Posted by: Vikram | January 5, 2009

Why are Islamic festivals in India not secularized ?

I grew up in a city where about 1 in 5 of the population is Muslim. I grew up with quite a few Muslim friends. I have enjoyed almost every aspect of the Islamic culture of India. The beautiful lyrics of the songs of Bollywood movies, the outstanding food without which Indian cuisine is incomplete, the breathtaking architecture and personal contributions of many Muslims from Mirza Ghalib to Javed Akhtar. Yet, I know virtually about the festivals of the religion. All I could say that we had holidays 😀  and you could get some really awesome food after the holy month of Ramzan.

Contrast this with the celebration of Christmas in urban India today. More kids in the Indian middle-class (regardless of religion) might know about Santa Claus than maybe even the Pandavas of Mahabharata. Although, with Ekta Kapoor now belting out her K-ised Mahabharata, I am sure many kids will be having nightmares about Arjun and Bhima. How many (outside the Muslim middle class) would know who the Prophet Mohammed was or even remember the names of the Muslim festivals ? On the other hand, the celebration of Christmas has become ubiquitous in urban India. Christmas is even celebrated in Delhi with gusto, a city with a miniscule (about 1.2 %) Christian population.

The Hindu middle-classes have a strange relationship with India’s urban Christians. They are seen by many as the providers of good quality English education, as sophisticated and ‘English’, to be emulated, and also vicious proselytizers and outsiders by some. So most of the celebration of Christmas is in good faith. And indeed a welcome development. Sharing each other traditions is what being a multi-cultural society is all about. Of course, even many of the Hindu festivals have been secularized, especially Diwali and Holi. No surprise, they are the most fun.

But what about Islamic festivals ? To be fair, Islamic festivals dont seem very amenable to ‘secularization’, because they seem to be more about contemplation than celebration. They are much more intense, with stuff like fasting for a month being involved. Not that India’s increasingly obese middle-classes dont need some loss of weight, but come on, that takes some serious devotion. However, there seems to be very little ‘joy in the air’ or even knowledge when an Islamic festival arrives. The Indian media can definitely do more than show some Muslims praying and blaberring out propoganda like ‘PM greets Muslims on Eid-ul-Fitr’.

But perhaps Muslims themselves would not want a secularization of their religions ? They seem to take their religion more seriously than most others. Also, apart from developed nations with large immigrant populations like the US (2%) , UK (7%) and countries that suppress religion China (3%), Russia (13%) Muslims dont seem to be a minority anywhere except India (14%). So there arent many country’s to compare to. And I can tell you that only Christmas has been secularized in the US, I dont see many white Texans greeting me with a Happy Eid, although I am frequently (mis)identified as a Muslim.

Also, one cannot discount the political climate of India today. Relations between various communities are very tense today, mainly because of chauvinist organizations like the RSS, Bajrang Dal and the politicians affiliated to such organizations.

All I can say is that I look forward to the day when one of the Eids is celebrated with the same gusto as Diwali and Christams. Obviously, one should not dilute the religious and spiritual significance of these festivals, but for a lot of people (esp. the young) they are a chance to celebrate and have fun. And writing from a country with virtually no enthu for religious celebrations, I can attest to how much one should have fun at very festival one can.


  1. I am a product of Aligarh, with 1 in two people being a muslim.

    And i enjoyed Eid, Deewali and lodhi with similar enthusiasm.

    What you are missing is the meaning of the word SECULARISM.

    Secularism DOES NOT MEAN “equal treatment of all religion”.

    Secularism means No role of religion in governmental policies. Secularism means no special privilege for any religious group.

    India was never a secularist state and it is almost inappropriate to think that India will be a secularist state anytime in near future.

    Now when I have clarified the meaning of SECULARISM, I should answer your question, which basically is, “Why Indian Hindus do not participate in Muslim festivals as they do in Sikh, or Christian festival.”

    Answer is pretty simple. Roman catholics are pretty less in India. The christians in India are not so religious. In fact, many of my christian friends do not know why they celebrate Valentines day or who was Saint valentine and what he did. They celebrate valentine’s day to enjoy the youthfullness and probable love prospects. But that can be common cause for any Indian to celebrate Valentine’s day.

