A view of Jama Masjid, a 17th-century mosque in Delhi
In a recent interview, leading Indian Islamic reformer and author Asghar Ali Engineer answered a range of questions about Islamic clerics' hold on the mindset of Indian Muslims and the reasons behind the community's continuing economic and educational backwardness.
Engineer, author of dozens of books on Islamic reform and head of the Mumbai-based Centre for the Study of Secularism and Society, argued that Islamic organizations and clerics in India continue to pose a major hurdle to the progressive development of the community. He also noted that a large number of Indian Muslims are earning good money in Gulf countries but along with it they also bring back an orthodox version of Islam from that region.
The leading reformist scholar argued that even leading centers of modern education among Indian Muslims, such as the Aligarh Muslim University, situated near Delhi, are in the grip of orthodox Islamic forces like the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and the Tablighi Jamaat, a revivalist Islamic movement. He also noted that with regard to the status of women, Muslim organizations in India are articulating retrogressive viewpoints.
Following are some excerpts from the interview:
"With Job Options Limited For the Growing Muslim Middle Class in India, Many Of Them Have Taken Up Better-Paying Jobs In the Gulf – Whence They Often Return With a Very Conservative Understanding of Islam"
Q: "One often hears Muslims complain that they suffer from a leadership crisis, that they have no leaders, in the true sense of the term, to guide them. How do you see this complaint?"
Engineer: "There is, undeniably, a serious leadership crisis among the Muslims, but I don't think this problem is specific to them alone. Rather, it is one that affects the country [India] as a whole as well as communities other than Muslims as well. Of course, with regard to the Muslims, the crisis is even more acute because, on the whole, they are educationally, economically and socially backward.
"Further, most Indian Muslims are descendants of converts from various what are today called 'Dalit' and 'backward castes' [of Hindus], and they still carry that historical baggage. The state as well as the Muslim community organization has done little for their educational and economic empowerment. Muslim Backward castes have not reaped the benefits of state-sponsored affirmative action policies in any significant way… So, to expect the emergence of a progressive leadership to emerge from their ranks is perhaps unrealistic.
"I think Zakir Husain [India's first education minister] was the last Muslim leader in whom large numbers of Muslims from across India could repose their trust. But now there are no such charismatic Muslim leaders with a strong following, not even at regional level. Instead, the leaders they have are all dependent on the patronage of some political party or the other, and lack grassroots links and an independent voice of their own.
"The crisis of the Muslim leadership needs to be seen in a historical context. The bulk of the so-called Ashraf or 'high' caste Muslims, especially from northern India, migrated to Pakistan in 1947. This is an additional reason for the overall backwardness of the Indian Muslims, which is reflected in the backwardness of their present leadership. Prior to 1947, there was a sizable Muslim middle class, which had emerged, for the most part, from the decaying feudal order, and they had a long tradition of cultural and intellectual activity. Many of them set up educational institutions, worked for social reform and heralded a new progressive social consciousness. Many of them migrated to Pakistan in 1947.
"The Muslim middle class that remained was simply too small to assert itself and to carry on with the work that progressive sections of the pre-1947 Muslim middle class had been engaged in.
"From the 1980s onwards, a new Muslim middle class began to emerge in northern India, but, in contrast to its pre-1947 counterpart, it has emerged largely from the Muslim backward castes, who lack the cultural capital of the latter. Moreover, its quest for upward social mobility and assertion is often expressed in the form of a very conservative sort of religiosity, such as in building fancy mosques or sponsoring madrassas, which only exacerbates the malaise of the Muslims rather than solving it. In addition, with job options limited for the growing Muslim middle class in India, many of them have taken up better-paying jobs in the Gulf, whence they often return with a very conservative understanding of Islam, which they seek to propagate here."
"[Indian] Urdu Newspapers Are Also Deeply Complicit… With the Maulvis [Clerics], Routinely Projecting Them As the Leaders of the Community – And By So Doing, Reinforcing Muslim Backwardness"
Q: "Why is it that almost all organizations that claim to represent the Indian Muslims are mullah-led…? Why is the middle-class intelligentsia, small though it may be in numbers, not active in such groups? Why have they not tried to assert their voice publicly?"
