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     Volume 5 Issue 117 | October 20, 2006 |

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Cover Story

The Faith Within

The New Generation's Take on Spirituality

Aasha Mehreen Amin, Elita Karim and Nader Rahman

There is something about modern life that has reduced the individual to a constantly pleasure-seeking being. In our efforts to round our lives with luxury goods, we often forget to fill the material world with meaning. Many people fill it with spirituality and religion, while others take it for what it is. Interestingly, the many people, who lined the material world with their religion and faith, are changing. This change in the belief, practice and faith of religion is propelled by the youth of today. They have found a new way to retain their spirituality, but have morphed the traditional views on religion to make compatible with their contemporary life.

Dhaka is being taken over by the urban Muslim; this new entity no longer views religion as a chore or as a fixed set of rules. They retain their belief yet willingly choose not to take part in the rituals surrounding their faith. Nishath Sultana Purabi, a student of Dhaka University, says, “It is not possible to change the traditions of religion. I find praying five times a day tough, I am extremely busy and have many things to do, praying is just not always practically possible." This statement hides as much as it shows. While she clearly has her priorities in order, she also went on to make it very clear that missing her prayers and leading a lifestyle that did not strictly adhere to Islamic principles has caused her unhappiness. She belongs to the new breed of urban Muslim who is always on the go and probably does not have the time to practise her religion properly. While it affects her, she is not beaten down by tradition; she has accepted the faults in her practice of religion but chooses to continue to lead a modern life.

When asked if modern life and religion can co-exist, Tonmoy (not his real name) a student of a reputed private university immediately said “yes”. When asked how he practises religion he said quite plainly, “I don't really practise religion, I simply keep the faith within me, if that means missing my prayers to hang out with my friends, then so be it. I have no regrets, I know at the end of the day my faith is true, it does not really matter if I don't keep a beard or assume an Islamic get-up. All of that I hold within.”

Hasib (not his real name) from a private university affirms that modern life, even though hectic and demanding, can co-exist with religion quite easily. “It only takes five minutes to say my prayers, so wherever I am, all I do is just take a little time off and pray.” He went on to say, “Religion and the world of today mingle so well because they essentially live off each other. I am told not to rape, kill or steal by my religion and in everyday life that is just the norm. In fact, by following my religion closely I should never face problems with the world around me, if it helps me in these modern times then why should it be a problem at all?”

Rajeeb Sarkar, a student from Dhaka University is quite sceptical of organised religion. “For me other activities are more important than religion, any day of the week I would choose to do all my other regular activities rather than be religious.” He strongly believes in Humanism as the real form of religion, for him the rituals surrounding religion mean nothing. They are simply the outward showing of faith. He feels that religion is extremely personal. When asked what religion meant to him he eloquently quotes Leo Tolstoy. “Tolstoy broadly grouped religion into three sections -- the philosophical, the rituals and the essence. I am a firm believer in the essence of religion, for me religion is the essence that I extract out of it. Not what I am told to do by the philosophies and the rituals.”

For more orthodox believers, this new urban belief is way too avant garde and should not be accepted. They say religion has to be practised and accepted in the way it has been for hundreds of years. In their eyes, this personalizing of religion to suit one's purposes is tantamount to blasphemy. To this Romena Parvin says, “I am not rigid, yet I still believe in religion” There is a sense that the generation of today is willing to accept faith, whether that belief is personal or contradicts the norms of religion. But what differs even more than their thoughts on this topic is what religion means to them.

One young man says, “Religion is a form of discrimination, it is unimportant and unnecessary.” Others like Khaleda Parvin say, “It defines ethics for me personally." Purabi from Dhaka University says, “Religion is a certain code, that what religion means to me, everybody should try and follow it." Essentially it means different things to different people, but for the young generation of today there seems to be no doubt that in their eyes, the practice and faith behind religion has changed drastically from what society commonly accepted. Yet even after such change most of them view religion and the fast-paced life of today as compatible. Their faith and practise have merely become more personal, yet their belief in the religion has not waned. They are the modern day Tolstoys, like his seminal work, they also believe that The Kingdom of God is within you.

