Arshad Alam reviews Ghazala Wahab’s Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India (Published by Aleph Book Company, 2021) stating how courageous it is of Wahab, to be able to channelize this trauma into an insightful book on her own identity.
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‘Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India’ is an ambitious book in terms of its sheer scope. It wants to give us a sense of Muslim history and sociology after partition, dig deep into the roots of Muslim alienation, make sense of their exclusion from the political economy, tell us about the increasingly tenuous diversity within Indian Islam, and ventures at times into theology in order to narrate the ‘progressive’ nature of Islam. In order to do so, Wahab has to alternate between Muslims and Islam, two very different analytical categories, which would normally require a very different analysis. But yes, on an empirical level, since Islam and Muslim are fused within the same body, Wahab’s methodology is acceptable. The result of this labor of love and belonging is a fascinating book with eight chapters and a poignant biographical introduction with which most Indian Muslims would identify. The anxiety of being killed, the smell of burnt flesh, properties and houses destroyed, forced migration have by now signed the collective memory of Indian Muslims, thanks to the almost routine pogroms orchestrated against them by various governments. It is to the credit and courage of Wahab that she has been able to channelize this trauma into an insightful book on her own identity.
A book with such a wide survey of Indian Muslim conditions is always difficult to write (and review). One cannot do justice to each and every thematic problematized within it. I, therefore, plead guilty that what I will be attempting will be my reading of Wahab’s reading of the Indian Muslim situation. While critiquing the author, I am equally aware of my own biases; that my reading of this text will also have some affinity with my own subjective location.
Muslims are one of the most socially and educationally ‘backward’ religious minorities in India. They are socially backward because the large majority of them are low caste converts from Hinduism. A majority of them became Muslim expecting a life of dignity which supposedly an egalitarian religion like Islam had to offer. The reality was more complex. Islam was always a stratified system and when it came to India it acquired additional layers of hierarchy like race and caste. The socially excluded within Hinduism also became socially excluded within Islam; the change of religion did not necessarily mean a change of caste. One of the ways in which these castes were excluded was to deny them any form of education and hence it is natural that the majority of Indian Muslims, who comprise of such castes, will be educationally at the margins. However, as Wahab asks in the book, other similarly placed communities like Dalits have considerably improved their situation, then why is it that Muslims have lagged behind?
Wahab posits four reasons for the continued backwardness of Muslims in post-Independent India: Partition and the migration of educated middle classes to Pakistan, exclusion and discrimination, the perception amongst Muslims that they will not succeed, and lastly their historical disdain for modern education. There is certainly no novelty in outlining these causes, but the extent to which they can explain the Muslim predicament in India is open to question. It is true that educated Muslims from this side of the border migrated to Pakistan in search of better avenues but it is equally true that their so-called modern education did not salvage that country from the religious chaos that it descended into. The educated middle class in that country failed to inaugurate a secular and plural republic. The expectation from education that it will necessarily bring about a positive change is therefore largely misplaced. Without the right political culture, education always becomes a symbol of consumption rather than an ethical endeavor of social transformation.
Similarly, it is true that Muslims in India are excluded and discriminated against but this cannot be measured by their relative absence in government employment. The fact that Muslims are under-represented can also be a function of their lack of education. As the author herself points out, there are far fewer Muslim candidates who apply for government jobs because there are only 4% of Muslims who are accessing higher education. Exclusion and discrimination are very insidious processes and measuring them are highly problematic in the absence of any overt legal discrimination against Muslims. However, instead of having a threadbare discussion within the community about the lack of quality education, the dominant discourse is about being victimized by a ‘Hindu’ state. This leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein a lesser number of Muslims apply for government jobs thinking that they will not get it because of their religion.
One is not entirely sure if Muslims ever had a disdain for modern education. In fact, Muslim access to higher education was on par or better than caste Hindus in many places during the early colonial period. The problem was that most of these Muslims were upper-caste (Ashraf) and that it did not percolate down to the Muslim masses, largely comprised of Shudras. We often hear that the Ulama ranted against the establishment of MAO College (later Aligarh Muslim University) but what gets overlooked is that despite this tirade against modern education, Ashrafs did send their children to study at such institutions.