Engineer: "The major reason for the continued hold of the maulvis [clerics] on the Muslim populace and the influence they enjoy is because the vast majority of the Indian Muslims are backward – economically, educationally, socially and intellectually. The power of the conservative maulvis is strengthened by their nexus with political parties that regularly court them in order to use them to garner Muslim votes. This works to strengthen the influence of the maulvis, who are wrongly projected by these parties as the representatives of the Muslims, a claim that the maulvis themselves never tire of asserting. These parties will never do a thing that would displease the maulvis, for they know this would cost them Muslim votes. So, you can see how these parties have a vested interest in keeping Muslims backward, under the leadership and control of conservative Maulvis.
"The Urdu papers are also deeply complicit in this nexus with the maulvis, routinely projecting them as the leaders of the community – and by so doing, reinforcing Muslim backwardness. By highlighting the maulvis, they know their papers will sell. Conversely, they know that if they dare criticize the maulvis their circulation will plummet.
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"But how can the maulvis provide proper leadership at all when they know next to nothing about the modern world? When the maulvis themselves are backward, how can the Muslims advance under their leadership? The intellectual backwardness of the Maulvis is immediately apparent from the absurd fatwas that keep being issued from one madrassa or the other. And, because they exercise such a major influence on the Muslims through the community institutions that they control, the Maulvis have an impact far beyond what their numbers might otherwise suggest on the way millions of Muslims think."
"The Leading Muslim Center for Modern Education in All of India, the Aligarh Muslim University… Is In the Grip Of the Most Conservative Elements, Such As the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat-e Islami"
Q: "But what about the Muslim middle class, small though it may be? Why have they been unable or unwilling to challenge the authority of the Maulvis or their way of understanding the world and Islam? Why is it that progressive voices of Islam, such as yours, are so rare in India, even among the middle class? Why have they let the Maulvis assert a monopolistic claim to speak for Islam and the Muslims?"
Engineer: "I think this has much to do with the educational system in this country in general. It is definitely not geared to promoting critical thought. Rather, it stresses conformity. It produces docile, not questioning, minds. And that is reflected in the acceptance of conservative interpretations of religion even among the supposedly educated middle class.
"Take, for instance, the leading Muslim center for modern education in all of India, the Aligarh Muslim University. It is in the grip of the most conservative elements, such as the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat-e Islami. Huge numbers of Muslim students in this university are members or activists or sympathizers of these two movements that are deeply conservative and definitely not progressive.
"Given this, how can one expect and hope for the middle class that is under the influence of such movements to play a socially progressive role? How can they even think of challenging the hegemony of the maulvis? Matters are made worse because of the growing terrorization of Muslims and the demonization of Islam, which only strengthens Muslim conservative elements and forces Muslims to retreat into their shells.
"Yet another factor is at work, which inhibits the possibility of the growing modern-educated Muslim middle class to articulate socially progressive thinking. This is the growing tendency among students – and this holds true irrespective of community – to go in for technical, professional courses, such as computers or management and commerce, which are subjects that might get them highly-paid jobs, but which certainly do not produce critical minds. And so, they readily and uncritically accept religious conservatism. By and large, they are so taken up by their careers and their consumerist aspirations that they simply have no interest, time and energy for social issues…"
"The Muslim Middle Class Will Certainly Have to Play a More Important Role in Community Affairs – Which Can Happen Only If the Maulvis [Clerics] are Sidelined"
Q: "How can this process of shifting the agenda of Muslim organizations, from mere identity related issues to substantive issues of economic and educational empowerment, be facilitated?"
Engineer: "For this to happen, the Muslim middle class will certainly have to play a more important role in community affairs, which can happen only if the maulvis are sidelined. But this is an uphill task, given the small size of the Muslim middle class and the powerful influence of the maulvis. Things have been made even more difficult than they might otherwise have been with Gulf petrodollars financing a considerable number of madrassas all over India. These Arab patrons have no interest whatsoever in promoting modern education and the economic advancement of the Muslim poor. Many rich Arab sheikhs are so neck-deep in corruption that they think that by patronizing Madrassas in poor countries like India they can have some of their sins washed away! They think that in this way they can overcome their guilt and compensate for their sins.
"And so you have this huge amount of money coming into India to fund splendid, palace-like Madrassa buildings, even in small villages, and these are centers for promoting very conservative interpretations of Islam. Naturally, they work to strengthen the influence of the conservative Maulvis. Underprivileged Muslims might want to send their children to modern, English-medium schools, but because they are simply unable to afford their high fees, they are forced, often out of economic compulsion, to educate them in these conservative madrassas. And so the influence of the conservative maulvis continues to mount.
