By A J PHILIP
MY sister-in-law worked at a rural dispensary in Saudi Arabia for over two decades. The nearest airport was a 10 hours’ drive from the dispensary. Once a fortnight, she visited the nearest town, a four-hour drive, to buy toiletries and provisions. The only book she had was the Holy Quran and she read it whenever she had some spare time.
When she first went to Saudi Arabia, she wanted to carry the Bible with her, not for preaching but for her own spiritual fulfilment. But she knew that the Saudi Customs would confiscate the book. And she did not want to risk her job opportunity in the country. So, she took with her a copy of the Quran in Malayalam. She knew that Islam, too, was an Abrahamic religion and the Quran could be a substitute for the Bible. After all, followers of both Islam and Christianity believe in the Old Testament.
Years of reading the Quran, cover to cover, gave her a better perspective of Islam. She paid more attention to the commonalities of the two books than the differences. Thus she found that Jesus was a revered figure and there were more references to Mary in the Quran than in the Bible.
This is how the Quran introduces Mother Mary: “Behold! the angels said: “O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee — chosen thee above the women of all nations” (Verse 382). She found that the Quran, too, described Mary’s Immaculate Conception that preceded the birth of Jesus.
Now that she has returned to Kerala for good, she has restarted her practice of reading the Bible. In retrospect, she does not regret for a moment reading the Quran that gives religious sustenance to nearly 1.2 billion people across the world. Unlike my sister-in-law, I cannot claim to have read the Quran cover to cover.
I got the Quran as a memento for delivering a lecture organised by an Islamic organisation in New Delhi a decade ago. It is a bilingual (Arabic-English) version, beautifully engraved and published by the “custodian of the two Holy Mosques in Saudi Arabia”. I feel enriched every time I read the book, for it gives a different perspective on God, His Messenger and the way of life He prescribes.
When the Quran is not in my hands, it is on the bookshelf, flanked on both sides by an illustrated version of the King James Bible, incidentally, gifted to me by a Muslim friend, who ran a Typewriting Institute in North Bihar and “stringed” for the Hindustan Times, and an expensive version of the Ramacharita Manasa, brought out by Motilal Banarsidas and gifted to me by the author who translated Tulsidas’ work simultaneously into Hindi and English in verse form.
It is a coincidence that I write this column on the day when Muslims in North India celebrate Eid, which also happens to be the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the twin-World Trade Centre towers in New York. My wife and I visited one of the towers a few days before the attack. We still remember the panoramic view of New York and the Statue of Liberty that we had from the observatory of one of the towers.
As I look forward to greeting my Muslim friends on Eid, I am really saddened by the “Quran-burning” episode that brought Christian-Muslim relations on tenterhooks the world over. While I am glad that the threat to burn the Holy Book was not consummated, I find the conduct of the Press and the American Government wholly to blame for what came to pass.
A little-known pastor of a little-known church in a little-known town in the United States threatened to burn “Qurans” on September 11. His congregation had at one time 100 members, including children. Thanks in the main to his effective preaching and sermonising, the membership fell to 50 (some reports say, 40).
To make a living, he uses a part of the five-acre church compound as a warehouse for old furniture he sells through the Internet. When I stayed for a couple of days at the parsonage of the Epiphany Mar Thoma Church in New York, I found on the roadside several old furniture with “Please take away” notes on them. Now you can imagine what kind of business this pastor had!
He is a “Doctor” with a “doctorate” from one of the hundreds of “unaffiliated, unrecognised” Bible institutes that dot the US. He is also the author of a book titled “Islam is of the Devil” which is not among the tens of thousands of books that Amazon makes available to the book buyers.
The “pastor” — I deliberately do not want to publish his name — earned notoriety when he forced some of the children of his congregation to go to the school wearing a T-shirt that read “Islam is of the Devil”. The school authorities took objection to the inappropriate dress and sent them back. The “pastor” got some publicity and his purpose was served.
Then he hit upon another idea. He erected on the church premises a huge signboard that said the same thing about “Islam”. The local Press photographers took due note of his gimmicks and the idea went to his head that he was a national celebrity. As the ninth anniversary of 9/11 approached, he realised it was time to move on to the national stage. This year’s anniversary came in the wake of a raging controversy over the proposal to set up an “Islamic centre” in Manhattan, New York.
