Victims of prejudice


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INDIAN Muslims suffer from two traumas today: one, the religious prejudice against them which has historical roots, and has been whipped up by the protagonists of Hindutva and two, their campaign against so-called pseudo-secularism, targeting Indian Muslims as the favoured lot, receiving preferential treatment at the hands of the country’s rulers.

Arising out of these two developments, there is a widespread misconception about Islam, which is presented by its detractors as a backward looking faith, refusing to allow its followers to move with the times. This is a hangover of the calumny against Islam started by the Christian clergy within fifty years of the passing away of Prophet Muhammad; it was mounted with a virulence and hate that is unaparalleled in human annals. The reason was simple. Islam spread in the lands which were under Christian domination and it uprooted the hold of Christianity on the people.

No one has put the case about the phenomenon better than H.G. Wells, one of its bitterest critics, who in his Outline of History wrote: ‘Islam prevailed because it was the best social and political order the times could offer. It prevailed because everywhere it found politically apathetic peoples, robbed, oppressed, bullied, uneducated and unorganised and it found selfish and unsound governments out of touch with any people at all. It was the broadest, freshest and cleanest political idea that had come into actual activity in the world and it offered better terms than any other to the masses of mankind.’

However, to the Christians the shock was too great to bear, both for the rulers and the clerics, as they retreated from the lands they had ruled. They consoled themselves by painting Muhammad as Mahound or the devil and Islam as a false religion. Many eminent Orientalists have now ‘exposed the distorted reports of fanatical Christians,’ to quote Sir Edward Denis Ross, ‘which led to the dissemination of a multitude of gross calumnies.’ He pointed out that what was good in Islam ‘was entirely ignored’ and ‘what was not good, in the eyes of Europe, was exaggerated and misinterpreted.’

Until the advent of the British in India, Islam, despite being the dominant power, was free from such distortion or misrepresentation; but during their rule, the same propaganda against it was unleashed among Hindus by both British civilians and clerics. Little has happened even after their departure to change this atmosphere of prejudice against Islam. Indian Muslims continue to be viewed as a drag on India’s progress, an alien community, intolerant, aggressive and uncompromising, ready to break but unwilling to bend, prepared to rot in their ghettos but refusing to adjust to the changing requirements. Is it not strange that a religion which brought about the greatest revolution in the history of the world and changed the shape of mankind, should be condemned as the most retrograde, outlandish and regressive of all religions? Some condescendingly explain that the fault might not lie with Islam but with Muslims. Neither proposition is true.

Islam is fundamentally as progressive or perhaps more than any other religion and Muslims are as good or bad in following its precepts and practices as the followers of other religions. The trouble with Muslims is that they have ceased to be the dominant power and have become the subjugated community; their erstwhile subjects have become the rulers who have no sympathy or consideration for them. The result is that every action of a Muslim is criticised, every move condemned; every reaction misinterpreted, and the whole community is damned for either the fault of a few or the indifference of the many.

The attack against Islam takes a subtle form; it is said that Islam reformed would be no Islam. Better still, that unless Muslims give up their unqualified adherence to the Quran, neither reform nor renewal of their faith is possible. And without these, it is stressed, they are doomed. This, in effect, amounts to asking Muslims to give up Islam. For the Quran is really the basis of Islam; no Muslim can modify or alter it. Those who doubt its divinity cannot remain in the fold.



The Prophet was no more than a transmitter of what is contained in its pages. He does not occupy the same place as does Christ among Christians or Moses among Jews, or Buddha among Buddhists or Krishna among Hindus; Mohammed is neither God nor His incarnation. He is human and has no divinity attached to him; in one of the passages of the Quran he was, in fact, admonished for having frowned upon a beggar. He could falter even though he was the perfect human being. According to a tradition recorded by Imam Muslim, one of the two recorders of the most authentic books of traditions, the Prophet himself had cautioned his co-religionists that though his religious views were, no doubt, binding on them, as these were divinely inspired, but not his worldly opinions which, sometimes, could be erroneous.

The Quran is the pivot around which everything revolves for Muslims. Though revealed in Arabic and addressed to the Arabs, it has a universal message. It is, however, not so much the letter of the Quran but its spirit which is important. Its words have to be construed in their historical perspective. That is why the reasons for the revelations have to be borne in mind; these have, in fact, assumed the nature of a science. There is so much juxtaposition of the local, historical, allegorical and fundamental verses that an uninitiated reader is likely to get confused.



As I have explained in my book Mohammed and the Quran: ‘The Quran is a mingling of the spiritual and the material, the divine and the mundane; it covers everything from the sun to the moon. It explains a moral in a verse, which might ordinarily take a whole book; it enunciates a principle from several angles and attacks a wrong from a multitude of directions. And yet its main values are put forth not only unambiguously but in a forceful manner. These are, in a sense its quintessence.’

Maulana Rumi, whose Mathnavi or book of mystical poems has been characterised as ‘the Quran in the Persian language’ and is held in the highest esteem by the faithful, has expressed this in words which may shock the orthodox:

Out of the Quran I draw the marrow; And throw away the bones to the dogs.

