Friday, 16 December 2011
Can traditional Islam adapt to the needs of western Muslims?
by Nushin Arbabzadah
guardian.co.uk, Friday 9 December 2011 09.00 GMT (all rights reserved, copyright)
As I listened to Arabic recitations at my father's funeral, I wondered how Islam could become more relevant to its diaspora
At my father's funeral the imam's voice echoed loudly through the speakers from behind the thick curtain that divided the congregation hall into a male and a female section. I listened hard, trying to understand his words. This ceremony, after all, was supposed to give me solace and help me find closure. I waited for the mercy and compassion that Muslims referred to every time they said "bismillah". But all I could understand from the recitation was the term shaitan, referring to the devil.
Soon I gave up on listening altogether. The imam might as well have spoken Korean, a language as unfamiliar to me as the Arabic in which the sermon was conducted. I wondered why was I not allowed to hear the words of God in my own language? Why did I have to study Qur'anic Arabic in order to understand what the imam was telling me at my father's funeral? For the first time in my life, I really needed religion to give me solace, but here I was, listening to an unfamiliar language where the word "devil" kept popping up, alarming rather than comforting me.
When the language finally switched to Persian, I hoped to get something out of the Hadith. But to my alarm, even though the Hadith and the imam's interpretation of them were in my language, I failed to understand how they related to the life and death of my father. We were in Hamburg, in the north of Europe, but the imam told a story that took us to the Arab lands of the eighth century, where a group of believers were hiding inside a cave. It was a tale of violence, an attempted mass murder, from which the believers were saved after God miraculously created a spider's net, covering the cave's front and misleading the prospective killers.
Two thoughts occurred to me. Firstly, exactly how was I supposed to relate to the cave, the spider and the desert in this cold German city with its 21st-century high-rise buildings made of glass? Secondly, what had this story to do with my father? I lost track of the Hadith and the next words that reached my ears were, "Not all German TV programmes are bad. Some of them are good." Aha!
I was in the women's part, seated on a chair and greeting a long line of complete strangers who stopped in front of me, before kneeling and whispering words of condolence. When the women kneeled, I noticed their huge, fancy handbags and realised that they were wearing full make-up, complete with foundation, lipstick, and colourful eye-shadows. Cheap Iranian-made Botox was equally conspicuous among women of a certain age, whose eyebrows almost reached the end of their temples with balloon-type cheeks covered in red blusher. I realised that for these Muslim ladies, my father's funeral was a social outing where Eve's daughters felt compelled to compete with each other with Botox, handbags and make-up. Had these women been allowed to be entertained outside weddings and funerals, they would not have turned my father's funeral into a fashion show.
In the women's section, I looked for a chador. The chadors were kept inside a wardrobe and when I opened its door, I discovered utter chaos. The chadors had been shoved into the wardrobe, piled on top of each. One had to go through many in order to find an appropriate one for a funeral.
The chador chaos for me represented the confusion in the minds of so many female Muslims who were the most pious believers and paradoxically also the ones who were excluded from a proper religious education. Their faith was blind, a combination of stories from hundreds of years ago mixed with some memorised Arabic suras and Hadith whose meaning was not entirely clear to them. The older ones muttered words in Arabic, kissed the piety banners with Arabic words embroidered on them, looking terrified.
Muslim clerics have a long way to go in order to make Islam relevant to the needs of the diasporic communities of the west. The religion has travelled hundreds of miles but the imams themselves have a hard time adjusting to the west, let alone being able to offer the community the comfort and guidance it needs in order to live peacefully between two civilisations that seem so hostile to one another. It's the blind leading the blind, I concluded, as I left the mosque, hoping to find solace in solitary contemplation conducted in my own language.