    Christmas is not as popular as valentine’s day, yet as Christmas is also a similar easy way celebration which does not require a person to exactly know about the christian religion, it is much more popular than Eid.

    Muslim festivals requires allot knowledge of the particular religion and the celebration involves a close circulation of ceremonial processes.

    There’s no special processing for celebrating Christmas or Valentines day though.

    Furthermore, Muslim community is a bit closed one. it never commercialized the festivals. On the other hand, Hindu and Christmas festivals are more sort of commercial issues.
    Market favors deewali and valentines day. Eid and Christmas gets almost equal ( and pretty less attention as compared to Holi, Deewaali and valentines day) attention from the market.

    And well, success of any celebration depends on marketing.

  2. Also, a secular person means atheist and irreligious.

    Secularism and religion cannot go in same boat.

    • Secularism is UNGODLINESS.. U r right..

  3. Maybe they are not “secularized” because Muslims have been “othered” for ever too long. Not only in India but in other countries too. They only too easily become “other people”. For that matter, how often do you wish someone “Happy Kwanzaa” or “Happy Hanukkah” in Texas?

  4. @Gargi, yes i dont word my question correctly. I dont think its fair to say that Catholics are not serious about their religion. I think within every religious community there are people who take their religion very seriously, Hindu, Sikh and Christian. Like you said, Christmas, Valentine’s day (and even Diwali) are easily commercialized, I guess that’s part of why all people are involved in the celebration.

    @Allytude, yes they have been othered a lot. And they do seem to generate a siege mentality very easily. I have definitely seen some activity for Kwanzaa and Hanukkah. But more importantly, all the immigrant kids here (regardless of religious origin) seem to be into Christmas.

  5. That’s interesting. It never occurred to me. But what is more fascinating is, we don’t celebrate even Hindu festivals with the spirit we had earlier! I wished my House owner ‘Happy New year’ and he said that our new year was ‘Ugadi’ – I don’t even know when that comes! Maybe it is no longer ‘cool’ to celebrate such things. Talk of liberalization!!

    Destination Infinity

    Yes, especially in the urban areas the spiritual and traditional meaning of the festivals is being lost. I guess this in tune with the increasingly material outlook of urban Indian society. So, in some ways it might be good that the Muslim festivals are not commercialized.

  6. I dont think its fair to say that Catholics are not serious about their religion.

    Well, i never said catholics are not serious about religion. There are many fundamentalist catholic groups doing weird things whole round the world, including the paedophilic institutes of American catholics and their are many holy grail groups extorting the limits of bestiality committing human sacrifice and cannibalism. .

    Yet Indian Christians are not that fundamentalist, or may be Christians are surely a very minor group in India with much more liberal nature than any fundamentalist christian in other parts of world.
    Most of the Hindus of the new generation are liberated and free from fundamentalism and theistic madness, so they mix up well. Islam on the other hand is a genuine organized religious effort in india which needs much more liberation than it has got during the last 60 years (thanks to the ill-policies of Congress).
    So yes, Muslims are not that close for the mix up.\
    Furthermore, Muslims were brutal rulers of Indians just some 80 years ago, and the partition of pakistan also causes harm to Indian muslim’s relation with other sectors. And yep, the constant infilteration, terrorism etc also ruins the environment and the political strucuture of Indian political partiess provide enough ground for causing suspicion amongst the citizens.

  7. Muslims from Mirza Ghalib to Javed Akhtar.

    You know you are wrong again.

    Mirza ghalib was considered anti-islamic. Javed Akhtar is not anti-islamic. you cannot compare them. Ghalib was anti-mosque and Imam Akhtar is not.

    Ghalib was more like irreligious Kabir or Rahim, Akhtar is more like some religious muslim.

    Ghalib was secularist, Akhtar is not secularist.

    • I was just surfing this and could not help commenting on this comment about Javed Akhtar…i am not sure exactly what you mean by Akhtar not being secular..I would say, Akhtar is a religious muslim, but he is also a secular in that he believes in all religions leading to the same truth. ..had he been not secular in this sense, how would he write this song explaining beautiful philosophy which not only is highly scientific and unifying all religions, and also intellectually provides absoulte basis for democracy and secularism?

