Secularists on Islam- Professor A.B. Shah
But this does not mean that there have not been scholars who have not analyzed at least some aspects of Islam, particularly in India. The more intellectually honest among them, generally genuine socialist intellectuals, have at least looked into the behavior of Muslims if not their scriptures. It will be rather surprising to note that they have echoed several comments made by various others who are dubbed communal and fundamentalists.
It is rather surprising to note that post-Independence secular intellectuals have more or less repeated Dr. Ambedkar’s analysis. We quote below comments and excerpts from a few prominent thinkers to give examples of their thinking. We first refer to the writings of Prof. A. B. Shah and Hamid Dalwai published by the Indian Secular Society, Pune. Both of them come from a socialist and Seva Dal background, thus making them ‘blue blooded’ secularists.
Prof. A. B. Shah
We shall first review two books of Prof. Shah who, although born in an orthodox Jain family, became an atheist and championed the cause of secularism all his life. He has written several articles and books on this subject. In his book ‘Religion and Society in India’2 which is a collection of his articles on this subject, he deals extensively with Islam in India. We give below a few passages from this book.
“Every religion has to accommodate this phenomenon (i.e. mysticism) at a fairly early stage in its history. Christianity and Hinduism could accommodate mysticism within their compass without serious strain……. It is one of the tragedies of history that the kind of universalism that its mystics preached, failed to humanise the culture of Islam.” (P. 18)
“This was also the attitude of Dr. Zakir Hussain [the late President of India], and it continues to be the attitude of most eminent Muslims even today. In private conversation they have no hesitation in adopting an enlightened, sometimes even Marxist attitude to religion, but in public they invariably swear by the Quran as the source of all the values they cherish.” (P. 20)
“The 1971 census showed that during the ten years 1961-71, the Hindu population of India registered a growth of 23.69%, whereas the corresponding figures for Muslims and Christians were 30.85% and 32.60%……. As to Islam, the political and religious leaders of the Muslim community in India are not only obstinate; they are even ignorant of the history of their own religion. The Prophet Muhammad was not opposed to preventing conception by resort to azl (coitus interruptus)…… Besides, some Muslim leaders are on record to the effect that the only way of solving the Hindu-Muslim problem in India is for the Muslims to become a majority in the population. There are no doubt a few whose commitment to India, if not to secularism, is beyond question; but their way of thinking does not command the respect of their co-religionists. Not have they made any systematic effort to promote among Muslims a sense of territorial nationalism that would cut across religious differences.” (P. 27)
“The Muslim opposition to the modernization of their personal law and the enactment of uniform civil code in keeping with contemporary liberal values is also based on religion. Here, again, they are ignorant of the facts of history. The Shariah, which is supposed to embody the Muslim personal law, is not an integral and immutable part of the religion of Islam as the Muslims apparently believe. On the contrary, it has evolved over a period of centuries and has been seriously tampered with in almost all the Muslim countries of the world. Four-fifths of the Shariah, dealing with criminal law, the law of contracts, the law of evidence, international relations and the nature of the state are nowhere in force. The family law also has been drastically changed in countries like Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Syria and Iran. In India, too, what governs the family law of Muslims is not what the Shariah lays down in this respect but the Anglo – Muhammedan law which was enacted by the British in the eighteenth century.” (P. 28)
“What one witnesses, however, is an opportunistic combination of orthodoxy, on the one hand, and insistence on the rights that a secular state confers equally on all citizens, including the Muslims, on the other.” (P. 45)
