(Re)Claiming Bhagat Singh

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Around town, cars, trucks and SUVs sport stickers of Bhagat Singh (1907-1931). The Bhagat Singh in those stickers wears a turban and curls his moustache. He is a Sikh and a Jatt once more, a “shaheed” (martyr) reclaimed by the Punjabi Sikh Jatt drivers of Greater Vancouver.

Sikh? In “Why I am an Atheist,” Bhagat Singh writes that he gave up any belief “in the mythology and doctrines of Sikhism or any other religion.” Indeed, he renounced any belief in a God.  When Bhagat Singh formed the Naujawan Bharat Sabha in 1926, each member was required upon enrollment to sign a pledge that he would place the interest of country above community. Bhagat Singh did so by cutting his hair and removing his beard.

Jatt? Bhagat Singh advocated revolution “by the masses and for the masses” to eliminate caste and other social divisions. “We are all born equal” he wrote in “The Problem of Untouchability.” The Sabha organized social dinners in which people of all castes served each other. He supported the untouchables demand for separate electorates arguing that such rights were necessary unless caste based discrimination was done away with. India would never be fully independent, he wrote , until social, political and individual equality of opportunity was guaranteed to all.

Shaheed? Indians and Pakistanis are fond of deifying their leaders. Just as Gandhi is a “Mahatma” and Jinnah a “Quaid-e-Azam,” Bhagat Singh is a “Shaheed,” an idol to be worshipped, not an example to emulate; yet, Bhagat Singh doesn’t need the title of Shaheed just as Joan of Arc or Martin Luther King Jr. do not need the title of Martyr. For to invoke the spirit of a young revolutionary, willing to die for the cause of establishing a fully independent country, free of religion and caste, two words suffice: Bhagat Singh.

Written by Randeep Singh

Further Reading:

“Why I am an Atheist”: http://www.marxists.org/archive/bhagat-singh/1930/10/05.htm

The Jail Notebook and Other Writings: http://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Jail_Notebook_and_Other_Writings.html?id=OAq4N60oopEC&redir_esc=y

“The Problem of Untouchability” (‘Achoot ka Sawaal’): quotations at http://www.countercurrents.org/yadav231209.htm.

“Religion and Our Freedom Struggle” (‘Dharm aur hamara swatantrata sangram’)

“Communal Riots and Their Solution” (‘Sampradayik dange aur unka Ilaj’).

“India: Bhagat Singh’s writings against communalism and untouchability,” S. Irfan Habib, May 26, 2009: http://www.sacw.net/article929.html

The Separation of Religion and State in Islam

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Islamists and CNN proclaim alike that religion and state are one in Islam. The oneness of religion and state justifies the existence of Islamic states like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban. It is a claim which inspires Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir to petition for the re-establishment of the Caliphate in the twenty-first century.

In his Allahabad Address in 1930, Muhammad Iqbal held that “the religious ideal of Islam…is organically related to the social order which it has created.” Yet Iqbal discusses neither what that social order is nor how those ideals are embodied in a social or political organization. Indeed, the idea that religion and state are one in Islam is a recent one with little historical precedent.

First, Islam originated in a society where there was no state. The revelations of the Qur’an are moral commands on how a Muslim should live, on the Oneness of God, on the inevitability of the day of judgement and on the line of prophets before Muhammad. Whereas the revelations do speak to some matters of marriage, divorce, the payment of alimony and inheritance, they say little on how states should be formed, how governments should be run or organizations managed.

Second, the idea that religion and state are separate in Islam is not borne out by history. The Prophet of Islam did not appoint a successor for the community. Although the Caliphate was the religious and political head of the early Muslim community, its authority remained temporal, leaving matters of religious doctrine to the Ulema. After the siege of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, the Caliphate existed essentially as a figurehead until it was abolished in 1924. As Ayubi makes clear, the early Muslim communities were concerned more with the politics of survival and succession than political theories of the state.

The great Islamic empires of the medieval ages – the Ottomans in Turkey, the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India – saw powerful rulers run their empires through bureaucracies, economic systems and armies all of which had little if anything to do with religion. The Ulema meanwhile monopolized matters of religion, the preaching and administering personal law. Religion and state co-existed, but separately.

Third, the Qur’an does distinguish between the temporal world (dunya) and an eternal, spiritual world (akhira). The temporal world can be further separated into matters relating to the “secular” world (dunya) and to religion (din). This distinction is similar to the Christian idea of the “secular” as the temporal world of human activity and the “eternal” world of God or the spiritual.

