The Mystery Of Missing Muslim Female Rulers

A furor greeted Benazir Bhutto when she became Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988. Backed by orthodox theologians, her opponents decried the event as un-Islamic and “against nature,” adding that “no woman had ever governed a Muslim state between 622 and 1988.” To verify the accuracy of this statement, Moroccan author and sociologist Fatima Mernissi consulted the works of explorers, scholars and historians ranging from Ibne Batuta (1304-78) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) to Stanley Lane-Poole (Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1960) and her findings, published in The Forgotten Queens of Islam, tell us that there were at least seventeen Muslim queens between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries.

Mernissi restricts her list to female rulers who met the Muslim criteria of sovereignty—their names were proclaimed in the Friday khutba from mosques and inscribed on the coins struck in their reigns. Relatively well known are two thirteenth century queens of the Mamluk (Turkish slave) dynasty. One, of course, is Razia Sultana of the Delhi Sultanate, an able administrator whose calibre as compared to her three half-brothers was acknowledged by her father when he named her his successor. The other is the sagacious Sultana Shajaratul- Durr of Egypt, who routed the French army during the Crusades and captured King Louis IX.

Coin bearing Razia Sultan’s name [Wikipedia]

However, few of us have heard of the two eleventh century Arab queens who ruled Yemen jointly with their husbands: Asma bint Shihab al-Sulahiyya (described by her contemporaries as one of the most famous and powerful women of her time) and her daughter-in-law, Arwa, both under the title “Syeda al-Hurra”. Nor has muchbeen written about the queens of the Mongol dynasty, which treated its women with a respect that amazed Ibne Batuta. It had no fewer than six queens (1256-1340) reigning over various principalities in present day Iran and Iraq. These were: Kutlugh (also known as Turkan) Khatun—whose reign lasted for twenty-six years—and Padishah Khatun in Kirman; Absh Khatun, whose capital was Shiraz; Dawlat Khatun of Luristan (in Persia); and Sati Bek and Malika Tindu of Iraq.

Subsequently in the Maldives, three Muslim queens succeeded each other during a forty year period (1347-1388). Sultana Khadija’s thirty-three year reign was succeeded by that of Sultana Myriam followed by Sultana Fatima. In the seventeenth century (1641-1699), Atjeh—the fi rst region of Indonesia to have a Muslim kingdom—had four successive queens (Sultanas Tajul Islam, Nurul Alam, Inayat Shah and Kamalat Shah) despite their opponents obtaining a fatwa against them.

Sources other than Mernissi cite a seventh Mongol queen, Sultana Fatima Begum, known to the Russians as Sultana Sayyidovna, of Qasim in Central Asia (1679-1681) and two Muslim queens in sub-Saharan Africa: Qasa, the head wife of Mansa Suleiman of Mali (“his partner in the kingship, after the custom of the blacks. Hername is mentioned with his fromthe pulpit”) and a famous conqueror and warrior-queen, Amina of Zauzau, West Africa.

The total count of female Muslim rulers thus adds up to twenty. So why are most of them missing from our history books, their very existence denied? Diehard orthodoxy opposed many of them in their lifetimes but did this opposition pursue them after their deaths to expunge them from memory?

The opposition to women holding public offi ce ostensibly stems from a single hadith. The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said, “A nation which places its affairs in the hands of a woman shall never prosper.” Theologians differ in their interpretations of this hadith. Some prohibit women from all public duties; some allow them to hold public offi ce, including that of a judge; and a few even acknowledge their right to be heads of state. Others point out that the Prophet (pbuh) made this remark after hearing that the Persians had appointed Chosroe’s daughter as their ruler. (The Prophet (pbuh) had earlier foretold the end of Chosroe’s dynasty after the latter had torn up the letter inviting him to Islam). He was therefore referring specifically to one particular woman, not women in general. In The Veil and the Male Elite, Mernissi questions the reliability of the hadith on the grounds that the narrator, Abu Bakrah, an ex-slave perhaps fearful of jeopardising the freedom and prosperity he enjoyed after converting to Islam, had been anxious to win Ali’s favour after the latter defeated Ayesha at the Battle of the Camel and conveniently remembered the supposed remark twenty-fi ve years after the Prophet’s death. What is more, he had once been fl ogged in Omar’s reign for bearing false testimony.

The Prophet (pbuh) told his followers to reject any saying attributed to him which violated the message of the Quran and this hadith seems to run contrary to the Quranic account of the Queen of Sheba (Surah 27), which nowhere implies that she was forbidden to rule. Moreover, history itself disproves the implications of the hadith. Nations have prospered under certain women rulers—England under Elizabeth I and Victoria; Israel under Golda Meir; India under Indira Gandhi, Russia under Catherine the Great; Spain under Isabella. How can the Prophet (pbuh) have been thought to make a statement that time would refute? Of course there were some awful women rulers, including Muslim queens who were either poor administrators, bad Muslims, or both; but this is just as true of their male counterparts.

And yet the most restrictive interpretation of the hadith is cited by those who subscribe to the view that women should be neither seen nor heard, much less hold public offi ce. During Ziaul Haq’s benighted tenure, a well-known alim even declared that women should avoid answering the telephone because this would violate their purdah. Such people are trapped in attitudes ingrained by centuries of a culturally inculcated misogyny which has transformed the Quranic injunctions regarding respect for and protection of women into a kind of imprisonment and a licence to rule their minds as well as their lives.

Until a few years ago, there was a tradition among some Muslim families to present new brides with a copy of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s Bahishti Zewar (Heavenly Ornaments), a book about Islamic beliefs and rituals which counsels women, among other things, never to step out of their husband’s home even to visit their parents, except to attend their funerals. However, the book does encourage women to be literate. Earlier, only a privileged few had been permitted to learn to read but never to write, just in case—horror of horrors!—they used the skill to write love letters.

Perhaps this is the mindset responsible for making Muslim queens vanish from our history. Mernissi urges women to read and reconstruct their own history in self-defence. “Since our ignorance of the past is being used against us, we must act. Read the past!” The quest—to add “her”-story to “his”-story—further underlines the need for the education of women. Only thus can they “read their past,” learn to believe in themselves, develop their talents and fulfill their God given potential—be it in the home, in the workplace or in public office. The choice should be theirs and theirs alone.

[This article is written by By Raihanaa Hasan and was first published in the magazine Nation And The World September 1, 2009 issue]

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

BHOPAL Gas Tragedy
Fact File: Dec 3, 1984. Some 500,000 people are exposed to poisonous gases in the state capital of Madhya Pradesh, India. Between 5000-8000 people died immediately and thousands over the years from long term illness. More than 100,00 remain chronically ill in Bhopal today. The water and soil of the area is still contaminated.

Where’s the justice for innocents who still suffer?

Ruchika Molestation Case
Fact File: Aug 12, 1990. A promising 14 years old tennis player, Ruchika Girhotra, is molested by the then Director General of Police Shambhu Pratap Singh Rathore in Chandigarh, Haryana. The case drags on as the molestor moves freely. Ruchika on the other hand is expelled from school (maybe because Rathore’s own daughter was Ruchika’s classmate), false cases filed against her father and brother Ashu, the brother goes to the the prison and is tortured, her father is suspended from his job on false charges of corruption, Ashu is released a day after her suicide, the sole witness (Ruchika’s friend Aradhana) gets harassed with threatening calls, false cases filed against Aradhana’s parents, her father too suspended and demoted and eventually given premature retirement.

After 19 years, 40 adjournments, more than 400 hearings, and a promotion for Rathore, the court did find him guilty but could only sentenced him to six months imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1000. Within 10 minutes he got the bail and was smiling. What about the innocent smile that was lost forever?

Babri Masjid Demolition
Fact File: Dec 6, 1992. A mosque in the city Ayodhya of Uttar Pradesh, India, is destroyed by a strong crowd of 150,000 people. The police stood a mute spectator! More than 2000 people die across India in the riots that follow.

The Justice Liberhan Commission set up by the Government of India to investigate the demolition, took 48 extensions and 17 years to submit its report. The report itself has nothing new to offer. What a waste of public money and time.

Godhra Massacre
Fact File: February, 27 2002. 58 Hindu passengers are burnt alive in a coach of Sabarmati Express in Godhra, Gujarat, by a alleged Muslim mob. In the resulting riots more than 1000 (by official estimates and 2000 by independent sources) people, mostly Muslims, are butchered. The violence is covered extensively by the Indian media.

The cases are still being probed. Only a handful of the large numbers of accused have been found guilty and punished.

No wonder there are some 30 million unresolved legal cases in India. The police-politician nexus has to be broken for the court to work freely. And until that happens the unresolved cases would only add up.

