Islamic perspective

Muslims and the mainstream


Often question is raised by those with communal bias and sometimes even by those with secular outlook whether Muslims are part of Indian mainstream.

Actually the word ‘mainstream' is also quite ambiguous and means different thing to different people. It is used very loosely and never properly defined. First, it is necessary to understand who constitutes the mainstream in the country? Also, who belongs and who does not belong to the mainstream?

Is there any truth in the contention that Muslims refuse to be part of Indian mainstream? This question can only be answered when we are able to define Indian mainstream. It is alleged by the BJP leaders that Indian Muslims are not prepared to show respect for the Hindu gods like Ram and Krishna and are not prepared to assimilate Indian culture. As against this they cite example of Indonesian Muslims. They say in Indonesia Muslims have adopted Sanskrit names and Ramayana Dance as their national dance. They have also Garuda as their national airlines.

This makes it clear that national mainstream is defined as Hindu mainstream and Hindu mainstream it is also defined as Brahmanical mainstream. Thus if any community does not fit into this Brahmanical mainstream is thought not to be part of national mainstream. This perspective suggests that all non-Brahminical streams are not national mainstream. In fact democracy is nothing if it does not admit diversity and plurality. No one can demand uniformity in democracy. Uniformity leads to authoritarianism if not to fascism. Democratic unity is based on diversity, not on uniformity.

No society is uniform, for that matter. Even the Hindu society is far from being undiversified. Within Hindu society there is religious diversity apart from cultural and linguistic diversity. Similarly, among Muslims too, there is great deal of religious and cultural diversity. No community is homogeneous. Homogeneous communities are mental constructs and not reality. Some western scholars call it ‘imagined communities'. Often it is communalists who construct such homogeneous communities. Their purpose cannot be fulfilled without mentally homogenising a community.

In Indian politics we always talk of ‘Hindus' and ‘Muslims' or ‘Sikhs' and ‘Christians', cite their numbers and draw our conclusions. We completely ignore existing diversity and plurality of religious beliefs and cultures within these communities. Also, politically too, these communities are highly diversified and hardly take any united stand. Even on the question of partition it is sheer myth that Muslims were one. Jinnah got maximum support from upper class Muslims of U.P. From U.P. itself the lower class Muslims like weavers and others were not in favour of partition plan and had opposed it.

Moreover, we draw our conclusions about a community from our experiences in urban areas. No wonder then that communalism tends to be urban phenomenon. Most of the major communal riots have taken place in urban areas though in late eighties they spread to rural areas also. But it was more of an exception than a rule. In urban areas separate political identities carry more weight than in rural areas. The reasons are not far to seek. Urban people are more educated and articulate than rural people. Urban areas are centers of politics, finance, business and employment. Also, urban areas are far more competitive than rural areas. It is competition in a highly diversified society which leads to conflict.

If we keep bewildering diversity of our country in view, national mainstream will appear to be a theoretical construct rather than a reality out there. The example of Indonesia is also of similar nature. It will not be true to maintain that Muslims of all regions in Indonesia have same culture. For example, Sanskritised culture is found in Java areas but not in Sumatra as Java was under Hindu kings during medieval period. In Indonesia too, there is great deal of religio-cultural diversity among Muslims. It is interesting to note that in Bali where Hindus are in majority and Muslims in minority, they (Muslims) feel threatened like Pundits in Kashmir.

Indian Muslims are very much part of regional cultural streams. For example, Muslims of Kerala are part of Malayalam cultural stream and in that sense are closer to Kerala Hindus and Christians than Urdu speaking Muslims of North. Same is true of Muslims of Tamil Nadu. They are much closer to Tamil Hindus and Christians. Kerala Muslims or Tamil Muslims have made seminal contribution to regional languages and cultures. Same is true of Muslims in Gujrat. The Muslims of these regions are so well integrated with regional cultures that they feel alienated in other regions of India. This integration goes to such an extent in many cases that one who does not belong to these regional cultures are not considered Muslims. I myself had this experience when I visited a place near the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. When I spoke to an elderly Muslim lady through an interpreter, she was surprised that some one who does not know Malayalam could be a Muslim. Her universe of Islam was limited to her region and her language.

Similarly the Muslims of Assam are a category by themselves. They too are much more integrated with Assamese culture and have their own local customs. When I visited Assam during the height of students' movement in early eighties I found Assamese Muslim intellectuals quite sympathetic with the Assam movement. They were as much concerned with the Assamese identity as others in Assam. Their identification with Assamese movement would have been much more intense but for outbreak of communal violence in Neili where more than 3000 Bengali Muslims were killed. Whenever degree of communalisation increases, religious identity assumes more assertive role. Conversely, if regional identity is more assertive, religious identity will be less so.

