Islam: The Performance

March 27, 2021

Part 1: Juvenilia

Cue 2012-13. I was in 7th grade and a friend had brought the Quran to school. This was probably my most devout era as a religious individual. The dissonance between a Muslim home, a Christian school and Hindu television was taking a toll on my beliefs which made me dive head first into my religion as a coping mechanism. Any criticism of Islam was my criticism and any question on how much I was dedicated to the religion itself was a call to arms.

Thus, when a classmate had questioned my ability to actually read Arabic, owing to the fact that I primarily conversed in English, I was offended. We struck up a bet of sorts. He would bring one of the sections of the Quran to school, which ever he deemed fit, and I would read it to prove to him that I actually did know how to read. If I failed to do so in a public environment, I would be liable to pay for a treat in the canteen for him and his friends. Conversely, if I did prove his accusation was false and unjustified, he would do the same.

The bell had rung. It was 10:40 am and hordes of children sprung from their seats, sprinting to secure to the prefect tree for their cricket matches. Dust became aerosols and every breath invited the scents of the freshly cut grass and sweaty children latching onto those very dust particles. And in a few minutes when everything had settled once more, the classes emptied, class 7B stood in silence anticipating a glamorous presentation.

He pulled out a copy of Alif-laam-meem from his bag. A sly smile darted across my face, “today I will feast”.

12-year-olds are weird creatures. He, in his unrelenting and unwavering pride, really did believe that would not be able to read the text. His presumption seemingly derived from thin air. I wager it might have been due to the outward projection of myself. I wasn’t the type to speak in Urdu or even try to be somewhat preachy, both of which he was. Possibly, the thought that someone who didn’t seem as pious could rival his piety might have been a bit hurtful to him. Still, these are just retrospective assumptions.

He sat down on the desk in front of me and I began to read. I must have read one page; I can’t recall properly. What I can recall is the tinge of anger in the expression of my rival. He got up, picked up the copy off my desk, stuffed it in his bag and stormed off of the class with his companions. I did not follow him. My friends sat around my desk, popping open their tiffin boxes. The smell of fried potato and chapati, jam and bread, and all sorts of aromas of the typical mid-day meals filled the room as I beamed from ear to ear.

In a moment of curious wonder, a friend popped a simple question, “What did it mean?

I, in my arrogance and with the widest grin on my face, replied, “I have no idea!

But the question stuck with another birthed within my mind seemingly with my answer, “Then why read?

Part 2: Sing at Home

The shuffling of feet alerted even the ones with the dullest of hearing as the children washed up and made their way to the veranda. Cramped on a small wooden cot, the eight of us waited for the Arabic tutor to arrive. Some of us practised the lesson we were assigned, to recite the verses with perfect pronunciation and fluency. Among children who were much younger than I was, I sat idle. The two questions ran in circles within my mind.

What did it mean?

Then why read?

The tutor came in and in turns each of us recited our piece in front of him and sat back down on the cot. Since I was the eldest, my turn came at last. I went up to him presented my piece, lilting at the proper syllables seeming singing the verses. After my turn was over and the tutor had assigned me another page for the next day, I popped the question to him. “What did it mean?

Why?” he asks, almost in disbelief as to why this question would pop-up.

Just because. I want to know what I was reading is all.” I replied, trying to make the question seem innocent.

The eighteen-year-old practitioner of religion who had been studying the very subject he was teaching since he was a 5 was oblivious to the meaning of the text. The copy of the Quran I had in hand did not include an Urdu translation, which some do. I opened up the page which I had just completed and turned it towards the tutor. “What does this mean?” This time I might have been a bit more aggressive.

I cannot tell you. Nobody can. No one can understand the Quran completely. Do not question just read.” His answer was peculiar to me. Maybe antithetical to the whole idea of reading. Particularly the comment about how nobody can understand it bugged me. There is an entire subcontinent that speaks this language, what are you talking about. The possibility that he might alluding to the fact that the Quran is poetry and nobody can truly understand its poetry did pop as an interpretation to his comment. But the delivery of the statement seemed off. I am certain he meant that nobody can understand the text on a linguistic basis.

That did not curb my quest for answer, but I did not prod further. Past had been a witness that questions that went a bit too far were not well-received by Arabic tutors and I was not interested in another bashing. I let it be.

My next stop would be someone more understanding and more willing to answer my question, my mother. I sat on the small stool by the counter top as she rolled out chapatis.

