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Islamic Ideology ( 15 Jul 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Institutions, Leaders and Community Priorities: Reflections on the North Indian Muslim Case

By Yoginder Sikand


(Paper presented at the Conference on Muslims in Multicultural Societies, 14-15 JULY 2010, Singapore)




My paper focuses on the role of existing Indian Muslim institutions and organizations in promoting Muslim education and empowerment, relating to people of other faiths to facilitate inter-community dialogue and negotiating with the Indian state. This is not an academic presentation, however. It is based on my personal reflections on over two decades of interacting with and writing on Indian Muslim issues, including Muslim organizations and movements.


North Indian Muslim Diversity


Given the sheer size of India and its Muslim population, it is difficult, indeed impossible, to make even the broadest generalizations about the Indian Muslims. This paper, therefore, limits itself to the case of the Muslims of northern India, who together constitute the bulk of the Indian Muslim population.


As various studies have shown, the Indian Muslims rank, on the whole, among the least educated and most economically deprived sections of Indian society. The conditions of the Muslims of north India are particularly pathetic. There are various reasons for this state of affairs, but I will deal with only some of these here. One of the main reasons for this is the perceived absence of a proper and truly responsive community leadership. The existing Muslim leadership, as reflected in existing north Indian Muslim organizations and movements, is the focus of my presentation.


Studying the nature of the existing Muslim leadership in contemporary north India necessitates a brief digression by identifying some of the major features of the Muslim population of this part of the country. India is home to the largest number of Muslims in the world after Indonesia, but, yet, Muslims form just under 15% of the country’s population. Their proportion in northern India taken as a whole is roughly the same. In this part of the country, they live everywhere as minorities except in a few districts and one state—the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. Contrary to projections by the media, Islamic groups and virulently anti-Muslim Hindu chauvinist parties alike, the Muslims of this part of India, as elsewhere in the country, are not a homogenous monolith. Rather, they are an extremely diverse group, which brings into question whether or not it is appropriate to speak of a single Indian Muslim community at all.


The north Indian Muslims are sharply divided on the basis of sectarian affiliation. The Sunnis, who form perhaps nine-tenths of the Indian Muslim population, consist of the Barelvis, the Deobandis, the Ahl-e Hadith, the Jamaat-e Islami (each of whom considers that it alone represents the one ‘true’ version of Islam) and a large number of Muslims who are not associated with any organized Islamic formation but, rather, are linked to what are often dismissed as ‘folk’ traditions associated with Sufi saints. In terms of school of jurisprudence, the north Indian Sunnis are divided between the majority Hanafis and what are called ghair muqallids, who do not follow any particular school of fiqh. The majority of the north Indian Shias belong to the Ithna Ashari sect, the rest being Ismailis, who, in turn, are divided into various sects or jamaats. Despite the rhetoric of Muslim unity, each of these sectarian groups functions as a separate community, having its own mosques, madrasas and other community organizations, and marriages usually take place within each sect.


Although Islam does not countenance caste and caste-based hierarchy, because of the influence of Hindu culture and because the vast majority of the Indian Muslims are descendants of local converts, the north Indian Muslims are also sharply divided on the basis of caste into literally hundreds of endogamous caste-like groups.


These salient differences and divisions have rendered it virtually impossible for a broad-based leadership to emerge to represent the north Indian Muslims as a whole.


Post-Partition Muslim Leadership


Almost worldwide, a significant motor for social change, in terms of promoting modern education, setting up institutions, highlighting community demands and concerns and relating to other communities and the state has been the middle-class. The mainly ‘upper’ caste Hindu Indian middle-class has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades, but the Muslim middle-class, especially in north India, remains insignificant. This must be recognized as one of the most crucial reasons for the overall and continuing marginalisation and ‘backwardness’ of the north Indian Muslims.


Prior to Indian Independence in 1947, the north Indian Muslim middle-class, often with the support of the Muslim feudal class, played a crucial role in setting up modern schools and colleges, periodicals and newspapers and various other such institutions. Although much weaker than their Hindu counterparts (in part because Muslims were much slower to take to modern education than the ‘upper’ caste Hindus), they also played a key role in politics. Many such Muslims were ardent supporters of the Pakistan scheme, and, once India was partitioned on the basis of religion, chose to migrate to greener pastures in Pakistan. With their departure from the scene, the leadership of the north Indian Muslims was taken over largely by maulvis, trained in traditional madrasas, which today number in their tens of thousands across India, particularly in north India. In contrast to an influential section of the north Indian Muslim feudal and middle classes who were supporters of the Pakistan scheme, an important section of the maulvis, particularly some associated with the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband (possibly the world’s largest traditional madrasa) were closely allied with the Congress Party. After 1947, they played a crucial role in seeking to stop Muslims from migrating to Pakistan, and to settle and rehabilitate those Muslims who had been uprooted from their homes in the Partition-related violence.


