A few of weeks ago in New York, I met Saeed Mirza the thoughtful globalist and secularist film maker at his book reading in an Indian art gallery, hosted by the *Indo-American Arts Council. Intrigued by Saeed who describes himself as a "leftist Sufi," our conversation transported me back to the India of my youth even as we explored his insights on Indian Islam as exemplified by his family and his personal choices.
After the bloodbath that ensued during the partition of India and Pakistan, religion was more personal and less public and Indians were more circumspect in the public practice of their faith. Caution and respect for the other's faith was paramount and religion above all was private. It is against this backdrop that Saeed weaves a narrative of the political, the personal, and the social issues of the times using his parents' love story as the fulcrum. He reflects on his smart Muslim mother, an enabling ally of his father, a script writer. Their family values reflected the public ethos of the times where differences were buried and - humanism and pluralism thrived - in post independent India.
On the political front, the book focuses on turbulent and pivotal historic events - including the destruction of Babri Masjid (mosque), a 500 year old monument revered by Muslims but destroyed by conservative Hindus. The incident triggered the killing and demonization of Indian Muslims as vandals raged, brutality reigned and blood drained the streets on December 6, 1992 - a full 57 years after the Indo-Pak partition. The Shiv Sena party, a right wing, Mumbai based party created havoc, terrorized the Muslims of Mumbai in particular, many of whom resorted to even taking down their name plates off their front doors - for fear of being targeted. But being the pluralistic liberal that Saeed is, he commends Justice Srikrishna of the Bombay High Court, a deeply religious Hindu, "who prayed at temple every day" and who was assigned this case. Despite the politics, emotional frenzy and the legal delays, Saeed commends him heartily for "producing a report that laid the blame squarely where it belonged .... at the door of the political parties, people who violated the law and had to be charged for the horrendous crimes they had committed." Saeed notes that Justice Srikrishna is a deeply spiritual man, "way beyond the blinkered fanatics who claim to be followers of his religion and his faith. He was a civilized man."
The book is an easy read even as it delves into searing historic events, identifying a key turning point in India's history which soiled Hindu Muslim relations. Partition created a deep divide and distrust. Remnants linger and the sectarianism between Hindus and Muslims from time to time still rears its ugly head in many - even upscale neighborhoods in Mumbai - where meat eating families, i.e. Muslims cannot purchase a home because it is a "vegetarian building " - code for "No Muslims Allowed."
On the personal front, Saeed is very much a man of my generation and refers to himself first as a globalist. The "leftist Sufi" supports secular, inclusive, and progressive governments. He takes umbrage, however, when people equate a practicing Muslim with a fundamentalist and says: "If I oppose the US invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq, does that make me a fundo?" Saeed is both an Indian and a globalist and clear about his positions which he clarifies: "What I oppose is Muslims, Hindus and Jews propagating their religion for their own benefit."
Though raised as a Muslim, Saeed is not a practicing Muslim today. He is an interesting mix of old and new India: first, he is married to Jennifer, a wonderful Christian woman. He thrives on the poetry of Rumi and Faiz, readings of old time historians Ibn Batuta, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd and he admires Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and Mohammad Mamdani. He drinks alcohol, avoids pork which he dislikes but what he embraces with a passion is Islamic art and architecture. He is egalitarian when it comes to women and references Ibn Rushd: "Women have been prescribed the same ultimate goals as men... The Quran only distinguishes between those -men and women alike - who seek to follow God's law and those who do not. There is no other hierarchy among human beings. But you men consider women as plants... for their fruit and procreation.... And you place them apart from yourselves as servants. These are traditions of your own making. They have nothing to do with Islam."
"AMMI (mother) letter to a democratic mother" is an insightful read into a "leftist, Sufi" who adheres to key values - pluralism, inclusivity and progressiveness - a winner combo for today's world.
*The Indo American Arts Council is a not-for-profit, secular service and resource arts organization charged with the mission of promoting and building the awareness, creation, production, exhibition, publication and performance of Indian and cross-cultural art forms in North America.
Khadijah's daughters is a blog by Shahnaz Chinoy Taplin, board president of Invest in Muslim Women, a non-profit project of the Global Fund for Women. Invest in Muslim Women focuses on the economic empowerment of Muslim women, justice and peace. The blog is inspired by Khadijah, Prophet Muhammad's first wife and the quintessential role model for Muslim women. She was the first convert to Islam, the first Muslim woman entrepreneur, a globalist and a feminist.