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Category Archives: Religion

Eid Mubarak! I hope that you made many requests of God and they were answered.

However, if like many mumineen, you asked your fellow masjid / markaz irregulars to remember you in their duas, you may not have been as successful as you wished based on the latest
research:

In findings released just before Ramadan, researchers from Jamea have concluded that solicitations of “dua ma yaad” (DMY) lead to virtually no increase in actually being remembered in duas

However, like the subject of the study shows, it’s all about keeping a can-do attitude:

Ali was at a loss to explain his dismal DMY success, but remained defiant, “All this means is that I gotta step up my DMY game to a whole new level.”

Keep upping your game. And enjoy lunch.

My brother sent me this link this morning:

Eid is meant to mark the end of the month-long fast of Ramzan, but if the Ruyat-e-Hilal Committee (Chand Committee) has its way, several Muslims will have to observe a day of fasting after celebrating Eid.

The cause of this confusion is the fact that the moon was sighted in Mumbai only July 21, because of which the Ramzan fast started on July 22 for many city Muslims. In other parts of the country, it started a day earlier.

You have to admire the misguided creativity that leads to such a ruling.

Put aside that this is theologically absurd. Put aside that this contradicts 1400 years of established Islamic practice. Put aside the obvious logical counterpoint that if Eid-ul-Fitr is the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan, fasting a day afterwards for a day that you say is part of Ramadan must be entirely nonsensical. Put aside, if you can, that mankind has been observing the lunar cycle for hundreds if not thousands of years and we know that, in fact, the new moon will rise a day earlier than even the date currently chosen by the moon spotters, so that they’re not one but two days behind.

Put that all aside, because I think the deeper point observable in all of this is much more troubling. First of all, it is clear that the moon spotters made an initial mistake. Even compared to the moon spotters elsewhere in India, they were one day behind the curve. Given that they knew that moon spotters elsewhere had seen the new moon, this must have meant that the new moon was hanging over Mumbai on that night. They must have deliberately turned a blind eye to this knowledge when informing the Muslims of Mumbai not to fast on 21 July itself. Deliberate ignorance in the wise is hardly commendable.

Secondly, their reaction to this mistake was not to acknowledge that they had made a mistake, and that this had led to people missing a fast. They chose not to regard this as a mistake. They chose to not even acknowledge that there had been error. Presumably, to do so would be a severe blow to their legitimacy, authority and power since the only reason that diverse Muslim sects have agreed on using the Chand Committee is because they can provide this crucial information in an accurate and neutral manner. If they fail in that simple task, there isn’t much role left for them. An inability to recognise or admit clear mistakes is hardly commendable.

Thirdly, when coming up with their creative ‘solution’ they have tried to find something that is quick and efficient (fast one more day) rather than something that is accurate and in conformity with the practice and history of Islam. They’ve decided to solve their legitimacy crisis rather than solve the theological crisis of people having missed one day of fasting. And that is absurd because there is no theological crisis concerning what to do when you’ve missed a fast. The rules have provided how to correct that common oversight for as long as Muslims have been fasting. And there are more ways to do it than doing a fast afterwards. An inability to apply simple and clear rules is hardly commendable.

Situations like this speak to me about the absurdity of the idea of the self-governing Ummah. The idea that the collective decisions of scholars and learned men can somehow correctly guide people through their spiritual lives has never been better illustrated as flawed than by moments like this. Here are the ‘leaders’ ignoring practice, precedent, logic and knowledge to ensure that their primacy is not threatened. Here is one of the most sacred times in the calendar, something that by definition cannot be changed, altered to cover human error.

Given this is the pathetic governance of the Ummah even on established spiritual matters, it’s hardly surprising that Islam struggles in the modern world.

I’m tired. Tired of God and tired of men. Tired of the spiritual life and tired of the mortal life. Just, in so many ways, tired.

I’m tired of God. We know a few things about God. He’s all powerful, all knowing, transcendent, immortal, unknowable and inscrutable. That’s a good place to be for Him. But it does make it hard to take him seriously. Why would this being, a being Karen Armstrong aptly called the remote Sky God (because he’s somewhere up there and doesn’t really do anything down here) care one jot about what’s going on down here? And the usual answer, trotted out, is that we’re not capable of understanding Him. That the idea, the true nature, of God is something so beyond the capacity of the mortal mind to comprehend that it would be folly for us to try. We can at best engage in approximations: analogies of what God is like – or what His attributes are like. But he is none of those things and all of these things, because even those words are limited by our limited appreciation of their true meaning. So that to call him Forgiving simply does not comprehend the nature and extent of his infinite mercy. To call him Just does not comprehend the nature and extend of his perfect justice. To which the immediate rebuttal is that why did he make us that way? It was his choice to limit our capacities, and if as a result he feels underappreciated, I don’t see how that should necessarily be attributed to me. As one of my friends says, if you have a problem with every model available, then you have a problem with the manufacturer not the product. And that should really be resolved by the manufacturer. In this case, He is the manufacturer, so seems to be a bit odd to blame the mortal.

