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

These are distressing times. Never before has the country seen killings by Islamist terrorists on the present scale. There is a sense of helplessness among the population, the like of which we have not witnessed before. How far will the killings go is a nagging question that exercises many minds today. There is a lingering sense that the government of the country seems to have lost control of the situation. There is a sense of loss of direction. Talks of existential questions concerning the country are not uncommon. The problem is hugely complex but Islam lies at its core. The terrorist who explode bombs to kill themselves as well as others, the murderers who wield the machete to murder free thinkers and members of other religions, do it in the name of Islam. In more recent times, foreigners have been considered fair target, if they happen to be infidels. And yet among most Muslims acts of militant atrocity are generally followed by beating of the breast, accompanied by a repetition of the old jargon: Islam is a religion of peace. That normally ends further discussion on the role of Islam. Anything that sounds like critical inquiry into possible sources of violence in Islam is considered an infringement of the "religious sentiment of the people." People have been sent to jail for the offence and sterner punishments have been demanded.
Lamentation over the awfulness of atrocities by Jihadists and reiteration of the old jargon that Islam is a religion of peace are not limited to the average "mainstream" Muslim. Intellectuals held in high esteem in society are often seen to shed tears for the victims, fulminate against the perpetrators, and then go on to proclaim that Islam does not support such acts of terror and, almost inevitably, proclaim that it is a religion of peace. A recent newspaper article by Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury, the eminent columnist, is typical of the genre, excepting that it comes from a former Marxist, which perhaps adds to its appeal to some. With a title, in Bengali, Khoma koro Hazrat, or Forgive us, Hazrat, the person addressed here being the Prophet Muhammad, the article starts off in a mood of post-Eid expansiveness, which is quickly soured by a report of the most recent Islamist atrocity, this time in Turkey. A number of lines from a poem by Kazi Nazrul Islam (which I roughly translate in plain prose here) set the tone : "You did not want stifling strife in the name of faith. You gave us not the sword but the immortal word. And we shunned your liberalism, and embraced blind faith instead. In consequence your rahmat no longer comes down from heaven. Forgive us, Hazrat."
Chowdhury takes the poem to heart and calls on Muslims to come together in a maidan and beg forgiveness of the Prophet of Islam. He has reason to like the poem. However, he goes far beyond poetry, takes the narrative as historical fact, and draws moral conclusions that have a bearing on the present sorry state of the Muslims. As a poet Nazrul is well- known for his hyperbole that sometimes tend to exceed normal bounds. Neither was he an observant Muslim, who would be obliged to do regular daily namaz and fast in the month of Ramadan, for example. His poetry, such as the one above, often consisted of sweeping poetic exaggerations. Given his mostly non-observant status as a Muslim and his secular humanism for which he is justly famous, it is impossible to see the poem as supplication from someone dipped in piety. Similarly, to draw ready lessons from them can be rather silly. Not content with this, Chowdhury even endows Nazrul with prophetic power; the poet, according to him, foresaw the present rotten state of Muslim societies. Let us look closely at some of the statements in the poem in historical context.
Take, for example, the line from the translation above: "You gave us not the sword…" It is a shameful dissimulation to suggest that Prophet Muhammad did not use the sword or did not ask his followers to use it. What jingles well in a poem is a travesty of truth in historical terms. The Medina period of the Prophethood saw the spilling of very considerable amount of blood, beginning with the Battle of Badr, which was not a defensive battle, as commonly believed, and was brought on by the desire of Prophet Muhammad to raid a Meccan merchant caravan. That he was following age-old tradition of raiding caravans for booty does not make it a virtuous act. Badr was the beginning of a series of expeditions and wars, leading finally to Muslim victory in which the sword played a decisive role. Similarly, Chowdhury waxes eloquent about the Prophet's "udarota," a term which is difficult to translate. In the quote above I translated it as liberalism ( "And we shunned your liberalism…"). But it could easily include tolerance and kindness. Even in an age of great cruelty that was not confined to any particular region of the world, the word is hard to apply to the Prophet of Islam, even though