InsightSeptember October 2006

Islam, Madrasas and Cultural ‘Arabisation’: Insights from India

Yoginder Sikand


Madrasas, or Islamic seminaries, are much in the news today. Western and Indian non-Muslim media depictions of madrasas are almost invariably negative, alarmist and sensationalist. Madrasas are routinely accused of being ‘dens of terror’ and as allegedly churning out ‘fanatic’ and ‘fundamentalist’ ‘jihadist time-bombs’. They are said to be in league with ‘anti-national elements’ and advocates of ‘pan-Islamism’, plotting to destroy the unity of India. They are also accused of promoting ‘Arabisation’ in the name of Islam, thereby subverting what is referred to, without clearly defining the term, as ‘Indian culture’.

This paper is concerned with the last point: the accusation that madrasas in India are actively engaged in promoting a form of culture that is fiercely opposed to local cultural traditions, supplementing them with forms associated with seventh century Arabia. The paper argues for a nuanced discussion of the phenomenon, warning against alarmist reports and accusations, and appealing for a recognition of the fact that Muslims are hardly exceptional in their approach to religion and culture, being in this regard no different from people of other faith traditions.

The paper begins with a discussion of the notion of Qur’anic universalism, the universalism of revelation that is central to the Qur’anic understanding of religion, and the consequent ‘Arabisation’ of Muslim religious tradition, as interpreted by Muslim clerics or ‘ulama, over time. Moving to the Indian context, it discusses the role of madrasas and certain Islamic organisations in promoting forms of Islam that are influenced, to various degrees, by Arab culture as a result of the conflation of the two in the minds of many Muslims, including many ‘ulama. It then looks at mechanisms and conceptual tools contained in the Muslim legalistic tradition developed by the fuqaha, scholars of Islamic law, that have been and can be used to develop contextually-relevant understandings of Islam and Islamic jurisprudence, thereby enabling non-Arab (‘ajami) Muslims, including Muslims in India today, to reconcile their local and Islamic identities. It proceeds to argue that the phenomenon of limited cultural ‘Arabisation’ that is sought to be promoted by some madrasas today must not be exaggerated or treated in an alarmist fashion. Rather than look at it from simply the ‘security’ point of view, the paper argues, discussions about the phenomenon need to be placed in the wider framework of processes of identity formation, changing forms of inter-communal relations and the quest for upward social mobility. The paper concludes with a discussion of countervailing factors that challenge the agenda of limited cultural ‘Arabisation’ that some madrasas in India seek, consciously or otherwise, to promote.

Qur’anic Universalism versus Arab Particularism

The Qur’an, the foundational text of the Islamic scriptural tradition, sees itself as the culmination of a series of revelations sent by God in order to guide humankind. The Qur’an refers to prophets (sing. nabi, pl. anbiya) as having been sent to every ‘nation’ (as the Arabic word qaum is often translated in English), pointing out that no ‘nation’ has been without a prophet to provide it with divine guidance. Since God’s purpose in creating human beings has been to guide them in order to worship and serve Him, He has dispatched a series of prophets to every ‘nation’ so that they might know His Will and strive to follow it. Numerous prophets are specifically mentioned by name in the Qur’an, and the book also refers to numerous others whose names it does not mention. Since the Qur’an was ‘revealed’, as Muslims believe, in seventh century Arabia, it mentions the names of numerous prophets associated with the Jewish and Christian traditions, such as Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, as well as some Arab figures, all of whose names were familiar to the Arabs of Mecca of that time. Other prophets, sent to other ‘nations’, are left unmentioned, but the Qur’an insists that a person cannot be considered a ‘Muslim’ (literally: ‘one who has submitted [to the Will of God]’) unless he or she believes in these and all the other prophets and holds them in equal respect. This point well illustrates the central aspect of universalism of revelation that is a hallmark of the Qur’anic text.

Muslim tradition has it that God has sent a total of some 1,24,000 prophets to different communities or ‘nations’. Th first of these was Adam, who was also the first man, and the last of the prophets, the ‘seal of prophethood’, was Muhammad. While the earlier prophets were meant for particular communities, Muslims believe that Muhammad was meant for the entire humankind. Hence, he is described as the rahmat al il-‘alamin, the ‘mercy to the worlds’. All the prophets are said to have taught the same primal religion (din), called in Arabic as al-Islam or ‘the Surrender (unto God)’. Some prophets, such as Moses and Muhammad, are also said to have been charged with the additional responsibility of revealing a new law (shari’ah) or of suitably modifying the existing external religious laws. A prophet who brings a new set of laws, besides being a nabi, is termed as rasul. All rasuls are nabis but not all nabis are rasuls.