  8. Signs of a fiery debate.

    My take on this.

    Generations of Indians have grown up studying in Christian educational institutions. Ten to twelve years of subtle moulding has already taken place.

    One therefore tends not to be hostile to the Christian community. Secondly, they are far too few in number.

    Wonder if the population was say 100 – 150 million, we may have had a different situation.

    There is latent hostility and mistrust when it comes to Muslims. We have studied our history (written by the British and studied in convent schools) that Muslim invaders plundered temples (Somnath), destroyed universities (Nalanda), killed people-priests-scholars, burnt countless ancient books, levied tax on non-Muslims, killed family members to gain power…..and lastly broke away to form Pakistan, a homeland for Muslims.

    Broadly, this is what has been taught over the last seventy – eighty years. With this perception, it will require society to be suprhuman to make overtures and erase these learnings….However, we are all very human.

    After all this do you still expect that the fault lines should not be deep and chasms wide.

    RSS, Bajrang Dal are just convenient punching bags.

    People may have very close friendships on a personal level but on a social scale, are you convinced that there is much amity between Hindus and Muslims……anywhere in India. I would seriously like to be educated.

    This social divide is real but very unfortunate. It will require many years of sustained effort to unlearn and learn afresh a new paradigm.

    The question is who will bell the cat?

  9. @ What about Buddhist or Sikh festivals are they secularised? It seems except for christmas and the western new year even other christian festivals are not secularised. However you see christmas even in Japan where I doubt anyone follows any major religion any more. Christmas is just ‘cool’.

    Islam is totally ‘uncool’. Besides it does not sell well in these days and times. I guess we need a set of new religions. Something easier, something that does not take so much time. Something perhaps more mercenary. There was this guy in Malaya who started worshiping tea pots. I am all for that!

  10. @ Vikram : What about satanic festivals? Why are they not secularised in India 🙂

  11. @Vikram
    Im a Muslim & I follow Islam. Islam doesnt have festivals for celebration .. probably this might be a revealation 2 u. But we meet all our frnds & relatives on Eid & distribute sweets & food. Islam preaches brotherhood & all we need to do is follow it without any hype. Any Muslim “has” to be spiritual in order to follow Islam. It means u have to believe that Allah is the creater of this world & Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon Him)was the messenger of Islam. No celebrations of the singing & dancing kind !!

  12. Vikram, I can’t generalize- I can only write my experience.

    During my University days, my best friend was a
    Christian girl, and a very religious one at that. We got along fine, and whenever any Hindu or Christian festival came along, we would exchange greetings and sweets.

    When I was working, my best friend was a Parsi girl, and since I did not know much about Parsi festivals, she used to tell me in detail about them.
    When I went to her house she explained all their traditions to me.

    Despite there being more percentage of Muslims in Mumbai than Christians/ Parsis there were no Muslim girls either at university or at my workplace. So how could I get to know about Muslim festivals?

  13. Vikram,

    Judging by this one post & the comments here, this blog seems like a nice place.

    I’ll re-read this post with more attention & try & post my 2 bits a little later. Commenting on the 2-3 things I noticed:
    – Bollywood lyrics: Some amazing Hindu exponents of Urdu Poetry in there mate! That language never had any religion. It’s unfortunate that it’s been portrayed that way. CAN a language have religion?
    – U~ Diva: Akhtar isn’t secular??? His first wife is Bawi isn’t she? And second father in law a Commie? What makes you say that about him? Not that his poetry is a patch on Ghalib or even his Dad’s or Uncle’s, but I’m just curious.


    Was expecting a response on my reply to you on this post. Would love to hear your views on the points I brought up, specially 1b.

    Icon, I replied to your comments on Sharmaji’s post.

  14. @ Mavin, as usual you have given the best analysis. I must say though, that the history I studied in school, did not paint Muslims in a bad light for the most part. I think the newer Hindi movies are playing a part with Muslims invariably being goons, terrorists or somehow anti-Indian. I dont know who can rectify the current state of affairs. Gandhi did do it, for a while but then it broke down.

