Profesor Akhtarul Wasey is the head of the Department of Islamic Studies and the Director of the Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Editor of three Islamic journals, and member of numerous Muslim committees and organisastions, he is the author of numerous books on issues related to Islam and Muslims. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he discusses the vexed issue of Muslim community leadership in contemporary India.
Q: In pre-Partition late nineteenth and twentieth century India, the Muslim middle-class played a key role in providing leadership to the Indian Muslims in various spheres. This is in contrast to the situation, today. How do you account for this?
A; The Revolt of 1857 was a disaster as far as the Indian Muslims were concerned, and so was the Partition in 1947. But it also saw the emergence and development of the modern Muslim middle class, which proved to be a powerful motor for social change. This was best represented by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and the movement that he spawned. Not all of those who were influenced by, or agreed with, him on the need for modern education agreed with his pro-British politics. Indeed, some of them were forceful champions of both modern education as well as Indian independence. Raja Mahendra Pratap, head of the first Indian government in exile, was from the Aligarh school, as were other confirmed anti-imperialists such as Hasrat Mohani, Syed Mahmud, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and the Ali brothers. It is true that many Aligarhians were vociferous supporters of the Muslim League and its Pakistan demand, but there were many others who were with the Congress and even with the Communist Party as well.
It was not just in politics that this new Muslim middle class, largely a product of Syed Ahmad Khan’s Aligarh school, played a key role. It also made a powerful impact in the fields of literature, culture, and economic development.
But, with the Partition things changed drastically. It led to an exodus of a large section of the Indian Muslim middle-class that had been a crucial motor for social change to Pakistan. Their vested economic interests had made them firm backers of the Pakistan scheme, because they felt that there they would face no competition from the Hindus.
Partition was nothing short of a tragedy of momentous proportions for the Muslims, not just of India but of Pakistan as well. The Muslims who were left behind in India faced three choices. Firstly, they could forfeit all their rights since, as right-wing Hindutva forces argued, with the creation of Pakistan they had ‘got their due’. Secondly, they could have the rights of ‘tenants’ as concessions, which is to say they could live in India but not be co-owners of it and would have no role in its development, because it ‘belonged’ to others. Thirdly, they could be equal citizens, with the same rights and duties as other Indians. This third view was, and still is, we must recognize, shared by a large number of Hindus. Indeed, the Indian Constitution gave numerous guarantees to all its minorities, including Muslims. This, we must never forget, was possible only in India. Despite all the provocations of the Hindutva forces and the opposition of some Hindus, the Indian leadership did not agree to declaring India a Hindu state, although it could easily have done that as a reaction to the creation of a so-called ‘Islamic’ Pakistan.
Q: But my question was about the role of the Muslim middle-class in providing leadership to the community at large.
A: I am coming to that point. In post-47 India, Muslims were faced with a unique predicament, one that they had never faced before. They were not a ruling community, but nor were the a ruled community. Rather, they were, in theory, co-rulers, along with other communities. This new status, which they had never enjoyed before, demanded a new sort of community leadership.
Our leaders have a host of issues to tackle, some of which they have failed to address at all. One of these is the lamentable level of Muslim representation in various government services. There is an urgent need for the government to turn its attention to this. It must also do away with the discriminatory provisions that deny Muslim (and Christian) Dalits Scheduled Caste status. Today, Muslim youth want to have their share in the country’s development. They want to participate in the task of building the country. When you speak to government officials, they will tell you that Muslims have all the freedom to do so, but the ground realities are quite different. The Indian Muslims are like the twelfth player in a cricket team, who is kept simply as a ‘reserve’. He is part of the team but is not brought out onto the field along with the other eleven players. He simply sits in the dressing room in the stadium. The Indian Muslim is like that. He is forced to sit in a corner. Ignored, indeed shunned, he spends his time praying that at least one of the eleven players gets hurt so that he can then be called into the field where he can display his talent and make his team win.
But, the point is, we Indian Muslims are no longer willing to be non-playing or ‘reserve’ players in the process of building our country. We demand to be included in the team. And, whenever and wherever we have been included, we have proven our mettle beyond any shade of doubt.
Q: To come back to my question, how do you think that the marginalization of the modern Muslim middle-class in the wake of the Partition, especially in north India, where the bulk of the Indian Muslims live, impacted on the nature of the Indian Muslim community leadership?
