By Yoginder Sikand, NewAgeIslam.com
Some days ago, the Times of India published a wildly sensationalist story claiming that one (of the many) factions of the influential Indian Deobandi mass organization Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind had passed a number of resolutions that, it claimed, was virtually tantamount to a call for the Talibanisation of the Muslims of India. As ‘proof’, the author, Mohammed Wajihuddin (incidentally, a friend of mine) adduced a statement issued by the Mahmood Madni faction of the Jamiat terming television, the cinema and condoms as ‘tools of Satan’, and calling on Muslims to abstain from them.
Curiously enough, the story chose to ignore numerous other resolutions recently passed by the same faction of the Jamiat that do not quite fit into the stereotypical image of the ‘mad Muslim’ that influential sections of the Indian media so sedulously seek to cultivate: justice for innocent Muslims languishing in jail on trumped-up terror charges; compensation for Muslims hit by communal violence; reservations for Muslims in government jobs; the implementation of the recommendations of the Sachar Committee Report, and so on. That it highlighted only those resolutions that would conform to and reconfirm the image of the Muslims, or, at least the mullahs, as incorrigible buffoons, at best, or dangerous would-be Taliban-style fanatics, at worst, reveals much more about the deep-rooted biases of influential sections of the Indian media than it does of the Muslims or the mullahs themselves. Clearly, these sections of the media are simply not interested in projecting Muslim substantive issues, including genuine concerns related to Muslim deprivation and discrimination. As far as Muslims are concerned, it seems, the only issues that pique their interest are absurd fatwas or hugely controversial statements by unrepresentative mullahs that reinforce a certain image of ‘the Muslim’ that they constantly project. It is painfully apparent that these sections of the media enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, indeed a sort of perverse nexus, with the mullahs, whom they erroneously project as the ‘natural’ leaders of the Muslims and spokesmen of Islam, a claim that the mullahs never tire of asserting, but one that many other Muslims refuse to concede.
That said, it also has to be conceded that the mullahs are hardly less to blame than the sections of the media that thrive on baiting them. Wedded to understandings of Islam that are derived from medieval commentaries of the Quran and books of jurisprudence or fiqh penned centuries ago in an entirely different social and historical context, they wish to impose, through their fatwas, if possible, or through force if necessary, their world-view on the rest of the Muslims, with predictably disastrous consequences. This explains the steady stream of fatwas that emanate from their madrasas that distinctly aim at curbing Muslim agency, setting Muslims clearly apart from others, crippling Muslim women and confining them within the four walls of their homes, and so on. This is particularly the case with the Deobandi mullahs, such as the men who man the Jamiat, who are the most organized of the various mullah groups, running literally tens of thousands of madrasas and maktabs across the country (and even abroad), and who enjoy close links with various political parties. A content analysis of their fatwas clearly reveals their fundamental inability and unwillingness to come to terms with the realities of contemporary times, when human rights, individual choice, social justice, gender equality and so on are unassailable demands, and when growing numbers of people seek to understand, interpret and experiment with religion by themselves, challenging the monopoly of priests and clerics over religious discourse.
In my view, it is not Islam per se, but, rather, particular versions, or, more appropriately, visions, of it that are fundamentally responsible for the perceived inability of the mullahs to articulate sensible, meaningful and contextually-relevant interpretations of Islam for our times. Over the years, I have read the works of numerous progressive Islamic scholars, who articulate understandings of the faith, including on such issues as women’s rights, inter-faith relations, peace and communal harmony, and social and economic justice that are truly appealing and eminently sensible. However, they receive no recognition from the mullahs at all, most of who have not even heard of them. The mullahs simply do not feel the need to turn to them, for they imagine themselves, as they repeatedly claim, to be the ‘inheritors of the prophets’ or waris-e anbiya. Consequently, they feel absolutely no need at all to take lessons from others, be they non-mullah Muslims or non-Muslims. This is why progressive Islamic scholars find no place in the madrasas or in most Muslim bookshops that specialize in texts penned by the mullahs, besides the Quran and the putative sayings of the Prophet. Some of these scholars, not surprisingly, have been hounded and even killed by the mullahs and their henchmen, branded as ‘heretics’ simply because they have dared to differ with them. If the mullahs and their clout are to be seriously challenged, rather than being simply mocked and derided, promoting alternate visions of Islam articulated by such progressive scholars and making them hegemonic is a task that can no longer be ignored. Needless to say, this is easier said than done.
The nasty habit of mullahs passing fatwas on every conceivable matter stems from an assumption—one that, ironically enough, the Quran does not seem to sanction—that Muslims must turn to the clerics for every decision that they take and act according to their advice. In turn, this assumption is based on another premise—again one that is absent in the Quran—that Islam is some sort of fix-all for every possible issue or problem. In actual fact, however, the Quran lays down relatively few laws of this sort, leaving wide leeway to human ingenuity and freedom. The fact of the matter, however, is that the mullahs have completely subverted this space with their insistence that Islam, or what in practical terms translates into Muslim jurisprudence developed over the centuries by the mullahs themselves, has rules for every matter that all Muslims must strictly abide by. This explains, for instance, the hundreds of books penned by half-baked mullahs even on such themes as ‘Islamic Rules for Using Mobile Phones’, ‘Islamic Rules for Cutting One’s Nails’, and ‘The Importance of the Beard’. This explains, too, the flurry of fatwas issued by madrasas on such questions as ‘Is it permissible to eat crow’s meat?’, ‘Can a woman step out of her house?’, ‘How many fingers should one use for eating?’, ‘Is it Islamically acceptable to eat with a spoon and fork and sit at a table instead of the floor? Is that in accordance with the practice of the Prophet’, ‘Can one rest one’s back against a chair while sitting? Did the Prophet sit like that?’, and so on (The website of the Dar ul-Ifta, the fatwa-dispensing factory of the Deoband madrasa, accessible on http://darulifta-deoband.org, is a mine of inane fatwas of this sort, which readers seeking some amusement can consult). In even such minor matters the mullahs insist that Muslims must look to them for guidance. It is as if the mullahs would like nothing more than turning every Muslim into a carefully-programmed moron whose every act and thought would be dictated and carefully policed by them. It is thus not for nothing that critics justifiably argue that the mullahs are one of the major causes of the present backwardness of the Muslims worldwide.
It is striking how despite the clear absence of, and, indeed, hostility to, ritualism in the Quran, the mullahs’ version of what they project as Islam is so heavily saturated with it, and in such a manner as to prescribe rules and rituals for every domain of human life, thus completely subverting the freedom that the Quran provides, within certain broad ethical limits, to human beings. This enslavement of the Muslim mind to the diktats of the mullahs has everything to do with the mullahs’ political and personal interests in their capacity as self-styled spokesmen and authoritative interpreters of Islam. Despite their pious proclamations about themselves, however, their petty politicking is notorious and well-known, a long, historical tradition. It is not for nothing, then, that the mullahs have for long been the butt of jokes and derision in popular Muslim lore.
The recent statement by the Jamiat Deobandi mullahs, which a section of the media has picked up to create the spectre of a looming ‘Talibanisation’ of the Indian Muslims—in my view, very unjustifiably—needs to be seen in the context of all of this. At the same time, I must also insist that watching TV and inane Bollywood movies are in no way a touchstone of ‘modernity’, as the story in the Times of India makes them out to be. Nor can opposition to them be construed, as Wajihuddin puts it, as being necessarily ‘co-terminus with the Taliban's tyrannical social agenda’.
Yoginder Sikand is a regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com