Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Ignorant goodwill

Afiya Shehrbano responds to Jemima Khan’s piece on polygamy in Muslim communities, in South Asia Citizens Web:

Jemima Khan, enamoured by all that she has learnt about Muslim women’s exceptional rights during her time as Imran Khan’s wife, has recently ‘investigated’ British Muslim women’s partiality towards polygamous marriages as a socio-cultural refuge.

Mrs Khan herself renounced the traditional right of Muslim women to keep their maiden names after marriage but interestingly, chooses to retain her ex-husband’s identity even post-divorce. Social-celebrity affectation or not, that’s her personal choice. However, when she masquerades as a social scientist, then Mrs Khan may be well advised to read some of the prolific international scholarship by (Muslim) women on the historical intersections of polygamy with culture, religion and class and their assessment of its doubtful ‘benefits’.

Not to privilege science too much, even an anecdotal survey of some working class communities of Lahore, where Mrs Khan lived for several years, would have confirmed her thesis – albeit not with the same optimistic conclusions. Often, polygamous marriages have indeed provided some women a sanctuary…but not from poverty or abandonment, instead, from domestic violence. Once displaced, primary wives of polygamous arrangements sometimes (though not always) become lesser targets of spousal and in-law violence/discrimination. Technically, this could qualify polygamous arrangements as safer havens, I suppose. More:

The story of the turban

Why the Dalai Lama is a Marxist

From tricycle:

When the Dalai Lama announced his Marxist leanings last summer in Minneapolis, the only surprise was how surprising it was. The blogosphere was once again astir with this nonrevelation, which came by way of an Indian-born Tibetan journalist, Tsering Namgyal, who had tagged along when the Dalai Lama held a nearly three-hour meeting with 150 Chinese students. Namgyal, a Mandarin-speaking reporter living and studying in Minneapolis, had posted online that the Dalai Lama surprised his young audience when he volunteered that “as far as sociopolitical beliefs are concerned, I consider myself a Marxist.”

 Namgyal’s post explained that a student had asked about the apparent contradiction between the Dalai Lama’s economic philosophy and Marx’s critique of religion. The Dalai Lama’s understanding was more nuanced than the responses of most of the bloggers who jumped on the story: he suggested that Marx was not actually against religion or religious philosophy per se but “against religious institutions that were allied, during Marx’s time, with the European ruling class.” (That would be the capitalist class.) The three-hour exchange was probably not designed for political sound bites. The year before the Dalai Lama had given a series of talks in New York at Radio City Music Hall. Following a press conference in the basement at Rockefeller Center, the Dalai Lama’s news office included this report in its summary:

 His Holiness said when he was in China in 1954–55, the Communist Party of China was really wonderful, and the Party members were really dedicated to the service of the people. His Holiness said he was very much impressed and told Chinese officials about his desire to join the Party. His Holiness said he still is a Marxist (although some of his friends ask him not to mention that) and he admired its objective of equal distribution (“this is moral ethics”). His Holiness however talked about the clampdown after the Hundred Flowers Campaign [1957] in China itself and said any authoritarian system always subdues any force that has the potential to stand up to it.

 You might think he had his thoughts on the 99 percent, but the Dalai Lama has stayed on message for years, saying the same thing many times in many places—including a Time magazine interview in 1999, and in the following passage from Beyond Dogma: Dialogues and Discourses, in 1996:

 Of all the modern economic theories, the economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned with only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis and the equitable utilization of the means of production. More:

Swami Vivekananda: Social reformer or caste votary?

In Outlook, an excerpt from Cosmic Love and Human Empathy: Swami Vivekananda’s Restatement of Religion by Jyotirmaya Sharma (Harpercollins):

If there is one phrase in the popular consciousness that effortlessly invokes the name and memory of Ramakrishna, it is ‘Ramakrishna’s catholicity’. Vivekananda, more than anyone else, helped construct the elements that constituted this carefully edited, censored and wilfully misleading version of his master’s ‘catholicity’. He used it to mean what he thought was Ramakrishna’s tolerance, generosity and inclusiveness in relation to other faiths while carefully glossing over the sources and influences that produced this ‘catholicity’. The continued use of the term has had a longevity independent of Vivekananda’s remoulding of Ramakrishna from a “religious ecstatic to a religious eclectic”, and continues to be used even to this day by perceptive and critical readers of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda story.

