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Published in the 1-15 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Open letter to Dr. Partha S. Ghosh
Understanding Islam in the Modern World 

Recently the Japan Foundation held a Seminar on Status of Islamic Studies in India which was moderated by the eminent social scientist Dr. Partha S. Ghosh, director of the Indian Council of Social Science Research. The proceedings of the Seminar have been published by the Foundation including the text of the papers presented by some well-known Muslim scholars with an Introduction by Prof. Ghosh in which he sums up his perception of Islam and his reaction to various presentations.

To my surprise I came across several factual errors and inaccuracies in Dr. Ghosh's article which reflects, in a way the general misunderstanding about and in perception of Islam, in general, and Indian Islam, in particular in our country. To correct his misunderstanding and misperceptions I have addressed the following open letter to him which touches upon some key concepts and basic points.


Dear Dr. Ghosh.
I have read with great interest your article "Towards a Better Understanding of Indian Islam" which serves as the Introduction to the Japan Foundation publication Status of Islamic Studies in India. I was, however, surprised to find a number of factual errors which detract from the high quality of your analysis. Permit me to point them out before I come to a few substantive points on which I find it difficult to accept your conclusions.

Madrasa Education in India
It is true that throughout the Muslim world, for centuries education for Muslims was a function of the Madrasas that were attached to the Masjids (not Maktabs, as you state) and was, therefore, largely theological in content. But soon it emerged out of the cloister and you had great centres of learning throughout the Muslim world, in Spain, Iraq, Iran and India which covered the entire range of contemporary knowledge. These institutions, still called Madrasas, produced great chemists, mathematicians, geographers, astronomics, poets and philosophers. But now we have modern universities all over the Muslim world. Even Al Azhar has been transformed into a modern university.

Today in India Madrasas serve only as religious seminaries as the vast majority of Muslim students receive education in mainstream schools and colleges. In some places like Kerala, Muslim children, enrolled in schools, also attend the Maktabs (Primary Madrasas) in their local Masjids on a part-time basis. In the north, Muslim enrollment in Madrasas is much lower than in schools and a large proportion of Madrasa students shift to schools at the middle or high school stage. Many end up in colleges and universities. Some take higher courses in High Madrasas like Dar-ul-Uloom, Deoband, and Nadwa-tul-Ulema, Lucknow, to become Alim, Mufti, Mufassir, Mohaddis and Hafiz - experts in different branches of Islamic learning to meet the functional needs of the community. Indeed the Madrasas serve as the ramparts of Islamic identity and source springs of Islamic learning. The Madrasas, the Muslim consensus relates the vicious and endless propaganda against Madrasas to the historic objective of Hinduism to assimilate Islam and destroy the Islamic identity of Muslim Indians. On the factual side, why shouldn't a growing population have more Madrasas and Masjids. It is not correct to say that all new Masjids and Madrasas have come up with the financial aid of the Islamic Development Bank, Jeddah! The poorest Muslim donates for his Masjid and Madrasa. Every paisa that the Bank gives for a few, is with the knowledge of the authorities. It does not indulge in 'havala' transactions.

Monotheism: the Core of Islam
Muslims all over the world are inter-linked by their fundamental faith in monotheism, in the Kalima and in their belief in the divine origin of the Quran. The common name for the one and the only Supreme Being - formless, faceless and timeless - is Allah. Allah, it is said, has a hundred names but they depict His various qualities and powers. So, the word Allah depicts the Muslim concept of the Creator, the Sustainer and the Destroyer, the Beginning and the End, as no other word in any language can. The nearest equivalent is 'Khoda' in Persian. Very close is the concept of Ishwar in Vedanta or God in unitarian Christian theology. But they do not quite stand the test of absolute monotheism in the eyes of the Muslims as Allah does.

Islam is indeed rooted in the Quran which was revealed to an Arab in Arabic. But from this you draw a wrong conclusion. Human identity is situational. So it is with Muslims. His religious identity does not always predominate but the value system of a Muslim, his ethos, his mindset, is indeed formed by Islam. The non-Muslims should try to understand that mindset and see if that makes him a good human being, a faithful friend, a loyal citizen, an honest worker, a dutiful employee, a sympathetic employer, an incorruptible executive or otherwise. That is the real test. 

Salman Rushdie or Tasleema Nasreen may be Muslims by birth but if they do not believe in Allah, the Prophet and the Quran, they are not Muslims by definition. Their thoughts or actions do not represent Islam. They are not believers. They are apostates which they have every right to be. But why should they pose to be Muslims, except perhaps to commercialize their outpourings? But our non-Muslim friends should not take or project them as the real or true Muslims. 

All true Muslims are moderates because the Quran and the Holy Prophet preach moderation even in religion. But even a moderate cannot be a Muslim, if his Islam lies only in his birth or name. Faith is the essence of the matter. This is what our Hindu and Christian friends fail to understand. There cannot be an idolatrous Muslim or an atheist Muslim. That would be a contradiction in terms. There is no grey zone in which an individual may operate. Man has the free will to choose. Either he is or he is not a Muslim. Stop.

