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Diwali Reflections

As a Muslim, Deepavali was a special day when I was growing up. My family had a Tamil-Hindu helper and my siblings and I were especially close to her. Akka (“big sister” in Tamil) introduced us to Boney M, the Carpenters and Abba, took care of us when we were ill, and cooked the most mouth-watering feasts.

During Raya (Malay for “Eid”), Akka and her sisters would make batches of thosai, idli, dal and murukku to be served alongside our chicken curry, rendang, ketupat and cookies. During Deepavali it was our turn to visit Akka’s family and feast until we popped.

My childhood best friend was a Chindian (an affectionate Malaysian term for someone of dual Chinese-Indian heritage) with a Hindu father and Christian mother. When I attended university in Australia, another adoptive Akka – a Singaporean student – came into my life.

This is not an ode to all the Hindus I’ve ever loved. Rather, I was privileged to grow up in a version of Malaysia where the people I was closest to were also ethnically and religiously different. Yes, my inner circle had wonderful Malay-Muslims but also included Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs and agnostics.

Of course I also internalised many racial and religious stereotypes – I am still a product of the political conditions that shaped my upbringing. But I don’t buy the Bigot’s Defence, “Some of my best friends are X people…” – which is meant to excuse ensuing nasty comments about people from group X. In Malaysia, many horrid attitudes about Indians prevail, but I quickly learnt that these were wrong precisely because some of my best friends are Indian.

I used to get especially vexed by fatwas forbidding Muslims from participating in other religious celebrations. These sentiments were particularly heightened when Aidilfitri (Eid al-Fitr) coincided with Deepavali, Christmas or Chinese New Year, and took on ethnic colouring. Malay-Muslims would look down upon Deepavali not only because it was not a Muslim celebration, but because it was Indian.

I don’t have robust Islamic arguments to justify why I enjoy Deepavali (and Christmas, Chinese New Year, Wesak and, now that I live in Britain, Hanukkah). I do know that I cannot possibly see it as shirk (polytheistic) to rejoice in something that so many people who are close to me hold dear. My Hindu friends love Deepavali as much as I love Eid, and when you love something that much you just want to share it – it’s that simple.

This is particularly poignant amid the Islamophobia I feel around me now that I am a Muslim living in the “West”. But would people be so Islamophobic if they only had more Muslim friends? And would some Muslims be so rabidly anti-Western, anti-gay or anti-Semitic if they simply had more friends who were non-Muslim, gay or Jewish?

Deepavali is the Festival of Lights, and this makes me think of Verse 35, Sura An-Nur (“Light”) in the Qur’an:

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp – the lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star – lit from a blessed olive tree, neither eastern nor western, whose oil almost lights up, though fire should not touch it. Light upon light! Allah guides to His Light whomever He wishes. Allah draws parables for mankind, and Allah has knowledge of all things.”

Let us shine a light to extinguish the darkness of bigotry and prejudice. Happy Deepavali.

Shanon Shah is a writer and researcher on religion, gender and sexuality and has a doctorate in the sociology of religion