By Aindrila Chakraborty
In the present, neo-liberal world of the (un)right, a commodity which is both in constant demand and supply is Islamophobia. Islam and its practices have been reduced to a matter of controversy and contempt. Certain aspects of Islamic thought and traditions are not only strategically appropriated and commodified by the media but also enthusiastically sold in the market for global consumption. Some Islamic traditions are ahistorically contemporized and presented out of context to identify and categorize a religious community in its entirety. One can observe such misappropriation of the Islamic traditions of Sufism and Jihad and its distinct treatments by the media. Both of these are Islamic traditions, with different purposes and articulations. It is germane to observe how these are situated and interpreted in the contemporary contexts, oftentimes ahistorically, to portray Muslims and Islamic traditions in a certain light. This article attempts to highlight the commoditization and problematic representation of Sufism and Jihad by the Indian (Hindi cinema), globally called Bollywood, where some aspects of Islam are strategically obscured while some are conveniently amplified.
Understanding Sufism and Jihad
According to William Chittick, Sufism is one of the several terms which have been used to denote the focus and emphasis on the inner self which exists in the Islamic thought. Most of the western scholars identify Sufism as a mystic, ascetic practice within the domain of Islam. Sufism has attempted to delve into one’s inner self and the reliance upon it as means to faith. “They claimed that the only way to acquire true understanding of God, the world, and the soul was to adhere assiduously to the outer and inner model of human perfection established by the Prophet.” The distinguishing factor between Sufism and other Islamic practices is the fact that Sufism draws its beliefs from the Quran but its practices are different in comparison to the codified Islamic thought propagated by the various schools under Islam. “What characterizes the specifically Sufi approach is the insistence that true understanding of and conformity to the Divine Reality depends on the soul’s transformation.” The Sufi mysticism, esoteric introspection are articulated through the practices that they employ. Artistic modes of music and dance, prose and poetry distinguishes it from other Islamic practices and finds congruence with movements within other religious domains when it spreads as networks across the globe. In the context of India, Sufism could be found similar to the Bhakti movement (a reform movement under Hinduism, believing in monotheism) in its practices and mannerisms.
If one has to unpack the idea of Jihad in the contemporary present, it will invariably be marred by contestations, given the present, ahistorical portrayal of the idea of Jihad in othering Islam against the rest. So what then is Jihad?
The word ‘Jihad’, which is derived from the Arabic word ‘Jahada’ means to struggle. Jihad can be categorized into two forms: lesser Jihad or inner struggle and greater Jihad or a collective battle against an enemy. Jihad has, nonetheless, been interpreted variously and contextually. Maszka notes the practicality of multiple applications of Jihad in the time of the Prophet. While the rejection of idolatry and polytheism which existed in the pre-Islamic Arab world and the Jihad against it was that of inner spiritual growth which the Muslims had undertaken, as the Islamic empire consolidated, Jihad became a matter of state policy, defining both conquests and defensive wars. If one considers the simple meaning of Jihad, it is as non-problematic as any other religious or political wars of the empires in the historical context (Christian crusades, for example). What does then make Jihad problematic in the present day? Is it the uncritical engagement with the categories of the past, contemporizing it without accounting for the changing contexts from past to present? Is it the singular identification of Islam and Muslims with Jihad by the others to other them? Is it the vehement association of Jihad with extremism and categorizing the rest of the religious affiliations as peaceful? Or is it the contemporary politicization of Jihad to serve geopolitical purposes of major players of the world?
There are arguments which explicate the idea of a united Islamic world being birthed out of change in geopolitical strategies, ardently bred by the imperial, Christianized West and harnessed by the Cold War political arrangements. Aydin explores the realm of the construction of a singular Islamic identity which, according to him, was an invariable consequence of the distinctly constructed racial characterization of Muslims by the imperial West.
Considering this observation, one may argue that categorizing Muslims and reconstructing the Islamic identity as ‘extremist’ and ‘Jihadist’ is a mere geopolitical arrangement for the quest for hegemonic domination of the West (read the US), embedded in economic purposes, to fill in the post-Cold War void, engulfing the social, cultural, religious identities of Muslims. As Maszka underscores, it would be incomprehensive, rather misinformed, to associate and limit Jihad to military war alone. It refers to several other activities in support of Islam which is far from waging wars. However, it is only militancy that Jihad is identified with, reducing it into a singular identity of the Muslim world. The post 9/11 world has strongly and ingeniously embedded Jihad as the identity of the Muslim community at large and the Islamic fundamentalists in particular, who launch an attack on the West in particular and the whole of humanity in general.
