Reformist Islamic writer and activist Asghar Ali Engineer, who passed away on May 14, devoted his life to reinterpreting Islam to counter Muslim fundamentalism, strengthen women’s rights and forge communal harmony in India. His writings, invariably based on reinterpretation of Islamic literature from early Islam, are a repository for a new generation of Islamic reformists, who are influenced by democracy and its associated ideas of individual liberty and human rights.
Works of Islamic jurisprudence were written much before the age of democracy, rendering Islamism relevant for modern times. Writing after 9/11, American academic James Q Wilson summed up the wedge between Islam and the democratic age: “When the West reconciled religion and freedom, it did so by making the individual the focus of society, and the price it has paid has been individualism run rampant, in the form of weak marriages, high rates of crime, and alienated personalities. When Islam kept religion at the expense of freedom, it did so by making the individual subordinate to society, and the price it has paid has been autocratic governments, religious intolerance, and little personal freedom.”
Like engineer, Islamic reformists are now breathing in democratic times, inspired essentially by a range of individual rights and political freedoms unleashed by democracy. Symbolically, the democratic age began when America became free in 1776, expelling British colonists and engendering decolonisation which gained momentum after the World War II, leading to freedom for a number of African and Asian nations, including India.
However, it is only in the 1980s, when democracy emerged, in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, as the only legitimate form of government deemed to be in conflict with all other systems. The tide of people’s opinion began turning in favour of democracy with much force after the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and freeing of Central Asian nations, and more so following the 9/11 attacks.
A forceful, though rhetorical, defence of democracy after 9/11 by US President George W Bush, who made it a point to travel to New Delhi in 2006 to stress the message of democracy for Muslims, may have contributed seeds for the Arab Spring. However, the lack of an infrastructure of democratic ideas in the Middle East prevented the Arab Spring from blooming while a strong presence of democratic institutions in India is not only widening the sphere of political liberty for its people but is also seeding a new generation of Islamic reformists and activists. A thriving democracy acts as a bulwark against Islamists: for example, Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan produce extremists, but the same Deobandi seminaries in India do not.
In the history of Islamic reformation in India, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan stands out. After the fall of Mughal rule in 1857, two movements in Islam emerged. One was led by Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi, who established the Darul Uloom Deoband, which has trained hundreds of thousands of orthodox Islamic clerics. The other was led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who founded the Aligarh Muslim University, a centre of modern education. Sir Syed wrote a number of books, magazines and an interpretation of the Koran to stress the need for modernity among Muslims, but he did so in pre-democracy times. And this is the key point: Islamic reformists working in post-independence India are influenced, unlike their counterparts in earlier times, by democracy and its associated freedoms.
In this context, Hamid Dalwai, a Muslim reformer of Maharashtra who died at the young age of 44 in 1977 but his works were recently discovered by historian Ramachandra Guha, stands out as more astute in his thinking than Sir Syed. Dalwai truly represented a democratic age and argued for a uniform civil code as a liberty project for Muslims. He also saw protection of people’s rights in democratic institutions and secularism. Dalwai argued that secularism of Hindus who treat Muslims as a minority encourages the anti-secularism of Muslims; and minorities in a democracy like India have equal rights, not special privileges. His belief that the rights and freedoms of Muslims and non-Muslims alike will flourish in the Indian democracy is actualising.
When compared, India has emerged as the best country for Muslims, offering a range of political freedoms, educational access and economic opportunities not available in other Islamic nations. Indian Muslims experience expanding spheres of democratic freedoms in everyday life, and, just as an example, Muslim actors do not have to change their names to Dilip Kumar, Madhubala and Meena Kumari.
Democracy is also tearing apart prevailing Islamic orthodoxies. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are forced to ponder over the use of referendums and elections, though as a tactic inspired by Egyptian Islamists. With regard to caste, Islam was a total failure in the Indian subcontinent, with Syeds and Khans refusing to marry girls from lower caste Muslims; and in parts of India separate boundaries were marked in graveyards for lower caste Muslims. In fact, even Sufis did not hand over their spiritual orders to those from the lower Muslim castes. Steadily now, the political freedoms guaranteed by Indian democracy are aiding Islamic reformers to challenge obscurant practices and dominant orthodoxies among Muslims.
Notable reformers and activists include Maulana Wahiduddin Khan who has authored scores of books reinterpreting Islam for modern times, Daud Sharifa who thought of India’s first mosque for Muslim women, the brave Shaista Ambar who has challenged clerics publicly, Syeda Saiyidain Hameed who has questioned orthodox interpretations of Islam, Uzma Naheed who works to empower women in Mumbai, and the like. Significantly, their work and activisms are possible in an atmosphere of freedom created by Indian democracy while in neighbouring Pakistan reformists like Javed Ghamidi are forced to leave the country due to Talibanisation. The works of Ambar, Hameed, Naheed and Sharifa denote one thing: India may be witnessing the emergence of a unique brand of Islamic feminism, characterised by attempts to explore the limits of liberty within Islam, as Engineer endeavoured in his life.
Tufail Ahmad is director of South Asia Studies Project at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC.