Walled away in faith’s defence

Like today’s ‘secular’ or ‘moderate’ Muslim, a species called the ‘nationalist Muslim’ was extremely sought after, and equally rare, in pre-Independence India. The nationalist Muslim was the counterpoint to the problem of Muslim disaffection that surfaced after 1857 — a statist problem to which the colonial solution was the creation of a set of collaborators. In turn, the nationalist retort was to create a nationalist Muslim i.e., one willing to consider mutual agreements to resolve disputes rather than the colonial state as a bulwark. That is to say, a Muslim who ratified the Congress was a nationalist, one who did not was a communalist. But since even the best nationalist Muslims remained disaffected — read Maulana Azad’s ministerial correspondence — and many who started as nationalists ended as communalists or separatists — take Jinnah, Mohammed Ali Jauhar or Iqbal — a Muslim’s only respectable political choice was to become a communist.

Between the Scylla of disaffection — can an Indian Muslim be unmoved by the condition of Muslims — and the Charybdis of the illegitimacy of communitarian posturing, hangs the fate of the modern, secular Muslim. The mainstream demands that he shed his Muslimness, the community urges him to display it. Varieties of sectarianism — caste, regional, nativist, linguistic — are permitted, even accepted, but it is difficult to articulate religious sectarianism; hence the proliferation of stories about Muslim artisans for Dussehra, Muslim actors in Ramlila and so on. Is there space to assert that I will not celebrate Diwali or Holi because my religion does not permit me?

Simultaneous with the insistence on the erasure of difference — we are all Indians, join the mainstream — through a sleight of hand comes the reminder of the particularistic. So, on purdah, Shah Bano or education, the secular Muslim should affirm his Muslimness but speak as a modern. The ‘acceptable’ Indian Muslim, therefore, does not look or behave like Muslims do, but carries the burden of speaking for them. In addition he must glorify the syncretic past and create versions of Islam that harmonise with the current definition of religion. Men like us must speak as does the rest of India and must simultaneously goad other Muslims to speak like us or let us talk for them. The problem, as we all know, is that sub-human category, the Mullahs.

Rules of endogamy, if nothing else (no UP Muslim wants to marry a Bengali or Malyali Muslim), give the lie to the category of something that can be called ‘Indian Muslims’ — the group is more diverse than any other in India. But the problem called ‘Indian Muslims’ continues, as opposed to the problems that all Indian Muslims have in and with India. Muslims in different parts are different but every city in India has a Muslim ghetto. Why do they stick together wherever they are? What is wrong if they do? And are they all the same?

Let me explain my locus. I am an atheist, I follow none of the Islamic taboos, but I live in a locality in the capital that can only be called a ghetto. I lived here for five years, when I was a student, when I was very self-consciously opposed to the Indian Muslim stereotype. I had grown up on Chandamama and Nandan, Holi was my favourite festival, Karna my hero, Shiva the great God, Hinduism a highly tolerant religion and I had dreams of attaining martyrdom fighting Pakistan. I was studying history and detested medieval Muslim rulers; I would expatiate on the reasons why Islam had trouble with modernity; I admired Naipaul and Rushdie; supported Mushirul Hasan during the Satanic Verses controversy — a novel I deeply admire in spite of its undoubted blasphemies — and I detested many things about Indian Muslims, except, predictably, Urdu literature and Sufism. I was, in short, a model Hinduised-Indian-Muslim, who always put India before Islam. I was desperate to leave Okhla.

But I am now back in Okhla, arguing simultaneously for the legitimacy of difference and the fact of a universal human. Between the self-hatred of my youth and the current uneasiness with my earlier positions lies, possibly, a series of adult defeats — perhaps they have dulled my passions and my hatreds. However now I have, you could say, chosen to live here, after a series of eliminations — Defence Colony, Greater Kailash-I, Jangpura — on grounds of my being Muslim and/or not having a company lease. But, crucially, I came here because I was sickened by South Delhi and because I was incipiently aware of Okhla’s hospitableness.

Most of my neighbours know about my non-conformist life-style but there is a surprising tolerance for my ways. Indeed, most Muslim ghettos I know of are content to house persons like me provided we do not ruffle public feathers. It is a tolerance that obviously sits easily with an utter conviction of the falsity of our ways, similar to the mixed feelings Amitav Ghosh generated in that Egyptian village where he was unexceptionably welcomed and equally unexceptionally reminded of the falsehood of Hindusim and the superiority of Islam.

