From left, CM Naim, historian Saleem Kidwai (standing), Ram Advani and book collector Aslam Mahmud. Photo: Unknown waiter at Lucknow golf course, February 2015, via CM Naim.

(CM Naim,  Saleem Kidwai (standing), Ram Advani and  Aslam Mahmud).

 

When I first visited it in the final months of 1949, the shop that would go on to become an iconic landmark occupied a small area within the vast and mostly empty Gandhi Bhandar in the heart of Lucknow’s Hazratgunj. And the sign proudly said “Ram Advani Bookseller”. The use of the singular made it clear, I suppose, that besides the wares on display you were also going to encounter an individual. I had gone there with a relative, and I doubt if I exchanged more than a formal greeting on that occasion with its handsome and urbane owner.

With time, I became more familiar with the wares of the shop – by then it had moved into the Mayfair Building and acquired two signs, the old red one outside the building and a new “wrong” sign, “Ram Advani Booksellers” above its doors – but I don’t think I bought a single book there during those four years. So in those years too, Mr Advani remained a distant figure, from whom one received a nod of recognition but whose eyes one tried to avoid – needlessly, it must be added – as one stepped out without making any purchase. My meagre pocket money was better spent on a movie at the Mayfair Theatre next door.

I mention all this to underscore what made that shop so unique – it allowed cash-starved booklovers like me to browse. And to enjoy the almost erotic frisson of having access to so many temptations. To pick up a book, flip its pages, admire the cover and illustrations, read the blurb, then move on to the next alluring title. One might not have the money to buy even one book, but so what, one at least knew that they were there for the taking some other time.

Before this man, who himself loved books and knew how booklovers feel – even the cash-starved kind – opened his doors, the practice among the booksellers in Lucknow was as follows. The books were put on high shelves, with a number of counters before them. You went and scoured the shelves and then asked the man at the counter to show you the book you wanted. You had then a few minutes to examine it, with the counter-man watching and judging if you were a likely customer. You could then ask for a couple of more books but if by then you had not decided to buy something, you received a subtle hint to not waste their time any further. The counter man would take away all the books and go to some other customer or start doing something else.

Incidentally, the situation at Urdu bookstores was much worse. There, you had to tell the owner what you wanted – a particular book; the works by a particular author; books in some specific genre – who then asked certain numbered bundles to be brought. He would pull out the specific items and show them to you. A transaction had to be made within 10 minutes or so, otherwise the bundles would again disappear in the loft above. There was no way to know what was available for sale, except by flipping the pages of a published catalogue.

Interestingly, just as Ram Advani changed all that with his browse-able shop for the Anglophone readers, around the same time the late Nasim Ahmad made all Urduwalas happy with his famous “Danish Mahal” in Aminabad, where one could browse without fear. I don’t know if the two ever met but I do know they held each other in much respect.

I’m quite sure I never bought a book from Ram Bhai’s shop until 1966, when I spent a year away from Chicago in Barabanki, my hometown. My relationship with him in the beginning was formal – he was a pretty formal person in most ways, and may have even appeared as somewhat severe to some people. The big difference in age – he was 14 years senior to me – made me feel diffident while talking to him. But over the years, like for so many others before me and after, our relationship turned into a friendship that I cherished then and will always cherish. He became Ram Bhai to me, and I became Naim to him – in his letters he would now use “My dear Naim” instead of “Dear Mr Naim.” Then, some 10 or so years back, he took to calling me “Naim Bhai”. I protested, but he did not stop. I finally explained it to myself as a curious expression of his misplaced sense of propriety in view of my shiny pate and white beard.

As Lucknow changed, it became a place less and less familiar or comfortable for me. Besides depressing physical changes, people’s behaviour in public spaces became radically different. One could not walk safely where once it was possible to stroll. By 1990, Ram Bhai’s shop became an oasis in what had become, for an old fogey like me, a desert, a place with no civility though displaying much opulence. With Ram Bhai I knew where I stood and could never be disappointed in my expectations. With him I could also share memories of an earlier, more civil Lucknow. His shop became the place where I could ask people to come and meet me, and if they were of the “right” kind I would take them upstairs to Ram Bhai’s cool dark mezzanine floor office. We would then have a cup of tea with him – it was always rather weak to my taste though plentiful. Inevitably, the visitors would soon join the ranks of Ram Bhai’s countless admirers across the world.