There is a visible increase in interest in matters of faith among the youth of today

Nineteen-year-old Zuhaid Anwar, a sophomore, majoring in Sociology at a US university, thinks religion is just a set of laws created by society in a time when the law of the court was not enough or non-existent. “These laws were made in the past in a society very different from that of today and thus interpretations of religion have changed over time,” he says. “All we have today is faith, which is belief in something that cannot be proved or has not been proved. I wouldn't go as far as to say it's blind belief but it's the belief that someone up there is controlling everything and the outcome will do the general, good.”

To 24-year-old Imtiaz Ahmed Chowdhury, a graduate student of media studies in Australia, religion in general refers to just another excuse to divide people. “Faith to me is a condolence to the fact that we have no idea where we came from,” he says. “Why we are here or why everything is the way they are.”

“I think true faith comes when you have used your basic Islamic right and the freedom to think freely, rationally and the freedom of imagination to interpret yourself, the Holy Quran and other texts like the Sahi Hadith that are the collective property of Islamic culture as a whole,” says 25-year-old Simin Saifuddin who works at Unitrend, an event management firm in Dhaka. “To me, faith is not faith in ignorance. Allah has given all of us the mind to think, make rational judgments using our basic common sense and integrity. Otherwise, the whole thought behind the fact that a person has to reach the age of maturity and be sane, to start becoming accountable for all his deeds and intentions is just made null and void.”

"To practise Islam properly, people's (both Muslims and non-Muslims) concept about Islam needs to change in the first place,” says 25-year-old Taufiq Rahman. “People must abandon the idea that Islam is merely a religion which is devoid of an economic system, judicial system, political system, social system. For hundreds of years, we the Muslims have been brainwashed by the West that Islam is a spiritual religion, which has no connection with materialistic life. We need to convince people and enlighten them about the fact that Islam is rather an ideology. Once we can elevate people's way of thinking in this way, I think practising Islam in its entirety cannot be difficult at all.”

Many young Muslims see no contradiction between pursuing a secular education and being spiritual

While many Muslims believe that they must adopt a certain appearance to look Muslim, others think that this is not necessary. “Allah says in the Holy Quran that what you deal with the Lord is and should remain between you and him,” says Imtiaz. “On the day of judgement they will ask, Why can we not go to heaven oh lord, have we not prayed for thee? And they will be answered, You have not prayed for me but hidden under a disguise which was meant for other people. Most of our moulanas, for example, sit doing nothing all day and night surviving on the government/public/Islamic organisation's funding and all they do is organise milads or mehfils. Even Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) himself worked for his bread and butter.”

“I honestly believe that Islam is about intention,” says 24-year-old Mariam Ziaudeen. “It's between you and God. If people want to dress a certain way, that's up to them. But I don't believe that one doesn't practise Islam or is not a good enough Muslim if they don't have a beard etc. We are not perfect and we can't make these judgements.” Mariam lives in London and observes the hijaab. She says that this has never been a obstacle in her day to day life, for instance, going to the movies with friends, working at her work place or even grocery shopping. “As a young working Muslim, I feel that I can practise my religion the way I want to. Here in Britain, I can wear my hijaab, pray at work, fast, go for prayers. But I am also fully aware that this isn't the case everywhere in the world, like France, Turkey, etc.”

The image of Islam in the western world, far from being flattering, is defined by frenzied fanaticism, intolerance of liberal ideas and entrenched in mindless violence. While there are many attempts by both Muslims and non-Muslims to change these stereotypes the idea that Muslims are barbaric, backward, chauvinistic and far away from contemporary thought, continues to predominate. Even for many moderate Muslims, especially the younger generation, the dilemma is whether Islam can be reconciled with modern thought and contemporary lifestyles. The ultimate question is: Who is a modern Muslim?

Yamin Chowdhury, a physics teacher and ardent scholar of the Quran insists that there is no contradiction between Islam and modern thinking.

"Historically, as I see it, Modernism is supposed to be the other name of Islam itself," says Chowdhury. "Rather, the Muslim world is far away from Islam. One of the most interesting facts is that Islam is the only religion on earth in which divorce has been formally recognised and laws made for it as a necessity of society. Today we find it is a number one factor in all modern societies. No modern society can work unless divorce as an institution is allowed." Chowdhury alludes to many women in our societies who are made to marry men chosen by their parents and so may later want to get out of a failed marriage. They may wish to remarry and choose their own life.