More than this, however, my views, in conformity with the rest of the academic world, about the virtues of egalitarianism, liberty and a democratic welfare state are now far less uncomplicated than they were in my youth. I still search for vestiges of the narrative of liberty in Islamic pasts, I continue to valourise streams of pluralism in Muslim sultanates and extol those Indian Muslims of the past who were ecumenical and tolerant. I would still challenge descriptions of the medieval past that underline forced conversions or bemoan the second-class treatment of Hindus. If I do not have much truck with Islam, why then do I continue to search for narratives of tolerance in the Islamic past? Why do I smart when Vajpayee says that there is trouble and violence wherever Muslims live? Why is my attitude to Islam so defensive?

I am eager to tell the world that Muslims of the past were different, as they indeed were, but the hidden presumption is that the current Indian Muslims are a fallen lot, in need of reform. We are not entirely sure whether it is they or Islam itself that needs reform, but we are absolutely certain that reform is needed. The West is reformation itself, Christianity has been protestantised, Hinduism has been reformed by the State, but Islam we have been trying to reform for the last 150 years and have been on the defensive for as long as well. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan wrote letters justifying the British racial hatred of Indians — “They are right to treat us worse than dogs,”— before pleading that there is no contradiction between the Quran and science, that Islam was enlightenment and enlightenment Islam. Why must even those defending Muslims reduce all debate surrounding Muslims to Islam? Why do I continue to become perturbed by the treatment of Islam from both sides?

I am confused. On the one hand I bemoan the condition of Muslims in India; on the other, I am strongly aware of the fact that this State, like most others, delivers mostly to its elite, outside whose pale are not only Muslims but also most other marginal groups. On the one hand, I feel that we should have the space to be critical of certain strains in the world of Indian Muslims; on the other, I feel that sometimes we make too much of freedom of expression. I want Muslims to be different from what they are, but cannot tell how much of that desire is an internalisation of a vein of criticism and interrogation that has now gone on for over 200 years, not merely in India. What I do know is that the stereotype of the exceptionalism of Islam as a religion and the inexorable Muslim urge for separateness from the mainstream is one that cuts both ways. You can use it to condemn Muslims, you can invoke it to celebrate difference in a world where history has ended, where all roads lead to New York. That cannot be our only fate.

[First published in Tehelka.]

19 thoughts on “Walled away in faith’s defence”

  1. Exceptionally written. Ya, I too grew up on Nandan, Champak, Chandamama and Hindu mythology apart from Urdu, Ibne-e-Safi, Dastan Amir Hamza, Tilism Hoshruba in teen years.
    Whenever in my childhood I asked my father if Muslims were discriminated against, I was told, ‘This country has given highest offices to Muslims and about Admiral Latif and umpteen others’ and I always felt proud.
    However, many incidents shake your confidence in the system and the fact that you are always a kind of a fifth columnist, a suspect, in the eyes of many, HURTS you. Also, when you are told that you are a good Muslim because you have a social status, you speak English, good Urdu and ‘don’t look like Muslim’, the intense feeling of helplessness overcomes. But I guess, that makes one tough and always you get Hindu friends who will fight with others and defend you. These things boost the morale. The Moradabad riots, Babri Masjid and Gujarat were probably three such scars on my psyche that left indelible impressions. A million times I have consoled myself that in this country like a family ‘khat pat’ hoti hai but it could have been great had these things not happened. Or at least, the prejudices against Muslims could somehow end. Education and only education is the answer. When every Muslim would be educated, probably the image could change.

    aao inquilaab taaza paidaa kareN
    dahar par is tarah chhaa jayeN ki sab dekhaa kareN

  2. Adnan,

    I wish I could be as optimistic and say that “Education and only education is the answer.” However – is it the illiterate who are the purveyors of hatred? Do you think that they have the sophistication to come up with things like “Hindutva” and its counterpoints like “Hindus and Muslims can never live together in the same nation.” Were such things the products of the uneducated?

    Let’s face it – Education is a double-edged sword. Yes, it can enlighten but it very well can provide appropriate tools for the unscrupulous. Look at the hate-filled (and misleading) propoganda being disseminated in various newspapers, presumably by “educated” persons.

    It is going to be a struggle – and a very long one at that – to make our country into one, where – to invoke Martin Luther King’s inspiring and immortal words – people are “judged by the content by their character” and not by their religious or other affiliations. Education may be a part of the solution but it certainly is not going to provide miracles.

    I suppose for Muslims – and even for Hindus – this is not very encouraging news. I guess we have to continue to fight, for there is no other alternative – other than to migrate elsewhere and drop out of the fight altogether.

  3. Being a member of the so called “Harijan/Dalit” caste, i can understand the mixed feelings of the author. It often comes as a shock to many that i am a chamar because it is never expected that someone of a low birth like mine will be any good at english or even be in the States. From my personal experience most Indians, however educated or high up on the social ladder, or from any religion for that matter are highly critical or atleast uncomfortable if you do not conform to the prevailing Brahminisque way of life in India.

