Who Is A Progressive Muslim?

In the AMAN (Asian Muslim Action Network) assembly which took place in Pattani, Thailand in the last week of February 2011 a discussion took place as to who is a progressive Muslim and what are its characteristics. I was asked to throw light on this subject. I am presenting here what I spoke there. I had the following to say.

A progressive Muslim is one who is firmly grounded in the Qur’anic values of truth (haq), justice (‘adl), compassion (rahmah), wisdom (hikmah) and does service to others rather than being served by others. A progressive Muslim does not believe in sectarian Islam (sunni or shi’ah or Isma’ili or Deobandi or Barelvi or ahl-e-hadith or salafi Islam but rises above all these sects and gives importance to Qur’an above everything else.

A progressive Islam not only does not adopt sectarian approach but is respectful of entire humanity and human dignity as per Qur’an (17:70). He leaves mutual differences, ideological and theological to Allah alone and does not condemn anyone who differences from him/her as kafirs as often sectarian Muslims do. It only widens differences and intensifies conflict. A progressive Muslim uses, as per Qur’an, wisdom (hikmah) and goodly words (maw’izat al-Hasanah) in discussion and leaves rest to Allah. He does not try to be judgemental.

A progressive Muslim is least influenced by personal prejudices and always gives more importance to knowledge than his opinion. Qur’an condemns prejudiced opinion (zan) and promotes knowledge (‘ilm). Also, openness of mind is a seminal quality and avoids arrogance born more out of ignorance than knowledge. Those who have little knowledge are more arrogant and those who have greater degree of knowledge know limitations of their own knowledge and hence tend to be humble.

A progressive Muslim first of all studies his/her own religion in depth and tries to understand, as objectively as possible, the causes of differences between different religions and shows full respect for others beliefs. It is those who do not know their own religion, much less those of others, who condemn religion of others. The Qur’an says, “And abuse not those whom they call upon besides Allah lest, exceeding the limits they abuse Allah through ignorance.” (6:109). Further in this verse Allah says, “Thus to everyone people have We made their deeds fair-seeming; then to their Lord is their return so He will inform them of what they did.” Thus ultimately it is Allah who will judge. We human beings when we judge, we judge more out of ignorance and arrogance of our ego than knowledge and selflessness.

The key words in this verse are that for every people We made their deeds fair-seeming to them. Then who are we human beings to condemn others beliefs and deeds. Let then Allah alone to judge who is right and who is wrong.

Also a progressive Muslim celebrates diversity as diversity is creation of Allah and if Allah desired He could have made entire humanity one community. (5:48). The Qur’an also says, “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Surely there are signs in this for the learned.” Thus a progressive Muslim will never have any prejudice against any language or colour of skin or any colour for that matter as these are all creations of Allah.

Also, both men and women are creation of Allah and both need to be treated with same degree of dignity. Allah has created all species in couples and it is necessary for survival of all species. No species will survive unless it is created in couples. Thus feminine of the couple is as important as masculine and in human beings both gender must be treated equally. Moreover gender is social and cultural construct. Whereas sex is natural gender is social and cultural.

A progressive Muslim knows this very well and treats both men and women with equal dignity and believes in giving equal rights to both. And in today’s context gender equality becomes a crucial test for a progressive Muslim. Female servitude was purely feudal cultural creation and Islam opposed it and pronounced the doctrine of gender equality in clear terms (2:228) A progressive Muslim knows that certain Shari’ah provisions establishing male superiority were in response to cultural needs of a patriarchal society than based on Qur’an and hadith.

Thus a progressive Muslim will give more importance to Qur’anic pronouncements of gender equality than feudal female servitude and would not consider these [provisions of Shari’ah laws as eternal and unalterable. A progressive Muslim, therefore, would reconstruct Shari’ah laws in this respect and accord equal rights to women who are also believers. One believer cannot be superior to another believer. Male superiority is a human construct and human construct cannot override divine injunction. Also, functional differences i.e. bearing children should not result in distinction of superior and inferior.

