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Islam at Crossroads

Fikr kar nadaa musibat aa ne waali hai Tere barbadiyoun ke mashware hain aasmanon mein Na badlo ge to mit jaoge Hindusita waalon Tumhari daasta bhi na hoogi daastanon mein -- Mohammad Iqbal

Shafey Danish

Fikr kar nadaa musibat aa ne waali hai
Tere barbadiyoun ke mashware hain aasmanon mein

Na badlo ge to mit jaoge Hindusita waalon
Tumhari daasta bhi na hoogi daastanon mein

-- Mohammad Iqbal

(Take care o heedless, trouble is not far,
The heavens resound with suggestions of your downfall
If you do not change o Indian (Muslims), you will disappear without a trace
The story of the races will have no story of your race)

Difficult as the situation is for Muslims around the world today, this is not the first time that the community has found itself in such a situation; dilemma ridden and faced with difficult choices. It came to a similar point early in the last century after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. It was faced with a choice; either to persist with the Arab-Islamic tradition it had practiced for centuries, or to convert to the dominant Western culture.

Then also Muslims were at a crossroads, and there was no easy straight path.

Indicators of the choice Muslims made were everywhere. Turkey itself, till then the seat of the Khilafat, went so radically secular that even the signs and symbols of Islam were banned. In India, Syed Ahmad Khan exhorted the Muslims to take to western education. Some went willingly, and some were carried screaming and kicking down the new path.

The far reaching implications of that change of course did not become immediately apparent. Aligarh, the centre from which the movement for modernizing the Muslims was launched, was steeped in Islamic cultural markers. It was compulsory for the students to wear a sherwani and cap whenever they went outdoors. It is understandable therefore that the leaders of that age completely missed the fact that they had embarked upon a path that would change the very nature of the community.

It is not as if other communities did not take to modern-western culture. In fact, Muslims came late, the Hindus had decided much earlier that changing was a necessity. Yet in no community was this break with the past so complete as it was with the Muslims. It is instructive to note that a community which at the start of its journey towards modernism was led by a religious scholar in the traditional mould, by the time freedom and partition approached was being led by a man who was completely removed from Islam. Jinnah was the complete western lawyer, ham sandwich chewing, dressed in saville row suits and married to a parsi wife. In complete contrast, Gandhi, no less modern, was a vegetarian, dressed in homespun khadi and was a brahmachari to boot.

It is only now when the muslims have traveled down this path for almost a hundred years, and look back and see all their problems still unsolved, when they find themselves at another crossroads, that the implications of the choice they made a century earlier begins to dawn upon them.

Then they at least had leaders, now they have none. Yet once again they have to make a choice; and perhaps they are already making it.

Change Factors

Among the historical reasons, a prime one driving this change, is disillusionment with modernism. This disillusionment is driving not just Muslims, but people of all religious and cultural persuasions back to their religious basics. Once modernism offered freedom, hope and a promise of a new world order. More peaceful, more self sufficient, happier and more united. People dreamt of a world which would make love not war, and poets sang of a new dawn. After more that a hundred years, when modernism as a movement has gone by and post modernism has also ceased to be a term that could meaningfully describe the present world, those dreams of utopia have metamorphosed into the dystopia we are currently living in.

Muslims had taken to modernism primarily for empowerment. And they had taken to it with the vehemence of the desperate. Almost a century of this modernism has dramatically changed the Muslim world. Cultural markers all over the world, even in avowedly Islamic countries, are western. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wears a suit and not a jubba.

Today that modernism seems hollow. Its promises have turned out to be false. Far from uplifting the community, it has turned them into modern day subalterns. A community of followers who have nothing of their own to contribute.

It is not that the impact of western education and western culture has been all bad, without it perhaps Iqbal’s verse, quoted in the beginning, would have come true. Yet, that education also whittled away at the thread that holds the community together, Islamic culture.

Though individuals have been empowered through the western model, the community has not. It is as if the price of success through the western system was to leave Islam at the door.

Among the topical reasons one could cite everything from the Palestinian crisis to the Iraq war. The Middle East nations live either under US protection of under its threat. While Saudi Arabia is little more than a protectorate of the US, Iran, which has been opposing US hegemony, is under sustained pressure over its alleged nuclear ambitions.

Somalia, a country which was taken over by Islamist groups after prolonged warfare with regional warlords, was bombed by the US. It was claimed that Somalia was harboring al Qaeda terrorists. Afghanistan and Iraq are in ruins after US led war on terror there.