Phenomenon of Prophethood
Muslims, you are wrong to think, believe in only one Prophet. The Muslims believe in all the Prophets from Adam to Mohammad but only a score or so have been named in the Quran. Indeed, the Quran says much more about Moses and Christ than about Mohammad. The Quran even asks Muslims not to consider any one of them superior to the others. The Prophet himself is repeatedly described as a man and nothing but a man whom Allah had chosen to be his Last Messenger. The Quran also says that Allah sent Messengers to all peoples in all places. So every Muslim believes that all ancient civilizations like those which flourished in China or India or Egypt had their own Messengers. They may not identify them with conviction but many orthodox Muslims regard Buddha, Ram and Krishna as the Prophets of India. In post-Islamic history, there have been many claimants of Prophethood but they could find no place in mainstream Islam. Most of them vanished without leaving a trace. But mainstream Islam admits of succession of saints. Sufism is a recognized form of mystic Islam but no Sufi Order strays from the path of the Quran. There is no 'Tariqat' without 'Shariat'. Muslims visit the Dargahs not to 'worship' the saints or to pray to him for favours but to seek his intercession with Allah who alone can grant favours. This is a subtle distinction which applies even when Muslims visit the Tomb of the Prophet in Medina.

Extra-territoriality Characteristic of All World Religion
Extra-territoriality is a condition precedent of all world religions. For example, the growing number of Hindus in UK and USA or those settled in Fiji, Surinam, Guyana and Trinidad and Mauritius have an extra-territorial attachment to India. The Buddhists of Japan and Thailand and Burma have a similar attachment to India, the land of the Buddha. So it is in Islam, except that Haj is the fifth pillar of the faith for any Muslim anywhere who has the means. 

Pan-Islamism, Pan-Arabism and Muslim India
I do not see Indian Islam as caught between Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism. Pan Arabism has no place for non-Arab Muslims. Indeed it includes non-Muslim Arabs and excludes Muslim non-Arabs. Arabism is a cultural or linguistic consciousness. Pan-Islamism is a form of religious consciousness but no more than a sentiment. It has no spiritual meaning. It offers no economic advantage or political outreach in the world of nation-states except in situations of crisis. On the other hand, Indian Islam has acquired distinctive characteristics which differentiate it from Malay Islam or Central Asian Islam or Arab Islam or even Persian Islam, because of the long cultural and religious interaction between Islam and the Hindu society. Both have gained from each other, both have changed.

Haj Subsidy: Theologically obnoxious
In my view, a subsidy for Haj is theologically obnoxious. It was introduced as a cushion to absorb the stock of the sudden rise in air fares, following the phenomenal rise in oil price in the early 70's. It should have been eliminated in stages. Pakistan has abolished it. But successive governments keep it alive for political reasons. The logic is simple. If the normal airfare Delhi-Jeddah-Delhi and if the price of bread in Saudi Arabia in rupees have increased over 30 years, why shouldn't the Haj fare? However, it is administratively and morally wrong to abolish it all of a sudden.

The separate air terminal for Haj is merely an administrative arrangement, so as not to overload the normal facilities during the Haj traffic and disturb the non-Haj traffic flow. Believe me, the Haj terminal is far more inconvenient! I have passed through it.

You are historically wrong to attribute Haj arrangements to the Nizam. But there was a time before the oil money began to flow, when the economy of Hejaz depended on Haj and the Indian pilgrims were looked upon as the richest group. All that the Muslim princes of India, even small ones, did was to purchase buildings in Mecca and Medina and endow them as Rubats (shelters) for use by Indian pilgrims. Most of them have been lost because there were no proper deeds. In some cases, the descendants of the keepers declared themselves to be the owners!

Islamic paradigm of multi-religious world
The Quran presages a multi-religious world. It is obvious that in the modern age, not all states shall have a Muslim majority and, therefore, even be theoretically free to establish an Islamic or Muslim state. Muslim-majority states have to treat non-Muslim minorities in accordance with internationally accepted norms. There will be some States with Muslim minorities which give them freedom of religion, some, which do not. The basis of political categorization is Religious Freedom. If Religious Freedom is curbed, the State is Dar-ul-Harb; if the non-Muslim majority State grants religious freedom, it is Dar-ul-Ahad wal Aman (Land of Covenant and Peace). In my view, today there is no Dar-ul-Islam even though some may claim this status for Saudi Arabia or Iran which are both theocracies. 

Islam emancipates man and prohibits coercion in matters of religion. Personally I find a problem with the Medina model. It is not applicable to a modern democratic state where all citizens are equal, irrespective of religion or race or language. The Medina State was an Islamic proto State, with the Prophet as the head of the State, head of governance, the Legislator and the Chief Justice and the Commander-in-Chief, all rolled into one. Its historical importance lies in that 1400 years ago, it recognized religious and racial and linguistic minorities and respected their rights, though not as equal participants in managing public affairs. Incidentally, the Quran itself has little to say on governance or ideologies or politics - except to emphasize justice, equality and accountability and the principle of mutual consultation to decide social questions. So any modern system based on democracy, freedom, justice and equality is compatible with the Quran, if properly interpreted. But there are inherent limits of reinterpretation of the Quran. While I am afraid even a sympathetic observer of modern Islam like John Esposito does not quite appreciate.

