Indian Ulema must move on in their thoughts

Story by  Atir Khan | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 21-08-2023
Representational Image
Representational Image


Atir Khan

Indian Ulema will have to re-imagine their role to stay relevant. They need to come out of the time warp to reclaim their glorious past and must come up with a new narrative, and not the philosophies of the past. 

Undoubtedly, the achievements of Indian Muslim scholars are legendary, including their role in India's freedom struggle. Some of them are doing great work even today.

However, a majority of Indian Ulema are living in the past. The times are changing and some course correction in their approach has truly become inevitable. And this is just the right time to reconcile tradition with modernity. 

As per Islamic history, the concept of Ulema (Muslim religious scholars) started during the time of Hazrat Omar, who was one of the caliphs in Islamic history. He realized his bounden duty to fund a body of scholars, who would spend time only in steeping themselves in the study of Islam. He would seek advice from them from time to time. 

Muslim rulers governed their sphere of influence purely based on Islamic laws and values. Today we live in a post-modern world, where countries are not ruled by the Sharia but by the secular values of nation-states. 

During Islamic rule, the role of the ulema was huge, it began to define the law, control the courts, run the educational system, and permeate in Muslim social institutions as well. But that was history. Now their role is focused on Muslim religious education and rituals. But they continue to have an important role in conditioning social values in society. 

Darul Uloom Deoband Islamic Seminary

In the contemporary Indian context, ulema do not define the law or control the courts. Islamic jurisprudence is not relevant today, as per our Constitution it cannot be enforced by any one authority in the entire country. 

In any country, there cannot be two sets of separate laws. Therefore, ulema must ensure that there is no ambiguity in this regard. There should be a singular vision as far as law and order are concerned. No confusion but an unwavering trust in the statutory systems. 

The top priority for Indian Ulema should be finding a suitable approach to Muslim education, for a large uneducated population. The approach could be a mix of the Aligarh Movement (modernists) and the Deoband School (traditionalists). Both schools have majorly evolved since their political origins. 

The former used to be pro-establishment and the latter used to be anti-establishment. A lot of water has flown since their origins. Both schools of thought on education believe in the concept of the Indian nation-state. And their contribution to India has been legendary. 

Today the approach to Muslim education should be focused on inculcating a scientific temper among the students and not just confining them to religious studies. 

We should learn from history. The price we paid for ignoring Muslim scholars like Al-Kindi, AL-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Sina, who later laid down the foundations for Enlightenment and Renaissance, the movements which brought about revolutions in the Western world. 

Muslims praying at Nizamuddin Auliya's dargah in New Delhi

Further, there is a need to encourage people to respect the systems in place and stop politicization of the religion. We need to be aware of the realities of our time, rather than living in the fantasies of the Caliphate. The Indian Muslim community should not be averse to any one political party. May the best candidate win– should be the guiding principle in our democracy. 

In the contemporary setting, the second most important role of the Indian ulema should be to reconcile the dunyavi (wordly),and deeni (celestial) approach toward the way of life. The approach must be the one which strikes a balance between life and the after-life. There should be equal emphasis on the revelations, and the code of conduct for both stages.

The conduct of a Muslim in life should be based on the moral values of society, empathy for fellow citizens of all religions, social harmony, and reduction of conflicts with fellow citizens. Any inconsistencies which have crept into the discourse due to misinterpretations of the literature should be weeded out.

The third most important priority of the ulema should be the protection of women’s rights. Tamim Ansary, a noted Islamic history scholar in his book Destiny Disrupted writes that during Hazrat Omar’s time, education was compulsory for both boys and girls.

Women worked alongside men; they took part in public life; they attended lectures, delivered sermons, composed poetry, went to war as relief workers, and sometimes even took part in the fighting. Women were appointed as the head of the market in Medina, which was a position of great civic responsibility. 

Teena U. Purohit, a US-based Boston University scholar in her book Sunni Chauvinism and the Roots of Muslim Modernism writes about her research on religious interpretation, cultural context, and the path to progress. 

She states that Muslim modernist thoughts were greatly influenced by the era of colonial domination from 1850 to 1950. Indian ulema grappled with the urgent need to redefine Islam as the global landscape was evolving due to the declining Muslim powers and the spread of European imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. 

Due to a strong dislike of colonialism, Muslim ulema was adamant and refused to change with time as far as education is concerned. They resisted modern education. And today the community is paying the price for this decision. 

A classic example that shows that a large Muslim community is still out of sync with the changing times is the book– Bihishti Zewar. Ashraf Ali Thanvi is a great Indian Islamic scholar, who wrote this book and it became a part and parcel of the trousseau of a Muslim bride, even in rural India. 

A noted scholar Barbara Metcalf translated Thanvi’s work into English, she was appreciative of his thoughts on Islam for the era he was writing, but many Indian Muslim women and scholars are critical of some of his views of putting women into fixed frames of domestic duties only.

Muslims breaking fast during Ramazan at Delhi's Jama Masjid (Pics: Ravi Batra)

Indian ulema must sift through all such outdated literature of the last 90 years. Such archaic views are neither in consonance with the true values of Islam nor with the time that we live in. Which educated Muslim girl would believe in such outdated notions? Efforts are required to phase out such parts of literature, which have adversely conditioned the minds of Muslim households. 

Muslim girls must be encouraged to pursue education, which would help them get employment and fulfill their dreams. With employment, they could even share the burden of the cost of the education of their siblings and medical expenses for their aging parents. 

Rather than living in the past, we need to tell contemporary success stories of Muslim boys and girls. Some of them are doing so well in their lives. The question we must ask ourselves is how many ulemas have projected Dr. A.P.J. Kalam as an ideal hero for Muslim students? Doesn’t he deserve to be a role model for Indian Muslims?

Lastly, the ulema must revive the practice of ijtihad (finding solutions to the problems of the contemporary world through independent reasoning by an expert in Islam). This practice has a lot of scope and if done effectively it could solve major problems of our times. 

Lastly, we need to open our windows to what is happening in the Islamic world. Saudi-backed Muslim World League and Nahdlatul Ulama of Indonesia have begun a major push towards moderate Islam. 

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They are making efforts to build bridges with leaders of world religions in a big way. It is the only way forward, which could reduce the clash of civilizations. Indian ulema must also come forward and focus on whatever is suitable in the Indian setting, this will bring about a positive change. 

(Atir Khan is the editor-in-Chief of Awaz-the Voice)