Review of Saeed Naqvi’s “Being The Other: The Muslim in India” 

by Imteyaz Alam

Being the OtherSaeed Naqvi’s “Being The Other: The Muslim in India” (Aleph, 2016) is part memoir and part account of a series of unfolding events in modern India which he witnessed from close quarters as a journalist. Naqvi says that the shilanyas ceremony of 1989 at Ayodhya–that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992–acted as the catalyst for writing this book which had gestated in his heart and mind over six decades.

The book is also an elegy to the syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture of Lucknow and its vicinity which was the cultural capital of erstwhile Awadh.  The noted journalist grieves in the  introduction of his book, “Rather, it’s a chronicle of my growing disillusionment, disappointment, with the direction in which the country is heading”.

Naqvi’s lucid language is a joy for the reader. The style is adorable and gripping. But the esteemed scholar fails to shed his biases. Only three chapters into the book and one encounters the writer’s elitist, sectarian prejudices. The writer quotes Akbar Allahabadi’s couplet:

Council mein bahut Syyed
Masjid mein faqat Jumman

Jumman, the Julahas, the lowly weaver occupying leadership in mosques is at clash with the Ashrafs, the liberal, persianized and broadminded Muslims. Interestingly, Jumman who is an eyesore for the connoisseurs of Awadhi culture appears to be a symbol of the commoner in Adam Gondvi’s famous lines:

Tumhari mez chaandi ki tumhare jam sone ke
Yahan Jumman ke ghar mein aaj bhi phooti rakaabi hai

Instead of celebrating the development of people at the lower rungs of social hierarchy, the elite Muslims untiringly lampoon the ‘lower caste’ Muslims.

This book also rakes up the old wound of Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal. The book suggests that India’s Muslim society remains divided in hierarchy. Naqvi claims in the book that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of MAO College (present day Aligarh Muslim University), was quite firm that his institution was for Ashraf Muslims alone.  The experts on the Aligarh movement, however, claim that MAO College was for all people, irrespective of cast, creed and gender. The first graduate of MAO College was incidentally Ishwari Prasad, a Hindu.

Both Sunnis and Shias respect Hazrat Ali. But the senior journalist labels anyone a Shia who eulogises Hazrat Ali (R.A.), the most revered personality in the Shia sect, after Prophet Muhammad. According to Naqvi, Urdu’s most well-known poet Mirza Ghalib was technically a shia who declared himself a ‘slave of Ali’. Ghalib, however, was a free bird whose religious inclination is reflected in his poems. Look at this couplet by Ghalib in which he ridicules the idea of paradise:

Humko ma’loom hai jannat ki haqeeqat lekin
Dil ke khush rakhne ko Ghalib ye khayal achha hai

Naqvi also claims that Josh Malehabadi, a well-known Urdu poet, was born a sunni but converted to shiaism later on. Josh started off with the Progressive Writers Movement but later on he disassociated himself from it. It is a fact known to all. However, Naqvi’s claim that Josh changed his religious belief is a revelation in the book.

All the sufis and believers in the moderate form of Islam were influenced by Iranian and in fact Shia Islam as per Naqvi. The culture came from Iran and Islamism from Arabia, Naqvi writes in his book. Jamiat Ulema-i Hind, Tableeghi Jamaat, Ahle Hadith, are are all sunni outfits and so are the militant organizations, he says in the book.

Sketching the life of Muslims in and around Lucknow and singling it out as the only centre of Indo-Islamic culture is a dubious claim. There were several other Muslim cultural centers in India throughout the centuries but the writer chooses to ignore them in his book. The book claims to be about the Muslims in India but the glimpse of other centers of culture is missing.

Naqvi’s “Being the other: The Muslim in India” fails to take into account the larger perspective rising above elitist and sectarian mindset. The book deals with some seminal events which shaped the life of Muslims in India. It could have captured so much more but unfortunately, the author chose to reduce it to a personal memoir of Saeed Naqvi, the noted journalist.

The reviewer works with the Ministry of Railways, Government of India.