“The traditional and dominant Islamic world-view for nearly fourteen hundred years now is basically anti-humanist. It has no place for the individual except as a servant of God and as a limb of the community…… Continued victory strengthened the Muslim’s conviction that his faith was perfect and superior to others, and its doctrine infallible……. human reason is not entitled to question the statements of the Quran or of the theologians based on “the legal material of the Quran and the Sunnah” ……. The reason is not that Islam is unique in its record of intolerance in the past – perhaps Christianity has a worse record – but that it still exhibits the same intolerance of free inquiry and dissent as it did in less enlightened times. What little possibility there might have been of the softening of this attitude after the mutual persecution by the Mutazilites and their opponents, and due to the growth of Sufism, was effectively destroyed by al-Ghazali (1058-1111) for centuries to come….. his work ensured that no renaissance would take place in Muslim society unless, as in Turkey, it was imposed from above…… The preceding discussions would show that unlike other religions, Islam has shown a remarkable persistence of belief and habits of thought in spite of the centuries separating the present from the years of its revelation and early growth. As mentioned above, it denies the autonomy and creativity of the human being.” (P. 91-95)
“The tradition of Islam is not merely anti-intellectual, it is also in-hospitable to the growth of a secular democratic polity. For instance, it does not recognize the sovereignty of man, neither of the individual nor of the people as a whole, over the affairs of civic society. It is not man but God “unto Whom belongeth the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them”…… there is no distinction between state and church, civil society and religious community, the leader in war and the leader in prayer. The ummah is a community of the chosen people of God and the state merely an arrangement to enable them to walk in His path. The Caliph is therefore both monarch and supreme authority on matters religious…….. It follows that the Shariah was the secular law as well as religious……. Islam does not countenance revolt against tyranny as long as the tyrant does not ask his subjects to act against the injunctions of Islam… even in the latter case, not revolt but disobedience is recommended…… It is clear that in Islam as von Grunebaum says, “political absolutism parallels the absolutism of God’s relation to his creatures.” (P. 96-98)
“In such a system of thought there can be no place for individual freedom and human equality, much less for the moral autonomy of man. The Quran emphasizes again and again the insignificance and utter impotence of man in relation to God’s will, which is not subject to any law and is therefore inscrutable to man. As to equality, one has only to note that the Quran permits slavery, and treats women as inferior to man not only in matters of divorce and inheritance, but also as regards her admissibility as witness.” (P. 98)
“The popular belief that Islam stands for equality needs corrections on two other counts. First, Islamic equality, as is to be expected from any religious culture, extends only to fellow-Muslims, not to all human beings as children of the same God. Non-Muslims, are either Dhimmis (‘protected people’) if they have a revealed scripture as the Jews and Christians have, or Kafirs who have to make a choice between the Quran and the sword. [See Surah 9:5] Secondly, even this narrow conception of equality is confined to the prayer time. It does not apply in relation to the differences of wealth, status or family connection.” (P. 99) Prof. Shah then explains that Muhammad himself stressed the superiority of the Quraish tribe to which he belonged. Also, in India too, even during the Muslim rule, important posts were held by Muslims from abroad. “By the time the Mughal empire was consolidated under Akbar, they held nearly 70 percent of the superior posts in the army and civil life, the balance being shared almost equally by the Indian converts to Islam and the Hindus who had already come to terms with the Muslim rulers.” (P. 104)
Prof. Shah advocates a uniform civil code for modernizing Islam and discusses the position of Muslim personal law in this context. He says, “On the one hand they take pride in the fact that Islam looks upon marriage as a civil contract; on the other they oppose any reforms in the terms of this contract on the ground that it would constitute interference in their religion.” (P. 121) He analyses the Muslim psyche and says that most educated Muslims “are sophisticated urbanites and have little first hand knowledge of the pragmatic and calculating nature of the orthodox Muslim’s opposition to the proposed reform. He is obstinate because experience has taught him that obstinacy pays. When he finds that this is no longer true and that reform is no more conditional on his consent, he will accept it with good grace or ill but without any resistance worth his name. The dramatic change in the attitude of the Nizam and the Razakars after the government of India had initiated the so-called police action in Hyderabad is typical of Muslim politics – with its bravado and bullying so long as the other party shows weakness and its sudden show of reasonableness (if not a complete volte face) as soon as it is clear that bullying would not pay.” (P. 122). Sri Dalwai has also made similar comments in his books. Hindu leaders should take note of these comments.
