Remaining Muslim in India - ÖMER LEKESIZ

Remaining Muslim in India

It was about 15 years ago when I visited India with a few friends.

Our initial goal was to travel around Mumbai/Bombay, yet we extended our journey all the way to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) out of curiosity to see the Muslim face of India.

This is due to the fact that, while the ratio of Muslims among the Indian population of almost 1.5 billion is 15%, this figure was 25% in Kolkata. Therefore, it seemed like a place where we could more closely observe the life of Muslims.

Early on a Friday morning, we hopped on the plane from Mumbai, and landed in Kolkata after a three-hour flight. Dropping off our belongings at the hotel, we went to the Mosque of Prince Ghulam – Mohammed in time for the Friday prayers.

The floor of the mosques I viisted in India, including Ceylon, are not carpeted like ours; in other words, there is no prayer mat of any sort covering the base. This practice, which must have been implemented to ensure cleanliness, will be a source of discomfort for those visiting from our part of the world in terms of differentiating between the start and end locations of prayer.

Thus, we personally faced this difficulty at the Mosque of Prince Ghulam – Mohammed, where we went in haste to make it on time to pray. As we were trying to find room somewhere near the main entrance of the mosque, which was completely full on the inside, without realizing, we had entered an area allocated for prayers with our shoes on.

Then suddenly, someone in the front lines, who must have previously noticed our haste and surprise in advance, jumped up the moment we stepped foot there, and repelled us all back with his stern gaze and angry and loud voice. As if it was not enough that we were there like a deer in headlights, that person continued to accuse us of disrespect and malice.

Though we declared over and over again that we are Muslim, we were unable to calm him down. When the racket grew by no small degree, some people in the front came over and took the matter in hand. We were told that we had entered the prayer section with our shoes on. We stated that this was our first time there, that we could not differentiate between the prayer and non-prayer section because of the flooring, and apologized. Though the issue was then resolved, the fury in the eyes of the person who initially reacted against us did not dim down at all. Even though we were right, due to the constant disrespect and insult encountered by the Muslims there, they were the ones in the right. Because staying Muslim in India was only possible by living like a porcupine with its needles out, constantly vigilant.

It is not possible to explain this away with the mediatic cliché that “Muslims slaughter cows, which are considered holy by Hindus, therefore the fight between them never ends.” Surely this must have a response in social terms, however, just as the Hindu violence faced by Muslims is not limited to this, it is also not an issue of the present.

In this context, Turkish author and academician Cemil Kutlutürk provides the following information with respect to the use of the term “yavana,” meaning the “other,” the wild one, which has been in use since 2 B.C., when the Indo-Greek Kingdom was first established, in reference to Muslims (Turks):

“A similar definition was concocted for the Muslim Turks, who established sovereignty in India with the Ghaznavid state from the 11th century on. Hindu clerics, who saw Islam rapidly gaining credibility among the public, felt the need to take certain measures to break this spell. In this context, they tried to draw Hindus’ attention by using the term yavana, familiar to the Indian public, in reference to Muslims. They thus wanted to send the message that Muslims are invaders who came and settled in India later and then seized land that really belonged to Hindus.

While Muslim belief and practices are mentioned in Indian resources, the yavana term is also used. Hence, when mentioning the Quran, the term yavana shastra is used, meaning ‘the book of foreigners’; and when the religion of Islam is in question, they use the term yavana dharma, meaning ‘the path followed by foreigners.’ As a result, taking into consideration the use of the term yavana in medieval Indian resources, it is concluded that those compiling the texts see Muslims and their faith far from and foreign to their own values, and do not pay much attention to it.” [Hint Düşüncesinde İslam Algısı (Perception of Islam in Indian Thinking), Istanbul 2019].

There is no doubt at all that the British, who ended the Mughal-Turkish Empire in India (1858), implemented their policies based on breeding discontent in India as well in addition to the other Islamic areas they occupied. They re-ignited the old sovereignty fights among people by updating them through differences such as race, tribe, religion and sect!

This is where the difficulty of remaining Muslim in India starts.

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