The Farmani Naaz fatwa: How the mullahs got it wrong on bhajan-singing Muslim artiste

The Farmani Naaz fatwa: How the mullahs got it wrong on bhajan-singing Muslim artiste

Farmani Naaz. YouTube

If you’re a Muslim, you’re never far away from mullahs telling you how to lead your life — what or what not to eat, how to dress, who or who not to marry. The urge to control your life by invoking often dubious religious doctrines or unauthenticated Hadith extends even to how to remember your dead.

Fatwas fly around like confetti with semi-literate maulvis vying with each other to jump on any passing bandwagon and — with a little help from news hungry media — have their moment in the headlines. And it has mostly worked.

It was this playbook that was at work when two notoriously loud-mouthed mullahs from Deoband (described by the media with some exaggeration as “Ulema”) announced a fatwa against a little-known female Muslim singer, Farmani Naaz, for singing bhajans — declaring her conduct “un-Islamic”, and telling her to seek “Allah’s forgiveness”.

“Our religion does not allow us to sing bhajans of other religions. This is against the shariat as well as the basic tenets of Islam,” said Maulana Ishaq Gora.

Another ulema, Mufti Asad Qasmi, suggested she needed to do penance. “You can’t just sing any kind of song if you follow Islam. Despite being a Muslim, Naaz is singing bhajans. She should ask for forgiveness from God.”

Sure enough, they got their moment in the media headlines, but then nemesis that inevitably follows hubris caught up with them. If they thought their gratuitous intervention would prompt the community to turn against Naaz, they were in for a shock. Far from turning against her, it turned against them. Their Fatwas got a short shrift even from the usual suspects, the assorted Right-wing Muslim groups, normally quick to seize any opportunity to divide communities in the name of religion.

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I had never heard of Naaz until I read about the so-called fatwas and Googled her. I discovered that thanks to the fatwas, her following on YouTube had gone through the roof. In the unlikely event that there are still people who haven’t heard about her, Naaz is a Muzaffarnagar-based popular Muslim female singer famous for singing bhajans in Sanskrit. Her rendition of the bhajan “Har Har Shambhu” has attracted an estimated 100,000 so far. It proved so popular that apparently it was also played by kanwarias on their recent march to Haridwar.

The extraordinary bit is the support she received from Muslims — evident from the following random selection of comments “Har Har Shambhu” bhajan video elicited from Muslim viewers / listeners on YouTube:

Uzain Saeed Qadri: Love ur voice farmani naz and team.

Aliyah Rehman: Breaking barriers…piercing hearts…hats off. Wonderful flawless rendition of Sanskrit slokas.

Rumi Roy: Artists are beyond religion.

Manzoor Ahmad Ansari: Great songs sister.

Mahtab Alam: Heart-touching..Ahsan

Zahir: Please continue to sing these kinds of bhakti songs… Good to see this kind of inter-religious respect and regard…Ignore the fundamentalists… they are unfortunately everywhere.

Happily, I didn’t come across a single criticism of Naaz. On the other hand, some mocked the mullahs. “Arre, fatwa jaari ho gaya hai!! (Beware, fatwa has come!!),” wrote one. The comment was accompanied by a funny emoji.

Their isolation was complete. A far cry from when even the silliest of fatwas by any old attention-seeking mullah tended to unleash furies against their target. So, was it a one-off? Or is it the start of a push back against mullahcracy!  Whatever the answer, it represents a significant shift in the Muslim mood. One swallow doesn’t, of course, make a summer but sociological trends have a way of catching up. And the clerical establishment should take a serious note of the popular Muslim backlash against the Naaz fatwa.

In future, they will need to be more careful in choosing their target. This time, they clearly picked the wrong number — forgetting that Indian Muslims have a long tradition of singing Hindu Bhakti songs. Once, it was common for Muslim artistes to compose and sing bhajans and Bhakti geets. In the 1952 film Baiju Bawra, the famous bhajan “Man tarpat Hari darshan” was written by Shakeel Badayuni, composed by Naushad, and sung by Mohammed Rafi who, it is reckoned, sang more bhajans than any other playback singer of his time.

Almost all Muslim lyricists of the time — Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shakil Badayuni — wrote bhajans for films. And nobody ever accused them of “un-Islamic” activity.

Indeed, the so-called “Ganga-Jamni” tradition of Muslims singing Hindu devotional songs still survives. Take Ramzan Khan, a practising Muslim bhajan singer from Rajasthan (popularly known as Munna Master) who was conferred Padma Shri, for his contribution to arts. And that was only two years ago.

His father was a Sanskrit scholar. And so is his son, Feroz Khan, who was an assistant professor at Banaras Hindu University’s Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vijnan, but was forced to resign after protests from Hindu groups that a Muslim was not fit to teach Hindu scriptures. He was transferred to the university’s Faculty of Arts to teach Sanskrit.

The dilemma for liberal Muslims and Hindus, as illustrated by the anti-Naaz fatwa and Feroz Khan’s difficulties, is that they are simply not allowed to reach out to people of other faiths by self-appointed gatekeepers of respective communities.

The only way of creating inter-community awareness is exposing ourselves to other faiths and cultures through music, arts and places of worship. To interpret it as indoctrination or brainwashing is a wilful act of bigotry. Exposure to new cultural experiences is the most effective way of enriching diversity and breaching the communal divide.

I was brought up on the idea of “unity in diversity” in which Muslim artistes were not “fatwa-ed” for assuming Hindu names; or Hindu musicians and singers pilloried for having Muslim ustads. There’s a famous image of Pandit Ravi Shankar touching the feet of Ustad Allaudin Khan signifying the transcendental nature of music. Today, both Ravi Shankar and Allaudin Khan might have been targeted by gatekeepers of their respective communities.

Growing up in Delhi in the 1950s, I remember visiting Birla Mandir and making a beeline to Gurdwara Sisganj in Chandni Chowk for the delicious Kara Prasad generously distributed by Sikh worshippers to all passers-by. It was heaven. I wonder if a Muslim child would be allowed to do it today. Clearly, times have changed.

The author is an independent commentator. Views expressed are personal.

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