Wednesday, 23 September 2009

A Pakistani in Malay-Muslim Singapore

In some awful, strange, paradoxical way, atheists tend to take religion more seriously than the practitioners.
Jonathan Miller (British artist, intellectual and director)
I am not an atheist but I am not a religious practitioner either. Nevertheless, I am as much a Muslim as those who practice.
I may not be as good a Muslim.
It seems that some fellow Muslims consider some of my views to be slightly unorthodox (even for 'secular' Singapore).
I make no apologies for my opinions.
Religion is an intensely personal matter. It cannot be mandated. The Taliban model of having bearded police with sticks beating people into mosques at prayer time does not resonate well with me.
Unfortunately, the model of legislating one particular interpretation of Islamic law is gathering pace across the entire Islamic world. Most dangerously for Singapore (and me!) it is spreading into an otherwise 'safe zone' right here in our neighbourhood, i.e. Malaysia.

I am not absolutely certain why and how I developed my 'Kemalist' tendencies but there are some factors which have helped. The influence of both the 'local' and the 'global' environment must have played a key role in framing my world view.
For those who may not be familiar with Kemalism and its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he was the father of modern, secular Turkey. In the late 1920s, he instituted radical social reforms to bring the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into the modern world in the form of the Republic of Turkey.
Locally, it is easy to point to the greatest contributors to Islam's spread in India, the Mogul dynasty. It was during the Mogul Empire (1526 – 1857) that Islam finally set firm roots in South Asia.
The irony is that the Mogul Emperors who helped solidify Islam in the subcontinent make me look like a pious and devout Muslim!
Babur, the founder of the Mogul Empire, was pushed out of his traditional home in Andijan, Uzbekistan. Continually pushed south by his enemies, Babur finally reached India.
In 1526 at the famous Battle of Panipat, a town outside of Delhi, Babur and his heavily outnumbered supporters defeated the 'infidels' and conquered Delhi (in the name of Islam).
The Mogul dynasty ruled India until the British formally annexed the region after the 1857 uprising.
The Moguls were great patrons of the arts, literature and culture. They were practical worldly rulers – and typically alcoholics too. I give only two examples from many to illustrate.

Emperor Humayun's tomb in Delhi

Emperor Humayun (1508 – 1556), Babur's son and successor died by falling down a flight of stairs. Historians often neglect to mention that he was drunk at the time of the accident.
Emperor Jahangir's two decade rule (1605 – 1627) is often divided into two eras. The first when his mother managed affairs of state and the second when his preferred wife managed affairs of state. The reason is that Jahangir himself was generally indulging in his two favourite pastimes, the study of nature and drinking alcohol.
Jinnah, the Father of modern Pakistan, shared some traits with the Moguls. Among them was the Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah's fondness for whiskey (and reputedly ham sandwiches).

Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah - the founder of the state of Pakistan

Today, the Mogul dynasty is as 'Indian' as Bollywood. And, some may argue, Pakistan is the 'truncated' piece of real estate that the Muslims could salvage from the dying embers of the British Empire.
I don't even want to get started on the services of the Ottoman Sultans for Islam.
The Ottomans were much like their Mogul cousins in their personal religiosity and behaviour. Suffice it to say that the Ottomans ruled Mecca for several centuries and not one Ottoman Emperor deemed it worth his while to undertake the Haj pilgrimage during that period.
In the global context, when I was growing up the world was divided into two camps. It was the Free World versus the Communist world. At the time, Islamic holy warriors were at the forefront of the battle against Soviet Communism.

I was a left wing socialist as a young rebellious teenager. I lapped up Marx and Engels. I subscribed to and read any piece of Soviet propaganda that any 'Friendship House' was willing to hand out. Had I known Russian I would surely have been quoting Pravda and Izvestia.
Subsequently, I ended up studying at a liberal arts college where almost every professor was a communist, feminist, humanist and any other left wing 'ism' that you can think off. In the late 1980s that was what campus life was all about.
To be honest, the romanticism and intellectual depth of left wing thought is so much more alluring than capitalism.
Still, my idealistic notion of a Marxist utopia was discarded as soon as I entered the real world. Converting to free market capitalism is surprisingly easy when one is paid a decent salary.
Religion was no longer an opiate. It was the mullah in the mosque down the road.
There are some things which will stay with us our entire lives.

My father often said that in life one should only be afraid of God and nothing else. So I lead the life I wish and hope that in the end all will be well.
No doubt, I often violate certain Islamic injunctions but am I less of a believer than someone who fasts and abstains from alcohol? The fact is that neither I nor anyone else is in any position to judge and give a definitive answer.
We are, after all, mere mortals.

The Mogul dynasty traces its heritage to the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan (where this photo was taken)

So, if in 10 years times you find me toying with a flowing white beard and counting prayer beads with my right hand at least you will know I reached my destination after a deep soul searching journey.
Not because someone was standing over me with a cane ready to whip me each time I touched a beer.
God bless those Pagans – Homer Simpson

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