"I often say that the Indian Muslims need an Ambedkar [B R Ambedkar, who fought against Hindu caste system] of their own. The vast majority of the Indian Muslims are of 'low' caste background, and a Muslim Ambedkar is what they need. Babasaheb Ambedkar provided the Dalits with intellectual, social and political leadership, which played a central role in their struggle for social justice. He set up schools, colleges and hostels that catered to the Dalits, the poorest of the poor. In contrast, Muslims produced one Syed Ahmad Khan, who set up the Aligarh College.
"But unlike Ambedkar, Syed Ahmad Khan was hostile to the interests of the poor. The only people he was concerned about were the Ashraf or so-called 'upper'-caste Muslims, whose interests had been shaken with the advent of the British. And so he set up the Aligarh College to train sons of Ashraf families, strictly keeping out 'low' caste Muslims, so that they could get well-paying jobs in the British administration. I think that Ashraf mentality, a mentality rooted in an extremely feudal culture, is still very deeply-rooted in the psyche of Muslim organizations, especially in the Urdu-Hindi belt [northern India].
"Most of these organizations are led and controlled by the so-called Ashraf. They seem, as Syed Ahmad Khan himself was, indifferent to the plight of the non-Ashraf poor, who form the vast majority of the Indian Muslim population. I think this feudal attitude is one of the major reasons for the overall backwardness of the Muslims. The men who run these Muslim organizations have little or no concern for internal democracy. In such a situation, it would be unrealistic to expect them to be truly concerned for, and to work for, the Muslim poor. That would go against their own interests…"
"There are many reasons why the Muslim backward castes or Muslim Dalit movement has not really gained ground despite the fact that 'low' castes form the majority of the Indian Muslim population, and one of them is that no party wants to do anything substantial for the Muslim masses. If any party does something, it is immediately accused of 'Muslim appeasement.' Furthermore, in this age of neo-liberalism, popular movements in general have declined…"
"[Indian] Muslim Organizations Are Definitely Not Making Any Progressive… Demands on the State As Far as Muslim Women Are Concerned; Many Of Their Demands Are Thoroughly Reactionary"
Q: To come back to the question of the agenda of the organizations that claim to represent Islam and all the Muslims of India, what do you think of their approach to Muslim women? Have they ever evinced any interest in their educational and economic advancement? Is this at all reflected in the demands that they make on the state?
Engineer: "I am afraid these Muslim organizations are definitely not making any progressive and substantive demands on the state as far as Muslim women are concerned. Rather, many of their demands are thoroughly reactionary, such as opposing much-needed reforms in the Muslim Personal Law that continues to heavily discriminate against women, although this is not mandated by the Koran. In fact, I would say that Muslim defenders of patriarchy, including these Muslim organizations, have succeeded in completely paralyzing half of the Muslim community – its women. They definitely do not want Muslim women to be empowered.
"The maulvis are very consciously reinforcing patriarchy and the subjugation of women. They insist that women should have no role at all outside the house. They suitably misinterpret Islam for this purpose. Often, they quickly brand any talk of women's rights as 'un-Islamic' and even as a 'conspiracy' against Islam. I have personally faced such reactions from numerous people to my writings and the workshops I organize on Islam and women's rights, even though all that I write and say on the subject is firmly grounded in the Koran."
'[A] Major Hurdle to Promoting Progressive Islamic Thinking is the Work Culture of Most Muslim Institutions, Which Does Not Tolerate Dissent and Critical Thinking"
Q: "How is it that we have so few progressive Islamic scholars like yourself in India today? Why is it that your books are rarely to be found in Muslim bookshops? How is it that Muslim organizations have not evinced any interest in translating your writings into Urdu, while your books have been translated into numerous languages abroad? In short, why is it that your writings are looked at with distaste by most conservative Muslims in India?"
Engineer: "Let me answer your last question first. Since I challenge many of their interpretations of Islam on a host of issues, it is natural that conservatives vehemently disagree with much that I write on Islam, even though I adduce Koranic references and proofs for my views. That is why Indian Muslim organizations, which are mostly very conservative, have not evinced any interest in translating my writings on Islam into Urdu. But it is not true to say that my writings on Islam are not appreciated by many Indian Muslims. On the contrary, thinking Muslims, who are fed up of the narrow-mindedness of the maulvis, do agree with what I say.
