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Published in the 1-15 July 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Orthodox and liberals must come together

By Asif Jalal

The Milli Gazette Online

Our Muslim intelligentsia is divided into two hostile camps: the orthodox and the liberal. The orthodox camp, led by the ulama, considers itself to be the sole repository of all that Islam stands for. They think that it is their persistent effort that has kept Islam and the Muslim identity in India pure and uncontaminated. They view the secular, modernist Mulims as a misguided lot. They treat liberals as stooges groomed by the hostile West to weaken Islam.

Liberal intellectuals, on the other hand, consider the other bloc to be bigoted, fanatic and fundamentalist. They hold that the deliverance and progress of the Muslims in India will eventuate only when the influence of the ‘Mullas’ is curtailed or indeed removed altogether. 

However, the views of each section about the other are flawed. Neither the ulama want to keep Muslims tied to the stone-mill of backwardness, nor the liberals are enemies of Islam. A little imagination on our part reveals that despite the misgivings and suspicion of one group against the other, they share a common concern for which they can work together, rather than wasting their energies in mutually destructive hostility. 

One such common ground is mass illiteracy prevalent among the Muslims. Both the parties realize that the literacy rate among Muslim is much below the national average. They know that while other communities in India have benefited from higher and technical education, Muslims are lagging behind even in primary education. Children, who should have been in schools, are debasing their childhood in the looms of Varanasi and Mau, or the silk factories of Ramanagaram. 

The issue of social reform among Muslims is another common ground for the two. Liberals see the Muslim Personal Law as a retrogressive code because it involves primitive provisions of polygamy, triple talaq in one go, unequal property rights to the women etc. They question the very legitimacy of the Shariat as a divine, changeless and perfect code of life. They also show concern about the degrading status of women, their seclusion in purdah, and the endless mortifying experiences under patriarchy. The orthodox camp does not evade these issues. Late Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (Ali Miyan), a renowned Islamic scholar and former chairperson of the AIMPLB, accepted that the practice of triple talaq had nothing to do with the Shariat. He termed it as a ‘criminal activity’. The AIMPLB, howsoever slowly, is making an effort to arrive at a solution on these issues.

Close to the question of reform is the issue of ijtihad or the reinterpretation of the scripture. In the orthodox block, from Maulana Ahmad Raza Barailwi to Maulana Ali Miyan, emphasized the necessity of ijtihad. For Maulana Ali Mian, ijtihad is the ability to harness the treasures of the nature to the service of Islam…’ Iqbal, the poet-philosopher, was a more outspoken and determined voice for ijtihad. 

Again, both the sections are concerned with the demonic image, which Islam as a religion has recently come to acquire due to the activities of a lunatic fringe. The ulama feel grieved at the negative portrayal of Islam by the jihadis in the war for a piece of land. The liberals also see that what the jihadis believe and perform is far from the essence of Islam. For them, Islam is mainly for spiritual refinement, it should not be misused as an ideology of communalism and terrorism. The dogmatism of a few, according to them, has immobilized essentially a dynamic system of thought and practice. The feeling among both sections is widespread that something must be done fast to salvage Islam’s image and rescue it from the appropriation by the jihadis.

Both parities know the importance of a committed and forward-looking leadership. The ulama are aware that they cannot and have not been able to provide visionary leadership in a secular democracy. In fact, religious leadership and secular democracy are the anti-thesis of each other. The outspoken religious and communal appeal, as manifested in the decrees issued by religious instuitions like Delhi Jama Masjid, Jamaiat-el Ulama-e Hind for electoral support to one or the other political party, is dangerous to the functioning of a secular and democratic polity. 

Religious leaders realize that the political leadership provided by the Muslim politicians is visionless and perilous. Politics has been used by Muslim politicians more for accumulation of power than for the welfare of the Muslims. Liberals also understand how the opportunistic and careerist political strategy of the Muslim politicians does damage to the long-term interests of the community. The list of issues pursued by these so-called leaders show their lack of concern for the real problems of common Muslims. What they chose to pursue were the issues like the minority character of AMU, discrimination against Urdu, Shah Bano, Muslim Personal Law, Rushide, Babri, to name a few. 

When the two parties share such a large common ground, it is a pity that they do not work together. An study of the strengths and the weaknesses of each reveals that each one singularly is ill-equipped to do much in the area of the shared concerns while working in cohesion they can complement each other. The lack of familiarity of the ulama with today’s secularized and fast-changing world handicaps them from doing meaningful service to Muslim causes. Similarly, the distance of the liberal Muslims from the ways and psychology of common Muslims, plus an intellectual superiority complex, leave them disabled for the welfare of the Muslims. 

In what follows, we can go through ways in which the two sections of the Muslim intelligentsia can cooperate in pursuit of the above-mentioned common goals. 