What do verses in the Quran mean?” I asked.

It’s written the Quran in Urdu right below it.” She answered. The radio sitting on the shelf played a Lata Mangeshkar song which my mother hummed along to.

Do you understand what you’re reading while you’re reading it.” I had to tread lightly with my questions.

No, but I can look it up, can’t I?

Do you look it up every time you read it?

No, but I have the option to.

Why don’t we always read it in Urdu?

The song in the background ended as the radio-jockey came in hyping up the next song. My mother looked at me for a glance and then went back to the work at hand, “Because reading it in Arabic gets you sawab(reward). It has been said so by God.

Any further question was shunned and I was asked to go complete my homework. Things didn’t seem to settle down. I often thought that if Mohammed had been roman instead of Arabic, we would be treating Latin in the same manner rather than shunning it as western nonsense. It seemed absolutely bizarre that just because he was born in Arab and spoke that language it somehow became a god given language.

That was one of the biggest driving forces towards me becoming an ex-Muslim. Reading for the sake of it without understanding it. Just mugging it up because we have to do it, thus has been said and thus shall be done. Even today when my relatives ask why I haven’t finished the Quran I point it out, “I do not understand what is written in it.” It puts them on edge. Within their mind the completion of mindless recitation of the text is more important than actually understanding what’s written within the text. When I am forced to read the Quran, I pop open the English version in my laptop which angers most of my relatives. “It is not the right way!” they say.

For them, and by the looks of it, for most – the performance of recitation holds a higher regard than the meaning of the text.

It’s all about the performance.

Part 3: The Price is on the Can, Though!

A few days ago, my father was lamenting the state of Islam, again. This time is stemmed from a situation currently developing in our neighbourhood.

Like most Muslim neighbourhoods, our area too is packed with houses too close for comfort. Each day a new construction would protrude the house further reducing the space in between. This expansion has caused some people some discomfort. Ironically the discomfort is to the people who expanded. Our backyard has a number of large trees. As a result of expansions now the branches of our trees are blocking their windows, and they demand that we chop down the trees in our backyard.

My father was using this as example on how Muslims are moving away from their faith. How it has been explicitly said to protect the flora but still Muslims these days don’t know or don’t care. Even though I didn’t say anything to him, we have that kind of an ignore each-other’s belief deal going, I thought it is probably because they don’t know it. Most Muslims are devout to the idea of Islam, whatever may it be. If a certain concept is explained to them in a secular manner, they might oppose it if it seems ridiculous and against their world view but if put in context of Islam, they consider it as a possibility.

Let me punctuate that with an example. A few weeks ago, Afghanistan passed a law saying that girls older than 12-years-old cannot appear on stage. I raised this topic when my parents and uncles were seated and having tea in the evening. The immediate reaction, as I had anticipated was of revulsion and disagreement with the ruling. I dropped a single comment and the room went silent, each now seeming agreeing with the ruling. All I said was, “But it’s about parda.”

The radicalization of Muslims is as easy as that. The radical ideas aren’t born out of misinterpretation but rather baked into the text. Then why aren’t more Muslims radical then?

The preference to performance.

One of the posts here talked about how different Muslims view apostasy differently. One aspect that could be seen as a link factor for both groups of Muslims is their native tongue. What language they speak and what language they practice their religion in. The fundamentalists are mostly concentrated in areas speaking Arabic or languages derived from Persian like Pashto. These are people who, to some extent, understand the text that they study. As opposed to liberal Muslims or Muslims from SE Asia or the Balkans who don’t necessarily understand Arabic but are willing to follow its culture.

Namaz is another touchy subject which feels and to an extent is performative. Many Muslims I have spoken to this about often say how people are saying that yoga is good and namaz makes you do that too hence it was intended to be practised like yoga. The subtext to such a statement underlines that if one isn’t interested in offering namaz he should consider it for the health benefits. A sentiment which reinforces doing it for the sake of it rather than genuine belief.

They offer Namaz in Arabic without understanding a word of it. They are detached from their prayers and detached from their beliefs. And that is a good thing. Wonder how the situation would be if they were truly attached to their beliefs.

The performance is a foam pad the blocks the path to true belief. A better alternative than understanding. Even though I am all for exposing the problems inherent to Islam, I fear that their belief in Islam is too unwavering to actually consider leaving it.

Let them perform in darkness. After all, it’s all a performance.