Mewat Madrasas Reforming Themselves To Cater To Modern Needs

The last time I visited the Madrasa Arabiya Dar ul-Ulum Subhaniya, on the outskirts of Ferozepur Jhirka town—in 1992—it was housed in an ancient, crumbling mausoleum—said to have once hosted the grave of a Shia nobleman who died some 400 years ago. Today, the madrasa has undergone considerable expansion. The sprawling tomb-structure is cemented and neatly whitewashed, a number of low-lying buildings have come up around it, and the madrasa is now surrounded by a well-trimmed lawn with plenty of trees and flowering plants.

Madrasas teaching modern subjects

The founder of the madrasa, the amiable, 60 year-old Maulana Ilyas Qasmi, a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom at Deoband and currently head of the Haryana wing of the Jamiat ul-Ulema-e Hind, has aged considerably since I last saw him. Yet, he still recognizes me as I step inside, and rushes up to envelop me in a warm embrace. He seats me down on a mattress on the floor and tells me excitedly about the progress his madrasa has made in the years since I last visited it. It now has some 150 students—almost all Meos. In addition to regular Islamic subjects, it now also teaches English, Hindi and Mathematics, till the fifth grade level. Those who teach these subjects are themselves maulvis, though, the Maulana admits, they are not well-qualified for the task. ‘We wish we could appoint better qualified teachers for these subjects, but such teachers demand high salaries, which we cannot afford’, he says.

Maulana Ilyas is a passionate advocate of ‘modern’ education, as well as education for girls. ‘When Islam has forbidden neither of these’, he says, ‘who are some so-called maulvis to forbid them?’ No reliable maulvi has ever issued a fatwa against modern education, he hastens to tell me. All that they are opposed to is blind Westernisation and loss of religious faith, commitment and identity that often characterizes students who study in regular school. Islam and modern education, he says, must go together. The Meos need both, he insists. That is why, he says, madrasas, too, need to reform. ‘Often, madrasa students cannot read English or Hindi, which not only causes many practical problems for them but also causes them to feel inferior, forcing them to depend on others in situations that require knowledge of such languages’, he rues.

Watch: Interview of Madrasas teachers and students

Lamenting what he describes as the rapid ‘Westernisation’ of the Meo youth, particularly, he points out, under the influence of television, the Maulana admits that the process appears unstoppable. ‘When people begin to regard something bad as good, it become very difficult to stop it’, he explains. This is another reason, he says, why madrasas must teach their students—would-be ulema—the basics of ‘modern’ subjects. ‘By familiairising themselves with these subjects, they can understand and speak in the language and idiom of the educated classes and explain Islam to them in an appropriate manner’, he points out.

Govt scheme to modernize madrasas

In order to ‘modernise’ Mewat’s madrasas, the Government has instituted a special scheme, Maulana Ilyas tells me. But, he laments, this have made little progress. He cites reports of endemic corruption as one basic cause for its failure. ‘A number of people set up fake madrasas simply to siphon off funds from the scheme’, he says. And, he adds, government servants administering the scheme were said to demand a hefty ‘cut’ before sanctioning money to madrasas that applied to avail of it. To make matters worse, he says, those administering the scheme were not too serious about them—perhaps they were loathe to see the Meo Muslims progress.

Yet another reason why the government-funded scheme for madrasa ‘modernisation’ found few takers in Mewat was because some larger madrasas, in Mewat and elsewhere, vociferously denounced the scheme as an alleged conspiracy against Islam and the madrasas. Maulana Ilyas dismisses this charge as unfair. ‘Some such larger madrasas simply want to maintain their supposed superior position and keep the smaller madrasas below them. Hence their opposition to the scheme. Some of them even went to the extent of announcing a social boycott of the smaller madrasas that wanted to avail of government funds under the scheme’, he relates.

Like a few other madrasas in Mewat, the Madrasa Arabiya Dar ul-Ulum Subhaniya brushed aside the opposition of some maulvis and decided to avail of the Government’s madrasa ‘modernization’ scheme for a period of two years. Under the scheme, the madrasa received a sum of three thousand rupees per month as salary for one teacher appointed for ‘modern’ subjects for every forty students, plus an annual grant of eight thousand rupees to buy equipment. ‘Contrary to what many maulvis had claimed’, Maulana Ilyas stresses, ‘there was no effort on the part of the Government to interfere in the madrasa’s curriculum and system of functioning through the scheme.’

Maulana Muhammad Husain, Maulana Ilyas’ eldest son who helps him run the madrasa, exemplifies a new sort of ulema that is today fast emerging in Mewat—socially-engaged and supportive of ‘modern’, in addition to religious, education for Meo children, both boys and girls. Two of his four sons study at the English-medium Aravalli Public School near Ferozepur Jhirka, and they also attend religious classes in the madrasa after class hours. ‘They are babus during the day and maulvis at night’, Maulana Husain’s friend Qari Sirajuddin jokes. Maulana Husain has high ambitions for his sons. Strikingly, he does not want them to become maulvis like himself and his father. ‘I hope they will become doctors, engineers, lawyers or government officials. But, at the same time, they must have a good grounding in religious education’, he tells me.

Madrasas turning into regular schools

Another institution that I visit on this trip is the Muhammadiya High School, in the village of Sakras, not far from Ferozepur Jhirka. When I saw it last—in 1992—it was a small madrasa. Now transformed into a regular co-educational school, it caters to almost 400 children, a fourth of who are girls. A little more than a tenth of the students of this Meo-run school are Hindus, the rest being Meos. The school follows the syllabus prescribed by the Haryana Board, to which it is affiliated, but it also has facilities for Urdu, Arabic, and Islamic Studies. Although its medium of instruction is Hindi, it arranges for its senior students to take the examinations conducted by the Jamia Urdu, Aligarh.

At the school I met a maulvi—whose name I forgot to ask—who teaches Islamic Studies to students in the primary and middle classes. He opines that it is imperative that the madrasas modernize by introducing at least a basic modicum of modern subjects in their curriculum. This, he says, is crucial especially since in Mewat the ulema continue have a very strong influence, and if they are seen as supporting modern (in addition to religious) education, it can have a very powerful and positive impact on the wider Meo society, inspiring Meo parents to seek modern, in addition to Islamic, education for their children.

Watch: Meos speak on education

At the same time, the maulvi is critical of some maulvis, associated with the larger madrasas, who are vehemently opposed to any sort of modernization, including the government’s madrasa modernization scheme. ‘They are financially strong, so they feel no need to take advantage of this scheme. They fear that through the scheme the government might interfere in their finances’, he surmises. ‘They continue to spread rumours that the government is engaged in a conspiracy to interfere in the madrasas and, thereby, to destroy them in the name of reforms. In this way, they want to keep modern education out of the madrasas’, he continues. He is clear, though, that madrasas must not balk at teaching their students the basics of ‘modern’ subjects—with or without the financial assistance of the government—because, otherwise, he warns ‘madrasas will find themselves anachronistic, being unable to keep up with the times.’ ‘Madrasa students who don’t know a word of Hindi or English feel terribly ashamed when they have to seek the help of others for even such small matters as filing in railway reservation forms or for writing an address on a letter. Being forced to be helpless in such matters is quite contrary to the stature that one expects of the ulema’, he bemoans.

Another man I meet at the school is 68-year old Maulana Kamaluddin Nadwi, a Meo graduate of the renowned Nadwat ul-Ulema madrasa in Lucknow. Uncle of the director of the school, Abdul Ghaffar, he is, in some sense, the main inspiration behind it. ‘Over time’, he tells me, ‘many Meo ulema have changed their position on modern education. Only a few of them—maybe just a fifth—remain somewhat opposed to it in its present form. They fear that the sort of education that is imparted in general schools will impact negatively on the religious identity and commitment of Meo children. At the same time, they realize that the demand for modern education is immense. That is why they have been forced to modify their views.’

Maulana Nadwi comes across as a passionate advocate of what he calls ‘a balanced and holistic Islamic concept of education’, combining both modern as well as Islamic subjects. He does not conceal his differences with those maulvis, such as some very staunch activists of the Tablighi Jamaat, which still remains strong in Mewat, who argue that modern education is opposed to Islam, a claim, he argues, that they assert simply to promote their own vested interests that depend on keeping people ignorant. He recites an Urdu couplet to stress his point:

Mudda tera agar duniya mai hai talim-e deen

Tark-e duniya qaum ko na sikhlana kabhee

(‘If you want to promote religious education in the world, do not teach the community to renounce the world’)

It is not simply out of practical considerations that Maulana Nadwi argues for a healthy mix of both ‘modern’ and Islamic subjects in the madrasas. Rather, he says, his appeal is based on his understanding of Islam, which, he says, countenances no division between religion and the ‘this-worldly’, unlike Christianity. ‘Muslims pray to God for success in both this world and in the life after death’, he reminds me, ‘so how can we, especially our ulema, ignore knowledge of this world?’ ‘The Quran refers to those who have truly submitted to God as the best community, which has been created for the welfare of people’, he poignantly asks, ‘but what welfare can we present-day Muslims provide others when we ourselves have no knowledge of the present world?’