The reference to dogs is to those who quibble unnecessarily on superficial issues; it is not used in a derogatory sense.

The Quran, in its fundamentals, is so broad-based that it has survived the ravages of time and space; even the latest conquests of the sun, the moon and the stars are indicated in it when it says that all these are subject to man and meant for his benefit. Hence, as the great poet-philosopher of modern Islam, Allama Iqbal has observed, in the Quran ‘life is a process of progressive creation’; it emphasises change in unequivocal terms:

God does not change the condition of a people; Unless they want to change it by themselves (7:35).



It is wrong, therefore, to blame the Quran for any stagnation of Muslims, and to quote Iqbal again, the Quranic teaching ‘necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of their predecessors, should be permitted to solve their problems.’ It teaches Muslims to be dynamic and forward-looking; it deprecates status-quoist attitudes and stresses constant struggle. Ijitihad, or independent thinking is a recognised instrument for bringing about the necessary reforms; it was freely exercised by many eminent jurists and theologians in the past. It is based on the Quranic verse: ‘And those who exert in Our cause, We show them the right path’ (69:29).

There is also the advice given by the Prophet to his newly appointed Governer of Yemen, Ma’az, that where the Quran and the Traditions were silent, he should exercise his own judgment in resolving a dispute. After the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols (1258) and the collapse of the Abbasid Empire, the doors of Ijitihad were closed. Ibn Taiymiya (1263-1328) tried hard to reopen it; so had Ibn Hazm (994-1064) earlier and Suyuti (1445-1505) later, but despite their eminence they could not open the doors of Ijitihad for all time. The orthodox elements went on putting one obstacle after another and insisted on taqlid or imitation.

Iqbal strongly disapproved of this tendency and asked: ‘Did the founders of our schools ever claim finality for their reasoning and interpretations?’ And replied, ‘Never,’ adding, ‘The claim of the present generation of Muslim liberals to reinterpret the foundational legal principles in the light of their own experience and the altered conditions of modern life is, in my opinion, perfectly justified.’ Unfortunately the work of Abduh (1849-1905) in Egypt, Afghani (1838-1897) in Central Asia and Sir Syed Ahmad (1817-1898) in India in the 19th century could not be carried forward; the reformists who followed them lacked the intellectual grip over the Quran and the Traditions and failed to carry their co-religionists with them. However, in early Islam there was free and continuous flow of reforms in every walk of life; that is why its contributions in most fields of human endeavour have been most outstanding.

That was the legacy, which, in fact, Muslims had inherited. In the dark age of the 7th century, when drunkenness was prevalent, the Prophet prohibited the use of alcohol; when work was looked down upon, he taught people to shun lethargy; when indiscipline prevailed, he ordained his followers to pray five times every day; when unity among groups and tribes was non-existent, he told Muslims to congregate every Friday to remember God; when men revelled in feasting, he prescribed a most rigorous, month-long fasting; he gave the right of inheritance to women and restricted men to having only four wives – against the unlimited number they were used to – and the Quran declared that this could be done only if each was treated equally in love as well as in every other respect. And that too, with the warning that in effect this was not possible.



He uplifted the poor by giving them equality with the rich; he asked them to assemble at least once in a lifetime in Mecca to perform the Hajj to renew their faith in human brotherhood. He abolished tribal warfare, blood feuds, racial inequality and infanticide. These are only a few of the Prophet’s many achievements. Do these not speak of reform and renewal? The pioneer of rationalism in Europe, Winwood Reade, has rightly observed in his classic, The Martyrdom of Man: ‘Instead of repining that Muhammad did no more, we have reason to be astonished that he did so much. His career is the best example that can be given of the influence of the individual in human history.’

The question that then arises is: Why, when the early Muslims were so progressive and dynamic, are they so backward now? Before answering it, we must be clear in our mind as to what is meant by backwardness. Is it political, economic, social or religious backwardness that Muslims are charged with? If it is political, economic, or social, then Islam cannot be blamed because it gives ample scope for progress; and history shows that it was achieved in a spectacular manner.



Until the 19th century no one accused Muslims of being backward; it is only after the onslaught of the West, in its varied manifestations, that older civilizations were criticised and even condemned; in this Hinduism has fared no better than Islam. Moreover, it assumes that western civilization is in every respect better than the other civilizations based on religions other than Christianity. That, I am afraid, is the major weakness in the approach to the concept of reform and renewal. Here logical deductions are also not of much help because civilizations arose out of man’s quest for God and God is a matter of faith and not reason. Even the materialistic western civilization will collapse like a house of cards if its Christian base is knocked out as happened in the former Soviet Union; it would, therefore, be suicidal for any people to tamper with faith or a religion’s basic features. Reforms and renewal have to be within the fundamental framework of that religion; to damage it is to invite its disintegration.

Faith has to evolve with man; in this respect, in the last hundred years or so, Islam has undoubtedly lagged behind others, mainly because of political servitude, economic backwardness and lack of education among its adherents. The orthodox mullahs who have thwarted the advance of their co-religionists in these fields by misquoting scriptures and sticking to outmoded forms and practices are not helping their co-religionists.



