Wednesday, August 20, 2003

ESSAY: God's Whores

Back in the days when I was young and innocent, mum would regularly seat me in front of the VCR and force me to sit through a 3-hour Urdu/Hindi movie. It was mum’s way of getting her piyara beta (allegedly beloved son) to brush up on his language skills. It was also her attempt to immunize me from totally assimilating into local ways (which in my white Protestant sectarian retro-Aussie neighborhood meant ensuring I did not hate Catholics too much).

After 10 of these awful sessions, I knew the drill. I could predict the story, the actors, even the playback artists. I knew that Muhammad Rafi was dead, and that chances were his amazingly sweet and versatile voice would be replaced with that of Kishore Kumar, a gentleman mum often referred to as the dude with avaare ki avaaz (the voice of a lecher). I could even measure how far the fist of the ghunda (gangster) was from the victim’s face during a fight scene. And up which trees the orchestra was hiding when the couple were dancing and singing in the park.

But then one day mum showed me a movie whose story line still haunts me. It haunted her when she first read the novel as part of her undergraduate studies at Aligarh Muslim University. The story was yet another illustration of what an awful deal corrupt and violent men dish out to women. And that includes Muslim men.

Umrao Jan Ada (or Umrao Jan’s Tale) is said to be a masterpiece of Urdu literature. It is set during the eve of the East India Company’s move out of Calcutta and across the rest of northern and central India. These were the last days of the decaying and decadent Mughal Empire. Yes, they were tolerant (apart from Aurangzeb who mercilessly massacred the followers of sufi-inspired Guru Nanak and pushed them beyond the fringes of the Indian Muslim community). Yes, they were cultured. Yes, they were rich. Yes, they were my ancestors.

And yes, they were decadent. Many a courtesan entered the Mughal court. Religion and religiosity did not seem to matter when it came to sexual pleasure. But I guess the Mughals were just following what everyone else did.

Visiting courtesans and prostitutes was a gentleman’s game. The great nawabs and princes would gather at the mahkhana (glorified brothel) where they would marvel at the poetic skills, the linguistic masonry and the sheer intelligence of girls who were usually kidnapped from their families at a young age and trained by poets and musicians and other cultural technicians on the art of being a respectable courtesan.

Of course, my semi-drunken Mughal ancestors weren’t just interested in the great minds and sweet words of these highly cultured women. For a few bags of gold, they had access to other treasures. Although the men had to prove themselves worthy, and this was not just an issue of money.

Umrao Jan Ada has been cinematized in both Pakistan and India. Mum reckons the Pakistani version has better ghazals (lyrical songs), but the Indian one is more true to the novel. I beg to differ. But that is not the point of this article.

The point is that the character of Umrao Jan is so typical of the hypocrisy many have toward women (and in some cases, men) who work. Yes, it is true that this is a most oppressive and exploitative industry. Yes, women are often physically and psychologically abused. But they are still women. They have made their choice. And some may not have even had a choice.

Umrao Jan was kidnapped in her early teens. She had just been engaged to a young chap. Her dad had an argument with someone who had Umrao Jan kidnapped and sold to a randi (a term used to refer to a female pimp, also a term of abuse) to be raised as a thawaa’if (courtesan). Umrao lived in this brothel environment for some 6 years, during which she was taught classical music, poetry, etiquette and other culturally seductive arts.

Eventually, Umrao was unleashed upon an unsuspecting community of male admirers who had never seen anything like her. She was a princess. And like all princesses, she attracted a prince. He wooed her, seduced her, promised her his heart and then dumped her when his mummy found him a more ‘decent’ girl (ironically one of Umrao Jan’s friends who grew up with her in the brothel but who never appeared as a courtesan).

The town where Umrao stayed was attacked by the British, and she joined a convoy of refugees. One night she found herself in a town that looked ever-so-familiar. Some of the refugees asked her to sing for them. She sang of the familiarity of the place. In the audience was a young handsome man whom she felt she had seen before.

After the performance, Umrao went walking and found a house she recognized and an old frail woman who she had seen many years ago. The old woman recognized Umrao as her own daughter. She told Umrao of her father’s death from the grief of her kidnapping. Then the young handsome man in the audience appeared. The old lady said to him: “Look, son! Your sister has returned!”

The boy looked at her scornfully and said words that represent the attitudes many of us have. “She cannot be my sister. She is Umrao Jan. She is just a prostitute”.