Maulana Nadwi passionately argues the case for Meo girls’ education, lamenting that the Meos have one of the lowest rates of literacy among all the various communities that inhabit India. ‘Islam insists that education is a duty binding on all Muslims, men as well as women’, he says, ‘and hence those who oppose girls’ education, ironically in the name of Islam, adopt a completely anti-Islamic stance.’ In sharp contrast to most other Mewati maulvis, Maulana Nadwi argues that Islam does not prohibit Muslim women from seeking suitable employment outside their homes, if the need so arises, or from playing roles in the public sphere. ‘While abiding by the rules of Islamic decorum, Muslim women must participate in public activities and take up suitable careers. In this way, they can have a salutary impact on people of other faiths who have negative views about Islam, based on serious misunderstandings and on wrong interpretations of the faith on the part of many Muslims themselves’, he stresses.

The winds of change blowing across Mewat have not left even traditional madrasas unaffected. Many of these have now included a basic course in ‘modern’ subjects while continuing to focus mainly on traditional Islamic learning. One such madrasa is the all-girls’ Madrasat ul-Banat Khadjiat ul-Kubra at Patparbas, near the town of Nagina. Established in 1994 by Maulana Syed Muhammad Sulaiman, it is one of Mewat’s only two girls’ residential madrasas. Associated with the Deobandi school, the syllabus it follows is ‘traditional’. Texts penned by numerous Deobandi elders specifically for women, most notably Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi’s Bahishti Zevar and Bahishti Sumar, form the core of the madrasa’s five-year maulviyat course, after which students are encouraged to shift to the Jamiat us-Salehat, a large girls’ madrasa in Malegaon, Maharashtra, to train for an additional three years in order to become full-fledged religious scholars or alimas. Presently, some sixty Meo girls, aged between six and fourteen, study and stay at the madrasa. Education is free, but a monthly fee of three hundred rupees is charged for boarding and lodging, but only from those girls whose parents can afford it.

In addition to the core religious or traditional subjects, students at the madrasa now also learn basic English, Hindi and Mathematics, besides practical skills such as tailoring, embroidery, cooking and first-aid. Says Maulana Sulaiman, ‘The Prophet made education a duty for all Muslims, including women. It is as important as food is. The real ulema have never opposed girls’ education or modern education, unlike what is often alleged. Instead, what they are against is immorality, un-necessary intermingling of the sexes, and licentiousness. Otherwise, they have no problem with them.’

That statement I am to hear from almost every Meo maulvi I meet on this trip—a clear indicator of the veritable educational revolution underway quite unnoticed in Mewat today.

(Photos and interviews taken by Mumtaz Alam Falahi of

Is Music Prohibited In Islam ?

The other day I read an article in Friday edition of an Urdu paper which quoted few ahadith (Prophet’s sayings) that music is strictly prohibited in Islam and that those Muslims who burn musical instruments Allah will send them to paradise. Many non-Muslims also ask this questions frequently why Islam is opposed to music? Aurangzeb is also said to have strictly prohibited music.

Is music really prohibited? My studies show it is not prohibited per se. The Qur’an denounces what it calls lahw wa la’b (i.e. fun and play and there was background to it. They Arabs in pre-Islamic times had no serious religious faith and used to indulge in drinking and singing and dancing as we often witness in our societies also. Islam, wanted to engage people in serious activities of reforming social evils and make them obedient to Allah thereby becoming good, just and compassionate human beings undertaking fight against all prevailing social evils. For such way of life naturally lahw wa la’b was serious obstacle and hence the Qur’an warned people against that.

However, many Muslims could not distinguish between the two and declared music prohibited whatever its form or context. While Ulama denounced music the Sufi saints generally approved of it and distinguishing between lahw wa la’band sheer fun they allowed music as a tool to God-realization as music could induce a sort of ecstasy which in turn helped God-realization. Thus sama’ which literally means listening of music was practiced by sufi saints.

It was for sama’ that qawwali was invented, as far as my knowledge goes, by Khusro, the celebrated disciple of Nizamuddin Awliya who used to have sama’ mehfil (i.e. congregation for devotional music). The Ulama who were jealous of Nizamuddin Awliya’s popularity, issued a fatwa (religious edict) against him for attending sama’ mehfil and the Sultan asked him to come to his court and defend himself. He went to the Sultan’s court (otherwise he never paid court to any sultan) and defended himself by reciting certain ahadith and came away. Maulana Rum had gone a step further and even resorted to dancing to induce such divine ecstacy and his followers regularly resort to dancing and are known as whirling dervishes.

It was because of such controversies created by the Ulama that an eminent sufi and scholar like Ghazzali wrote an epistle on Status of Music in Islam – Discipline and Rules of Music and Ecstacy. It is worth reading for all those who want to understand whether Islam prohibits music or not or if prohibits, what kind of music it prohibits.

Al-Ghazzali begins his Risala on music with these words, “Know this my dear about the fact and situation of man that there is a secret of God which is hidden in the human heart, which is similar to the one that is between iron and stone. Just as fire emits when iron strikes stone and sets forest on fire, a movement occurs in the human heart when it hears good and rhythmical sounds. And unconsciously a new situation comes into existence in the heart.”

He further says “The upper world of beauty and grace and the fundamental of beauty and grace is due proportion. And, whatever is proportionate is the manifestation of the beauty of that upper world. The beauty and proportion that we see in this world is the product of the beauty and grace of the upper world. Therefore, good, rhythmical and proportionate sound has a similarity with some of the wonders of the upper world. And it provides new informations in the heart in the form of a movement and eagerness.”

And further on Ghazzali says, “Whoever’s heart is filled with the fire of the eagerness of God, music becomes necessary for him, so that the fire may be brighter. The same music becomes haram (prohibited) and poisonous for a man, whose heart is full of the love of wrongful matters.”

What is this wrongful matter, Ghazzali refers to? It is lust, fun and music meant for worldly pleasure like the ones youngsters indulge in after drinking in clubs and such other institutions. Of course the Indian Classical music does not fall in this category and it is great art and discipline. Even qawwali and ghazal singing is based on Indian classical music or for that matter western classical symphonies are well cultivated art representing best in human beauty and grace.

Of course Ghazzali does not base his epistle only on such arguments but also on ahadith which tell us how the Prophet (PBUH) himself used to listen to music along with A’isha, his beloved wife. However, for want of space we cannot dwell on this. We will discuss that in other article insha Allah.

Mewat Witnessing A Great Educational Revolution

Lying to the immediate south of Delhi, straddling the rocky outcrops of the Aravalli range, is the region known as Mewat, named after the Meo Muslims, the principal community living in the area. Mewat covers large parts of the Gurgaon and Faridabad districts in Haryana and Alwar and Bharatpur in Rajasthan. Recently, a separate district was carved out of the Meo-dominated parts of Haryana and also given the name of ‘Mewat’.

Two decades ago I used to regularly visit Mewat—for my Ph.D. dissertation, which was about the history of the global Islamic revivalist Tablighi Jamaat, now the world’s largest such movement, which had its roots in the humble hamlets of Mewat in the 1920s. It was the Tablighi Jamaat that put Mewat on the map of the world. Some months ago, I returned to Mewat, after a gap of fifteen years, curious to learn how much, if at all, the region had changed in this period.

Despite its proximity to Delhi, Gurgaon and Jaipur, Mewat is one of the most impoverished regions in northern India. When I did fieldwork in the region in the 1990s, the literacy rate among the Meos, more than a million-strong community, was estimated at less than 10 per cent, and that of Meo females at lower than 5 per cent. This was attributed to extreme poverty (most Meos being small peasants) as well as the influence of the ultra-conservative Tablighi Jamaat, which was seen as being opposed to education imparted in regular schools, particularly for girls, believing that this would lead the Meos astray from Islam.

Two decades later, the Mewat is still characterized by endemic poverty. The villages and towns I visited this time seem to have hardly changed in terms of looks since I saw them last. But for a couple of recently-constructed large, brightly-painted mansions and a few new shops (only a few of which were Meo-owned), Nuh and Ferozepur-Jhirka, the two largest towns in Mewat, seemed to be no different from what I remembered of them from my earlier visits. In fact, they only seemed to have become even more filthy and chaotic. The villages I travelled to seemed to have remained frozen in time—the same squalid mud huts, the same visible signs of neglect by the state, the same scene of Meo women labouring in the fields while their menfolk squatted on cots sunning themselves or sucking away at their hukkahs at roadside eateries. But one change struck me forcefully throughout my trip: a distinct thirst on the part of many younger Meos for ‘modern’ education—nothing short of a revolution in terms of demands, hopes, and expectations.

Meos breaking shackles to get education

This was quite in contrast to what I had witnessed on my first visit to Mewat, in the late 1980s, when there was not a single Meo-run school, when there were hardly a dozen or so Meo girls in government-run schools throughout the region, and when many local ulema or Muslim clerics, mostly affiliated to the Tablighi Jamaat, openly condemned ‘modern’ schools as dens of irreligiousness and licentiousness, insisting that the Meos should send their children only to madrasas instead. Today, however, literally dozens of ‘modern’ schools run by Meos have mushroomed all over Mewat; girls are enrolling in these and in government-run schools in rapidly increasing numbers; many ulema are in the forefront of promoting ‘modern’, in addition to religious, education among the Meos; and scores of madrasas have begun teaching English and Hindi, with some of them having actually transformed themselves into regular schools.