News of this sort goes a long way towards creating the feeling that Muslim nations, especially those that Islamize, are being targeted on just about any pretext.

Muslims in the West

For Muslims who decided to make Europe or the US their home, things have suddenly become more difficult. France in 2003 banned the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women. The then French President Jacques Chirac denounced the headscarf calling the act of donning one ‘confrontational’. Muslims in Spain, Turkey and UK are facing similar dilemmas.

Does the West then believe that there is just one way of living – the western way? Muslims who had become modern and western were not choosing one culture over another; they were choosing a culture of freedom to wear anything over one that limited choices of what you could wear. They were choosing the freedom to think and say what they thought, over boundaries set over that freedom in Islam.

Freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of modernism. But in this too it seems that some voices may not speak as loudly or as long as others. The Muslim point of view has been marginalized in the media, even as the view points of all those that take potshots at Islam and the Muslim community are given undue prominence. While the media in Muslim countries are obviously more representative they can hardly match the power of major media outlets like the BBC or the CNN in shaping world opinion.

Writers from Salman Rushdie to Irshad Manji - all critics of Islam - have become important voices in the West. While those making out a case for Islam are almost unknown. Even those who ought to have gotten attention for the sheer impact they have had – for example Abul ala Maudoodi, for founding a movement which the West now blames for fuelling terrorism – are neglected.

Some of the reports which are published by respected newspapers and magazines in the West about Islam are downright ridiculous. I remember reading a report in the Time magazine which effectively said that the word ‘hoor’mentioned in the Quran for women in Paradise actually meant grapes!

The level of naivety, condescension and misunderstanding that lie behind such reports is staggering. Is the misunderstanding deliberate? One does not know.

Muslims in India

The attack on the WTC in America, was a cataclysmic moment for the Muslim community. Post 9/11, America launched a war, and the western media a campaign, that has turned Muslims into the Jews of the modern age. They themselves, and their religion have come to be looked upon with suspicion and distrust.

This is a thing that has not left India untouched. There are attacks on harmless institutions like the Dar ul Qazas(courtrooms), and issues embarrassing to the community, the case of Gudiya for example, are blown out of proportion.

A graver problem lies in the fact that the Hindu middle class has bought into the Hindutva ideology. That is why Narendra Modi is able to win elections by overwhelming numbers and be a hero to wide sections of the Hindu populace. That is why the bitter vituperation of a Pravin Togadia finds takers and thuggish organization like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, behind most of the recent riots, do not get banned, and if so very temporarily.

One ought not to have had to explain to any right thinking person that Narendra Modi is a criminal, who presided over the killing of thousands of innocent people. Most of them horrifically brutal. Yet that is what I have often found myself having to attempt. It is as if even things of this magnitude, are viewed subconsciously through a prism of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ How else does one explain this lack of empathy with minority communities, in a country that takes pride in being multi-ethnic, I do not know.

The media to a large extent understands this and tacitly agrees not to highlight such issues. The violence in Orissa for instance did not force the media to do a special programme even though rioting has continued for eight days. Contrast this to the detailed and dedicated media coverage of the communist carnage in Nandigram. Even though one can argue that a riot becomes more than just an act when it acquires communal colours as it hits at the very idea of peaceful coexistence, so necessary in a diverse society.

A criticism

The present Muslim society is very different from the one that came into existence in Arabia some 1500 years ago. That society was based on a set of principles and beliefs. Their commitment to those beliefs and principles was so strong that they were not willing to sacrifice or compromise with them at any cost.

There is a very well known anecdote of the Hazrat Ali, the fouth Khalifa (caliph) of the Prophet. He was fighting in a battle and succeeded in throwing down his enemy. Getting on top of him, he was about to slay him when the man spat on his face.

Hazrat Ali got off and spared the man. Curious at this sudden turn of events, the man asked “You had me down, then why did you not kill me?” “You see,” replied Hazrat Ali, “I was fighting you only for the sake of Allah. When you spat in my face, I felt such anger that the fight became personal. I did not want to kill you for personal reasons.” (This is the essence of the story, but it has been narrated in my own words, and does not correspond to the exact words said)

Though Indian Muslims have become very docile in the past few years – a very happy development – it was not always so. There was a time when they were willing to take to violence for any perceived slight. If the community is subdued today it has more to do with the prevalent situation which is inhospitable to any violent demonstration from it, rather than any principles.

A community which was created on the principles of equality is today divided along class, region, and sect lines. A community which was so honest that even their enemies left their belongings in their possession has no remarkable honesty remaining with it. Social evils, like caste system and dowry which were not a part of it, are today widely practiced.

