The siege within


TOWARDS the end of 2015, when Dr. A. Jahir Hussain, of the Department of Arabic, Persian and Urdu in the University of Madras, wanted to schedule Egyptian Tanoura dance performances across various educational institutions in Chennai, he was in for a rude shock. While many institutions in the city were keen to have the Egyptian dancers interact with their students, the Muslim institutions in Chennai, be it schools or colleges, were unwilling to have the dance performed on their campuses, in spite of it being a male-only dance performed across the Arabic Islamic world. The managements feared a backlash, as a vociferous section of the community believed that music, dance or any such art form to be haram or forbidden in Islam.

The next year, when Dr Jahir Hussain organized the first International Arabic Theatre festival to be ever held in India, as part of the Madras University initiative, a radical Muslim outfit based in Chennai sent him a warning letter, asking him not to proceed with such activities in the future. Ironically, these two programmes were funded by the state institutions, and if the professor had only depended on the community for patronage, they would have never seen the light of day.

The Muslim patronage to art and culture in pre-independent India came primarily from the ruling and the royal classes. The collapse of Muslim rule at the hands of the colonial powers drained the resources and ceased the patronage. The migration of a large section of the Muslim elite from northern India to Pakistan after the Partition too had its impact on the cultural landscape of Muslims. Like elsewhere in India, post Indian independence, Muslims in the Madras Presidency lost many privileges they had earlier enjoyed, including higher educational institutions created exclusively for the communitys welfare under British rule.

Unlike North India, most of the Muslim elite of Madras Presidency held on to their roots and ensured that the community did not suffer on account of the withdrawal of patronage by the new independent Indian state. Their resources and energy were directed at creating new educational institutions to supplement government resources wherever it was found lacking in building or maintaining physical infrastructure. In the new India, which allocated meagre resources for art and culture, there was little that came the way of the Indian Muslim community. After the formation of the Indian nation state, state patronage to Muslim cultural capital diminished. However, the Hindustani gharanas, with a visible Muslim presence continued to thrive.

Post-independence, for Muslims as a community, existential priorities were much more significant than the patronage to cultural domain, says Professor Abdul Rahiman, of the Center for Islamic Studies, University of Madras. However, this article tries to look at the internal dynamics within the Muslim community, in its own response based on their changing religious views.



Various interpretations of the Holy Quran have been around for more than a millennium. What started in the 13th century with Ibn Thymmmiah, one of the most influential medieval thinkers in contemporary Islam, where his particular interpretations of the Quran and his rejection of some aspects of classical Islamic tradition, continued to have considerable influence on contemporary ultraconservative move-ments such as the Salafi/Wahabi movement that arose in the 18th century.

Variously described as orthodox, puritanical and as an Islamic reform movement to restore pure monotheistic worship, these movements were opposed to Sufism and many other aspects of Muslim art and culture that they considered haram (forbidden in Islam) including music and dance. Many of the early 20th century Islamic movements in India and abroad shared some of the ultraconservative views of the Salafi movement.

To many Indian Muslims and Muslims around the world, who look up to the custodians of the Islamic holy sites Mecca and Medina as the flag bearers of Islam, the Salafi ideology followed by them became acceptable, leading to the current state of affairs, where music and dance are frowned upon and Sufism is considered un-Islamic. The Petro-dollar enriched Salafi Arab states became active exponents of this Islamic world view in the 1980s, at a time when Tamil Nadu had become the focus of Hindutva, after the mass conversion of Dalits of Meenakshipuram to Islam.

Muslims constitute about 5% of the Tamil Nadu population. The Muslim community in Tamil Nadu comprises different ethnicities, speaking different languages: the Tamil Muslim, the Urdu Muslim, the Telugu Muslim, the Malayali Muslim, the Gujarati Bohra Muslim and so on. However, in sheer numbers the Tamil and Urdu Muslims constitute the majority with a slight edge over the Tamil Muslims.

The Tamil Muslim community, the oldest, evolved out of the ancient maritime trade contacts the Tamil country had with Arabia. As maritime traders, the Tamil Muslim men who crossed the seas regularly in search of fortune were also patrons of Tamil Islamic literature as well as builders of some of the finest Dravidian style mosques or dargahs (Sufi shrines) in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka and many parts of Southeast Asia.

The Urdu Muslim community, relatively more recent, is a few centuries old in Tamil Nadu and owes its presence to the Deccani kingdoms, followed by the Nawabs of Carnatic, who held sway over Tamil Nadu in the 18th century, before losing power to the East India Company. However, as a ruling class immersed in the Mughal traditions, the Nawabs and their nobility were patrons of music and dance about which I will discuss later.

For more than a century and a half, the Muslim response to colonial provocations, intended or unintended, had been mostly reactionary. The early 20th century Islamic movements that emerged as a response to western imperialism, not only led to more friction within the Muslim society but also a slow social disengagement from the arts. In Tamil Nadu, as the Hindutva onslaught gained momentum, so has the embrace of Salafism, which has percolated into the mainstream Muslim consciousness even amongst those who prided themselves as opposed to Salafi/Wahabism.

