Are you a Muslim if you eat bacon? What about if you drink alcohol? Do you need to pray five times a day? Can you pick and choose in order to create your own identity as a Muslim? And what does it even mean to be a Muslim (or a Christian, or a Hindu)? How do you define, or even more importantly, who gets to define what makes you, as an individual, a Muslim? Is it your parents? Is it what you do? Or is it what you believe?
These are some of the questions posed by Aziz Ansari in “Religion,” the third episode of the recently released second season of his acclaimed Netflix series Master of None. In the episode, a visit from observant Indian Muslims relatives forces Dev, Aziz Ansari’s character, to confront his own identity as the son of Indian Muslim immigrants growing up in America. He sees himself as not religious and embraces the modern secular American lifestyle, but to his parents he is still a Muslim. The humor in the episode emerges when his parents, in order to keep appearances with their relatives, present him as a devout Muslim who goes to Mosque and prays five times a day. Dev, initially decides to go along as to no offend his parents, but this charade will not last long, revealing different attitudes about being a Muslim in particular, and religious in general.
Eating Pork and Being a Muslim
One of the defining (and funny) moments of the episode happens when during his relatives visit, Dev introduces his younger cousin Navid, who is a more observant Muslim, but has started to drink alcohol without his parent’s knowledge, to pork. They even go together to a barbecue festival where they eat all sorts of pork.
Navid: It's Hog Wild Weekend at Smorgasburg tomorrow. Dev: What's Hog Wild Weekend? Navid: It's this big food festival that has some of the best barbecue from all over the country. My friend Curtis went last year, and he said it's amazing. Let's skip prayer and go tomorrow. Dev: You want to skip Eid prayer and go to a barbecue festival? That's bad, even for me. Navid: Come on. I got a lot of catching up to do. Dev: Let me see this. Oh, shit, Tickler's is in the mix. I went once in Nashville. It was ridic. All right, how do we skip the prayer?Navid: Um Let's say we got food poisoning and that we'll do prayer from home. Dev: How do we both get food poisoning? - Navid: We're hanging out tonight. We can say we got halal cart, and then we both got sick. Dev: Ooh, that's good. Navid: Come on. You in? Dev: [softly] Yeah. Read more: http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=master-of-none-2015&episode=s02e03
Here we have two first generation Indian Americans, who grew up in Muslim households, drinking alcohol and eating pork, both things explicitly forbidden in the Quran:
“You are forbidden to eat carrion, blood, and the flesh of swine, as well as whatever is slaughtered in the name of any one other than God.” Quran 5:3
“O you who believe! Intoxicants and gambling, dedication of stones, and divination by arrows are an abomination, among the works of Satan. Abstain from such work so that you may prosper. Satan’s plan is to stir up enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of God, and from prayer. Will you not then abstain?” Quran 5:90-91
The issue here is quite obvious: what makes a person a Muslim? Is it not eating pork or drinking alcohol? Is it going to Mosque for Friday prayer? Is it following the Five Pillars of Islam? (Shahada or declaration of faith, Salat or prayer, Zakat or pray charity, Sawn of fasting during Ramadan, and Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca once during a lifetime), or can you use the term Muslim as a sign of cultural identity, as an identifier of someone who is born in a Muslim family, but may drink alcohol and eat pork, while only going to Mosque for the important holidays (or not going to Mosque at all!). The episode complicates issues of religious identity as a Muslim, by adding the layer of complexity of being a Muslim in America, with the embrace of American and Western values: Dev’s mother doesn’t wear the hijab, his father smoked for a while, and both of his parents are for gender equality.
The issue of definition: who is a Muslim?
In the episode, Dev is faced with an issue of identity and definition: Is he a Muslim? If so what makes him so? And, even more, what kind of Muslim is he, a religious one (the episode makes clear that he is not!)? A cultural Muslim? The issue of defintion about what makes a person a Muslim is not as clear as it seems. The term “Muslim” etymologically refers to someone who “submits” to God, but it also refers to someone who follows Islam, the religion that emerged from the revelation that the Prophet Muhammad received and was transcribed in the Quran. On top of that, there are historical and cultural aspects to being a Muslim such as upholding the Five Pillars (described above). The reality is, that the definition of what makes a person a Muslim is not as simple, since, as Aziz Ansari’s character makes clear in the episode, even when his parents consider themselves Muslims, they do not observe all of the prescribed customs followed in many Islamic countries. In fact, a study by the PEW research center, shows that, while most Muslims agree that following the Five Pillars, and adhere to the prohibition of eating pork and drinking alcohol is important in the life of a Muslim, the reality is that in many Muslim countries, a sizable part of the population do not adhere closely to those ideals. For example, as seen in the statistic below, while most Muslims believe in God (97%), and practice fast during Ramadan (93%), only 63% practice pray five times a day.
