A God by Any Other Name: Sumbul Farah

Guest Post by SUMBUL FARAH

The move from ‘Khuda Hafiz’ to ‘Allah Hafiz’, which Shireen Azam sees as a move towards Arabisation of subcontinental Islam is problematized by Nandagopal Menon when he questions if ‘Arabised’ Islam is an Islam ‘we do not like’. Menon’s argument provides some important ways of thinking about cultural assimilation, territorially bounded nationalisms and notions of piety central to Islam. However, it misses out on the important point that the project of ‘correcting’ belief is often premised on an exclusivist understanding of religious interpretation.

To emphasize the ‘correct’ usage might well in be accordance with Islamic notions of ‘islah’ and piety but unless we stop and question as to who is it that determines ‘correctness’ we risk aligning ourselves with the hegemonic narratives within Islam. The issue underlying the usage of ‘Khuda’ versus ‘Allah’ is not that the Indian version of Islam is somehow more desirable than an Arabised one owing to some notion of cultural nationalism, which is premised on modern nation-states; it is a questioning of the processes through which traditionally acceptable usages and idioms become marked out as ‘incorrect’ in the light of a hegemonic narrative. Particularly in the context of Islam, there is a tendency to seek a return to a supposedly ‘pure’ version of Islam, which in turn, means privileging the Arabian interpretation of Islamic beliefs and practices.

Again, it would be too simplistic to assume that the Arabian worldview is deemed more credible merely because Saudi Arabia was the cradle of Islam, so to speak. It is undeniable that Saudi Arabia or for that matter, the language Arabic has special significance for Muslims across the world as Menon rightly points out, “Arabic is not something external or merely incidental to Islamic practices”, it is central to the process of becoming Muslim. However, the increasing emphasis on Arabised Islam has also to do with the politics of a Wahhabi/ Salafi regime in Saudi Arabia. Contrary to popular assumptions what we refer to as ‘Arabised’ Islam is not a universal, ‘purer’ form of Islam but is merely another interpretation of Islam (often referred to as ‘orthodox’ but I desist from characterising it thus because the ‘orthodox/syncretic’ usage is highly problematic itself).

Menon is right to point out that Kerala has had a much closer link to Saudi Arabia over most of history and the project of ‘Arabisation’ would, therefore, play out in different ways there. We have no reason to assume that the process of Arabisation would not enter into specific relationships with local interpretations of Islam in other regions. This could range from gradual assimilation to outright rejection and might well be a combination of both in different contexts. Somebody who has closely examined Islam in Kerala and has witnessed shifts in idiomatic usages, forms of dressing, modes of worship and religious practices in the region might be able to point out the influence (or otherwise) of Arabised Islam therein. The ‘Khuda’/ ‘Allah’ usage is just one expression of the conflict between a local and a supposedly ‘universal’ interpretation of Islam. It is only natural that the encounter would play out in different ways in different cultural contexts.

The problem is not the existence of alternative interpretations of Islam, which is, in fact, inevitable but the hegemony of one particular interpretation that seeks to dislodge other forms of ‘local’ Islams. Dismissing ‘local’ forms of Islam as illegitimate or incorrect and privileging only one interpretation (which, ironically, is equally rooted in a cultural context) is a hegemonic endeavour that is aimed at ‘purging’ Islam of its ‘impurities’. The substitution of ‘Allah’ for ‘Khuda’ is in synchrony with a move towards a more homogeneous and hegemonic usage, which seeks to erase the historical specificities that are embodied by language. Objection to the use of ‘Khuda’ is simultaneously an act of disowning a unique Indo-Persian heritage while seeking a return to ‘pristine’ Arabic, which is increasingly being established as the only legitimate manner of being Islamic. What Menon understands as ‘wariness of the external’ is perhaps wariness of the hegemonic external and resistance to it, therefore, must be understood as resistance to the de-legitimization of one’s language and thereby, of one’s history.

Sumbul Farah teaches Sociology in Hindu College at University of Delhi and is also pursuing her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Delhi.

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