Mahfuzur Rahman

Bismillah in the bathroom

The idea of the above title is not entirely mine. It was actually thrust on me by an earnest post I read on the internet. Entitled "Saying Bismillaah in bathroom," it discusses the propriety of uttering Bismillah while doing ablution for ritual prayer in a bathroom which also has a toilet in it. The toilet part of the story is the crucial one. Note in passing how Bismillaah is spelt with two 'a's, rather than the usual one, suggesting the importance the author attaches to the correct Arabic pronunciation of the word.
A number of Fatwas are invoked in this connection. In one, "It is makrooh [something that is preferable to avoid, though there is no blame if it becomes unavoidable] to utter the name Allaah in the bathroom where a person relieves himself [I.e., defecates], out of respect for His name, but it is prescribed to say Bismillaah when starting to do wudoo' [ ablution], because it is obligatory according to a group of scholars." In a contrary opinion, "… if the place where you do wudoo' is inside the bathroom -- which is the place for relieving oneself and is not used for washing only -- then it is makrooh to utter the name of Allaah in this place, even though it is prescribed to say Bismillaah [ when doing wudoo' ]. Some of the scholars say that a person should say Bismillaah in his heart without uttering it on his tongue. " One is struck by the earnestness of ritual piety of the writer of the discourse. Note too that it is the piety at the level of the individual rather than at that of the collectivity of the community that lies at the core of the concern discussed. Behind the earnestness lies a kind of simplicity born of pure belief. It would be a pity, however, to leave the matter there. First, human action, even of the simplest kind, calls for a rationale. Second, in Islam, individual acts of piety, having obtained the sanction of a fatwa or the backing of opinion of the ulama, soon become stepping stones to conformity: the society at large is expected to abide by such sanction or opinion. While this aspect of saying Bismillah in the loo may look inconsequential, in many other cases demand for conformity in matters of individual decisions has led to erosion of long-held tradition and clashes with secular ideas.
To take a close look into the question of saying Bismillah in the bathroom that has a toilet in it: why should such an act be seen as unseemly? It appears from the discourse mentioned above that the act is disrespectful to Allah. One can ask, why not simply desist from saying Bismillah? The problem arises because saying Bismillah before every conceivable human action is considered an act of piety. But this is blind belief and no rational ground exists in support of the practice. Neither is there a reason to think that saying Bismillah, if one must, is disrespectful to Allah in some circumstances. If a bowel movement is something despicable, the creator of man would not have endowed the human body with such a function to begin with. Moreover, Allah is said to be present everywhere. He is omnipresent. Presumably, He exists in the most noisome of bathrooms too. The difficulty of merely saying the name of a supreme being who is omnipresent is thus hard to explain at a rational level. The matter of conformity over saying (or not saying) Bismillah is of course subtle but can nevertheless be pernicious. It adds another layer of irrationality in personal behavior. If the choice of not saying Bismillah in the bathroom is devoid of rationality, turning the choice into a part of social mores is adding one more instrument of irrational decision to the plethora of unreason that already pervades many Muslim societies. In many walks of life the impact of calls for universal acceptance of what guardians of orthodoxy regard as piety is all too visible. Indeed, visibility is the cherished goal. Take the case of the propaganda against the sari, and in favour of the shalwar ( pyjama ), in recent times in Bangladesh. Groups of Tabligis would quietly go around calling upon Bengali women to abandon their saris, which the guardians of Islamic rectitude have started to view as un-Islamic, and choose the shalwar instead. I have seen in my own village many women abandoning saris and wearing shalwar. Sari, a thing of grace and beauty and an integral part of Bengali culture has thus fallen prey to propaganda calling for conformity to what the Tabligis consider an essential act of piety. Bengali women wearing the long, all- enclosing, floor-sweeping, dress in imitation of Arab women, are also becoming a commonplace fixture of the social fabric.
Similarly, wearing the hijab has fast become the new 'norm' defined largely by the recent surge in Islamic fervor in the country. In many families, not previously known to make their women wear more than a perfunctory anchal over their heads, women wear a full hijab. And the expectation that other women would do the same is becoming a new norm in many households in our society. It is easy to extend examples of demands for conformity to norms set up by orthodoxy, old and new. It is as easy to bring in many instances of irrationality in behaviour couched in piety. The matter of piety in the bathroom may be an uncommon example of both, but is still relevant, even if in a rather quaint fashion. ___________________


