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Indian Muslim image is transforming

By Praful Bidwai

The Milli Gazette Online

Dramatic changes are under way within India's Muslim community. Consider a few:

  • Around Independence, the richest Indian was a Muslim, the Nizam of Hyderabad, a thorough feudal who derived his wealth from inheritance.

  • Today, the richest Indian on the Forbes' list is also a Muslim. He is Azim Premji of Wipro Ltd, a star in the Information Technology firmament. Wipro belongs to one of the most modern, internationalised, competitive and technology-intensive sectors of Indian industry. Unlike the Nizam, Premji is wedded to modern values and to promoting education. He earned his millions through entrepreneurship, driven by a strong work ethic.

  • Another high-performing Indian industry is pharmaceuticals. Among its leaders are Cipla and Wockhardt, both run by forward-looking Muslims. Cipla's Yusuf Hamied is a Cambridge-educated chemist who runs one of the most dynamic drug research and development outfits anywhere. Cipla produces anti-AIDS drugs at 1/50th the price at which US companies sold them until recently.

  • Some of India's topmost advertising professionals are Muslims, including Alyque Padamsee, Mohammed Khan, Muzaffar Ali and Rafeeq Ellias.

  • In modern art, it's impossible to ignore the pivotal importance of M. F. Hussain, S. H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh and Tyeb Mehta.

Now another star has entered this group: Sania Mirza, the 18-year-old tennis player from Hyderabad. Sania hit it big when she recently entered the third round of the Australian Open and went down to champion Serena Williams, but only after a spirited fight. Her achievement might not be spectacular by international standards. But her domestic impact is great enough to make her a 'brand' in her own right. Advertisers are flooding her with offers to promote everything from mobile phones to cosmetics.

Sania Modernisation and secularisation are sweeping through the Indian Muslim community to a far greater extent than is recognised. Sania represents this very change. Yet, most members of this group are not uprooted from traditions and customs. For instance, Sania's family is deeply religious, although both her parents are graduates. 

In the Sania Mirza phenomenon lies a bigger story: a transformation of the image and self-perception of Indian Muslims. But, to start with, what is the source of Sania's enormous appeal? Says advertising wizard Alyque Padamsee: "Not since P. T. Usha has India had a female sports star of this calibre. Sania is young and hasn't yet achieved (her) full potential. She is an advertiser's dream. She can become a superstar and an icon for youth. Soon, there will be 'Sania mania' sweeping the land!'

Azharuddin, Irfan Pathan, Mohammed Kaif, Zaheer Khan and Syed Kirmani

In the field of sports, Mohammed Azharuddin, Irfan Pathan, Mohammed Kaif, Zaheer Khan and Syed Kirmani have reached unprecedented popularity. Remarkably, to be recognised, these stars don't have to hide their Muslimsness or wear their patriotism on the sleeve.


Marketing gurus say Sania personifies the 'new India' -- energy, self-confidence and the desire to achieve: "She is good-looking, young, athletic, gutsy and consistent... She is very hot..."

Sania also possesses simple, wholesome charm that comes out of down-to-earth earnestness. Unlike actresses, she is 'real'. Apparently, she also has a social conscience. She has just accepted an assignment from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to be the ambassador of the 'Save the Girl Child' campaign, which is meant to educate people on equal treatment of girls and boys. It's for the first time that a Muslim woman has been assigned the role of raising gender awareness in India.

There lies the significance of the Sania Mirza phenomenon. She embodies a number of aspects of modernity, freedom and rationality -- the very opposite of the stereotypes that most Indian Muslims are straitjacketed into, perhaps not just in India, but also in Pakistan. Within the stereotype, they are irredeemably backward, illiterate, overly religious, bigoted and resistant to change, especially as regards dress, customs, personal laws, and family planning; they are incapable of breaking the stranglehold of the mulla and coming out of the burqa.

Many bigoted Hindus are deeply uncomfortable with the modern, liberal, educated, well-informed Muslim, especially the Muslim female, who has an open mind and cosmopolitan outlook. Sania represents all these attributes. And yet, she has become an irresistible, irrepressible popular icon. This is a major transformation of the Indian Muslim stereotype.

Sania is by no means the sole Indian Muslim to have made a mark in her/his field. The Three Khans hold near-complete sway over Bollywood. Yet other Muslims have distinguished themselves in recent years in films: Shabana Azmi, Tabu, Saif Ali Khan, Saeed Mirza, Javed Akhtar. They no longer have to mask their identity -- as Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari did.

In the field of sports, Mohammed Azharuddin, Irfan Pathan, Mohammed Kaif, Zaheer Khan and Syed Kirmani have reached unprecedented popularity. Remarkably, to be recognised, these stars don't have to hide their Muslimsness or wear their patriotism on the sleeve.

The modern Muslim's profile is rising in many other fields too. This is rooted in a deeper process. A significant modern Muslim intelligentsia has crystallised in varying fields, including academics (examples, Irfan Habib, Mushirul Hasan, Shahid Amin, Zoya Hasan), avant garde theatre (Habib Tanveer, E. Alkazi, Jabbar Patel and Zohra Sehgal), and literature and journalism (Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, M. J. Akbar and Zahid Ali Khan).

This intelligentsia is qualitatively different from the old Muslim aristocracy. It consists of self-made liberal middle-class professionals. Its sensibilities are modern, secular and universalist. These are not Muslim intellectuals as such. They are intellectuals first, Muslims second, by birth.

The larger society has shown a high level of acceptance of such high-achievers, although the same may not be true of ordinary Muslims, many of whom are still viewed within a stereotypical framework.

Modernisation and secularisation are sweeping through the Indian Muslim community to a far greater extent than is recognised. Sania represents this very change. Yet, most members of this group are not uprooted from traditions and customs. For instance, Sania's family is deeply religious, although both her parents are graduates. Sania's father, Imran, says: 'We pray five times a day, read the Qur'aan and observe rozas (fast) during Ramzan. My wife and I went to the Hajj recently.' These are not individuals detached from their community.
Imran Mirza is sensitive to the criticism that Sania's tennis shorts violate what orthodox Muslims consider the 'Islamic dress code'. (He would like to tell them that there's forgiveness in Islam too). Imran Mirza isn't wealthy, just middle-class. 'It wasn't easy to put Sania through expensive training in tennis. We were lucky to have found a sponsor when Sania was 13'. This was G. V. K. Reddy -- a 'Hindu' business group.

Because the Mirzas are pious people, they are regarded well by conventional conservative Muslims. They form a bridge between tradition and the forces of secularisation and modernity which are gaining strength among Indian Muslims. Awareness is growing in that community of the importance of modern education as the key to the professions.

Muslim trusts (like the one run by The Siasat Daily of Hyderabad) are running teacher training courses, operating clinics, coaching students in science, medicine and engineering, training young women for call centre jobs, or preparing young Muslims for the civil services.

A breeze of reform is sweeping through Indian Muslim women too. A recent comprehensive survey shows that Muslim women's backwardness is less a function of religious belief than of socio-economic status. In some respects -- e. g. decision-making about family size, household management, purchases and political participation -- they are less backward than their Hindu sisters.

India, like all South Asia, still has a long way to go in becoming a society that's truly tolerant of, and comfortable with, differences. But the forces of modernisation and secularisation at work in all communities should make the journey a lot easier.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and peace and human-rights activitst based in Delhi. 

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