Umrao Jan left after hearing these words. The Indian version of the movie ends by showing Umrao looking at herself in the mirror and touching the mirror. The novel says that she committed suicide.

So how should we see Umrao. How should we allegedly pious and spiritually astute people view someone like Umrao Jan? I guess the first step will be to declare that prostitution is haram (legally forbidden) and that prostitutes will go to hell. And that society should reject and shun prostitutes.

But let me ask all you mullahs and mullettes this. Why do prostitutes exist? Why is there a plentiful supply of sex-on-tap? Simply because there is plentiful demand. And who are the clients? Usually the respectable people, the judges and politicians and businessmen and lawyers and doctors. And priests and rabbis and maulanas also.

So why are the customers, the clients, the real reason for prostitution to exist let off the hook so easily? And why are the workers, the service providers, the women with often multiple mouths to feed condemned?

And why is it that a prostitute is so dirty and awful whilst a girl who sleeps with some dude she just met at a bar or club and who bought her a drink so clean and wholesome? It reminds me of this female stand-up comedian I once saw who had this to say: “I cannot understand you men. Like, I go to a bar. And I sit there and one of you comes and buys be a drink. And then he expects me to sleep with him. Now tell me this – which prostitute would sleep with you for four dollars and twenty five cents?”

Among those of you reading this will be people who claim to believe in Jesus (peace be upon God’s Noble Messiah). And some who even claim to be following him. Now I ask you this. Who was Jesus’ closest female companion? Who was the one who went to the Garden where his tomb was to rub herbs on his body in accordance with Jewish custom? Who was the one who spent so many hours and days with him? Who was the one who shared his own blessed mother’s name?

Jesus had two Mary’s in his life. One was his mother, the one who miraculously conceived him whilst she was still a virgin. The one about whom the Qur’an says that she was chosen over and above the women of all nations. And the other Mary?

She was a prostitute.

Real Islam, indeed real religion is designed to rid us of the pomposity and self-righteousness that plagues so much religiosity. The prophets of God sat with and made time for those whom society pushes away. Christ spent time with tax collectors, fishermen and prostitutes. Christ did not go to King Fahd of his day and seek a few measly riyals in return for loyalty.

We know that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him) was known to spend time with a woman in Madina who suffered from schizophrenia. He also had a close friend Julaybib who had no known ancestry and apparently suffered from some physical deformities. And he was so fond of a black woman whose name has not come down to us but whose place in paradise is assured since she spent so much effort sweeping the Prophet’s mosque. And where did the great sufis come from? They originated from those poor starving semi-naked People of the Bench (‘ashab as-suffah’), the equivalent of today’s street people.

We don’t look up to street people or schizophrenics or cleaners. We look up to scholars and philanthropists and martyrs. Yet the Prophet told us that a person from each of these honored categories will be amongst the first to be dragged into hell.

He also told us about the prostitute. The one who finished her shift and went to the well. She saw a dog that was dying of thirst. She took pity on it, dropped her shoe into the well and dragged it out full of water for the dog. For showing kindness to a dog, the prostitute earned God’s mercy and forgiveness.

During his recent tour to Sydney, Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller referred to this incident. And he made a comment to this effect: “How I wish I was that prostitute. We should all wish we could have been her. She understood the reality of things. May God give all of us the understanding possessed by this woman”.

Yes, God created whores too.

First published in (a website now sadly no longer active) on 25 June 2003.

UPDATE I: This was also published in the Friday Times. You can find their take here.

UPDATE II: A Scottish academic also reproduced the article on his blog. Some historical corrections can be read in the comments.

Words © 2003-10 Irfan Yusuf

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In Egypt, the followers of Hasan al-Banna ask: "What professional organization will we stack out and take over next before the upcoming elections when Uncle Husni throws us in jail to secure his 99.9996% majority?"

In Pakistan, the followers of Sayyid Maududi ask: "What clause of the constitution will we islamize next while we still have a military dictatorship to suck up to?".

In Indonesia, the followers of Abdullah Sungkar ask: "Which nightclub shall we bomb next?"

In Turkey, the followers of Esad Cosan and Said Nursi and Fethullah Gulen and every other Islamic activist-scholar ask: "When am I going to make my next million??"

Turks rock. And they know it. Pity the rest of the Muslim world don’t wake up to it (and to themselves) and realize there is something in these ex-Ottomans that makes them special.