    @ Odzer, I think Sikhs and Buddhists simply dont have the numbers today. I know the Christians are less in number but somehow they are more influential. I guess this is because of the English language and the fact that young India wnats to be Western i.e. Christian.

    As for Satanic festivals, lol 😀 , they do have these rave parties dont they ? The theme, though, is quite present in some Hindu festivals. Specially in Kali Puja and Ram Navmi where the evil dude plays a prominent part.

  15. @ Assem, thank you for your comment. As a Muslim, obviously you are the best person to ask. One of my best friends growing up was a Muslim. He was the most well-mannered and well-liked guy in the neighbourhood. And I remember calling him up to wish him on Eid, sadly there is no contact with him now.

  16. @ Manju, you are right the %age of Muslims in Indian universities, professional sector is less. Think about how many Pakistani bloggers you come across versus Indian Muslims, even though the population is the same. There are many reasons for this. But I also think the media and teaching of history plays a part, as Mavin pointed out.

    But you are right, the community needs to step up.

  17. nice post dude…
    The best part is that at no point i felt like u are getting biased at any instant…

    and being a Muslim I would clarify that Eid isn’t just a Festival but it is a gift of God to us two times a year… 1 after the fasting of Ramadan and the 2nd iafter Qurbani/Zabeeha..

    Welcome jingoist. Thanks, yes acedemics is supposed to be unbiased,so I try. Thanks for the clarification about Eid.

  18. Aseem said–
    Im a Muslim & I follow Islam. Islam doesnt have festivals for celebration .. probably this might be a revealation 2 u.

    yes well that is true. Also, muslims have some yearly memorable days like Mohharram which essentially demands sadness I guess.

    There are some reason because of which it is highly improbable for Muslims to commercialize their important days.

    And without commercialization, nothing can be popular.

  19. Anyways, being an Atheist, I have a yearly celebration day which falls on every 12th of februry.

    And almost none except me and some of my friends celebrates it.

    the day is known as Darwin’s day and we celebrate theory of evolution alongwith experimental and practical proofs of it.

  20. Hi,
    late entry again, but I had to point out two things.

    1. Secularism

    The secularism/secular person that Diva defines are drawn from Western thoughts. And its absolutely right. But Amartya Sen charts the development of Indian secularism in “The argumentative Indian” as values of a pluralistic society. He argues Indian society has developed religious tolerance and social harmony much before western secular movements, from Ashok’s and Akbar’s religious conferences and their policies, and effectively serve the same purpose.

    Besides, Indian state is secular even by Diva’s definition.

    2. Vikram, broadly speaking your post suggests how the obvious gets noticed, or made so. And the ‘other’ is relegated to oblivion, rendered less important. That is how majority behaves, unless it is made sensitive, unless it makes conscious attempt towards it.

    One example? The category/tag of your post are Hinduism and India.

  21. Prabin,

    1) Yes, I agree. Secularism means no interference of religion in state affairs, in the western context. In the west it was primarily developed so that the state could be neutral when it came to various Christian denominations. However today it has been extended to other religions/cultures as it has always been in some ways in India.

    2) Nice observation, 😀 . And yes, various things did make me conscious and uptil a few years ago I was not sensitive to the issues that Muslims and other minorities face in India.

    If you think you may also lack sensitivity to some groups. It is just that we are not informed, not wilful ignorance.

  22. Prabin,

    Remarkably astute observations.


    You too. The community does need to step up. And there are some people making an effort. Unfortunately they need the active support of people like us to be recognized as such.

    Also, you’re correct in the above comment when you say “not informed”.
    My Mom says that most Muslims have more than enough opportunity to observe the dress, customs, rituals, festivals etc. of Hindus as they abound all around in greater number. Hindus unfortunately do not have the same opportunities.
    That said, anyone who wants a comprehensive Indian view is welcome to go to any CBSE Social Studies text-book.
    And then there’s natural born curiousity.

    One challenge is of course that Islamic History & fables (if I may use that word) cannot be depicted by the guys at Amar Chitra Katha; a fact that I have decried here.