Faith is a creation and gift of god and it is beyond the jurisdiction of humans to tamper with it: “Suppose there are errors in the religion that one has accepted; if one is sincere and earnest, then god Himself will correct these errors…. If there are errors in other religions, that is none of our business. God, to whom the world belongs, takes care of that.” Ramakrishna does not stop at this, but goes further to warn against the triumphalism that sets in when individuals or faiths arbitrarily decide that they are right and all others are wrong. They think of faith in terms of winning and losing, where, invariably, they perceive that they and their faith alone have won and all others have lost. “But a person who has gone forward may be detained by some slight obstacle,” warns Ramakrishna, “and someone who has been lagging behind may then steal a march on him.” God’s ways are mysterious, and triumph and defeat too are in his hands.

If these are the foundations upon which Ramakrishna’s inclusiveness, universality and doctrinal generosity rested, it is also true that there was a complete absence in the Kathamrita of a clearly articulated Hindu identity. Even less so was the idea of a threatening, antagonistic ‘Other’ in the form of Islam or Christianity. Sumit Sarkar is right when he says that in Ramakrishna and in the pages of the Kathamrita “there is no developed sense of a sharply distinct ‘Hindu’ identity—let alone any political use of it”. There is, however, one exception within the Kathamrita that causes a mild dissonance in our total and categorical rejection of the presence of a cohesive Hindu identity in Ramakrishna. It must also be said that this exception is vastly outweighed by the overwhelming evidence that points towards Ramakrishna’s radical rejection of differences, hierarchies and claims of superiority among sects and faiths. More:

His Inclusiveness Is A Powerful Myth’ Read interview with Jyotirmaya Sharma here.

Giving new life to vultures to restore a human ritual of death

Gardiner Harris from Mumbai in NYT:

Fifteen years after vultures disappeared from Mumbai’s skies, the Parsi community here intends to build two aviaries at one of its most sacred sites so that the giant scavengers can once again devour human corpses.

Construction is scheduled to begin as soon as April, said Dinshaw Rus Mehta, chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. If all goes as planned, he said, vultures may again consume the Parsi dead by January 2014.

“Without the vultures, more and more Parsis are choosing to be cremated,” Mr. Mehta said. “I have to bring back the vultures so the system is working again, especially during the monsoon.”

The plan is the result of six years of negotiations between Parsi leaders and the Indian government to revive a centuries-old practice that seeks to protect the ancient elements — air, earth, fire and water — from being polluted by either burial or cremation. And along the way, both sides hope the effort will contribute to the revival of two species of vulture that are nearing extinction. The government would provide the initial population of birds.

The cost of building the aviaries and maintaining the vultures is estimated at $5 million spread over 15 years, much less expensive than it would have been without the ready supply of food.

“Most vulture aviaries have to spend huge sums to buy meat, but for us that’s free because the vultures will be feeding on human bodies — on us,” Mr. Mehta said. More:

Sikh art: reflections of a unique, spiritual identity


While Sikh art largely celebrates the unique spiritual and secular identity of the Sikh people, it also reflects the artistic diversity of the Punjab region (an area now divided between India and Pakistan) where Sikhism originated. From social customs to costumes, to the painting styles of the Mughal dynasty and other kingdoms in the region, Sikh artists synthesized a wide range of elements to create their own distinct imagery.

The followers of Sikh religion are disciples of 10 esteemed gurus, or teachers, the first of whom was Nanak (1469–1539), Sikhism’s historical founder. Although Hindu by birth, Nanak’s teachings are centered on the concept of one sovereign god and Sikh beliefs embrace aspects of other religious traditions, including Islam. Nanak has said, “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim.” His life and teachings are compiled into texts known as janam sakhis (life stories)n The paintings in illustrated versions of this text bring to life the guru not only as an older spiritual leader, but also as a young man. more

Beyond recognition and misrecognition: the shooting at Oak Creek gurdwara

By Amardeep Singh:

One of the issues that has come up periodically in the Sikh community in the U.S. since 9/11 has been how to handle the common problem that men in turbans are presumed by many Americans to be Muslims. A man named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot down in Arizona just a few days after 9/11 for precisely that kind of misrecognition, and there were quite a number of other instances of attacks not as extreme as murder that occurred in those first few months.

2001-2002 happened to be my first year teaching at Lehigh. I was living alone in Bethlehem itself, close to the university, and believe me, I felt the intensity of that hostility, both while driving and of course on foot. But it wasn’t just a small town issue; the sense of smouldering hostility was also something one felt on the streets of Philadelphia and, not surprisingly, New York. I heard a lot of ugly taunts and insults, and had a couple of encounters that might have been dangerous if I hadn’t decided to walk away very quickly. I was kind of spooked, and like a lot of Sikhs that fall I put a bumper sticker on my car with a U.S. flag, announcing myself as a “Sikh American,” crossed my fingers, and tried to stick to stay focused on teaching literature. That year I ate a lot of Drive-Thru fast food and missed the fun grad-school life I had left behind in cosmopolitan (really) North Carolina.