Buying books at Ram Bhai’s shop was always a problem for me. Too many interesting books on display, too many equally interesting books that he knew would interest me and he could obtain in a few days from the publishers. The most fabulous thing for me and for any visitor from abroad was the fact that the books one bought could be made into perfect parcels and sent homeward abroad through postal service by Ram Bhai’s most capable staff. And for a nominal charge one could even have one’s own other acquisitions mailed similarly. The other thing that made him special for so many was his ability to remember what one liked or was interested in. Every few months, it was normal to receive from him a note, first by postal service then by email, describing the new acquisitions of the shop that should be of interest to the particular recipient.

The same happened when you visited the shop, coming from abroad. After a few minutes of personal chitchat, he immediately started informing you of the new books that should interest you, often giving his own brief but candid view of some particular book. Often there would be several visitors in the shop at the same time, and more than one conversation would be going on as dear old Raju would make more tea and offer biscuits or go out to get samosas for the few who shamelessly asked for them. Ram Bhai would sit and listen and add his two bits once in a while. But he never gossiped. Many of us did, but he would only listen, and only with a look of tired indulgence on his face.

Though he spoke Sindhi and Hindi-Urdu – I doubt if he read them too – Ram Bhai was basically an Anglophone. Nevertheless, in social discourse and manners, he was a quintessential old-time “Lakhnavi”. (That reminds me of the beautifully embroidered chikan kurtas bought for him by Darshi Bhabhi, an epitome of ageless beauty and elegance herself, that he wore with great aplomb – I longed to don the same but knew how false they would look on me.) Whatever he had seen and heard and read about Lucknow was safe and ready in his memory to share with others. And in the limited confines of his shop he had created the aura of courtesy and civility that he believed he had experienced once in Lucknow’s public spaces, as if to impress upon his younger visitors: Yes, this is how it used to be once and could be again if you only tried.

Rest in peace, Ram Bhai, you were a dear and cherished friend to countless people and also a forlorn reminder of a Lucknow that is now gone forever.

 

First published in Scroll.in on March 14, 2016.

 

When I was growing up in the small town of Barabanki in the 1940s, the mosques had no loudspeakers. Those abominations would appear at the political rallies, and then disappear. Even in our Eidgah, where hundreds of people came from all parts of the town to pray together on the two Eid festivals, no loudspeakers were used to summon them. Not only that, even during the prayers, no microphone was used by the imam. In fact, when the idea was suggested by some individuals, it was quickly rejected by most of the so-called notables, who organised the special prayers, as well as the clergy. The imams of the neighborhood mosques, at the time, would proclaim the azaan themselves, or had some young man with a loud voice do the honors from the roof of the mosque. The human sound, often quite melodic, that emerged from his throat had enough reach to bring the nearby faithful to the mosque. And it did so no less efficiently than the electronically engorged aberration that now resounds over Barabanki. Actually, I should use the plural, for what we now have are scores of aberrations.

Last year, when I made a determined effort over several days, I discovered that the fajr or dawn prayer azaan came barging into my room in Barabanki from eight different mosques – mind you, only one of them was within walking distance from my home – and the whole thing, the calls from those eight different mosques, lasted nearly 30 minutes, as each mosque made its separate contribution. At moments, what one heard was an ugly cacophony. Far from providing the aesthetic pleasure that a single human voice produced for most listeners in my boyhood days, the effect of what came over the air now was intolerable even to my deeply devout sisters.

Undistorted and un-amplified, an ordinary human’s voice was perfectly able to do the task in the days when few people had alarm clocks or, for that matter, even a wristwatch. But now, even the tiny mosque in my neighborhood that can accommodate no more than 50 or 60 people has two loudspeakers tied to its minaret, and a sound system that sends its call out to a body of people 50 times larger than its capacity. But one cannot suggest a change. Apparently, the people who attend the neighborhood mosque can do perfectly well without an amplified alarm in all aspects of their daily lives except when it comes to reaching the mosque to form a congregation. Their grandfathers could do without loudspeakers but not these stalwarts of the 21st century.

