It is up to the Mullahs and overtly sensitive Muslims to decide whether they want Islam to become an ossified, irrelevant doctrine or whether they want it to be a flag bearer of inclusivity and freedom.
Nahid Afrin, based in Assam and Suhana Sayed, based in Bangalore, are today united by grief. They are grieving over what the Mullahs have turned Islam into: an intolerant, insensitive and abusive creed hell bent on giving a bad name to Muslims. The fatwa (see editor's note below) against Nahid Afrin by Ulema in Assam and the online trolls against Suhana by ‘Mangalore Muslims’ is indicative of a larger malaise which has come to characterise Muslim society in India. While Suhana has been very nearly silenced, Nahid needs to be saluted for the courage that she has shown in standing up to those bigoted organizations who claim to speak in the name of Islam and Muslims.
Two fundamental objections have been made against these two girls by reactionary Muslim organizations. They are accused of showing their faces to people who are not related to them by blood thus breaking the code of Purdah in Islam. Secondly they are accused of singing and indulging in music which the conservatives think is not permitted in Islam. Suhana is also accused of singing Hindu devotional hymns, thereby seriously compromising the monotheistic principle of Islam which expressly forbids any eulogy for anyone else other than Allah. Let’s take all these objections one by one.
Much has been said about the institution of Purdah in Islam. Whether it refers to a garment which women above a certain age are supposed to wear in public or whether it refers to a division between public and private spaces is an open question. The conservative sections have argued that Purdah is ordained in Islam and that it practically means that women should not show their bodies in public, more so to strangers. However, there is no consensus on which party part can be shown and which cannot. While some say that it is alright to show the face, others have disapproved of it. It is argued that the face and hair of women have the capacity to ‘tempt’ men and therefore women should keep them covered at all times.
Again, since sexuality and culture are intricately linked, some societies find even the hands of Muslim women too tempting and therefore they are barred from showing their hands in public. There is no end to such ridiculous reading of the scripture. Since Islam gets influenced by different cultural patterns, we see a wide divergence in terms of actual practice of the Purdah. While some intellectuals have argued that Purdah actually refers to physical separation between the public and the private, there are very few takers for such an interpretation. More or less there is a consensus that women should not show their faces in public.
The second objection relates to the appropriateness of music and singing in Islam. There has been a long running debate within Muslim societies whether Islam forbids or permits music and singing. On the whole, the scholarly consensus seems to be that only such kind of singing and music be allowed which is expressly for the glory of Allah. All other kinds of music, especially the ones which are for ‘entertainment’ are considered un-Islamic and therefore prohibited in Islam. Despite such a theological consensus, Muslim society in India has produced many musicians and singers. Their contribution to music is so immense that without their reference, one cannot think of writing a history of Indian music. Almost all of them were also religious and God fearing Muslims and they seemed to have overcome the conservative resistance put on their music and singing.
The problem is that till today, they are not considered good Muslims by the Ulema despite bringing laurels to the country for their musical accomplishments. The scholarly opinion remains the same and unchanged since many centuries. And that’s why citing names of Indian Muslim musicians and singers to defend Suhana and Nahid is not going to help. It is not also enough to say that when Prophet of Islam went to Medina, women sang in his honour. It is also not enough to cite Hadiths where it is stated through Aisha, the Prophet’s wife that women used to come and sing in her house in the presence of the Prophet.
What is required is an attempt to break this scholarly consensus which argues that music and singing is forbidden in Islam. Doing so does not require an exegetical exercise of sifting through the pages of Islamic literature, but to argue boldly and consistently that Islam needs to be one with the fundamental marker of contemporary modernity: that of expanding choice and freedom. It is up to these Mullahs and overtly sensitive Muslims to decide whether they want Islam to become an ossified, irrelevant doctrine or whether they want it to be a flag bearer of inclusivity and freedom.
(Editor's note: Some news reports have pointed out that there was no fatwa against Nahid, only a pamphlet was issued. While the media's motive in playing up a fatwa that never was must be questioned, the problem of growing, the curse of growing Muslim intolerance too must be addressed).
Arshad Alam is a NewAgeIslam.com columnist and a social and political commentator
This story was first published on New Age Islam.