Located on the outskirts of Ferozepur Jhirka town is the sprawling 15-acre campus of the recently-established English-medium Aravalli Public School, the largest Meo-run school in Mewat. Founded by a retired Meo engineer, Muhammad Israil, this residential school has some 600 students on its rolls, 60% of whom are Meos, and roughly 10% Muslims from other parts of India, the rest being from other religious communities. 60 of the school’s 70 girl students are Meos. The costs of studying here are exorbitant by average Meo standards, but tuition fees are waved for girls in order to encourage more Meo girls, whose overall literacy rate is less than 15%, to enroll. The schools’ principal is a Hindu. Most teachers are non-Meos, including Muslims from other parts of India as well as non-Muslims from Mewat.

The school’s well-maintained campus is lined with fine buildings built around a vast playing field. The swank technical training institute was built with aid from the Japanese Embassy, so I am informed by a student who takes me around, and the girls’ hostel building that is still under construction is being financed by the Islamic Development Bank.

It is late in the afternoon, and the students pour out of their hostels and onto the playing field, forming teams to play football and cricket. They are dressed in jeans or shorts, and brightly-coloured T-shirts or jackets and sneakers. None of them sports the almost mandatory Tablighi-style beard that almost every Meo male in their fathers’ generation does. These students are nearly all Meos—I can hardly believe that at first, for hardly any Meo boys dressed like this when I last visited the area. A dozen girls, Meos all, take a sprint around the playing field, brandishing their badminton rackets. Needless to say, that would have been considered sheer anathema two decades ago.

I stare, dumbstruck, at the students, stunned at what I see before me. When I first visited Mewat, the parents of most of these students would almost all have been un-educated peasants—their fathers dressed in long kurtas, tahmats and ponderous turbans, their mothers, wholly illiterate, kept carefully cloistered in their homes when they were not compelled to work in the fields.

Watch: Interview of Mewat students

That a major section of Meo youths are today defying deep-rooted traditions by clamoring for ‘modern’ education is undeniable, and signs of this are today visible all over. I am not sure if this is an entirely positive development, though. Need ‘modernisation’ necessarily be equated with ‘Westernisation’? Does it have to also necessarily imply ‘secularisation’, in the sense of focusing wholly on worldly knowledge and ‘success’, consequently trivializing religion and moral values? These crucial questions are being raised by many Meos themselves, who fear that the irrepressible desire on the part of Meo youths for ‘modern’ education might seriously erode traditional, religious values and promote crass consumerism. This is summed up in a complaint of a maulvi attached to a Deobandi madrasa located adjacent to the Aravalli Public School—‘The school has no facility for teaching Islamic Studies. All that they are taught is about this world (duniya)—how to gather more information and degrees so that they can get highly-paid jobs and lead a life of ease and comfort.’

Schools imparting religious and secular education

Devising an educational system that balances the needs of the duniya and the deen or religion has been a longstanding concern for Muslim educationists. When I first visited Mewat, I came across almost ulema who were supportive of, leave alone actively engaged in, promoting ‘modern’ or ‘secular’, in addition to religious, education. In contrast, on this trip, I met with numerous maulvis, all graduates of what are commonly considered to be ‘orthodox’ madrasas, who have set up their own schools that impart a healthy mix of both sorts of learning.

Watch: Interview of Qari Sirajuddin of Al-Falah Model School

One of these ulema is an old friend of mine, 33 year-old Qari Sirajuddin of Bhadas village near the town of Nuh. The last time I met him was when he was 18 years old. He had just completed his religious education at the Jamia Sanabil, an Ahl-e Hadith madrasa in Delhi, and had returned to his village, where he had started a small maktab in a two-room tenement to provide basic Islamic education to girls. Today, what started off as the Madrasat ul-Banat Ayesha Siddiqa is now the Al-Falah Model Senior Secondary School. Affiliated to the Haryana Educational Board, it provides education till the twelfth standard. It has almost 700 students on its rolls, of whom almost a hundred are non-Muslims. Girl students number some 125, of whom 25 are Hindus, and the rest Meo Muslims. The school supplements the government-approved syllabus for modern subjects with compulsory Islamic Studies, Urdu and Arabic for Muslim students and Sanskrit, for Hindu students.

What, I ask Qari Sirajuddin, made him transform what began as a girls’ madrasa into a co-educational secondary school? ‘There are scores of madrasas in Mewat’, he answers, ‘but what we lack are sufficient general schools, for which there is now increasing demand’. Further, he adds, ‘I did not want to keep depending on people for donations (chanda), which I would have had to had I continued to run it as a madrasa. As a school it can generate funds for itself through the fees that it charges’.

Several other small madrasas across Mewat might, too, like to make the shift and become regular schools, albeit with provision for Islamic education for their Muslim students, Qari Sirajuddin tells me. However, a major hurdle in this regard are the government’s stringent norms for providing recognition to private schools that most such madrasas fail to meet. As per the existing rules, to qualify for official recognition an institution must possess a basic minimum plot of land (half acre for primary schools, one and a half acres for middle schools and two acres for high schools)—which effectively rules out most madrasas. Likewise, an institution must possess a certain number of rooms of a particular size, a library with a basic specified number of books and so on, which many smaller madrasas, that run small budgets based on donations, simply cannot afford. Were the government to lower these requirements in the case of madrasas, Qari Sirajuddin suggests, several small madrasas in Mewat might well transform themselves into regular schools. ‘That’, he says, ‘would be a much less expensive and controversy-free way to modernize madrasas.’

Qari Sirajuddin’s own family, whom he introduces me to over a hearty meal at his home, exemplifies the rapid transformation that the Meos are today undergoing in terms of their approach to education. Although himself a madrasa graduate, none of his children is training to become a traditional alim or Islamic scholar. The first two of his six children, including one girl, study in modern, privately-run ‘public’ schools, and the rest in his own school. His brother, also a graduate of a traditional Ahl-e Hadith madrasa (the Madrasa Riyaz ul-Ulum, Delhi) has just finished a degree in Social Work from the Jamia Millia Islamia and hopes to join the civil services.

His support for ‘modern’, in addition to religious, education, Qari Sirajuddin assures me, is something that he shares with increasing numbers of ulema today—not just in Mewat, but across other parts of India, too. ‘Even some very conservative Deobandi Meo ulema, who traditionally frowned on modern schools, have opened such institutions, fearful that otherwise Muslim children would study in non-Muslim schools, because of which they might, as they see it, go astray’, he tells me. Madrasas throughout Mewat, he says, have now introduced basic English, Hindi and Mathematics in their curriculum, mainly because they realize that this is what parents of most Meo children now also want. At the same time, he laments, few of these madrasas take the teaching of these subjects seriously. ‘Some of them claim to be teaching English and other such subjects simply to keep the mouths of their critics shut and to stave off criticism that they are not giving their students a well-rounded education’, he says. ‘The managers of most madrasas do not know English or other modern subjects themselves, and so are not in a position to prescribe a proper syllabus for these subjects and to supervise the teachers they appoint for teaching them.’ Many of them also feel, Qari Sirajuddin goes on, that if they were to deviate from the traditional Deobandi-style curriculum by giving more than just a basic attention to modern subjects they would be criticized by their religious ‘elders’. Typically, he says, the staff they employ for teaching these subjects are simple high school graduates, with no training at all, and with a very poor command of these subjects.

Be that as it may, the very fact that Mewat’s madrasas, once known for their visceral opposition to what they saw as the baneful influence of ‘Western-style’ education imparted in schools, are increasingly willing to incorporate these ‘Western’ subjects into their curriculum is ample proof, Qari Sirajuddin assures me, of the veritable revolution in the demands and expectations of vast numbers of Meo parents as regards the education of their children.

Qari Sirajuddin can be contacted on 09813790027 or at

(Photos and interviews taken by Mumtaz Alam Falahi of

The Annual Of Urdu Studies: Urdu Scholarship In English Language

Urdu scholarly journal seeks immediate help to continue publishing

News of Urdu’s demise has been written many times. But Urdu has continued to grow at steady pace because of a few dedicated souls, one of them being Prof. Muhammad Umar Memon. He is the editor and publisher of the Annual of Urdu Studies, the only scholarly journal about Urdu in English language.

The Annual of Urdu Studies (AUS) was started in 1980 by Prof. C. M. Naim of the University of Chicago, who published it from 1981 to 1990. Three years later, Prof. Memon at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, took over the responsibility of this journal. He has published this journal without a break since 1993. It is an annual publication and has so far published 24 issues.