About a year later everyone started to calm down and I put a lot of my feelings from that first year behind me. (And yes, I eventually took the bumper sticker off the car.)

Obviously, the Sikh community realized very quickly that fall that it wouldn’t do to simply say, “Don’t hate me, I’m not a Muslim.” And by and large people have avoided that particular phrasing and rhetoric. The Sikh advocacy organizations that were organized shortly after 9/11, chief among them the Sikh Coalition, were very emphatic on the point that they were opposed to hate crimes directed against any group based on religious hostility. More:

Why racism, ignorance are to blame

Seema Sirohi at First Post:

But for the Sikh community in the United States, solving one hate crime may not be enough. They have been at the receiving end since 9/11 — repeatedly mistaken for who they are not. Ignorance about the turban, long hair and kirpan is rampant.

The Sikh Coalition, an activist group, counts 700 cases of random violence, killings, vandalism, bullying, beatings and intimidation against the Sikh community. “Real Sikhism,” another community group, counts 1000 cases of hate crimes, starting on the very day the airplanes flew into the World Trade Center and changed the way many think about crime and punishment.

So in the aftermath of the Wisconsin shootings, surrealism reigned on the news channels. Anchors were educating the average American about Sikhism and Islam and patiently explaining the differences. But should the distinction matter? I can be any faith, wear a turban or not, wear a hijab or not, wear a kara or not, but I shouldn’t be killed for wearing my religion on my sleeve. more

Kumaré – The True Story of A False Prophet

Sri Kumaré is an enlightened guru from the East who has come to America to spread his teachings. After three months in Phoenix, Kumaré has found a group of devoted students who embrace him as a true spiritual teacher. But beneath his long beard, deep penetrating eyes, and his endless smile, Kumaré has a secret he is about to unveil to his disciples: he is not real. Kumaré is really Vikram Gandhi, an American filmmaker from New Jersey who wanted to see if he could transform himself into a guru and build a following of real people. Now, he is conflicted — can he unveil the truth to these disciples with whom he has spent so much time, and who now look to him for guidance? More

Vikram Gandhi: Directing ‘Kumaré’ – From Illusion Comes Truth from Piers Fawkes on Vimeo.

American Buddhist monk is abbot of Rato monastery in Karnataka

The Dalai Lama has appointed Nicholas (“Nicky” to his friends) Vreeland, 56, as the new abbot of Rato Monastery in Karnataka, India. This is the first time that a Westerner has been appointed as abbot of an important Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The monastery in Mungud, Karnataka, has been designed by Delhi-based architect Pradeep Sachdeva.

Nicholas Vreeland, grandson of the iconic fashion editor Diane Vreeland and son of former U.S. ambassador Frederick Vreeland, is the director of the Tibet Center in New York. He was educated in Europe, North Africa, and the United States, studied in NYU film school, after which he pursued a career in photography. In the late sixties and early seventies, he worked as an assistant to famous photographers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.[Facebook Nalanda Monastery]

Watch Buddhist Abbot Nicholas Vreeland on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

A recent PBS interview:

LAWTON: It was Richard Avedon’s son John who in 1977 first introduced Vreeland to Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, founder of the Tibet Center. Under Rinpoche’s supervision, Vreeland began learning about Tibetan Buddhism.

 Then in 1979, he went on a photography assignment in India. Because of his growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism, he included a visit to Dharamsala, headquarters of the Dalai Lama. Vreeland received permission to photograph the Tibetan leader. His camera had an extremely slow exposure, so his subjects had to sit absolutely still for one minute. That was a challenge for the Dalai Lama.

VREELAND: The shutter opened and we waited 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, 40, seconds, 50 seconds, and then his holiness started to move. And we did one time after another, after another, and suddenly after all these attempts to get a, a fully, a properly exposed shot, we both burst into laughter and it was as if all the tension went.

LAWTON: The Dalai Lama tried standing and they finally managed to get the shot.

VREELAND: His holiness very, very kindly remained there as I packed up my equipment and talked to me. And I had been so moved by the way in which the Tibetan people had supported me, had helped me in my travels and during my time in Dharamsala, and I asked his holiness what I could do in return. And he said, “Study.” More

The Rato Dratsang Temple, campus, guesthouse, and all landscaping, were designed by Delhi-based architect Pradeep Sachdeva and his associates Vidya Tongbram and Madhu Shankar. [Pradeep Sachdeva Design Associates website here].

“The original Rato Monastery, located on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet, was established in the 14th century. “Though there are over 1,000 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, Rato Monastery (in Karnataka) is one of only a dozen important Tibetan Government monasteries under the Dalai Lama’s patronage.”

