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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 47

Mullahs, Indian State and Muslim Backwardness

Tuesday 11 November 2008, by Abhay Mishra, Badre Alam Khan

The following article reached us on October 27. The authors wrote in a covering note: “We are with the Jamia Millia Islamia. We are sending an article in the wake of Arif Muhammad Khan’s piece which appeared in The Indian Express. Our article was not published by the daily. Now we are sending it to you. We think it should be published to counter Arif Muhammad Khan, now a BJP leader, who is not at all concerned with the

Muslims’ development.”

The fight against conservative elements can only be won if Muslims are educated and employed with the state playing a major role. Abusing mullahs without the state’s intervention for development would be counterproductive.

Former Union Minister and BJP leader Arif Muhammad Khan wrote an article ‘Reform happens through discord, not unity’ in the Indian Express (October 18, 2008). On the birth anniversary of the great Muslim social reformer, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), he reminded us of the need for modern English education and science for the otherwise backward Muslims also highlighted by the Sachar Committee report. The occasion for raising this important issue is apt because Sir Syed tirelessly worked for social and educational reforms by setting up the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University amid severe hostility of then “bigotry of the professional clergy”. The writer is right to highlight the social and educational backwardness of Muslims in India today. But our disagreement with Arif Muhammad Khan is that he ended up putting all the blame on conservative, obscurantist mullahs while completely ignoring the negligence of the Indian state since independence resulting in gross poverty and alienation among the minority.

On the role of mullahs, there is no doubt that a section of Muslims, mostly poor and uneducated, is under their firm control. However, the majority of Muslims, like in any other community, are forward looking and they want modern education for their children. But to say that all Muslims subscribe to the mullahs’ worldview, follow their fatwahs, or they prefer madrasas to government or public schools is far from the truth. Even the Sachar Committee report points out that only four per cent of them go to madrasas, while the majority are educated in both public and private schools. The reason for having such an impression is because of the apparent fact that Muslims are a homogeneous community guided by one particular religious authority. However, this is only a myth.

In the wake of anti-Ahmadiya riots in Pakistan in the early 1950s, a committee was set up to define ‘who is a Muslim’. The interesting finding of the report is that no mullah or cleric could agree to an acceptable definition of ‘who is a Muslim’ with this note by committee’s chairman—

If considerable opinion exists in the minds of our ulemas on such a simple matter one can easily imagine what the difference on the more complicated matter will be. (Hasan, Mushirul: 2007, ‘Legacy of a Divided Nation: India’s Muslims since Independence’ in Indian Muslim,

an Omnibus, OUP, p. 12)

If mullahs in an Islamic state like Pakistan failed to reach a common definition about who is a Muslim, one can understand that there is a lot of diversity existing among Muslims. Thus, to say that a particular set of fanatic mullahs has maintained a firm grip over the Muslim community as a whole would be misleading. Even in India, we can see there are many sects and schools of thoughts among Muslims. For some observing muharram with a procession is un-Islamic but for others it is not. The other day noted social scientist Imtiyaz Ahmed said that he could easily identify which sect of Islam a Muslim belongs to by the way he puts on his cap on the head. Even in 2004, the Jama Masjid’s, Imam Bukhari issued a fatwa asking Muslims to vote for the BJP but that did not happen—otherwise the NDA would not have been out of power.

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With these examples we argue that mullahs do not determine everything for Muslims and there is a much wider space for the liberal and secular forces to intervene for their uplift.

Unfortunately many, like Arif Muhammad Khan, have exaggerated the importance of mullahs and said that they are a hurdle to the Muslims development. There is no doubt that a number of them belong to the conservative, backward looking forces who cherish the dream of restoring an Islamic state in India which existed centuries ago. They also discourage Muslims from acquiring modern education and knowledge of English considering them either “un-Islamic” or “irrelevant”. But this is a narrow interpretation of Islam by them and they constitute a minority. Even Islam has exhorted its followers to go to China for education not because it was then an Islamic state but since it was very advanced in science. On one occasion the Prophet stressed the importance of science and education when He said:

To listen to the instructions of science and learning for one hour is more meritorious than standing up in prayers for thousand nights. (S. Irfan Habib: 2008, ‘Modern Science and Islamic Essentialism’, Economic and Political Weekly, September 6, p. 61)

The minority today is losing faith in the Indian state which is very unfortunate. But those who are laying the blame on the mullahs need to be more sincere about their own contribution to this phenomenon. How much space do our media and secular civil society give to the development related issues of the minority? It is negligible as pointed out in a recent study by the National Minority Commission. The Commission said the media is more interested in covering sensational issues related to the minority than developmental issues. Even hardly anybody discusses the state of implementation of the Sachar Committee report nowadays. It would be much fruitful for Arif Muhammad Khan to convince the BJP to work for their socio-economic development following the Sachar recommendations than to harp on minority appeasement. The BJP is yet to come out with any concrete programme for their real development. The governments claiming to be secular are also not much better. Thousands of riots did take place in the country since independence and the vicious cycle continues in Orissa, Karnataka and elsewhere where there is an almost total constitutional breakdown.

To sum up, sincere social programmes are needed for development of the Muslims. It would be wrong to think that Muslims are a homogeneous community with the universal authority of mullahs holding them firmly. What little hold mullahs have over the Muslim community is because of the fact that the liberal and secular forces have left the space to the conservative forces. The fight against the conservative elements can be won only if Muslims are educated and employed with the state playing a major role. Abusing mullahs without the state’s intervention for development would be counterproductive.

The authors are Research Scholars in the Department of Political Science and Jawaharlal Nehru Studies Centre respectively, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. They can be reached at debatingissues@gmail.com

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