My ancestors were Turks. One of my grandfathers was Mirza Yusuf Baig (or Bey), and the other was Mirza Yaqub Baig. Typical Turkish names. So how on earth did I end up being born in that jungle of rotting fruit, half-built bridges and loud rikhshas that is Karachi?

The Turks traveled everywhere. They came, they saw, they conquered. They missed out on Vienna by some fluke of history (from memory, it had something to do with Suleiman being given the wrong sauce on his kebab). They civilized much of Central Asia. But then some of them met and inter-married with Persians and Mongols. The result was a lecherous group known as the Mughals.

Now these Mughals had huge ego problems. One of them, a dude called Babur, decided he was not happy being the ruler of the rich city of Herat. He also must have found Indian women attractive. Within a few months, he was king of Delhi. Meanwhile, his relatives and subjects in Herat were ignored, eventually being forced to convert to Shiism under the Safavids. Today we know them as the Hazaras, those enterprising people who were persecuted under the Taliban and are now persecuted by the Minister for Immigration, Multicultural & Aboriginal Affairs in Australia who locks them up in concentration camps out in the middle of the desert. It’s great to see conservative governments in Australia and Afghanistan have so much in common.

Getting back to Babur, his son Akbar decided being king was not enough. So he declared himself the founder of a new religion which he labeled Din-e-Ilahi (the Divine Faith). And who was to be the prophet of this faith? Conveniently, Akbar himself.

The ulama (religious scholars) did not seem to mind, especially after he fed and clothed them all. But the more orthodox sufis were furious. One of their senior guys, an indigenous Indian named Ahmad Sirhindi, declared Akbar to have left Islam. Akbar, being the tolerant and liberal king that he was, threw Shaykh Sirhindi in prison.

My favorite Mughal was Shah Jahan. Now here was one guy who knew how to please a woman. The problem was that she kept needing to call on her midwives. She died after giving birth to her 39th royal toddler. The Shah was stricken with grief. He did what every self-respecting Mughal does when stricken with sadness--he turned to opium, wine, Persian poetry and fab music (accompanied by even more fab dancing girls). And by the way, he also built the Taj Mahal.

His son Aurangzeb was a pretty decent bloke. But he was not very fond of a small group of Sufis and their followers who were based in Lahore. He showed his displeasure by slaughtering them and forcing them to set up their own community. Today they are known as the Sikhs. Had Aurangzeb been a little more thoughtful, they would be known as Muslims.

Anyway, now that I have totally ruined my chances of marrying the daughter of a Mughal, I might as well get back to my original topic.

So why do Turks rock? And why have they been quietly rocking away throughout most of the 20th century?

Many Muslims (especially Indians who resent Kemal Ataturk after so many Indians sent him money and jewelry to support the Ottoman Caliphate, only to find him using it to prop up his anti-caliphate republic) see Turks as complete sellouts. They wonder why Turks are so materialistic and so damned keen to join Europe.

Many of us see Europe as the antithesis of everything Islamic. But Turks know better. Turks know from their history that Europe has to be engaged, not fought all the time. Turks are Muslims who have come to terms with Europe. And let’s be frank. Most modern Turks have European ancestry anyway.

What makes me admire Turkish Islamic activists is their realism and their spirituality. Turks know about jihad. And they know that the modern jihad is to be fought not with swords or huge cannons but with dollars and euros. While Arabs and Pakistanis have been shouting slogans and getting themselves arrested, Turks have been making truckloads of money.

Go to Pakistan today. What do the Minhaj al-Qurans, the Jamaat-e-Islamis and other Muslim groups own? How big are they in the mainstream? Yes, they can attract 40,000 kids to a jihad rally. But what impact are they having?

But in Turkey, the “green” sector is propping up the economy and employing millions of Turks. Turkish businessmen and women are bankrolling the various religious groups and parties to the tune of billions of dollars. The secular fundamentalist kemalists just cannot keep up (or they had too many araks last night to know what is going on).

At the same time, Turkey’s Muslims did not throw away their Sufi heritage. Rather, they adapted and are using it to suit their modern conditions. Again, here we find a common misconception. Many of us think that Turkish Sufism is all about some Cypriot dude with a turban big enough to fit in a double decker bus and a beard that looks like something out of a ZZ Top video. Some guy who claims to be the head of all Naqshbandis in the galaxy. And whose North American representative thinks that the best way to follow Ahmed Sirhindi’s approach to corrupt rulers is going to the US State Department and calling every mainstream Muslim group terrorists and Wahhabis and extremists.