It’s hard to be religious and tired of God.

I’m tired of men. I’m tired of hypocrisy and lies. Of evasion and falsehoods. Of fake smiles and sincere cruelty. I’m especially tired of seeing this in people who profess to be holy men, religious men, devout men, honest men, men of integrity, and men of character. Men who intend to be scared of their Lord or their professional regulator, but instead seem only worried about their mortal skins and material gains. At least, when those who are only scared of their professional regulator go out and lie, cheat, steal, bully, ignore, abuse, manipulate and coerce, they do so without relying on a moral authority that their very conduct undermines. Of course, I understand why it happens. People are being people, with all the insecurities, worries, work to avoid, easy paths to take, difficult choices, personal preferences and capricious whims that are heir to the mortal condition. And yes, I do know that people are more than this. That people can be, and often are, good. That they can be kind, and welcoming, and warm, and giving and generous. Except that I don’t want these things of them either. I would not be a recipient of their generosity, kindness, giving, welcoming or warmth. It rings false to me when they are capable of so much that accrues to the other, crueller,  side of the personality divide. And yes, I know that I do it too.

It’s hard to be sociable and tired of People.

I’m tired of the spiritual. If I were to answer in truth, I would say that my spiritual side was dying more every day. Part of that is everything that I’ve talked about already, above, but part of that is also about how little spiritual response I feel to things that are meant to move me spiritually. The things that people say lift them, change them, hold them, support them, give them the strength of faith and the comfort of certainty don’t hold for me anymore. Faith and certainty seem quaint outcomes of a limited perspective and a closed mind. The arguments of those who have a narrow vision of how people can live their lives, the choices they can make, and a paternalistic instinct in making sure people make the choices that they perceive to be right. Sometimes, so many times, those choices seem to align suspiciously with the motives in my previous paragraph. So I have doubt. Lots and lots of doubt. Lots of questions. Lots of uncertainty as to the smugness and self-assuredness of the faithful. People who behave in ways that are selfish and capricious, sure in the knowledge that they are the elect and the chosen (and it doesn’t matter what faith they belong to in this regard) and that every one else is misguided. And yes, I know that I do it too.

It’s hard to hope and be tired of the spiritual life.

I’m tired of the mortal. Is this really it? Is this what happens for the next 40 – 50 years of my life? I work, hard, forever, living life in 2 week or 3 week increments, stolen glimpses of freedom and space, time and opportunity, hope and freshness, and then to return back to the grind. What’s the point of all of this? Is it to die with the most toys? To die with more toys? Die with enough toys? Why would any rational sane individual make any of these choices? What kind of folly would it be to blithely continue down this path? And those are the easy questions. Harder ones are why I’m doing this, who benefits, who hopes to benefit and how come I benefit so little? Oh so many questions and not an answer in sight. Almost feels like there no point in asking these questions, since they lead only to counsels of despair. Especially so when I don’t particularly care for material outcomes. I don’t want fancy things. I don’t need designer clothes, or elaborately stitched hand crafted leather goods. I don’t care whether I own a house, or five. Once you’re over that level of comfort and subsistence, I don’t  see the mortal life being directed by the pursuit of economic gain. So my material life is aimed at the material gain of others predominantly, since I know now that these won’t particularly satisfy me? But material things are important and material things are a necessity. So yes, I know that I need these things too.

It’s hard to work and be tired of the mortal life.

I find myself at a crossroads. There is very little left to loose when you are tired of your religious life, your spiritual life, your social life and your work life. There is not much of a safety net below these questions and despair. These are gnawing questions, that pollute the soul and drag down the heart. These are dirty questions, that spread their toxic burdens into every other thought and every other source. They are water closing over a drowning man; a last chance to see water bedazzled by sunlight but too far away, almost certainly, to ever break to the surface again.

I could ask someone, I could seek guidance, seek answers, seek truth. But tell me – why should I trust you? You too are likely to be religious or atheist. You too are likely to be human. You too are likely to have a spiritual and a material life. And I am very apt to mistrust your answers, because after all your actions will seem smug and self-assured to me.

And so I am where I choose to be. Uncertainly carrying a heavy burden of doubt, unsure of where I am coming from or where I am going. Unsure of why I am journeying and why I would want to arrive. Uncertain that any other traveller on this road knows where to go any better, and convinced that many are lying when they offer maps, guidance and shortcuts. Is it any wonder I’m tired?

The metaphor of life as journey is common. When we talk about ‘two paths’ that ‘diverged in a wood’ we know that Frost was talking about the life journey and only incidentally narrating a stroll through the woods.

