Why change your religion?

It is generally true that in most societies the acts of religious conversion do ruffle the feathers of those who take the task of policing group boundaries zealously. In India too the issue of proselytization has been a matter of immense anxiety for the majoritarian groups belonging to the Hindu religion, especially due to the critique forwarded by anti-caste radicals like Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. In a nutshell, the critique amounts to this: Hinduism as a religion is deeply hierarchical and inegalitarian, especially since it legitimizes caste-based stratification in its sacred texts, and the only way to liberation is through conversion to other normatively egalitarian faiths like Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and so on. Ambedkar himself exemplified this when he converted to Buddhism, along with about 365,000 of his followers, just two months before his death in 1956. Ambedkar’s act has since then inspired mass-conversions of subordinated caste ‘dalits’ (formerly untouchables) to other faiths and the question of proselytization has figured as one of the key issues in instances of violence against minority religious groups, especially Muslims and Christians.

It is in this backdrop that my curiosity was triggered when in a research field-trip to Eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh I learnt that Bechu, a dalit belonging to the chamar (tanners) caste, had recently converted to Islam and renamed himself Abdur Rehman. ‘He dresses like an Arab and now poses like a Baba who provides succor to the ill and those possessed by the shaitan (devil)’, my respondent told me. That remark further aroused my interest and I immediately asked one of my friends to take me to this neo-Muslim who resided in the Dhaurahara village bordering Azamgarh district.

Bechu S/O Mahadev - Village ID Card
Bechu S/O Mahadev – Village ID Card

A dalit converting to Islam, in my limited modern-rational world, meant either an act of emancipation from caste on Ambedkarite lines or an object of soul harvesting by Muslim preachers. It took us about half-an-hour to reach the village on a motorbike. The village was strikingly clean as most dalit tolas (hamlets) usually are. I could see a number of Ambedkar’s photographs in the verandahs of a few pucca houses that we crossed while approaching our destination. When we reached Rehman’s house his mother informed us that he had gone to the local market and would be back soon. We were offered water and asked to wait on the charpoy spread out in the open courtyard. [pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]‘Why did you feel the need to convert to Islam?’ Rehman replied with an unusual contentment in his voice: ‘I don’t need anything. I just fell in love with Allah and his Prophet. I wanted to know about the Prophet.’[/pullquote]

‘So the moment I met Rehman, whose lips were deep red with pan (betel) juice, I popped this question straight at him: ‘Why did you feel the need to convert to Islam?’ Rehman replied with an unusual contentment in his voice: ‘I don’t need anything. I just fell in love with Allah and his Prophet. I wanted to know about the Prophet. Kaun rasool hain jinke sadaqe mein poori duniya qayam hui hai? (After all, who is this Prophet for whom the entire world has been created?) I wanted to have a glimpse of him. So I meditated for years towards this end. Then when I finally saw him I thought what could be better than this!’

But behind this calm exterior lies a much more painful story. Bechu was eight years old when his father Mahadev, a landless laborer, passed away abruptly. The family believed that it was the wrath of the local saint Shaheed Baba which eventually led to his untimely demise. While working on the farm, Mahadev had accidentally hit the face of the Baba with his shovel, who was buried there. Mahadev’s widow Basmati tried to pacify the Baba by even offering her son Bechu to the mazaar (shrine) but the Baba would not listen. Their troubles knew no bounds. Due to the influence of aaseb (evil spirits) many other members of the family, including children, subsequently passed away. The family went from one shrine to another for comfort but to no avail. These traumatic events in the space of a few years transformed Bechu’s life significantly and informed his uneasy relationship with the Sufi saints of the area.