Video review of the AUS

The importance of this journal can be gauged from the fact that many eminent writers and scholars have contributed to it, writers like Ralph Russsell, David Matthews, Mushirul Hasan, Alok Rai, Muhammad Hasan Askari, Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, and Agha Shahid Ali among others. About 50 international universities representing 13 countries are its subscribers. It is indexed by many journal databases and therefore its articles are accessible and available to researchers interested in Urdu language and Urdu literary culture of South Asia.

From its inception the journal has been priced so that it is affordable to everyone. In 29 years, when the price of everything else has gone up many fold, the Annual still sells at its original price of $18, plus postage=$25 (for individual subscription), by far the cheapest scholarly journal available. Tastefully published on expensive paper, it is a high quality publication with equally high quality content. In any of its issue you will find scholarly articles about various aspects of Urdu literature, selected Urdu prose and poetry translated especially for the journal. The journal also has a section of selected Urdu works published in Urdu text. All in all, each issue is a collector’s edition and adds to the richness of any library.

Considering that a vast number of people interested in Urdu language live in South Asia and do not have access to libraries or are unable to take out a subscription, the journal has maintained a website since 2001. The current as well as all the 23 back issues of the journal are available at the website for free download; this has increased the usability and accessibility of the journal. But it has also meant that many libraries now prefer to get the journal for free online rather than pay for the printed copy. The AUS has lost many subscriptions since launching the website.

Funding is an important consideration for the continued existence of a scholarly enterprise. The AUS was never run as a business. It also depended on financial support. Since moving to Madison, Wisconsin, the AUS has been partially funded by American Institute of Pakistan Studies (AIPS). It would appear that the AIPS has been trying to stop the funding in the recent years; in fact a committee was setup in 2008 to report to AIPS about whether they should continue their partial funding to the AUS. The committee of Elena Bashir, Jennifer Cole, and Frances Pritchett looked into all aspects of the journal and recommended continuation of funding. But for some reason the AIPS has now acted against the recommendations of its own committee and decided to terminate its full funding in June 2010, offering instead a miniscule amount that will effectively kill this valuable publication.

Prof. Umar Memon

All those who are familiar with this journal will agree that it should not cease publication. Prof. Memon has sent a letter of appeal to supporters around the world for financial help. Support has come from different corners of the world but still not enough and not at the level that will ensure the continued survival of this important journal.

An urgent and big effort is needed to save this journal and Urdu. As the committee wrote in its report, “given the inroads that English is making in South Asia, the future of Urdu depends partly on people around the world taking an interest in it, beyond the narrow scholarly community.” The Annual of Urdu Studies is serving an important need. The AUS is run not as a journal but as a mission by Prof. Memon and Assistant Editor Jane A. Shum, and their important work needs to be supported by people who claim to love Urdu.

Make your contribution/donation by check payable to

The University of Wisconsin / Board of Regents

and mail it to:

Muhammad Umar Memon

Professor Emeritus

Dept. of Languages & Cultures of Asia

University of Wisconsin

1220 Linden Drive

Madison, Wisconsin 53706

(Please Note: The contribution of U.S. donors will be tax deductible. In December such donors will receive a letter of thanks acknowledging their contribution to file with their income tax papers. The University’s Tax ID, in case it is needed, is: EIN 39-1805963.)


Kashif-ul-Huda is a subscriber of the journal and has also contributed one article.

Between ‘Minorityism’ and Minority Rights: Analysis of post-Sachar strategies

By Tanweer Fazal,

Minority Rights theorists have drawn our attention towards essentially cultural rights of ethnically differentiated minority groups living within the precincts of the ‘nation-state’. Perforce, culture remains the site of contestation with groups vying for recognition, essentially, concession from the ‘national culture’. In India, far from ensuring equity and equal citizenship to its vulnerable minorities, such a conceptualisation centred on the discourse of cultural rights and autonomy has only allowed successive regimes to dodge the agenda of empowerment.

To all intents and purposes, such state practices border on what can be termed, ‘minorityism’. Different from the right wing invocation of minorityism as essentially ‘appeasement’, the term is used here to refer to the secular state’s refrain from making any committed advance towards minority empowerment, its flirtations with culturalisms of various kinds while in effect, shying away from issues of material progress, of distributive justice, of participation and share in national wealth. State policies are thus oriented more towards disregarding the instrumentality of minority identities. However, intrinsic to ‘minorityism’ is also the occasional showers of sops that make no remarkable impact on the living conditions of the beneficiaries.

In this perspective ‘minorityism’ of the state implies, privileging questions of culture and identity over and above everyday issues of survival. It thus seeks succour in the reification of communities and groups considered outside the national mainstream. Minorityism is inherent when the democratic state, instead of deepening citizenship and aiding the emergence of sovereign and self-legislating individuals from among minority groups, negotiates and speaks through deliberately created and pampered ‘cultural spokesmen’ who thrive on perpetuating cultural boundaries and claiming to be the sole and authentic interlocutors of community consciousness

.The statecraft informed by minorityism consciously ignores internal differentiation and persisting hierarchies within minority cultures. In the Indian case, for example, caste, class or gender issues are often obfuscated while engaging with the community as a monolith. Consequently, the democratic state betrays its moral obligation of unleashing the process of democratization and addressing the concerns of ‘minorities within minority’.

The Sachar Committee, with its emphasis on issues of equity, marked a clear departure from such minortyism. Three years on, after the Report was submitted, the state seems to have reverted to ‘minorityism’ of the past in its implementation of the Report’s recommendations.

The constitution of the Sachar Committee to study specifically the Muslims of the country itself was a welcome rupture from past practices most of which (such as PM’s 15-Point Programme) had remained half-hearted attempts that only served to conceal the social reality behind the mask of a generic term, ‘minority’. This euphemism has often led to a mismatch between scheme outlays, target groups and actual beneficiaries. This is notwithstanding the fact that the specificity of the Muslim case, as demonstrated by the Report, necessitates added attention. In 2001, Muslims constituted 13.4% of the country’s population and more than 70% of its minority population, but in terms of human development indicators they lagged behind all other religious communities of the country; their literacy rate being the lowest at 59.1 when compared to Christians (80.3), Sikhs (69.4), Buddhists (72.7) and Jains (94.1). This seems to have affected their work participation rate too which at 47.4 was the poorest when contrasted with the national average or the figures returned by other communities.

Despite the Committee’s insistence, the follow up action that the UPA claims to have undertaken suffers from anomalies of the past. The specificity of the Muslim case continues to be obfuscated with the usage, minority. A case in point is UPA’s flagship scheme, Multi-Sectoral Development Programme (MSDP) for 90 minority concentrated districts in the country through which the government promises to address much of the infrastructural deficits faced by Muslims. One, the definitional ambiguity has only led to its dilution. Backward districts with minority share between 20 to 50% have been identified; as a result, the scheme would reach out to only 30% of the Muslim population of the country, the bulk of the Muslim population remaining outside its purview. Further, the acceptance of a district-wise approach rather than minority-concentrated cluster approach negates the possibility of the scheme actually meeting the needs of the target group. The disempowered Muslim community within such identified districts would scarcely muster enough influence to ensure resource allocation in localities and villages of their residence. Till date only 47 districts have been declared to be covered by the scheme.

Critical to the Committee’s portrayal of reality has been the comprehension of religious communities as cognitive categories across which statistical models or demographic comparisons could be made. In this view, religious communities are not merely bearers of distinct cultural identity but also constitute significant variables for development studies, thus the term ‘socio-religious categories (SRCs). Till 2004, one of the reasons why the Census of India desisted from reporting socio-economic data disaggregated along religious groups was on grounds that religion did not comprise a constitutional category, particularly for affirmative action. So while population data could be gathered or mysteriously religion specific fertility data could be published, the same about work participation, economic activity, employment, literacy etc were denied. In fact, one of the major roadblocks that the Committee had faced during the process of assessing Muslim share in public employment or their participation in beneficiary oriented schemes was the conspiratorial refrain from government offices and establishments of the unavailability of data disaggregated along religious communities. The reasons cited being far and wide. The army, suspected to be a major defaulter in accommodating Muslims, refused to provide such data citing national interest and security concerns. Muslim representation in the higher rungs of the judiciary was also kept a secret as its revelation, it was argued, would sully its image. Many state governments, including those run by ‘secular parties’ declined to provide information regarding percentage of Muslim prisoners taking refuge in the pretext of ‘sensitivity’.

The Committee, therefore, strongly recommended the creation and maintenance of a National Data Bank (NDB) that, it was hoped, would serve both as a data source, and more importantly, as a ledger to ensure adequate share to various socio-religious categories. The NDB, in its view, was to be an autonomous body with considerable authority that would make it obligatory on the part of ministries and departments of both central and state governments to provide relevant information on employment, participation in schemes, credit flows and other indicators of human development. Far from it, the government’s response is to kill the spirit behind the idea and reduce it to a mere statistical exercise that would base itself mainly on the sample surveys of NSSO. Muslim representation in various government departments, ministries, public and private sectors, host of beneficiary oriented schemes, bank credit that the Committee expected to be maintained in the NDB continue to remain outside its scope.

