical interpretation of Islam which would be alien to the people who lived under the rule of the Prophet and his companions for 40 years before the Umayyad empire took over things.

So, what does all these history of Tartars, Ibn Saud, Tamiyyah and Wahhab has to do with Bangladesh? The fact is that the ideological development in the 17th century plays out violently every day on the streets of Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Unless we get facts rights the intolerance and the attendant violence will show up on our streets too.

The Wahhabi interpretation of the Quran, Hadith, and the basic Islamic tenet is just that, an interpretation. Unfortunately, this one interpretation is backed by money and influence from Saudi Royal family. I could write a book about why the Saudis export their brand of puritanism (maybe some other time), but the fact remains that South Asia is the crucible for the new war on tolerance and we need to fight it at the level of family — little things like the burial of my mother.

After the siege of Mecca (I will write about that some other time) on November 20, 1979, the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 and most of all after 9/11, the Salafist and Wahhabis concluded that (see writings by Abu Baseer al-Tartussi, who is the current philosopher king of the Wahhabi movement. Just Google the guy, he writes from his safe cozy base in London) all Muslim countries are hopelessly allied to the West, period. So, unless these countries change their relationships with the West, they are heretics.

In this way vast swaths of the Islamic world has been declared and branded heretics and legitimate targets for violent purification. This is the most extreme and most dangerous line taken by anyone in the 1400 years of Islamic history. The enforcement of this line will take place in small venues and events like, banning women from the cemetery, desecrating gravesites, imposing mandatory hijabs, making sure that pants are way above the ankle, and the beard is about a fistful. Above all, the opinion based religious intolerance will show up in unabated attempts at subjugating women.

All these are just the precursor to the violent imposition of a version of Islam that is alien even to the Prophet's Islam, not only to my Father's Islam. The Wahhabis have their opinions and they are welcome to it; it is just not my Father's Islam!

I have a friend who is from Multan, Pakistan. Let's say his name is Ahmed. His uncle, his father and two brothers were shot dead by bigots from Laskahr-e-Jhangvi (a sectarian group in Pakistan) just because they were Shias. The litany just goes on and on.

The sad part is this; all of the mayhem is based on interpretation and worldview view of a minority of minority. They are absolute in their belief and action. The bloodletting that is going on around the world is based on the definition of purity embedded in the Wahhabi doctrine and the ways (Jihad) to achieve that purity.


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