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Memoir: from The Life a Kashmiri Woman by Nyla Ali Khan

09 Jul 2018, Posted by admin in Memoir

Art: Cyril Larvor@cyrillarvor

MEMOIR: FROM THE LIFE OF A KASHMIRI WOMAN BY NYLA ALI KHAN

“Faith Consists in Believing When It Is Beyond the Power of Reason to Believe”—Voltaire

I would venture to say that subscribing to religious traditions and maintaining an unshakable faith in providence provided [my maternal Grandmother] with an anchor in such times of extreme distress, pain, and loneliness.  Skeptics might be critical of her unwavering faith in Sufi saints and mystics, and those who adhere to a puritanical version of Islam might question the juxtaposition of her veneration of saints with the iconoclasm that Islam advocates.

But I posit that her reverential adoration of Sufi saints did not espouse a traditionalism that made unconditional of what was, at best, a secondary good. On the contrary, her intimate knowledge of Islamic epistemology and her well-honed and nuanced comprehension of the intricacies of Quranic discourse buttressed her faith in Sufis of the Chisti, Kubrawi, Naqshbandi, Qadiri, ad Soharwardi orders. I would be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that there were times when I thought her unshakable faith in ritualism and traditionalism was flawed, and that her susceptibility to believe in the putative sincerity of pirs, (I have committed a translation of pir here, opting for “caretaker of a shrine or a mosque, who may be an erudite scholar and practitioner, or the descendant of one”) was rather naïve.

But she believed, with a winsome credulity and clarity that praying at the portals of a hallowed site, or covering the grave of a saint with an embroidered cloth, would cure her of all afflictions and would restore the body politic of Kashmir before the scourge of undemocratic practices impaired it beyond recognition. Visitation at shrines and tombs was an integral part of her religious experience. She believed that one of the most efficient methods of deflecting malignant forces was the amulet, which is “a passage from scripture used as a prophylactic shield against harm or the container that holds the holy words” (Doumato 149). Akbar Jehan, paradoxically, a well-educated and well-traveled woman, of a scientific temperament had an unshakable faith in specialized religious knowledge that enabled practitioners to “prepare writings for amulets, utter healing words correctly, and prescribe what were called Prophetic medicines” (Doumata 131).

I witnessed her ineradicable faith in the miracle attributed to Khawjah Moinuddin Chisti, thirteenth century Sufi saint of the Chisti order. I accompanied her to the shrine of Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti in Ajmer several times, which, according to her, was one of the most sacred sites for votive rituals. Votive rituals at shrines have been a part of the religious life of the Kashmiri Muslim community in which women as well as men participate. I remember being overwhelmed by the incontrovertible reverence with which she prostrated herself at the shrine. The grandiose structure, the pennants around the edifice, the beautifully carved frieze around the imposing dome, and the reverence with which devotees flocked to the shrine provided a magnificent backdrop to Akbar Jehan’s spirituality.

Faith is often a legacy of one’s upbringing, and I owe my ingrained reverence of Sufi dargahs to Mother and Father. The wise say that, “faith can move mountains,” and I believe that Akbar Jehan’s faith gave her the pugnacity and resoluteness to face the many whirlwinds that caused chaos in her immediate as well as distant world. I note that she had tremendous respect for what she called “real” learning as opposed to the regurgitation of tradition and rote memorization, which is common, at the risk of generalization, to many people. She was quite willing to openly discuss political movements to meanings of customary practices and their implication for what was taught in the Quran.

While she lived with my parents and me, she would enrich my Arabic and Quranic education. I was taught to read the Quran by a mild-mannered and congenial Maulvi, who, surprisingly, took delight in my childish pranks. He would relish his afternoon tea in the paneled study while listening to my rendition of the Quran, interspersed with shenanigans. But every time Akbar Jehan would preside over the lesson, the Maulvi would magically metamorphose into a serious scholar and would grandiloquently recite religious verses in crescendo.

She would listen to his recitation with her hands held up in supplication and tears flowing down her face. I am inclined to believe that a genuine mystical experience was invoked in her by the rhythmic sounds of the recitation. She had studied religious scriptures comprehensively, and perceived a higher content in rituals and external observances than just the emotional response that is elicited by the sound of prayer. Akbar Jehan did not propound a regressive discourse or a determinate concept of Islam. In other words, her religious and sociopolitical ideologies allowed negotiation between different value systems.

The rigidity of a religious discourse that doesn’t enable such a negotiation rends the consciousness of the Kashmiri subject, who is caught in the quandary of living her life in the constant epistemological tension of having to take more than one reality system into account. Akbar Jehan would explain that the model of hierarchy between men and women might be institutionalized in legislations made and executed by the state or in Muslim Personal Law, but gender ideologies are neither impenetrable, nor do they remain fixed till kingdom come. Even when cultural values and religious law are incorporated into legislations, they are capricious and subject to personal discretion (Doumato 2000: 228).

 

Reprinted from  The Life of a Kashmiri Woman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

Works Cited
Doumata, Eleanor Abdella. Getting God’s Ear: Women, Islam, and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

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