THE OTHER FACE OF ISLAM: Letter to a Daughter Studying Fine Arts in Paris

Letter to a Daughter – on the Importance of Prayer


[Dear Shireen,
The words below were written by the late professor A.A.A. Fyzee, married to Adda’s (my mother Khursheed Kashmeri) sister (your great Aunt), and one of the foremost scholars of Islam and Middle Eastern Studies who taught at Cambridge and Oxford and wrote scores of books and papers that are still used in major universities. It was written in 1954 to his daughter Summaya, or Summi, as we call her, who is dying to meet you and take you to the family’s little island retreat, Kihim, off the coast of Bombay, where I spent many happy summers as a child. She was studying painting at Les Écoles de Beaux Art in Paris. A copy of this letter was given to me by Uncle Fyzee, himself, or Khaloojan (my dearest uncle), as I called him. – Dad]



9 Roberts Lane,
New Delhi

I have been thinking of writing to you for some time, but have had no time on account of work and other preoccupations.  Since your mother left for Bombay, there is a considerable amount of household work, in addition to looking after and amusing the children which takes a good deal of doing.  Anyhow, on this New Year I had promised myself to write to you fully on a certain matter of importance.

You will recollect that I have often told you it is desirable to pray. You have so far been young and have not yet seen the necessity of regular prayer. This is not by any means an order or a lecture or a command but an invitation to see things as I see them.  Reject or accept it, as you wish.

A 1968 portrait of A.A.A. Fyzee on the balcony of his apartment by the Arabian Sea in Bombay. (Photo: Zuhair Kashmeri)

A 1968 portrait of A.A.A. Fyzee on the balcony of his apartment by the Arabian Sea in Bombay. (Photo: Zuhair Kashmeri)

A man’s life cannot be complete without work, rest and peace. Mental peace can only come when his life and work conform to certain ideals. These ideals cannot be learned from books or from teachers or from parents, but they must be realized by oneself.  The question arises why we should believe in any religion at all and if we do believe in a religion and in a God, then why should we pray?  Putting it in another way, there are two questions which I wish to answer today: first, to whom shall be pray, and second, why should be pray?

In the world today, there are a number of important religions.  To my way of thinking, they are all true in their own way.  They show the path to the eternal life and they show the path to peaceful existence in this world.  And these great religions are according to the number of adherents: first Christianity [800 million], secondly Buddhism [500 million], thirdly Islam [400 million], and fourthly Hinduism [300 million].  In our country, we have them all and each one of them emphasizes a certain way of life and a certain aspect of the final unknowable truth.

The majority of thinkers have come to the conclusion that there is such a thing as the creator of the universe whom they call God.  Whether we conceive of him as endued with a human shape or, as the Hindus do, in numerous physical shapes and forms, which are used for the purpose of prayer, but which do not in any manner indicate the complete and spiritual truth of the one supreme being, the Brahman, Param Ishwara, as he is called.  Similarly, Christianity and Islam teach the truth that there is ONE supreme being to whom we must bow and before whom we must worship. Religion is a matter of experience.  It is not a matter of proof.  It is quite possible to live a good life and indeed a noble life without any belief in God.  But since the days of the German philosopher, Kant, it is universally recognized that although there is no proof of the existence of God, there’s also no disproof of the existence of God.  You cannot say that there is a God and prove it by human reason.  Nor can you by human reason prove that there is no God.  Therefore, modern theologians and professors of logic have come to the conclusion that the deepest truth of religion is a matter of experience.  Professor Stace in his wonderful book Time and Eternity shows first, what God is not; secondly, how the great teachers have described God, and thirdly, how all language as applied to the Supreme Being, being finite, does not and cannot fully express the true idea about him.

Let me tell you my own deepest faith about this question.  My conception of God is the ultimate energy or law which controls the whole of the universe.  The “universe” is a physical expression, but I wish to include in it also the spirit which has neither space nor time as its attribute.  Thus, for me is easier to believe that just as some scientific laws explain the phenomena of nature, so also there must be an ultimate Law or Power or Will which creates and regulates all that there is.  Nature and the universe strike me dumb with amazement and wonder. I cannot conceive of the existence of the universe without the existence of a certain Will or a certain Design. If there is such a Will or Design, then there must be a Creator and according to me two important principles of Islam are:

[1] the proper realization that there is one and only God; and
[2] philosophic submission to his Will.