A progressive Muslim would accord seeking knowledge highest priority as knowledge has been equated with light (nor) and ignorance to darkness (zulmat) and Allah brings out believers from darkness to light. And the Prophet (PBUH) has said that a moment’s reflection is more important than whole nights worship (‘ibadat). Thus knowledge has priority over worship.

Thus these are the characteristics of a progressive Muslim and those who imbibe these characteristics would survive all the challenges of all the times and would not face any difficulty in keeping pace with the changing times.

Celebrating Bihar’s Birth: Will It Help Remove The Tag Of Bihari?

By Soroor Ahmed,

No amount of parade and celebration on July 14, the 1789 French Revolution day, can perhaps remove the expression ‘French leave’ from the English dictionary (or filer à l’anglaise, that is, ‘English leave’ from the French vocabulary). No doubt France is a developed country yet the phrase indicates that its citizens lack politeness and are shirkers. In fact it is the outcome of war-of-words between the British and French cultures and has an amount of jest and ridicule in it.

Similarly no grand function and musical programmes on the occasion of Bihar Diwas on March 22 can perhaps prevent senior students in the campuses outside the state from poking fun at their juniors from Bihar. They may still be addressed as Harries in their hostels in Delhi and West Uttar Pradesh. Fed up with this harassment students hailing from western Bihar districts of Buxar, Siwan or Rohtas would introduce themselves as one from east UP districts of Ballia, Ghazipur Benaras etc. The word Bihari still evokes a mischievous smile on the face of many outside the state. It is not for nothing that while interviewing young boys and girls from Bihar the board members of a prestigious law institute of Pune asked some very absurd questions leading to hue and cry when they were back in Patna. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s intervention was also sought in this regard. The incident took place as late as in June 2009 and one of the questions asked from a girl student was: “Do you agree that Bihar is the crime capital of India?”

It was in 2010 that the Nitish Kumar government celebrated this occasion for the first time. Many people would argue that it took 98 years for the state to realize that this is something to observe. They would attribute this to the lack of Bihari sub-nationalism, which has kept the state backward.

However, the truth is that nobody was interested in the pre-independence era in observing such dates as the country’s independence was more important a goal for the founding fathers. The states which came up after India became a sovereign country commemorate their birth anniversaries with much pomp and show. The issue of statehood should not be mixed up with pride of any state as sometimes political leaders do indulge in it. Nor should one think that Biharis are often ridiculed because they are backward. After all Oriyas are not ragged outside on the ground that Orissa is equally poor state. In the same way Sikhs are hard-working people and Punjab a developed state yet these facts do not stop anyone from cutting jokes on Sardarji.

One thing should be kept in mind that the carving out of modern Bihar from Bengal on March 22, 1912––in fact the actual administrative division took place on April 1, 1912–– almost coincided with the shifting of capital from Calcutta to Delhi a year before. So in between the two states Bengal and United Province––Delhi was culturally, if not geographically, considered as its part––emerged Bihar, whose people were not too familiar with the culture of power, and were simple and less educated, therefore, dubbed as uncivilized and rustic. The new state was largely ruralized––except the tribal-dominated deep south where industries started coming up––and people had much less exposure. This prompted the people of UP and Bengal to look down upon them. Students from Bihar, who went to study in educational institutions in Calcutta, Delhi and Aligarh were derided because of their life-style even though academically they were not inferior to anyone. This phenomenon continued after independence till 1990s and even in 21st century when Biharis started forming about one-fifth to one-fourth of the Civil Service posts and a sizeable number of them got their way into professions like media, engineering, medicine, management etc.

The slur ‘Bihari’ started causing discomfort to many educated Biharis, both Hindus and Muslims. The problem was more with the UP, where the issue of speaking better Hindi or Urdu also acquired a new dimension. This was not the case with Bengal, where the language was different. What is interesting is that most of the eastern UP districts culturally and language-wise resemble Bihar more than west UP yet they escape the insulting Bihari tag because they are part of that state.

