A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a Voice of America round table discussion on the Islamic world's relationship with the US a year after President Obama's Cairo address. The discussion took place on a Friday and hence mid-way through, Dr. Zahid Bokhari, who had joined the conversation from Washington D.C., left for Friday prayers. Syeda Abida Hussain found this objectionable and commented that it would have been preferable if Dr. Bokhari had continued the discussion and offered his prayers late, or "kazza", as she put it. Khaled Al-Maena disagreed with Ms. Hussain and stated that Friday prayers cannot be offered kazza and must be said in congregation. Since Dr. Hassan Askari Rizvi and I (the other two participants), both remained silent on the issue, the conversation soon veered towards the original subject under discussion.
Yet the diversion was in many ways symptomatic of the Islamic world at large. Instead of leaving matters of religion between man and his Creator, we are programmed to comment one way or the other. Whether Dr. Bokhari chose to say his prayers on time or later, is really none of anybody else's business and is something best left for him to decide. As the Muslim population grows in number, tolerance for alternative interpretations, differing rituals, and varying priorities is an absolute must if we are to have any semblance of Muslim unity.
Not too long ago, I attended a City Circle event in London that focused on Shia rituals during Muharram. The City Circle is a Muslim group that arranges talks, book readings and film screenings of interest to the Muslim population. That day, a documentary was aired on how various Shiite communities in Iran, Iraq and Pakistan observe Muharram. Some young men who sat behind me continued to say "Astaghfurullah" at regular five minute intervals throughout the length of the film. I could not understand why they had come for the viewing if they did not have the tolerance to accept religious rituals different from their own.
With Muslim-majority countries stretching from Indonesia in the east to Bosnia in the west and significant Muslim minority populations residing in countries as noteworthy as China, Russia, India and France, it is a given that there will be differences in the way that religious rituals are practiced. In addition to varying cultural nuances and schools of thought, different sects too need to be accommodated. While Iran tends to be as Shia in its outlook as Saudi Arabia tends to be Wahabi, other countries are more mixed. The Alawi sect, for instance, is to be found in Syria, Ismailis and Bohras have communities in Africa and South Asia, various schools of Sufi Islam take root in places as diverse as Albania and Yemen, and then there are groups such as the Nation of Islam, who have considerable following among blacks in America. Undoubtedly, the beliefs and practices of these assorted groups of people do not always see eye to eye, but are we to accept the differences and think of ourselves as one large community of Muslims? Or are we to sit in judgment and excommunicate all those who do not conform to our own way of thinking?
By and large, Muslims around the world have accepted differences, and although there have been issues of hate speech and discrimination against minority groups as well as cases of violence, rarely have efforts been sustained to officially categorize a sect as "non-Muslim". And hence the state dictate of not just declaring Ahmedis non-Muslims in Pakistan, but also ensuring that every Pakistani Muslim affirms this in order to obtain an identity card or passport begs many questions. A blogger comment by one Moosa on Pak Tea House put it really well when he wrote:
"The saddest thing for me about the Pakistani passport declaration is that it brings to my mind the famous hadith whereProphet said that if one person calls a second person a kafir, and the second person is not a kafir, then the first person becomes a kafir for making this false accusation. Before this Pakistani regulation, it was possible for everybody to be accounted a believer and genuine differences in religious opinion could be forgiven and Allah would inform us on the day of judgment regarding our respective levels of imaan/belief. But now the Pakistani government itself has created a situation where either Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and his followers are kafirs, or else every Pakistani who signs that declaration is a kafir because he/she has made a false statement of kufr."
Moosa's wise comments are relevant to all matters of religion that generate controversy due to differences in opinion. For instance, whenever I praise Turkey, as in the case of its recent firm stand with regard to Israel's unjust blockade of Gaza, I get emails from Muslim men who find it objectionable that there are restrictions to wearing the hijab in certain public places in Turkey. Granted this is a law that should be reversed and I have no doubt that in due course it will be, nevertheless, I find it curious why these men only take offense when women are being denied access to public space if they wear a hijab. Shouldn't they be equally offended when Saudi Arabia denies women the right to drive or when Iran, after the revolution, removed women from their positions as judges? Surely, if we are to sit in judgment, then the latter two examples must be as troubling if not more. Or are we merely reducing Islam to symbolism?
By the same token, it may also be interesting to note the difference in priorities. For example, when I visited Egypt, I found the hijab very prevalent. Yet hotels in Cairo served pork. Pork is also regularly served in hotels in Dubai. Yet both Dubai and Egypt have no restriction on the hijab. In Turkey, on the other hand, no pork is served, even in the best of hotels. Sometimes differences can be attributed to culture or the presence of other minority groups. In Dubai, for instance, there are large numbers of non-Muslim expatriates that the hotels tend to woo. In Egypt, a well-established Christian community may influence hotel menus. Similarly, in places like Bosnia and Kosovo, European dress, even among the women is commonplace. In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, on the other hand, Soviet influences linger. While in Indonesia and Malaysia, East Asian cultures have been fused to incorporate Islam.
In the subcontinent, for instance, qawali was used as a means to propagate Islam and is a part of our cultural heritage. Yet Saudi Arabia banned some of Nusrat Fateh Ali's qawalis and found them heretical. As a child, living in Saudi Arabia with my parents, I remember my mother being enormously concerned that I learn to read and write Urdu as it was not taught as part of the curriculum in my school. So every year, she would take with her from Pakistan Urdu schoolbooks, which she would use to teach my sister and me. One year, Saudi customs was exceptionally thorough and discovered our Urdu schoolbooks, which began with a Hamd and a Naat. The Hamd was kosher but the Naat, to Saudi customs, was blasphemous. After much negotiation, they let the schoolbooks through, but confiscated the Naat.
As Islam spreads and more people flock to it, it is perhaps inevitable that what one group considers reverent would be bordering on the heretical for another. But what we need to ask ourselves is do we want to be part of a few million puritan monolithic Muslims? Or do we want to be a billion-strong, and differences notwithstanding, have enough in common to consider ourselves part of an ever-growing Ummah?
Ayesha Ijaz Khan is a lawyer and political commentator. She has worked for American and Pakistani law firms, written a novel ,and regularly comments on socio-political matters for several Pakistani English dailies, and has also contributed to The Guardian, CounterPunch, Ebony Magazine and The World Today outside of Pakistan.
Website: www.ayeshaijazkhan.com Twitter: @ayeshaijazkhan