A recent exhibition of Vreeland’s work, entitled Photos for Rato, toured major cities around the world and raised most of the funds needed for the construction of Rato Monastery’s new campus and temple, which was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama on January 31, 2011.

[Both Nicky and Pradeep are my very good friends: Shekhar Bhatia]

[See The monk who sold his pictures at Asian Window, Vreeland's website here and read NYT here]

The poetry of Al Qaeda and the Taliban

Faisal Devji in the NYT Sunday Review. [Devji is a fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and the author of the preface for the forthcoming anthology “Poetry of the Taliban.”]

In fact, poetry has long been a part of Muslim radicalism; the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, for example, was the author of a large collection of verse. Today, the Taliban’s Web site features poems written by the group’s members and sympathizers, both men and women. Recitations are frequently recorded and stored on cellphones and transferred from one person to another by way of Bluetooth technology.

Many Afghan and Al Qaeda poems — which come from distinct but hybrid literary traditions — are, as might be expected, political. In a statement broadcast on Al Jazeera in December 2001, Osama bin Laden quoted the following verses from one of his favorite contemporary poets, Yusuf Abu Hilala, changing the last line and replacing the word “castles” in the original with “towers,” as a reference to the destruction of the World Trade Center:

 Though the clothes of darkness enveloped us and the poisoned tooth bit us,

 Though our homes overflowed with blood and the assailant desecrated our land,

 Though from the squares the shining of swords and horses vanished,

 And sound of drums was growing

 The fighters’ winds blew, striking their towers and telling them:

 We will not cease our raids until you leave our fields.


Pakistan blocks Twitter over “blasphemous content”

[Update: Twitter access was restored after eight hours]


Pakistan on Sunday blocked access to Twitter in response to “blasphemous” material posted by users on the microblogging and social networking website, a senior government official said.

“This has been done under the directions of the Ministry of Information Technology. It’s because of blasphemous content,” said Mohammed Yaseen, chairman of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

“They (the ministry) have been discussing with them (Twitter) for some time now, requesting them to remove some particular content,” he said.

Pakistan blocked access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and about 1,000 other websites for nearly two weeks in May 2010 over blasphemous content.

Any representation of the Prophet Mohammad is deemed un-Islamic and blasphemous by many Muslims, who constitute the overwhelming majority in Pakistan. More:

Purifying Kashmir

Tariq Mir in Boston Review:

A squat and priggish man of 46, Abdul Lateef Al Kindi has a thick salt-and-pepper beard and a reputation for causing controversy. During a sermon last August at his mosque in Srinagar—one of the capitals of Kashmir, and its largest city—he evoked the spirit of Islam as observed fourteen centuries ago, in the Prophet’s time, and demanded a total break from local traditions. He railed against the veneration of the tombs and relics of saints—common practice in Kashmir—as vestiges of ancient Greek and Hindu mythologies with no place in Islam.

Historically, Kashmir has been dominated by Sufi Islam, a mystical branch of the faith that the puritanically minded abhor. But Al Kindi plans to change all that. In a region already wracked by internal division and foreign pressure, he represents yet another potentially destabilizing force: orthodox Salafism, aggressively expansionist and imported from Saudi Arabia.

After the sermon, we drove to Al Kindi’s rented apartment. He lived in a prosperous area with large houses and fenced-in compounds stretching along the barbed wire–topped wall of a sprawling Indian army camp. The ragged three-room flat was a temporary accommodation for his family; he was putting the finishing touches on a house in a new suburb. Constructing even a modest house in Srinagar is out of reach for most, but Al Kindi, an alumnus of the Saudi-backed Islamic University of Medina, managed thanks to a hefty monthly stipend from his alma mater. More:

When Einstein met Tagore

Image: Book jacket

Maria Popova in Brain Pickings:

Einstein: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?

Tagore: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the Universe is human Truth.

I have taken a scientific fact to explain this — Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them; but matter may seem to be solid. Similarly humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to man’s world. The entire universe is linked up with us in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature and the religious consciousness of man.

Einstein: There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe: (1) The world as a unity dependent on humanity. (2) The world as a reality independent of the human factor.

Tagore: When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty. More

Muslim women in India seek gender equality in marriage

Nilanjana S. Roy in NYT:

For more than a decade, Muslim women’s organizations in India have been fighting for changes in the body of Islamic law that governs marriage, divorce and the property rights of women. But as the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board held its annual convention in Mumbai last week, the battle lines had never been so starkly drawn. Although the Indian Constitution guarantees equal rights to all citizens irrespective of their religion, Muslims are governed by the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937. Attempts to apply a common civil code have often been viewed as interference in the practices of India’s largest religious minority.