The cultural tussle gradually travelled to other parts of the Indian sub-continent. After the creation of Pakistan the Punjabis, the Sindhis and Bengalis (of the then East Pakistan) started calling all Muslims, who migrated from Hindustani-speaking region (that is Hindi-Urdu belt of north and central India) as Biharis since it was difficult to call them UP-wallah, MP-wallah (or Central Povince as it was then) etc. At most they could be called Bhopalis, Lakhnavis, Delhiwals etc.

But the expression Bihari was unacceptable for any non-Bihari wherever they are. So the Urdu-speaker elite in that country coined another term, Muhajir, which means migrant. Unlike the general impression in the Indian media the word Muhajir is highly respected term in Islamic calendar and has its origin in history when Prophet Mohammad migrated from Mecca to Medina to establish the first state in 622-23 AD. The Islamic Hijrah calendar is based on that very migration. Muhajir can never be confused with the word refugee for which the correct word is panahgazeen.

Thus the Urdu-speaking political elite, who used to abhor the use of word Bihari for them, established Muhajir Students’ Organization in 1978 and several years later Muhajir Quami Movement came into being.

Another effort to silently bury the Bihari identity was made during the high time of Jharkhand movement of 1990s. Those affluent and upper caste population, who came from north Bihar, east UP and even West Bengal and gradually dominated the business in the upcoming industrialized tribal part of the state, started supporting the movement for separate Jharkhand. This notwithstanding the fact that the tribals always considered them as dikkus (outsiders) and exploiters.

Though there were political and economic reasons for this class to join hands with those demanding separate state one aspect could never be discussed. A sizeable section of this class thought that the creation of Jharkhand would help remove the tag of Bihari from them.

In 1990s Bihari elite evolved another way to get rid of their Bihari label. In the post-Mandal years they would eagerly join outsiders in mocking the rusticity of the backward lot and in Lalu Yadav they got a good stuff to make fun of. What they failed to understand is that Biharis were butt for jokes even during the early 1950s when it was considered as a better governed state or even during the British time.

Even if Bihar gets developed the slur Bihari would not lose its meaning. Shiv Sainiks may now be more brutal on them on the plea that why are you in Maharashtra when your state has progressed so much. Similar may be the fate of the Bihari students in the campuses elsewhere in the country. After all if respected and educated professors can embarrass Bihari boys and girls in Pune who can prevent others from doing so.

The best way to tackle the situation is to take everything in stride and behave more responsibly. Over the years, one hopes, the attitude of the people outside the state would change. After all be it in Maharashtra or North-East both Biharis and people from UP are facing a similar situation forcing them to close their ranks.

India In 2011: Some Highlights

By Shahidur Rashid Talukdar,

Census 2011 can be viewed as one of the milestone achievements in India’s progress. The final report of this census will provide the most in-depth understanding of India’s socioeconomic profile. Carried out at the cost of a hefty sum of Rupees 22000 million (approximately $490 million), the census covered 7936 towns and over 641,000 villages from 35 states and union territories of India. Although the final report is expected to be released by next year, the provisional highlights have been released on March 31 by the census authority. Some of the most salient findings in the highlights are: a declining population growth, increasing literacy rates, and a reduced sex ratio.

By the end of 2010, with a population of over 1210.2 million, India alone accounted for 17.5% of the world population, whereas China accounted for roughly 19.5% of the world population. The population of India is almost equal to the combined population of U.S.A., Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Japan put together (1214.3 million)! Though the overall population has increased from 1.03 billion in 2001 to 1.21 billion by 2010, the population growth rate has experienced steepest ever decline since India’s independence in 1947. While the population growth rate between 1991 – 2001 was 21.54%, during the last decade the growth has been reduced 17.64%, an annual growth rate of 1.76%. This is indeed a positive sign. However, this decline must be sustained and even reduced, as projections estimate that, growing at the present rate, by 2030, India can surpass China as the world’s most populous country.

