Book Review: Onus on the moderate Muslim to reclaim Islam's heterodox legacy

The predominant view about Sufism is that it exists outside Islam as a cult born out of the admixture of Hinduism with the Prophet's faith

Had it not been for the bitterly-wrought Partition, Sufism, which had its origins in the Arabian peninsula during the Prophet’s lifetime but flourished in India in the 13th and 14th centuries, would have emerged as the signature model of inclusive and, as it happens, syncretic Islam. It would have acted as the counterweight to the Saudi-born fundamentalist Wahhabism. And it would have been, largely, an Indian contribution. This is the thesis of Ghazala Wahab’s timely book that is simultaneously a ready-reckoner for Islam as well as an appeal to moderate Muslims to reclaim their faith.

Wahab’s urgent intervention pertains to the current moral crisis afflicting Muslims who number over 1.9 billion and form about 25 per cent of the globe. Written in crisp prose filtered through a lens of empathy and humour, her quest to examine Islam draws equally on scripture, memoir and reportage. She interviews the who’s who of Muslim India from politicians and bureaucrats to seminary heads and theologians. But she also has her ear to the ground, and is careful to catch every dilemma and strand of opinion of the common man and woman, be they a humble tradesman, the “new Muslim” or the successful professional, a dadi at Shaheen Bagh or a young student at the madrassa.

So far, the discourse on the Islamic question has been chiefly contained in the West, conducted as it has been by the likes of Susan Okin (“Feminism and Multiculturalism: Some Tensions”), Ayaan Hirsi Ali (maker of Submission, belonging to the alt-right camp), Irshad Manji (founder of the Muslim refusenik movement), Ameena Wadud and “ex-Muslim” Sarah Haider. Barring Hasan Suroor’s important 2019 work, however, this is the first book coming out of India capturing this discourse as it plays out in this country. The last fact makes it all the more accessible to the lay reader.

The reader, for instance, may be aware that much of the problems of the moderate Indian Muslim stems from their religious obligation to follow the Muslim orthodoxy, the ulema. But did they know that, as a phenomenon, the overarching influence of the mullahs is fairly recent? It began only after the collapse of the Mughal empire, before which the influence of the Sufis who were championed by the emperor was more widespread.

The predominant view about Sufism is that it exists outside Islam as a cult born out of the admixture of Hinduism with the Prophet’s faith. But this is self-serving propaganda spread by two sources, the prejudiced West which failed to reconcile the sophistication of Sufi writings with what, in its view, was a “desert religion”, and the Islamic orthodoxy itself. The origin of Sufism much predated its presence in India. Hazrat Rabia of Basra died in AD 801.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (AD 1058-1111) was the first scholar to lend theological heft to Sufi mysticism, marrying it with Sharia. While Golden Age (Abbasid) philosophers like Averroes and Avicenna were among the first Muslim rationalists, it was Ghazali who arguably laid the foundation of Islamic heterodoxy. He said that as long as one believed in Allah and Muhammad, Islam could be practised in different ways. Nevertheless, this ruled out the philosophy of atheism. Neither of the Abrahamic religions is known to accommodate it.

Until a generation ago, there were two kinds of Muslims in India, the Communists and the conformists, Wahab says. The conformists were the regular moderate Muslims. If sceptic, they were careful to hide their worldview from the ulema. For them, the personal was not political. The Communists, on the other hand, identified as agnostic. They were, at best, cultural Muslims. While they had been drawn to this ideology because it resonated with the Islamic ideals of equality and justice, since they did not identify as true-blue Musalman, within their community, their voices went unheard. Nor did they themselves find it important to address the dogma and bigotry from within by, say, reforming the clergy. Thus Wahab illustrates the failure of Left politics to address the fundamental reality of identity as well as the Islamic problem.

Now, if Wahab is critical of Hindutva and Saudi preponderance on the clergy, she is equally irked by the Congress governments’ minority politics. Citing Wajahat Habibullah’s 2016 article, she mentions M.J. Akbar’s role in the passage of the Rajiv Gandhi government’s infamous 1986 Muslim women’s bill. It was Akbar who had prevailed on Rajiv Gandhi to contest the Shah Bano judgment, saying that if he did not, it would appear that the Prime Minister did not regard the Muslim community as his own. Akbar was subsequently seen expanding this point in a Doordarshan debate against Arif Mohammad Khan.

The Hadith is contextual, writes the author, as is the Quran. The custodians of the faith need to move with the times in order to prevent the religion from atrophying. But what if one differs from the holy book in one’s analysis of context? Is it not bowing to stereotype to regard the status of women as subhuman in tribal Arabia before the arrival of the Prophet? If so, what of the example of Khadija, the Prophet’s first wife? Should have the Prophet’s wives and honest, thereby more capable, women, rather than the already less powerful slave women, been robbed of their agency to operate in the cause of good via physical encumbrance only so as to distinguish one group from the other? Is covering up also either a moral or an ultimately effective way to combat sexist aggression? There are no easy answers. These are some areas that the book does not go into.

Elsewhere, the author does write that the opportunity for freethinking is limited when exercised from within the Islamic faith. Liberal Islam may indeed be an oxymoron, by that token. All the same, it is interesting to note how key definitions from other faiths sit perfectly inside it. The author’s own liberal rationalism is the Buddhist way of the instinct- and deed-driven mahayana, while the orthodoxy’s essentialism would be the intellect-driven hinayana way. Quite startlingly, the Hindu dichotomy of dvaita-advaita (dual and singular manifestations of God) also exists within Islam because the Naqshbandiyah order of Sufism rejects the Chishti and other silsila on the ground that the identification of the self with Allah is subjective and does not produce any objective manifestation, hence leading to idolatry.

The author’s caveat is that the moderate Muslim even today has no voice or traction within the larger Muslim society. They are caught between the Hindu right wing that regards them as exceptional and thus invisibilises them and the Muslim right wing which disparages them for their apologism. She exhorts these people to give up their conformism and take responsibility for their beliefs. Simultaneously, she notes a rise of Muslim exceptionalism and reverse identity politics among community members in reaction to Hindutva, as evidenced in the La illah ila allah sloganeering during the 2019 CAA protests.

“Young working professionals are overnight discovering headscarves. The more one points to the headscarf as a symbol of Islamic patriarchy or women’s oppression, the more professional women turn up in one to register their protest.” (p. 367)

Such an assertion of identity leads to the closedness of the mind in a way that runs contrary to freedom and modernism, she surmises.

Clearly, a gap exists between expressions of Muslim identity and its spirit of fearless large-heartedness. It is this gap that the book strives to fill. And in so doing it perhaps becomes the vehicle through which the writer bears her own shahadah to her Muslim heritage.

Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India

By Ghazala Wahab

Aleph, Rs 999

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