For the younger generation of Muslims the dilemma is whether Islam can be reconciled with contemporary lifestyle

"Thus Islam, through the institution of divorce, is liberating for women; is that not an element of modernism?" he asks. Religious freedom, he says, another modern concept, too is an important doctrine of Islam.

"Modernism is the contemporary name of Islam," says Chowdhury, "Modernism's only authority is Truth - not personal, psychological or subjective truth. It has to be truth that is acceptable by all - mass oriented, community oriented. Everything else is your personal view."

Chowdhury maintains that what should really be focused on is the question: Are we truly Muslims? Or are we running after a definition of Islam given by the world media? According to him Islam has been distorted and misinterpreted by the western world as well as Muslims themselves.

Elements of modernism were present even in ancient Islamic cultures, says Chowdhury, with the major sciences originating in the Arab world. It was the Arabs for instance who invented the idea of infinity, medicine, arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, etc. "Even the science of making paint came from the Muslims which the Italians and French learnt, producing the maximum number of artists," says Chowdhury. "Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo - were all influenced by Muslim culture, a culture that has been erased and now we have a religious culture dominated by mullahs." Chowdhury refers to practices in wartime by the Muslims that even impressed the Christian Crusaders. It was quite normal for example, for Muslim women to cook for the men in the battlefield and occasionally even take up the bow and arrow to fight. Also, Muslims while being extremely ferocious when fighting the enemy, showed remarkable kindness and hospitality for the Christian prisoners of war. These practices and principles were basic elements of a modern society.

The west has also distorted the image of Islam and has legitimised its own brand of fanaticism through double standards, stereotyping and sheer muscle power. "If George Bush can go around bombing the world, killing people in the name of establishing democracy, why are others called terrorists when they do it? They (the US) don't tell their GIs to turn the other cheek. They tell them to do exactly what these jihadists are doing 'to bomb them out'."

Many Muslims believe that they need to adhere to a certain dress code in order to show their commitment to their faith. According to Chowdhury, the Quran does not define any particular dress code but emphasises on the need for decency and modesty in attire. The stereotyped image of men sporting straggly beards and wearing long tunics (jhobba) and women in veiled burkhas represent cultural influences.

Islam is based on rational thought: something that appeals to young people

So what can the modern Muslim do to re-establish himself / herself in the contemporary context? What the modern Muslim should do, suggests Chowdhury, is to "snatch away the definition of religion and Islam from the illiterate mullahs who do not have the knowledge to preach. A modern Muslim as defined by Chowdhury, is someone who, with modern education, tries to understand the revelation of God and then becomes responsible for his own beliefs and actions. Using his common sense he should practise brotherhood. But no Muslim, he adds, is bound to obey another Muslim and no Muslim is bound to a particular brotherhood. Modern man, says Chowdhury, cannot adopt a religion that has racial elements, one that is defined by a tribe or a race.

Chowdhury's solution for the modern person who is confused about religion, is to read the holy Quran and only the Quran. "The Quran rejects idolatry, superstition and forces the mind to be naturally rational. The present time, Chowdhury believes, is one in which all the objectives of religion have been fulfilled and now mankind has reached a reaping stage. There is nothing new to preach. Religion, he says, cannot be experienced in the background of illiterate Mullahs. "They (Mullahs) do not rely on the Quran; they rely on other books," says Chowdhury. "Technically, what is Islam? It is the Quran itself. Anything outside that is one's personal belief. Everything else (besides the Quran) is hearsay and speculation."

In a post 9/11 era, the politicisation of Islam by various groups to gain power, the extremist views of fanatics and the violence inflicted on innocent people in the name of Islam, makes it difficult for a young person to embrace a religion that seems to hold so many contradictions. The need of the hour is to accept and project the true principles of Islam which are based on tolerance and peace. In many parts of the world, cultural and tribal practices have entered into what is termed religious doctrines and have nothing to do with Islam. But due to over-dependence on interpreters of religion, who themselves are not knowledgeable about it, has made millions of Muslims adhere to such versions unquestioningly. At the same time there is a visible trend of young people becoming more interested in matters of faith. For the young, urbanised person who must adapt to contemporary life, a broader, more intellectual interpretation of religion is far more acceptable.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006