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ISLAMIC SCHOLARS AND INDIA

Paper No. 372                                                    10/12/2001

By R. Upadhyay 

"Islam is the best religion and Muslims are the worst followers". George Bernard Shaw quoted in Hindu, November 27, 2001. 

In the past, the Islamic scholars in India have by and large encouraged the Indian Muslims to move around the periphery of Arabian tradition and heritage and the concept of Indian nationhood was secondary.  Glorification of Arabism was a commanding virtue in Islam to such scholars who believed in pan-Islamism.  Since Islam was first revealed to Arabs in their own language, Muslim scholars viewed Arab nationalism as an international centre for global Islam and West Asia as the Islamic hub.  Paying pilgrimage to Kabah, respect for Friday, which is known as 'the day of Arabism' and  'its adoption as a day of festivity and adornment' by the Muslim world are proof of the Arabic traditions. 

Unlike the earlier invaders who got absorbed in the Indian cultural milieu, the Muslim invaders not only continued to maintain their Arab heritage and traditions but also forced the newly converted to forget their past totally and take to alien customs and practice.  Such an imposition had created a cultural bitterness and divide that continue even today. 

It is always better to look forward while standing on the shoulders of the past.  But Indian Muslims were never allowed by scholars with vested interests to interpret Islam in a non Arab environment.  For example Kamal Ataturk of Turkey removed the medieval symbol of Burqa from Muslim society in his country and even took steps to place emphasis on introducing the Turkish language to replace Arabic.  He had no inhibition to replace Arabic script with Roman script in writing the Turkish language.  For him Islam did not mean subjugation to Arab imperialism.  Islamic thinkers are not ready to learn from the changes in Turkey, which is a Muslim majority country.  In 1924 the Turkish National Assembly even abolished Khilafat, which is known to be a Quranic concept of world government without any geographical boundaries or regional loyalties.  After abolition of Caliphate, the idea of nationhood developed in a number of Muslim countries but it created an ideological controversy among the Muslim intellectuals in India, which is still continuing.  For them nationalism is contrary to the ideology of pure Islam, which sanctions Islamic world order without any border.  Student Islamic Movement of India (since banned) even organised a symposium on October 7,1996 for return of Khilafat. 

Contrary to the general perception that geographical boundary forms part of a nation, the Muslim scholars in the past divided Indian nation between Hindu India and Muslim India. Obsessed with Hindu-majority phobia they created an impression that non-Muslim rule over the Muslims would pose a grave threat to Islam. 

Nationalism generates a collective emotional response and converts it into patriotism.  It is a  sentiment, which demands the people of the country to rise above ethnic, religious, communal, sectarian and regional loyalties.  But for Muslim scholars it is an evil, which instigates the people for war either to defend or expand the territorial boundaries of their respective countries.  By and large the Muslim thinkers in colonial and post-colonial India tended to oppose nationalism on the plea that it was incompatible with the concept of pan-Islamism. 

Muslim intellectuals like Sir Sayyad Ahmad Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, Shibli Numani, Mohammad Iqbal, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Abul Kalam Azad and other Muslim intellectuals of this sub-continent carried the tradition of Shah Waliullah (1703-17620), (known as father of Muslim fundamentalism).  They did not allow their community to adopt India centric Islam and free them from the subjugation of Arab imperialism in the name of religion.  Presently Sayyad Shahabuddin is carrying the same tradition and fighting an intellectual battle on behalf of Indian Muslims, whom he calls Muslim Indians.  

Sir Sayyad Ahmad Khan(1817-1898), scion of a Mughal family was known to be the principal founder of 'modernist Islamic thought'.  A known advocate for scientific and modern education to Muslims he renounced the Islamic orthodoxy of Waliullah but his rational interpretation of Islam, which was contrary to the fundamentalists views on controversial issues like Jihad, polygamy and animal slaughtering was rejected by his contemporary Muslim intellectuals.  Ultimately, he succumbed to the pressure of fundamentalists and “agreed not to express his views on Islam through his writings” (Rational Approach to Islam by Asgar Ali Engineer ­ 2001 ­page 191). 

The Founder of Aligarh Muslim University, Sir Sayyad Ahmad Khan was actually a Muslim intellectual loyal to British throne and was largely responsible for keeping away the modern educated Muslims from northern India away from Indian National Congress.  In fact he never liked unity between Hindus and Muslims against the Britishers.  Ironically, he was in favour of a non-Muslim and non-Hindu rule over India.  During his speech on January 29,1884 he said, “I have said repeatedly that for India it is impossible that either Hindus or Muslims are rulers and are able to keep the peace.  It is inevitable that a third nation rules over us”( Muslim Nationhood in India by Safia Amir ­ 2000 ­ Page 25).  He also suggested, "Since the Hindus were joining hands against Muslims (he meant Indian National Congress dominated by Hindus), the latter should unite with the British and strive to make their rule permanent, rather than becoming subjects of the Hindus by joining the Congress" (Ibid page 244).  Sayyad’s main aim was to ensure that Muslims remain loyal to Britishers. 

