I grew up in a typical middle class South Asian household. All our family friends spoke Hindi and Urdu, the twin dialects spoken in most Bollywood movies. My parents’ friends were from all different religions – Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Goan Catholics and even a Pakistani Anglican priest.
Religion figured only in a ceremonial sense. Yes, I had to learn how to read the Koran in Arabic. That meant learning how to make the sounds out of the Arabic letters. Understanding the words themselves wasn’t a huge priority. Nor was learning much about Islamic history. In fact, my mother (my primary religious instructor) rarely spoke about Muhammad. The most I learned about this person was that he was sent by God to this earth to teach people how to live.
When I reached my teens, my mother used to read stories from an Urdu book which told stories of the Prophet Muhammad, his family and friends. The common theme in all these stories was that Muhammad taught those around him of the importance of sabr, an Arabic word which has entered the vocabulary of just about every language commonly spoken by Muslims. The word literally means patience and has a number of connotations. One is that you repel evil with good. If someone wrongs you, it is far better if you don’t take any revenge. It also means you control your anger.
The common theme in all the various connotations of sabr is that of controlling one’s ego. When you have your ego under control, you won’t act out of proportion with the alleged wrong someone has done to you. No doubt this kind of teaching would be familiar to readers of all denominations. It appears in the sacred literature of all faiths. Even a modern secular saint like Gandhi reminds us that if we all followed the principle of an eye for an eye, we’d all go blind.
So then how does one explain the events of the past fortnight in Sudan? What kind of Islam leads a teacher to be arrested for suggesting her student name his teddy bear Muhammad? And is this really another case of Muslims ignoring their Prophet’s teaching of sabr, instead going wacko to preserve the honour of their religious symbols and personalities?
Ironically, the school where Gillian Gibbons taught is an exclusive school attended by the children of expatriates, diplomats and Sudanese government officials. One Sudanese blogger, Meph, who claims to have attended the same school, writes on the Aqoul blog of:
“several instances where expat teachers were to be vaporised due to public displays of drunkenness. Parents who lapsed in their fee payments sometimes resorted to the local authorities to plead their case against the exorbitant unregulated fee structure and sometimes managed to keep their children at the school by bullying the school administration which comprised mainly British expats eager not to incur the wrath of the temperamental government.”
“The existing government in Sudan has always been prickly, obstreperous and wont to childish displays of inferiority complexes. This is partly rooted in deep insecurity and partly a hangover of the cynical anti-Western propaganda campaign the National Liberation Front employed for years in order to divert attention from its own lack of a political agenda and rally support for the war in the South. They need to be seen to be doing something as opposed to actually feeling strongly about the case.”
How very typical. Once again, the undemocratic, corrupt and incompetent government of a Muslim- majority state is using a pseudo-religious cause to manufacture hysteria and divert people’s attention away from the government’s failures.
It is exactly what many governments were doing at the height of the Danish cartoons controversy. The generals, emirs, kings and presidents-for-life that rule most Muslim-majority states (usually with the help of their Western patrons) had failed to effectively deal with the poverty, illiteracy and other economic and social ills too numerous to list here. These rulers were also seeking a diversion. One obscure neo-conservative Danish newspaper provided it.
What they had also proven is that perhaps many Muslims are in the midst of their own Dark Age. They repeated the same nonsense after the Pope made that speech about reason and faith. Yet it seems that the teddy bear incident has proven so ridiculous that even dictatorial, nominally Muslim governments outside Sudan have realised using this incident as a religious wedge won’t work. You can’t fool all the people all the time.
When someone told me this, I still wasn’t convinced. I went to the websites of newspapers widely read in the Muslim world. I found Abdallah Iskandar, of the pan-Arabian al-Hayat, making excuses for Gibbons and blaming the Sudanese government for seeking to divert the attention of Sudanese from domestic problems. Sumayyah Meehan, of Dubai’s Khaleej Times, wrote under the headline “Making a mountain out of a molehill”.
After two decades of civil war, and having the largest population of internal refugees of any country on earth, you’d think Sudanese Muslims have far more pressing issues to worry about than the name of a teddy bear.
Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim and a Sydney-based lawyer whose work has appeared in some 15 mainstream newspapers in Australia, New Zealand and South-East Asia. A version of this article previously appeared on The Press