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India Has a Long and Robust Tradition of Liberal Muslim Movements

Muslims have made contributions in arts, sciences and public life, but as citizens and not specifically as members of a community.

The author’s father Ziaul Hasan (centre) with his friends S.A. Siddiqui (left) and Anwar Ansari in Aligarh Muslim University in the 1940s. Courtesy: Saba Hasan

From our family chronicle, called Bahishtey-Aziz, I know that my ancestors, Sufi itinerants Bandagi Shah Jamal and Bandagi Shah Kamal, came to India in the 16th century and decided to end their journey in Benares (now Varanasi), the most spiritual part of the country, as they saw it. Religion for them was about curiosity, wisdom, travel and, of course, change. The Sufism of dervishes that they brought with them expanded even further with their encounter of the holy river and its music into an other worldly, mystical experience.

This Islam of India is like no other in the world and it led to its own powerful social changes which liberated many people from oppressive social mores. Their simple ascetic lives, their dance in submission to nobody but God and their humanism found followers in many parts of India like UP, Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir. Sufis continue to exert a powerful cultural influence even today, drawing both Hindus and Muslims into their wide chadar of peace and universality, keeping people safe from orthodoxies of Wahabi Islam. In India we all know the names of Nizamuddin Auliya, Kabir, Nanak and Meera, and of the confluence between Sufism and the Bhakti movement, along with the reforms they generated.

Closer in time, in the aftermath of the 1857 revolt, the British took away lands and rights of many powerful families who had supported the revolutionaries. This was also the time when they began to consciously divide people on the basis of religion for better control. Profoundly impacted by their lower status, Muslims responded to the times with extensive reforms in the community, related primarily to literacy and modern education. The thing to note is that a few decades later it was a Deobandi theologist, Maulana Ali Ashraf Thanawi, who introduced the idea of equal education for women so they could read and become aware of their rights given by Islam. Soon after, universities, hostels, publishing houses and journals for women, many led by more urbanised gentry, made an appearance. As this movement grew, the affluent families were the first to question the purdah as the women were now beginning to go out to study and work.

As a result, in my family, I don’t remember my grandmother wearing a burkha and nor did my mother or my aunts; in fact, they were among the first Indian women to get a higher education. Some went abroad for their doctorates. My grandfather was in the administrative service, he read his namaz five times a day and saw that his children grew up to be scientists, doctors and journalists, like my parents, who were also politically committed. His idea of a liberal education included music, so after giving us math problems to solve, nana abba used to tune into his favourite Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and hum along. My introduction to art too came from within the family when I went with my father to the National Gallery, when I was ten years old and he pointed out a Leonardo Da Vinci drawing as his favourite.

This equal education movement spread in UP from Allahabad, Lucknow, Agra to Aligarh where it crystallised under the leadership of Sir Syed Ahmad into the Aligarh Muslim university, then the bastion of liberal Muslims. Both my parents were its alumni in the 1940s and had the distinction of being taught literature by none other than the grand rebel of Indian writing, Ismat Chughtai and history by Mohammad Habib, who had just returned from Oxford University on which AMU was patterned. It also impacted higher education in other cities like Bhopal, Aurangabad and Hyderabad.

On graduating, Abba – my father Ziaul Hasan – was given the title “the devils disciple” from Bernard Shaw’s play, which was clearly an acceptance of his atheism by his contemporaries. His father, my dada jan wanted his sons to join the civil services, but Abba under the influence of ideals of liberty and equality, had other plans. He quietly got off the train to Allahabad where his exam was scheduled and took up a writing job in Bombay in his mentor, Sajjad Zaheer’s new literary and political magazine, Naya Zamana. Zaheer, a Marxist ideologue and a writer had edited a collection of stories in Urdu called Angaarey,which was banned by the British government and it was this that lit the spark for  writers to come together under the progressive banner.

Bombay then was in the thick of the progressive writers’ movement where my father became friends with poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Sardar Jafri and Kaifi Azmi. There were others like Rashida Jahan, Chughtai, Josh Malihabadi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Majaz, Krishan Chander, Premchand, all Urdu writers in the forefront of  the Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Musannifin (Progressive Writers’ Association). This movement questioned relentless social moralising under the garb of tradition and candidly wrote about unspoken aspects like female sexuality, deftly using literary devices to criticise patriarchy and obscurantism in the community. 

For these idealists, India could not stay a moment longer in the exploitative feudal economy and their main objective was its social transformation into an egalitarian society. A natural outcome of this was their joining the Communist Party of India and forming a radical cultural front for it. Their prolific writing influenced people by opening their minds to new social possibilities. They also provided fodder for the even more popular Indian cinema where some of them like Sahir Ludhianvi, created a long legacy of poetry and songs.

Another graduate of Aligarh to join this wave was Habib Tanvir, who came to be known for his Naya Theatre and the Chattisgarh troupe, a man of many talents who cut his teeth on Indian Peoples Theatre Association (IPTA), a cultural wing of the communist party. Their work evolved into the street theatre movement, which is socially committed and is also closely associated with the activist-writer Safdar Hashmi, who was killed by political goons in the early 1980s.

