I. IN RETROSPECT
On August 13, 1934, I was born into a middle class Muslim family of Tudil, a small village on the western coast of India, located on the bank of small river in the picturesque surroudings of the Sahyadri mountain range. Then, as now, people in this village lived in three groups: the Muslims, who were in the majority and economically well-to-do; the high caste Hindus; the Untouchables or Harijans, as Gandhiji called them.
Since there was no temple in our village, the Hindus occasionally worshipped before a few red-painted stones which lay outside the village limits. Elderly Muslims, mostly males, observed the five duties of Islam quite faithfully, but their youth cared little for these duties.
My father had four brothers and two sisters. In accordance with Muslim custom the families of all brothers lived together in the same house. Assisted by his younger brother, my father tilled a small piece of land owned jointly by all brothers. The other three brothers had taken up other professions.
Since our family was hardly orthodox, no one bothered to practise the faith seriously. Nor did anyone enter the mosque except for the main weekly prayer on Friday and for festival observance.
It was customary among the Muslims of our village to name a newborn child after the late elders of the family or after any of the prophets of the past. Frequently they prefaced one of the beautiful names of God, e.g. ar-Rahman (the Merciful) with 'abd (servant, slave); thus Abdur Rahman (the servant of the Merciful). More difficult was the selection of a name for a girl, since only Mary (Maryam), the mother of Jesus is named in the Qur'an. The name Amina, the mother of Islam's prophet Muhammad, was also popular, as were ‘Aisha and Fatima, the wife and daughter respectively of Muhammad. During the last twenty-five years, the range of names for girls has widened considerably and even modern names are now acceptable.
Under similar circumstances I was named Ibrabim (Abraham), to which the family titles "Khan" and "Deshmukh" were added. My parents must have felt proud because Ibrahim (also called Khalilu'llah: "friend of God") was the name not only of my late grandfather but also of all Muslims who have considered him to be their patriarch.
I had faith in Islam because my parents followed the same faith. Yet, until 1957, when at the age of twenty-three 1received the M.B.B.S. degree from the University of Bombay, I must confess that 1 hardly. practised any religion. I possessed no religious scripture, not even a copy of the Qur'an. Nor had I undertaken any serious religious study in my childhood.
Like all other villages our village had a mosque located very close to our house, where the mu'adhdhin ("summoner to prayer") five times daily called the faithful to prayer. There was no permanent prayer leader. Any respectable and pious elderly male of the village who was present in the mosque at the time of prayer could come forward to lead the prayer. The mu'adhdhin himself had to perform this duty also when no other suitable person was present.
Every morning, then as now, the Muslim children of the village gathered in the mosque with their Qur'an portions, reciting them before the prayer leader. Individually some children chanted sweetly and melodiously, but together their voices sounded harsh.
Muslims consider the Qur'an to be the holy Word of God. Since it was revealed in Arabic, it must be read in Arabic even if the reader does not understand it. The prayer leader's task was simply to correct wrong readings. He did not consider it his duty to explain the meaning of the verses which the children recited because he himself was not well-versed in Arabic. Such religious teaching is imparted to the Muslim children in the maktab (Muslim school), usually located within the mosque.
Whenever a child finished the recitation of the entire Qur'an, a few people from the village along with the children of the maktab gathered at the tomb of a village saint and recited the prayer called "Fatiha", the opening surah or chapter of the Qur'an. A coconut, offered in the name of Allah, was later broken into pieces and shared with all participants. There were four such tombs in our village, each called "dargah"(a saint's shrine). Their burning oil lamps could easily identify these shrines. Once a year, on the anniversary of the death of the saints, a cloth and a sheet of flowers were spread on their whitened sepulchers and prayers were offered for the welfare of their departed souls.
Since there was no prayer leader in our village, there was no Muslim school that I could attend. Some children, however, rose early in the morning to recite the Qur'an in their own homes (17:78), an act considered meritorious. But as most parents were illiterate, it was difficult to check whether these children were reciting correctly.
In our village there was an elderly man who used to knit fishing nets. Although he had no strength to go to the mosque five times daily because of his age, he offered obligatory prayers at his own home. He was a virtuous man, popular among the villagers, and knew the entire Qur'an by heart. Whenever a death occurred in the village, relatives of the deceased requested him to recite the Qur'an for the salvation of the departed soul. He accomplished this task in a day or two, claiming a paltry fee for his services. It was believed that this act brought grace to the reciter, the relatives and the departed soul.
This man practised two other rites, which enhanced his popularity in the village. He consecrated sand that was sprinkled around a house to prevent any previously wounded reptile from entering the house and hurting someone. He also recited verses from the Qur'an to heal the sick.
Though he was able to read the Qur'an in Arabic, he could not write it or explain its meaning. That did not deter some children from going to him to learn the Qur'an. I was afraid of him because he beat some of them and even abused and cursed a small chick if it happened to disturb him.
I attended an Urdu medium school operated by the government in our village. After I had learnt the Urdu and the Arabic alphabets, I would occasionally read the copy of the Qur'an in our home. But I limited this practice to Ramadan, the month of fasting, and even then to only a few of its short chapters. I never read the entire Qur'an in translation, nor seriously tried to memorise even parts of it.
Before our school classes began, one of the students would recite Suratu'l Faliha, the opening chapter of the Qur'an. Then two other students would lead the whole school in a song of praise to God. One day, our class monitor asked me to recite Suratu'l Fatiha. Trembling, I tried to recall the exact order of its verses and then boldly proceeded to recite. Little did I realise how badly I recited it until the headmaster approached and began raining blows on me. Thereafter, one period a week in our school schedule was devoted to religious study.
When I entered an Urdu medium high school and boarding in a nearby village, I was compelled to become more regular in prayer. Absence from prayer at sunset meant forfeiting the evening meal! I learned the prescribed physical movements associated with the prayers and at one point, pricked by my conscience, even memorised the Arabic recitations. Still, it took me considerably more time to link the physical acts with their appropriate recitations.
Fasting is an even more arduous task than the prescribed prayers, especially when Ramadan, the month of fasting, occurs during the scorching heat of summer. Islam exempts children from fasting. But for the adolescent, fasting, like prayers, is obligatory.
Nevertheless, fasting had its compensations also. During Ramadan, schools were closed in the afternoon. In addition, we could always anticipate the festival celebration which followed, including new clothes, cash gifts and excellent sweets.
For me these factors weighed heavily on the one and only occasion I really fasted the whole month. It happened when I had reached adolescence and was expected to fast for the first time. In accordance with custom I was honoured with much celebration and a delicious dinner, to which relatives and friends were heartily invited.
If my memory is correct, none of our family members seriously practised the faith. Perhaps my elder sister was an exception. She recited the Qur'an and offered the prayers at home, since women did not enter the mosque. Otherwise, I was no better or worse than other family members or, for that matter the rest of the village. When I completed high school, I almost lost even the little I possessed of the family faith.