What lessons, if any, have Muslims learnt from the developments of the last 70 years, including from the Babri Masjid and Shah Bano controversies? To find the answer to this, they must pose certain questions to themselves, including to the ulema, to Muslim intellectuals and to Muslim political leaders. Muslims must engage in introspection. They need to recognise that certain notions that they have inherited have caused them to develop an emotional, rather than a rational, approach to issues. They need to reflect on the phenomenon of superficial religiosity that is so marked among many of them. An uncompromising attitude and lack of an accommodative approach among many Muslims is another issue that they need to reflect on. Claiming religious superiority over others is a feature among some Muslims that has contributed to furthering communal polarisation. Muslims must also recognise that certain sections among them continue to uphold exclusivist and narrow thinking that is completely unacceptable, especially in a plural society.
Reflections on the Indian Muslim Religious Leadership
In the wake of Partition, a major chunk of the Indian Muslim political and intellectual elite, especially in North India, migrated to Pakistan. The leadership vacuum created by this was filled to a large extent by ulema or Muslim religious scholars or clerics. Even today, many Muslims consider certain clerics as their leaders, and they are also projected as such by others, including by many political parties and by some sections of the media. Although most Muslim clerics are engaged in religious work, such as leading prayers in mosques, running madrasas and teaching religion, some of them have also been engaged in politics. This is not a new phenomenon, though. Even in British India, several well-known ulema played key political roles.
There is no doubt that many ulema are indeed very good scholars of religious matters and are knowledgeable in their particular sphere. Several of them are also fine human beings. But are many of these scholars really providing Muslims with the appropriate guidance that they need in today’s context?
Today, the Indian Muslims require leaders who can provide them guidance for advancing economically, educationally, socially, and of course, spiritually, as well as for promoting harmony and good relations between Muslims and members of other communities. They need leaders who can provide them an authentic understanding of their faith, which meaningfully addresses issues of great contemporary relevance, such as gender justice, social equality, individual rights, freedom of thought and expression, interfaith understanding and inter-community harmony, religious pluralism, environmental protection, dialogue and harmony between different Muslim sects, democracy, secularism, and so on. They need leaders who can help them contribute positively in a rapidly-changing, cosmopolitan world.
Now, seen in this light, let us reflect on the present-day actual situation. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the present-day Muslim clerics have been trained in traditional madrasas, and almost all of the vast number of madrasas in India are affiliated with one or the other Muslim sect or maslak (and there are a large number of such sects). Over the centuries, the views of some Muslim religious thinkers who gained particular popularity spawned distinct sects. None of these Muslim sects can supersede, or have any superiority over, the Quran and the Sunnah, the sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). But in actual practice, many ego-driven clerics give more importance to their own sectarian understandings. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) never intended to create rival sects. In theory, the religion of Islam has no sects. But the situation is vastly different in actuality. Muslims are a badly divided lot, splintered into dozens of sects. The sects that have emerged among Muslims over the last 1,400 years or so have almost completely sundered Muslim unity. All these sects are the creation of men who emerged over the centuries after the departure of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and are based on their own interpretations, theories and beliefs.
Unfortunately, many Muslims give more prominence to the religious thought of various sectarian scholars than to the Quran. This has exacerbated the problem of intra-Muslim conflicts. These conflicts have badly divided Muslim societies across the world, including in India. And when a society is divided in this way, it is almost impossible for it to progress. This is one of the major reasons for the overall backwardness of Muslims, not just in India but in much of the rest of the world too.
Many clerics from various Muslim sects are intensely involved in squabbling with one another, so much so that they have their own separate madrasas and mosques. Many clerics thrive in instigating and stoking sectarian prejudices, denouncing other Muslim sects. All of this has resulted in sectarian havoc among Muslims, not just in India but almost everywhere else where Muslims live. The leaders of these sects are responsible for dividing Muslims all over the world in this way. Muslim clerics have done great harm to Muslims by dividing Muslims into several sects, based on their rival interpretations. They never tried to prepare Muslims for how to be part of an inclusive and plural society and to learn the art of dialogue. How could they, when they themselves practised fierce exclusiveness, such as in the name of sect, amongst themselves?
Then, there are ego issues to consider. Many Muslim clerics hold their religious views alone as right, as also the particular interpretation of Islam that they advocate. Now, differences of opinion in matters religious or in interpretation of religious texts are natural and should be respected. But many Muslim clerics think differently—they have a vested interest in developing a blindly devoted following of their own. Even though Islam encourages discussions and deliberations, many of these clerics have closed the doors of mutual consultation and dialogue because of the wide differences among themselves that they want to keep alive.