Given the recent controversy over Sonu Nigam, I totally believe that no use of inappropriate amplification should be allowed in open spaces. Period. Not at akhand paths, not at jagrans, not at wedding celebrations, not at political meetings, not at anything. Not within a mile of any hospital. Not close to any school. And most definitely not during the hours of 10 pm and 7 am. Needless to say, the required laws are there on the books, what does not exist is the will to enforce them.

There are, however, a couple of things that Indian Muslims should themselves be concerned about that are related to the matter of electronically amplified sounds emerging from mosques. The idea of praying together in a congregation is quite important in Islam, hence the need to construct mosques. And that leads to the immediately relevant question: how far away should one mosque be from another? The rule is clear: mosques should be so built that the call from one must not reach another. The worshippers should not be confused, nor should there be an appearance of discord or disunity. If you don’t believe me, ask the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. They will confirm the above, even if reluctantly. For the size and numbers of mosques has now become a matter of honor.

Then there is the second, perhaps even more critical, issue. Everyone is aware of the quantum increase in sectarian thought and practice among the Muslims of South Asia. The evil that started in Pakistan, particularly during the Zia-ul-Haq regime, has now well established itself in India too. Thankfully, the murder and mayhem that are now routine in Pakistan have not yet happened in India. Indian Sunnis are not killing Indian Shi’ahs, nor have the Indian Barelavis gone gunning after Indian Wahhabis. But anyone who reads Urdu journals knows that sectarian intolerance has increased, and no effort to curb it is in sight.

I first visited Pakistan in 1980, and well recall what some friends in Lahore told me was happening in the Old City. After the ‘isha (late evening) prayers, they said, the Barelavis and the Deobandis regularly engaged in denouncing each other, using their azaan amplification systems, and filling the air with choice imprecations. My friend had said that with a smile. Now, of course, that smile is long gone. In fact, when I was in Lahore last year, and staying with a friend in an affluent neighborhood, I heard an azaan that I had never heard before. Later I found out that the Barelavis in Pakistan now have their own special azaan, and the additional material was put in basically to annoy the Deobandis. Probably the same is now happening in Bareli and Mumbai, too, but until last year it had not reached Barabanki.

Public display of religiosity is now common place. Piety that used to be expressed privately or through public humanitarian acts has now been replaced by a religiosity that is much more about pomp and glory, about self-exaltation, than humility and service. The cry one hears is of shaukat-e Islam (Glory of Islam). Anything that detracts from that presumed glory becomes “intolerable”. Sonu Nigam’s complaint against the use of loudspeakers was turned into an attack on Islam’s “honor”, and had to be retaliated against by demanding that he should be denuded of his “honor”. “Shave his head off,” brayed one savior of Islam. “Put a garland of shoes around his neck.” Now I only wish Sonu Nigam had saved the hair clippings and mailed them to his detractor.

More seriously, it is about time administrators across the country began to enforce the existing laws. Put strict limits on amplification. Enforce hours. Punish those who break the laws. And the so-called leaders – political and religious – should also make sure that the presumed piety of one party does not put undue burden on the rest of the citizens of the country.

 

First published at Scroll.in on April 21, 2017.

In 2017 we shall celebrate the 200th birthday of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the Indian Muslim who was declared a kafir by the mullahs of India on more counts than any other person before him or after. Here is a partial list of the reasons why some mullah or other thought Sir Syed was beyond the pale of Islam. He does not believe that wearing Western clothes is against the Shari’a. He believes that Angels and Satan are not real beings and instead believes them to be human powers, as endowed by God, to do good or bad. He believes that the Quran does not mention any miracle attributable to the Prophet Muhammad. He believes that Islam ended slavery forever even during the Prophet’s life. He eats at a table, while sitting on a chair, and uses a knife and a fork. He shares his table with Christians, and also eats at their homes. As countable in his biography by Altaf Husain Hali, the list runs to more than fifty similar accusations.