Abdur Rehman
Abdur Rehman

After his father’s death Bechu was compelled by circumstances to work in the power-loom sector in the neighboring Khairabad town for a monthly wage of fifty rupees in order to make ends meet. One day Bechu, while coming back from work, stayed back for a while to listen to the taqreer (public sermon) of one Muslim preacher in Khairabad. The Maulana was saying that if one has iman (faith) in Allah then all black magic vanishes. These words felt like raindrops on his scorched soul. He immediately approached the local Mufti sahib to know more about this. It was then that he decided to test whatever Mufti sahib had taught him, ‘Aseb jab zyada tang kiye to ilm seekhe’ (When the evil spirits made our lives miserable I decided to learn esoteric knowledge to ward them away). At the age of ten he learned the kalima (formula of faith) and recited it daily for about five thousand times. Then for six months he completely gave up food grains and survived only on fruits and water. After all, it was through gandum (grain) that Satan had misguided Adam. All this was part of his amal (esoteric practice) and tapasya (spiritual struggle). And then at the age of twelve, the Prophet Muhammad eventually appeared in his dreams. He was dressed in flowing dark robes and apparently looked like a normal human being. He said to Bechu: ‘I am the Prophet. I will forgive you’. Moreover, the Prophet also said: ‘I am found among the Hindus as well. Among the Hindus, I am called Ganesh. Among the Hindus, Ganesh is worshipped first. In Islam I am invoked first. I am the same everywhere, only my names differ. I am everything!’ It was then, at the age of twelve, that Bechu became a Muslim having recited the shahadah (statement of faith) in the presence of none other than the beloved Prophet himself. [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Bechu’s formal declaration to Islam had to wait till he was forty eight years of age. Only about three years ago, he recited the shahadah in front of the Mufti of Khairabad. This was not received favorably by his community.[/pullquote]

However, Bechu resisted the urge to declare his conversion to the wider world at that point. He continued to meditate clandestinely inside his house. He was a young boy possessed with divine love. However, he could never forget the Shaheed Baba’s wrath which had consumed his father’s life. So one day, through his esoteric knowledge, he managed to converse with Shaheed Baba directly.

He asked the Baba: ‘Can you grant heaven or hell to my father?’

Baba replied: ‘No’

He then asked further: ‘Then who gave you the right to take away someone’s life? It is Allah alone who has the right to take away or grant life’

Baba replied: ‘I have erred, my son’

Then Bechu retorted: ‘In the same manner as you erred, my father also made a mistake. He was tilling the land and accidentally his shovel hit your head. So why don’t you forgive him?’

The Baba who had already realized his folly, forgave Bechu’s father. From then on Bechu’s family was free from the yoke of evil spirits too. There were no further deaths in the family.

Bechu’s formal declaration to Islam had to wait till he was forty eight years of age. Only about three years ago, he recited the shahadah in front of the Mufti of Khairabad. This was not received favorably by his community. ‘My people forcefully snatched my mother’s goats and feasted on them, a panchayat (community court) was organized against me, police complaints were filed …But then I approached Allah and he declared such a retribution that everyone’s lips were sealed, azaab gir gaya (calamity fell upon them). A few of my detractors died. Then people realized their folly and apologized. I advised them to fight anyone but never Allah. Things are cordial since then. Now everyone loves me. I get respect from both my community and the Muslims.’ [pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]He dresses like an Arab and now poses like a Baba who provides succor to the ill and those possessed by the shaitan[/pullquote]

Interestingly, Rehman’s village, which comprises mostly of dalits, witnessed a strong wave of activism by the radical anti-caste, left group called the Dalit Panthers around the1980s. It was due to the influence of the Panthers that the entire village converted to Buddhism. When I asked Rehman if they faced any exploitation on the basis of caste he replied candidly: ‘There was great exploitation here earlier. But since our people have formed the sangathan (organization) they have the courage to fight back now. Now there is no problem of that kind.’ I asked him why he did not consider Buddhism as a choice for conversion. He responded emphatically: ‘Allah has clearly stated that idolaters will go to hell. These people worship the idol of Bhagwan Buddha. Islam is against this. On the Day of Judgment Allah will ask, ‘Is but mein jaan daal ke dikha!’ (Bring this idol to life if you can)’’.

Abdur Rehman
Abdur Rehman

Hansraj, Rehman’s cousin, sitting next to him, told me that he took deeksha and converted to Buddhism in 1982 because they saw no value in the Hindu religion. ‘There is this disease of untouchability. Yadavs, Muslims, Telis, Pandits…all practiced untouchability against us.’ With a teasing smile he went on: ‘When we decided to convert the Muslims anticipated that we will convert to their religion. But we decided to follow Babasaheb’s religion. There has been a great change since then. We have stopped worshipping devi-devatas (gods and goddesses). We celebrate 14th April (Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s birthday). We recite Buddham Sharanam Gacchami now’. At this point, Rehman quickly interrupted him and objected to Buddhism’s denial of God and the prevalence of idolatry there. ‘Bhagwan Buddha never asked his followers to worship his image. He asked them to follow his way’, Rehman added in a critical tone. He went on: ‘It has become customary for them to say that they are Buddhists. There are only a few functions in a year when they remember the Buddha. No one achieves true dharam (religion) just by nominally adopting another religion; one will also have to undertake karam (religious practices).’