The Personal Law Board is one of the country’s more influential Muslim groups. Its chiefly male membership of clerics and scholars has rejected proposals to change Muslim personal law, and is opposing a demand by women’s groups that marriages be legally registered, as is mandatory for non-Muslims.

Zeenat Shaukat Ali, a professor of Islamic Studies at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai and the author of “Marriage and Divorce in Islam,” is blunt in her assessment of the current situation.

“We are asking for codification of the legal system within the framework of Koranic law,” she said. “The Koran does not support a system that is controlled by the patriarchy, and the government has to treat this matter on a war footing if they truly mean to bring about gender justice.” More:

In Kashmir, ‘good’ Barelvis vs ‘dangerous’ Wahabis

Sectarian shadow boxing between Islamic sects is getting full play in Kashmir. It’s the ‘Good Barelvis’ versus ‘Dangerous Wahabis’. And the duel seems to be getting some support of the Centre and its agencies. Could this turn out to be the kind of folly the State committed when it played footsie with Bhindranwale in Punjab, asks Randeep Singh Nandal in Times of India

Chances are that Pir Jalaluddin, head of the Batmaloo Sahib shrine in Srinagar, never heard the two bullets that hit him on the night of March 17. But for many in Kashmir, these were echoes of a sectarian war in the making in the Valley. The Pir belonged to a new aggressive group of the Barelvi sect of Islam in Kashmir, a grouping that in the past six months has lost no opportunity to rally its large following in the state.

Shrine-going Barelvis constitute about 70% of J&K’s Muslims – an overwhelming majority in the Valley. However, the past 20 years have seen the more puritanical Wahabis like Ahle Hadith make rapid inroads in the state – a spread that is often ascribed to vast inflow of foreign funds to these organisations from Saudi Arabia. Thanks to their resources, Wahabi groups have ensured easy availability of Wahabi literature. more

New wave of well-off Pakistani women drawn to conservative Islam

Jason Burke from Lahore in The Guardian:

All the women working in the information technology division of the Bank of Punjab’s headquarters in the western Pakistani city of Lahore wear headscarves tightly wound around their cheeks and chin, framing their faces as they tap at their keyboards. A year or so ago not one covered their heads with the hijab.

“I was the first,” says 28-year-old Shumaila, as she waited with some impatience in the city’s iStore for her new £800 Apple MacBook to be loaded with the software she had ordered.

“I started reading the Qur’an properly and praying five times a day. No one made me wear the hijab. That would be impossible,” she laughs brightly. “I showed the way to the other girls at work.”

They are not alone. Though there are no statistics and most evidence is anecdotal, a new wave of interest in more conservative strands of Islam among wealthier and better educated women in Pakistan appears clear.

It is part of a broader cultural and religious shift seen in the country over decades but which observers say has accelerated in the past 10 years. More:

Reclaiming Islam

Wealthy, educated women are increasingly embracing the trend for religious inquiry and observance, writes Jason Burke in The Guardian

All the women working in the information technology division of the Bank of Punjab’s headquarters in the western Pakistani city of Lahore wear headscarves tightly wound around their cheeks and chin, framing their faces as they tap at their keyboards. A year or so ago not one covered their heads with the hijab.

“I was the first,” says 28-year-old Shumaila, as she waited with some impatience in the city’s iStore for her new £800 Apple MacBook to be loaded with the software she had ordered.

“I started reading the Qur’an properly and praying five times a day. No one made me wear the hijab. That would be impossible,” she laughs brightly. “I showed the way to the other girls at work.” more

In Pakistan, Hindus say woman’s conversion to Islam was coerced

Declan Walsh in NYT:

Ghotki, Pakistan — Banditry is an old scourge in this impoverished district of southern Pakistan, on the plains between the mighty river Indus and a sprawling desert, where roving gangs rob and kidnap with abandon. Lately, though, local passions have stirred with allegations of an unusual theft: that of a young woman’s heart.

In the predawn darkness on Feb. 24, Rinkel Kumari, a 19-year-old student from a Hindu family, disappeared from her home in Mirpur Mathelo, a small village off a busy highway in Sindh Province. Hours later, she resurfaced 12 miles away, at the home of a prominent Muslim cleric who phoned her parents with news that distressed them: Their daughter wished to convert to Islam, he said.

Their protests were futile. By sunset, Ms. Kumari had become a Muslim, married a young Muslim man, and changed her name to Faryal Bibi.

Over the past month, this conversion has generated an acrid controversy that has reverberated far beyond its origins in small-town Pakistan, whipping up a news media frenzy that has traced ugly sectarian divisions and renewed a wider debate about the protection of vulnerable minorities in a country that has so often failed them.

