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Published in the 16-31 Dec 2003 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Indian Muslims: identity and modernity
By Asghar Ali Engineer 

Both identity and modernity are important parts of socio-political discourse today and more so in case of Muslims. Muslims, needless to say, are considered much more concerned about religion and religious identity and supposed to be rejecting modernity. It is assumed that they prefer madrasa education to modern secular education and refuse to accept any change in their personal law. These are considered as indicators of rejection of modernity and pre-occupation with religious identity.

What is the truth? In fact social questions are quite complex and cannot be reduced to black and white ignoring grey areas in between. Another important thing is that we cannot subject the Indian Muslim community of more than 130 million to uniformity and homogeneity. Indian Muslims are immensely diverse not only in terms of sects, languages and cultures but also in terms of classes and socio-political attitudes. There is hardly any issue about which there is complete consensus in the entire community, not even issues like change in Muslim personal law. It is really dangerous to apply stereotypes on such immensely diverse community.

It would also be equally wrong to think, as we often do, that all non-Muslims in India have accepted modernity and all that goes with it and that only Muslims resist it. Modernity, in such discourses, is never defined properly and is used in rather highly generalised sense. Some scholars have sub-divided modernity into 'hard modernity' and 'soft modernity'.

What is meant by 'hard modernity'? It is science and technology and in this sense all Indians, including Muslims have accepted modernity. No one rejects benefits of modern science and technology any more. If there was any resistance to it, it was in nineteenth century. In nineteenth century there were debates whether sun goes round the earth or vice versa. Hardly anyone debates this, not even semi-literate mullahs and pesh-imams. And no one ever rejected benefits of modern technology.

Soft modernity implies philosophical issues and critical examination of traditional beliefs. Here one can say there are significantly differing attitudes among Muslims. Soft modernity also includes secular education and acceptance of secularism. It is true there is comparatively more resistance to soft modernity among Muslims in general and Indian Muslims, in particular. 

Secularism is integral part of soft modernity and it is also important to note that secularism implies discourse of rights whereas religious discourse is discourse of duties. All authoritarian societies adopt discourse of duties rather than that of rights. During emergency in our country from 1975-1977 concept of duties was added to our constitution. Indian Constitution otherwise always talked of rights. Religious authorities also always talk of duties and never of rights. Religious authorities never concede rights to their followers. Their duty is only to obey the authority or traditional beliefs.

Secular discourse, on the other hand, is entirely discourse of rights. A modern thinker asserts, not only political rights but also right to examine traditional beliefs critically. But this right can be availed of only when there is widespread high standard of education. Muslims, for various reasons, chief among them being poverty, lack widespread high degree of secular education and hence there is general resistance to discourse of rights, including right to critical examination of traditional beliefs.

But it should also be admitted that education is one factor among many. Socio-political interests also play an important role. Thus both among Muslims and Hindus we find some highly educated ones aggressively promoting traditional beliefs and vehemently opposing any attempt to critically examine them. The members of VHP and Bajrang Dal and even those of BJP advocate old beliefs and traditions and even imply violence against those asserting their secular rights.

Similarly among Muslims organisations like SIMI adopt violence against those who promote rational thinking and Muslim Personal Law Board only promoting concept of duties among Muslims and rejecting their right to critically examine certain age-old traditions followed by Muslims. They often invoke the concept of divine immutability to oppose any change. The other reason is fear of aggressive communal campaign from a section of majority community. 

Whatever the reasons, women have to pay heavy price for rejection of soft modernity by men of the community. Women are entirely subject to the discourse of duty. The discourse of duty is, it can be said, doubly applicable to women in all the communities in India. Women are subject to this discourse both in the name of religion as well as in the name of age-old customs and traditions.

Women are much more unequal as they are denied benefits of soft modernity. Even among Hindus very few women are truly 'liberated' in this sense. Among Muslims women are even more unequal. The aggression shown by Muslim leadership during the Shah Bano movement was good example of this. Though such aggressive movement is no longer possible the situation of women has not improved much. They suffer from many disabilities more due to customs and traditions than religion. Islam is far more just to them than the traditions. But in traditional societies religion itself is subject to customs and tradition. Often it becomes important to liberate religion from traditions.

In modern Indian society question of religious identity has become far more important. A religiously plural country like India throws up complex problems in a democratic set up. A secular democratic society throws up the question of rights for different religious communities and also promotes competition for political power and economic resources. The elite of the communities mobilise masses by using religious identities and hence religious identities become quite important.

Communal problems came into existence in modern society, as concept of rights became more important than that of duty. Every community asserts its religious identity to put pressure on the system to wrest greater share in power. Our experiences in post-independence period show that minority community finds it difficult to match aggressive mobilisation by majority community. Though before independence too, Nehruvian theory of communalism emphasised that majority communalism could be more dangerous but in post-independence period majority communalism did prove to be much more aggressive than before independence.

Thus for minority community religious identity becomes even more important. It becomes a mental refuge. Communal solidarity is seen as effective compensation for external pressure. And this communal solidarity puts its own demands on individual liberties. Individuals have to fall in line under the weight of communal pressure and individual rights are compromised.

It is an irony of the situation that on one hand the majority communal discourse puts Muslims under pressure for uniform civil code and makes it part of political agenda and on the other hand, creates conditions making it increasingly difficult for the community to accept change and 'soft modernity'. In fact the Sangh Parivar itself rejects soft modernity and opposes secular discourse of rights and loves concept of duties. It attacks those who emphasise individualism and individual rights.

Here it should also be noted that it is wrong to depict one's religious community as more liberal and progressive and another community as more regressive and backward. It all depends on socio-political conditions particularly in multi-religious societies. If Muslims are less under majority communal pressure and find political atmosphere more congenial for their economic progress they will be more prone in a democratic society like India to accept change and soft modernity.

It can be demonstrated from Kerala experience of the Muslim community. The Kerala Muslims, living under comparative sense of security are ahead of other Indian Muslims in accepting modern secular education, family planning and social change. The rate of family planning among Kerala Muslims is higher than that of Hindu women in U.P. Also, the rate of literacy among them is far higher than their counterparts in other parts of India. 

Also, more educated Muslims more easily opt for soft modernism than less educated and less secure Muslims. Some sects like the Bohras and Khojas accept change more easily than other sects. These sects are economically and educationally better off though not all Bohras and Khojas. There is poverty and illiteracy among them too. Thus there are regional, sectarian and economic factors influencing Muslim behaviour. Religion is invoked by these sections to accept or reject change as legitimising factor.

Thus it will be seen that a sense of physical security and economic status can be far more influential than is generally recognised. However, communal discourse tries to blame it only on religion and that itself is communal approach to the complex problem of change and progress. The rationalists too err in this matter and tend to blame religion rather than these material factors for lack of acceptability of change.

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