"As for the promotion of progressive Islamic discourses, the task is extremely difficult. When the education system itself is not geared to producing questioning minds, how can you expect people to dare to think out of the box? Furthermore, Muslims have been made so insecure in India, especially with the ongoing witch-hunt against innocents in the name of countering terrorism, that the prospects of progressive Islamic discourse seem even more remote than before.
"In such an environment, conservative, insular discourses thrive, even among the modern-educated middle class. See, for instance, the enormous influence that a person like [extremist cleric] Zakir Naik and his Peace TV enjoys even among middle-class Muslims who are not educated in madrassas. They readily respond to him because they think he is trouncing what they see as the opponents of Islam and Muslims. Peace TV promotes a deeply conservative, indeed reactionary, form of Islam, and it is working to further reduce the popularity of progressive Islamic discourses now that it can be readily watched in almost every home.
"I think another major hurdle to promoting progressive Islamic thinking is the work culture of most Muslim institutions, which does not tolerate dissent and critical thinking. They are often run on dictatorial lines, being steeped in a feudal ethos. Their work culture is dismally unprofessional. Employees are often treated like servants. The moment you start thinking on your own, the moment you question your bosses, you are branded as an 'enemy'. That is also the case with the madrassas."
"Muslim-Run Modern Educational Institutions… Make Religious Education Compulsory To Control the Students' Minds – And Teach It In a Conservative, Sometimes Very Obscurantist, Manner"
Q: "Why is it that while Muslim organizations run literally thousands of madrassas, mostly funded by the contributions of the community, there are hardly any good quality Muslim-run schools – even simple primary schools – particularly in north India, where the bulk of the Muslim population is concentrated? What does this suggest about the priorities of Muslim organizations?"
Engineer: "You are very right. Other than those madrassas that run on Gulf funds, the vast majority survive on donations from the community, particularly in the form of Zakat [charity]. Nowhere in the Koran does it say that Zakat must be given only to madrassas or to maulvis. Nowhere does it say that Zakat cannot be given to institutions that are providing what is conventionally regarded as 'worldly' knowledge and that cater to the poor. But the maulvis have invented this notion of 'religious' knowledge as being separate from 'worldly' knowledge, and continue to harp on this in order to promote their own interests.
"And so Muslims have been made to believe that if they give their Zakat to a modern school that caters to the poor, they would not earn anywhere near the same merit or sawab [benefit from God in Hereafter] as they would if they gave their Zakat to a madrassa where children learn only what is conventionally thought of as 'religious' knowledge. It is apparent that this erroneous belief works to support the hegemony of the maulvis, many of who are neck-deep in corruption, misusing the madrassas and the funds that they receive for their own purposes. And many of them oppose, whether explicitly or otherwise, modern education, while at the same time insisting on a very ritualistic and conservative religious education. They know well that if modern education spreads among Muslims, their influence will decline. Conversely, preaching conservative and ritualistic readings of Islam works to bolstering their own authority and leadership. In a sense, the rapid growth of the madrassas in recent decades is a reflection of this.
"So, that is one reason why there are so many madrassas and so few Muslim-run modern schools. And I must also add that, generally speaking, the quality of education imparted in the few Muslim-run modern educational institutions – by and large, and with some notable exceptions – leaves much to be desired. They make religious education compulsory to control the students' minds, and teach it in a conservative, sometimes very obscurantist, manner.
"A good indication of the pathetic state of social consciousness among Muslims in general is the sort of literature that Indian Muslim publishing houses produce. They specialize in producing books that preach a very narrow, ritualized approach to Islam. Hardly any of them produce anything about the empirical social, economic, political and educational conditions and concerns of the Muslims. There are hardly any Muslim social science research centers doing this sort of work in India. Muslim publishing houses know that there would be few buyers for books of this sort, but that books that preach a very traditionalist and ritualistic version of Islam sell well, and that is why they bring out the sort of literature that they do. In such a situation, when there is such intellectual poverty, it is extremely difficult to promote progressive Islamic discourses and social consciousness. It still remains an uphill task."
 Daily Times (Pakistan), March 21, 2011. The text of the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.