Although some madrasas are now bringing about some changes, such as introducing certain modern subjects, the curriculum of the madrasas overall still remains largely unchanged in large parts of the country. Few madrasas facilitate their students to gain a meaningful understanding of the present-day context and of contemporary concerns such as environmental protection, or modern understandings of human rights and pluralism, to name but a few. Hardly any madrasas enable their students to learn about other cultures, faiths and ways of life, and even about other Muslim sects, in a balanced and objective manner. Even after spending years in a madrasa, a student may have little knowledge of various modern ideologies or economic systems. They may even have no idea about modern-day Muslim scholars who are articulating understandings of Islam that seek to meaningfully engage with a range of issues of contemporary importance, from democracy to interfaith relations, from gender justice to the interface between science and religion. Other than knowing Urdu, some Arabic and perhaps a local language, their linguistic skills may be very limited. And so on.
A major problem that Muslims face is that many Muslim clerics want to have a say in just about every issue related to Muslims. Moreover, these men see every issue from what they regard as a ‘religious’ angle. Some of them even defend and promote practices that are not even part of the Quran or the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace be upon him), wrongly claiming that these are integral to the Shariah. At the same time, they are least bothered about the social issues which arise in a diverse society.
Besides teaching religion to students in madrasas and to the general Muslim public, Muslim religious leaders should also have taught them democracy and made them aware of their duties as citizens and as members of a plural society, in addition to helping equip them with practical livelihood skills. They should have played a major role in facilitating Muslim educational and economic development and promoting interfaith dialogue and harmony with members of other religious communities— these being major issues for the Indian Muslims. But, by and large, they ignored these very vital tasks.
Yet another way that many Muslim clerics are responsible for Muslim backwardness is by seeking to apply certain interpretations and practices which prevailed centuries ago, often the product of certain medieval scholars, to the present times. But how can a people advance if many of their leaders want to drag them back to the distant past? Islam is not against creative interpretation of certain provisions in a contextually relevant manner (what is called ijtihad) in accordance with the changing times, if necessary. Several great visionary Muslim religious leaders from India, such as Maulana Abdul Hassan Ali Nadvi, Maulana Shibli Nomani and Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, have advocated that Muslims should adopt necessary changes with the times, if this is required to appropriately respond to a new context. It is clear that Muslims cannot progress if they remain wedded to some centuries’-old interpretations, notions and practices that are not in accordance with the spirit of Islam and that impede their creative presence in the contemporary world.
When religion and politics are mixed, problems very often arise that cause great damage. In a secular, democratic state, Muslims should separate politics from religion. They should respect the Constitution of the country where they live. Trouble starts when certain religious practices that are not among the fundamentals of Islam come to be built into people’s understanding of Islam and clash with citizens’ rights. In such circumstances, the law of the land must prevail. Poor understanding of law and Constitutional provisions on the part of some Muslim clerics has played havoc with the general masses of Muslims. A classic example of this is the practice of triple talaq in one sitting. This practice is not sanctioned by the Quran, but yet, numerous Muslim clerics ardently defended it. It was against society and the rights of women. Despite this, a large number Muslim religious leaders fought for more than two decades to defend this practice, wasting precious resources and time on this agenda, which resulted in further escalation of communal polarisation and prejudice against Muslims. Ultimately, their case miserably flopped! Fortunately, the Supreme Court of India has held that triple talaq in one sitting is unconstitutional.
One can cite several other examples of emotionalism in the name of religion over issues that ultimately caused grievous harm to Muslims themselves. To take just one example, consider how many Muslims get quickly worked up and launch an angry protest if someone says or writes something that they consider hurtful to their sentiments. Such emotional reactions can lead to serious law and order problems. Muslims must realise that such emotional outbursts will only push Muslims further into a quagmire. All such issues are created in order to divert the attention of the common Muslims from their development and to shore up the leadership claims of some elements that have a vested interest in stoking Muslim sentiments in this manner. The common Muslims are easily drawn into such controversies, with tragic consequences for inter-communal harmony and social peace. This is something that has been happening for decades now and must be recognised as one of the main causes for continuing Muslim backwardness. Muslims must realise that this approach is totally counter-productive, and, in fact, self-destructive.
More and more Muslim religious leaders, especially the younger ones, should come forward to promote the message of genuine spirituality, with a stress on humanity and human values. This is very necessary in order to enable Muslims to play a role in overcoming communalism and promoting communal harmony. The sooner the Muslim clerics realise this, the better it will be for everyone, including themselves.
K. Rahman Khan is a veteran Congress politician and a former Union Minister of Minority Affairs.
This excerpt from ‘Indian Muslims: The Way Forward’ by K. Rahman Khan has been published with permission from Notion Press.