The vast majority of north Indian Muslim organizations that claim to speak on behalf of the Muslims of the country are today led and controlled by traditionalist maulvis. These include groups such as the Jamaat-e Islami, Tablighi Jamaat, Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, Ahl-e Hadith, the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Milli Council. Because the maulvis are deeply divided on the basis of sectarian affiliation, they have been unable and unwilling to set aside their differences and form a common leadership. Owing to their madrasa education and training (which is, in many senses, deeply conservative and even reactionary and which does not equip them to deal with many of the myriad challenges that Muslims are today faced with) the demands that these maulvi-led groups make on the state on behalf of Muslims are largely limited to Islam- or Muslim-specific issues (narrowly constructed), mainly those that have to do with religious or identity-related concerns, such as the protection of the Urdu language, the Babri Masjid, and Muslim Personal Law, the minority status of the Aligarh Muslim University, allowing Muslim government servants to grow beards, critiquing Hinduised textbooks and so on.


The activities that these organisations are themselves engaged in are largely to do with promoting education about Islam (as expressed variously by the different sectarian groupings), through study circles, publishing houses, madrasas and maktabs, etc. The madrasa training that the maulvi leaders of these organisations have received teaches them to look at social reality from a theological, as opposed to a sociological perspective. Their education leaves them unaware of the dynamics of actual social realities, issues and concerns, which they are trained to address simply through a theological or normative lens. Hence, the marked tendency to focus their efforts almost entirely on religious education and to seek religious solutions to every conceivable problem, for which they scan the Quran, statements attributed to the prophet Muhammad and the books of classical fiqh, which most of them regard as almost sacrosanct although they represent the ijtihad of maulvis of a bygone age.


This phenomenon must also be seen in relation to the deep-rooted fears that Muslim or Islamic identity is under threat in India, particularly in the face of anti-Muslim Hindu chauvinists. Incidents of attacks and killings of Muslims by Hindu rioters backed by right-wing Hindu groups and abetted by agencies of the state have further strengthened Muslim insularity and insecurities, thus strengthening the influence of maulvi-led Muslim organizations while also reinforcing their tendency to focus mainly on identity related concerns (besides protecting Muslim lives). This is compounded by the not unfounded allegation that, like their right-wing Hindu counterparts, some of these Muslim organizations and leaders thrive simply by raking up issues involving communal conflict as well as religious issues, narrowly construed, for this is how they are able to attract followers and stake their claims to leading them. It is alleged, and this cannot be said to be totally unfounded, that some of these leaders and groups (again, like their Hindu counterparts) are, in effect, quite opposed to Muslim progress for then they would be bereft of followers whose sentiments they can easily play on in order to project themselves as saviors of the community.


Thus, while the innate conservatism of the maulvis and the sort of theological training they receive in their madrasas is one factor for the fact that the agenda of their organizations is so overwhelmingly focused on identity-related issues, the enormous and growing clout of Hindutva forces must be recognized as a major contributory factor as well. Overall, therefore, the existing north Indian Muslim organizations have not been able (and in some case, have not even been willing) to turn their attention to other basic concerns of the Muslim masses, such as modern education, employment, communal harmony, inter-sectarian dialogue, women’s rights, and so on. It is also the case that these organizations take little or no interest in general or national issues that affect all Indians rather than Muslims alone. This can be seen as a result both of an ingrained communalism and narrow-mindedness as well as of the fact that they seem so overwhelmed by Muslim-specific concerns (given the demonization of the community and various forms of discrimination that it faces) that they are simply unable to address wider issues as well.


The existing maulvi-led Muslim organizations are wholly male-led, and women play almost no role in their work and decision-making whatsoever. This is a reflection of the very deep-rooted patriarchal ethos of the traditional madrasas where these maulvis are trained. It is not just that women’s rights and concerns are rarely, if ever, raised by these organizations. Rather, it is also the case that many of these organizations (as reflected in their activities and in the fatwas issued by the madrasas with which these maulvis are associated) are wary of modern education for Muslim girls (beyond what they consider a basic limit) as well as employment outside their homes. It is thus hardly surprising that a small, though growing, number of Muslim women are now choosing to defy the patriarchs by seeking to interpret Islam and Islamic family law on their own. Obviously, this is no easy task, and they have constantly to face virulent opposition from the male maulvis for doing so.


