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The Ulema and Sub-Continental Politics in Perspective


By Muhammad Nurul Huda

13 Apr 2013

THE massive show of strength and organisational ability of the Ulema (religious preacher) under the banner of “Hefazat-e-Islam” on April 6 in the capital city may have been a surprise for many. The sponsor of the assembly claiming to be a non- political organisation has delved into matters that are clearly political and implementing their demands would mean basic constitutional change. While women’s bodies and rights advocates have voiced their concern at the allegedly retrograde propositions, the government intends to engage the Hefazat-e-Islam in a dialogue.

Under the circumstances, it would be worthwhile to look into the role of Ulema in politics in perspective, particularly insofar as it relates to sub-continental politics. One may recollect that in the second decade of 20th century, the sub-continent witnessed the Khilafat movement which used a pan-Islamic symbol to forge a pan-Indian Muslim unity. The point to note is that this movement itself contributed strongly to the strengthening of Muslim identity in Bengal. Frequent use of religious symbols by the Ulema who were pressed into service highlighted the Islamic self of the Indian Muslim.

The passage of the Shariat Application Act in 1937, with spirited advocacy by Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the central legislative Assembly, provided a symbolic ideological basis for Muslim solidarity on a national scale. At this point Mr. Jinnah launched a mass contact campaign and pressed the Ulema into service. For Muslim leaders, who in 1921 saw no conflict between their Indianness and Muslim identity, recognition of separate Muslim nationhood for them became a non-negotiable minimum political demand in the 1940s. The Ulema was a significant facilitator in the movement’s crystallisation.

It is interesting to note that in early 20th century Hindu leaders like Balgangadhar Tilak and Aurobindo Ghosh also believed that the use of Hindu mythology and history was the best means to reach the masses and mobilise them in support of their politics. Hindu religious revivalism was a main feature of their political strategy. Bhagavadgita became a source of spiritual inspiration for the Swadeshi Volunteers and Hindu religious symbols were frequently used to mobilise the masses. The Ulema at this point remained active in alienating the Muslims from such political mobilisation.

As Hindu mobilisation made progress, it also simultaneously vilified the “other,” the Muslims. This aggressive mobilisation contributed to the counter-mobilisation of the Muslims in Punjab and Bengal. In the countryside too, Islam penetrated rural politics in the nineteenth century through such intermediaries as the Sajjad Nashins, Pirs and the Ulema. Bengal Muslims were united by a common allegiance to the essentials of the Islamic faith.

Under the leadership of a group of Bengali speaking Muslim literati and religious preachers (Pirs), Islam in Bengal in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries acquired a syncretistic face by borrowing generously from local religious and cultural traditions. This reconstructed Islamic great tradition was more acceptable to the masses, as it resolved the problem of dualism between the Persianised and Arabic Islamic high culture of the Ashraf and the Bengali culture of the a trap peasants. The Ulema was the facilitating factor in this process.

Most Bengali Muslims were poor cultivators and thus preferred the indigenous and less expensive traditional institutions, like the Maktabs and madrasas. The Ulema exercised considerable influence over the peasantry. The traditional theocratic order was in conflict with the British rule which had threatened the traditional system and their own predominance.

Among the Bengal Muslims a distinct Muslim identity had been developing at a mass level from the early nineteenth century through various Islamic reform movements. These movements rejected the earlier syncretism and sought to Islamise and Arabicise the culture, language and daily habits of the Muslim peasants by purging whatever they thought to be of un-Islamic origin. This gave them a trap (lower orders) a sense of social mobility. This was developed through various agencies, such as the itinerant Mullahs, the Bahas (or religious) meeting and the Anjumans or local associations. The process certainly helped the Muslim masses in political mobilisation and in strengthening their argument about separate Muslim interests.

The necessity of social mobilisation of the Muslims across cultural barriers and thus to forge horizontal solidarity could be done effectively by harping on the common faith, and the mullahs accomplished the task through the local Anjumans by carrying the urban message to the countryside, A close collaboration between the educated Muslims and the mullahs was a distinctive feature of these Mofussil Anjumans. The rural Anjumans that were started during the time of Islamic reform movements forged a link between the urban elites and the rural masses and thus brought the latter into the larger political conflict.

The Hindu Bhadralok in Bengal often looked down upon the Muslims with contempt. The Hindu Yatras (rural open air theatrical performances) often indulged in vilification of Muslim historical persona, which was not very lightly taken by the Anjumans or the mullahs.

In northern India the Ulema challenged Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan’s leadership and quite clearly they did not like his thrust towards westernisation, which seemed to threaten their pre-eminence in Muslim society. As opposed to his modernism and rationality, they invoked Islamic universalism and exclusivism.

After Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan’s death younger leaders like Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali were profoundly influenced by the Ulema, like Maulana Abdul Bari, and through their influence they rediscovered the inspiration of Islam as a mobilising force. This resulted in what may be called a gradual Islamisation of Muslim politics, finally culminating in the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

In Pakistan, Islamic elements from political parties on the right of the political spectrum and the conservative section of the media and the madrasas, together assumed the character of pressure groups. The more the ruling establishment provided space for politics of Islam due to its own strategic compulsions in both foreign policy and domestic context the more the disparate elements sought to shape the country’s ideological discourse according to its own priorities and preferences.

Various Islamic sectarian groups influenced by the Ulema continued to take a clear and unequivocal stand on issues where they found themselves on the opposite side of what was understood to be the secular and pro-western elite. The parties, groups and institutions under the watch of Ulema started operating collectively as an Islamic establishment. They sought to define religion according to its own vision of the destiny of Pakistan and the Muslim world at large. On the other hand, religious groups sought to define the state through street agitation, lobbying, networking and vote politics.

The educational setting of political Islam in Pakistan in the form of madrasas as the perceived breeding house of militancy has attracted a lot of attention. During the last two decades, madrasas expanded their influence enormously in the society and at least indirectly in the political system of Pakistan. Successive governments in Pakistan have failed to register the madrasas, inspect their sources of funding and curriculum and stop training in the use of firearms.

In Pakistan Islamisation was primarily a political manoeuvre to win over the Islamic parties. One of the consequences of Islamisation was the explosion in the number of madrasas that catered to a student population of nearly six million. These students were drawn from the deprived and marginalised sectors of society and the lower middle class. They became a generation of men being inculcated with values that have reinforced negative perceptions of women.

In Bangladesh, the Hefazat-e-Islam’s main support base comes from the Qaumi madrasas spread throughout the country, about whose authentic number there appears to be no authoritative data. They are mostly run by private donations and support from philanthropic organisations. These do not require government support and are also not subject to effective government scrutiny.

The Hefazat-e-Islam assembly and showdown have brought the primacy of Islam in the political discourse of Bangladesh. This is strongly likely to have a determining impact on the course of socio-political movement. We have seen the astounding organisational acumen and discipline of a section of society that had hitherto remained largely unknown. In a democracy the strength of organised manpower motivated by ideological orientation cannot be ignored. Negative apprehensions about such power need to be channelised into positive engagement by means of deft political stewardship.

Muhammad Nurul Huda is a columnist for The Daily Star.