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Liberalism in Islam: An issue for Indian Muslims to debate

Paper No. 364                                                16/11/2001

by R.Upadhyay

With the depredation of Islamic fundamentalist groups in Kashmir and elsewhere and the September 11 incidents, the religious divide in India is getting wider.  This is unfortunate and it is the responsibility of the leaders of both communities to see reason and arrest this development.  The views published here are the writer’s own.  We are being criticised and sometimes abused for not giving the point of view of the “other side”.   We will consider publishing any paper  detailing their views so long as those are well reasoned and devoid of abusive language.  Director.  

The puritans of Islam are anxious to wheel back the contemporary world order to the fourteen hundred years old concept of their faith and create a pan-Islamic world polity.  Those, who take a vow to accomplish this mission through violent Jihad, have now become the cult figures for the Muslim community.  Historically, no sincere or serious effort has ever been made by any section of Muslim community to challenge and reform this fundamentalist approach of the radicals, which is against the concept of individual freedom of faith.  Thus a common pious Muslim living in a non-Muslim environment is confronted and confused by these concepts. 

Some basic concepts that create confusion among the conservative sections of Muslim population in India are

* Islam has divided the whole human race into two groups of ‘believers’ (followers of Islam) and ‘non-believers’ (infidels or Qafirs).

*  Those, who accept Allah as supreme and are fully submitted to the doctrine revealed to His ‘last’ messenger Prophet Mohammad - are believers.  Rest of the human race comes under the category of non-believers.

*  The world is presently governed by two types of polities known as Darul-Islam (Islamic form of governments) and Darul-Harab (non-Islamic governments).

*  Since the whole world belongs to Allah, it is the holy duty of every believer to establish Darul-Islam in the countries presently under the governance of non-believers. 

Thus the Islamic fundamentalists have been quite successful in creating disorder even in Muslim majority countries like Algeria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, and Pakistan and posed a challenge  to the Muslim rulers of these countries. Bassam Tibi, a Muslim writer in his book -'The Challenge of Fundamentalism ' (1998 page 27) maintained that the Islamic fundamentalists had challenged the ruling elite in most of these states on religio-political grounds.  "Their avowed goal is to replace existing order by the Islamic state"

The birth of international terrorism in countries like Syria, Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran is an indication that the fundamentalist forces in Islam are determined to create a different order all over the world for achievement of their cherished goal.  Israel in Middle East, India in Indian sub-continent and the western world, particularly the United States of America are presently the main targets of the Islamic terrorist groups. 

Basically, the political ideology of Muslim fundamentalists is to push forward the Islamic mission and create a pan-Islamic world order.  For the ‘rational Muslims’, political Islam of fundamentalists may be different from spiritual Islam, but as the situation stands today, common Muslims are unable to assert themselves and make a distinction between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism.  Unfortunately what we see in India today is that even the Muslim leaders with modern education have sought to exploit the fundamentalists’ concept of political Islam for fulfillment of their personal ambitions.  Not to be outdone, even the so-called “secular” parties, in order to earn their votes would prefer to retain the medieval Islamic mindsets that way. 

The emergence of the Taleban movement in Afghanistan and the networking of the international terrorist organisations with bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan have found support from some of the Ulema in India.  Organisation like Jamiat-e-Ahle- Hadith, Tablighi Jamaat Markaz Dawa-ul- and the Harkat-ul-Ansar have actively provided ideological impetus to some of the Indian Muslim groups. The SIMI is a case in point.

India with the second largest Muslim population in the world is presently considered to be the centre of Islamic institutions and even Taleban is known to be the followers of Deoband School of Islam. The Indian Muslims suffer from many of the infirmities afflicting their Pakistani and Bangladeshi counterparts, primarily, poverty and illiteracy. Some of them are falling a prey to the fundamentalist preachers and sects, many of whom having links with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia  Thousands of madrassas and Islamic institutions in this country are actively engaged in producing the army of Islam and radicalising them to fight for a protracted ideological war to establish Darul-Islam in this country as a part of their holy duty. 

Against the backdrop of the fundamentalist design of Islamic puritans as discussed above and also the prevailing situation in neighbouring countries, could there be a concept of liberalism in Islam for Indian Muslims?  Liberalism is a term, which means to push an individual to modernity.  But modernity requires a vision for future.  A section of Indian Muslims may claim themselves to be modern in outlook but have they asserted themselves?  Have they ever spelt out their vision for future, which looks forward for uniformity in the society?  If Turkey with a majority of Muslims can adopt Swiss laws for its personal code, why the Indian Muslims are adamant to continue with Islamic personal laws of seventh century is not understandable. 

