Siyasi Muslims: In a new book, Hilal Ahmed argues for a more nuanced understanding of political Islams in India

  • In Siyasi Muslims, Hilal Ahmed offers an evocative story of politics and Islam in India, which goes beyond the given narratives of Muslim victimhood and Islamic separation

  • Among other things, the book makes an attempt to problematise the popular perceptions about Shariat and its politics, especially with regard to the triple talaq issue

How do we make sense of the Muslims of India? Do they form a political community? Does the imagined conflict between Islam and modernity affect the Muslims' political behaviour in this country? Are Muslim religious institutions, such as mosques and madrasas, directly involved in politics? Do they instruct the community to vote strategically in all elections? What are 'Muslim issues'?

These are just a few of the questions Siyasi Muslims (Penguin India), a recently published book by Hilal Ahmed, attempts to answer. "Examining the everydayness of Muslims in contemporary India, Hilal Ahmed offers an evocative story of politics and Islam in India, which goes beyond the given narratives of Muslim victimhood and Islamic separation," a synopsis for Siyasi Muslims reads.

Ahmed, who is associate professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, discusses some of the ideas articulated in his book in this interview with Firstpost.

You begin your book with Ramachandra Guha's now infamous op-ed in Indian Express in which he compared the burqa with a trishul. While Guha later admitted that his comparison was ill-chosen, you write that even in his clarification, the idea of the Muslim community as an unchanging and regressive monolith remains. In your experience, how pervasive is this gaze about Muslims among liberal intellectuals?

Let me begin with a clarification. I find Ramachandra Guha's intervention very powerful and provocative. He forced many of us to revisit the idea of Muslimness to problematise the given imagination of public presence of Muslims in postcolonial India. This line of argument is not systematically explored — primarily because Muslimness is always seen in relation to aggressive Hindutva.

Guha, in my view, pushes us to get rid of the official story of Muslim victimhood and pay close attention to those internal power structures which determine the everyday life of Muslim communities. In this sense, Guha was criticised for the wrong reasons!

I did not respond to the Indian Express debate intentionally. The debate centres on a puzzling binary between ‘declared liberals’ and ‘problematic liberals’. It gave us a strong impression that complex ideas and arguments about Muslims can easily be accommodated in these neat and clean categories. It was not an easy task for someone like me to adjust my findings and inferences in this framework.

There was also a problem of perception. Those who participated in the debate (except a few) did not take the idea of Muslim social and political heterogeneity very seriously.

We must remember that there is a difference between Muslim presence and Muslim everyday life.

Muslim presence is always constituted as a homogeneous entity in the public discourses; while highly diversified Muslim everyday life has its own pace and rhythm. Many a time, we invoke ‘Muslim presence’ as a read-to-use-template to explain virtually every aspect of Muslim social life.

This is what we observe in this debate as well. Most of the participants expressed their opinions to the nuances of Muslim presence without problematising the idea of Muslim oneness. This analytical laziness eventually led to oversimplification. Consequently, we are again forced to choose between liberal beliefs and Hindutva stereotypes.

Nevertheless, I do recognise the significance of this debate. In this sense, I offer a constructive, critical analytical framework in Siyasi Muslims — not refute what Guha and his adversaries argue — but to expand the scope of the present mode of thinking about Muslimness and its politics.

 Siyasi Muslims: In a new book, Hilal Ahmed argues for a more nuanced understanding of political Islams in India

Examining the everydayness of Muslims in contemporary India, Hilal Ahmed offers an evocative story of politics and Islam in India, which goes beyond the given narratives of Muslim victimhood and Islamic separation. Image for representation only. REUTERS.

Your book is prefaced with an FAQ that has 19 questions and answers about Muslims and politics. This is not something commonly found in books and I couldn't but think of it as a burden of a Muslim scholar writing on Muslims to clarify certain positions and address misinformation up front. Did you imagine the FAQ as something similar? Who do you think is the audience for this book?

I am a trained researcher and an academic. I write primarily for an academic public — teachers, researchers and students of social sciences and humanities. But Siyasi Muslims is not written exclusively for them. My aim is to reach out those readers who are interested in knowing about Muslims and Islam or what is now called ‘political Islam’.

I have been observing for a long time that our English-educated public in general and literate public in particular do face two very specific problems:

First, the ‘reading culture’ is declining. The pace of life, especially in metro cities, where English-educated readers are mainly located, does not allow them to follow an argument in densely written texts. I often describe the contemporary moment of knowledge as an “FAQ moment”. The reader wants a summary that can navigate him/her into the text.