Analysing Islam’s failure to modernise, Prof Shah says, “So great has been the hold of orthodoxy on the Muslim mind that nowhere has Muslim society been able to throw up, in the natural course, an articulate class of liberal Muslims committed to modern values and all that such a commitment implies in the fields of criticism and social action. Such a class alone can subject the traditions of Islam to a critical scrutiny and prepare the ground for entry of Muslim society into the modern age.” (P. 184)
And what is the stumbling block for integration? “Not the fear of Hindu oppression but the strongly separatist Muslim attitude was primarily responsible for the tragic denouement of Hindu-Muslim relations in India…… ‘Separatism’ means an insistence on the recognition of one’s community as a national or quasi-national group which, qua such a group, is entitled to special considerations and privileges. It thus indicates a certain attitude to other groups and is reflected in obstinate resistance to any process of interaction that may ultimately lead to the emergence of a common national identity cutting across the old lines of division. Separatism in this sense has always been a characteristic of Muslim society wherever Muslims are in a substantial minority, and Indian Muslims are no exceptions in this respect. Historically, it has expressed itself in different demands in different periods, their nature and content varying with the changing balance of forces at a given moment. In India, Muslim separatism has been particularly strong because of the memories of Muslim rule for nearly eight hundred years before the sepoy mutiny of 1857. How deep-rooted this attitude is among the Indian Muslims, regardless of the degree to which they are orthodox, is illustrated by the fact that both the Muslim League and the ‘nationalist’ Muslims were united in their demand for reservations, weightage and special treatment in matters of language, personal law and employment under government. Even after partition most of these demands continue to be pressed by practically all Muslim organizations in India. And, like Jinnah, they too do not make a distinction between secularists who demand the modernization of Muslim society along liberal lines and the Hindu chauvinists who claim that India belongs to the Hindus and should become a Hindu state in which non-Hindus, including Muslims should be permitted to live as guests. In the eyes of the Muslim leadership, ‘both (the secularists and Hindu chauvinists) are equally dangerous to Muslims, untouchables and the other minorities.’ However, Muslims need not feel pessimistic about their future. ‘A single Muslim is nobler and higher than a thousand Hindus. The only need for him is to become awake and regard himself as a Muslim. He goes with Allah’s blessings. It is a holy deed when his dagger rushes into the heart of the aliens; and he is the victor.” (P. 189)
Prof. Shah asserts that “If Muslim separatism is sui generis and not a reaction to Hindu revivalism, it still remains to trace it to its roots. I would suggest that it is inherent in the religion and culture of Islam (P. 194). He quotes Muhammad Iqbal [The poet, who first raised the demand for Pakistan by Partitioning India, which was accepted by Muhammad Ali Jinnah] “Islam, as a religion, has no country” (P. 179). He continues, “One may add that even Muslim intellectuals of the post-1947 generation, who profess Marxism, scrupulously avoid criticizing their community’s culture and religion for reasons of expediency. Till this situation changes there can be no satisfactory solution of the Hindu-Muslim problem” (P. 195)
In another booklet3, he traces the Muslim problem due to lack of their modernization and urges the progressive Muslims, the worse offenders, to undertake a creative ‘reinterpretation’ of their faith. He laments “The failure of the Marxists to analyze the Islamic tradition and Muslim society in India has been all the more culpable. They have even gone to the extent of discovering secularism in the Muslim League in Kerala!” (P. 16) The writer then suggests a few measures to modernize the society, especially Islam. Some of them of interest to us are:
“The existing laws regarding the location of temples, mosques, durghas, the playing of music before mosques, unauthorised killing of cows and the like should be firmly implemented.” (P. 19)
“There is sufficient ground for belief that certain Muslim groups in India receive funds from abroad, not all of which are utilized for the ostensible purpose for which they are given. The provisions of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act 1976 should be rigorously implemented in all such cases.’’ (P. 19)
“The government should see to it that reformist groups and movements among the Muslims are not subjected to physical or social persecution in the name of religion…… the hobnobbing of all political leader, including ministers, with persons like the Syedna, the Shahi Imam of Delhi and the Ulema of Deoband makes one wonder whether government and political parties are really interested in prompting a secular outlook among the Muslims.” (P. 19)
“Government should make up its mind to modify the personal laws of not only the Muslims but also the Christians, the Parsees and the Jews so as to bring them in line with modern ideas about the rights of women in matters of marriage, divorce and succession.” (P. 22)
He ends his note by pointing out that “Liberal Hindus and educated Muslims who believe that progress can be had without tears are living in a fool’s paradise.” (P. 22)
2. Religion and Society in India, Prof. A. B. Shah, Somaiya Publications, Bombay, 1981
3. What Ails our Muslims, Prof. A. B. Shah, Indian Secular Society, Pune, Reprint 1992.