Apart from this, a significant positive development is that the overall literacy rate has increased from 64.83% in 2001 to 74.02% in 2011. This increase, however, is not uniform throughout India. While some districts, such as Sercchip district in Mizoram – a North Eastern state, registered the highest literacy rate of 98.76%, another district, Alirajpur, in Madhaya Pradesh – a central Indian state, remains at the bottom with only 37.22 % literacy rate.

The male literacy rate, as usual in India, is much higher than the average. While the male literacy rate is 82.14%, the figure for female literacy rate is 65.46%. Although there is a huge gap between the male and female literacy rates, the encouraging aspect is that the gap is shrinking. There was a gap of 21.59 percentage points recorded between male to female literacy rates in 2001 Census which has now reduced to 16.68 percentage points in 2011. This improvement will boost India’s Human Development Index ranking which currently places India at 119th rank.

Gender ratio has declined since 2001 census.

Even though there are encouraging trends in population and literacy rates, but the gender equation, as a whole, remains far from being balanced. The overall gender composition has improved by 7 points. In 2011, there are 940 females for every 1000 males, where as in 2001 the sex ratio, defined as number females per 1000 males, was only 933. The skewed sex ratio is also not homogeneous. This highest sex ratio observed is 1176 in Mahe district while the district Daman registers the lowest sex ratio of only 533.

Pondering deeply into the facts, one can see a quite alarming sign that there has been a steep decline in child sex ratio. In the 0-6 years age group, the population comprises of 52.24% male children as opposed to 47.76% female children. The utterly distressful fact is that there are only 914 girls for every 1000 boys in the age group of 0-6 years. This figure is the lowest in recent Indian history. Except for only 7 states, rest everywhere there has been a noticeable decline in the child sex ratio. The reasons for such a low sex ratio range from illegal abortion of female child, to female feticide, to female infanticide. Thanks to the desire for male child. If this trend continues, one study predicts, that by 2020 India will have 25 million more males than females.

To conclude the highlights, I must say that India has improved a little while it needs to improve a huge lot. Until we know more about the progress, we can’t say for sure how much has been achieved and how much remains to be achieved yet.

Islam Is Not Just “Rituals”

By A. Faizur Rahman,

A resolution passed by the Mahmood Madani faction of the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind (JUH) at a meeting of its managing committee held in New Delhi on March 7 says that “Muslims should be convinced for regular practice of namaz and keeping fasts during the month of Ramadan. Youths should be persuaded to practise salam, don their Islamic identity and create a religious atmosphere at home.” The Jamiat also proposed the setting up social reform committees in villages and towns to ensure that Muslim residents live by “Islamic rules and social values.”

Of course namaz and fasting are important institutions in Islam and their performance is a farz on the Muslims. But should they be treated as mere rituals? Or is there a wider meaning to them? Unfortunately, the JUH pronouncements seem to reinforce the centuries old ritualistic notion that restricts Islam to a mere belief in “five pillars” namely, faith in Allah and Prophet Muhammad, the five times prayers, the Ramazan fasting, the Hajj and the concept of Zakat. Identity markers such as a long beard for men and thehijab or burqa for women also form part of this superficial characterisation. The question is: could this have been the concept of Islam that was propagated by our beloved Prophet?

Holy relic being Shown to people during the URS at Dastigeer Sahab Khanyar, Sri Nagar

An in-depth study of the Quranic thought would reveal that Islam is not the name of a personal god-based ritualistic religion. It is actually a system of moral and legal codes which proposes to regulate society on the universal principles (termed maroof by the Quran) of justice, fairness and equity through the institutions of prayers (salaat or namaz), fasting (saum), Hajj and zakat (compulsory tax). If understood in their originality it would be realised that there is nothing ritualistic about these concepts.

For instance, during salaat the message of the Quran is read out five times a day to people standing shoulder to shoulder in the mosque irrespective of their social or financial status. This negates the doctrine of untouchability and inculcates a sense of communal equality. Saum, the thirty-day Ramazan fasting, focuses attention on hunger, and zakat underscores the importance of equitable distribution of wealth, and through it the eradication of poverty. Hajj is more of an annual international conference to discuss global issues for the benefit of mankind as implied by the Quran (22: 27-28) than just a pilgrimage to perform certain rites. It is also the world’s biggest display of unity in diversity where men and women of different nationalities congregate for a common cause.

