The other face of Indian Islam

In response to The Case for Indian Islam


Neil Padukone’s article “The Case for Indian Islam” in this month’s Pragati can be called a good article. It encompasses a commendable idea to project the moderate version of Islam as practiced in India on to the world stage and position it in between the two radical versions of Islam as practiced in Iran and Saudi Arabia. The fly in the ointment is that the moderate version of Islam itself is under siege in India and is increasingly being confined to small pockets. The radical segments of the Muslim community have asserted themselves, with no small help from the above two countries and also from that part of the sub-continent which opted for an Arabic identity forsaking its native origin. To realise the dream of the author, moderate Islam must first find its moorings and project itself as the face of Islam in India before attempting to become an acceptable alternative to the radical face of Islam. And that will be a tall order.

Has ‘Indian’Islam reconciled itself with nationalism, justice, and democracy? Has it accepted the differences in religious practices of those within its fold without trying to impose a standardised form of religious practices interpreted by the two dominant factions and enforced physically and by threats of violence and ostracisation? One doubts it. Being a minority in a tolerant majority region is the best defence that the various sects of Islam can have to practice religion in their own fashion without much interference from one another. It is for this reason that we find in areas where one faction of Islam is dominant or almost equal to the other and where the tolerant majority is in a minority that they set themselves up on one another’s throats. Islam moderated by the majority culture has to show itself to be a progressive viable and better alternative rooted in the best practices of the religion as it formed in the desert sands of Arabia and at the same time showing a willingness to adapt and adopt the best practices of the land where it is being practiced. 170 million Muslims living in this great democracy have to realise this and find the courage to confront those who would like to shackle them to the past. Only when this is done and intra-communal and inter-communal riots and killings cease will the concept of Indian Islam find acceptance abroad.

Regarding reconciliation with nationalism, justice and democracy, it would be foolish to presume that Islam is compatible with the western definition of democracy. Islam is a religion which lays down the law for every follower and this law is interpreted by the mullah in the local mosque.  Nationalism is over shadowed by the greater nationality of the UmmahShariat, which is an intrinsic part of the religion, is all that is required for a follower of Islam. Democracy, a justice system based on western ideals and acceptance of secular laws are usually followed only in name or until such time as it is possible to replace them with Islamic values.The Right to Freedom of Religion confer the right to practice religion according to an individual’s inclination in India. The Constitution recognizes the right for various denominations in any religion to exist. The dominant or assertive faction of any religion is not given the right to compel other sects in the same religion to follow its way. This is the main reason why it is difficult to bring all the sects of Islam under one banner and fight for the establishment of the Ummah.

The fact that in India, there was a demand and a concession for a separate set of personal laws for the minorities is indicative of the fact that a separate religious identity is sought to be maintained. How many modern Islamist or even Christian denominations are agreeable to a Common Civil Law/Code which will make the practice of religion an individual choice and not dictated by practices imported from a different milieu and distant place. Islam is moderate in India only because of the concessions given by and the tolerance of the majority religious denominations. The fact that the Islamic Pakistan treats co-Islamists like the Shias, Ahmediyas and Baha’is’ as infidels is pointer to the fact that where one sect of Islam is dominant other sects and religions do not have space. Malaysia, Indonesia and now Egypt are indicative of the trend.

One would expect broader understanding of Islam and Hinduism before venturing to talk about the moderating and reforming effect of one over the other. Historical illiteracy is no excuse to claim that Hindu kingdoms were pitted against Muslim Kingdoms. From the 11th Century, when Mohammed of Ghazini came into the country in search of loot it was the riches of kingdoms south of Indus which brought in the rootless mercenaries from Afghanistan into this country. Internecine feuds between clans and families in the sub-continent required their services e.g. Raja Jai Singh sought the help of Mohammed of Ghori against his bête noire Prithviraj Chauhan. Once established these mercenaries used religion as a means to create support base for themselves and expand in the sub-continent.  Expansion had naturally to take place by going to war against the local Kings who belonged to different sects united only by the nomenclature of ‘Hindu’ by virtue of them being people who populated the area south of Indus River. Several of these Kings had Muslim generals and moorish soldiers and similarly many of the Sultans had Hindu generals and foot soldiers.

The few occasions when a ‘Hindu’ King confronted a ‘Muslim’ Sultan could be the Battle of Talekota, when Vijaynagar was pitted against the Bahamani Sultans, or the Second Battle of Panipat when the ‘moderate’ Islamist, Akbar fought a ‘Hindu’ King Hemu. Incidentally, a syncretism of Islam and Hinduism was attempted by Akbar when he propounded the Din-i-Illahi which died along with him since there were no takers for it.

Apart from the above one cannot find any major acceptance of Hindu philosophy by Islam. Cultural exchanges between the two groups did take place. One must remember that this was more due to the fact that people who followed a particular custom over the ages would find it difficult to abandon them completely and take on a new way of life without vestiges of the earlier characteristics being reflected in them. One cannot deny that culturally there was enrichment in art, architecture, music and culinary habits. But to label this as syncretism of religion will be to take things too far.

Syncretism of Islam and Hindu philosophy did take place but in different ways. Sufi Islam found its roots in certain pockets of the country and it was encouraged by the kings in those areas to enable them keep the population from getting polarised into religious groups.This syncretism was not accepted by Islam. Today they are under attack. Witness the polarisation in Kashmir, undoubtedly the seat of Sufism. A greater syncretism gave raise to Sikhism, which took from both Islamic and Hindu religious texts. But Islam never recognised Sikhism as an offshoot of itself and India still debates whether to club Sikhs as another minority religion or as a part of the Hindu mosaic. Kabir would probably be a symbol of such unity. But the question remains, is Kabir accepted by the Deobandi School as a follower of Islam?

Opposition to caste stratification was present even before the Muslim advent into India. One would be advised to go through the history of Saivite saints also called Nayanars in the Peria Puranam to understand and appreciate the acceptance of devotees of Shiva despite the difference in caste. It would also be surprising to note that two of the more famous of the devotees belonged to a tribal caste and a ‘Dalit‘ caste.  The Bakthi movement was more of a reassertion of the fact that a Brahmin need not be the only guide to salvation. This is mentioned in the Bhagavath Geeta as well which existed before Prophet Mohammed. Ascribing the Bhakti movement to Muslim influence is like ascribing the founding of Israel to the good influence of Nazism.

The Indian Constitution is probably the only document available, which is truly secular and has the solution to bring everyone together. More than religion, it is the Indian Constitution which will provide a solution to enable the warring factions in Islam to live and let live.

To enable this, the followers of the Prophet must understand that their religion was founded in circumstances vastly different from what it is today and that it not sacrilege to abandon those practices which were essential back then, to protect a fledgling religion for establishing roots and which are not required now. Change is inevitable and is to be accepted as long as the basic tenets are not affected. Once this reality is accepted, then Islam will be welcomed for it has much to contribute to the betterment of humanity.  Simultaneously, the Christian nations must realise that Christianity in all its forms is not the only panacea for all of mankind’s problems. Christianity as practiced today is a far cry from what Christ had preached. Every bearded man is not a terrorist or a fanatic, neither is every white robed preacher a saint, and this applies to the saffron-hued ones too.