The Committee displayed extreme caution by accepting the complex nature of ‘Indian socio-economic fabric’ that is constituted apart from religion, by caste, economic, regional, linguistic, gender and other differentials. The SRCs, therefore are not assumed to be homogenous collectivities but driven by caste, class or regional variations. At the outset, the Report had cautioned against the tendency to stereotype Muslims as a monolith and acknowledged the presence of entrenched social and economic cleavages within the community. It thus argued for a multi-pronged strategy and careful selection of the target groups even among Muslims. For example, the presence of status differentiation along caste lines—high caste ashrafs, the clean occupational castes belonging to the ajlaf category and also the arzals, the ‘unclean’ ones—find mentioned. The recognition of Arzals, hitherto denied, strengthens the case of Dalit Muslims for their inclusion in the list of Scheduled Castes. In this light, the Committee desisted from recommending blanket reservation for all Muslims; while making a strong case for the creation of a separate provision for the Arzals, the lowest of the lot. By making no commitment towards amending the discriminatory provisions of Article 341, the UPA seems to have succumbed to the interests of Muslim ‘cultural spokesmen’ on the one hand and the Hindu right wing on the other, both of whom are one in denying the dalit Muslims their due.

Retrospectively, the Committee’s approach seems to have been aimed towards demystifying the ‘Muslim question’ so far confounded by misplaced notions of a ‘pampered minority’—recipient of disproportionate allocation of resources and political sops on the basis of its sheer electoral strength. The right wing discourse of Muslim appeasement that for a period tended to capture the national commonsense was put to rest forever by quantifying Muslim marginality that impacts almost all aspects of their life—education, employment, health, access to bank credit or infrastructure—almost parallel to the dalit situation in the country. Acknowledging the widespread perception of discrimination that existed among minorities, and in this case, among Muslims of India, the Committee felt the need for an adequate mechanism that would ‘give full satisfaction to the minorities that any denial of equal opportunities or bias or discrimination in dealing with them,…will immediately be attended to and redress given’. It recommended the institution of an Equal Opportunity Commission to ‘look into the grievances of the deprived groups’. Citing the example of UK’s Race Relation Act, 1976, the Committee expressed the hope that such a tool would serve to reassure the minorities that any unfair act against them would invite the ‘vigilance of the law’. Three years down the line, while the said Commission is still to see the light of the day, in the deliberations that have followed, its scope already seems to have been substantially watered down. The Expert Group constituted to examine its viability, in a recently submitted report, emphasised that the Commission should ‘focus on advisory, advocacy and auditing functions rather than grievance redressal’ with no penal powers that could be exercised against the offenders. In this light, the Commission, in all probability, would be another ineffectual body on the familiar lines of National Human Rights Commission or National Minorities Commission.

The Sachar report demolished the right wing discourse that had thrived on perpetuating stereotypes regarding high Muslim fertility, reluctance towards contraceptive usage, propensity towards Madarsas etc. Analysis of population figures revealed a constant decline in Muslim fertility and growing tendency among Muslims to adopt contraceptive usage. Findings revealed that Madarsas cater to only 3-4% of the Muslim children in the school going age. That this too was an imposed choice as it corresponded largely to the absence of institutions of formal and modern education in their area. That economic disparity and lack of infrastructure were the main causes for educational backwardness could be established by the fact that there was very high enrolment rate among Muslim children but a significantly low level of retention.

However, culturological minorityism continues to inform the state’s approach towards attending to the educational needs of the community. Intervention in and through the Madarsas remains its key educational strategy for the community. In the process it allows for the perpetuation of myths regarding Muslim preference for religious instruction; yet the allocation betrays sincerity of purpose. The ill-conceived and meagrely funded Madarsa Modernisation Scheme (106 crores between 2002-2006 to cover nearly 5000 Madarsas) is to be rechristened as ‘Quality Improvement in Madarsa Education’. In the absence of any pledge for enhanced funding or programmatic change, the scheme remains literally ‘old wine in new bottle’ and therefore condemned to failure. In the year 2008-09, as per the report of Ministry of Minority Affairs, a paltry sum of Rs. 49.50 crore was allocated under the scheme to cover 14539 Madarsa teachers across 14 states. Even if we ignore the overhead costs involved, this comes to an average of barely Rs. 2800 per teacher that could have gone as monthly salary. So much for the Prime Minister and his government’s concern for the minorities of the country.

Apart from the Madarsas, the government is still to come up with any programme that could respond to the Committee’s singular stress on formal and modern education to Muslim children except for an advisory to state governments to open upper primary schools in minority concentrated villages under the existing Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. This again is not backed by any additional budgetary provision, thus suggesting the casualness of the government on the issue. Besides, apart from the upper primary, there is absolutely no follow up on the recommendation to open government high schools, centres of higher learning in Muslim populated areas or initiating diversity-incentive in existing institutions of advance education. Scholarships have been announced with much fanfare by the Ministry of Minority Affairs however, they can only be dubbed as a cruel joke–Rupees 400 per month to a day scholar and 800 for a hosteller pursuing degree/post-graduation in a technical or professional course.

In its approach towards comprehending the reality, the report is largely an exposition of the living conditions of a Muslim citizen. As observed earlier, the report addresses the citizenship concerns of a community, its performance judged in the light of its ability to have attained substantial citizenship, political power and agency. If we take T.H Marshall’s take on citizenship as embodying civil, social and political rights, the Sachar Committee Report stands out as a text that exclusively confines itself to the given spheres of a Muslim’s life. Quite consciously so, the realm of culture remains, for all practical purposes, outside the Committee’s lens. The Committee partially attended to the deep-seated powerlessness among Muslim communities of the country. In his Political Representation of Muslims in India, Iqbal Ansari, brought to the fore Muslim under-representation in politics. The Sachar Committee noted that even in positions where methods of selection is nomination, rather than elections, Muslims have been denied their true representation. In the course of its investigation the Committee made the startling discovery that areas of high Muslim concentration and of average to low SC/ST population were declared reserved for SCs and STs. It had expressed the hope that the ‘Delimitation Commission’ would look into the issue and take remedial measures. Instead, the delimitation exercise has redrawn the boundaries in a manner that has further fragmented the Muslim electorate, plausibly a factor in the erosion of Muslim representation—the number of Muslim MPs falling from an already low 37 in 2004 to a pitiful 29 in 2009.

This underscores the fact that despite the current philosophical engagement with culturally marked, differentiated or multi-cultural citizenships that focus specifically on protection of minority cultures, in the Indian situation, citizenship claims of minority groups extends beyond claiming cultural rights. The discourse on minority rights therefore needs to unshackle itself from enclosures of culture and identity and persevere issues of material deprivation, resource allocation and equity in the distribution of power; between cultural collectivities and also within them. In this light, the orientation of the state requires thorough interrogation.

(Excerpts from the paper presented at the National Conference on ‘Muslim Alienation: Manifestation and Challenges’, November 17th-18th, 2009, Jamia Millia Islamia. The writer teaches at Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)


Science, West And Islamic Origin Of Science

Recently I came across an excellent monograph in the form of a small book Is Science Western in Origin? By Pof. C K. Raju, professor of philosophy who has written earlier a book on Time – a thick volume on philosophy of time. The later work is also of high academic standard. This monologue on origin of science is a significant contribution which tries to shatter the myth that science is western in origin.

We would throw more light on it little later but to begin with it would be quite relevant to discuss whether Islam and science go together or, as many believe Islam is against science. Of course one can say this debate about Islam and science was more relevant to 19th century when the Muslim theologians (Ulama) opposed science as against Islam. What is its relevance today? Ulama no longer oppose science and its discoveries. This is largely true but still there are several problems in this debate which need to be discussed. Also, still some western scholars believe that Islam happens to be inherently opposed to scientific progress.

Recently I came across a book Lost in the Sacred – Why the Muslim World Stood Still by Dan Diner published by Princeton and Oxford and the main theme of the book is how Islam and Muslims oppose progress. That is why it is necessary to throw light on Islam and modern science and the monograph by Prof. Raju tries to prove that science originated from India and the Arab world and the west simply imitated it and then cleverly manipulated and interpolated to show that modern science is of Greek origin.


Does Islam oppose science? Qur’an is the main source of Islam and hence we would like to first see what Qur’an has to say about this. In fact pre-Islamic Arabs both settled in urban areas like Mecca or Madnia or Bedouins who were basically nomads were not interested in knowledge. In fact according to Tabari, the noted historian, there were only 17 persons in Mecca before Islam who could read and write. What they were proud of was their pedigree which they knew by heart for several generations. Learning and knowledge was for them hardly of any use .and hence pre-Islamic period was rightly referred to as period ofjahiliyyah (ignorance).

