I was raised by my Mother on Amar Chitra Kathas. (Uncle Pai therefore shares some of the blame for how I've turned out.) I read comics on Jesus Christ, Rama, Krishna, Hanuman, Buddha, Mahavir Jain, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Agastya, Ghatotkach and a truckload on Hindu mythology. I read loads about India's history, her invasions, her home grown kings, and Amar Chitra Kathas always presented an unbiased, usually positive viewpoint, the kind that kids should be exposed to.
I grew up accustomed to people marvelling at my knowledge of "Hindu" mythology, and other religions. I also grew up practically unaware of what Islam was about. Since my family didn't pay much attention to it, I was only aware of who the "heroes" of Islam were: The Prophet, Hazrat Ali & his martyred sons Imam Hasan & Imam Husain, and their clan.
As I grew older, I met more Muslims, relatives who didn't have the advantage of a Western education, who were amazed at how little I knew about Islam. They tried to impress upon me, how good the religion was, what it said etc. Unfortunately, I was in my teens & rebellious, saying emphatic NO's to everything. Also, these people were not exactly the best of teachers.
Thankfully my Grandfather was an erudite, liberal scholar. And his daughter, my Mother had learnt her Islam from him. So she chose to teach me about the progressiveness of Islam. I found that my Grandfather's interpretations of the religion were radically different from what the common Muslim knew & believed. My Mother taught me all about the history of the region where the religion originated and linked it to why certain things were expressed in a certain way in Islam. It made much more sense that way. Simple things like this: Islam considers Moses an earlier Prophet of Islam and his teachings are incorporated in the Quran. So "Thou shalt not kill" is an integral part of Islam.
The damage however had been done by then. I knew my family was different, but the image of the common Muslim in my mind was this: They're Islam obsessed. All they seemed to talk about was religion. If ever another topic came up, the answers were sought in Islam. And that bothered me. Until I realized that all over the World, people seek answers & direction from their religion. Why then did it seem to me that Muslims were more religions focused than other religious groups? That is something I am looking for an answer to.
With all the World attention on Islam & all the hate that spews out in blog forums & on the roads sometimes against it, I've been wondering if there is anything Muslims can do to clear the air. Here are some of the things that I think Muslims should/should not do:
- Educated, liberal Muslims should use media to clear the air about what the religion stands for. It should showcase the lives of Muslims like themselves using TV, papers, novels, films whatever i available. The common non-Muslim deserves to know what Islam really stands for. They must undo the damage that the conservatives have caused. A PR exercise is desperately needed.
- Muslim majority countries like Iran should lay off minorities like the Bahais. Educated Muslims should actively condemn Iran when it does something like this. Countries like Saudi Arabia should allow freedom of religious expression in their countries. Unless they're content to be knows as a hardline, conservative state. I as an educated, liberal, half-Muslim would be the first to condemn religious states!
- The Shia-Sunni divide needs to be bridged. This is easier said than done, but if the differences are irreconcilable, they should at least lay off each other. And guys like zakir naik should be condemned publicly if they mouth any hate.
- The media doesn't seem to be helping on it's own. So there should be an active involvement with the media, a partnership that showcases the attitudes of people like Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, Farooque Shaikh, the bin laden niece who made a magazine cover in America. People like Dinara Safina, Marat Safin, Sania Mirza & their parents.
My mini-mission going forward is to impress upon each uber-conservative Muslim I come across, the importance of being as modern & liberal. And how it's important for their community to come across as that, if they're to contribute to solving the problems that face them today. I'm aware that most of them will take it as personal criticism & will react just the way I did as a teenager, but I must sow the seeds of the idea in their mind.
If you agree dear readers, please help me do the same. Please speak to every hardliner you come across & tell them to live their life as they would like their religion to be perceived. If they want to be viewed as progressive, educated, liberal, loving & peaceful, then they must be that themselves. Do spread the good word.