  23. Sorry. Had trouble posting to Vinodji’s blog. Response here if you don’t mind.

  24. One thing about Christmas is it brings more colour and it is a joyous festival.. we can’t say the same about any other Christian festivals…. New year has been become a common thing all over the world so we can’t ignore that…
    But Muslim festivals are somewhat less colourful but I think still there are many muslim neighbours who are celebrating Ramzan in a grand manner..
    And these political parties too came into picture for these things.. thats a disheartening thing 😦

  25. I can speak from an experience of living in a Metro. Most Muslims tend to live within their own colonies and there is very little social intermingling.

  26. Hey Vikram,

    Awaiting your response please… rather impatiently at that! 🙂

  27. Vikram, Mumbai et all,

    One thought just popped into mind.

    There is an Islamic celebration that entails bursting firecrackers. I think it’s called ShabbRaat.
    How is it that a thakre fails to notice firecrackers on a festival, but 10 years ago seemed to harp endlessly about crackers after an unfortunate cricket loss to pak???

    There may be a point with some of the more dire observations that abound…

  28. Well I don’t feel that it needs a secular society to enter into every religious fesutivals. All Muslim festivals are basically the implementation og what has been said by Allah or directed through Quran. And to participte that would mean to actually do what muslims do those days. Like giving sacrifce and distributing alms among poor. So it will be quite difficlut for other sects.

    Eids are all about doing Shariya and visiting your loved ones and friends….which i supose i snot the case with otherreligions,

  29. Yes, Umar like I pointed out, Hindu festivals like Holi and Diwali, Christian festivals like Christmas have a significant celebratory component like bursting crackers, playing with colours etc that ppl of other communities can understand easily.

    The Muslim festivals seem to be more personal.

  30. Umar,

    Holi & Diwali are also about doing the rounds of your relatives, friends & neighbours. They’re more colourful, boisterous & noisy no doubt, but it isn’t that anyone can miss Muslims on Eid, wearing new clothes, traditional clothing, milling about.

    I think Vikram’s touched upon a very valid point. Questions abound, possible solutions exist, but no one concrete answer comes to mind, as to why.

  31. well it seems that none has read the Quran and trying for the Hindu and muslim unity.
    You need to read the real islmic history of india form muslim sources.There you will see in glory all the killing done in india in name of islam.Yes only islmic sources.
    Few sources are

  32. […] seem to celebrate Hindu festivals like Diwali and Holi, and Christian festivals like Christmas.  Why then don’t people generally celebrate Muslim festivals like Eid? The article had some great theories in the comments.  Here are some interesting points that I […]

  33. Vikram You must know one thing That Secularism means NO RELIGION. You have written some individual observations as per your soul. And any how if you have decided to attach Religion with Secularism then HaVE you ever observed …How easily Secular People criticize Hinduism in the name of Secularism and don’t dare to speak a single word against Islam as the Fundamental Nature of its ideology based on Holy verses of Quran may harm the life of those biased Seculars.

    Secularism doesnt mean criticising Hinduism or christianity and preserving the values of Islam. At the same time if you are criticizing RSS , you must criticise other religious structure as well, if Mulims have right to preserve their Islam that too by conversion and giving bad name to other religion..Hinuds have equal right to preserve Hinduism that too w/o criticising any other religion.

    Even though I am born in Hindu Brahmin family, I never saw my parents stopping me from participating any other religious gathering be it of Muslim or christian..but How many muslims you will have who will participate in Pooja of Diwali and eating Prashadam. Exchange of culture and tradition is always on mutual basis…and rigidity on one side cant expect other side to be flexible.

    Before you labelling me some communal name I must clear you that I am an Atheist and follow no Religion but yes I always feel sorry when I see just beacause of liberal nature of Hinduism Secular take liberty to criticise Hinduism in Length and never touch Islam and make it a part of Secular world.

    I am not suggesting you but as you love reading and into political writings must read Quraan with proper explanations and w/o being biased shall be exploring something you never did.

  34. Oh! So u want hindu’s to celebrate muslim festival like Bakrid. May be all of us can start killing 10 goats every day for showing how much sacrifice we can make for god. Think in your heart whether same respect you and your ilk would have given to Bakrid if it was a hindu festival. Pseudo’s like u r fool or hypocrite I never understood!

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