Suffice it to say that the Muslims have acquired all the faults of all the communities without acquiring their good qualities.

But these are general lessons. The same can be said for any community. But there are some that are particular to the Muslims.

Ever since partition, the Muslims have preferred to live in closed communities with little interaction with the members of other communities. They have been content to go their way and mind their business without really bothering about what was happening with the country they live in, and with the world in general. They were concerned with politics in only so far as it affected them, otherwise otherwise their attitude was supremely unconcerned. Muslim voices were heard when something concerning the Muslims happened, otherwise every crisis, however big was met with a silence.

This attitude is grossly irresponsible. And it is to blame in a large extent for the isolation the Muslims face today.

While it is true that discrimination exists, it is certainly not of the level Muslims think. The views of the common Muslim – about discrimination – are based on hearsay and anecdotal accounts rather than real experience. This feeling that the world is ranged against them has added to their self imposed sense of isolation.

Another very grave problem for the community is the lack of able leadership. The vacuum has been filled by strongmen. The reason why strongmen have taken over as leaders of the Muslim community is precisely this: they offer protection against riots. Behind much of the politics of the Muslim community (the support for Lalu Prasad in Bihar for example) is the fear of another riot.

That is why a section of the Muslim society approves of the likes of Abu Salem and Dawood Ibrahim. It is precisely the reason behind the birth of dons and gang lords like Shahabuddin, Ateeq Ahmad and Mukhtar Ansari. While the preponderance of such men in the heartlands of Bihar and UP has something to do with the lawlessness prevalent there, it is not absent in other places either. To the politicians these men are important because they can deliver by the strength of their bahubal(strong arm tactics) the votes required.

But this is neither Islamic nor wise. In the long run strongmen offer nothing but a slow slide into impotent belligerence.


The events of the last few years have shaken up the very foundations of the community. The upheavals of change, that they had wished away has come to their doorsteps. These changes have forced them to examine, in however fragmentary a fashion, the basis of their beliefs and culture.

The problems that the community faces are many, one of which is that it has no political representation. The so called secular parties have not really worked for the development of the community. While the BJP, apart from being a party which never shies away from victimizing the Muslims if it helps in mollycoddling its vote bank, is a party that supports the VHP and Bajrang Dal and has Narendra Modi as its mascot.

The Muslim community today is badly in need of a political leadership. But it would still be sometime before one emerges. Because first the community must exist, and exist not merely on the basis of a shared sense of persecution. It must form a collective consciousness, must build institutions that works for the uplift of the entire community. Above all it must exist on the basis of a shared sense of values.

This was one aspect that the leaders of the pre partition era failed to emphasize. They did not realize that the community would spill apart like beads from a broken rosary. What, after all, holds the Muslims together, if it is not Islam? Muslims live in different countries, speak different languages, eat different foods and belong to different races. There is no natural bond between them; even if they happen to live in the same country.

Even the emergence of an educated middle class, produced by the modern education system has not really helped the community as a whole. The giving back from the haves to the have nots, so necessary a part of community building, has not happened. There are few people interested in setting up schools, hospitals, support structures for the needy, and so on. So everyone has to progress on his or her own ability without any help or support from the ‘community,’ so when they do make it, there is no reason why they should feel inclined to give back.

Some answers

While on the one hand this is as difficult a time as any that the Indian Muslim has ever seen, it is also a time of opportunities. A time to put aside petty differences, of sect and belief, and come together as one nation. A time to stop quibbling over minor differences of jurisprudence which divide them, and look instead at the overwhelmingly large body of things they have in common.

It is a time for the ulemas (religious scholars) to come out of their self imposed seclusion within the walls of the madarsas and engage more fully with the worldly affairs of the community. In other places modernism of the highest degree exists without embarrassment with religiosity of the extreme kind. There is no reason why Islam, the religion that had illuminated the Middle Ages with the learning it inspired, cannot co exist with modernism. There is a proposal for the setting up of a madarsa board, which will not only regularize the madarsas and bring them into the mainstream of education, but would provide them with much needed funds. The people who run these madarsas would be able to introduce courses that will prepare their students to take up careers other than that of a teacher of jurisprudence. The benefits to the community could be immense.

Perhaps this time the choice facing the Muslims is not one of direction, for they must become both modern and Muslim, the choice is really between remaining static and moving. And this is one choice, that no sign board at the crossroads would help the Muslims in making.


From Zee News

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