I was struck by the brass sword that was kept in one corner of the room. When I inquired about that he replied with a sense of accomplishment: ‘Well that I have gifted to the muwakkils (djinns) after performing my prayers. You know at the Battle of Badr[1] there were many invisible muwakkils who fought alongside Muslims and ensured their victory’. I asked him whether he could see the evil spirits. ‘Yes, I can see them on my nails. Everyone can see. Even you can see for yourself. But I will have to command them. They are very ugly looking.’

Rehman has two daughters and four sons. His daughters were married recently to ‘Hindu’ chamars from neighboring villages. While his wife converted to Islam his children so far have not. ‘I keep on instructing my children and wish that Allah fills their heart with faith so that they are saved from the fires of Hell. But there is no coercion in Islam as Mufti Sahib says. If my children don’t want to convert that’s okay’. When I asked him about his source of income he said: ‘I don’t have any land. When I asked the muwakkils what I should do for a living, they suggested that a source for you will be generated in the way of faith itself. So suffering people come to me; whether they are insane, or troubled by evil spirits or infected by some disease I request Allah to cure them. Allah taala shifa pahuncha dete hain (Allah provides them succor). I accept whatever they offer…sometimes two thousand rupees, at times even five thousand!’

Abdurrehman with family
Abdurrehman with family

When I asked Rehman what was his caste now since he has converted, he interestingly replied: ‘Deobandi’ (which interestingly is a sect and not a caste). When I probed further it seemed the only Muslims he probably knew about were the weavers of Khairabad: ‘Yahan wahi log to hain’ (They are the only Muslims here). I asked whether he had ever heard the word julaha (the term used for North Indian Muslim weavers)? He replied: ‘Not in Khairabad. But yes the Hindus in the neighboring areas refer to them as julahas’.

Since my conversation with Rehman I have been trying to make sense of his conversion. Are his motivations material or mystical? Is he hallucinating? Is he a victim of auto-suggestion? Or is he simply taking everyone for a ride through his dramatic performances? Whatever analytical frames we may employ to explain his conversion, Abdur Rehman, at the age of fifty, appears to be an empowered and contented person, at ease with both his faith and world. ‘Hum karam karte rehte hain aur Allah ne humko har tarah se mehfooz rakha. Saare dushmanon se mahfooz rakha’ (I keep meditating and Allah has kept me secure in every way. He has saved me from all foes). Bechu, the little boy that was traumatized by evil spirits and witnessed such misery in his house, one who used to slog at the power looms at Khairabad for a pittance and saw death all around, has come a long way and has conquered all adversities. It is the self-assured certainty in Rehman’s simple words that holds his audience spell-bound. Rehman did not require any grand theory for his liberation. He confronted his experience directly, with patience and courage in the face of risk. When Bechu turned into Abdur Rehman it was an act of faith, an insurrection of its own kind.

Abdur Rehman with Ambedkar Statue
Abdur Rehman with Ambedkar Statue

[1] The Battle of Badr was a key battle in the early days of Islam and a turning point in Muhammad‘s struggle with his opponents among the Quraish in Mecca. The battle has been passed down in Islamic history as a decisive victory attributable to divine intervention, or by secular sources to the strategic genius of Muhammad.


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Khalid Anis Ansari Written by:

Khalid Anis Ansari is Senior Assistant Professor in Glocal Law School in UP. His doctoral work at the University of Humanistic Studies (UvH), Utrecht (the Netherlands) is on caste movements within Muslims of Bihar.

One Comment

  1. Taha Siddiqui
    December 12, 2015

    Interesting and engrossing narrative.. we do keep coming across such abdul rehmans..with somewhat similar stories..but little are we able to comprehend the reasons for their act.. I was more curious to know and understand your point of view as a social scientist.. however brilliantly sketched piece.

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