Now that we know Muslims can just do it, courtesy Junoon’s Salman Ahmad, how are believers to manage abstinence? You forsake food, water and other bodily needs for a month and transform into a seraph rather than a siren or a rake.
This sort of austerity is disturbing. On a trip to a Muslim country I was told that even stores that stock pork products to cater to their foreign clientele would continue to do so but behind curtains; the same applies to restaurants in malls where they put up a screen. It is utterly debasing. Why must people who want to eat be made to feel guilty? Do Muslims who stay away from food spare a thought for the jobless in shanties lying on cardboard sheets on stone floors, for whom going hungry is not a matter of option?
It isn’t only about Islam. Hinduism too loves good abstainers. Each day is designated for a god and people fast depending on which deity makes their tummies rumble the most. Christianity relies a great deal on suffering. Mother Teresa’s emphasis on a beautiful death denied people medical facilities. Let us not forget the irony of holy men who perform miracles that produce Rolex watches out of thin air! The Jain devotee who wishes to get initiated into sainthood has to pull out each hair from his head. Years ago when a diamond merchant’s son decided to give up the material life, his family spent crores of rupees on the celebrations and threw precious stones along the route. No one thought of building a hospital or a school. Self-denial is desperate for an immediate halo.
I am not dismissing the believer’s need to follow rituals, but why make a public display of it? Just as flaunting ostentation is déclassé, making a show of abjurance is equally gauche and rather hypocritical if you have a post-sunset a la carte menu. Look around at discussion boards where there is much talk about appropriate cohabitation timings. In this context, Salman Ahmad’s ideas easily qualify him to be a televangelist advising people on how the religion is “good, awesome and great”. His film called Islam sexy. The contextual explanatory analogy is weird: “Westerners talk about ‘Africa being sexy’ to dispel the commonly held image of a region and a people who are mired in pandemic diseases like HIV and Aids, extreme poverty, despair and violence. It’s a way of showing the other side of Africa just as I’m trying to show another side of Islam which is tolerant, thought-provoking and modern.”
If westerners refer to Africa as sexy, they are sick to the bone, the bones of the poor Africans they capitalise on. This is what happens when you use the paradigm of religious and cultural beauty and sell it to the Occident. We can be amused by such flaccid attempts for they posit themselves against cruel fundamentalists. Given that human beings do not lead uniform lives, these guys can turn around and justify perversions too. Despicable as it may sound, we have instances of human sacrifice and virgin blood being offered in several faiths to appease gods. Denying one person dignity and life is used to add to another’s potency — sexual or as power play.
Gandhi, who mastered the art of abstinence, had the luxury of publicly ‘experimenting with truth’. The point is: were those at the receiving end mere guinea pigs? It is worth ruminating that each time we deny ourselves something, it is a choice we make that most cannot. Abstinence is, therefore, just a bonsai version of indulgence.
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Published in Express Tribune, August 10, 2010