To many young Muslims, hardened by the regressive Salafi/Wahabi ideology, Sufism has become anathema. One of the leaders of Muslim outfits that emerged in Tamil Nadu, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, in fact expressed his desire to raze the Sufi shrines wherever possible, if only he had the power to do so.

Poet and writer Salma faced the wrath of a section of the Muslim community because of her Tamil novel, Irandam Jamangalin Kathai, which explored the life of Muslim women in a village in Tamil Nadu. The novel was translated into English as the The Hours Past Midnight in 2004. While her affiliation to a major political party, the DMK, shielded her from an open community backlash, articles were written deriding her, with attempts to sabotage her political career.

Before Salma, H.G. Rasool, a writer from Nagercoil, was ostracized by the community for his poetry collection Mylanchi. In the same town, decades before, Nagore E.M. Hanifa, a popular singer known for his Islamic devotional songs as well as songs eulogizing the social justice Dravidian movement was taunted by some local Muslims, who felt his singing was haram and contrary to their Islamic values.

Music director, Grammy award winner and recipient of the Padma Bhushan, A.R. Rahman was at the receiving end of a fatwa for having composed music for an Iranian film on the life of Prophet Muhammad by the highly acclaimed director Majid Majidhi. The fatwa issued by the Raza Academy based in Mumbai claimed that the film made a mockery of Islam. The fatwa demanded that Muslims who had worked on the film, especially director and musician Rahman, had committed sacrilege and must read the kalma again. The fatwa further instructed Rahman and Majidi to solemnize their marriages again, according to a report in the Hindustan Times of 23 January 2017.

The fatwa by a Sunni group, interestingly followed a fatwa issued by the Grand Mufti Abulaziz al-Shaikh of Saudi Arabia on the same film calling it obscene work and a hostile act against Islam.

Rahman, a believer in Sufism in his own characteristic style, countered Noori of the Raza Academy in a letter he wrote, saying, My decision to compose the music for this film was in good faith and with no intention of causing offence. In fact the decision was based on a similar point of view as expressed by Mr Noori. What if I had the good fortune of facing Allah (Sbt); and He were to ask me on Judgement Day: I gave you faith, money, talent, fame and health. Why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad (sals) film? A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message, that life is about kindness, about uplifting the poor, about living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents in my name.

If Rahman, considered a legend in Indian film music, faced such issues, one can well imagine the plight of many others in the film industry, especially the Muslim actors. Zaira Wasim, a young Kashmiri Muslim girl, who played the role of one of the daughters in Amir Khans highly acclaimed film Dangal, on Indian women wresters from Haryana, was trolled for being un-Islamic, when publicity photos of her surfaced showing her with trimmed hair.

In January 2017, when a local news organization published her meeting with then Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, it resulted in further criticism and Zaira Wasim received death threats because Mufti had described Zaira as a Kashmiri role model. A shaken Zaira issued an apology on her Facebook and Instagram account which she deleted shortly after, but not before the message was picked up and publicized by news media which added further fuel to the controversy. On 30 June 2019, Wasim announced she would cease her acting career as it conflicted with her religious beliefs and faith.

Closer to home, another Muslim actor who continues to retain his Muslim name on-screen had to constantly endure unsolicited advice from some Muslims as to why he should give up acting in movies, as it was un-Islamic. Another famous Muslim actor, who goes by a pseudonym too had his share of unsolicited advice on being a good Muslim.

Ironically, the Tamil film industry which had many Muslims prominently involved in production, direction and distribution, such as F. Nagur of Neptune Productions, S.K. Mohideen of Jupiter Pictures and B.S. Abdur Rahman of Sembi Films today has very few in production and distribution. Sembi Films of Abdur Rahman which produced, financed and distributed some landmark films in Tamil cinema with Santo Chinnappa Thevar, M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi, is today reduced to a publicity firm.

Abdur Rahman invested a portion of his business profits into cinema, but was constantly advised by his friends and relatives from the community to give up any involvement with the cinema industry. While the field of mainstream film making might not have been a preferred field of investment by Muslim businesses, the reason partly is also due to the way the industry operates, in terms of unethical business and industry practices. But large sections of Muslims continue to offer their patronage to cinema as a loyal audience.

Similarly, as in the case of the Dalit film makers, Kerala has seen the arrival of a new generation Muslim film makers like Zakaria, Saubin Shahir, Arshad, and Muhsin Parari. Sufi music too has gained influence among Muslims in Kerala, where Islamic organizations have started hosting Sufi music performances in their events, says Abdul Rahiman, of the Center for Islamic Studies, University of Madras. In the Indian context, Kerala with the three faiths present in significant numbers, seems to be an interesting exception, perhaps due to the unique demographics and other social factors, which needs a proper study that is beyond the scope of this paper.