it is not hard to find instances of kindness and forgiveness on his part. Of the latter, one is reminded of the historian Tabari's story of Prophet Muhammad forgiving a Jewish woman who had tried to poison him. The incident took place during the Prophet's Khaybar campaign that saw the total subjugation of the Jews of the area. Of tolerance, it is difficult to see it in the banishment of Jewish tribes from Medina. Of cruelty, there is little to compare with the massacre of the Jewish tribe of Banu Qurayzah soon after the Battle of the Trench. The circumstances leading to the gruesome event are somewhat unclear. There is no doubt about the scale of the massacre. All the male members of the tribe were slaughtered: their number varies between six hundred and nine hundred, for the tribe's alleged treachery for which historical evidence is thin. It was not Prophet Muhammad who ordered the killing; the decision about how to punish the tribe was left to a mediator named by the Prophet. The man, S'ad b.Mu'adh, was fanatically devoted to the Prophet and was seriously wounded during the Battle of the Trench reportedly by a Jewish arrow and was close to death. The Prophet knew what kind of mediation could be expected of him, and when the decision was communicated to him, he is reported to have told S'ad "You have judged according to Allah's judgement." Soon the trenches dug for the purpose of the execution filled with blood. Tabari reports that the only woman put to death received her punishment from the Prophet himself. He personally beheaded her. She is said to have killed a Muslim fighter by throwing a millstone during the seize of the tribe, perhaps from the rampart of the tribe's fortress. Such examples rankles the modern mind. While one may readily accept evidence of individual acts of kindness on the part of the Prophet of Islam, to see him as an exemplar of liberality and tolerance is to stretch the imagination.
The Prophet's liberality, in fact, did not extend to non-Muslims. A verse in the Koran says it very well: "Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah ; and those who are with him are hard against the unbelievers but compassionate among each other… " ( 48:29) The ultimate aim of Chowdhury's article is of course to defend 'true' Islam as opposed to what he variously calls the Islam of the Mullah, or Islam of the followers of blind faith (the Dharmandha). Chowdhury does not define true religion, and wisely so, because true Islam is undefinable. That does not prevent him from talking. He talks about the glory of historical Islam that released a veritable "tidal wave of peace, fraternity, and liberality." Again, when exactly was that golden age in history? According to some (the Salafists, for example) the era of the undefinable true Islam was supposed to be the time of the earliest caliphates. But three of the first four Caliphs were murdered. And that was also the time of the bloody fitna, civil strife, that tore the Islamic community asunder. The various factions claimed that theirs was the true Islam and fought bloody wars to uphold it. The Kharejites, to whom the present-day ISIS bears an uncanny resemblance, excelled in cruelty to defend pure Islam. The caliphates that followed were interspersed with periods of intrigues, debauchery and drunkenness in the palace, and were hardly embodiments of true Islam, however defined. Decay set in and the Mongols finally put an end to the crumbling edifice. The great flourishing of culture that is often talked about was real but had little to with Islam. It is ironic that Chowdhury finds inklings of true Islam among the great Imams – Abu Hanifa, Malik Ibn Anas, Muhammad al -Shafi'i and Ahmed bin Hanbal, who lived between the beginning of the 7th century AD and the middle of the 9th – whose position he contrasts with that of the "Mollas." He is perhaps right to castigate Mollaism. But he can hardly laud the great Imams as standard bears of true Islam without at the same time recognising that they also laid the foundation of truly orthodox Islam which was irreconcilably opposed to reason as the vehicle of human thinking. Reason and critical thinking, espoused for example by the Mu'tazila and others, succumbed to theology, thanks to the work of the Imams, the Asharites, and finally al-Ghazali. If Chowdhury is right, the murdered mukotomonas of today are in fact victims of the orthodoxy that he seems to single out as true Islam. It would not be Abdul Gaffar Chowdhury if he did not end his article with a swipe at western imperialism. To him, much of the present state of the Muslim Arab land is due to the mendacity of the imperialist America and Britain. From his comfortable eyrie in London, the capital of western imperialism, he never misses a chance to denounce the two bastions of capitalism. He is oblivious of one important historical fact: Islamic imperialism far antedates western ones.


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'.


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