Shibli Numani (1857-1914), another Muslim thinker and contemporary of Sir Sayyad was also known for his fluctuating views on the question of Muslim nationality.  Initially, he was in favour of the feeling of nationalism among the Muslims, but subsequently he became a 'confirmed pan-Islamist' with a plea that Muslim nationhood was not based on region but on Islam.  He strongly believed that "it was extremely essential to keep alive Muslim nationality". Ironically, he even considered "India under British as Dar-ul-Islam" and made statement that "it was the religious duty of Muslims to remain loyal to their (British) government". 

Mohammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), a westernised Muslim intellectual was initially known as a secularist and began his political career with the Indian National Congress.  When, he failed to be an acceptable leader of the community, he joined the Muslim League in 1913 and experimented with the concept of political Islam by exploiting the fundamentalist and medieval psyche of Indian Muslims.  Being hostile to the "Hindu style of Gandhi's politics" he succeeded in making Muslim League as the representative organisation of Indian Muslims.  With mass support of his community and patronage of British Government he emerged as a third political force in Indian politics during the freedom struggle between Congress and the Britishers.  Finally he achieved the desired goal of Islamic scholars in dividing the Indian sub-continent into  'Hindu Indians' and 'Muslim Indians' and the creation of Pakistan with his two-nation theory.  

Mohammad Iqbal (1876-1938) was born of Kashmiri Brahmin stock but was part of the converted generation to Islam.  As a renowned Muslim scholar and poet he left a deep imprint on Indian Muslim psyche.  In his early years he was an advocate of a common nationality, but after his return from England, he took an about turn and preached for a separate homeland for Muslims.  Like Sir Sayyad Ahmad he was also loyal to the British throne and also perceived the political danger to Muslims from the majority community, when he found the freedom movement gaining momentum.  He underlined Islam as the only basis of Muslim nationhood, which according to him was beyond any race and territory.  He considered patriotism as “a subtle form of idolatry” which was against the mission of Islam.  His message caught the imagination of the Indian Muslims, who opted for the path of separatism.  He approved the concept of Aurangzeb that “the strength of Islam in India depended not on the goodwill of its inhabitants but on the strength of the ruling Muslims”. 

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) was initially opposed to Aligarh school of Islam, which according to him was against the “international Islamic unity and sovereignty of Turkish Caliph over Indian Muslims”(Muslim Nationhood in India ­ page 134).  Born of 'an Arab mother and Indian father', Azad in one of his early writings “was against Akbar’s excessive liberalism, which had caused Muslims to incline greatly towards Hindu usage. These new fangled ways had so divorced them from their ancient fountainhead that they were no more recognizable as early conquerors of India; for instead of their original Arabian and Iranian traits they now exhibited a peculiar Indian colour”.  Though Maulana Azad was found to be more pragmatic after 1923 and by 1940, he reconciled with the nationalist theory that Hindu and Muslims were part of one invisible nation, he could not convince the majority of Indian Muslims, who supported the two-nation theory of Jinnah.  

Syed Shahabuddin, a topper of MSc in Physics (Patna University) and a former IAS officer also coined the word 'Muslim Indians' in place of Indian Muslims to support the concept of political Islam and tried to prove that the member of his community is first a Muslim and then an Indian.  Perhaps he is also against the human-centric world view and favours its replacement with Islam -centric world order.  With a view to fulfill his personal ambition, he tried to exploit the Jehadi sentiments of Indian Muslims and floated a magazine entitled Muslim India.  Subsequently in 1986 the Babri Masjid episode came in handy and he made it a national issue to bring the Muslims on a common platform.     

The fluctuating pattern in the views and stand of Muslim scholars during freedom movement and also in post-colonial Indian polity on the issue of nationalism generated a feeling of mistrust among the Hindus against the Muslims and thereby affected the Hindu-Muslim relation in this country adversely.  They made the issue complex and kept the Muslim mass confused for their own vested political interest.  Their personal ambition never allowed the community to get integrated fully. 

In 1918-22 Muslim sentiments in India were acutely hurt over the event of Khilafat in Turkey and the Hindus at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi supported the movement to protest against it.  Today, the sentiments of some Indian Muslims are found to be hurt due to American attack on Taliban in Afghanistan.  Slogans in praise of Taliban and projection of Osama bin Laden as a cult figure during demonstrations staged by Muslim demonstrators at several places in the country resulted in communal riots.  Praising Osama for his crusade for Islam by fundamentalist Muslims neither serves the interest of the country nor the members of Muslim community. 

Unfortunately perceived indifference towards terrorism in Kashmir and pro-Taliban slogans during recent anti-American demonstrations in various parts of India have presented a negative image of the community.  It is therefore, the duty of the Muslim leadership to negate such an impression.  This is possible if the Muslim leadership in this country attempts to de-Talibanise the Islamic madrasas as well as the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam carried out by their predecessors since the days of Waliullah. The Muslim scholars in the country are quite competent to interpret their faith with an open mind and a rational approach - suited to a democratic and secular society. 

Fringe groups exist in all religions and communities.  The Muslim scholars have a duty not to let the fringe groups  take over  the mainstream.

 (The analysis is based on the personal perception of the writer.  E-mail ramashray60@yahoo.com)

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