Reform in Muslim Society
Pace and content of reform in any Muslim society cannot be determined by what others think of Islam and the Muslims but by the pressure of internal forces generated by education and modernization and socio-economic changes. A Muslim believes that within the limits of reasonable reinterpretation, the Quran, in the light of the Traditions can provide answers to questions raised by the new circumstances. No orthodox but intelligent Muslim will decry the need of continuous adaptation with changing times but no adaptation or reform which flies in the face of the Quran, honestly reinterpreted, shall be acceptable to the Muslims except under coercion. And that will be short-lived as it proved to be in Kemalist Turkey or Soviet Russia. Ijtihad, as Iqbal said, provides the dynamic of change in Islam which claims to be valid for all times and all peoples, as the last Message of Allah to mankind.

Translation of the Quran in Other Languages
The Quran, more correctly, is the Word of God, just as the laws of nature, natural phenomena, the land, the sea, the sun and the moon are the Work of God. The Quran does not consist of Kalmas but Ayat (verses) which were revealed to the Prophet, bit-by-bit, over 23 years and can be fully understood only in the context of the circumstances of their revelation. 

It is totally wrong to say that translation of Quran is prohibited. In fact today Quran is available practically in all languages of the world. But no translation can ever be as accurate as the text. So the authoritative Quran is the Arabic original, compiled soon after the demise of the Prophet out of the verses written down when they were revealed. All the Muslims of the world, despite their sectarian schisms and political, social and economic differences agree on the text of the Quran in Arabic. But let me add that though the Quran was revealed to an Arab in Arabic, the Prophet himself declared in his Farewell Address at his last Haj that no Arab has any superiority over a non-Arab and the Quran also says that proximity to Allah lies in nothing but piety.

Terrorism, Palestinian Resistance and Muslim Indians
No significant section of the Muslim Indians, has ever supported terrorism, though Islam does not abjure violence in self-defence or in measured retaliation. It preaches forbearance and forgiveness as virtues and the Quran forbids the killing of an innocent person. 

Muslim Indians like other secular Indians and the progressive sections in Europe and USA condemn Israel's brutal violence against defenceless Palestinians as they condemn USA's pre-emptive, unjustifiable attack on Iraq. But no Muslim Indian has ever enrolled in Al Qaida or participated in militancy even in Kashmir. Even in Gujarat, the Muslim Gujaratis did not retaliate. Yet this may change when Hindu Nationalists with state support push the Muslims to the wall and fill their cup of misery to the brim. On the other hand, so long as the hope for a better future based on peaceful coexistence, equality and justice does not fade out, Kashmir insurgency or radical Islam are not likely to have any impact or Muslim Indians, odd individuals apart.

Muslim India in a state of siege
Today Muslim Indians feel that they are under siege, with a Sudarshan repeatedly calling for revision of the Quran, a Joshi asking Muslims to redesignate themselves as 'Mohammadi Hindus', a Chopra knocking at the doors of the Judiciary for proscription of the Quran, a Shiv Sainik burning the Quran in broad daylight. They feel naturally concerned by genocidal pogroms with constant propaganda against the institutions of Masjids and Madrasas, with Hindutva demagogues threatening fire and brimstone, demonizing the Holy Prophet, vilifying Islam and denigrating the community as a group. With public education saffronized, with State machinery Hinduised, with political parties either taking them for granted or targeting them as historical adversaries and fair game for real and imagined sins of their ancestors, they do not see which way to turn, how to nurse their wounds, how to change their state of backwardness and deprivation. They remain under-represented in every branch of governance, a discontented lot. This is a national problem. I shudder to think what may happen if the Muslim Indians lose all hope. Israel may come to terms with Palestinians, the USA may vacate Iraq and Kashmir issue may be settled. Yet will our country have stability and peace and see progress, if the Muslim Indians continue to be needled and harassed or coerced into assimilation or denied freedom, equality and justice, as guaranteed in the Constitution, as well as their identity and dignity as human beings.

Situation in Kashmir
I agree with you that religious syncretism apart, the Hindus and the Muslims in the Valley have hardly any social intercourse. In any case the Pandits, a small minority, had monopolized all the openings and opportunities in the Valley in the name of Kashmiriyat. Now the Muslim Kashmiris want their due share in governance which means much less for the Pandits. So I agree that Kashmiriyat is under strain. Yet Kashmiris tell me that Kashmiriyat is incomplete without Pandits. What is needed is mutual accommodation based on principles of social justice.

Please excuse me for inflicting a long letter on you. But I have been wanting to speak to you for a long time and to exchange ideas and thoughts on matters of common concern. Your articles gave me an opportunity.

- Syed Shahabuddin

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