In her book, ‘Mothering A Muslim’, Nazia Erum talks about battling the only identity granted to her, but Arif Mohammad Khan says that it’s not “others” who granted that identity. Khan, who reviewed the book for News18.com, claims that All India Muslim Personal Law Board’s role in the Shah Bano case in 1986 changed the situation. While saying that he understands Erum’s exasperation, he points out that the community’s failure to oppose the Board and their claim to be its sole representative gave rise to this feeling. Hence, the turning point came in 1986,and not 2014.
The book is a moving narration of the concerns and anxieties of a young Indian Muslim mother, who on one hand tries to protect her child from the baneful effects of communal hate speech and on the other, struggles against her own co-religionists who see her ilk as lesser Muslims for being modern and liberal.
The Muslims have been living in India for more than a thousand years and since most of them were of the local origins, they followed and cherished the same pluralistic cultural values. The great Sufis like Hazrat Nizamuddin and Bulhe Shah promoted this syncretism and harmonious life style and personally participated in festivals like Basant and Holi.
But it cannot be denied that right from the beginning there has been a group of clergy who exhorted Muslims to keep clear of non-Muslim cultural influences and maintain their separate and distinct identity. They were told to “shun similarity of appearance” as in the hereafter one shall be with those whose appearance he adopts.
Since there was tremendous religious and cultural diversity among Hindus and it was not possible to dub them as a monolith, therefore, the Muslim clergy used an apocryphal narration to highlight the importance of separate identity.
They quoted “Al-Kufr Millatun Wahida” implying that all those who do not subscribe to Islam are one community. The purpose was to erect walls of separation between Muslims and Hindus. They largely succeeded in their attempts, as the Hindu social system also recognized caste distinctions and did not allow free mixing. But despite social exclusiveness, the relations among people of various religious denominations were cordial and they respected each other’s sensitivities.
However, this trend was taken to absurd heights during British rule when it was asserted that the two communities subscribe not only to different religions but their secular and economic interests are also different rather mutually hostile. The colonial masters promoted this mind-set after 1857, to ensure they do not face any joint resistance in future.
To make things worse, they introduced constitutional measures like separate electorate and adopted policies that would heighten community consciousness and give rise to communalism that ultimately resulted in the division of India.
Maulana Azad had predicted in 1946 that partition would make the problem of communalism even more complex. He said: “Partition of the country was demanded on the basis of enmity between Hindus and Muslims. So the actual partition would give this enmity a national and constitutional status and solution of the problem would become even more difficult.
On 23 October, 1947, Maulana Azad addressed a Muslim gathering outside Delhi Jama Masjid and told them “now that Indian politics has taken a new direction, there is no place in it for Muslim League”. He exhorted them “to march with the change and do not say that we were not ready for the change”.
But as we had rejected Maulana Azad earlier, we ignored his wise words after Independence. It took less than 40 years when the identity politics was revived again. In 1986, the Personal Law Board started an agitation against the judgment of Supreme Court not because it contradicted any basic principle of Islam, but on the ground that it posed threat to the community identity (milli tashakhkhus). This time they did not claim to be a separate nation but asserted their separate identity. And exactly in the manner of Muslim League claimed to be the “sole representative of Indian Muslims.”
One can understand the exasperation of Nazia Erum when she talks of battling the only identity granted to her. Actually this identity was not granted by others, it was asserted and demanded by Personal Law Board in 1986 and we failed to oppose them and their claim to be our sole representative. So the turning point came in 1986, and not in 2014 as the books says.
According to Quran, the identity of a person is determined by the territory and the tribe in which one is born and the religion is for creating God-consciousness (13.49) and the duty of the Muslims is to do good to people at large (3.110). If we heed to these teachings, then we shall realize that religion does not ask us to flaunt a separate identity rather it asks us to identify with our compatriots and serve the needy, the helpless and the poor. That will give us an identity that nobody will grudge.
This Quranic worldview has been underlined beautifully by Akbar Allahabadi, a great grandfather of Nazia Erum. He says:
QURAN BHI SHAHID HAI KI KHUDA HUSN SE KHUSH HAI
YEH BHI TO SUNO KIS SE HUSNE AMAL SE
(Quran testifies that God is pleased with the beauty, but listen this beauty is the beauty of conduct.)
(Arif Mohammad Khan is a senior lawyer who argued on behalf of petitioners in triple talaq case. Former Union minister, he has advocated abolishing of All India Muslim Personal Law Board)