The Great Slaughter

Though slaughtering an animal at an altar of gods and goddesses of various descriptions and statures is still practised around the world, nothing in the past or present can compare with the scale of slaughter of animals in Islam. The animals are sacrificed annually at two distinct levels: As an integral part of the ritual of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, at a festival known as the 'Id al- Adhha (Festival of Sacrifice); and as part of the celebration of 'Id al Adhha throughout the rest of the Islamic world, where the slaughter is not, and cannot be, accompanied by the rites of the hajj. The number of animals sacrificed in the second category, that is, at the festival of 'Id al- Adha but not as a rite of the hajj, far exceeds the number slaughtered at the hajj itself. Tens of millions of cattle are sacrificed in the Islamic world on the occasion. And with each year, the number of animals slaughtered increases. It is a slaughter of colossal proportions. If one could look, eagle-eyed, from high up in space, he would see, on a single day, millions of carcasses of animals strewn on the face of the earth: some animals just slaughtered, others being cut to pieces, while others are being led to the place of slaughter. Here at home, the slaughter, kurbani, is on a million minds well before the day of 'Id al- Adhha. Most Muslims in the country believe that those who can afford it 'must' make the sacrifice. Those who seem to be in doubt are told in no uncertain terms about their duty: Islam has made it obligatory for those who can afford it; there is no alternative to it. Spending in charity, for example, is no substitute. Tradition has it that if the sacrificial animal is too expensive for an individual, it can be shared by several people making the sacrificial offering. Despite the provision of sharing, there are many families who find a sacrifice too expensive. An inability to make even the tiniest acceptable sacrifice often saddens many devout hearts. On the other hand, the rich often go for the most expensive beast for sacrifice: a huge bull, for example, for an amount of money that can feed a poor family for a number of years. They sometimes vie with each other over the purchase of the most expensive beast.
The animals are slaughtered early on the 'Id day, soon after the 'Id congregation held in the morning. Leaders of the congregation often remind it of the need to perform the kurbani as soon as possible, preferably within a few hours of the congressional prayer. The spectacle presents a panorama of slaughter, enacted in great simultaneity: millions of cows, bulls, heifer and goats being dragged or coaxed to the place of slaughter by throngs of devotees, often accompanied by excited groups of children. The sacrificial animal has, mostly, been bought at the cattle market and, unsurprisingly, there is little affection binding it to people making the sacrifice. This is in sharp contrast to the symbolism of the kurbani as sacrifice of something that is precious to the devotee. (See later.) The beast, if it is a cow or a bull, is brought down to the ground with a thump, though not without a struggle on its part, often after its forefeet have been tied with a rope which is then passed between its hind legs and pulled to facilitate the fall. It desperately tries to rise to its feet, and a number of people are seen holding it down, some sitting on its side, while the man who would make the kurbani readies himself, a large, sharp knife in hand. He also utters the names of the people on whose behalf the sacrifice is being made. Presently, someone pulls the beast's dewlap as hard as he can to make the pelt taut at the throat. Thereupon the throat is sliced from ear to ear with a couple of quick movements of the knife, the slaughterer uttering Allahu Akbar at the same time. Blood gushes; the beast gurgles and desperately tries to rise. A few jabs of the knife to the severed throat follow to facilitate flow of blood. The crowd watches. In a few minutes, all is quiet. Some members of the crowd smear their hands with the still warm blood. Now the beast is still, a drop or two of tears trickling from its huge, black, eyes. It will now be skinned and cut up. The scene is familiar to the vast majority of Muslims of the country. Perhaps only a few finds the scene disturbing. For most, eating the meat in festivity is all that matters. Piety, the prescribed obligation to please Allah, recedes to the background for a large majority of minds. In recent times, for example, professional butchers are engaged for the slaughter by people who can afford them. Often persons in whose name the sacrifice is made do not even witness the kurbani. In the Koran, the sacrifice, in its fundaments, takes on the nature of personal relationship of a devotee to God, whom he 'glorifies' and whose name he 'celebrates,' as in the verses cited earlier. To see this in the slaughter by a hired butcher requires an extraordinary stretch of the imagination. Pilgrims to Mecca nowadays pay for the cost of a sacrifice at a bank, and most of them never see the sacrificial beast that the bank receipt entitles them to. And that too is seen as 'celebration' of the name of God.
Nevertheless, the imagery of the slaughter is hard to escape. Of the millions of animals killed on the day of 'Id al-Adhha in the country this year, perhaps several hundred thousands were put to the knife in Dhaka alone. The scene from my early youth I described earlier is repeated that many times in the city alone in a single day. Many kurbanis were done in the Municipality- designated places of slaughter. Still, there were numerous slaughters on city roads or nearby. This year it rained heavily in Dhaka on 'Id morning. This caused great inconvenience to people attending the congregations. (Although I heard some devotees describing the downpour as Allah's blessing. ) Some of the city roads were under ankle- or knee-deep water. Blood from the slaughter quickly mixed with rain water to present an unprecedented scene: city streets seeming to go under a river of blood. Consider the tens of thousands of animals slaughtered, their throats slit, the long knives dripping with blood, the events watched by a multitude of children and the very young, some of them lending a hand in the ritual, and you have the image of a colossal killing field, now lapped by a seeming river of blood. It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt; growing familiarity with long knife and gushing blood might make life itself seem cheap. Even human ones.
Now setting aside my huge qualms about ceremonial slaughter and my doubts about the use of it as a means of pleasing the Almighty and all -Merciful God, my reading of the Koran led me to this inevitable question: does the Koran enjoin Muslims to perform a kurbani, except as part of the rites prescribed for the hajj? In other words, for a country like Bangladesh, for example, does the Koran call for kurbani on the day of 'Id al-Adhha? Many Muslims will be surprised if told that the Koran does not call for it at all. In fact, the only animal sacrifice the Koran speaks of is the sacrifice as part of the ritual of the hajj performed in Mecca and its surrounds.
Verses on annual animal sacrifice in the Koran are all related to the performance of the hajj. Most of them are in sura 22 (Hajj). Sura 2 (Baqara), which also goes into the theme of the hajj. Again, it is in the context of the hajj that the narrative of the sacrifice proceeds.
There are no verses in the Koran on animal sacrifice that are not related to the hajj. In other words, the Koran does not have any directive that calls for animal sacrifice outside the precincts of the pilgrimage in Mecca and its surrounds. This by definition excludes kurbani elsewhere. The Koran in fact requires that if one is unable to make the journey to the pilgrimage in Mecca, he has to send the sacrificial animal to the place of pilgrimage for sacrifice. (See verse 2:196.) Note that he cannot make the sacrifice at home. In other words, someone who is not present on the hajj precinct cannot make a surrogate sacrifice at home. That obviously applies to Muslims in far off places like Bangladesh too. Why then is there so much insistence on the obligation to make the Kurbani in Bangladesh while the pilgrimage is taking place thousands of miles away in Mecca? In many minds there are the vaguest of surmises. I had recently asked an internet interlocutor, apparently a pious man with limited knowledge of the Koran, to tell me which verses of the Book actually calls for Kurbani. He promptly responded by referring me to sura 37 (Saffat), verses 37: 102-111. This is no surprise to me; I have heard the same response many times. But these verses only tell the well-known tale of Abraham about to sacrifice his son. Abraham passes the test God set him. The tale is told annually and routinely by prayer leaders at 'Id congregations. Obedience to God, even to the point of willingness to sacrifice a son, if ordained, is glorified. A parallel is swiftly drawn to suggest the need, on the part of the devotee, to be prepared to sacrifice his most precious possessions in the service of God. An inquiring mind might quickly ask how many of the preachers seriously believe in and practise what they preach; or how much piety in reality mixes with the sacrificial offering in the image of the slaughters drawn above; or why for that matter the tale of Abraham needed to be commemorated at all? But most important of all, where is the directive I have been looking for? The narratives in Koran do not call for the kurbani. The Koran is supposed to be a clear book, easy to understand. It says so about itself. Why should an important question such as the Kurbani - which now involves slaughtering millions of animals all over the world in the course of a day - should have been left to surmise? There are clear directions on rituals of piety in the Koran. On fasting, for example, there is : "O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you....", ( verse 2:183) a clear and unambiguous directive. There is none on kurbani.