Mushirul Hasan, a noted Muslim writer has initiated a debate on the loyalty test for Indian Muslims (Indian Express dated November 14,2001).  He has rightly pointed out the issues on which Muslims in India are often subjected to face some humiliating comments.  It however, does not mean that Indian Muslims are required to face a loyalty test in their own country.  Every sane Indian simply wants that nationalism and patriotism should be above any relation between an individual and the God. 

The problem lies with the Muslim intellectuals, who are not assertive enough against Muslim fundamentalism.  If a Hindu raises any voice against Islamic fundamentalism, he is branded as communalist but when a Muslim criticises Imam Bukhari, he or she is considered as progressive.  Why this double speak?  Is it not the duty of Muslim intellectuals to come forward openly and challenge the Islamic fundamentalists aggressively?.

The most striking point about the 'liberal' Muslims is that they are not taken seriously in Indian society because of their half-hearted, and vacillating pattern of views on Muslim political issues like Talibanisation of Islam in India, increase in the number of madrassas to radicalise Muslim children, Uniform Civil Code, Indo-Pak relations, infiltration from Bangladesh and terrorist activities in Kashmir.  Lest they bring the wrath of fundamentalist forces to themselves, they always try to play a cautious and safer game on the issues of their co-religionists and do not come out to call a spade, a spade.  

The 'moderate' Muslims in their attempt to overlook the ideological focus of the Islamic fundamentalism are generally viewed as hypocrites or cowards by the nationalist forces.  While pretending to equate themselves with the secular west, they fail to understand that the western secularists are dominating the fundamentalists.  On the other hand, they are found scared of the reaction of powerful fundamentalists in the community as happened in the case of the reaction of Imam Bukhari against Shabana Azmi.  They in fact want their 'secular' friends in the majority community to fight their battle.  When Arif Mohammad raised his voice in support of Shahbano case, no Muslim leader came forward to embrace him as a liberal Muslim.  

In the absence of any rational debate on interpretation of Islamic scriptures, the common Muslims are not attuned to listen to the reasoned voice of the Muslims, who claim themselves as moderate, liberal or progressive. The failure of the saner section of Muslims to convince the members of their community in India has given rise to suspicion among non-Muslims that the former are not genuinely concerned about the growth of fundamentalism in Islamic society.   It seems that they have not been able to change the general Muslim psyche dreaming for restoration of Muslim power, which they lost to Britishers following the decline of Moghal empire in eighteenth century as most of the Muslim organisations in India drew inspiration from that very psyche. 

Indian Muslims need to understand the bitter truth that India is a democratic polity with over 86 % of ‘non-believers’, who are not found inclined to accept Darul-Islam. They are required to carve out their future on the basis of ground reality and reason, and not in a welter of emotion and sentiment. They should live like real lions created by God and not like the imaginary lions created by poet Iqbal, who said, "Allah ke sheron ko aati nahin rubahi" (God’s lions know no cowardice). Statements like this caught the imagination of the Indian Muslims, who opted for the path of conflict and confrontation on the mistaken premise that what they were doing amounted to a jihad (crusade). 

The answer lies with Indian Muslims, who are required to take the initiative in bringing all the Islamic organizations and institutions on a common platform and take an assertive position to interpret the Islamic scriptures rationally to suit the Indian society.  They may even issue some fatwa on the basis of Islamic scriptures to justify that like other Indians, the Muslim is also first an Indian and then a Muslim.  Let them permanently close the two –nation theory of Jinnah, which divided the country in 1947.  The forces that are still harping on the concept of Hindu India and Muslim India are to be fought tooth and nail, for which initiative should come from the Muslim leadership, if they want to show that Islam is equally a liberal faith. 

Unfortunately, the sole agenda of the ‘liberal’ section of the Indian Muslims is only to draw strength from the ‘secularists’ and guard against any attempt of reform in the Islamic fundamentalist ideology of seventh century.  So long they do not play an effective role to change the medieval psyche of the vast majority of the members of their community and remove the deep imprint of the myth of 700 years Muslim rule in India from their mind, their reasoned voice will have no effect at all. 

( This analysis is based on the personal perception of the writer.  E-mail: