Some months ago, I was chastised by a woman for saying “adaab”, instead of “assalam wa leikum”, the latter being the “the proper Islamic greeting” in her opinion, to be exchanged between Muslims. I grew up as a Muslim and learnt to say “adaab” when I met someone and “khuda hafiz” when we parted ways. Originating from a North Indian Islamicate high culture, “adaab” as a form of greeting was imbued with a certain class hierarchy. It was a familiar greeting even in many elite non-Muslim households in North India, households that were closely associated with that cultural space. Among many other Muslim populations, the Arabic greeting “assalam wa leikum”, meaning “may peace be upon you” was also used. But, there was no formal dictum about the usage while I was growing up and there could be overlaps. So, as a child I often replied with an “adaab” to someone who came in saying “assalam wa leikum” and it was not considered inappropriate. As for “Allah hafiz” (may god keep you safe), I did not hear the term until about a decade ago. The word “khuda” originates from Persian but because it is used in other languages too, it can be seen as a more embracing word for God than Allah. The latter is a more specific reference to god in Islam and is confined to its Arabic origins, at least so far. Thus, although they emerge from a specific North Indian Muslim culture, “adaab” and “khuda hafiz” have had a more inclusive history.
Today, these terms are being given up by many Muslims in India, from different class backgrounds, in favour of the more unambiguously Islamic “assalam waleikum” and “Allah hafiz”. For those of us who seek to draw attention to the complicated greys that lie between the uncompromising blacks and whites, this notion of unambiguity is naturally problematic. But, in this trajectory of change from “adaab” to “asalam waleikum”, from “khuda hafiz” to “Allah hafiz”, there are other stories too, stories about why people group around markers of identities, about what gives people a sense of security and comfort, about what creates new groupings. So, even as I feel uncomfortable about puritanical Islamic practices creeping in around me, I recognise that our lives are composed of many overlapping stories, as the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche has so eloquently spoken about, stories that need to be told to avoid what she calls “the danger of the single story”.
So, in the context of adaab and khuda hafiz, what are these other stories?
Consider some of these:
In the late 1960s, a young girl joins a college hostel and as the lone Muslim girl, she is made to eat separately in the dining hall and put her used dishes apart from the rest.
In the 1980s, one Muslim family loses 56 members to communal rioting, including the murder of an uncle at the hands of his best friend.
In the 1990s, a woman from a small town in UP with a BA, MA and BEd moves to Delhi to teach in a school. She moves back within a month – “I wear a burkha and the whole environment there was not suited for me…”
In the years since 2002, a dynamic young woman, founder of an NGO to help poor and dalit Muslims, stops telling people her real name while travelling on trains because of being looked at with suspicion.
In the mid-2000s, a teacher attends a workshop in which participants are asked to introduce themselves by talking about their biggest fears. One participant shares that hers is that her son will marry a Muslim - because they are dirty.
In 2008, a young girl, who likes going to school and does well at studies, wonders why the school celebrates Holi and Christmas but not Eid.
In 2009, a media person who offers her neighbour the use of her flat during wedding festivities is told by colleagues that she should not have done so since the groom was a Muslim man from Azamgarh. The same woman remembers a Muslim boy who worked for a while in her office – “He was referred to as jihadi!”
This is a sample of stories that I have encountered in the course of a two-year research project on Muslim women and their experiences of education in parts of western UP. It is only a sample and it is only one person’s encounter. What, I wonder, would a more comprehensive collection reveal? But, even in this sprinkling of voices, there is a larger narrative of exclusion. A story of people being grouped together, in both subtle and direct ways. People are identified by the religion they practise or are born into. Not in itself a bad thing since human beings choose a variety of groupings - around class/caste/religion, schools, football teams, movie stars, work ethics, fashion statements, job aspirations. The list is endless. But when that identification becomes the sole defining identity, it presents itself as the natural order of things instead of the construction that it is. It becomes a wall that seeks to make itself invisible.
And when the cloak of invisibility falls off and the wall shows up – in the form of a veil, a riot or a separate greeting code – who is the one who built it? The ones who sought to keep out? Or the ones who chose to stay in? And what of those who wanted windows instead of walls? Continuing to say “adaab” and “khuda hafiz” is my way of acknowledging that while there is a wall, it can have an open window.
--Samina Mishra is a documentary filmmaker and media practitioner based in New Delhi.