I have been reflecting on that journey for the last day. And I find myself wondering about the metaphor. I find the metaphor troubling. Troubling because it is too comforting. Life as journey wraps the experience of living in an unsatisfactory cocoon of certainty.

When we think of journeys nowadays, we experience them as they exist now, transformed by the certainties of the modern age. We have certain starting points, fixed end points, mapped roads and ready built airports. We have real-time communications with our destinations. A modern day journey is as adventurous (in the first world) as slicing bread. As a result, they are on average as uniquely unchallenging as journeys have ever been in the history of human travel.

We have banished the uncertainties that made a journey akin to life. We have not (alas) banished the uncertainties of life.

If life is a journey, then that journey must now be understood by parable. Travel has always historically been capricious and changeable. The closest parable to that journey that I can find is the Israelites wondering through the desert for forty years in search of the promised land.

A journey where you are alienated from everything left behind, the present is the hostile ever present risks of being stuck in a desert, have only the vaguest idea of where you are going, are seduced into worshipping false gods and where death heralds the entry into the promised land is a profoundly honest reflection of the true nature of life’s journey.

All human flourishing is enabled by restrictions. Similarly, when restrictions are lifted, or when a person is subject to no restrictions, flourishing descends into decay.

Let me give you an example. Algae forms a small percentage of the life in the sea. Normally algae are subject to tough restraints, competing for the limited nutrition (mainly phosphates and nitrates) in the ocean.

Sometimes, due to reasons both natural and manmade, there are patches of ocean exceptionally rich in phosphates and nitrates. Algae reproduce at a phenomenal rate in these patches. When this happens, the algae monopolize all the available nutrients in the patch. Other marine life dies out when it encounters the algae patch, leaving a giant dead patch behind the algae. It may take years before life in that area is restored to normal.

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Unrestricted access to insight is destroying my capacity for original thinking.  Too much insightful, intelligent and appealing content is within my grasp. The more such content I consume, the less I can digest. This can’t continue.

Professor Naim makes an excellent point in his article:

It is important to acknowledge publicly, not just now but always … that Islam has been in these United States for a long time, not just among the immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia but among the African-Americans.

via www.outlookindia.com | A "Browning" Of Islam In America?.

If I may, I would like to generalise that insight one step further. It is easy to forget that Islam is a diverse faith, with its adherents spread across all casts, creeds and cultures.

It is tempting to ‘arabise’ and ‘asianise’ the faith, so that only the Islam of the Middle East and the Asian sub-continent is legitimate. Within these traditions, it is tempting to focus on the visible Islam, that receives media attention  (i.e. relatively modern Saudi wahabi values distilled by purist Taliban ideologues – Asians putting into action an Arab idea).

Broad, tolerant and diverse perspectives, like the syncretic integrated Islam of an Indonesia or America have becomes details lost from sight in such a narrow world view. They are the inconvenient texture, that prevent the framing of a black and white narrative.

ashoka Hindu philosophy (which I’m reading about in Prof. Wendy Doniger’s fascinating The Hindus: An Alternative History) divides life in to three dimensions: dharma, artha and kama.

Dharma means righteous duty or any virtuous path.  A persons dharma is affected by a person’s age, class, occupation, and gender. 

Artha is the path to achieving widespread fame, garnering wealth and having an elevated social standing.  It is about how society sees them, and how they should see society.

Kama refers to the aesthetic and sensual pleasures of life.  It embodies the leisured private life.

These three dimensions are affirmed in a wide variety of texts.  There are many dharmashastras.  There is only one Arthashastra by Kautilya (Max Weber called Machiavelli’s The Prince ‘harmless’ compared to the Arthashastra).  There is also only one Kamasutra. 

It says a lot about our society that the only well known text is the Kamasutra.  Even when your culture is thousands of years old, it seems that only the sexy part sells.

Buddha was assailed by doubters, who kept asking for more precise details about nirvana before they would start down the path to enlightenment.

Buddha likened them to the inhabitants of a burning house, asking their rescuers what house they will get in exchange if they agreed to leave this one behind.

2000 years ago, the writer of the Lotus Sutra set down this parable on the obstinate nature of the human being.

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The compass is so true that it is hard to be anything but enthused by his moral clarity.  It is refreshing to encounter such a firm purpose, so in tune with both the ethos and the actions of the saviour in who’s faith he garbs himself.

In the grey twilight before dark thoughts, I see there is more to the compass’ story than unearthly alignment.  The compass knows evil.  It gnaws itself in self-doubt at critical moments.  Its triumph is because weighing the two alternatives, he unfailingly chooses to remain true.

In darker moments, I admit disillusionment.  Such purity of purpose is naive.  To navigate the world with nothing to call to your aid but a belief in the goodness of God, a good heart and the love of good people is reckless. It is insanity.

Or so I tell myself. The truth is I would surrender heaven and earth to possess a share of that moral courage.