Can Savitri be a Muslim name?

CERTAINLY not in India. But Muslim Indonesians have plenty of Savitris, Gayathris, Leelas, Pushpas and even Seetas among themselves. Last time I met a young Indonesian couple at Madinah airport. Husband was a teacher and wife Savitri a designer. They were in Ihram (sacramental clothes) and were heading for Umrah. A chat revealed that Indonesian women have several names common to Hindus in India.

Indonesia adopted Islam as a faith but continued to hold on to the vestiges of Hindu culture. So you have Sukarnoputri for the current vice president. Bhasa Indonesia has umpteen number of Sanskrit words. Cultural aspects of Diwali and Holi are still observed by Indonesians. Some forms of dances too survive in Bali island.

All those who plead for discarding national cultural traits or symbols do a disservice to Islam. Islam is opposed to shirk (making partners with God) but does not intend putting its followers into a uniform cultural mould. Native cultures, arts, craft and sciences continued to flourish under Islamic lands which kept expanding till a millennium after the birth of Prophet Muhammad. As a result Muslim Iranians still celebrate Navroze as the first day of the Persian calendar which continues alongside the Hijri calendar. Pakistani Punjabis celebrate Basant Panchami and Lori. Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei have festivals and traditions with local flavour. Bangladeshi women still sport bindi and sindoor and wear saris. Turkey retained much of its pre-Islamic Turkish culture intact inasmuch as they hardly appear to be Muslims by names.

Even in South India we have names like Allah Pitchai, Sithi Fathimah, Nainar Mohammad or Thangal Kunju Musaliyar. Kali poth is Muslim equivalent for Hindu manglasutra. It symbolises suhaag, a word that I failed to translate into English. Islam’s synthesis with local cultures led to evolution of Arab-Tamil and Arab-Malayalam script. It also spawned Tamil epics such as Seerah Puranam (versified biography of the holy Prophet in Tamil ) by 16th century poet Umar Pulavar. All South Indian languages have a fair sprinkling of Islamic ideas, symbols and terms and draw heavily upon Arabic words. This enabled closer cultural identification and bonhomie with local non-Muslim masses.

This unfortunately was not the case in North India where Muslims first foisted their own language i.e., Persian and then brought out Urdu in Persian script as the lingua franca. The contribution to native Hindi was made in the initial period and later declined. Now that Urdu is on decline, Muslim culture is facing a threat. They feel swamped by the daily onslaught of Hindi media, cinema, literature and folklore.

Islam neither foists Arab culture or language nor supports elimination of alien cultural influences unless they are in direct conflict with the Islamic credo. But unfortunately a push towards Arabisation of culture is in evidence. So Allah Hafiz (May Allah protect you) is replacing the traditional Khuda Hafiz. Khuda, they allege, is Persian and is not equivalent of Allah. Pakistani newscasters now conclude the programmes with Allah Hafiz. Demands are rising in Pakistan to dislodge word Khuda from the national anthem. Will this be done with Ghalib and Iqbal’s poetry too? Imagine what messy literary fare we are going to hand over to our successors?

To say the least this is undesirable. History and cultural past cannot be disowned. Cultural pluralism broadens the vision, fosters creativity, increases tolerance and builds bridges with others. All those who confined Muslim societies into cultural cocoons have smothered the Muslim genius. Look at the Muslim countries, Arab ones in particular. They are cultural deserts as well. Genius among Muslims springs from societies where Muslims share the civic space with non-Muslims. India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, the United States, the United Kingdom and the South East Asia are bright examples.

Those among Muslims who sell the ‘hate other cultures’ campaign invoke Hadith of Tashabbuh bil Kuffar or the Prophet’s exhortation to avoid likeness to disbelievers. What they forget is, if at all, it means adopting Arab culture why should there be Arabs, Iranians, Afghans, Berbers, Pashtoons, Baluchs, Punjabis and Tamilians and Malayalis among Muslims. Why concept of hijab be seen in forms like burqa, scarf, chador or jalabiya? Why there be so many variations in rites and rituals?

The very many Muslim countries we see in the so called Middle East are in fact recognition of our diverse cultures. The borders that run between them reinforce cultural faultlines within Islam. It is therefore time Muslims learnt to keep away from such narrow interpretations and envision pluralism, something they expect societies like India or the US or the UK to recognise. Cultural fundamentalism will ruin us in modern nation-states and turn us strangers

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