At its heart, though, it is a head-on clash of narratives and motives. More:

No Quick End to Islam Conversion Case

NYT report:

Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry ruled that Rinkel Kumari, a 19-year-old Hindu student who converted under disputed circumstances last month, should spend the next three weeks pondering her fate in protective custody, along with another Hindu woman in a similar situation.

During an emotional and sometimes rowdy hearing in a packed courtroom in Islamabad, the capital, Chief Justice Chaudhry noted that there had been “serious allegations of abduction and forced conversion” in both cases.

“Both ladies must have an atmosphere without any pressure to make a decision about their future,” he said.

Moments earlier, the police dragged Ms. Kumari’s father from the courtroom after he had begun shouting. Such scenes have been typical of a case that has received intense media attention and has highlighted the sense of siege among a prominent religious minority. More:

AP report: Forced religious conversions hike Pakistan minorities’ fears

Dawkins vs. Sri Lanka, and silence wins

Morgan Meis at Killing the Buddha [via 3qd]:

They call it the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, this island of Sri Lanka. But you could just as well call it Religion Island. There are no less than four major religions practiced here, and that doesn’t count the people in villages that make offerings to the local tree gods. Buddhists dominate the religious landscape, but there are Hindus and Muslims and Christians in abundance. I’ve heard that over 98 percent of this island’s population consists of active worshippers of one religion or another. My wife and I have been living here for the last four months, and from our home outside of Colombo, the capital city, you can hear the rites of the local Buddhist temples being performed early in the mornings and late at night. On full moon nights, processions of white-clad worshippers wind through the poorly paved roads. This is far from a godless place.

It was with some anticipation, then, that those of us inhabiting Religion Island awaited the coming of Richard Dawkins. His book The God Delusion is, after all, meant to be the definitive scientific debunking of religion for our time. Dawkins came to attend the Sixth Annual Galle Literary Festival, which was started by an English ex-pat named Geoffrey Dobbs and has become a major stopping point for international literary types. These days, the festival attracts big names from all over the world. Galle is a beautiful little city at the southern end of Sri Lanka possessing a Portuguese-Dutch colonial fort jutting out from a rocky promontory into the tropical splendor of the Indian Ocean. It is a damn nice place for a literary festival. More:

We are all Muslims now

On Huffington Post Blogs, Sonny Singh responds to Islamaphobia in NYPD and beyond.

As a brown-skinned Sikh with a turban on my head and a long beard on my chin, I deal with my fair share of racist and xenophobic harassment regularly, including in my home of New York City, the most diverse city on the planet. It usually takes the form of someone yelling or perhaps mumbling at me: Osama bin Laden/terrorist/al Qaeda/he’s going to blow up the [insert location]/go back to your country/etc. Less often, someone might threaten me, get in my face, or in one case, pull off my turban on the subway.

My experience is not terribly unique for a turban-wearing Sikh in the United States. Especially since 9/11, we Sikhs have become all too familiar with racial epithets, bullying and violence. Just last month, a gurdwara in Michigan was vandalized with hostile anti-Muslim graffiti. Last year, in what we can assume was a hate attack, two elderly Sikh men were shot and killed while taking an evening walk in a quiet neighborhood in Elk Grove, Calif. more

The fatwa against reading

Nilanjana S Roy in Business Standard:

Among the many things forgotten about the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine’s Day 1989 is that it did not stop at naming Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. The author was condemned to death “along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents”.

In retrospect, this was a fascinating inclusion. There was the minor matter that by including Rushdie’s editors and publishers, the Ayatollah had effectively declared war against the publishing industry in general — the typesetters who laid the book out, the printers and proofreaders, all the innocent foot soldiers caught in a battle that they had not chosen. He had also declared war against those not of the faith — if mere awareness of the contents of the Verses was a crime, then arguing that one was not of the same religion and blasphemy or apostasy did not apply was no longer a defence.

More crucially, the Ayatollah’s argument was both a curiously modern and a vengefully medieval one. His recognition that awareness itself of the contents of a controversial work was a crime was both an acknowledgement that knowledge is dangerous, and stands as an indictment of readers along with writers. More:

On neutrinos and angels

Pervez Hoodbhoy in The Express Tribune:

Speed of light issues have often moved sections of religious people in rather strange ways. Way back in 1973, as a young physics lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University, I had been fascinated by the calculation done by the head of our department. Seeking the grand synthesis of science and faith, this pious gentleman — who left on his final journey last month — had published calculations that proved Heaven (jannat) was running away from Earth at one centimeter per second less than the speed of light. His reasoning centred around a particular verse of the Holy Quran that states worship on the night of Lailat-ul-Qadr(Night of Revelation) is equivalent to a thousand nights of ordinary worship. Indeed, if you input the factor of 1,000 into Einstein’s famous formula for time dilatation, this yields a number: one centimeter per second less than the speed of light!