One of Sir Syed’s most persistent detractors was a Maulvi Ali Bakhsh Khan, a Subordinate Judge in the colonial administration. When Ali Bakhsh Khan went on Hajj he spent more time in obtaining fatwas against Sir Syed and publishing them back in India. Sir Syed’s response was something to this effect: I’m proud of my kufr because it made possible my friend Ali Bakhsh Khan to obtain the blessings of a Hajj. On another occasion, when his detractors fell silent for a while, Sir Syed wrote in his journal, Tahzib-al-Akhlaq, “I feel like that old biddy who was regularly teased by market urchins, and if any day it didn’t occur she would say, ‘What happened to the boys? Has some plague taken them?’”

Until now they used to be my examples of how best to respond to the fatwas that are headlined every other Thursday in the press—issued by some obscure entity eager to seek some easy publicity and written-up by some perfervid newsperson anxious to get into print that day. Now I have a third example, the statement issued by A R Rahman in response to the fatwa issued by Mufti Mahmood Akhtarul Qadri, the imam of Haji Alig Dargah Masjid, in response to a request made by Saeed Noori of the Raza Academy, Bombay. And what a classy response it is!

“What, and if, I had the good fortune of facing Allah, and He were to ask me on Judgement Day: ‘I gave you faith, talent, money, fame and health… why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad (Peace be upon him) film? A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life is kindness, about uplifting the poor, an and living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents in my name.”

Read it in full; see how a genuine man of faith speaks, bearing witness to the faith that feeds his spirit and the talent he earns his living from, and considering both as gifts from the Divine and thus fully in tune with each other.

The trouble with people like Qadri and Noori is that they have split personalities and have as much stuff to hide as they profess to strut before us. And the news-writers go along out of ignorance—but also due to a lack of genuine curiosity. Qadri earns his living at a mosque attached to a dargah. Now if we went to a Deobandi mufti, he would be happy to issue a fatwa against anyone whose source of income is a dargah, for that is not what the Deobandis allow. For them: no dargahs; no grave-worship; no belief in any miracle-making saint. And the same savant would happily declare Noori a mushrik—one who shares his belief in God with a belief in another god—for Noori, when he goes to his ‘Bareli Sharif,’ bows before the grave of Ahmad Raza Khan, and touches his forehead to it. Likewise, God help the Deobandi who attends a meeting to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet but fails to stand up and sing along with the congregation when the preacher announces the Prophet’s birth. So it goes, and it gets worse every day. This rising sectarianism is to be blamed as much on the silence of the liberals in India, Muslims and non-Muslims—as on the belligerent vociferousness of the mullahs.

I am old enough to remember the time when the same kind of mullahs objected to the use of sound amplification in mosques. Even its use during the sermon part of the service on Fridays and the two Eids was considered an abominable innovation— a bid’a. Now even the tiniest mosque has two loudspeakers on its roof. One of the joys of my childhood in Barabanki was to wake up in the morning and listen to the music of the azaan as it came wafting over the air—in human dimensions. Now the same words turn into a painful cacophony as they blast into the air from at least eight different sets of loudspeakers. So here is a request to the newsperson who next goes to get the details of some fatwa from one of the savants from Bareli, Deoband, Nadva, Firangi Mahal, and so forth: please ask the savant what he thinks of the loudspeakers on his mosque; also ask him if there is not a ruling in several religious texts that no mosque should be built so close to another that its azaan—unamplified, of course—be heard in the other mosque? Then, if the mullah convinces you of the religious sanctity of his two loudspeakers, please move next door to his mosque, but please spare us his blathering calling it a fatwa. Please remember that a fatwa is not an edict; it is not binding on anyone; it can be countered by another fatwa; it dies with the death of the person who issues it; and it is never issued against some specific person. And please always tell us who might expect to gain some money or power from that fatwa.

 

Originally appeared in Scroll.in on September 17, 2015.

05. June 2015 · Comments Off on Islamophobia and Blasphemy · Categories: Archive, Muslims in South Asia, The Only World We have · Tags: , , ,

I have huge respect for Javed Anand and the work he has been doing (with Teesta Setalvad) for a few decades. But I would like to raise some caveats concerning his piece ‘On the other side of fear‘ (IE, September 29).

