Muslims like me of Indian heritage make up one in four of the entire world’s Muslim population. The North Indian ones have their own unique sectarian divides that cannot be found among any other cultural Muslim group. And it’s around this time of year that these cultural divides become especially prominent.
Some non-South Asian readers will be familiar with controversies about the permissibility or otherwise of celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. In most nominally Muslim countries, there really isn’t any controversy. Everyone celebrates, with only minor variations between different groups.
But among South Asian Muslims, the meelad is always a source of controversy. Those who insist on doing meelad a certain way regard themselves as “sunni” and label anyone else as wahhabi or deobandi (a “sect” I doubt anyone in Indonesia or Bosnia has heard of). Those who prefer not to perform the meelad in that particular way label their opponents as barelvis (a “sect” I doubt anyone in Mauritania or Kazakhstan would have heard of) or qabar pujaris (grave worshippers) or ahl-i-bidat (innovators). Yes, it’s all gentlemanly good fun.
I grew up in a family where meelad was less about learning and applying sectarian labels and more about forcing your kids to attend boring functions and watching bearded boofy blokes sing devotional songs that none of us wheatbix kids could understand. The imams and uncles would give speeches in Urdu and occasionally in Hindlish (a special form of English unique to the Pakistani imams and the Pakistani medical doctors who dominated these proceedings).
But times have changed. On Saturday I went to a meelad function in Brisbane which was
largely in English. I looked forward to seeing how English-speaking Muslim communities kept the Indian meelad tradition alive. I looked forward to listening to songs kids of my nephews’ generation could understand. I looked forward to being spiritually energised by a lecture in English delivered in a manner my nephews would relate to.
And was I to be disappointed? You betcha! Some 2 hours was spent listening to naat devotional songs sung in Urdu so chaste that even Kevin Rudd would not be able to understand it despite his mastery of Asian languages. The singer was some dude whose claim to fame was that he was the nephew of a famous naat singer from Pakistan. And the name of the naat-nephew? Who cares?
At one stage, our naat dude asked the audience in Urdu: “How many people here can understand Punjabi?”. Two hands rose from the audience. Mine wasn’t one of them. This didn’t stop Mr Naat from singing an incomprehensible Punjabi hymn.
And if you think that was bad, the singer then decided he wanted to provide some entertainment for a group he described using the mixed Urdu-English phrase of yooth keh log (literally “people of youth”). His effort consisted of the following naat in words even the most eminent linguists may find difficult to decipher. Here is the chorus:
Svit Madeenah, svit Madeenah svit Madeenah
Finally the English-speaking imam stood up to speak. This chap claimed to be a barrister and Islamic jurist (“faqih”) whose main claim to fame was that he had some association with an institution in the UK called Hijaz College.
This young barrister-cum-faqih then decided to use the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday to remind the Prophet’s followers gathered that we are divided into 73 sects, 72 of which are headed for hell. What better way to celebrate the birth and life of the man who united Muslims of all sects.
I almost fell off my chair when the Pommy imam made this fantastic claim: “I have been giving lectures since I was four years old!” Amazing. Imagine what kind of wisdom would emanate from the mouth of a 4 year old. The following examples immediately come to mind:
“Mummy, for God’s sake, give me an ice cream!”
“Wallahi, that toy is mine!!”
And finally, this classic:
If the meelad event I attended proved anything it’s that, despite the level of discourse being rather infantile, not even the infants and kids found the proceedings at all interesting. They were outside listening to their iPods. I joined them. Kate Ceberano proved much more enlightening than the mob of manic mullahs on stage.
Words © 2010 Irfan Yusuf
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