But what is the status of the dude I speak of? Talk to Turks and you will find out most have never heard of him. The ones who do know him say he is regarded in Turkey as a joke, a cross between Mullah Nasruddin and Ali G.

Today, Turkey’s most prominent Naqshbandi Sufi leaders are not sporting mammoth turbans and beards down to their knees. Today’s Turkish Sufis prefer to wear Italian suits or smart leather jackets with Bolle sunglasses and Doc Martin shoes. Their beards are trimmed, and many of them have MBA’s from American universities. They run massive business enterprises, they tour the world looking for investment opportunities and they spend lavish amounts developing institutions.

These guys know the importance of communication. So they own TV and radio stations. One group has the largest small goods operation in the world. Another is building huge shopping malls across Europe.

They are jokingly labeled by their secular fundamentalist opponents as the “millenium hojjas.” And as always, the hojjas are having the last laugh.

Millions of Turks are flocking around these men and women. Why? Because everyone wants to know you when you are successful. When you feed someone and give him a job and guarantee his livelihood and provide him with a ladder to climb, he will support you in just about every way. "Thanks for the pay raise, sir. And yes, my 5-year-old has become a hafiz."

Turkish Muslim groups are making a positive contribution to Turkey and to the region as a whole. In government today, they are proving to be responsible, sensible, patriotic and loyal. Even Daniel Pipes is finding it hard to say something nasty about them.

Seriously, this article is getting too long. So let me finish with an incident that just summarizes all that is great about Turks. I was at the funeral of the prominent Turkish Sufi Mahmud Esad Cosan (pronounced Joshan in case you wondered) at the Gallipoli Mosque in Sydney 2 years ago. The imam was lining everyone up for the janaza (funerary) prayer. I was standing at the end. When he was satisfied our lines were straight, the imam stood in his place. He then did nothing but look toward the horizon as if waiting for someone.

After about 30 seconds, I hear this loud noise. It was a Harley Davidson. Riding it was some dude who looked like he had just left a Bon Jovi concert. He had tattoos up and down his arms, was wearing black jeans, big black boots and a black t-shirt. He got off his bike and walked toward me. I stood there, wondering whether I had said or done something to him in a past life. I was shaking as he strode toward me. And he walked straight past me, stood next to me, took off his helmet and put it on the ground. The imam waited for the fellow to signal his readiness, and before I knew it, we were all lifting our hands in unison with “Allahu akbar!”

That dude was a local Aussie Turk. He was from a bikie gang. He was also one of Shaykh Cosan’s favorite students. And as I saw the coffin being placed in the hearse, I saw something I have never seen in my life. I saw a Hell’s Angel shed a tear for a Saint.

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REFLECTION: Are Black Dogs Permissible?

No, I am not talking about poodles that aren’t white. Nor is my subject those cute puppies you see in the pet store.

Whether we like it or not, many of us live with a black dog. It stays with us, barking at us around the clock, keeping us awake and causing maximum disturbance in our daily lives.

And when we go and ask our scholars, our ulama, our maulanas and shaykhs, all we hear is:

Your black dog is a sign of ungratefulness!
Or we hear:

You have lost hope in the mercy of Allah and this is haraam!!
Or we might even hear:

Astaghfirullah! Dogs in the house? You should not have dogs in the house. Didn’t your parents teach you that?
And so we get no help from our leaders on coping with our black dog. We just return to our miserable existence, thinking that we must continue to feed the damn thing and give it shelter whilst it bites away at our soul.

Muslim communities commonly deny this black dog’s existence. Some think only those nasty kuffaar (i.e. persons who may not yet be calling themselves Muslim) or naughty lapsed Muslims live with the black dog.

This black dog is not an animal. The title ‘black dog’ was coined by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to describe an ailment that afflicted him for many years. It is an illness that has afflicted millions since the first families were formed from the seed of our Prophet and father Adam (peace be upon him). It has been recognised by physicians, witch-doctors, voodoo-freaks and associated medicine-men (though perhaps with different labels).

The ancient Greeks called it ‘melancholia’. You will even find references to it in classical books of prophetic medicine (tib an-nabawi), together with various cures and formulae to ward it off.