But unfortunately the Muslims have been wrongly made to believe that these “rituals” are an end in themselves as the JUH resolution proves. This has resulted in their spirit being completely lost. Thus we see today Muslims mechanically praying five times a day, regularly fasting in Ramazan, frequently visiting Mecca for Hajj and even paying nominal zakat, all without making any difference to the quality of their lives, or in any way reducing the poverty and illiteracy around them.

Muslims offering prayer at Gandhi Maiadan in Patna during the conference organized by JUH in 2009

The Quran highlights this malady in a subtle verse saying, “It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards East or West,… but to spend from your wealth… for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, the wayfarer, for those who ask and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in salaat and zakat, to fulfill the contracts which you have made, and to be firm and patient in pain and adversity throughout all periods of panic…” (2: 177)

The Prophet further emphasized this saying; “One who strives for the widows and the poor is like the one who strives in the way of God. I shall regard him as one who stands up for prayer without rest and as one who fasts without break.” (Bukhari)

The emphasis on ritualism among Muslims today is a result of the misinterpretation of the Quranic term deen which has been wrongly equated with mazhab (religion). The truth is that while the word “religion” exemplifies a set of dogmas revolving around a personal god who needs to be appeased through superstitious rituals, deen is about abiding by certain rules and regulations for the common good of society.

Deen is analogous with the constitution of a country which once adopted is bound to be respected by every citizen whether he likes it or not. For instance, a high caste Hindu who disagrees with Article 17 of our constitution which makes the practice of “untouchability” a punishable offence would still have to conform to it. In the same way, a “Muslim” is a peaceful person who submits willingly or unwillingly (tau’an wa karhan) to a body of humanitarian precepts promoted by the Quran and taught by the last Prophet. However, such laws are governed by the concept of laa ikraaha fid deen (there is no compulsion in deen) and cannot be enacted unless a majority favours it.

Surprisingly, some Muslim jurists have restricted the meaning of the laa ikraaha injunction to ban forced conversions when it should also include the de-legitmisation of the coercive imposition of Islam on an unwilling nation. In other words, a handful of extremists cannot force their brand of shariah on any group of people just because they have the power to do so. Islam is against any form of imperialism, and the Quran on two occasions (3:159 & 42:38) has instructed the Muslims to take decisions only after a democratic consensus has been reached.

This is the true meaning of Islam which needs to be widely propagated through “social reform committees” proposed by the Jamiat-e-Ulama-e-Hind.

The author is the secretary-general of Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought among Muslims. He may be reached atfaizz@rocketmail.com

[AIP Photos By /Shahid Tantray]

Closer Look: The Role Of Ulema

Ulema are considered as inheritors of the prophets. Ulema themselves explain their exalted position by saying that this is so because prophets didn’t leave behind any wealth except wealth of knowledge and ulema as a group have over fourteen hundred years preserving and propagating this prophetic knowledge. But what has been the role of Ulema in recent years?

If we go back hundred years, we will find a very active ulema group, active in politics and social activities. In fact, it was the Khilafat Movement that gave birth to India’s independence dreams. Till independence, we find ulema guiding and helping the community and the country in different spheres of life.

Flash forward to present times and you will see ulema who are related to each other through blood and marriages are fighting among themselves for their piece of Jamiat, to control Darul Uloom Deoband, or to gain some political benefits. All this is going on when just a few years ago Sachar Committee report put numbers on Muslims’ socio-economic backwardness.

Imam sahib of Kotla Jami Masjid.

Though no authentic information is available but it is safe to assume that thousands of madrasas produce at least tens of thousands of graduates every year. In recent years, some new sectors have opened up but still most end up serving as imams in mosques, teaching in other madrasas or starting their own maktabs. In all these cases, they live and work among the community and some ulema rightly point out that they are more connected to the people than Muslim intellectuals. But then I failed to understand how is that even after spending large part of their day among Muslims and some of the poorest one they are unable to comprehend their problems?