Ironically, the father of secularism in the West is the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) or Averroes. Ibn Rushd distinguished between religious knowledge (ilm al-kalam) and philosophical knowledge (ilm al-falsafa) and between the human soul into the divine (eternal) and the individual (non-eternal), distinctions again important for distinguishing between the “temporal” or secular world and the “eternal” or spiritual world.

Fourth, and as a modern-day ideology, the characteristics of Islamism are shaped by the times and societies in which it originated. As Ayubi points out, Islamism emerged in post-colonial Arab societies amongst groups who felt excluded from power, who were distrustful of state authority, were also disdainful of modernity and sought to resurrect the “authenticity” of their culture which they presented as Islam. It was up to the Islamists to reassert the supremacy of that culture and to root out social, political and cultural corruption by seizing the instruments of power.

Like Islam however, Islamism has no specific theory of the state. What is “Islamic” for an Islamist is typically identified in opposition to what is “un-Islamic” (modernity, non-Muslims, foreign powers). There are little if any positive political theorizing or policy solutions in Islamism. The tendency of Islamists is to escape upwards to the Heavens by seeking absolute submission to God.  For them, Ayubi points out, “Islam is the solution” (al-islam huwa al-hall), with the implication that if Islamists took power, and declared the full sovereignty of God, social, economic and cultural problems will somehow solve themselves.

Written by Randeep Singh

Further Reading:

Nazih N. Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World (Routledge, London: 1991).

William Cleveland and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East (Westview Press, Boulder, CO: 2009).

Charles Taylor, “Modes of Secularism” in Secularism and Its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1998).

Counterpoint: Why do Sikhs Wear Turbans?

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Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumoured by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations” (the Buddha).

Recently when the Quebec Federation of Soccer sought to prevent turbaned Sikhs from playing soccer for safety reasons, there was an uproar from the Sikh community and its supporters. One Canadian Member of Parliament pleaded with the Quebec Federation of Soccer and other soccer organizations to respect the religious rights of the Sikhs affected by the ban and to respect the turban as a religious symbol.

While the QSF decision was rightly questioned, few questioned whether the turban is in fact the religious symbol for Sikhs. Is the turban sacrosanct?

I’m not convinced it is. At best, the turban is a cultural symbol Sikhs have borrowed from Punjabi culture, one with the practical benefit of assisting them in upholding what is a religious practice – the practice of not cutting their hair (‘kesh’).

The Sikh religion does not prescribe any form of head dress (including turbans) for its followers. The Guru Granth Sahib says nothing on this matter.The Sikh tradition holds that the requirement of keeping unshorn hair was ordained by their tenth guru, Gobind Singh, who in 1699, organized the Sikhs into the khalsa, a community which would adopt the five “K’s.” This crucial event, reenacted every year during the Vaisakhi celebration is, as Jasjit Grewal notes in Sikh History From Persian Sources, an essentially hagiographical account and not a strictly historical one in our understanding of the word.

The turban was not one of the five “K’s.” It was rather an Indic, Islamicate and Punjabi cultural symbol, worn by emperors, princes, gurus, faqeers, sadhus, pirs and the ulema alike. As a cultural symbol, it connoted manly honour, nobility and respect. My guess is that it was adopted and absorbed by the Sikh community as such. By comparison, the “kirpan” (one of the five “K’s”), notes Grewal, was adopted into Sikhism from Punjabi culture, in this case from Punjabi Jatt farmers who carried daggers on guard against would be dacoits.

British colonialism also played a major role in turning the turban into a feature of Sikh identity.  Cohn points out that the turban became a part of Sikh identity due to British army recruitment practices. Thanks to the British recruiting the Khalsa Sikhs en masse into the army, the Sikh turban became  “standardized” and distinguished from the turbans of other Punjabis. The result was a distinctive Sikh head-dress and sense of cultural self-identity.

The turban was part of this ongoing quest for self-identification amongst Sikhs from the nineteenth century onwards, including the publication of Sikh revivalist literature, the adoption of the Gurmukhi script for Punjabi by Sikhs and Sikh control of thir own religious institutions.

Finally, in 1950, the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC), legislated in the Sikh code of conduct that a Sikh must bear “kesh” or unshorn hair. Even the SGPC though did not mandate the use of the turban to keep the “kesh” in place.

So is the Sikh turban a religious symbol and do questions concerning the turban pertain to religious rights and freedoms? The above I hope starts a dialogue on this question rather than have us believe something is sacred just because we’re told so.

Written by Randeep Singh

Further Reading:

J.S. Grewal, Sikh History from Persian Sources: Translations of Major Texts (ed. J.S. Grewal and Irfan Habib), Tulika, University of Michigan: 2008.

Bernard S. Cohn. Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Princeton University Press, 1996).