    The point is that education is not the answer, because with education you can only achive self realisation and confidence, but to live in a biased and closed society like the Indian society, it is just not enough. It is the biased lot which needs to reform itself, and that in itself is if not an impossible than a losing cause.

  4. To those who argue that education is not a solution, here is my response. A good education is a big part of the solution. The current system of education in India is not a good one. At the best, it may churn out a few engineers who can do data entry work. What we need is an educational reform. Once we achieve that, the education could lead to a social reform. With a good education system, we cannot reform the society. We need a multi pronged approach to this problem. Once we have a good education, we will not have “educated people” holding Hindutva flags. Reform of education is the first step towards reforming the society.

  5. Excellent post. Totally agree with you. I think a muslim in this country often feels acceptable only when he conforms to certain norms – like wishing happy diwali to everyone or not sporting a beard, not being overtly religious. Although the same rules do not apply to the hindu population – in my team people would go about distributing shirdi ka prasad without even thinking whether it hurts religious sentiments of christians or muslims or atheists (like me). Why can’t be religion be a personal matter ? ok you been to shirdi, perfectly alright, live with your belief, but for sphagetti monster’s sake don’t distribute prasad in an office, or rant about the virtues of fasting on ekadashi. I think the muslim community needs to share some part of the blame as well – for instance voting parties like the SP who repeatedly harp on the extremist line and allowing themselves to be trapped in the mullah-SP nexus. I agree with Krish. Obviously, education would be used by a certain section of the population to spread hatred, but if the education is effective a overwhelming majority will be tolerant, open to ideas and much more progressive. The people who are bloggina and commenting here are prime examples of such education, rooted in secularism, which has given us the opportunity to look beyond the propaganda and smell the coffee.

  6. “Simultaneous with the insistence on the erasure of difference — we are all Indians, join the mainstream — through a sleight of hand comes the reminder of the particularistic.”

    Surely this ‘erasure of identity’ is as nothing compared to the one implicit in the repeated assertion of a ‘Muslim’ identity that is relevant to every political question.

  7. Stimulating post. You might enjoy Akeel Bilgrami’s “What is a Muslim? Fundamental Commitment and Cultural Identity” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 18, No. 4, Identities (Summer 1992), p. 821-842. If you don’t have access to the journal, you could probably email him and ask him for a pdf copy.

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  9. Very touching and disarmingly honest post. I’ve read ur stuff in Mid Day pretty regularly but this one takes the cake.
    I think your ‘mixed’ childhood is not at all paradoxical. Intelligent people pick and choose from their milieu and so did you. Keep up the good work!

  10. as one of very few indians at my american (alebiet hippie) highschool, i always felt like it was my responibility to represnt not only hinduism, but islam, sikhism, jainism and buddhism in every class discussion. it was intersting to see that the stereotypes of all those religions were set. hindus were a bunch of caste-flaunting, ganges-bathing brahmins. muslims were all mullahs, jihadists or veiled, battered women. until 9/11.
    all of a sudden, there was a huge push to show islam to be a “normal” religion. rushdie became required reading. articles by muslim-americans were brought it. the koran joined the bible as a literary-analysis aide. non-muslims began to defend islam. but it felt like other religions didnt get that push.
    buddhists still meditate and drink green tea on mountain tops, and we hindus still apparently dont look at people in other castes. well, i use “we” loosely… im agnostic from a non-religious family. but nonetheless, it feels like now people are willing to accept (much in the way it has with judaism) a view of non-extreme islam, if nothing more than to be politically correct.

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  13. میرا نام راشد اشرف، کیمیکل انجینیر، مقیم کراچی ۔۔۔ ابن صفی پر پہلا آرٹیکل 1995 میں لکھا جس کا نام قلم کا قرض تھا۔ ابن صفی پر نئی ویب سائٹ کا اجرا جولائی سن دو ھزار نو میں کیا۔۔۔ 23 اگست دو ھزار نو کے جنگ انٹرنیٹ ایڈیشن میں تقریب ابن صفی ایک مکالمہ کی مکمل رپورٹ لکھی — 25 جولائی دو ھزار نو کو بزنس ریکارڈر میں ابن صفی پر آرٹیکل لکھا —- 26 جولائی دو ھزار نو کو ابن صفی کی برسی کے موقع پر آج ٹی وی پر خبر میں آمد۔
    http://www.wadi-e-urdu.com ابن صفی پر نئی ویب سائٹ
    فرزند ابن صفی، جناب احمد صفی کے ہمراہ ریڈیو چینل ایف ایم 105 پر چھبیس نومبر دو ھزار نو کو ڈیڑھ گھنٹے کے براہ راست انٹرویو میں آمد

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