Learn about namaj before you do it.
Keep your eyes on the human Mecca.
Fulfill human’s desire
here and now, through human.
Handsome Kala [Krishna] plays in the world
of the human body.
(Lalongeeti no. 294) [source]
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Islam. I don’t know the exact reasons why my paternal grandfather changed his family name of Mondol to Islam. Names and surnames are very lax and nonchalant subjects for my family. Perhaps he did it for documentation reasons. Maybe the reform and border politic mindset had crept into his consciousness and he had to prove his Muslim ties with a new name after partition. Or maybe it just created a sense of ambiguity and anonymity. I will never know. But in my mind he chose it because he foresaw the need of creating complexity for the term.
It’s sometimes hard to have such a loaded word for a surname. Islam. It’s been in the news and used by politicians in pejorative manners. Or co-opted by well-meaning but unaware liberals to push for political inclusiveness without understanding the bodies tied to the word. Muslim institutions and organizations in the U.S. — secular, conservative, and everything in between — get into silly debates about the correct interpretation or way of relating to Islam which may involve the separation of culture “from over there” from true Islam, whatever that means.
Islam & My Bengaliness
Islam is not the only element that shaped my worldview. My Bengali culture is a very important component of my upbringing. My parents emphasized it a lot through language, food, stories, and unfortunately the internalized model minority myth. I did not understand the implication and depth of my parents’ culture and history until college, when I began to understand my culture beyond model minority stereotypes.
I went through the second-generation pattern of re-discovering and recreating the narrative of my culture while in college. I began to immerse myself in the ethnic and cultural parts of myself I had hated or thought very little of in the past. It began with Tagore novels, rekindling my love for Baul spirituality, and figuring out the history behind colonialism, the partitions of 1905 and 1947, and the politics of 1971 which were never covered in any of my school courses before college. Religious history was certainly not covered at all. It took a lot of digging and excavating in grad school to figure out the religious history of where my parents are from.
“I began to immerse myself in the ethnic and cultural parts of myself I had hated or thought very little of in the past.”
I found out that the region of my heritage — formerly part of the Nadia District, an area near the border of present day Bangladesh and West Bengal split in half by partition — is a rural one and a very mixed one where political, religious, and cultural ideologies such as indigenous, Buddhist, Hindu (various sects) and Islam clashed, meshed, and informed one another. I found out that Islam came by trade as early as the 8th century CE, waves of migration predominantly by Sufis, invasion, and politics regarding agricultural expansion (Hinduism came to the region for very similar reasons).
There are at least two popular but opposing narratives about the ‘conversion’ to Islam. The first being forced conversion and the second being low caste Hindus and Buddhists converting to Islam for liberation from caste. Both narratives have truth in them but miss the complex nuances of cultural contact which happened over a period of decades and certainly not in any linear or evolutionary fashion. And it is precisely this mixed culture of my ancestors which is invisible from mainstream thought and discussions around religion. Thinking about the complexities around this cultural and religious contact remind me of traditions, manners, stories, and rituals of my everyday lived and inherited experiences.
Culture, Religion, and Complex Lived Experiences
I remember in a time of hardship when I was a teenager, my mother wrote out the Yasin Sura from the Quran, written in Arabic and with red ink on a blank sheet of paper. She folded it up and asked me to look for a boulder to stick it under. But none was around so she opted to find the heaviest glass vase we had and stick it underneath until the time of hardship passed. Many times, I remember her lighting incense and waving the smoke into all the corners of the house to clear the air for the angels. And I remember stories of my grandmother and her stone washing ritual with milk. I never understood the significance of it until I read about folk rituals connected to nature and the spirits and power which live in stones. And more stories of magic, witchcraft, healers and jinn possessions.
“It is equally important not to easily dismiss or ridicule other ways of knowing.”
I believe many of these things are dismissed as silly superstitions. And while it is important not to exoticize such things, it is equally important not to easily dismiss or ridicule other ways of knowing. Such knowledge of the supernatural and natural is connected to the local tantric, body centric, cultures which I now clearly recognize in my family’s vocabulary and ways of living. Cut hair, baby teeth, and clipped fingernails would be returned and buried back to the earth because, as my mother would say, “you never know who may be after you to possess you. The earth will protect it.”
I used to be so ashamed of such ways of knowing and believing because it did not fit the mainstream ways of thought. I could say so much about the culture of my upbringing and the countless fantastical stories involving serpent goddesses, apocalyptic stories, magic spells, and songs of Radha and Krishna. My own apartment is adorned with a tapestry of the Rasa lila, divine dance of the gopis, an imagery highly influenced under the Vaishnava rule of the Sena Dynasty during the 11th century CE.
That image and theology was widespread in so many areas of Bengal especially the Nadia region where Sri Chaitanya’s highly emotional version of Gaudiya Vaishnavism influenced many communities including the Fakirs and Bauls — a diverse community of people who belong to non-institutionalized musical and spiritual initiate lineages.
Lalan Fakir’s sect from the 19th century is one I highly identify with because it synthesizes wisdom and imagery from all the religions and traditions that have come into Bengal in a very localized way. The philosophy of Lalan Fakir is profound yet simple in its ways to critique oppressive systems and jaat — rigid caste, classification, and religious purity.
I quoted a verse from a Lalan song at the beginning of this piece. I think it encapsulates how I feel about my identity not matching up to the one-dimensional presentation of it in mainstream spaces. In my heart, Krishna can dance around the Kaba without the borders, visas, or static ideas of identity.
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Nazia Islam is a master’s student studying religion with a concentration in interdisciplinary studies at a seminary in California. Some of her visual poetry can be found on Instagram, and she writes at https://missnaziaislam.wordpress.com/.