Unlike other academics, I do not blame my students/readers for their apathetic attitude towards reading. They are the product of the FAQ moment! On the contrary, I take up this challenge as an author to write for an indifferent reader — to provoke him/her to go beyond the WhatsApp University and FAQ mode.

The second problem, in my view, is related to the subject matter — Muslims/Islam. As I said, we rely heavily on a few liberal beliefs and Hindutva stereotypes to think about Muslims. The 19 FAQs I identify in the book emerge from these perceptions. As an academic, I believe that it is my duty to answer these questions by using my research tools so that the reader could draw her/his own informed meaning. I believe that this book must also be written in Hindi so that it could reach out to non-English readers as well.

That said, I do not feel that it is a burden for me because I am a Muslim. My Muslimness is also related to other identity attributes of my individual self: I am a teacher, a researcher, and an author. These attributes are not in conflict with each-other.

You touch upon the issue of caste among Muslims a few times in the book and also profile Ali Anwar. Caste has been one of the most glaringly omitted aspects in studies and theoretical frameworks about Indian Muslims so far, and consciousness about it among mainstream and upper caste writers is very nascent and due to the work and assertion of Pasmanda scholars and activists. How would you say your understanding of caste has affected the manner in which you understood politics around ‘Siyasi Muslims’ in India?

Yes, I agree with this observation. I admire the Pasmanda movement because this has given us a new vantage point to look at the question of Muslim social stratification and the diversity of Muslim political discourse in India. In my view, the Pasmanda movement as an intellectual force has expanded the scope of the tradition of the internal critique initiated by Hamid Dalvai and further developed by Asghar Ali Engineer and Ali Anwar.

My understanding of caste among Muslims is inextricably linked to my theoretical position on Muslim politics.

I believe that caste, class, and gender play a very powerful role in shaping the nature of Muslim engagements with different form of politics.

Two related arguments that emerged in different historical moments — the 1960s and early to mid-2000s — may be useful to elaborate this point:

The 1960s argument was that Muslims must act as a homogeneous minority pressure group in the realm of competitive electoral politics so as to protect their cultural-religious interests. This evocation of Muslim oneness allowed the upper caste, upper class, aristocratic and/or Ulama elite to establish themselves as community representatives.

In the mid-2000, especially after the publication of the Sachar Report — a revised version of this argument is produced. We have been told that Muslims are more backward than Scheduled Castes. Therefore, there is a need to have a comprehensive agenda of Muslim empowerment.

Image courtesy Penguin India

Image courtesy Penguin India

No one can deny that Muslims are poor and marginalised. But, it does not mean that they should be treated as a singular entity for the purpose of affirmative action. The caste and class are two important sociological indicators to offer a context-specific view of Muslim backwardness.

Interestingly, the publication of the Sachar Report, which aimed at transforming the Muslims into a developmental category, eventually reestablished Muslim homogeneity as a frame of reference in the political sphere. This led to what I call a counterproductive politics of Hindutva victimhood.

In a chapter on religiosity, you use CSDS data to note that unlike what is otherwise perceived, Muslims do not think of themselves as very religious, and many Muslim do not observe namaaz or roza regularly. This is important to note but I have a question on the method of understanding and determining religiosity in general.

You treat the “Five Pillar Theory” [of Shahada (belief), Namaaz, Roza, Zakat and Hajj] as the root of Islam for Muslims in India. However, are there any studies to show that Muslims across India consider these the basic constituents of Islam in their lived experience? I ask this because recent work by religious studies scholars iterates that daily lived experiences and practices are a better marker of religiosity than “belief”.

For example, what about subcontinent practices like faith in a mazaar and dargah that many Shia and Sunnis communities swear by? Are they necessarily subordinate to the “Five Pillars” of Islam?

This is a very valuable question. I agree with your point that Muslim religiosity should not be reduced merely to the Five Pillar Theory.

However, the purpose of that chapter is not to reestablish the supremacy of textual Islam over the lived religiosity. On the contrary, I am interested in unpacking the idea of pucca Musalman — a dominant mode to measure Muslim religiosity and moral conducts. This question leads me to two sets of issues: the nature of organised/reformed Sunni Islam and the self-perceptions of Muslims about their own religiosity.