How is it that imam of a masjid do not see that Muslims are going through difficult financial condition or most of them are illiterate or that there are no good schools, hospitals, and other civic amenities around his masjid? I have seen lot of imams of small times mosques having a very good relations with local Muslim elites to secure regular funding so why not for other purposes that will benefit the community?

I can’t say that “modern educated” Muslims has better track record in helping their community but I will blame madrasa education for failing to develop critical thinking among its students. Modern discoveries and lot of literature (in science, social science, etc.) is not accessible to them and I am not sure how many can benefit even if it becomes accessible.

There are very few madrasa graduates that are able to get to modern universities like JNU, JMI, and AMU but madrasa authorities, instead of being proud of their alumni who have made a mark for themselves in the secular world, look down upon them as the ones who abandoned the mission.

Now, someone should tell me what is the mission? If Muslims position has deteriorated in the last 60 years then why can’t we blame our “ulema hazraat” for having an ostrich mentality?

To the “modern-educated” Muslims, my message is simple- if you don’t engage with the community, then don’t blame ulema for taking active role in social services and politics. They are doing the best they can given their limited world view.

What we need is actually an equal partnership between ulema and the “modern-educated “both balancing out each other’s skewed world and Islamic view and learning from each other.

What Makes Mr. Advani Sad?

By Abdul Hannan Siwani Nadvi,

Mr. L.K. Advani, once again, describes December 6, 1992 as a saddest day of his life, not because Babri Masjid was pulled down on that day, but this day damaged the credibility of his party.

L.K. Advani is the leader who brought a bad name to India. He is the leader who incited educated and illiterate Hindus against Muslims for political gains. He is the leader who is responsible for hundreds of thousands of death of Muslims and Hindus as a result of his Rath Yatra to build temple on the same site where Babri Masjid was situated.

Mr. Advani is not apologetic over demolition of Babri Masjid. He is not apologetic over putting blot on India. He is not apologetic over the death of thousands of Indian citizens because of his Rath Yatra and the seed of hatred he sowed between Hindus and Muslims. He is not apologetic over Gujarat genocide of 2002. He is not apologetic over damaging thousand years of communal harmony. He is not apologetic over damaging of Indian economies following brutal attack on minority communities across India.

Like a selfish person, he thinks about himself. He also thinks about his party. He just works for his party, but he forgets about India. He forgets that his hatred work is pushing Hindu youths into trouble. He forgets that his communal ideology is leaving negative impacts on Hindu community. He never thinks about empowering of Indian masses.

He thinks giving reservation to Muslims or allowing them to open their schools and institutions is not in the interest of the country, while he forgets Muslims’ progress is also India’s development.

He thinks a strong Muslim community is a threat to the ideologies whose leader he is; while he forgets that a weak Muslim community will always be a burden on India.

He talks about nationalism and unity, but his work, ideologies, Rath Yatra and his support to anti-national ideology pushes Hindu youths into terrorist activities.

He would go down in history as a leader who has worked for the disunity of Indian community. He would always live in the history of post-independence India as a leader whose every step and whose every speech increased gulf in Indian society.

Instead of expressing his pain, it is better for Mr. Advani to surrender himself before the court conceding his criminal act in Babri Masjid case and make an apology to the nation for his Rath Yatra that demolished Indian unity, and work for building the Babri Masjid on the same place where it stood for five-hundred years till it was destroyed on December 6, 1992.

It will be a better and most important step to bring back the credibility of his own party if he leaves hatred and communal way, and works for India where every community, whether it is Hindu or Muslim live freely and help each others in building a strongest India that can present a best example of communal harmony in the world.

Will Mr. L.K. Advani do this? There is no possibility from him but we could hope from him a day he would concede his mistake as today he is accepting that his work “badly dented the credibility of his party.”