Submission to this will does not mean blindfold submission, but it means this — that just as there’s a law which governs all natural phenomena, governs the flight of the stars, the movement of the birds and of light, the power and energy in all physical phenomena, the growth of flowers and animals, the secret principle of ‘life’ in a living cell, so also there must be obedience to certain laws by man. I am not interested in a particular law.  These particular laws may differ from place to place. A political leader or teacher may sometimes say that you must have peace; and sometimes he may lift up the sword for war. The apparent inconsistency is not a real inconsistency, because ultimately both may be necessary in the existing order or things.  Provided you are sincere and a seeker after that law, the law which you follow has a certain measure of truth.

It is for the contemplation of the Supreme Being that prayer is necessary.  If you are willing to agree that, although there is no proof of the existence of God, it is at least worthwhile to proceed upon that assumption, hence it becomes necessary to contemplate the divine being in our own small manner.  I do not believe in conversion.  All human beings are children of nature; they are essentially equal and should behave as brothers.  I believe in the absolute truth of the Hindu, of the Hindu way of worship; for Christian, of the Christian way of worship; for the Buddhist, of the Buddhist way of worship; and similarly for the Muslim, of the Muslim way of worship.  It is a means to realize complete peace of mind and is only for this reason that prayer has been prescribed.  Just as your physical health suffers if you do not take sufficient exercise, so your mental health, and peace of mind, and other mental processes will remain defective until they’re exercised to the highest extent.  Prayer is concentration and spiritual exercise.  I would therefore request you to keep aside only one-half hour of every day for prayer in whatever shape or form you decide. I shall tell you two or three forms of prayer which I have myself practiced and found beneficial.

When I was 21, a Hindu income tax clerk, who was friendly with my father, told me to perform concentration exercises.  First, it was gazing on a spot and taking the name of God; and secondly, outward breathing and inward breathing by thinking and taking the name of God.  Both of these improved my concentration and peace of mind tremendously. I still perform them sometimes, but as a Muslim the prayer taught to me in my early youth are easy and beautiful and bring the same peace of mind. If you pray the usual prayer of morning or of the evening, that should be enough.  I am not a bigoted Muslim, who asks you to pray five times a day for the sake of form.  It is said by one of the most learned Hindus I know, Dr. P. V. Kane, that the true Brahmin by repeating just the following formula prays completely to his God.  This formula translated in English is as follows:

“Lord, lead me from darkness into LIght,

“Lead me from untruth to the Truth,

“Lead me from death to Immortality.”

You know well the usual prayers or Pujas, which take hours.  They are all useless; or, if useful, only insofar as they bring peace to the troubled and imperfect soul. For us, people of the world, a short prayer should be enough.  So you can choose between gazing on a spot and breathing, or praying in Muslim fashion in the morning or in the evening, but it must be done regularly, and it must be done in the right spirit.  “There is no prayer, except in the Presence of God,” says a Sufi.

If this form of prayer does not suit you or you have no sympathy with it, I suggest another form and that is followed by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.  He reads a religious book for half an hour everyday alternating between Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam.  Nowadays, he is restricting himself to Buddhism and I do not blame him.  The attraction of that religion is the fact that it is the most intellectual of all faiths. I am deeply attracted by it and in fact, I agree that for intellectual people it is the most perfect religion. It insists upon the right path, of truth, on self-realization, on peace and on all the eternal values.  It does not require belief in God, in angels and in the whole gamut of Muslim theology or Hindu mythology.  All this is irrelevant to a true Buddhist.  Buddhism insists upon the attainment of wisdom by very few simple and beautiful rules and the definition and contemplation of the Divine Being is one of the things which it considers unnecessary.

I shall end by saying that I have written this not with a view to administering a lecture, but I think that at 18 when you are working hard and trying to attain an understanding of the art of painting, you should also possess sufficient mental poise in order to attain your object properly. For this purpose exercise is good for the body and prayer for the spirit.  The distinction between mind, spirit and body must be carefully understood. The body is a material receptacle; the mind consists of the reasoning faculty; the spirit consists of those other things, the perception of beauty, the realization of the existence of God, the ideas of truth, beauty and goodness. The spirit also requires exercise and strengthening. The easiest way of the cultivation of the spirit is prayer.


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