His essay chiefly consists of three parts. In the first, he rightly condemns the manner in which Muslims in some countries have protested against the notorious anti-Islam video. Next, he asserts that something new is taking place now: a “reiteration… by a growing number of Muslim scholars that Islam too rests on the freedom bedrock and the very notion of blasphemy is ‘un-Islamic’.” In support of this claim, Anand refers us to unnamed editorial-writers and religious leaders in the Urdu press, and in particular draws our attention to a “boxed” letter from a Saudi Arabia-based Indian Muslim, Abdul Rehman Mohammed Yahya, that simultaneously appeared on September 24 in three Urdu journals, Sahafat, Inqilab and Rashtriya Sahara. To quote Anand: “The gist of the long letter is a rhetorical question addressed to fellow Muslims: ‘What did Prophet Muhammad do in the face of repeated insults heaped on him during his lifetime?’ The answer: he forgave them.”

Surely, the present Muslim definition of “blasphemy” is not limited to “any insult to the Prophet of Islam”? Even in India, there are at least two prominent anti-”blasphemy” movements at play among the Muslims under the guise of Tahaffuz (Protection): Tahaffuz-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwat (Protection of the Finality of Prophethood), accusing the Ahmadis of “blasphemy”; and Tahaffuz-i-Namus-i-Sahaba (Protection of the Honour of the Companions of the Prophet), accusing the Shias of “blasphemy”. Not to mention the accusations of “blasphemy” against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. Second, while Anand is right in stating that it “is a universal Muslim belief that the Prophet never retaliated to repeated insults to him, through either word or deed”— and, indeed, the vast majority of Muslims live by that belief, and many may even try to emulate it in their own lives — it is also true that a few enemies of the Prophet were ordered by him to be mortally punished, including one or two who verbally abused him. A devout Muslim, therefore, may claim a right to follow whichever tradition suits his own inclination.

The issue should not be what the Prophet did or did not do, for once we raise it we only fall into an easy trap. It becomes a conflict between only apparently equal claims of righteousness; quickly, it becomes another instance, at best, of sectarianism, and, at worst, of “blasphemy”. In any case, a devout Muslim may aspire to emulate the Prophet’s actions but by the same token can never claim to have done so. Yahya’s letter is a good sign, but so are also a few other articles. These are acts of personal piety, and one must be thankful for them. But the same boxed space — actually there is nothing special or prominent about it — in Sahafat (Delhi) that carried Yahya’s letter contained on September 29 a letter on the same subject of the video from a Muhammad Ziaur Rahman, department of Urdu, Delhi University, under the title: “Yahud wa Nasara Musalmanon ke Khullamkhulla Dushman” (Jews and Christians are blatant enemies of the Muslims). Rahman claims, among other things, that on September 11 this year, the film “Innocence of Muslims” was shown in cinemas across the United States, and that the United States rained missiles on Iraq when a woman in Baghdad named Laila Al-Attar drew a cartoon of President George Bush [in 2003].

In the final part of his essay, Anand highlights “Islamophobia” in Western countries, using as his chief source a recent book, The Islamophobia Industry, by Nathan Lean. I confess I have only read about the book, and not the book itself. Its significance seems to lie in what its subtitle describes: “How the right manufactures fear of Muslims.” It is the political right in the US that Lean is concerned with, and “Islamophobia” is not what describes it. The American right has its own political agenda; its domestic dimension, in fact, is its chief driving force. “Islamophobia” is only one of its many tactics — similar, to my mind, to the fear-mongering of the right in India, as also of the right among Indian Muslims. Vis-à-vis the latter, it mainly takes the form of “anti-Jewism” and anti-Ahmadism, together with the cry of an exceptional and absolute “victimhood”. From the perspective of the health and security of any democratic polity or its civic society, however, the two slogans—“Islam is a cancer” and “Islam is in danger”—are equally pernicious and corrosive.

Anand closes his comments by asking a rhetorical question: “Are Muslims being made the “new Jews” in post-Holocaust West?” The influence and success of the Israel lobby in American politics should not mean that anti-Semitism has disappeared in the US. It is as much present now as is racism, though not in the blatant manner it used to be before World War II, and, judged by what appears in the Urdu journals of India and Pakistan, still is among much of the Muslim population in South Asia.

——-

Originally published in The Indian Express (New Delhi), October 2, 2012.