Firoze Khan, Sanskrit and the Case For Broadening the Mind

The opposition to Firoze Khan’s appointment speaks volumes about the fundamentally one-dimensional view that the right wing has about the manner in which it views identity in its various forms – be it religion, language or culture.

Recently, a controversy broke out over a Muslim who was appointed to teach Sanskrit in Banaras Hindu University (BHU).

Firoze Khan completed his PhD in Sanskrit and happens to come from a family in which most of his brothers and his father have studied Sanskrit. His father makes a living singing devotional songs at fairs and at temples.

Following Khan’s appointment, students from BHU began a protest asking for him to be dismissed because they believe that a Muslim should not be teaching Sanskrit because it is the language of the holy scriptures of Hinduism and therefore can only be taught by a Hindu. On the other hand, the administration and faculty in BHU have thrown their weight behind Firoze Khan but the protest has not abated and neither has the state or central government taken any steps to crack down on the students who are disrupting campus life.

The opposition to Firoze Khan’s appointment speaks volumes about the fundamentally monochromatic, one-dimensional and myopic view that the right wing has about the manner in which it views identity in its various forms, be it religion, language or culture.

For the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological progenitors, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, there can only be one kind of Muslim and one kind of Hindu. Similarly, Sanskrit can only be a language of religion and not of literature and culture. Amongst some Muslims too there is a pre-conception that Arabic is only the language of Islam but of course this highly shortsighted view not only ignores the rich literary tradition of Arabic but also overlooks the various non-Muslim communities whose mother tongue is Arabic.

This restricted understanding of religious identity has less to do with tradition than it does with the manner in which the rise of religious orthodoxy and right-wing nationalism seek to iron out the complex and often ostensibly contradictory identities that every individual has. By externally imposing constraints on who can’t and who can be a Muslim or a Hindu, or for that matter an Indian, these groups seek to construct social homogeneity.

Also watch | Why Can’t a Muslim Teach Sanskrit in BHU?

After all, it is easier to maintain control and exert power through fear and uniformity rather than individuality and diversity. Importantly, orthodoxy here is not contingent on belief, devotion or practice but on the bounds that are imposed in the name of religion and indeed nation.

The perpetual anxiety of both orthodoxy and the right wing is that people will not fit their pre-cast template of what it means to be a Hindu, Muslim or even an Indian.

In other words, individual autonomy and agency are seen as threats to their neatly mapped out ideas of identity. A Hindu who goes to a Dargah to pray or a Muslim who sings songs in praise of Krishna does not only challenge their conception of what it means to be Hindu and Muslim but also threatens their idea of selfhood.

A stamp to commemorate Maulana Hasrat Mohani. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

For instance, Maulana Hasrat Mohani (d. 1951) was a devout Muslim, a murīd or follower of the Firangi Mahal Sufi Pirs who also wrote ghazals in praise of the Hindu god Krishna whom he viewed as a prophet. Apart from this, at various points in his life he was a member of the Congress and the Muslim League and was even a founding member of the Communist Party.

When someone asked him how he could be both a Muslim and a communist, he joked that the communists are stuck at the ‘maqām of lā’ or at the negation with which the Islamic creed La ilāha illallāh (‘There is no god but God’) begins and that eventually they will get past the ‘la’ or the ‘no’ — an allusion to the denial of religion in communist thought — and will make their way to God.

Humour apart, the Maulana’s reply actually contains the key to this dilemma, for he creates the scope for future possibilities by not accepting a bounded idea of a Muslim or for that matter a communist.

However, the understanding of the orthodox scholar or the rightwing politicians for every category, believer/non-believer/Indian/anti-national, has to be closed and narrowly defined rather than capacious and open.

In other words, the politics practiced by such groups and organisations is fundamentally contingent on not only making people fearful about losing or diluting their religious identity but also about perpetuating stereotypes of the ‘other’ so that communities remain separate.

It views people through only one facet of their identity. A Hindu who teaches Arabic or a Muslim who teaches Sanskrit will inevitably complicate the binary understanding of identity that the religious orthodoxy and the right wing thrive on. In fact, the very notion of identity, with its very modern roots in the recognition of citizens by the state, would be anathema to the very tradition that both orthodoxy and the right wing seeks to co-opt.

Some months ago, I was in Kakori Sharif near Lucknow and was wandering around the shrines when my eye fell on one particular gravestone. The beautiful Urdu calligraphy announced that the grave belonged to a ‘Pandit Shafi Alavi.’ I went back to the khanqah to ask the sajjādah-nashīn or Sufi Pir about whose grave this was.

Shah Ainul Haider replied that the person was his uncle and that he had done his PhD in Sanskrit and taught the language at the Sunni Degree College. Throughout his life, he had been known as Pandit Shafi Alavi and so his daughter had decided to have this inscribed on his gravestone.

Also read: #RightSideUp: A Tale of Two Universities, ‘Hindu Guilt’

Photo: Public domain

The very fact that a devout and practicing Muslim had been comfortable with such an appellation throughout his life speaks volumes about his capacious understanding of religion. Furthermore, his daughter’s decision to inscribe the title ‘Pandit’ on his gravestone is testament to the courage of her conviction that a mere appellation did not change the fact that he remained a Muslim.

Similarly, Gopalika Antharjanam from Kerala does not stop being a Brahmin woman simply because she has spent the last 29 years teaching Arabic and indeed has been feted for her mastery of the subject by various Muslim organisations.

Perhaps the most effective way in which people can begin to resist right wing ethno-religious nationalism is by being courageous enough to discard the very stereotypes that are imposed on them.

In other words, the most important step is to refuse to accept their definition of what a Hindu or Muslim should be or indeed should look like.


Firoze Khan, his father and indeed Gopalika Antharjanam represent some examples of this, whereby they break the very moulds that narrow-minded politicians and their supporters wanted them to fit.

There is a well known saying of the Prophet that enjoins Muslims to even travel to China in order to acquire knowledge. The allusion to China not only refers to what was perhaps the most remote geographic location in relation to 7th century Arabia but is also a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that no one community has a monopoly on knowledge.

Indeed the very fact that Sunni and Shia scholars historically used to study in each other’s religious seminaries is further proof of this. Of course, it is another matter that these days both Sunnis and Shias would perhaps even deny that such exchanges took place.

The students protesting against the appointment of Firoze Khan would do well to heed Maulana Zafar Ali Khan’s (d. 1956) advice:

Agar Krishn kī talīm ‘ām hō jāē
To kām fitnagarōñ ka tamām hō jāē

‘If only Krishna’s teachings became widespread
Then the evil of those who sow discord would finish.’

Ali Khan Mahmudabad teaches at Ashoka University and regularly writes for the Urdu, Hindi and English press