Wahab is right to point out that the Muslims in post-1947 have largely been tailing one party or the other as a result of which they have not been able to become an independent voice. Taken in by the guilt of partition, they voted for long for the Congress party and later for other regional formations. This has led to a situation where Muslim leaders have become show boys for these parties to advertise their secular credentials. Wahab rightly castigates the formation of Muslim-specific parties like the Muslim Majlis in UP, which was driven by the Shurafa and its demands had nothing in common with the needs of common Muslims. After a long hiatus, Muslims are now experimenting with a leader like Owaisi whose popularity (not so much electorally) has now become pan-Indian, especially amongst the youth. The Muslim youth today is unencumbered with the baggage of partition and is unapologetic about asserting her identity. Wahab seems to buy the argument the rise of leaders like Owaisi will lead to the development of insular Muslim politics. However, she seems to forget that there is hardly any space for Muslim articulation within ‘mainstream’ parties. Most political parties remain silent when Muslims are lynched or their businesses destroyed. Owaisi is perhaps the only one who represents this feeling of alienation amongst Muslims. Moreover, through his politics, he is only reminding us that the Indian state has failed to keep its promise to the largest minority.
At certain points in the book, it appears that Wahab blames the Ulama for the continued ills of the Muslim community. Certainly, the Ulama have not covered themselves in glory by defending issues that are in their very nature retrograde. No doubt they should be called out for defending regressive practices like triple talaq and halala and dismissing any suggestion of reforming the outmoded Muslim personal law. But why blame the Ulama when even the Muslim intelligentsia haven’t spoken about such issues for decades? Throughout the Muslim world, sharia laws have been reformed either by the state or by the educated class who have put pressure on the state to do so. Despite Pakistan being an Islamic country, their personal law was reformed much earlier thanks to groups of Muslim men and women demanding such action from the state. The educated Muslim class in India, on the other hand, has been so timid that it has largely ceded this ground to the Ulama. And then the same class turns around and blames the Ulama for the mess that we find ourselves in. It would have been better if Wahab would have thought how the educated Muslims in this country, by remaining silent on issues of social and religious reform, have let the community down. The position of the Ulama and the educated class on such issues have hardly been different.
Unfortunately, at certain times in the book, Wahab appears to be no different. A narrative runs throughout the book about the supposed progressivism of Islam which gave women freedom and rights much before any other religion did. It follows from this kind of reasoning that the problem does not lie with Islam but with Muslims and particularly the Ulama who have interpreted the religious texts conservatively. This is rather simplistic. She narrates the story of Prophet Muhammad and his first wife Khadija to convince us that it was a relationship based on equality. In many ways, it was because Khadija was an independent businesswoman and the Prophet was in her service when they got married. Wahab approvingly tells us Muhammad did not take another wife till the time Khadija was alive. But then, the credit for this does not go to Islam. It was rather a function of the ethos of pre-Islamic Arabian culture as neither the Prophet nor Khadija were Muslims when they got married. Moreover, they got married under a special contract drawn by Khadija which forbade Muhammad to take any other wife. This only proves that women of pre-Islamic Arabia had much more agency and that with the coming of Islam some of that agency was certainly lost in favour of direct patriarchy. Wahab, borrowing from the writings of Ulama, paints a dismal picture of pre-Islamic Arabia which is patently false. In order to ‘invent’ the goodness of religion, it is not necessary to denigrate its predecessor. It is incumbent on educated Muslims like Wahab to clearly state that certain customs which might have made sense in early Islam no longer hold true and therefore needs to be changed. Instead, what we get is the glorification of Islam at all levels which has certainly never helped the Muslim community.
Her position on Islam remains problematic for other reasons as well. In ‘The Story of Indian Islam’, we are given a brief history of the Muslim triumph over the Jews and eventually over the Meccan ‘pagans’. At one point she seems to be blaming the Jews for their own massacre by the new Muslim community. By calling it a deterrent, she also seems to be justifying the massacre. One does not know why all this was necessary and or what lessons Indian Muslims should draw from it. Should an Indian Muslim, living amongst Hindus, gloat over the fact that Islam eventually rejected polytheism by defeating the Meccans? Is that a lesson in pluralism and harmonious coexistence which Wahab herself wants us to follow?