This march towards censure of artists and art in the Tamil Muslim milieu, does have a history. Kunangudi Masthan Sahibu, one of the most celebrated Tamil mystics of the 19th century, who straddled both the Tamil and Islamic mysticism is rarely acknowledged by Tamil Muslims, while he is still celebrated by the people of other faiths. The mystic who refused to marry a relative and chose instead to be a wandering mystic, however, wrote moving verses of his divine union.

Those who interpreted the scriptures literally could never comprehend his songs, laced as they were with coded Tamil mystic language. Sahibu was harassed and his relatives and friends taunted. Perhaps out of sheer exasperation, in a verse (85) in Paraparak Kanni, he pleaded Enough, enough, enough, enough of having to depend on my community and the resultant miseries oh Almighty.

The enormity of the cultural regression that has taken place in the Muslim world can only be understood if we look at the distant past. Amir Khusrau is credited with laying the foundations for the development of Hindustani music in the 13th century. Like the famous gharanas that evolved over a period of time, with many Muslims at the helm, there arose the kothas, which were home to tawaifs or kanchens, the courtesans who sang and danced in the Hindustani tradition.

Tawaifs or kanchens played a crucial role in the social and cultural life in much of India in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were skilled singers and dancers, and also companions and lovers to men from rulers to the local elite. It is from the art practice of tawaifs/kanchens that Kathak evolved and the purab and thumri singing of Banaras was born.

At a time when women were denied access to literacy, tawaifs had a grounding in literature and politics, and their kothas were centres of cultural refinement. The highly respected tawaifs consisted of both Hindu and Muslim women. The tawaifs were so respected that they ended up as wives of rulers like Nawab Ghulam Ghouse Khan, the last Nawab of Carnatic. A little after his first marriage, Nawab Ghulam Ghouse Khan fell in love with Jahangir Hyderabadi, a kanchen in the court. He took her as his second wife and renamed her Azamunnisa Begum. Almost half a century earlier, Roshani Begum, a courtesan in the court of Mysore, bore the first child of Tipu Sultan Fateh Hyder and her adherence to the courtly traditions of courtesans is considered to be the cause for the Vellore mutiny of 1806.

Many of the tawaifs took an active role in supporting the Indian rebels during the first war of Indian independence in 1857. These tawaifs were as respected as the Hindu devadasis of those days, and found great patronage from the ruling class, be it the Mughals, their successors the Nawabs or the Marathas.

Yet, as affluent and powerful as they were, as the 20th century dawned, tawaifs and devadasis were viewed through the prevalent Victorian morals, and marked by the stigma of being women in the public gaze, accessible to all. In the colonial and nationalist discourse of the 19th and 20th centuries, this stigma deepened into criminalization leading to a traumatic decline of both communities. While the art form of the devadasis was usurped by upper caste Hindus and rebranded as bharata natyam, the Muslims completely turned their back on centuries-old Hindustani traditions of the tawaifs and slowly disengaged themselves from music too.

In the Salafi influenced 20th century Islam, that frowns upon the traditional greeting Khuda Hafiz, there was little or no room for either dance or music. Kathak which had emerged replacing Hindustani tradition is today bereft of its Muslim component.

While the Muslim influence in Hindustani music is on the wane, their presence in Carnatic music has been reduced to nil. In the mid-20th century there were eminent Muslim singers such as S.M.A. Kader who was the Dargah Vidwan of the famous Sufi shrine at Nagore, Karaikal Majid, Kumbakonam Sultan and Kumari Abubacker. These men sang Tamil Islamic keerthanas written centuries ago.

Of course, it must also be viewed in the context of the larger Tamil society moving away from Carnatic music, leaving that space mostly to upper caste Brahmins. Nevertheless, these musicians, including Nagore Hanifa whom I had quoted earlier, always faced pressure from the Islamic religious fundamentalists to abstain from singing, something other community singers like T.M. Soundarrajan didnt have to face.

Just as the upper caste Hindus appropriated sadir that was performed in temples and courts, and turned it into a respectable bharata natyam performed in public sabhas, the oppressed castes in Tamil Nadu have fought back, by not just making Parai a musical dance form as their community marker, but also taking to mass media entertainment like cinema to counter the historical injustices meted out to them over a millennium. The success of films at the box office, such as Pa Ranjiths Kabali, Mari Selvarajs Pariyerum Perumal and T.J. Gnanvels Jai Bhim is indicative of how they have touched a chord within the larger Tamil society, and the oppressed can fight back successfully with the help of art forms.

At a moment when Islamophobia is on the rise and the increasing marginalization of Muslim cultural and religious identities by the Indian state continues, art and culture could be one of the ways to counter it. However, under constant attack on various fronts, as the Muslim community withdraws into a shell, the decline of patronage to the very forms that could build a counter narrative is worrying. As Nazeer Akbarabadi, the peoples poet of the 18th century laments:

Kya tamashe inqelab-e-charkh ke kahiye Nazeer

Dum mein wo raunaq thi aur ek dum mein yeh be-raunaqi

(What to say of the lustre of revolving time, O Nazeer. In an instant there was such splendour and in another, this dullness.)