Islam, my Muslim friends are fond of saying, is not just a religion but a way of life. What they mean is that the guardians of Islam must concern themselves not just with questions of morality and ethics -- as every religion professes to do -- but also with an adherent's material life.
Even so, it seems going too far when an obscure maulvi chooses to condemn Sania Mirza because she chooses to play tennis in short skirts.
This has been generally condemned. Sania Mirza has been hailed as one of India's (regretfully few) sports stars, and the maulvis have been asked to keep their opinion to themselves. Even the All India Muslim Personal Law Board says his description of Sania Mirza's behaviour being immodest is unwarranted interference and uncalled for.
Anyone who follows the sport knows that a woman playing tennis has no choice but to wear clothing that offers as little impediment to speed and flexibility as possible -- or cede an advantage to opponents. The days are long gone since a Suzanne Lenglen or a Helen Wills Moody could win championships wearing skirts that fell well below the knee. So, then, are we all agreed that the maulvi was wrong?
Well, everyone except perhaps for one quarter, the one most intimately concerned -- Sania Mirza herself. The limelight was turned on her full blaze earlier this year when she became the first Indian woman to enter the third round of a Grand Slam championship, the Australian Open. (She had joined Leander Paes to win a medal at the mixed doubles in 2002, but no tennis fan takes the Asian or Commonwealth Games very seriously.)
The Indian media, despairing over the flailing fortunes of its cricketers and in the hunt for new faces, fell on the new 'phenomenon' with glee. The Times of India, among others, was quick to arrange an interview when she returned from the Antipodes. In the course of this, Sania Mirza confessed that she felt a bit uncomfortable in her attire but knew that she had no choice as a professional.
This puts rather a different complexion on the issue, doesn't it? Is it justifiable to do something that you, deep down, feel to be wrong for the sake of winning a fortune? To date, all the condemnation of the maulvi has come from others, Ms Mirza herself has refused to comment on the issue one way or the other. That is rather telling in itself.
As readers may recall, a team of Iranian women touched down in India last week. They had come to participate in some tournament -- badminton, if memory serves me. The clip I remember seeing showed them covered from head to foot. They admitted that this significantly lowered any chance of doing well against less encumbered opponents but said they had no choice.
They also confessed that it was a strangely uncomfortable feeling for them to play in stadia where men were present, something apparently not allowed in their own country. I cannot help wondering if this might have provoked the outburst from the maulvi against Sania Mirza.
The point is that the Iranian team had found a way to reconcile what they had been taught and their love for their sport. They came to play for the sheer love of the game, realising that their chances of winning were zero but competing with a clear conscience.
Is Sania Mirza, a devout Muslim who says that she tries to pray at the prescribed five times every day, equally comfortable with herself?
The conflict between a religion's highest teachings and the demands of a modern profession are not confined to this instance. Vegetarianism is held as an ideal for all Hindus, but I have a dim memory of some pace bowler -- I think it was Javagal Srinath -- who forced himself to eat meat because he needed a high protein diet. And the great Martina Navratilova turned to a vegetarian diet only after she had retired from the rigours of playing singles.
The minutiae of Islamic law are not really my field of expertise (though I shall be glad if readers clarify the issues). As an Indian, I hope Sania Mirza continues to play for a decade or longer as she is, after all, currently the highest ranked Indian tennis singles player, whether male or female. (And also the highest ranking Muslim woman ever to play tennis from any country.)
But don't rush to condemn the maulvi! He was, I gather, only being honest to his creed as he saw it. And in raising the issue of where to hold the balance between the dictates of religion and profession he has asked an interesting question. That is a point for us all to ponder over, not just the bubbly Sania Mirza.