Even the consumption of alcohol, something that is also addressed in the episode is not as clear as it seems. Although, as we have seen above, the Quran forbids the consumption of alcohol, the reality is much more complex. PEW research polls show that Muslims consider drinking alcohol morally wrong by wide margins in most Muslim countries, but there are other metrics that show a very different story. A study from 2011 discovered an increase of 25% of alcohol consumption in predominantly Muslim regions between 2005 and 2010, which may reveal that while people say one thing to pollsters, they do another.
Alcohol use in predominantly Muslim regions of the world increased by 25 percent between 2005 and 2010. Statistics provided by research group Euromonitor International reported a constant increase in the use of alcohol in several countries where the Muslim religion, which prohibits the use of any product capable of affecting behaviour (drugs included), is dominant. Quoting the survey, Le Monde reported that between 2005 and 2010 the average consumption by the French dropped from 104.2 litres of alcohol per year to 96.7, while in the same period in the Middle East and Africa area it increased by 25%, from 11.7 billion litres to 15.2 billion.
While this could be seen as a contradiction if not pure hypocrisy, the reality is much more complex, and the problem may not be in the behavior of certain muslims, but in the narrow definition of “Muslim” applied onto them. This contradiction is beautifully expressed in the funny anecdote that opens Shahab Ahmed’s book What is Islam:
Some years ago, I attended a dinner at Princeton University where I witnessed a revealing exchange between an eminent European philosopher who was visiting from Cambridge, and a Muslim scholar who was seated next to him. The Muslim colleague was indulging in a glass of wine. Evidently troubled by this, the distinguished don eventually asked his dining companion if he might be so bold as to venture a personal question. “Do you consider yourself a Muslim?” “Yes,” came the reply. “How come, then, you are drinking wine?” The Muslim colleague smiled gently. “My family have been Muslims for a thousand years,” he said, “during which time we have always been drinking wine.” An expression of distress appeared on the learned logician’s pale countenance, prompting the further clari cation: “You see, we are Muslim wine-drinkers.” The questioner looked bewildered. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Yes, I know,” replied his native informant, “but I do.”
Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam, p. 6
The anecdote helps Ahmed set up the main premise of his book, which is that Islam has been narrowly defined in terms of doctrine and ideology (orthodoxy), leaving little space for the great diversity of practices (orthopraxy), historically and geographically, across the Islamic world. Ahmed also tries to articulate a vision of Islam that includes one of the most important and universal human qualities, that of contradiction, which is not unique to Muslims, but can be found among the practitioner of all religious traditions. As Ahmed himself puts it, he tries in his book “to conceptualize Islam, not by elimination of difference but by inclusion of difference,” while “seeking to locate the logic of difference and contradiction as coherent with and internal to Islam—that is, to provide a coherent account of contradiction in and as Islam” (p. 6) As Ahmed anecdote and the episode of Master of None point out, the reality of Muslims throughout history is diverse, and it cannot be reduced to a simple checklist of do’s and don’ts.
Expanding the Definition of Muslim
At the end of the episode, Dev has a conversation with his father in which they sort of reach a compromise. It is not really about Dev eating pork or drinking alcohol, but about doing it in front of her mom.
Dev: What's going on? I tried to call Ma today. She's still not answering. Ramesh (Dev's dad): She's really mad at you. She's so mad at you, she even got mad at me. I asked her to heat up a pizza. She said, "Go and do it yourself!" I got scared. Dev:[sighs] It's been two weeks.Isn't this a bit much for just eating pork? It's not about eating pork. Ramesh (Dev's dad): It's not about the religion. It's about you ignoring us, not realizing who you are. Dev:[sighs] What do you mean? Ramesh (Dev's dad):You see, our parents raised us to be a good Muslim. When you went out to school, we gave you a Qur'an. I don't think you ever read it. When you act like this, we feel like we failed you. Dev: You know that's not true. Ramesh (Dev's dad): Look, man, you can drink. You can eat pork. You can smoke Mary Jane. That's your business. But when you do it in front of Mom, it hurts her feelings. Dev: [exhales deeply] I get it. Read more: http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=master-of-none-2015&episode=s02e03
It’s not really about what Dev believes, or about what he does, but about how he does it. As long as he does not do things that may offend his mother’s idea of what a Muslim is, and as long as he performs socially as a Muslim, she is ok, she is happy. This may not be a very elegant solution but, to be fair, as someone who was raised by a very catholic mother, is one that I understand. Sometimes it is not about what we believe as individuals, but about how we can navigate and negotiate our beliefs in a social context. It is in that space where Dev’s own belief system and that of her mother’s can coexist. And that’s not small thing…