These days the internet groans under the weight of claims that the Holy Quran had specified the speed of light 1400 years ago. Dr Mansour Hassab El Naby, said to be a physicist from Egypt, announces that according to his Quranic calculations, this speed is 299,792.5 kilometres per second. He even gives error bars! Another video gives a still more precise figure of 299792.458 km/sec. Given the unrestrained leaps of logic made by the authors, it is not surprising that they all arrive at more or less the same numbers. More:

The industrious god

Gautam Pemmaraju at 3quarksdaily:

The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yacht’s in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.

He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.

A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple. More:

Salman Rushdie is not afraid

He thinks ‘Game of Thrones’ is dumb, bemoans the lack of good modern novels and believes terrorism is dying out; over 20 years after fleeing for his life from an Iranian-issued fatwa, novelist Salman Rushdie is still unafraid to speak his mind. Interviewed by Gidi Weitz in

Why is it always Muslims? Why didn’t Martin Scorsese have to run for his life after making “The Last Temptation of Christ”? Why does no one want to murder Woody Allen for making fun of Jews?

“There is a widespread difficulty in the Muslim world, which has to do with how the people are taught about examining their own history. A whole range of stuff has been placed off limits. The meaning of that material is dictated by religious people, not historians and scholars. If you believe that the [Quran] is the uncreated word of God, then sociology, politics and economics have nothing to do with it; but if you believe it is a text that arose in a certain place as a result of particular social, economic and political pressures, then you explicate it in a different way.

“The problem was that I learned to look at it like that from my father, and that was crossing a boundary into heavily defended territory. The question is who has power over the story. The response of anybody interested in liberty is that we all have a say and the ability to have an argument is exactly what liberty is, even though it may never be resolved. In any authoritarian society the possessor of power dictates, and if you try and step outside he will come after you. This is equally true of Sovietism, of China and of Iran, and in our time it has happened a lot in Islam. The point is that it’s worse when the authoritarianism is supported by something supernatural. More:

Open season on owls in India

The period between Dussehra and Diwali (October) is the worst for owls; demand rises to a peak as they are sacrificed to ward off evil and ensure prosperity. Ananda Banerjee from New Delhi in Mint:

A spotted owlet disguised to pass off as a rock eagle owl.

For Hindus, Tuesday night, a full-moon one, is among the most auspicious of the year. In some parts of the country, it is the night people worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

Ironically, it is also the day they sacrifice the goddess’ traditional mount, the owl, a blood-letting that is supposed to ward off bad luck and ensure prosperity.

Which is where Baheliya, a fifth-generation bird trader, comes in. From his base in the back alleys of Kumar Mohalla in Meerut, Baheliya will sell a few owls on Tuesday, pocketing a few tens of thousands of rupees.

The period between Dussehra and Diwali, the two biggest Hindu festivals in the second half of the year, is usually as bad for owls as much as it’s good for people like Baheliya. He can expect to make up to Rs50,000 by selling two or three owls. Demand rises to a peak at the time of Diwali, which is also an occasion for the worship of Lakshmi. The catalyst for the owl trade is often the tagline Bengal ka kaala jaadu or black magic, which is critical to swaying customers. More:

Who is a Muslim?

Violence by Muslims against other Muslims raises several questions about religion’s ability to define and shape identity, writes Murtaza Haider in Dawn

From the banks of river Nile to the sand dunes of Kashgar Prefecture, Muslims were perceived as one people by the poet philosopher Muhammad Iqbal. All other manifestations of a person’s identity were deemed irrelevant. The unity in faith (madhab) was considered sufficient to define a people overriding all differences in race, colour, and creed.

In Pakistan, a notion of Pan-Islamism has been percolating throughout the state-sanctioned curriculum delivered to students as young as seven years old. The not-so subtle message portrays the nation state as a failure and offers the notion of Muslim Ummah (one community) as an alternative. The curriculum and public discourse depicted Muslims as one indivisible entity impervious to national, cultural and tribal influences.

As a child growing up under General Zia’s martial law, I struggled with the gap between the rhetorical Muslim identity and the geo-political realities that unfolded around me. For instance, I could not understand why the Muslims in East Pakistan separated from the Muslims in West Pakistan after a gory struggle to create a nation state, Bangladesh.  I struggled to comprehend why Iraqi Muslims fought a war with fellow Muslims in Iran or much later why Arab Janjaweed militias committed genocide against the non-Arab tribes of Darfur.  And as of late, why Muslims lined up other Muslims near Quetta, Balochistan, and killed them in cold blood. more

The Hinduism of a Borneo tribe

In The New York Times:

Tumbang Saan, Indonesia: In this village near the heart of Borneo’s great, dissolving rainforest, Udatn is regarded as a man of deep spiritual knowledge.

