Muslims in Contemporary India

Salman Khurshid

It is with a sense of diffidence and awe that I comment on the landmark Madras Lectures of Allama Iqbal, also known as Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1929)”a book widely discussed and debated in the Islamic world. This is indeed a difficult task as two generations of profound thinkers across a span of seven decades have attempted, to come to grips with a rapidly changing global milieu and the world of Islam adamantly resisting change for various reasons, some legitimate but others largely unwarranted.

With the death of Allama Iqbal in 1938 an era of Muslim renaissance came to an end. In his death Muslims lost a leader and an intellectual giant of Islamic world”a loss which could not be replaced many centuries to come. To make the things worse, conservatives of revivalist and reactionary forces exploited Iqbal's philosophy. These distorted views gained currency and put a big question mark on Muslim intellect in general, particularly vis-Ã -vis the mainstream Indian thinking. This phenomenon perturbed leaders like Maulana Azad. But after him there is silence once again. Now we are left with state-sponsored Muslim intelligentsia imposing their submissive views upon younger generations through university departments and public offices. On the other hand we have sectarian, reactionary intellectuals hailing from religious outfits.

Allama Iqbal was committed to precipitating a renaissance in Islamic culture In the Sub-continent, particularly in India, to meet the onslaught of contemporary western thought; seventy years later Justice Javid Iqbal too remains preoccupied with the need for a renaissance in Islamic culture, particularly in the Indian Subcontinent. In the interregnum, Islamic culture has survived the absence of that renaissance, several devastative wars, domestic turmoil and severe upheavals in almost all the Islamic countries. In our own country the rise of Hindutva as an aggressive majoritarian ideology and apparent withdrawal of Muslims to restricted enclaves of political role has raised serious questions about the future. A fresh look at the Madras lectures at this point would be immensely rewarding for persons involved in or interested in the future of Islamic culture in the world generally and in India more specifically.

The Madras lectures, chronologically and intellectually, precede theses such as the clash of civilizations™ and the end of history™. In any case the clash thesis becomes somewhat of an over-simplification when it comes to India”for one, it does not provide for a 'Hindu civilization' shock and furthermore conspicuously overlooks the unique model of India's secular ethos with its 130 million Muslims. Edward Said's Orientalism has brilliantly exposed the attitude that causes these distortions and misinterpretation of ideas and events in the Orient. But to meet that challenge the Orient (read Islam) must first rediscover itself in the 21st century milieu”Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam will no doubt be an essential reading for such an enterprise.

Curiously, very little has changed since Allama Iqbal made his provocative plea for reconstruction of Islamic thought. The inherent tension between liberals and ultra-conservatives is commonplace everywhere, but in India it has acquired a unique complexity. Amongst Indian Muslims there are pro-establishment liberals in the guise of progressives who speak the language of appeasing Hindutva forces and call it liberalism™”their idiom at least suggests so; there are other liberals who seek to represent the aspirations of minorities but with the intention of reforming their thinking in keeping with their own perception; and finally, there are conservatives who refuse to accept that there is a world outside their villages and mohallas. But the overall impact of Muslims on national life, including politics is decisive wherever they are in substantial numbers. Whilst Indian Muslims debate within the millat, the rest of India debates about Islamic Culture and aspirations of Indian Muslims inevitably in narrow fora beyond the millat. In the rest of the world liberal reformers are accused of being kafirs (as indeed was a charge against Iqbal himself) but in India they become kafirs collaborators. At the same time, liberals who genuinely endeavour to build bridges with the community in order to lead Muslims to an enlightened existence are looked upon suspiciously and accused of being communal™ by the progressives on one hand and on the other are named as ISI agents by the Hindu extreme represented by the Sangh Parivar. This linguistic, political and conceptual confusion needs to be cleared up quickly. A person cannot become communal simply by conforming to and promoting his or her community™s aspirations.

Reform and reconstruction must, for practical and moral reasons, come from within the community and through inter-community dialogue. But since many aspects of reform in a democratic country must per force rely upon and involve state institutions, their sensitivity of Muslim sensibility is extremely important to the success of reform process. This includes encouraging and accommodating community institutions that can address these issues in a meaningful manner. Pervasive and active involvement in party political activity will ensure that these dimensions of Indian democracy develop in a participatory manner. Since the repudiation of the two-nation theory, many attempts have been made to conceive theoretical positions about the political role of Muslims in a secular India. There was an early congress model followed by the variants of the Janta Dal and Mulayam Singh Yadav. Syed Shahabuddin and various Muslim parties like the Indian Union Muslim League and Ittehad-ul Muslemeen have periodically offered formulations that have found only marginal and passing support. Last few elections have indicated a desperation in the political system to capitalize on the insecurity of Muslims. But there are many institutional and conceptual conundrums that will take some time and effort to sort out.

Given clement political climate enlightened Muslim leadership will undoubtedly evolve. But Allama Iqbal™s requisite of Power would have to be satisfied by a collaborative effort of an all party-all religions legislature, Muslim universities and institutions, community leaders and most of all the ulema. The key question is”can a Muslim leader be a leader of all Indians other than being a leader of Indian Muslims? Ijma and ijtihad will equally have to be viewed in the light of the collaborative model.

Despite fifty years of educational progress in the country, Muslim masses, especially in the north, remain educationally handicapped and economically weak. The impact of Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia has been marginal as far as the national spectrum is concerned and inadequate within the Muslims to meet the enormity of the challenge. The Southern states have made impressive contribution through the voluntary sector. So long as the paucity of modern educational opportunity continues, Muslim masses will perforce gravitate towards spurious versions of Sufism and political opportunism. They will encounter cultural”aggression from western oriented as well as self-serving swadeshi™ enthusiasts. They need reinforcement on both fronts not only through access to education but also to the finer aspects of Indian Muslim culture, Urdu language, literature, music etc. Political manifestos will have to vigorously take on the narrow and restricted views of swadeshi™ so as not to reflect more than just a party political view of Hinduism. Without resolving these political issues, no serious effort will be possible to begin an ambitious national project of reconstruction of religious thought in Islam. Perhaps a beginning can be made with a new set of lectures in tribute to the original author.

(The author is former Minister of State for External Affairs and Senior Advocate at Supreme Court of India)

Salman Khurshid

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