Sufism and Jihad in Bollywood: Sensitive Portrayal or Cautious Politicisation?
Arundhati Roy writes, “Here’s the rub: America is at war against people it doesn’t know, because they don’t appear much on TV.” The Western media produces a lopsided narrative of threat without critically engaging with the source of that supposed threat. The superhero culture propagated by the United States’ media and precisely Hollywood has maintained and capitalised the idea that the world is perpetually in a state of tension and threat and that they are the saviours of humanity.
A similar narrative is witnessed in the context of Hindi cinema and Indian media. India, like the US, also believes that she is perpetually in a state of tension and threat, with her enemies being Pakistan and subsequently Islamic militancy. Given the apparent secular nature of India, the history of communal dependence, cohabitation, assimilation and communal tensions among the Muslims and the Hindus in India, a direct othering of the Muslims through popular media or Bollywood is not plausible as observed in the case of Western media and Hollywood’s cinematic content. However, it is not bereft of such constructions of Islamic identity through the Indianiased idea of good Muslim and bad Muslim. Furthermore, the Hindutva regime from past six years has been at its notorious best in erasing the remnants of the secular undertone of Hindi cinema, replacing it with US-like narratives of threat and direct othering of Muslims. While the identification of Indian Muslims with bad Muslims is intensively increasing, the definition of a good Muslim is getting narrower and Hinduised.
The treatment meted out to two Islamic cultures of Sufism and Jihad are distinct in the context of Indian commercial media and Bollywood. While Sufi mysticism is used commercially through its assimilation with other forms of traditional and non-traditional dance and music, the idea of Jihad is mostly commercialized to perpetuate the idea of a bad Muslim. The commercialization of Sufism can be observed through a variety of analytical perspectives, as Manuel observes, “including as a local efflorescence of a global Sufi music fad, a revival of a hoary Indian tradition of pluralism and tolerance, or a bourgeois appropriation of a subaltern idiom.”
Sufism in Bollywood is limited to Sufi music, twirling in a white dress and the Hindi film’s idea of heterosexual love. Sufism has been avidly depicted in Bollywood films, be it in the beautiful song sequence in the historical period drama of Jodha Akbar (2008, dir. Ashutosh Gowarikar) or its commercialized assimilation with the idea of Bollywood romance in a song in The Dirty Picture (2011, dir. Milan Luthria). However, it is important to note that Sufism has remained in the peripheries of the films rather than obtaining a core plot or a noticeable intervention. Be it in films like Rockstar (2011, dir. Imtiaz Ali) or in Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015, dir. Kabir Khan), Sufism has only catered to a short soul-searching sequence of the protagonist or as soulful, romantic musical renditions acting as fillers. The portrayal of Sufism has, in most cases, been detached from its Islamic origins and has not been problematical, giving it a non-religious, secular (with dominant Hindu undertone) turn, disengaging it from Islamic discourses and its Islamic roots.
However, the concept of Jihad has been ‘religiously’ politicized in Bollywood. The plot of a very popular film, Mission Kashmir (2001, dir, Vidhu Vinod Chopra) revolves around the life of Altaaf, a Kashmiri, who was orphaned due to a military encounter and is subsequently fostered by the same police officer who commandeered that encounter, who lost his own son in militancy. It reveals the extent to which Jihad and Islamic militancy are enmeshed and its depictions are politicized.
What Bollywood very tactfully does is that it does not represent the concept of Jihad. It already charges the idea of Jihad guilty and offensive, with the Muslim protagonists devoted to cleaning that guilt. It only subtly inserts and associates it with militancy, terrorism or patriotism, especially in the context of Kashmir, considering, as Kabir notes, its “long history of the articulation of [Indian] desire for the Kashmir Valley through the cinematic apparatus we now call Bollywood” only to construct a confused imagery in the minds of its viewers.
