Friday, December 4, 2020

O Sanam: What can a pious Muslim teach India?

In contemporary India, the pious Muslim male with his beard and skull-cap is the bug-bear for both the Hindu nationalists and the secular Hindus. For the first, by the sheer fact of being Muslim, and for the second, by being religious. That the pious Muslim may in fact have much to teach contemporary India became clear to me, however, when I encountered Lucky Ali’s recent rendition of his 90s hit O Sanam.

Deliriously successful when first released way back in 1996, Lucky Ali’s O Sanam, once again sparked interest when a video-blogger by the name of Saad Khan recently released a video of Lucky Ali singing the song. Within a couple of days Saad Khan’s video went viral and raked in a huge amount of nostalgia for the India of the nineties. Lost in this surge of emotion was the fact that the Lucky Ali we saw in the video was far from the Lucky Ali we first saw in the mid-nineties. The man in Saad Khan’s blog video was older, with a face marked by the passage of time and more importantly marked by a beard and a skull cap, which seemed to suggest that he was a pious Muslim. The fact that this markedly Muslim accoutrement went unremarked upon in a time of general hostility to Muslims in India is surprising. But this silence could also imply apathy, which is a shame since this image does have a message for contemporary India even as the country bathes in the nostalgia for the nineties.

O Sanam first appeared when Indie-pop music enjoyed a massive following in the 90s. But the fact is that this upsurge was the result of the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991. Fresh capital had poured into the country, government monopolies and controls over broadcasting were slowly loosening up, and there was a growing air of confidence. The economic liberalisation offered a promise, that there would be greater prosperity, that poverty would be dealt with, and that India would achieve its cultural and political potential as a significant member of the world community. The mood among Indians was ebullient; who were young, ambitious, and self-confident. The video that accompanied O Sanam captured this mood perfectly. Lucky Ali was this attractive young man, singing of love and desire. As with so much that is produced through Indian aesthetics, this video was also bright and colourful, though it must also be said that there was an elegant, muted tone to these colours. One can safely suggest that this was the full fruit of the Nehruvian aesthetic. Perhaps most revealing of the moment was the fact that both the music and the video suggested an India that was curious about, and open to, the outside world. The video was shot with scenes of Ottoman-influenced Cairo framing encounters among the pyramids of Egypt; and the music similarly echoes an Arabic sensibility. Thus, Lucky Ali’s music did not merely captivate the denizens of a country, it in fact captured the political promise of economic liberalisation.

Looking back at that promising moment in the mid-90’s, however, all those dreams are as ashes in the mouth. If there are some who feel nostalgia, it is not because things were better then, it is because, in many ways, things are much worse now. Something was lost during our movement from liberalisation to where we are today. It is here that the image of the pious Muslim can offer us a moment to pause and reflect. The beard and the skull cap are not merely sartorial markers of a Muslim. On the contrary, these are ideally worn as a disciplinary practice to shape the soul of the Muslim as he imitates Muhammad, the ideal Muslim, and his relationship with God. One aspect of this relationship could be described as khauf-e-khuda.

Roughly translated as the fear of God – a feature of so many middle-class Muslim and Christian households in the country, and, by osmosis, households of other religious denominations – this khauf-e-khuda was roughly cast aside as pleasure, beauty, and power, so much the overwhelming mood and initial experience of the song and video, became our idols. The naked pursuit of money and power came to be justified; money and power by any means, for the ends justified the means. If humility is an important virtue in the Abrahamic faith traditions, contemporary India is marked by hubris, where barely-credible claims of India’s scientific achievements are used to mask a collapsing socio-economic world. This horror of what we have become is hardly a singular lament, it was articulated by Lucky Ali himself in an interview in 2017 when he expressed his confusion at how the country today is marked by disrespect to others. And so it is only fitting that this man who symbolised the promise of liberalisation, with his attractive face and voice, should now come to us with the clear markers of a person prostrate before God, allowing us the opportunity to see where we went wrong and how the need of the hour is to return to Him. It is the need to return to this khauf-e-khuda that the image of Lucky Ali in Saad Khan’s video brings to my mind.

Re-reading the lyrics of O Sanam, in the light of the latest video, I was struck by the phrase: “Samjhe zamana ke, dil hai khilona” (the world believes that the heart is a toy) which resonates with Catholic social teaching. A Catholic critique of contemporary India would argue that what is at stake in our general disregard for the means through which we achieve worldly success is the value of the dil, the heart. In other words, what is at stake is our respect for human dignity, and with it the dignity of the rest of creation. It is only when we believe, as do most pious Muslims and Christians, that we will have to account for ourselves at the end of our lives that we realise that the beauty and pleasure which dominate our youthful adventures is fleeting, and that a hedonistic pursuit of life’s material pleasures eventually leads to the destruction of human and other lives around us, not only our own. What the khauf-e-khuda does for us, therefore, is that it provides us with a sense of accountability. Not to some worldly judge or justice, like those who seem to dominate the Indian judiciary today, who may be bought off, impressed, or cowed down through the flexing of power, but an eternal divine judge for whom all these matters are immaterial. The Abrahamic deity is a much tougher judge, and we constantly remind ourselves that we will have to give account for all our actions at the end of our life.

Materialist interpretations of the world have often made light of the fear of God in Abrahamic faith traditions. Guilt, the materialists argue, when referencing Catholicism in particular, is a buzzkill, and restrains us from achieving our full potential. Secular social-scientists in India have gone one step further, where ignoring the consideration for the weak and the poor introduced into the subcontinent by Abrahamic faiths, suggested that Hindu nationalism is the result of a semitisation of an apparently original Hindu goodness. It could be argued that it has been the dismissal of the Abrahamic faiths’ contribution to from India’s public morality, and the concomitant reduction of non-Hindu presence merely to the aesthetic that has brought India to the moral abyss it finds itself in.

It is interesting that so many of extremely popular songs in India with Hindustani lyrics, have a mystical element to them. This perhaps speaks to the restlessness of our souls which, as St. Augustine observes, “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” And yet the appeal of these songs seems to remain at the aesthetic. They are enjoyed, the populace rides on the temporary high this glimmer of mysticism provides and then we are on to the next consumer goodie that the liberalised economy offers, even as the social networks around us get increasingly frayed and social goodwill ever scarce. There are two lessons that the Abrahamic faiths can offer us at this critical moment in Indian history. The first is that we may have slipped into an abyss, but, as the Abrahamic faiths teach us, it is never too late, for God’s mercy is boundless and can save. In other words, there is hope for a better tomorrow. This hope, however, is contingent on what the marks of the good Muslim signify, a spiritual discipline which takes the God of mercy and love of our neighbour seriously. To return to St. Augustine, the restlessness of the Indian was met with a false promise of liberalisation. It has left us ever more restless, and the country on the brink of social disaster. What is required for us to do is to heed to the lessons of the Abrahamic God, abjure the idolatrous materialism and hedonism of the past decades, and return to the command of loving our neighbour and not treating the human heart as if it were a toy. This is the lesson that the image of the pious Muslim offers contemporary India.

(A version of this text was first published on Raiot on 27 Nov 2020)

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