The story of Indian Islam too is a bit more complicated than what she would want us to believe. The conflict between Sufis and Ulama is by now a familiar trope in most analyses of Islam but one that it historically inaccurate. In the Indian context, there were Sufis who were not too enamored by concepts of pluralism and diversity. On the other hand, there were Ulama who were trying to understand Hinduism from a very empathetic perspective. This polarity between ‘good Sufis’ and ‘bad Ulama’ has become too hackneyed which should have been avoided.
In terms of Muslim identity, Wahab is rightfully perturbed by the increasing visibility of the burqa in the public sphere. However, to link this practice with the rise of BJP is a little too simplistic. The most virulent defense of the burqa comes from the South Indian states especially Kerala where the BJP is yet to take root. Thus, to understand the burqa as an assertion of Muslim identity may be partly correct but the author should have also inquired into the increasing ‘scripturalism’ of Indian Muslims. To always understand Muslims as a ‘reactive community’ is to deny their agency. There was certainly no threat of BJP when Deoband was advising Muslim women to shun the practice of wearing vermillion. These are issues that are internal to the community and must be analyzed at that level rather than always taking recourse to an external threat. At the same time, her argument that the burqa is now more visible because of the presence of more Muslim women in the public sphere is an important insight that needs to be debated.
Another important insight of the book is that through social media, young Muslims are now asserting themselves in ways that was not possible earlier. The author rightly observes that young Muslims now have an articulate presence on social media through which they are in a position to influence opinions and change perceptions about Islam and Muslims. However, whether it will succeed or not is an open question. One can only hope, as Wahab does, that these young assertive voices will carry the debate in favour of religious pluralism and secularism, despite the toxicity which they receive on the medium.
Wahab’s remedy for Muslim backwardness and marginalization is more education. She rightly castigates the custodians of the Auqaf who sit on billions but do very little to monetize it in order to help the community educationally. She also hits the nail on the head when she argues that millions are wasted on mosques when the need of the hour is to build more quality schools and colleges. If only a small fraction of vested Muslim interests listened to her advice, Indian Muslims would be at a very different place today.
And yet the conclusions that she draws leaves much to be desired. While identifying education as one element which can turn the fortunes of the community around, she does not link it with the fact that there are very few Muslims (as a percentage of their population) who are accessing higher education. The first task then is to push as many Muslims as possible towards higher education and that will require good quality schools. But then, Wahab wants to leave the madrasa education system untouched arguing that they constitute only 4% of school-going Muslim children. I understand that she quotes the Sachar Commission Report but those numbers are grossly under-represented. Madrasas form a parallel system of education which do not equip its students to negotiate the structures of modernity and till the time they are completely altered, Muslim education is bound to suffer. One gets the impression that by not addressing the linkage between madrasas and Muslim educational backwardness, she wants to skip a sensitive issue. This has been the bane of Muslim intellectuals that they desist from taking up position on contentious issues which have singular importance for the prospects of the community.
Finally, she wants Muslims to reclaim Islam and that too the Islam which is interpreted by Wahab: a progressive, gender-just, egalitarian Islam which she argues can be found in the early history of this religion. Such expectation is pious but Islam is not just a game of hermeneutics but also a very sophisticated theological paradigm that is at times inimical to such interpretations. Unfortunately, Wahab does not tell us how this progressive shift would take place. All that we get in the end is a prescription that Islam needs to be rescued from the Saudi-sponsored Ulama. Strangely, this prescription is not very different from what the Ulama have been telling us: that in order to improve the situation of Muslims, they must return to the pristine purity of Islam. This unity of method between the Ulama and the Wahab is problematic for a number of reasons, the primary being that it does not tell us how this return to Islam will help the Muslim community from their current despondent state.
But then, the mark of a good book is that it raises more questions than it answers.
Arshad Alam is an independent researcher based in New Delhi.