A more recent example would be the late Rishi Kapoor-starrer Mulk (2018, dir. Anubhav Sinha) where the plot revolves around an Indian Muslim family, trying to prove its innocence after a terror attack by an Islamic militant outfit. The film depicts a scene wherein the true meaning of Jihad is reiterated by the protagonist, which according to him, is the inner struggle of self-purification. The film conspicuously reasserts the idea of a good, an acceptable Muslim in the Indian society, one who is only permitted to take as much from his religion as his Mulk allows him to, which is not the case with other religious communities. He is also the epitome of religious assimilation and religious tolerance, even in the face of vehement religious intolerance by his Hindu neighbours. A similar theme can be witnessed in the depiction of the character of Rizwan Khan in My Name is Khan (2010, dir. Karan Johar), an Indian Muslim man in the diaspora in the post 9/11 US who is seen enunciating the true meaning of Jihad (self-purification) who battles to sanitize his religious identity and prove his loyalty to the nation, when othered by the state, its people and members of his own community (his own wife!). Now imagine the plot of a very popular film Bajrangi Bhaijaan wherein the protagonist Bajrangi (played by Salman Khan), a pious Hindu, goes to all lengths, even crosses the India-Pakistan border illegally to find the home of a child who had come to India and got lost being played by a protagonist who is Muslim. Would Bollywood portray his act of humanity in the same heroic way as the Hindu protagonist or will it colorize it in the tones of anti-national or ‘Jihadist’ who would then have to prove his loyalty to the nation?
The very fact that there is a constant need by Bollywood to iterate the ‘true and only’ meaning of Jihad, its incessant need to sanitize the idea of Jihad and thereby of Muslims unravels its negative undertone towards Islam, clearly stating its problematic representation of Jihad.
The global commoditization of Islamic practices and its popular portrayal as malpractices have strongly shaped Islamic identities among the non-Muslim rest. It can be observed that Hollywood’s portrayal of Islam is devoid of any emotion or sensitivity, whereas Bollywood’s portrayal is emotional yet cautious, the emotional aspect being gradually eroded, given the Hindutva regime and the growing security narrative in the country. Yet, in both cases, the portrayals are highly politicized.
In the context of Bollywood, it is worth observing how there are distinct and opposite treatments of the two ideas of Sufism and Jihad, the former, in most cases, situated without considering its theological position or religious roots and the latter, vociferously rooted in its religion. Sufism, which is majorly accepted as a peaceful practice is strategically detached from its origins to categorize Islam as a violent religion. On the other hand, the distorted and asymmetric depiction of Jihad is strongly situated in its religious affiliations in commercial portrayal to serve the purpose of vilification and otherisation. Nonetheless, both concepts are asymmetrically presented, contextually manipulated and historically disengaged to fit certain geopolitical, religious and cultural interests, constructing falsifiable identities about Islam and Muslims among its consumers.
Aydin, C. (2017). The Idea of the Muslim World. A Global Intellectual History. Harvard University Press.
Chittick, W. C. (2007). Sufism. Cambridge University Press.
Kabir, A. (2009). Masks of Desire. In Territory of Desire: Representing the Valley of Kashmir (pp. 31-53). Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press.
Mamdani, M. (2004). Good Muslim, Bad Muslim. Random House Publishing Group.
Manuel, P. (2008). North Indian Sufi Popular Music in the Age of Hindu and Muslim Fundamentalism. Ethnomusicology, 52(3), 378-400.
MASZKA, J. (2018). The Meaning of Jihad. In Washington’s Dark Secret: The Real Truth about Terrorism and Islamic Extremism (pp. 53-68). University of Nebraska Press.
- Bajrangi Bhaijaan (dir. Kabir Khan, 2015)
- Jodha Akbar (dir. Ashutosh Gowarikar, 2008)
- Mission Kashmir (dir. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 2001)
- Mulk (dir. Anubhav Sinha, 2018)
- My Name is Khan (dir. Karan Johar, 2010)
- Rockstar (dir. Imtiaz Ali, 2011)
- Sultan (dir. Ali Abbas Zafar, 2016)
- The Dirty Picture (dir. Milan Luthria, 2011)
Aindrila Chakraborty is currently pursuing her Masters in Global Studies from Ambedkar University, Delhi. She is interested in fiction as well as academic writing, with love for visual content analysis and the impact of commercial content on knowledge production and the masses. Her research interests range from critical engagement with history to global Islam to migration, diaspora and gender negotiations. She is currently researching the plight of South Asian women in diaspora.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Shaheen Bagh and the Anti-CAA Protests: The Struggle to Create New Concepts”, edited by Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi, JNU, New Delhi, India.