In Kashmir too regional identity had been much stronger all through and hence it did not see outbreak of communal riots between Hindus and Muslims. Even during militancy regional solidarity often asserted itself. Kashmiri Islam is basically a sufi Islam and Kashmiri Hinduism is a Shaivite Hinduism. Both are monotheistic. Laleshwari, a Shaivite poetess with a strong mystic rend in her religious outlook was quite close to Rishi Nuruddin, a great sufi saint from Kashmir. Interestingly the sufi saints are referred to as ‘rishis' in Kashmir. The Kashmiri militants, many of whom were outsiders (from Pakistan and Afghanistan) tried to spread fundamentalist Islam but did not succeed. Generally the Kashmiri Muslims are not antagonistic to Hinduism despite years of militancy. However, for fear of extremists they may not be able to assert their viewpoint. But privately they do admit that Pandits must return to valley and many of them even have looked after their properties in their absence.

It is also wrong to say that Muslims refuse to respect Hindu gods like Rama and Krishna. It amounts to saying that all Indian Muslims conform to this behaviour. It is again homogenising entire Muslim community. At best it is one trend among many. It is far from true that all Muslims refuse to show respect to these eminent religious personalities of India. There are thousands of Muslims who deeply revere them. Many examples can be cited.

The sufis of course had very different outlook from theologians. Mazhar Jani Janan, an eminent eighteenth century sufi saint was of the view that since Allah had promised in the holy Qur'an to send His prophets to all the peoples of the world for religious guidance (For every people there is religious guide) how could He forget Indian people. And since Indian people highly revere Ram and Krishna, they must be His prophets. A twentieth century Sufi Khwaja Hasan Nizami wrote a book on the subject and showed that Ram and Krishna were prophets of Allah. Hasrat Mohani, a great Urdu poet and a freedom fighter who gave a call for complete freedom in 1921 itself, rejecting the concept of Home Rule, was a great admirer of Lord Krishna. He used to perform Haj every year and also visit Brinda Ban on Janmashtami regularly. Some of the Farangi Mahli Ulama in Lucknow also held Lord Krishna in great respect. Hasrat Mohani's wife - who herself was a freedom fighter like her husband - was follower of one of these Farangi Mahli order. Iqbal, the noted poet of Urdu described Ram as Imam-e-Hind, i.e. revered religious leader of India.

The sufis had adopted local rituals and customs in order to assimilate local culture and their Islam was highly Indianised and masses of Muslims always followed these sufi saints rather than ‘Ulama and their theological pronouncements. Baba Farid who is buried in Pak Pattan in Punjab (now in Pakistan) is considered to be founder of Punjabi poetry. He is greatly revered by the Sikhs and his verses have been quoted in Adi Granth Sahib along with other Indian saint poets. Khwaja Nizamuddin Awliya who is buried in Delhi used to say that there are as many ways of worshiping God as particles of sand. He used to listen to bhajans along with qawwali (sufi music).

Khwaja Hasan Nizami, who was keeper of Mausoleum of Nizamuddin Awliya has vividly described in his book Fatimi Dawat-e-Islam how the sufi saints adopted local rituals in order to popularise Islam.

The carrying of sandal on the death anniversary of sufi saints (called urs or kurs in Tamil Nadu) and washing saints' graves are adoptation of Hindu temple rituals. Similarly he describes many other similar Hindu rituals adopted by Sufi saints. The followers of Imam Shah in Gujrat even went as far as describing the holy Prophet as kal yug awtar of Krishna and his son-in-law Ali as tenth awtar of Vishnu.

There are several sufi saints who are revered equally by Hindus as well as Muslims. Their mausoleums are visited by great reverence by members of both the communities. Many sociological studies of these mausoleums have been done. The rituals of offering, vows, tying threads, exorcising evil spirits etc. are rituals quite common to both the communities. Sometimes the keepers of Sufi mausoleums are Hindus like at the Haji Malang Baba's Mausoleum. Its keeper is a Brahmin.

Certain Muslim communities are highly Hinduised as for example the Meo Muslims of Rajasthan and Haryana. Many anthropological studies of Meos clearly show their Hindu customs and rituals. They celebrate Diwali and Holi as they celebrate Eids. They do not marry within one Gotra like Hindus of the North though Islam permits marriage with cousins. Solemnisation of marriage among Meos is not complete without both nikah as in Islam and circumambulation of fire as among Hindus of the north.

Similarly an anthropological study of life cycle rituals (i.e. rituals performed from birth to death) among Bengali Muslims has shown striking similarity between Hindus and Muslims. Even many purification movements launched from time to time to rid Indian Islam of Indian influences have never succeeded. The regional influences on Indian Muslims have become integral part of their life. Thus one can say that it is folk religion which is practiced by the masses than the scriptural religion. Scriptural religion exists only in books. Can anybody still maintain the myth that Indian Muslims refuse to assimilate elements of Indian culture?

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