For a more cultivated audience, there grew the extremely well crafted and influential theatre of Ibrahim Alkazi. We who saw his Tughlaq and Andha Yug at the Old Fort in Delhi have not seen anything staged as exquisitely ever again. Being a creative, renaissance man, Alkazi also connected with visual artists like  Husain, Souza and Akbar Padamsee, who later formed their own group known in art as the Progressives.

Soon my parents left Bombay for Kashmir where my mother worked for Kashmir radio and my father got actively involved with land reforms. It is important here to recognise the complimentary roles played by men and women in the evolution of social rights. Through many years of their marriage, my mother was the one with a steady office job, while my father shared equally in looking after my brother and me. That kind of role reversal is unusual not just for Muslims but any community or country as women continue to bear the double burden of earning and looking after families.

A more recent movement for changes in Muslim family law and women’s justice was initiated by an organisation called the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) founded in 2007 by Zakia Soman and Safia Niaz. It is an autonomous, secular, mass-based organisation led by Muslim women which fights for their rights, for secularism, equality and non-violence in accordance with the constitution. They have been working to empower Muslim women by engaging on several platforms – social, political and legal – as well as seeking religious reforms by reinterpreting discriminatory laws. They are facing opposition not only from the conservatives in the community but also from state and central governments, who lean towards the orthodoxy for political mileage.

"Angaarey " text installation using extracts from feminist literature from the subcontinent. © Saba Hasan, 2014

“Angaarey ” text installation using extracts from feminist literature from the subcontinent. © Saba Hasan, 2014

The women of BMMA have been battling against triple talaq and other codes in the family law regarding maintenance upon divorce, child custody and property. They have a wide presence in 13 states and take up issues at the national level, like their demand for the codification of Muslim personal law taking into account rights and principles as given by the constitution. This brassy organisation has been one of the first to release a ‘Not In My Name’ statement to the international community dissociating their faith from terror groups like ISIS. This may not have received much attention in the media but is extremely important as it reflects the psyche of the entire Muslim community and their attitude towards terrorism. They have allied with other women’s groups against patriarchal religious traditions demanding that women be allowed to enter the sanctum areas in the Haji Ali Dargah as well as the Shani Shingnapur Temple, and have successfully set up a Qazi training institute for women to oversee interpretations, all in collaboration with the Deoband Darul Uloom.

The Darul Uloom, which is one of the largest seminaries in the world, has been trying for years to balance orthodox faith with modern values and education. The theological madrasas in the country have been reformed to include English, mathematics, science and computer science. One of its chancellors, Ghulam Ali Ashraf Thanavi, who has an MBA, instated rules focusing primarily on modern education among madrasa-going children and raised money from the community and some NGOs to implement these inclusions. I have donated books and computers to orphanages under this scheme for a simple practical consideration, which is that to get jobs today, its important to have modern education. Azim Premji, the man who brought the computer revolution to India with Wipro, is also the most generous donor in India towards education – and not just for children from his own community but for everyone who can’t afford it. There has been a similar modernisation in education by seminaries who introduced co-education and laboratory sciences in Kerala and in Kashmir, where there was a large population of Muslim children without access to any other schools.

While the orthodox Deoband sometimes issues unnecessary fatwas on Muslim women’s clothing, it also stands steadfastly for community education and is unconditionally opposed to any kind of radicalisation like sending young men across the border for “jihadi” training. With the gau rakshak attacks and growing crimes against Muslims, the imams have unanimously come out with a statement of peaceful reconciliation asking the more tempestuous Muslims to not react militantly and to keep peace between communities. Indian Islam is clearly Sufi, our sense of belonging and our faith in democracy is what makes Indian Muslims immune to extremism today despite constant provocation by Hindu majoritarians.

It is thus insensitive and rather disingenuous of writers like Ramachandran Guha to conclude that there has never been a robust movement of liberalism in the Muslim community while in fact, its quite the reverse. It is as a result of such reforms from within the community that there is a considerable population of hard working Muslims across India who have made unrivalled contributions in art, architecture, literature, music, politics and science. It’s just that we don’t stake claim to our achievements as Muslims, we simply think of ourselves as Indians.

Since the 1990s, with the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Muslims have been experiencing a forced exclusion from the national fabric and are quite unjustly made to face specious accusations of being doctrinal, intransigent and opposed to change. With the current state-supported fascism, not only are Muslims getting cornered into an exasperatingly reductive identity, but many are quickly losing their livelihood and getting evicted from their homes. Meanwhile endless pressing problems related to rising prices, poverty, unemployment, the agrarian crisis, mounting corruption and crime, which concern us all, are sidelined.

The responsibility for these fissures in an otherwise composite culture lies squarely on the shoulders of all the political manipulators who for their electoral benefit and as a distraction from their failures have been deliberately undermining the Muslim community and stoking the fire of Hindu conservatism. Instead of getting blindsided, we should contest these pernicious points of view or one can only wonder in what form yet another trial by fire will be staged, now that some Indians have been ruthlessly marked as the other.

Saba Hasan is an artist and an anthropologist, she works primarily with text, voice and book installations. She was awarded the Raza National Award for Painting, 2005 and the Celeste Contemporary Art Prize, 2015 for her video “la verite/haqeeqat/the truth project “.