Yet another aspect of the existing north Indian Muslim organizations that claim to speak on behalf of all the Muslims of India is that they are led and controlled almost wholly by self-styled ‘upper’ caste or ashraf (‘noble’) Muslims—Syeds (who claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad), Shaikhs (who claim Arab descent), and Pathans (who claim Afghan origin). The so-called ashraf form hardly a tenth of the north Indian Muslim population, but they tend to virtually monopolise (like their ‘upper’ caste Hindu counterparts) leadership roles in almost all so-called India-level Muslim organizations. A newly-emerging group of Muslim activists  of ‘low’ caste origin (who form the bulk of the Indian Muslim population) often point out how the ashraf caste background of these self-styled leaders often makes them indifferent to the extreme economic and educational backwardness of the ‘low’ caste majority among the Muslims. Yet, ashraf leaders have not taken this criticism lightly. Instead of introspecting and facilitating Muslims from non-ashraf backgrounds to leadership roles in their organizations and seeking to address, through appeals to the state as well as in their own work, the serious economic and educational backwardness of non-ashraf Muslims,  they often react by asserting that such arguments are ‘divisive’ and that all talk about caste is ‘un-Islamic’. 


In addition to the maulvi-led or maulvi-dominated organizations that claim to represent Muslims are a number of Muslim politicians, including several who are elected members of state and national assemblies. Some of these also are maulvis, but most are educated in modern colleges and universities. Almost all of them are ‘upper’ caste Muslim males. Because in post-Partition India it has been difficult for Muslims to organize separately at the political level (such moves are quickly branded by their Hindu critics as akin to ‘communalism’), most Muslim politicians are associated with one or the other Hindu-dominated political party. Even if elected from Muslim-dominated constituencies, these politicians are more responsible to their parties than to their electorates and, hence, have largely proven unable (and sometimes unwilling) to take up and address Muslim-specific concerns.


Muslim NGOs, which could be expected to play a leading role in social reform, dialoguing with the state, accessing state-funded developmental programmes etc., are still in a very nascent stage. The vast majority of Muslim NGOs are maktabs and madrasas (that number in their thousands) which are run by traditional maulvis. Their major (often sole) concern is providing Islamic education (generally, of an extremely sectarian sort). Few of them are engaged in any other form of service provision. The vast majority of money by way of zakat and sadqa provided by pious Muslim individuals finds its way to these madrasas, very little of it being spent on anything other than madrasa education. The desperate shortage of funds that the few Muslim NGOs that work on issues other than religious education face is compounded by the fact that the state and its developmental agencies, too, often ignore Muslim localities, thus laying them open to the charge of discrimination against Muslims. At the same time, Muslim organizations often seem unaware of government-funded developmental programmes and have, therefore, been unable (in some cases even unwilling) to access them.


This said, it is heartening to note that, in recent years, some Muslim organizations (including a few that are led by maulvis) have begun to establish regular schools, which teach the general secular curriculum plus Islamic Studies as a subject. These, however, are few in number and their quality leaves much to be desired. The pace of this sort of educational reform has been greatly hampered by general indifference towards, indeed discrimination against, Muslims by the state and its agencies. As numerous studies have shown, state provision for Muslim education (and other services) is minimal. Bodies created by the state for Muslim welfare and development receive insufficient funds and are hampered by corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and, in some cases, prejudiced bureaucrats who lack any enthusiasm for helping Muslims.


The Missing Role of the Muslim Middle Class


In addition to the maulvis and the Muslim political class, one would have expected the Muslim middle-class to play an active role in community affairs, particularly in relating with the state, the media and people of other faiths, given that, unlike the traditional maulvis, they possess the cultural capital to do so. This, however, has not happened, and for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the hegemony of the maulvis, who are reluctant to allow others to speak on Islam and Muslim affairs, in effect taking it to be their monopoly. Secondly, the small size of the north Indian middle class, in both relative as well as absolute terms. Thirdly, the fact that the major concern of most middle class Muslims (like their counterparts in other communities) are their own career paths and their quest for material acquisition and consumption and not social service or activism. Fourthly, the fear (at least among some) that if they appear to be too closely identified with Muslim or Islamic issues they would appear to their fellow middle-class Hindus (with whom they live and work) to be ‘communal’ and ‘narrow-minded’, or, in these days of mounting Islamophobia, even ‘fundamentalist’ or worse.