The Five Pillar Theory, in this schema, emerges as an important reference point to compare the Muslim self-perceptions about their own religious practices. If you closely look at the structure of the chapter and presentation of data, you may find that it actually corroborates the point you make here: Muslims do not think that they are sufficiently religious because various forms of lived religiosities cannot entirely be accommodated in the given framework of textual-reformed Sunni Islam. The chapter ends with Hali’s comments on everyday religiosity and the attitude of [the] Ulama to further substantiate this argument.

You have dedicated a chapter to discuss Muslim “backwardness”. You show that only six percent of the total Muslim male workforce manages to get white collar occupations, and Muslims constitute only three percent of the directors and senior executives among the BSE 500 companies. Could you throw some light for our readers on what these numbers say about the overall backwardness of Muslims in general, and class-caste disparity among Muslims?  

There can be two ways to look at this issue. We may interpret the given set of information to underline Muslim backwardness by arguing that there are very few Muslims in white collar jobs. However, we can also infer this data to make a completely different observation: it can be suggested that there are very few Muslims at top level which shows that there is serious economic disparity among Muslims in India. In my view, both of these interpretations are valid for the purpose of my argument. I try to demonstrate the nature of class division among Muslims to show how the idea of backwardness merges with the emerging forms of politics, especially in the post-Sachar period.

Hilal Ahmed. Image courtesy Institute of Objective Studies

Hilal Ahmed. Image courtesy Institute of Objective Studies

Muslim Personal Law has been in the eye of the storm with the Triple Talaq Bill. In your book, you write about how the evolution of Sharia as a legal entity drew its inspirations from colonial modernity. How do we understand the Sharia vis-a-vis the Quran on one hand and colonial modernity on the other?

The Islam we know today (which is often described as a more than 1,400-year-old religion) is a relatively new phenomenon.

Muslims in India — and for that matter South Asia — follow those versions of Islam that emerged in the 19th century as religious reform movements. This is true of other religions as well. The Islamic reform movements had to respond to colonial rule in two very different ways: First, they had to adjust themselves with a new kind of political institutions, which were completely alien to them. On the other hand, the intellectual challenges posed by the colonial knowledge system forced the religious elite to reconfigure their imaginations of Islam itself.

Interestingly, they imbibed the framework of modern knowledge to produce a more organised form of Islam: the society of the Prophet Mohammad was identified as the classical Islamic past; the spread of Islamic power was presented as the triumph of Islam; strict sets of rules and norms were codified as Shariat. This structured form of idealised religion eventually received official recognition by the colonial state. The Shariat Law of 1937 is good example in this regard. This process continued in postcolonial India in a very different form. The Islamic religious organisations and elites recognised the discourse of minority rights as a source to refashion their interpretation of Islam.

In this backdrop, the book makes a modest attempt to problematise the popular perceptions about Shariat and its politics, especially with regard to the triple talaq issue.

Many readers would be surprised to read that the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid appealed to vote for the BJP in 2004. In your book, you suggest that around 6-7 percent of Muslims vote for the BJP at the national level. But you go on to say that “in 2014, there was a tacit acceptance of Narendra Modi among Muslims”. What makes you say that?

I have written extensively on fatwa politics and the idea of the Muslim vote bank in my first book, Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation (2014), which examines the nature of Muslim politics.

The second part of the question is about the 2014 elections. We find that unlike previous elections, the Muslim support for BJP increased significantly in 2014. The party managed to get around nine percent Muslim votes at the national level. This trend continued in 2019 as well.

However, this national picture must be adequately analysed. There are four important aspects of Muslim voting, which we must note while discussing the increasing vote share of BJP among Muslims:

First, Muslim voting pattern depends on party competition at the state level. In those states where the nature of electoral competition is bipolar (meaning there are only two main parties in the fray such as Gujarat), the Muslim vote would naturally be divided between two main contenders. Therefore, the chances of the BJP to secure Muslim voters would be higher.

Second, we must also remember that a number of regional leaders have joined the BJP in last few years. These leaders also bring with them a section of ‘loyal voters’, which also includes Muslims.

Third, elections are always fought at the constituency level, where personal equations, caste considerations and economic interests play a major role. BJP, like other parties, try to use informal network to attract Muslim voters at this level.

Finally, the anti-Muslim discourse somehow also creates an atmosphere of fear. Muslims are directly threatened to vote for the BJP, like Maneka Gandhi in one of her election meetings this time.

Updated Date: Aug 17, 2019 09:09:59 IST