Dissimulation of a past Marxist and present Islamic apologist

~ Mahfuzur Rahman


Of salaam-alaikum,nomoshkar, and the veil

It is also fully within her right not to use Nomoshkar, and use only salam-alaikum while addressing her television audience. The constitution of the country guarantees such rights as a matter of personal choice.
Now let us remove the assumption we started with and come back to the real world where some 90 percent of the population is Muslim. The non-Muslim 10 percent is fairly well represented as TV newscasters just as the Muslims were in the previous scenario. The difference is that they now say salam-alaikum, instead of Nomoshkar, although they never use that quintessentially Muslim greeting outside their TV studio, just as their Muslim colleagues never say Nomoshkar outside theirs. To see them say salam-alaikum to introduce the news is truly odd. It is strange that no voice is ever heard about the oddity. In parallel with the scenario described earlier, the Hindu broadcaster is within her right as a member of society not to say salam-alaikum, but begin her news broadcast with a greeting which is genuinely her own, a Nomoshkar of humility and grace. That too is a matter of personal freedom guaranteed by the constitution of the country. If you accept the above argument, then television channels of the country have been practising something grossly unfair and which is at odds with the principles of secularism and pluralism on which the country was founded. They need to allow their non-Muslim broadcasters to say Nomoshkar to their audience, while their Muslim colleagues continue to say salam-alaikum. Still on the matter of television news broadcasting: Among the half-a dozen television channels that I am connected to, I see on one particular channel non-Muslim telecasters wearing a light veil to partly cover their heads, Muslim-style, during Ramadan. None of the telecasters, Muslim or Hindu, at the other channels wear any veil. One wonders why this particular channel requires their newscasters, Muslim or Hindu, to cover their heads. This, again, is a clear infringement of the freedom of personal choice, as Hindu women are not required by their social custom to cover their heads. I am told the founder of the channel started his TV enterprise with the declared objective of propagating Islam. I think he should be pulled up and told that there are other ways of propagating his faith, ones that do not infringe upon personal freedom.


The Medina Covenant - What is all the noise about?

A tribute to Dr. Mizan Rahman

I have read Avijit Roy's piece published in Mukto-Mona Bangla Blog, titled, 'বিদায় মীজান ভাই, গুড বাই'.