Qur’an, therefore, laid great emphasis on ‘ilm (knowledge) precisely because Arabs were not only ignorant but also looked at learning with contempt. What mattered to them was their distinctive origin, not learning. As it has been repeatedly pointed out the revelation to the Prophet (PBUH) began by the word iqra’ (recite or read). Thus the Qur’an says, “Read in the name of thy Lord who creates. Creates human being from a clot.” (96:1-2)

Now this statement itself that read “in the name of the Lord who creates and creates from a clot” is an important scientific statement also as modern studies have developed how fertilization of man’s semen and woman’s eggs result in creation of human being. This science has developed now tremendously through modern technology. Of course the Qur’an is a book of moral guidance and basic knowledge. It is certainly not the book of science. However, it does invite the believers to reflect and think about the creation and about our universe.

Knowledge, according to the Qur’an, is very basic if one wants to know ones God (Rabb, Allah) one has to have knowledge of this Universe as he is the creator of this universe. Thus the Qur’an says, “Those of His servants only who are possessed of knowledge fear Allah.” Lest one should think this knowledge Qur’an is talking about is knowledge of theology ordeen the preceding verse makes it clear it is knowledge about the creation. It says, “See you not that Allah sends down water from the clouds, then We bring forth therewith fruits of various hues? And in the mountains are streaks, white and red, of various hues and (others) intensely black” (35:27).

Also, in the second chapter it is stated that the believers believe in the unseen ghayb. Generally the theologians say that this unseen ghayb is all about the other world the world which begins after death. Well, that may be one of the interpretations and in those days when knowledge had not developed much it was perhaps the best available interpretation. But then divine scriptures use metaphorical and symbolic language which admits of multiple interpretations.

Ghayb can also mean potential knowledge which is hidden from those who live in a particular period. But continuously developing knowledge keeps on bringing forth what was not known to those who lived in previous times. It was ghayb (hidden) for them. And what is known to us today, may be is quite advanced compared to what was known to our predecessors, may appear to be quite primitive to coming generations. Thus that is all ghayb to us. But Allah is described in the Qur’an as ‘Alim al-Ghayb as He has knowledge of all that is to come but to us – His servants – it is just ghayb.

Thus what was known to the world when Qur’an was revealed to the Arabs, was quite primitive than what developed with few centuries during the Abbasid period and subsequently during the Fatimid period in Egypt. Great philosopher, mathematicians, chemists, geographers, astronomers and others discovered many things which was nothing more thanghayb just before two centuries.

Thus requiring believers (mu’minin) to believe in knowledge of ghayb Qur’an inspired Muslims to continuously develop knowledge. Allah’s knowledge is without limits and so the believers should constantly pursue knowledge to infinity. No knowledge is final and more knowledge develops more one is bewildered about limitlessness of knowledge. The Prophet rightly said that a moment’s reflection by an ‘Alim is more meritorious than praying whole night.

The Qur’an invites all believers to reflect about this universe and an ignorant person cannot be true believer. An ignorant person knows nothing about this universe created by Allah. If one tries to know this universe she/he realizes how wonderful this universe is and only she/he then realizes the greatness of the Creator of this universe. Today scientists, physicists and astronomers tell us how bewilderingly large are the dimensions of this universe.

There is no single solar system as earlier believed. There are hundreds of solar systems each billions of light years away from each other. The age of our universe was fixed by some Christian theologians in sixteenth century as about 4,000 years. It was all ghayb for them then. Today the scientists fix the age of our universe as at least 20 billion light years. Every now and then new stars are discovered billions of light years.

The Greek knowledge was basically deductive in nature and hence its limitation in understanding of the universe. The science develops with inductive knowledge i.e. through observations over a large period of time. Thus Iqbal points out in his lectures Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam that Qur’an lays emphasis on inductive knowledge and he quotes Francis Beacon to the effect that modern science developed through inductive logic.

The Qur’an repeatedly invites believers to reflect over the creation of Allah and this itself could inspire believers to develop knowledge about this universe and for a period of time they did and contributed richly to the knowledge about this world. The first impulse came when the Abbasids started Darul Hikmah (House of Wisdom). By the way Qur’an lays great emphasis on Hikmah (wisdom). It is Allah’s name (Hakim) and Qur’an describes hikmah askhayran kathira (i.e. goodness in abundance).

Thus the Qur’an says, “He grants wisdom to which He pleases. And whoever is granted wisdom, he indeed is given a goodness in abundance.” (2:269). Thus hikmah has great importance in the Qur’an because hikmah is not possible without knowledge and the Abbasids rightly called the place where books of knowledge from various countries as House of Wisdom. According to Prof. Raju this house of wisdom became epicenter of science and what we call western science today could not have developed without this house of wisdom.

Thus it is not true that Islam ever came in the way of development of modern knowledge or science. In fact it was the springboard, if we believe Prof. Raju, of development of modern science. Prof. H.G. Wells, in his The Short History of the World calls the Arabs as foster fathers of modern knowledge. But it is only partly true. The Arabs were much more than foster fathers. Their own contribution was quite rich as we will discuss shortly.

It is true after 13th century there was stagnation in the Muslims world and for reasons not to be discussed here, the Muslim world was taken over by superstitious beliefs until the western colonization again awoke them from their slumber. The Muslim theologians also contributed to this stagnation a great deal. In order to maintain their hegemony they opposed great philosophers and scientists like Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicena) or (Averos) (Ibn Rushd) and others and even condemned them as heretics.

Also, persons like Ghazzali, had very different approach to knowledge which was based on certainty rather than uncertainties of philosophy and constant quest for knowledge of science and hence he also opposed philosophers like Averros and there was great debate between the two. But after the attack of Helagu in 1258 the Abbasid Empire which was already on decline, collapsed and Baghdad ceased to be the centre of learning and development of science. Though other empires like that of Fatimid in Egypt survived a bit longer but it did not help much. Ghazzli’s approach of inner certainty found now much greater resonance and Muslims now began concentrating on ‘ulum al-Din (i.e. religious sciences) which goes on until today. Ghazzali’s Ihya al-‘Ulum al-Din (i.e. Revivification of Religious Sciences) indeed became symbolic of this revival.


In this background we would like to discuss here briefly the monograph of Prof. C.K.Raju Is Science Western in Origin? In this learned monograph Raju tries to show the science is certainly not western in origin but it owes much more to India on one hand, and Islamic centres in Baghdad and Spain. This monograph is part of the dissenting knowledges pamphlet series.

According to Prof. Raju it is a sheer myth to say that science is of Hellenic origin. He says that “The story of the Greek origin of science postdates the Crusades. Before the Crusades, Christendom was in ‘Dark Age’” Prof. Raju also says that it was Roman Christian Emperor ordered burning down of the Great Library of Alexandria and he also says it was Justinian who ordered closure of all philosophical schools in 529 CE.  In the footnote Raju refers to Edward Gibbon who discusses in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and dismisses the canard that burning down the Great Library might have been the work of Caliph Omar, or that it might have happened during a fire started at the time of Julius Caesar’s attack.

Dr. Raju also makes an interesting observation that “Ironically, this Christian Dark Age coincided with the Islamic Golden Age.” Then he goes on to say that in sharp contrast to the book-burning tradition of Christendom, the Abbasid Caliphate had established in Baghdad House of Wisdom by the early 9thc. This led to such an explosion in the demands for books that, along the lines of the hadith to seek knowledge even from China, paper-making techniques were imported from China to set up a paper factory in Baghdad, which had a flourishing book bazaar.

It is not true, according to him that books were brought only from Byzantine but also from Persia and India. Baghdad had scholars from all these countries and it became an important centre of intellectual debates and House of Wisdom, centre for transferring knowledge from these sources into Arabic. He also points out that apart from the contrast in knowledge, there was also striking contrast in wealth between Christendom and Islamic Arabs, Charlemagne’s emissaries were dazzled by the splendor of Haroun al-Rashid’s court, and the gifts they brought back were avidly imitated, and became models of Carolingian art.

It was only post-Crusades that the Church realized the importance of non-Biblical knowledge. In sharp contrast to earlier behavior Church preserved the magnificent library at Toledo in the Muslim Spain when it was conquered during the proto-Crusades in 1085. Now the non-Biblical knowledge was accepted at the highest levels of the Church.

Prof. Raju also points out that India had very advanced knowledge of arithmetic’s and astronomy. He says that while the Arabs valued the ‘theology of Aristotle’ for arithmetic, they turned to India, not to Greece. Arabs imported various Indian arithmetic texts, notably those of Aryabhata, Brahmagupta and Mahavira. These were digested   and transcreated in the Bayt al-Hikma, by al-Khwarizmi, and became famous as Algorismus after his Latinized name. These ‘Arabic numerals’ use the place-value system which makes it very easy to represent large numerals. It also makes arithmetic very easy through ‘algorithmus’. In fact the legendry Barmakids (derived from barmak- pramukh), the viziers of Abbasides were instrumental in importing knowledge from Persia and India.