I still remember the conducted trip on which I saw the city. The amiable guide, who looked and behaved like a man, wore a brassiere under his T-shirt. I did not have the courage to ask him why he wore it. As the bus passed each landmark, be it a church, a synagogue or the Mayor’s residence, he had a few words of explanation. There were a couple of mosques that we passed by on that trip. I mention this to drive home the point that a mosque in New York is not an oxymoron.
Then, why this hullabaloo about this “Islamic Centre”? The proposed Centre will not be based at Ground Zero. In fact, work on a massive memorial, which will have the names of all the victims of 9/11 inscribed on its slabs, is now at feverish pitch and it is expected to be completed by this time next year. The Islamic Centre will be two blocks away from Ground Zero.
The man behind the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, an Imam who is highly respected in the US for his inter-faith dialogues, wants to set up a centre where every religious group can have its own worshipping area. In other words, it is not just a mosque. So why should such a multi-faith project raise the hackles of anyone? In a well-argued pieces in The New York Times, author William Darlymple tried to disabuse the average American of his belief that Islam is a monolithic faith that sees everything in black and white.
The British author has highlighted the fact that the Imam belongs to the Sufi tradition in Islam which the puritan Wahabis want to exterminate.
Sufism, like Hindu mysticism, tells you that what is important is not the empty ritual of the mosque or the temple but to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart — that we all have Paradise within us, if we know where to look. It is this tradition that the Imam wants to uphold by setting up the Cordoba House, named “after the city in Spain where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in the Middle Ages during a period of great cultural enrichment created by Muslims”.
Many Americans see the project as a sign of “victory” for Islam and they, therefore, oppose it. What is forgotten is that there were at least 60 Muslims among those killed when the two towers collapsed into a heap of molten metal and concrete on 9/11. One of them was featured in the New York Times. She is Hadidjatou Karamoke Trarore, a Muslim of Ivory Coast origin, whose husband was a daytime cook at WTC and distributed USA Today to supplement his income.
She struggles day and night to educate her two sons, who study in a Catholic School. On the 9/11 anniversary, she visits Ground Zero every year where she prays for her husband. And she prays to Allah. She considers it a puzzle that some people blame her religion for the terrorist attack that killed her husband Abduoul Karim Traore, who prayed to Allah before he set out for work every morning, even on 9/11. Islam, indeed, acts as the ballast of her life. As she says, “The Quran puts me in the right direction and it protects me from doing bad things”.
I read an interesting article by Samuel G. Freedman in the NYT the same day about a particular room in one of the towers where visitors, workers, cooks and sundry others assembled to pray. He quotes a person who prayed there, “You walk into the elevator in the morning and say to one construction worker “Salaam Aleikum” and five more guys in suits would respond “Waleikum Salaam”. The “Islamist warriors” who brought down the towers, perhaps, did not know that they were destroying a Muslim prayer room as well.
Now to return to the pastor, why on earth should he get such saturation coverage? Never in his life did he address as large a crowd as when he talked to the Press. Every word he uttered, every grimace he made was being beamed into millions of living rooms the world over. Did he merit such attention?
Two years ago, a similar pastor in the US burnt the Quran outside his church — Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The Press ignored it and nobody knew about his antics. At the end of it, he looked like a fool. The same would have happened to this pastor from Gainesville, Fla., who at one point expected a call from President Obama!
Though the President did not call, Obama was compelled to tell ABC’s “Good Morning America”: “As�commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the US, I just want him to understand that this stunt…could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform who are in Iraq, who are in Afghanistan”. Earlier, General David H. Petraeus, Commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, echoed similar sentiments.
With protests against the Quran-burning move growing on the Muslim street, India’s Home Minister P. Chidambaram was forced to appeal to the media, both electronic and print, not to publish any visuals if the pastor went ahead and burnt the holy book. And in Bhopal, a tiny church received a threat that it would be blown up if the Quran was burnt.
What surprised me was the inability of the American government to deal with a mad cap that could jeopardise the interests of Americans and Christians. When a BJP candidate in the last Lok Sabha elections used abusive language against Muslims, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati had him dumped in the jails, though he was the great grandson of the first Prime Minister of India. I wish Obama was as decisive as Mayawati and journalists were responsible enough to ignore the pastor, who represents just 40 to 50 people. (Courtesy: Indian Currents)
Writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.
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