“Will you Teach me Islam?”
An Interfaith Guru Purnima
Today, on the eve of Guru Purnima, I want to give a special dedication to Basit Jamal Bhai (brother) my Guru, my spiritual teacher.
I met Basit bhai in 2019 for the very first time, at the URI North India regional conference at Paonta Sahib, Himachal Pradesh. His organisation ‘Brotherhood of Humanity’ is one of URI’s Cooperation Circles that focuses on preventing violent extremism in Muslim youth. We clicked instantly because he was surprised that despite being a Hindu born atheist, I had been observing Ramzan for the past 2 years and understood Islam considerably better than most non-muslims.
I, in turn, was surprised to see him eat the Kada prasad and langar at a Gurudwara and attend the Ardas ceremony humbly. I remember my first religious question to him: “Are you, as a Muslim allowed to eat prasad from a Gurudwara?” To which he explained that the God that is mentioned in Sikhs “Ek Onkar Satnam Karta Purkh, Nirbhau, Nirvair…” is the same as the description of Allah in the Qur’an. Besides, God IS undoubtedly ONE, we may call him by different names.”
During the rest of the 2 days, he and I were inseparable. I asked him a range of questions on Islam, some that may even be construed as offensive to a more sensitive believer. But he answered them all patiently, warmly. He informed me that God sent holy books and Prophets to all ‘quams’ (communities) in their languages across centuries, and a lot of respected Muslim scholars believe that the Vedas were one of the first of such books. This was something I had never heard before from any Muslim. I was truly amazed at his interfaith sensibilities!
As part of the interfaith conference, he was entrusted with teaching a chapter of the Holy Qur’an and he chose Surah Fatiha, the first chapter that forms the core prayer for Muslims and is an encapsulated summary of everything the Qur’an stands for. I was completely enamoured by how wonderfully he taught that chapter and how passionately connected he was with the divine. And it was not just me, there was pin-drop silence in the hall, no one snoozed off, the lecture moved everyone present there. The energy of the presentation hall along with that of each of us was vibrating at a much higher frequency.
That is when I decided to latch on to him. He used to have lessons at his institute and I requested him that I would like to join those classes and learn more chapters of the Qur’an because whatever he taught had left me hungry for more. However, since his students were mostly male and from slightly conservative backgrounds, it wasn’t such a good idea to throw me, a modern, outspoken, Hindu-atheist girl into the mix. So I kept requesting and he kept wondering how to fit me in with no solutions in sight.
However, in November 2019 when I requested him yet again, he said something beautiful that I have heard before in Hinduism: “A teacher should never turn down a student who is enthusiastic to learn”. He decided to teach me separately, sometimes on phone, and sometimes we would meet for coffee or burger at McDonald’s and have 2 hour-long lessons mostly consisting of stories. He would share stories of Habil Kabil, Prophet Ibrahim and his wife, Zamzam, Prophet Noah, Prophet Solomon, Prophet Moses, and of course of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his Sahabas. Every story ended with a very basic moral science lesson – on the importance of forgiveness, of being generous to the less fortunate, being principled even in adversity, reducing anger, etc. In many Islamic stories, I found a striking similarity with lessons from Hindu stories of the Mahabharata and the Puranas. The Islam he taught was welcoming, inclusive, and aimed at reviving the humane part in people.
Since 2019, he has been relentlessly teaching me through stories and lessons from the Qur’an which in turn has helped me find meaning & purpose in my life as well as personal peace. He has patiently answered all my questions at any time of the day, satiated all my curiosity through logic, references, and even referred me to more sources, articles, and videos. Many times he has happily respected my opinions even though his opinions were in disagreement with mine. Although I remain an atheist, nowhere close to believing in any God or creation, through him, I have found beauty in the Qur’an and have been able to correlate it with the beauty in Hinduism. He’s fine-tuned my interfaith understanding to such an extent, and I have grown so much under his guidance that I can no longer recognise the person I was prior to being his student. I’m much more forgiving, much less judgmental, and a lot more empathetic. Since I don’t believe in Karma or hell and heaven or reincarnation or judgment day, I cannot claim that he’s ensured me a better place in my afterlife, but his lessons have surely transformed my current lifetime by improving my mental health and broadening my thinking.
I usually message him personally on this day but since I met him through the URI family, I thought I should use this platform to also thank URI for the wonderful gift of a Guru. Kabir Ji has a very famous doha that is repeated as a cliché on this holy day, that I would like to plug in as a mark of respect for Basit bhai:
“Guru Gobind done khare kako lagun paye…
Balihari Guru aap ne Gobind dio bataye..”
Meaning, “The teacher and God both stand in front of me, whose feet do I touch first out of respect?
I choose the teacher, my heart overwhelming with gratitude because without him I would have never known God.”
Guru Purnima Mubarak, Basit Bhai! I can never thank you enough for all the priceless spiritual knowledge!
By Pragya Narang, URI Cooperation Circle Member
Also read Observing Ramzan for Four Years: Reflections of a Hindu-born Atheist Girl by Pragya Narang.