Modern medicine calls it ‘depression’. In Australia, it afflicts one in five people at some stage of their lives. In the US and Europe, the proportion is higher. For many, the issue of living with depression is as simple as a regular visit to the shrink and popping some pills each night. But for the people of faith and spirituality, depression can pose some difficult questions for which there are no easy answers.

You’d think that spiritually profound faiths like Islam (as opposed to Islaam), which didn’t throw their gnostic traditions into the ‘bida’ rubbish heap, would have plenty to say on this subject. Well tasawwuf (or sufism, but I hate that word so don’t say it in front of me) does say plenty. Indeed, tasawwuf is often translated as ‘spiritual psychology’. It is an exact science, and it has helped so many find peace and solace when faced with depression.

The pride of the Kurdish nation, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, once wrote about his life: “Were it not for my taqwa (God-consciousness), the problems of my life would have led me to commit suicide years ago”. And the pride of all creation (peace and blessings of God be upon him) is believed to have had feelings of deep depression during the early period of revelation during a gap of some months between revelations. Some classical writers of sirah (biographical literature) tell is that at times he would feel like throwing himself from the mountain.

We know of the deep sadness (his students thought it was madness) Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi felt during the various absences of his somewhat eccentric mentor Shams-i-Tabrizi. We know that at the height of his career, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali just through away his professorship and went wandering.

Our traditions are full of examples of people who appear to lose and then recover their emotional balance as a result of a loss. And yet for some reason, “modern” depression gets treated as ungratefulness and lack of faith while “classical” depression is regarded as a part of prophecy.

And when Muslims, many of them young and/or new to the faith, find their emotional difficulties ignored or even denigrated, is it any wonder they shun the community and reach for the zoloft?

Seriously, I am not meaning to denigrate psychopharmacology. Nor do I suggest that the thousands of people who are on medication, and for whom it is a crucial part of the management of their condition, should throw out the pills and head for a zawiya or khanqah or ashram.

But in addition to medications and psychological treatment, support systems must be created in the community. We all need support in hard times. Even the Prophet Muhammad (peace of blessings of God be upon him), when praising his wife Lady Khadija, said words to the effect of: “She supported me when most were against me, she supported me with her love …”. May God bless this noble woman whose love and devotion to her husband formed a basis for his words and works that continue to provide solace to millions.

When we feel down and depressed and go to the mosque and find the imam cannot understand us, what do we do? When we want to ask the imam certain questions about our condition but are too scared he will tell others about our illness, what can we say? For instance:

1. Which imam can tell me at what stage depression must reach before performing salat/nemaz (otherwise compulsory five daily worship sessions) is no longer compulsory? This is also relevant to the thousands of mothers suffering from post-natal depression.

2. How do the rights and responsibilities of parties to a marriage change in the event one succumbs to a mental illness?

3. If a person begins to suffer from schizophrenia or serious bipolar disorder before marriage and is in a state where s/he is not allowed to marry, how should such a person’s emotional and sexual needs be met? For instance, is it forbidden for a male sufferer to, say, visit a prostitute? And if he does, is he accountable for his deed?

Many of you will be reading this and saying to yourself: “The answers to these questions are so damned obvious! Irf, stick to writing articles hacking into ex-Australian media moguls or praising the sexual exploits of your mughal ancestors”. Well if the answers are so damned obvious, how come I cannot find them in my copy of Behisht-i-Zewar (an old Indian hanafi law manual originally written for women) or Mufti Abdul Rahim Lajpuri's Fatawa Rahimiyya (a collection of rulings originally published in an old Indian newspaper)?

Bodies like the Zaytuna Institute and others have done some excellent work on focussing upon the developing Islamic legal tradition that applies to Muslim minorities. But how about the ever-growing minority within these minorities? What about these suffering mental illness? Perhaps Shaykh Hamza (one fellow I have utmost respect for. How many imams do you know who actually have had exposure to mental illness and brain injuries in a professional capacity as a medical or nursing practitioner?) and his crew can look into this.

So there you have it. A religious tradition whose spiritual core (tasawwuf) is a tradition of psychology in its own right. And yet so many of its alleged practitioners and experts find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the everyday problems that beset the millions suffering from mental illness. It’s enough to make anyone depressed.

First published in the now-defunct e-zine on 8 August 2003.

Words © 2003-08 Irfan Yusuf

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