Professor Zainaddin Sardar of King Abdul Aziz University of Jeddah has graphically described their negative role: ‘By emphasizing the precision in the mechanics of prayer and ablution, length of beard and mode of dress, they have lost sight of individual freedom, the dynamic nature of many Islamic injunctions, and the creativity and innovation that Islam fosters within its framework. They have founded intolerant, compulsive and tyrannical orders and have provided political legitimacy to despotic and nepotistic systems of government. They have closed and constricted many enquiring minds by their insistence on unobjective parallels, unending quibbles over semantics. They have divorced themselves from human needs and conditions. No wonder then that the majority of Muslims today pay little attention to them and even foster open hostility towards them.’

Reforms among Muslims have been an ongoing process – they have never stopped, though sometimes the pace has been slow. The Islamic contribution to arts and science have been both innovative and revolutionary; their impact was felt in every field. Even the Shariah has changed its shape several times and it is certainly not what it was a century ago. In Saudi Arabia, which is a citadel of orthodoxy, there have been significant modification to it to suit the exigencies of the situation. Many Muslim countries have enacted radical reforms. The orthodox, as everywhere, in every religion, have protested loudly but they have failed miserably in stopping them. The old criminal law has been replaced in many countries by new measures; likewise, the code of civil procedure has been greatly altered; even in personal and family matters many amendments have been introduced. These have been quietly accepted by the faithful.



There is much talk these days of a uniform civil code for India and of the opposition of Indian Muslims to it; I am afraid it will need a separate article to explain the politics behind this entire affair. Suffice it to say that the Muslim Personal Law is, in fact, the compilation of some maulvis at the instance of Lord Macaulay; it is based in many respects on the Fatuhat-i-Alamgiri, the judicial pronouncements in the reign of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. It bristles with innovations and is known as Muhammadan law which itself is a misnomer. It has been considerably modified by the decisions of the Privy Council during the British Raj and by some of the legislative measures introduced by Muslim members of the pre-partition Central Assembly. Moreover, some sections of Muslims continued to be governed by the Hindu law of succession for several centuries, some others by customary laws. Similarly, usury, which is prohibited by the Shariah, was widely practised by such orthodox, practising Muslims as the Pathans and the Arab immigrants. The theologians connived at these lapses because of worldly compulsions.



Today, however, it is the protagonists of Hindutva who want the Muslim Personal Law to be replaced lock, stock and barrel by a unified civil code. Why? Not because they are interested in reforming Indian Muslims or helping them out but to force them to give up their identity and to subjugate them to a predominantly Hindu pattern of jurisprudence. These Hindus have little sympathy for the plight of Indian Muslims. Apart from humiliating them what concerns them mainly is the allowance of four wives that Muslims are said to enjoy. They are afraid that soon Muslims might overtake the Hindus in numbers and become the majority in India. However absurd the proposition, which statisticians have exposed convincingly, it seems to have gripped their fertile imagination.

The easiest way to overcome their ill-conceived fear is to bring in legislation making monogamy compulsory for Muslims; eminent jurists like Justice Ameer Ali and noted commentators like Abdullah Yusuf Ali have publicly advocated it. Before Partition, the Indian Legislative Assembly, on the initiative of Jinnah, enacted the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, granting the right of divorce to Muslim women; the measure was universally hailed. Similar reforms can easily be brought forth, provided the Quranic injunctions are not violated. Hence the tirade against the Muslim Personal Law is politically motivated: it aims at denigration and not reformation.

Laws, however, have not reformed societies; child marriages take place despite the Sharda Act and dowries have not stopped in spite of the strict penal provisions. Thus Hindus are as much in need of effective reforms as Muslims; their opposition to any change may not be as articulate but their resistance will be no less real. In the early 1950s, the enactment of the Hindu Code, despite the best efforts of Jawaharlal Nehru for almost five years, had to be ultimately abandoned; its greatest opponent was the first President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad. So the actual passing of a uniform civil code by our Parliament, if and when it comes about, will not be a smooth affair; it will be bogged down by amendment after amendment by various religious sects and groups.



Unfortunately, Indian Muslims have allowed themselves to be used as a scapegoat; they should play their cards better if they do not wish to be misunderstood and projected as an obstacle to national integration. They cannot deny that their personal law needs to be reformed; even the All-India Personal Law Board has accepted the need for it. Their effort to codify the law has not borne fruit yet; but it will be wrong on their part to delay it or to shut their eyes to realities.

However that may be, I fail to appreciate the hue and cry for the enactment of a uniform civil code; it smacks more of a hypocritical stance than a genuine desire for reform. In a multi-religious, caste-ridden society like ours, there are many more important issues which need to be urgently addressed such as compulsory universal education at the primary level, the right to work and equal pay for equal work – all these and many more are an essential part of the Directive Principles in our Constitution. Why is there no agitation for their implementation? Is it because some people revel in presenting the Muslim as the only drag on the country’s transformation from a backward to a progressive society?


* Reproduced from ‘Islam: Reform and Renewal’, Seminar 416, April 1994.