To recognise the centrality of the umma (community of believers) for Muslims requires for non-Muslims, especially Hindus, an imaginative leap not many are able to make. That is one reason why so many Hindu intellectuals find it natural to equate Hindu ‘communalism’ with Muslim communalism.
The word ‘communal’ has acquired a pejorative connotation for Hindu intellectuals. This is understandable in view of their complicated struggle to create a nation out of a loosely structured civilization, fight British imperialism and Muslim separatism before 1947 and cope with the residue of both after 1947. But this connotation confuses the basic issue of the centrality of the community for Muslims.
To begin with, we should note, as Prof Francis Robinson has pointed out in his essay “Islam and Muslim separatism” in Political Identity in South Asia (London), that the Muslim era does not begin with the birth of Mohammed, or with the first revelation in Mecca, but with the hijra (migration) of the prophet and Muslims to Yathrib (Medina) whereby the Muslim community is first constituted. This was to be no ordinary community. It was to be a charismatic community. That is why Mohammed could declare: “My community will never agree on error”. That is why it was to function on the basis of ijma (consensus). That is why this ijma was to play a critical role in the development and enforcement of the shariat.
The well-known five pillars of Islam – bearing witness to the unity of Allah and finality of Mohammed’s prophethood, prayers with special emphasis on collective prayers every Friday with the face always turned towards the Kaaba, zakat (charity) for purpose of the community, fasting during the month of Ramadan and haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca – continuously reinforce this sense of the community. Much of this is familiar to all those who know anything about Islam. But Prof Robinson underscores a couple of points which deserve attention.
First, the last act of the Friday prayer itself commemorates the community as the Muslim turns to his neighbour on either side in performing the salam. Secondly, no one who has lived with Muslims in the month of Ramadan can fail to see the powerful sense of community generated in the joint experience of fasting. Thirdly, the performance of the haj represents the ultimate celebration of the community; for all pilgrims don two white sheets, the ihram, in recognition of the equality of all Muslims before Allah, and as they live for the first 13 days of the month on the plain of Arafat, “they experience the reality of the community as never before” despite differences of language.
In addition, the use of the Arabic script and memorisation of the Koran in Arabic have helped create Islamic languages out of non-Islamic ones, the transformation of Hindvi (of Hindi) into Urdu in India being a case in point. Similarly, Muslims must use the same decorative patterns all over the world and segregate their women in the same way. Then there is the classical literature ranging from devotional and legal works through to belles letters in prose and verse which has been carried wherever Muslims have gone and transmitted from generation to generation.
This has produced a common cultural heritage which has defied being swamped by the most dramatic differences in environment, as say, between Arabic and India, and of pre-Islamic cultures, as say between Iraq and Morocco.
Thanks to the recent controversy touched off by the director of the Khudabaksh library in Patna, Dr Abid Raza Bedar’s endorsement of the view that Hindus do not fall in the category of kafirs (non-believers are allowed only a choice between conversion and the sword) some of us are at least now vaguely aware of the significance in Islam of the division of mankind between believers and non-believers. Even so, two points may be made.
First the controversy is itself rather surprising. For though the dhimmi status of tolerated minorities is allowed only to ahl-i-kitab (people of the book meaning Jews and Christians), it was in reality extended to Hindus under Muslim rule. That was why Jezia (poll tax) was imposed on them. Akbar lifted the tax as part of his plan to win over Hindus, but orthodox Muslims regarded him as an apostate so much so that Sayyid Ahmad Sirhindi campaigned against him. Jehangir not only released him from jail but patronized him.
Secondly, implicit in this division between believers and non-believers, even when it cannot be enforced for want of political power, is the Muslim sense of superiority. Indeed, it is fully explicit. For the prophet himself said: “You are the best nation raised for men”. And he saw himself and Muslims accept him as the seal of prophecy, precisely because he had received the final revelation which not only abrogated all previous revelations but also made subsequent ones inconceivable and unacceptable. That makes Islam the only valid religion and Muslims the only true believers.
This sense of superiority was validated on the testimony of the prophet himself by military victory first in the battle of Badar under his personal leadership in the face of what are described as heavy odds, and then by Allah’s promise to send one thousand angels to accompany Muslims in battles.
In relational terms, defeat after defeat in the last two centuries and more should have dented this conviction. But even if it has, belief in the superiority of Islam as faith and complete guide to life clearly survives.
This can, of course, be explained in terms of Freudian defence mechanism. But that only underscores the continuing centrality and power of the community. And in the absence of the caliph, or at least, ‘just’ sultan, as in India earlier, in an obligation to enforce the Shariat, the ulema became the guardians of the community.
With the exception of the Muslim League under Mr. Jinnah’s leadership, every single significant movement in Indian Islam from the time of the decline of the Mughal empire, beginning with Shah Walliullah in the 18th century to Khilafat in the twenties of this century, bears testimony to the reality of the power of the ulema and their supporters. And Mr. Jinnah, it should hardly be necessary to point out, scored over a section of the ulema because he promised Muslims political power and with it restoration of the faith to its integral form in which religion and power constitute one integral whole.
I have underscored a section of the ulema because the propaganda by Muslim writers and others notwithstanding, it is just not true that the ulema as a class were opposed to the demand for Pakistan. Mainly, only the Deobandis were, and some even among them broke away from the Jamiyat-al-Ulama-i-Hind and supported the League. Lucknow’s Firangi Mahal certainly did as did the Brelvis. It is equally significant that ulema who supported the Congress in its fight against partition were no less determined to preserve the separate identity of Muslims. This is as true of Maulana Azad as of anyone else.
In independent India, the Moplahs have demanded and secured a revision of the map of Kerala to provide for a Muslim majority district. In 1968, the Majlis-e-Ittehad ul-Musliman went so far as to demand a separate region for Muslims. This it said should be carved out of the eastern seaboard between Vishakhapatnam and Madras where all Muslims living in different parts of the country could be shifted and left to govern themselves “within the framework of the Indian Union”. The demand was indeed preposterous. But the point to note is the psychology behind it.
When the proposal raised furore in Parliament, the Majlis replaced it with the demand for separate electorate. Once again, the same mindset looking for separation and League-style politics. It is difficult to believe that Muslim intellectuals can break through it even if it is conceded that many of them do not in some way share it. The chances are that Muslim intellectuals will in course of time return to their private pursuits with the additional advantage of seeing themselves as victims of Hindu communalism, fascism and revanchism.
The Observer of Business and Politics, 24 February 1993