Muslim identity in pluralist India

With their deep affinity to Indian region, customs and traditions, Indian Muslims assimilate into the Indian identity

By Author Nadeem Khan   |   Published: 1st Jun 2020   12:10 am Updated: 31st May 2020   11:56 pm

With identity-based politics on the rise along with a tinge of Islamophobia, Indian Muslims have lately been under question regarding their identity. Many have been made to believe that they lack Indianness in their identity.

Sociologists have described their identity in different ways. The most accepted definition states that the Indian Muslim identity is at the centre of three concentric circles. The first relates to India, the second to Arabia and the third to Pan-Islamism. The innermost circle is basic and relates to Indian identity. Muslims’ identity is made to appear not aligning with national aspirations, primarily for political reasons.

India is the mosaic of many cultures, regions and classes. These can be intermingled and is homogenous at places. The big question is whether the identity of a minority in a heterogeneous society can be exclusively religious or can it have a non-religious dimension as well?

Pan Islamism

Pan Islamic aspect of Muslim identity was reduced to sentimental value ever since Khilafat collapsed. The issue of political aspiration of pan-Islamism is no longer valid. A Muslim in India may feel sympathetic to other Muslims of the world but this is true with other communities as well.

Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), social reformer and founder of Aligarh Muslim University, rejected pan-Islamism of Jamaluddin Afghani (1838-1897) stating that Indian Muslims were legally bound to follow the writ of the British Indian government and not of an external Muslim Khalifa.

Although Maulana Mohammad Ali (1878-1931) thought differently, he stated that Indian nationalism and pan-Islamism could go together. He noted that protest against the aggression of western powers against Muslim states brought more conviction in Muslims in their national struggle against the British rule in India.

Arab Influence

The Arabian aspect confines to the reality that Islam is a Semitic religion and has its holy places there. This emotional connection is common in all communities. For instance, a Hindu living in Fiji will have an emotional attachment towards Hindu religious sites in India. Similarly, Christians anywhere in the world will have an emotional connection with the Vatican or Bethlehem. Arab is an ethnolinguistic term, primarily identifying those people who speak Arabic as their mother tongue.

Moreover, if religion is responsible for national aspirations, then more Muslims are non-Arabs than Arabs. The country with the highest Muslim population is Indonesia. The highest concentration of Muslims is in South Asia. Even Persia, which lies adjacent to Arabia, has different cultures and national aspirations compared with Arabs despite the same religion. Persians think their culture is superior to that of Arabs. For Indian Muslims, even during the Mughal rule, Arabic was never a language of administration and was confined to Islamic scriptures.

Regional Consciousness

Noted sociologist Prof Imtiaz Ahmad mentions that Muslims in India are more Indian in beliefs and practices. Region inhabited has an important effect on the identity of an individual. Many Hindus revere Muslim faqirs. This can be appreciated by the presence of Hindu devotees at the Ajmer shrine.

Lord Krishna finds special mention in the poetry of Raskhan. He is also a part of folklore among Muslims of Braj. There are many Muslims who don’t rule out the possibility of Hindu gods as unnamed prophets of the Holy Quran. Even the bravery of Shivaji finds resonance among Muslims of Maharashtra simply because he wanted to protect regional sovereignty. Tagore is highly respected among Muslims of Bengal as he represented Bengali culture.

Awadhi culinary cuisine of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah is still prevalent across communities of India. Affinity to everything of the region is the single most integrating force between various communities. In Punjab, Baba Fareed, Bulleh Shah and Guru Nanak are revered. Regional consciousness is more formidable compared with religious consciousness else Bangladesh would not have been formed.

Language Binds

Language drives regional consciousness. It is because of this reason that most States in India were demarcated on linguistic lines. Often to suit politically, religion is used as the basis of national identity. But religion is only a small part of national culture. It cannot hold for India as a variation of religious beliefs exists between different Hindu cultural groups.

There are differences in practice as far as idol worship is concerned. The best example is the Arya Samaj. Noted research scholar of Ramayan T Shankar has mentioned about the differences between Valmiki Ramayana, Kamba Ramayana and Jain Ramayana. Holi is celebrated differently in Tamil Nadu and in North India. Even among Muslims, a slight difference in practices is there between people of different ‘Maslaks’ (school of thought). Muslims of given maslaks are more in certain areas than others. The best example is Kerala and coastal regions of India, where ‘Shafii Maslak’ followers are more.

Nothing can be more wrong more than the notion that Indian Muslims have Pakistani identity. Both the intellectual and cultural assets of Indian Muslims are in India. Prestigious institutions with high Muslim presence such as Aligarh and Jamia are in India. Major prestigious symbols of Muslim contributions like the Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar, Charminar and Red Fort are in India. Prominent Islamic seminaries such as of Dar ul Uloom-Deoband, Dar ul Uloom Manzare Islam-Bareilly, Nadwatul Ulama-Lucknow are in India. The language associated with Muslims of India, ie, Urdu originated in India between the 6th and 13th centuries. A majority of Urdu words have their etymological roots in Sanskrit.

Accepting Soul

Questions about Muslim identity and their national aspirations were the direct culmination of efforts made in the last quarter of the 19th century. These efforts were aimed at merging belief in Hinduism with Indian nationalism.

As per Shamsul Islam, it was Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who through his writings, tried to merge Indian nationalism with Hindu religion. His contemporary Aurobindo seconded his views. But Shamsul Islam also states that Veer Savarkar, the Hindutva icon, in ‘The Indian War of Independence’ praised the contribution of Indian Muslims in the 1857 uprising. He called it the first war of Independence and had special praise for the efforts of Maulvi Azimullah. He also praised the jihadi spirit of Maulvi Ahmad Shah against the British.

Indian Muslims have their roots deep in Indian society with affinity to region, customs, and traditions, which together accumulate into the identity of the nation. Since ancient times, the soul of India is in acceptance; so the spirit of India should not be allowed to become hostage to political theatrics.

(The author is a finance professional based in Toronto)


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