Of all the people in this tiny settlement, he speaks better than any other the esoteric language of the Sangiyang, the spirits and ancestors of the upper world, known simply as “Above.” His is a key role in the rituals of Kaharingan, one of a number of names for the ancestor-worshipping religion of Borneo’s indigenous forest people, the Dayak.

“In the beginning, when God separated the darkness and the light, there was Kaharingan,” said Mr. Udatn, as he sat smoking a wooden pipe on the floor of his stilt home. (Like many Indonesians Mr. Udatn uses only one name.)

The Indonesian government thinks otherwise. The world’s most populous Muslim-majority country is no Islamic state, but it is a religious one. Every citizen must subscribe to one of six official creeds: Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Confucianism or Hinduism. Kaharingan, like dozens of other native faiths, does not officially exist. More:

That ugly law, again

An eight-year-old Christian girl invites expulsion from school and the wrath of Pakistan’s blasphemy law for a spelling error, reports Muhammad Sadaqat in The Tribune Express

It may have been a mere misplaced dot that led to accusations of blasphemy against a Christian eighth-grader, whose miniscule error led to her expulsion from school and uproar amongst local religious leaders.

Faryal Bhatti, a student at the Sir Syed Girls High School in Pakistan Ordnance Factories (POF) colony Havelian, erroneously misspelt a word in an Urdu exam while answering a question on a poem written in praise of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). The word in question was ‘laanat’ instead of ‘naat’ – an easy error for a child to make, as the written versions of the words are similar.

According to the school administration and religious leaders who took great exception to the hapless student’s mistake, the error is ‘serious’ enough to fall within the realm of blasphemy, Saturday. more

The plight of Pakistan’s Shias

Not as discriminated against as other minorities in Pakistan (Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis), the Shias have borne the brunt of a low-grade war raging in the country, writes Sadanand Dhume in the Wall Street Journal

Is Sunni-majority Pakistan in the midst of a low-grade war against its minority Shia population? Scarcely a month goes by without word of a new atrocity: a car bomb outside a Shia mosque in Quetta during Ramadan, a suicide bombing of a Shia procession in Lahore, Shia doctors mysteriously shot in Karachi.

In July, after prosecutors failed to find evidence of his alleged involvement in the murders of scores of Shia, the Supreme Court released Malik Ishaq, leader of the banned Sunni sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. He promptly received a hero’s welcome from his followers. The Pakistani government has allowed Sunni-ruled Bahrain to openly recruit Pakistani mercenaries to put down a restive Shia majority demanding democratic rights in the oil-rich kingdom.

The country’s Shia are worried. In July, hundreds took to the streets of Quetta to protest the ongoing killings. Others have begun an online petition to draw attention to their plight. In private, some Shia wonder whether over time they will meet the same fate as the heterodox Ahmadiyya community, stripped of their recognition as Muslims and hustled toward the margins of national life. more

The Ramayana gets a very American makeover

Seema Sirohi in Outlook:

"Rama" and "Sita" in the Constellation Theatre Company's "The Ramayana". (Constellation Theatre Company)

The Constellation Theater Company, a relatively new entrant on the scene but already an award-winner, has created a distinct buzz with The Ramayana, drawing mainstream American audiences and enjoying the benefits of the prevalent “India is cool” mood. The play has sold out on its second run, the critics are wowed and director Allison Stockman can’t stop smiling. Vivid, energetic and funny, it is a dramatic burst of an adventure, different but accessible. No time to catch your breath as action piles upon action, divinity collides with the dark side and a monkey army performs its duty. Sugreeva and his band even break into rap, leaping into the present. But the production’s periodic one-liner wisdom keeps audiences rooted in the experience of watching something sacred.

The masks and costumes of the demons are artistic, yet edgy, with Soorpanakha and her clique sporting a modern-day slutty look. Jim Jorgensen as Ravana nails the difficult meld of evil and frivolity with ease. Resplendent in his silk achkan, it is, quite literally, a case of the devil wearing Prada. Misty Demory as Mandodari, Ravana’s wife, manages to convey her inherent goodness in the circle of evil as she pleads Sita’s case. Rama is played by Andreu Honeycutt, a blue-dyed African-American, who oddly enough roams the forest in silk, not a dhoti. Hanuman is touching and complex, especially when he stands at the ocean’s edge, slowly realising his power and potential to fly. More: