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Asleep behind the wheel
Why Muslim leadership failed to emerge?
By Syed Iftikhar Ahmed

Time and again, and rightly so from various quarters Muslims have been told that they lack the leadership. Seldom has there been an effort from these quarters and from among the Muslims themselves to ascertain the facts and causes that prevented the evolution of genuine leadership. What is more deplorable is the fact that even Muslims failed to realize the problem and give a serious thought. 

Blaming the hostile forces for all the weaknesses may for some time pacify the wounded feelings and give an alibi to be content with status quoist' attitude. But in the long run it tells heavily upon the psyche of any community indulging such paranoia. The community with such an attitude becomes idle and static. Its creativity and vision becomes the first casualty. Confronted with such a situation it tries in vain to derive strength from the past, less from the present and none from the future, saturated with emotions and yet bursting with false hopes. 

Before embarking upon any conclusion, let us consider the position of the Indian Muslims both in post and pre independence era. Let us keep in mind that for every failure and weakness of the Muslims, Islam is held responsible by friends and foes alike. No wonder then that to escape from this pathetic situation, Muslims in general suggest a return to the past glory. In plain words this attitude amounts only to escapism and turning a blind eye to the challenges before and ahead of them. 

It would be incumbent upon anyone who wants to probe the problem and explore the ways and means to set right the record to tread back into the history not past glory - the advent of Muslims in this country. Prior to independence and before the partial democratic dispensation of the British the country had been ruled by absolute monarchy, stretched for centuries. Contrary to the supposed and make-believe assumptions the invading kings did not come to this land out of any ambition of teaching Islam. Some of them might have had that in mind but even their approach remained political rather than proselytising in nature. History is replete with their fighting against each other for establishing their own dynasties. At any juncture of their rule egalitarian spirit of Islam had never been exposed. Instead, there is ample testimony to prove that they jettisoned the pristine glory and teachings of Islam, for compelling political reasons.

How then tens of millions of people converted to Islam? It is another story. Two factors might have contributed to the fact, one, subjects often find themselves inclined to the religion of the ruling class, second, scores of pious Muslims made it a point to discharge their duty of teaching the Word of God to the people around them which yielded results much beyond their efforts. Monarchies always tend, as a political expediency, to avoid direct contact with the subjects for obvious reasons, to carve out a buffer structure at the societal plane. Such a class is always supposed to support and in turn is supported by the monarchy; it is always awarded with various positions of privilege and status. Requisite material benefits, jagirs (fiefs) and in'ams (awards) followed naturally for the sustenance of this class, paving the way for establishing of an exclusive elite class and culture of the feudal lords. People living in their domains were considered to be their lawful subjects. 

Feudal lords were authorized to collect taxes from the peasantry. The revenue so generated became their personal property. They seldom provided any services to the people, which they were supposed to. Instead, the subjects became a class of service providers. Thus alienation of both the classes was complete and the society became stratified on economic and social lines. Even though the feudal elite had practical contacts with the people within their immediate circle, the contribution in elevating the society and attending to the grievances by this class remained marginal. They were busy providing themselves with the paraphernalia that goes with the status and culture. 

The subjects were content with their destiny, the only contact between the two. Therein lies the fact as to why a middle class so vital for providing and cultivating a genuine leadership within the community did not take root. The monarchy came to an end with the advent of British rule but the societal structure, fostered by the monarchy was kept intact as it was found to be of profound importance to support the colonial objects of the British rulers. 

The Indian National Congress picked up the legacy where the British left. Post independence Muslims faced the hostile environment and hate Muslim mania as the independence heralded on the premise of heightened communal tension and Muslims were held responsible for the partition of the motherland. They were denied fruits of independence and democracy. Muslims were confronted with pseudo-issues like talaq, polygamy, burqa etc. mainly to keep them confused and refrain from developmental activity. They fell in the trap, did not ask for any share out of guilt complex. Some cosmetic privileges were however awarded, not again to the common masses but to the very elite who had been enjoying them from monarchy to British rule and then the new Swadeshi Congress dispensation. 

Congress thwarted any efforts from the middle classes to assert themselves and thrust upon them the leadership of the "chosen people", at times " refuse" of the community at times of those who had dismal contacts, as a deliberate policy, to throttle the growth of the community. Thus the vacuum created by the monarchy persisted throughout the successive transitions of power. But then a vacuum has to be filled. Consequently the common people turned towards religious heads for presumed illusory satisfaction. A number of religious institutions sprang up during the post independence period. 

With the passage of the time and after the natural inhibition of the secular hierarchy within Muslim community these institutions claimed to provide the elusive leadership to the community. All India Muslim Personal Law Board is such an institution, whose some of the controversial statements and the stand taken by it regarding certain issues relating to marital laws and practices stand scrutiny by the Muslim community. Of utmost importance are those arising out of judgments delivered by various law courts in the litigations brought to them, pertaining to triple talaq, in almost all cases, pronounced verbally by the husband, ignoring the Qur'anic procedure and leaving no room for any arbitration ordained by the Holy Qur'an: 'And if ye fear a breach between them twain (the man and wife), appoint an arbiter from his folk and an arbiter from her folk. If they desire amendment Allah will make them of one mind. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware' (Qur'an 4:35). 

The latest of such controversies relates to the Board's taking strong exception to the mandatory ban on child marriage by the state. In the Board's view it amounts to interference in the Muslim personal law and hence Muslim community be excluded from the scope of the relevant legislation. The moot question that arises is whether such legislation contravenes matrimonial laws based on Muslim Personal Laws as is claimed by the Personal Law Board? The issue was raised at the Board's recent conference held at Hydrabad, one of the periodic conferences held in different parts of the country. Banning the child marriage or prescribing certain age for a boy or girl does not violate the basic teachings of Islam regarding matrimonial matters. Prophet Muhammad's (SAS) daughter Hazrat Fatima was married in her 20th year of age. Could we consider it un-Islamic? Child marriage or early marriages i.e. before puberty are a tradition in this country and that too limited to certain parts of Rajasthan. The practice among Muslims is seldom witnessed. Then why make an issue out of a non-issue. 

Muslim Personal Law Board was constituted in the wake of an attempt to bringing all the family laws of different communities under one umbrella of a Common Civil Code. During the slain Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi through an amendment Muslim Personal Laws were kept out of the purview of the Common Civil Code. The Board has declared that the Muslim Personal Law will be codified to enable the law courts in the country to implement it in letters and spirit and enable the courts to expedite the litigations pending before them. Misuse of talaq among Muslim community is rampant. 

It was expected of the board that it would take steps to end this practice among the community. But regrettably nothing tangible did come out after so long years of the Board's coming into existence. Thousands of Muslim girls in Hyderabad where the recent convention was held remain unmarried and deprived of the right to lead a natural life because of an entirely un-Islamic practice of dowry. What is more tragic, the Board even failed to address genuine sufferings of common Muslims at any societal plane. The reason lies in the fact that in any such leadership, be it the Personal Law Board or any other religious institution, the people at the helm belong to the upper strata of the community which has traditionally and successively retained its culture of elitism.

Equally important is the fact that a socio-economic schema lacks the religious leadership. Thus a void has been created which the religious institution filled. In the post independence period Muslims on the whole have been deprived of share in the economic development and political space. The more they were ignored the more they were pushed towards religious institutions at least to find a psychological moral booster. The religious institutions hence thrived courtesy both majority community's hostile attitude towards Muslims and an indifferent attitude of the state.

Syed Iftikhar Ahmed is editor, Shodhan Marathi Weekly, Mumbai 

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