In the area of education, for example, ulama can effectively popularize the concept of mass education to every household of the locality. The khuthba before the Friday prayer in every mosque can be used as an instrument of massifying education among Muslims. Everybody knows the kind of influence an Imam of a local mosque exercises on common Muslims. What his involvement in the educational programme can do, one can only imagine. Common Muslims are suspicious of the agenda of modern education; they also do not find resources to pursue education and excel in it. 

It is a common feeling among Muslims that they are discriminated in selection for the government jobs, and therefore there is no need for education. It is at this point that the ulama can put their feet down. Exercising their authority, they can inject meaning to education, cure the psychology of victim-hood and discrimination, and bring girls also into the centre of concern for education. Community resources like buildings, funds, trained manpower, knowledge and experiences, waqf borad income, can be made available by them for the purpose. Liberals on the other hand can work as mediators between the government or bureaucracy and the community. They can help in the execution of numerous educational programmes, for which ulama are to create favorable environment. They can help in the formulation of syllabi, and in explanation of the sociology and philosophy of education. They can also provide trained staff for educational institutions. The recognition of the madarsas by the government education boards leading to their modernization, sanction of funds and entry of madrasa products into centres of modern education are areas where liberals can contribute for the community interest. 

At this juncture it is important to clarify the confusion over ulama’s stand on modern education or the educational policy of the government. In general, orthodox Muslims are not against modern education, as is widely believed. They are open to modern education and scientific knowledge. The Daruloom Nadwatul Ulama, founded in 1891 to harmonize the decrees of Islam with the challenges of modernity, is an example where modern education is not on pariah. Late Maulana Ali Miyan, a renowned Islamic scholar, was full of praise for the Europeans who unraveled the secrets of physical matter. He wrote, “Europe…in the 19th and 20th centuries had been making a colossal scientific and industrial progress. It was conquering hidden forces of matter, unveiling new secrets of nature and discovering ‘unknown’ land….He who lost a moment in idleness, lost a great deal. The Muslims, alas neglected not minutes but centuries, whereas the European nations realized the value of time and covered the distance of centuries in years”.

Maulana Arshad Qadri, head of Ahle Sunnah Wa ahle Jamaat, argues for free exchange and common ownership of knowledge. 

Similarly, the area of social reform hinges upon the cooperation of the two parties. The ulama, despite having the knowledge about shortcomings in the Muslim Personal Law, are not intellectually sound enough to refine it and respond logically to the challenges of Uniform Civil Code. Every time they are attacked, they deploy the bogey of the divine and universal Shariat to defend their position. The liberals, on the other hand, manifest an irrational contempt for the body of Islamic knowledge. Whenever they feel about social backwardness of the Muslims, they start with a sharp attack on the Muslim Personal Law and the ‘reactionary’ role of the ulama in the Muslim’s life. 

The best way to move towards the reform is to take ulama into confidence, provide them the light of the modern knowledge, learn from them, and, finally, evolve a code which is compatible with the demands of the changing times. The ulama are not so much against reform in the law, as on the need to ensure that the alternative is perfect and in harmony with the soul of Islam. 

The provision of ijtihad, similarly, is in disuse because the preconditions for its application are not fulfilled either by the ulama or the liberals. Late Maulana Ali Miyan observed, ‘Ijtihad calls for a deep insight into the soul of Islam, and a thorough knowledge of the basic principle of Islamic jurisprudence. It also requires a grasp over broad-based socio-economic and political changes sweeping human society.’

While the expertise in the former area of knowledge can be provided by the ulama, in the latter the liberals and the two can work as a team to employ the provision of ijtihad.

To contain the irreparable damage done to the image of Islam, an essentially peaceful and dynamic religion, the ulama can work to spread the essence of Islam to the common man. They can debunk the ideologies of the sections who exploit religion for their politcial ends. They can save people from the contagious effect of the jihadis. Liberals on the other hand, with the help of media, can work to remove the prejudices against Islam.

Finally, the absence of leadership among Indian Muslims is an issue which should be addressed keeping in mind the larger interests of the community and that of the secular polity. The ulama, while avoiding any direct or indirect interference in the polity, or founding a Muslim political party, should vacate the political terrain for the liberal Muslims. They should, at most, encourage Muslims to participate in the polity with a sense of full responsibility. Liberal Muslims, on the other hand, should use political power as a generalized resource for the welfare of all. The Muslim community has a huge stake in politics.

The precondition for the welfare and development of the Muslims in India is not the irrational and perilous hostility between the two camps of the orthodox and the liberal Muslims, but their union and cooperation. The sooner we realize this, the better it will be. 

The author is a police officer posted in Shimla district. He may be contacted at 

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