By Waris Mazhari
Recent years have witnessed a very troubling tendency among a section of the Indian Ulema or Muslim clerics. Many of them have begun to take an inordinate interest in politics. Even some ‘Islamic’ groups that hitherto considered politics a totally forbidden territory have jumped into political fray. Some Ulema and Shaikhs of some Sufi shrines, who had so far remained confined to their madrasas and Khanqahs, have also quickly followed suit.
Outfits such as the Rashtriya Ulema Council, the Welfare Party of India, the All-India Ulema and Mashaikh Board, the All-India United Democratic Front, and some other such political groups and parties are the creation largely of Ulema and other Muslim religious leaders. They have emerged in recent years on the political horizon, with new political agendas, slogans and election manifestos.
This worrying trend of an increasing interest in politics among sections of the Ulema has not left one of the largest and most influential Ulema organizations in India, the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, unaffected. Politics is not meant to be the Board’s field, and nor should it, but yet the Board has begun displaying an unwarranted interest in politics. For the Board to launch agitations on political issues is for it to exceed its limits, and is also a terrible blow to its reputation.
It is a fact that the Ulema appear to have more influence among the Muslim masses than other sections of Muslim society. Taking advantage of this, sections of the Muslim religious class appears to be seeking to establish their influence in politics, too. Setting up new political parties led or dominated by Ulema is one expression of this worrying phenomenon. These parties claim that their mandate is to secure the rights of Muslims, which they feel ‘mainstream’ parties are not interested in.
There is no doubt that this perception about ‘mainstream’ parties is not without merit. Muslims have been exploited by almost every political party, being used simply as a vote-bank. But the point is that for Ulema and other members of the Muslim religious class to jump into the political arena in such large numbers is not going to change the political map at all. In fact, what may very well happen is that while Ulema are not likely to achieve anything for Muslims by engaging in politics, their traditional work—of teaching, transmitting and communicating Islam—will be greatly harmed as a result of their dabbling in politics.
The question to be asked is: Is this development in the larger interests of the Muslims of India?
Obviously, the answer to this question is in the negative.
The whole of Muslim history attests to the fact that the involvement of Ulema and other Muslim religious leaders in politics has never proved to be in favour of Muslims. Of course, there may be some exceptions to this rule, or some exceptional circumstances where by participating in politics some Ulema may have helped the community. But these exceptions only prove what seems to be a general rule. The vast majority of Muslim religious scholars have stayed away from political activities, focusing on the service of Islam, the followers of Islam and humanity in general. Typically, they have considered closeness to politics and power as being opposed to religiousness. Numerous great Muslim religious scholars were offered important posts by the political authorities, but they did not accept them, even at the cost of persecution. Muslim history is replete with stories of such pious and sincere men.
From the Quran we learn about what is actually expected of the Ulema. The Quran (9:122) says:
Nor should the Believers all go forth together: if a contingent from every expedition remained behind, they could devote themselves to studies in religion, and admonish the people when they return to them,- that thus they (may learn) to guard themselves (against evil).
The Ulema are required to devote themselves to seek in-depth religious learning and guide people . According to a Hadiths report, the Ulema are heirs of the prophets. And the duty of the prophets, we learn from the Quran, is to provide guidance to the people. If the Ulema stay away from their responsibility of guiding people and, instead, get entangled in politics or start giving more importance to politics than to their actual religious duties, it would have a very deleterious impact on the wider Muslim society.
It might be that the Ulema could play a fruitful political role in Muslim-majority countries, although even there it is necessary that the sphere of their political role be within certain limits. But if the Ulema in countries like India, where Muslims are a minority, were to get involved in politics, it would gravely damage their status. In this regard, it is important to recognize that little good, if at all, has accrued from the formation of political parties by Ulema in India (and Pakistan, for that matter), and that Muslim societies have hardly benefitted from their political involvement. It is also crucial to recognize that the vast majority of Muslims simply do not want the Ulema and heads of Sufi shrines to become political actors. They respect and honour the Ulema as long as the latter limit themselves to the religious sphere, but they would simply ignore them if they were to jump into the political fray.
‘Ordinary’ Muslims are fully aware of the fact that the Ulema are not at all familiar with the intricacies of modern-day politics. Politics is an art by itself, based on a deep and incisive understanding of life and society and observation of contemporary conditions. How can the Ulema, trained in madrasas where even reading newspapers and listening to the radio are banned, be expected to have the sort of awareness of social realities and political vision necessary for a career in politics today?
The present-day political system is bereft of ethical values. Far from infusing ethics and morality into politics, by entering into the political realm there is every possibility of Ulema themselves falling prey to immorality. Ulema groups that have entered the political fray, including participating in elections, are very likely to have their image tarnished, sooner or later, because it is unlikely that they can remain untouched by the immorality that pervades the political sphere.
Another very likely negative consequence of the participation of Ulema groups in politics is a further escalation in intra-Muslim sectarian rivalries. Soon, if this trend is not reversed, Ulema of different Muslim sects might set up their own parties, and this is bound to further exacerbate sectarian strife.
It is true that in the movement for India’s independence a number of Ulema were deeply involved. But to use this as an argument to seek to justify a role for the Ulema in Indian politics today is not proper. Those Ulema who were involved in India’s freedom movement certainly played an extremely important role, thereby discharging their religious responsibilities. It was only the Ulema who could counter the utterly spurious ‘two-nation theory’ of the Muslim League—and that is what sections of the Indian Ulema did at that time. After India won political freedom, however, most Ulema avoided political involvement, focusing their efforts on religious education and preaching, including through setting up movements and institutions. This is precisely what they should carry on doing today.
Politics is not the sphere of the Ulema. The Ulema must confine themselves to their proper sphere, which is religious teaching and instruction and spiritual training. Political wrangling and upheavals simply cannot go hand-in-hand with religious instruction and scholarship. For the Ulema to step out of the mosques, madrasas and Khanqahs and into the market-place of real-world politics can in no way benefit Muslims or the country as a whole.
Waris Mazhari is a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, and a Ph.D in Islamic Studies from the Jamia Millia Islamia. He presently teaches Islamic Studies at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. He has written extensively on madrasas and madrasa reforms.