A: The vacuum created by the exodus of a sizeable section of the north Indian Muslim feudal and middle class was filled by the ulema of the traditional madrasas. Many of these ulema, particularly a large number of Deobandis, had forcefully opposed the Partition. They condemned the Pakistan scheme and the so-called ‘two-nation theory’ it was based on as un-Islamic. They were passionate advocates for a united India. Following the Partition, they sought to lead the community. They were also the only forces who were able to do so, as they had a strong base among the Muslim masses. The first task they were faced with was to set aside the fears of the Muslims who remained behind in India, to persuade them not to migrate to Pakistan, to rehabilitate tens of thousands who had been displaced in the violence in the wake of the Partition, and to help them build bridges with the rest of the Indian society. This task they did with considerable success, despite the grave odds they faced. One has only to go through the records of the Jamiat ul-Ulema-i Hind in the late 40s and early 50s to see how valiantly these ulema struggled to do all this.
Another issue of immense concern to the Muslims who stayed behind in India after the Partition were the threats to their religious and cultural identity and their religious institutions. The ulema gave a great deal of attention to this vital task. This is something that we just cannot ignore. We cannot ignore the immense sacrifices the ulema made at such a critical juncture in our history. It would be uncharitable to ignore all of this.
Different periods of history have their own requirements and their own priorities. So, from the mid-1960s onwards, you have the emergence of a different set of people who sought to lead the Muslims, including many non-ulema. Many of their demands were also different. This process was reflected, for instance, in the short-lived experiment of the Muslim Majlis, led by Dr. Faridi. At the same time, Hyderabad witnessed the growing influence of the Majlis-e Ittihadul Muslimeen, again a largely non-ulema Muslim formation. This was a time when the Muslims were coming out of their ghettos, less encumbered by the burden of the Partition that had been thrust on them. They were no longer mesmerized by the Congress, which had failed to protect their interests and even their lives.
Q: And what about today? How do you see the role of the Muslim middle-class in terms of leading the community in various fields?
A: The Muslim middle-class in western and southern India is way ahead of its counterpart in the north. In western and southern India, middle-class Muslims are providing a more progressive, socially-engaged and socially-relevant form of leadership. They have set up a large number of institutions for a variety of purposes. Opportunities to do so exist in other parts of the country, but the initiative for doing so is less marked. And, then, the state also often does not provide enough such opportunities. In many places, it prefers to build police stations rather than schools in Muslim localities.
Today, even in ‘backward’ north India, there is a visible demand for modern education among Muslims. In a sense, this was a consequence of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, when Muslims were forced to realize that their extreme backwardness on the educational front had rendered them weak and ineffective, bereft of influence in the corridors of power. If you go to any Muslim ghetto today, you will be surprised at the number of Muslim-run ‘convent’ or so-called ‘English-medium’ schools that flourish there. Some people quickly dismiss them as ‘teaching-shops’ of woeful quality. Admittedly, their standards may be low and may leave much to be desired, but, then, from quantity comes quality in due course. As a minority, we must strive even harder than others to achieve quality in our institutions, for only then will we gain the respect of others. And only then, of course, can we survive and thrive in the market, which is now characterized by such fierce competition.
Q: What, in your view, should be the main issues that Muslim leaders should concentrate on?
A: Economic and educational advancement should be top priorities of the emerging Muslim leadership. This does not, however, mean that we should ignore politics. Rather, we must be politically active, but in a sensible way. We can’t, and shouldn’t, go it alone in the political sphere. We have to work with others for common interests and concerns. Even on the issue of countering Islamophobia and the targeting of Muslims, it has been found that brave non-Muslim activists, such as Teesta Setalvad and Manisha Sethi (both women) can be better spokespeople for Muslims than many of our so-called leaders.
On this let me add a point that we tend not to think about. Just as non-Muslim fellow Indians like Teesta and Manisha and many others are struggling for justice to Muslims, we Muslims, too, must raise our voice for, and work for and with, non-Muslims who face similar problems—Dalits, workers, Adivasis, and so on. Our leadership must not remain obsessed with specifically ‘Muslim’ issues, very narrowly defined. We need to wholeheartedly participate in movements on general issues, issues that affect everyone, as well as in the movements of other marginalized people. Only then can we be in a position to give, rather than just take. Only then can we win the respect and regard of others. We can’t keep demanding things and not helping others, or even ourselves. We have to recognize the urgent need to be much more inclusive and open.
Our Muslim organizations also need to be much more professional than they are. They cannot afford to carry on being individual-centric or starkly sectarian. The feudal ethos that characterizes most them is really appalling.
That said, I can somewhat understand why Muslim organizations tend to focus solely on Muslim-specific issues, although I do not condone this attitude. If your own house is on fire and our own life is under threat, you are simply unable to help others even if you want to. You can’t expect me to come rushing to douse the flames engulfing your house if my house, too, is on fire.
Q: What do you feel about the Muslim media’s role, if at all, in promoting a more relevant and progressive Muslim leadership?
