The Problem with Some "Born Again" Muslims

One of my close friends has recently rediscovered Islam. Before his transformation, he used to be fairly secular in his general way of living. Nothing wrong with becoming religious as it is one's connection to God and religion does aid many people in finding peace and inner tranquility. Many people become better humans when they find that connection to God.

However, his transformation was quite radical. He started supporting a beard and made his wife (who till then had been a fairly moderate and outgoing person) wear the hijab. Since she has practically disappeared from sight there is no way for me to know whether she was forced to take it or she also shares his new found conviction.

But supporting a beard and donning a hijab are still personal choice (though the latter can be forced), the real and worrisome change has started to come into his general outlook. He is increasingly voicing misogynist views and now firmly believes that women's place is in the home and they are subservient to men. He has started to vehemently criticize the entertainment industry and thinks that music is forbidden in Islam. He often gets into violent arguments whenever the topic of Islamic fundamentalism comes up and thinks that most of it has either been orchestrated by foreign powers to "malign" Islam or is the reaction to their "atrocities". Naturally he has become virulently anti-USA, Israel and India.

Moreover, he has become extremely critical of the way Muslims generally practice Islam. Whereas previously he was largely indifferent with respect to the way Muslims practiced their faith, now he is extremely observant and always judging various sects and their practices negatively. He thinks that Ahmedis (a sect within Islam) are heretics and Shiites are not "true" Muslims.

My friend is a "born again" Muslim. Personally I am often perplexed by this type. This is an interesting category which before "rediscovering" Islam has often lived a very "secularized" life. People belonging to this category have often indulged in extravagances and different kind of "vices." But at a certain age, generally in late thirties or early forties, they rediscover Islam.

This "rediscovery" often comes when they are past their prime and old age is just about to dawn. At this juncture, due to some "life changing" incident or meeting some "enlightened" person, the Islamic spirit in them is activated and these people then go through an apparently startling transformation.

It is said that once you were born as a Muslim, you will always remain a Muslim. The way religion is instilled from childhood, it introduces a strain in every individual which remains there though can sometimes become dormant. It always has the potential to become activated again.

It is not the fact that it is reactivated (I have already mentioned that religiosity can become a source of tranquility and inner peace) but the way "rebirth" takes place can sometimes be worrisome. Often these "born again" Muslims become extremely orthodox in the same way my friend has become.

I have seen several such transformations in my extended family also. But the most interesting transformations are those of celebrities. In Pakistan the two leading examples include the cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, and the Ex-vocalist of the famous Vital Signs Music group, Junaid Jamshed, These individuals, before the transformation, had lived very glamorous lives and that too under media spotlight.

One of the most famous Pakistanis, Imran Khan was a dashing cricketer. Oxford educated, he was the darling of the media, both Western and local, and his every move was followed. Imran Khan was a desi who transcended the cultural boundaries and in fact was accepted in the royal circles with open arms. This is no ordinary "feat" as it is said that while the UK's society has progressed but royal aristocracy is still somewhat frozen in time. Despite all that Imran Khan penetrated the highest social circles and even had affairs with the elites.

Today Imran Khan espouses a very religious outlook and constantly voices anti-West sentiments. He has constantly given an apologetic defense for religious extremists like TTP and in fact has earned the title of "Taliban Khan." His constant religious rhetoric is a far cry from his playboy days and in fact it is difficult to reconcile the two Imran Khans.

Junaid Jamshed (JJ) is another prominent "born again Muslim." He was once the lead vocalist of Pakistan's greatest ever pop band, The Vital Signs, and used to be a big heart throb of his time. Now he supports a heavy beard and has become an evangelist. Junaid has become so orthodox that once he refused to appear in a talk show unless the female anchor and all the women in the audience wore Hijab. Just to make him appear in the show, the anchor and all the females sitting in the audience had to wear hijab! Mr. Junaid gave a very detailed interview about his transformation and also stressed on all who were present to follow the "right" path. He commended the female anchor for wearing a hijab and remarked that she must have been feeling "great" and more respectable.

Subsequently Mr. Junaid Jamshed was once again in the news for stating that women should not drive. Recently once again he has caused an uproar by saying that God did not like women's name to be mentioned in the Holy Quran and therefore they are not mentioned in it. In fact, several women are mentioned in the Quran, both in general and by name.

Of course, personal differences exist between Imran and Junaid and for that matter others who have gone through the same transformation. Imran does not support a beard, and compared to Junaid is more nationalist than Islamist. The degree of religiosity also differs. No two transformed individuals are identical. But nevertheless some sort of commonality can be witnessed.

One big common factor is that since this "rebirth" often comes out of personal conviction, the level of commitment to religion and nationalism is quite strong.

Another is that these transformed Muslims often develop a very reactionary and orthodox mindset. There is often an impulse in them to actually prove HOW MUCH they have changed. This often results in overcompensation for their earlier "misdeeds."

Moreover, they become extremely expressive to make sure that others find out the extent of their transformation. They develop the tendency to wear religion on their sleeves and conduct efforts to convince others of their beliefs.

They often become too vocal and at times turn into preachers. In the case of famous individuals, the desire to spread this newfound conviction is augmented by their fame which ensures a considerable media coverage and sizable captive audience. Their impact is often considerable and some impressionable youngsters get really fascinated by their "amazing" transformations. Some even end up emulating their examples.

Rather than making their new found discovery of faith a personal matter centered on their relationship with God, they have a tendency to start preaching about virtues of imposition of strict version of Sharia based system in legal, political as well as cultural spheres.

These individuals are exerting a substantial impact on the discourse and consequently at a time when religion needs to be relegated into private sphere, the emphasis starts falling more on how to model entire state on religious template.

In my opinion this is a serious matter. The fact that these individuals after their transformation start espousing an extremely orthodox version of religion shows that the concept of true Islam is becoming intrinsically intertwined with such versions. If liberal strains of Islam are not being espoused and are being looked over then these are dangerous signs. If becoming religious is becoming so reactionary, then promotion of liberal versions of religion becomes extremely vital.