Inter-Community Dialogue


Inter-community relations, particularly between Hindus and Muslims, have rapidly deteriorated over the years, and the state has done precious little to prevent this. For their part, the traditional maulvis, certain notable exceptions apart, have not realised the importance of inter-community dialogue. The sort of training they receive in their madrasas does not encourage dialogue at all, even with fellow Muslims belonging to other sects (It is thus hardly surprising that there have been no serious efforts to promote intra-Muslim sectarian dialogue at all). Madrasas train their students in the fine art of polemical battles, but not in the culture of reasoned dialogue. Further, because of the sort of education they receive, few maulvis can speak any language other than Urdu, know next to nothing about other religions and are taught to believe that other faiths are ‘evil’ and their followers are ‘impure infidels’ destined for hell. In some madrasas they are also taught that Muslims must not befriend people of other faiths at all.  All of this and the very distinct subculture of the maulvis, which sets them immediately apart from others, acts as a major hurdle to their interacting with people of other faiths at the social level. The few ‘dialogue’ initiatives made by maulvi- and other Muslim-led groups in recent years have been largely efforts to engage in what they regard as dawah or missionary work among non-Muslims, rather than seriously engaging and dialoguing with them. Further, this so-called ‘dialogue’ has remained stuck at the theological level (because the aim is to prove the claim of the superiority or the truth of Islam), and has not gone beyond that to explore ways for people of different faiths to work together for common causes and concerns. Some ‘liberal’ Islamic scholars who have sought to do this have had to face considerable opposition from some conservative maulvis. Matters have been made more complicated with the rise of literalist or scripturalist forms of Islam in recent years (as represented, for instance, by the Deobandis, and the ‘Wahhabi’-style Ahl-e Hadith) that are vehemently opposed to popular forms of Islam that have, throughout the centuries, brought together Muslims and others in common worship and devotion centred on local Sufi shrines.


The Muslim Media


Lastly, some words about the north Indian Muslim media. The bulk of this media is in the Urdu language, which now (unlike in pre-Partition times) almost no Hindu can read. Hence, the Urdu media is now almost entirely restricted to Muslims alone. As in the case of the Muslim organizations discussed earlier, by and large the Urdu media remains fixated with Muslims’ identity and religious concerns and communal controversies and does not, in general, provide much attention to the economic, educational and social problems of the Muslim masses. Like the Hindutva media, large sections of the Urdu media thrive on promoting narrow communal attitudes and conflicts, presenting Muslims the world over as under siege from a host of real or imagined enemies. In recent years Muslims have set up a number of television channels, but these too are almost wholly Islamic (and represent a range of rival sectarian orientations). They hardly have any space at all for real world, bread-and-butter concerns of the impoverished Muslim masses. They play no role at all in seeking to promote genuine inter-community dialogue and solidarity. Because the Muslim media is read and watched only by Muslims, even when it does highlight Muslim issues, concerns, complaints and demands and even when some sections of it do try to promote dialogue with non-Muslims it goes completely unheard by people of other faiths.


In this regard, it is important to point out that existing Muslim organizations have no well-planned media policy at all, their efforts being limited, at best, to occasional press conferences and handing out press releases, which are rarely commented on in the dominant, non-Muslim-controlled media. Negative images of Islam and Muslims are deeply-rooted in this media, which are made worse not just by the activities of fringe Islamist groups and the particular interpretations of Islam of some Islamic formations but also by absurd fatwas and statements of certain maulvis, which are quickly seized upon and highlighted in an extremely sensationalist manner by the media. Matters are made worse by the very small number of Muslim journalists working in the so-called mainstream media, who could have been expected to present a more balanced view of their community.


A feature common to the Muslim media and many, if not most, north Indian Muslim organizations and institutions, is a widely-perceived lack of professionalism, which greatly limits their efficacy. This is compounded by poor service conditions, corruption, nepotism, feudal and dictatorial behaviour of managers, lack of democratic functioning, unwillingness to employ women and people of other faiths, deeply-entrenched insular, communal and conservative attitudes, and so on. All this makes for the perceived poor functioning of north Indian Muslim organizations, notable exceptions apart.




The scenario I have painted of the contemporary north Indian Muslim leadership might seem to be depressing, but that it is indeed so cannot be denied by anyone even remotely familiar with the subject. Overall, the existing Muslim leadership has not been able to effectively address the myriad problems that Muslims are today faced with. In fact, it would not be wrong to argue that it has created more problems than it has solved. What is required are bold steps towards inter-faith dialogue, organized efforts to address Muslim social, economic and educational backwardness (through Muslim and other NGOs, networking and lobbying with agencies of the state and political parties), sincere efforts to address the concerns of Muslim women from outside a patriarchal understanding of Islam, encouraging middle-class, modern-educated Muslims to take a leading role in community affairs, and facilitating the emergence of progressive and socially-engaged understandings of Islam and a class of young maulvis that represent such understandings. All this, of course, I must hasten to add, seems, at least for the moment, perhaps too much to expect, particularly given the unfortunate demonizing of Islam and Muslims, which can only further strengthen conservative and radical tendencies instead.


(Research Associate, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, National Law School, Bangalore, India)