A: It has done precious little at all in this regard. It has remained confined only to Muslim issues and has an impact only on some sections of the Muslims themselves. It does not have a wider, cross-community appeal or influence. Often, Muslim papers serve as vehicles for the personal economic and political interests of their owners and editors.
Q: And what about Muslim elected representatives in the Parliament and state assemblies?
A: On the whole, they do not appear very vocal about Muslim issues. Maybe this is because they are bound to follow the whip of their political parties. They cannot be called ‘Muslim’ leaders unless they are elected from exclusively Muslim constituencies, and even then they would themselves not, and indeed should not, claim that they represent Muslims alone. We do, however, have a new breed of Muslim political leaders who might be able to play a more meaningful role in highlighting issues that concern Muslims—people such as Omar Abdullah, Mahmooda Mufti, Salman Khurshid, Rashid Alavi, Haroon Yusuf and so on. I don’t expect or advocate that they should come on one platform and concern themselves solely with Muslim issues. After all, they are meant to respond to their constituencies, which include non-Muslims, too. However, I feel they should have a common minimum programme for the Muslim community across party lines. This programme should be based on the understanding that India’s interests coincide with those of its Muslim citizens and that as long as Muslims remain backward the country as a whole cannot advance as it should.
Q: How do you account for the fact that while the ulema (despite their limitations) are deeply involved in community issues, middle-class Muslims (notable exceptions notwithstanding) are not?
A: Our university-educated Muslims are so engrossed in their own personal issues and concerns that they simply don’t have any time for others. I think this seriously needs to be critiqued and changed. They, too, must be actively involved in community affairs, instead of leaving this task just to the ulema and some self-appointed Muslim politicians. I think universities such as the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Millia Islamia must play a leading role in this regard. Their researchers must seriously study Muslim issues, to come up with prescriptions and to dialogue with agencies of the state and civil society groups. This is something that they have, I must say, largely failed to do.
Q: The lament is often heard that the ulema and modern-educated Muslim leaders and others are divided by a yawning gulf and that this dualism is a major problem that urgently needs to be solved. This is said to be one of the principal factors for the absence of a proper community leadership. What do you feel about this?
A: I think this issue of the divide between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ systems of knowledge, represented by two different sets of leaders, is becoming increasingly irrelevant today. This is a very heartening development. We need both forms of education and both types of leaders. We need religious as well as modern education, because Islam is not just about the Hereafter. Rather, it gives equal stress to the this-world or duniya. As the Prophet Muhammad remarked, the world is the field of the Hereafter. This is to say, one will sow in the Hereafter what one reaps in this world. Islam stresses both worship (ibadat) and social affairs (muamilat).
The notion that in Islam there is a rigid distinction between ‘religious knowledge’ (ilm-e din) and ‘worldly knowledge’ (ilm-e duniya) is wholly tenable. It is the product of the period of Muslim decline. Admittedly, it has ruined us. The only distinction that Islam countenances in knowledge is between what is ‘useful’ (nafe) and ‘useless’ (ghair nafe). So insistent was the Prophet Muhammad that his followers should gain proper education that he even offered to release non-Muslim prisoners of war, taken in the aftermath of the battle of Badr, if they educated those of his followers who were illiterate, Now, these were no ordinary non-Muslims. Rather, they were fierce enemies of Islam and the Prophet, who had waged war against them. Obviously, not only did they know nothing about Islam, they were wholly against Islam. Naturally, therefore, what they taught the illiterate Muslims was not the Quran or the Hadith, but worldly knowledge, or what we today call ‘secular’ knowledge. So, if the Prophet considered this sort of knowledge perfectly legitimate, how can it be considered impermissible?
Let me end this by mentioning the Quranic story of the creation of Adam. When God told the angels that he was going to create Adam, the angels, who otherwise were always obedient to Him, objected. He asked them to explain the names of things, but they could not. However, Adam did so. Then, God ordered the angels to bow down before Adam. Accordingly, the rule was established that those who do not know must always defer to those who do. God decided this on the very day Adam was created. This is why till Muslims ‘knew’, till they embraced and promoted all forms of useful knowledge, others respected them. But, ever since they stopping ‘knowing’ and began wallowing in ignorance, they were forced to be subordinate to others. So, if today Muslims find themselves bowing before others, it is their own fault for having abandoned the pursuit of knowledge.
Hence, we must stop blaming others for all our ills and realize that for much of our present sorry plight we are ourselves responsible. The point, therefore, is that the pursuit of knowledge, including what is called ‘secular’ knowledge is indispensable if we Muslims are to drag ourselves from out of the morass we find ourselves stuck in today—not just in India, but all across the globe.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore