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Published in the 16-31 Jan 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Jama’at-e-Islami Hind: signs of change?
By Yoginder Sikand

With the election of a new amir last April, the Jama’at-i Islami Hind, one of the principal Islamic organizations in India, seems poised to make some major policy changes in the near future. The Jama’at’s new head, Dr. Abdul Haq Ansari, has an impressive academic career that makes him particularly appropriate for this post. He has a doctorate in philosophy from the Aligarh Muslim University and a degree in religion from Harvard University. He has taught at the Vishwabharati University, Shantiniketan, West Bengal, the Omdurman University in Sudan and the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He is also a prolific writer, being the author of a dozen books on subjects such as Islamic theology, ethics, Sufism and comparative religions.

Dr Abdul Haq Ansari

Ansari’s vision for the Jama’at is outlined in an Urdu pamphlet titled Jama’at-e-Islami Hind Ki Tarjihaat, published recently by the Markazi Maktaba-e-Islami, New Delhi. Ansari sees the principal task before the Jama’at as presenting to the general public what he describes as the true image of Islam. He sees this as particularly urgent given the growing reassertion of and interest in religion all over the world today. For this he proposes the training of Islamic activists with a sound grounding in Indian languages and a good knowledge of local cultures and religions. Clearly, Ansari does not envisage this to serve a disinterested academic purpose, for he insists that Islam alone is the way to salvation for all humankind, stressing the need for reviving Islamic missionary activism. Yet, his appeal to Jama’at scholars to seriously understand other faiths is a significant development. It suggests that the Jama’at is now increasingly having to come to terms with India’s religiously plural context, although not still quite willing to appreciate the truth claimed by other religions on their own terms. 

Ansari also stresses the need for Jama’at scholars to reply to western critiques of Islam. For this he recommends the preparing of literature on controversial issues that orientalists have particularly focused on, such as the relationship between Islam and politics, and the status of women and religious minorities in Islam. Interestingly, he stresses that this literature must be based directly on the principles of the Qur’an and on the Hadith, instead of on the existing corpus of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence that was formulated centuries ago, clearly indicating that the latter cannot suffice in today’s vastly changed context. As Ansari puts it, ‘This does not mean that the formulations of the Muslim scholars of jurisprudence in the past were not derived from the Qur’an and the Sunnah’. However, he writes in defence of his plea, ‘It is an undeniable fact that a person’s knowledge and his ways of thinking and perceiving cannot remain uninfluenced by the conditions of his own times’. In other words, he suggests, the understandings of the ‘ulama of the past on religious matters bear the indelible imprint of their own age. Hence, he stresses, new ways of understanding the faith are needed today that are based directly on the Qur’an and the practice of the Prophet, ‘in order to meet the challenges of changing conditions’. And for this a new genre of literature is also necessary, he stresses.

As indicated in the two interviews and the one essay included in this booklet (the latter having been first delivered as a speech soon after Ansari’s appointment as the Jama’at’s amir), Ansari envisions a more socially engaged role for the Jama’at in the context of the numerous challenges that he sees Muslims, both in India as well as elsewhere, as being faced with. At the global level, Ansari decries western, particularly American and British, imperialism and global Zionism, and comes down heavily on dictatorial regimes in Muslim countries that are willing to toe the American line. He is critical of these regimes for brutally suppressing democratic dissent and the freedom of expression. Interestingly, he suggests that existing absolute monarchies in the Muslim world could be changed into constitutional monarchies emulating the British example while transferring actual power to the people. These countries must, he says, manage their own natural resources themselves instead of letting others exploit them, and must work to remove foreign military forces from their soil. If the regimes in power in these states are not willing to do this, he advises their citizens, whom he praises for being stridently opposed to American imperialism, to mobilize the public opinion against them, assuring them that God would help them in their cause. 

Recognising the grave threat that the rise of Hindutva poses to the Indian Muslims, Ansari suggests that the Muslims must work along with other groups, including secular Hindu organizations, that are working to preserve the basic constitutional framework of the country and to uphold democracy and secularism, understood here as the equal treatment by the state of all its citizens irrespective of religion and strict state non-interference in religious affairs. In this regard, Ansari stresses the need for Muslims to work with people of other faiths who also wish to promote secularism and inter-communal harmony. He also suggests the need to join hands with other marginalized communities, particularly the Dalits, in opposing Hindu chauvinism. He notes that the Dalits, victims of the oppressive caste system, are regularly employed by ‘high’ caste Hindus to attack Muslims, and argues that the rising wave of anti-Muslim pogroms can be effectively combated by building close bonds with the Dalits. He sees Islam as providing a message of radical equality, and clearly hopes that the Dalits might be willing to choose to become Muslim. Even if that were not to happen, Ansari suggests that Muslims must ‘explain to them that they should not allow themselves to be used as the pawns of others, for in this way they would lose their own humanity and would have no answer to give before God’. Muslims, thus, must work to ‘bring to light the hidden humanity’ of the Dalits. However, ironically enough, Ansari, himself from a marginalized Muslim caste, remains silent on the continued existence of caste and caste-based discrimination among Muslims, while at the same time extolling Islam’s commitment to social equality. 

In recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992, some Muslim leaders have been calling for a separate Muslim political party to articulate Muslim interests. Ansari sees no room for such a party. Instead, he suggests that Muslim organizations should transcend their divisions and form a strong pressure group based on a common agenda that can then dialogue with existing secular parties to promote and protect their interests. Interestingly, Ansari writes, ‘It would be useful to have the help and cooperation of non-Muslim sympathisers in formulating this common agenda’. By chalking out a common programme, he says, the Muslim vote would be saved from being divided and Muslims could then play a decisive role in Indian politics and in influencing the outcome of elections. Alongside this, Ansari says, Muslims must be prepared to defend themselves from Hindutva terror, adding that this is both an Islamic duty as well as a constitutional right. Yet, in this, he says, Muslims must not exceed the limits laid down both by the Indian constitution and the Islamic shari’ah. Ansari is critical of Muslim youth who, as he puts it, ‘driven by their emotions’ have ‘taken steps that have wrong consequences’. Such, for instance, he says, were the abortive attempts to set up the paramilitary Adam Sena, as well as efforts to extract revenge for attacks on Muslims. Ansari sees these as counter-productive, and pleads that Muslims must abstain from hard-hitting rhetoric.

No one is expecting any miracles to happen with the new amir at the helm of affairs of the Jama’at, but Ansari clearly seems to be a man with a fresh vision. What his appointment would mean for the actual functioning of the Jama’at and for its willingness and ability to play a more constructive role remains, however, to be seen.
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