You cannot attain spirituality through institutionalisation. You have to look for spirituality somewhere else. Maybe in human connections, or nature.

As children growing up in Delhi, our encounters with religion were very fluid. We went to the Hindu temple if there was prasad [religious food offering], to the Gurudwara when they offered free lunch; we played at the Hindu cremation grounds and the Muslim burial grounds…We didn’t care who was Hindu or Muslim. But after the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, I was still very young, I suddenly became reified as a Muslim, an ‘other’.

My parents tried to educate us about religion but never forced religion on us. My father is a practicing Muslim. We were three sisters and one brother, all three sisters were very rebellious, and from day one we questioned so much, each and every act, that by the time I became young he gave up and said we have to decide our own ways. Now, he’s is 79, he himself realises that there are problems in the idea of institutionalisation of religion and that you cannot find spirituality through these means. But he still sticks to his way of practising.

Since questioning religion has always been a part of my upbringing, so we all three sisters and my brother keep debating whenever we meet. My sister is a documentary filmmaker, so she introduced us to Bunuel, Fellini. I am into fine arts, and learned about Indian and Western avant-garde art traditions. My other sister is a physicist. So we have very different backgrounds, and from there, because of continuous discussions and engagements with religion and identity we realised that religion is nothing more than institutionalisation of spirituality, and you cannot attain spirituality through institutionalisation. You have to look for spirituality somewhere else. Maybe in human connections or moments of self-reflection. Maybe in other ways.

I believe in nature. And we humans are just a miniscule part of it, no different from animals. In the bigger scheme of things we are just nobodies. I do believe in the Buddhist way of understanding karma. Whatever you do will come back to you. I recently studied Indigenous Feminism here, and the indigenous philosophy is also very much about this: how you have to be careful and conscious about what you are doing. Because even if it is a ripple effect, it is going to affect somebody else. So this is what I feel, that climate change, everything that’s happening, is part of our actions. If you read indigenous philosophy you realise that they have been very critical and very conceptual about ecology. Ecology does not exist as a separate entity, outside humans, but is part of indigenous people’s cosmological framework, part of indigenous culture. It is about forming mutually respectful relationships with your natural environment-land. I mean indigenous people from North America, and the same with the case in India also. So that’s an inspiration, I just loved it.

I believe that ultimately life is the biggest teacher, and it’s equal for everybody, in its ways of teaching. Maybe we encounter life in a different manner but ultimately life is asking us to harmonise with nature. So you have to feel one with the universe; the universe is experiencing itself through you. You establish that connection through your everyday actions and experiences. This is what I feel. And this is what also resonates with the non-institutionalised Buddhist philosophy.

Of course I will say that I am a Muslim. I have a Muslim name, Muslim parents. I love celebrating Eid. I fast. Even though I don’t pray. Fasting is about empathising with people who don’t have food, throughout the year. Before you eat, you take care of your neighbours. Just wear simple clothes, eat simple meals, and that’s just how you live your everyday life. If you look at the Prophet Muhammad’s life, it’s all about simplicity. I think if you move beyond the politics of religion and look at the very basic idea of Islam, it is just about empathising with people, living with simplicity, and doing as much as possible for your community and beyond your community. It’s not just about giving money during Ramzan. It’s about giving your time throughout the year. In that way, I am a Muslim. It’s about human values.

Of course I experience Islamophobia. Discrimination happened numerous times because of my Muslim name and identity. Sometimes its on your face and sometimes its subtle. People approach others through stereotypes. Because stereotyping is not doing any hard work at all, it’s like a short-cut in understanding the other person. So in India, the moment people get to know my name, they’re like, ‘oh you don’t look like a Muslim!’ And I’m like, ‘you want two horns on my head?’ I’m somebody who’s doing a PhD, wearing jeans, easy when it comes to smoking, whatever. I’m fine with accepting others the way they are and would never treat other persons with prejudice just because they have a different orientation. They are unable to comprehend that somebody like this can be a Muslim, and say that I am an exception among Muslims. But I’m not an exception, all my friends are like this, my family is like this; maybe you didn’t experience Muslims in a very unjudging manner. Muslim women can have voice and fight their own battles. They are fighting battles everyday within and outside their community. I don’t know why you have to approach somebody with stereotypes. What are the benefits? I’m searching.

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