Initially many texts in Baghdad came from Persia where the same practice of collecting world-knowledge was followed. But, even in Persia, knowledge of astronomy (translated as Zij-i- Shahryar) was imported from India. Raju then dwells on how of the secular knowledge nothing was available from Rome as otherwise Khusrau to him Justinian was paying him a hefty tribute for non-aggression would have imported it from there, not from India.

Prof. Raju also exposes the myth of Euclides as the writer of Geometry Elements he points out nothing is known about Euclids as to who he was. He quotes to this effect the leading authority on Elements. Interestingly he also points out that the word Euclides is derived from Arabic iklid or klid which means key or here ‘key to geometry’. It could be because in Toledo translations were done either by those who knew Arabic but not the subject or those who knew Latin but not the subject and hence such howlers were common.

Raju also throws light on Copernicus who is considered as having revolutionized the knowledge of astronomy. Thus Raju points out that Copernicus’s mathematical model is a carbon copy of an earlier astronomical model by Ibn as-Shatir of Damuscus (d.1375). Ibn Shatir used a technique due to Nasiruddin Tusi (whose advice to Melagu led to the downfall of Baghdad, and who was rewarded with the Maraghah observatory). The Maraghah school raised new questions, and offered novel solutions. Copernicus mimics both the questions and answers. Copernicus’s lunar model is identical to Ibn as-Shatir’s. The question therefore is not whether, but when, where, and in what form he learned of Maragha theory.”

Prof. Raju of course provides answers to these questions though it is too technical for us to throw light on that. But suffice it to say that Copernicus is hailed as father of modern astronomy and in turn on it depends our knowledge of universe today. All further developments in the knowledge of universe, of stars, of solar system and so on, depends on Copernicus’s revolution.

Prof. Raju raises one more important question and says, “The key questions, however, have never been asked: Could Copernicus have openly acknowledged his Islamic sources? Had he done that wouldn’t someone have denounced him as a heretic? Would that have helped his case for theological correctness? So, Copernicus followed the tradition: he used Islamic sources, but refused to acknowledge them.”

However, according to Dr. Raju the western scholars have manipulated evidence in such a way as to hide this fact that Copernicus imitated the model of Ibn as-Shatir and maintain that it was original work by Copernicus. After quoting the sources that Ibn as-Shatir’s manuscript was present in the library of the Church, he observes, “Note a further subtle way in which the rules of evidence are being juggled. The appropriate standard of evidence for history is balance of probabilities, and there is ample circumstantial evidence that Copernicus’ model was entirely derived. So, the onus of proof is on Western historians to supply solid evidence that Copernicus did not see that text! Instead, they shift the onus of proof, and demand further evidence! So the great Copernican revolution is better called the great Copernican Quibble!”

The pamphlet discussed here by Prof. Raju though, small in length, is much larger in significance. And more scholars would work on these lines. It is highly learned in its contents and unfortunately our universities do not have departments of history of science to carry on study on these lines. In the west history of science is an important area of study and it is high time we also carry on work in this important field.

In conclusion I would like to say though what has been discussed here is historical truth Muslims should not only celebrate this but use it an occasion for serious reflection that though west  borrowed much from the Muslim world, why Muslim world is in such pathetic condition today. For them Islam is nothing more than a set of rituals and only an instrument for najat(emancipation) for the other world and not for achievements in this world?

Today Muslims are far behind western countries and depend entirely on the west for scientific knowledge. As the Christendom was passing through dark age when Islamic world was at its height of glory and achievements in the fields of science, mathematics and astronomy. Now it is just the reverse. Now the west (or Christendom) is at its height and the Muslim world is passing through dark age. The Muslim world now at best excels in religious knowledge (‘ulum al-Din).

Ilm (knowledge) must be taken in its most comprehensive sense as this word has been used in the Qur’an and it should not be confined only to religious knowledge. The ‘Ulama should not mean only those who specialize in diniyat but all those who have expertise in modern secular sciences (all its branches). The ‘Ulama who have no knowledge of modern sciences have no right to lead us. Only those who have knowledge of modern world along with that of Islam have right to show us the way. Otherwise the ‘ulama would be nothing more than what Iqbal alled them do rak’at ka imam (leader of prayer).

Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai.


Minarets Banned In Switzerland – A Challenge And An Opportunity

Minaret Ban Campaign Poster

In a decision with wide-ranging implications, 57.5% of Swiss voters voted in favor of a ban that will constitutionally outlaw building minarets in the country. The support for the proposal was universal with 22 of the 26 Swiss provinces voted in favor of the ban. Switzerland has almost 400,000 Muslims out of a total population of 7.7 million. The vote was preceded by a demonstrably Islamophobic campaign.

One poster showed a veiled woman in black with only her eyes visible and multiple minarets as weapons casting a black shadow on the Swiss flag. Another showed a minaret standing in the river in place of the fallen Lucerne water-hall and the words “Stop Islamization” printed in red. Yet another poster read “No Islamic symbols in Switzerland. Consider a ban on minarets”. The logo from the official website shows a minaret ripping apart the heart of Switzerland.

Swiss minaret ban poster with woman in a veil.
Minaret Ban Campaign Poster

The minaret controversy started in 2005 when the Turkish Islamic Cultural Center in Wangen bei Olten in north-western Switzerland asked for permission to construct a minaret at their mosque. The local Communal Building and Planning Commission rejected the application but the the Building and Justice Department reversed the decision. Local community members who were opposing the construction then went to the Administrative Court of the Canton of Solothurn where they lost their appeal and the Federal Supreme Court eventually affirmed the ruling of the lower court. The 20 ft (6 m) minaret was erected in July 2009. Consequently the proponents of the ban brought it to vote as Swiss Supreme Court rulings can be overturned by a majority of voters.

As is obvious from the standalone image of the mosque as well as the one with its surroundings, the mosque or the minaret does not appear imposing at all. Also, it is not that Switzerland is being besieged by minarets all over the country. There are just four minarets in Switzerland and only two more were being planned. Moreover, this ban is specifically against minarets and other religions are free from its purview.

The international condemnation of the ban has been swift. Swiss Justice Minister indicated that the higher European court could over-rule the Sunday vote. French Foreign Minister told a radio program that the vote was “an expression of intolerance”. Vatican joined Swiss bishops in condemning the vote and Muslim countries obviously voiced their disapproval. New York Times in a hard hitting editorial termed the ban as “disgraceful”.

Switzerland has had a reputation of being neutral. It is the only country in the western Europe that has not joined EU. It has a unique form of government where voters can not only over-turn Supreme Court rulings but also have the power to decide upon the citizenship applications. In 2008, BBC News highlighted the case of two brothers of Turkish origin who have lived their entire lives in Switzerland but are not able to get Swiss citizenship. The brothers had passed all language tests and the authorities recommended them for citizenship. However, since their application was subject to a final approval by local community members through secret ballots, it had been denied four times. Sometimes it is difficult even for the grandchildren of the immigrants to receive Swiss citizenship.

Right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), that has seen its influence grow tremendously since 1991, was at the forefront  of minaret ban campaign. It has been accused of running racially charged campaigns in the past. The party has been condemned by UN refugee agency for its blatantly anti-immigrant campaigns. This time – as it has done in the past – it exploited the fears of Swiss people. A good example is this blog post (use Google Translate) which is titled “Tolerance rather than ignorance”. The author supported the ban and thinks that building minarets will lead to Islamization of Europe and more intolerance in the society. Clearly the opponents of ban failed to reach out to such Swiss citizens who seem to be misinformed about the whole issue. Tariq Ramadan, who is one of the most influential voice for European Muslims and a Swiss citizen himself, alluded to this failure in an article in Guardian.

Who is to be blamed? I have been repeating for years to Muslim people that they have to be positively visible, active and proactive within their respective western societies. In Switzerland, over the past few months, Muslims have striven to remain hidden in order to avoid a clash. It would have been more useful to create new alliances with all these Swiss organisations and political parties that were clearly against the initiative. Swiss Muslims have their share of responsibility but one must add that the political parties, in Europe as in Switzerland have become cowed, and shy from any courageous policies towards religious and cultural pluralism. It is as if the populists set the tone and the rest follow. They fail to assert that Islam is by now a Swiss and a European religion and that Muslim citizens are largely “integrated”. That we face common challenges, such as unemployment, poverty and violence – challenges we must face together. We cannot blame the populists alone – it is a wider failure, a lack of courage, a terrible and narrow-minded lack of trust in their new Muslim citizens. [Tariq Ramadan]

Minarets are not a requirement for mosques but Muslims are and successful communities are built not upon symbols but individuals. Muslims should use this opportunity to build alliances, reach out to local communities and proactively participate in civic activities in addition to performing their religious duties. The issue at stake here goes way beyond minarets. It is the trust deficit that seems to have built up between Muslims and others in parts of Europe. Only by addressing the fears that led to the passing of this odious ban can there be a meaningful resolution of this issue. These fears have to be addressed even though they might be unjustified. Especially if they are unjustified. Otherwise it is going to be one battle to another.