The word shari’ah literally translates as ‘path’ or ‘road’. In the Islamic sense, it means the road that must be followed by a believer in accordance with God’s Will. In the Muslim understanding of religion, religion is not simply about the relationship between the individual believer and God. Rather, it embraces all aspects of an individual’s personal, social and collective life. It is believed that God’s Will embraces the totality of human existence and it must be followed in each and every sphere, not simply being limited to worship and devotion alone. Only if God’s Will and God’s laws are strictly followed in all spheres of life can a believer be said to truly be a proper Muslim. Hence, the general understanding of the term shari’ah is that it is a ‘road’, embracing the totality of one’s life, that leads to eternal bliss in Heaven, if God so wills. The shari’ah, in this understanding of the term, covers not just the laws of ritual worship but every other aspect of life, from ritual actions, sexual relations, physical appearance, food habits and personal deportment, to the complex realms of economics and international relations.

As most ‘ulama see it, the shari’ah, as ‘revealed’ by Muhammad and later elaborated upon through a complex process of interpretation by the early ‘ulama, is the ideal path, meant for al humankind. Prophets before Muhammad who brought along their own shari’ahs or modified existing shari’ahs did so, in accordance with God’s Will, and in response to the specific cultural, social and economic needs of the societies in which they lived and worked. Their shari’ahs were, therefore, limited by their spatio-temporal contexts. However, since Muhammad is believed by Muslims to be the last prophet, and since he is said to have come for the entire humankind and his message holds true till the Day of Judgment, the shari’ah of Muhammad (shari’at-i muhammadi) is said to be, from Muhammad’s time onwards, valid for all peoples, for all time till the Last Day, and for all places. Only by following the shari’at-i muhammadi, the ‘ulama believe, can one truly be said to be following God’s Will. All other paths, as taught by other religions or ideologies, are believed by the vast majority of the ‘ulama to be either false, distorted or else to contain only limited truths that are insufficient for one to attain heaven after death. Hence, the ‘ulama argue, Muslims must follow the shari’at-i muhammadi strictly, and must shun all other paths, for these other paths inevitably lead to hell.

Many contemporary ‘ulama and Islamist ideologues present the shari’ah as a neatly defined set of laws and rules, covering every conceivable aspect of human life. In other words, they imagine the shari’ah as a total system or a complete code of human existence. However, some scholars have argued that this is not the way the word is understood in the Qur’an and that it is a result of a confusion of the divine shari’ah, as referred to in the Qur’an, with the historical shari’ah, as developed historically, during the life of the Prophet and in the centuries immediately after his death. Put differently, it reflects a conflation of the divine shari’ah with fiqh, human efforts to understand and interpret the shari’ah in the form of laws covering a vast range of matters that are not specifically mentioned in the Qur’an.

In the Qur’an, the word shari’ah and derivatives of it are used in the sense of ‘path’, denoting more the immortal moral law associated with the sense of submission to God and following the primal din taught by all the prophets, rather than as simply a bundle of laws and rules. Indeed, even a causal reading of the Qur’an reveals that the book contains relatively very few legal prescriptions. Instead, its overwhelming focus is on the cultivation of fear and love for God and a commitment to devote oneself to His worship alone, this being expressed in the form of moral acts that exemplify the din being out into action. The Qur’anic understanding of the shari’ah clearly appears to be associated with this understanding of Islam, rather than, as today, as a system of do’s and don’ts covering every aspect of an individual’s personal and collective life.

Yet, shortly after the death of the Prophet, this approach to understanding revelation and the shari’ah was to undergo a momentous transformation. As in the case of other religious communities that, in their inception, represented a powerful challenge to the status quo, a process of institutionalisation of religion set in soon enough among the early Muslim community, which was further solidified over time. Consequently, the Qur’an was supplemented with several other texts, as a result of which it was increasingly rendered difficult for Muslims to approach the Qur’an directly. Sayings, many of them apocryphal, as many ‘ulama themselves would admit, began circulating, attributed to the Prophet or his companions, that sought to justify monarchy, women’s subordination, the notion of Arab superiority over non-Arabs and so on. These had no sanction in the Qur’an itself, strictly speaking, but were institutions, beliefs and practices that were associated with the evolving and expanding early Muslim community in Arabia in the years after the death of the Prophet.

These sayings found their way into the books of Hadith, collections of statements said to have been uttered by the Prophet or related to or about him. Although the Prophet had warned Muslims not to accept any book other than the Qur’an for religious guidance, it was now stressed by the emerging class of ‘ulama that it was not possible for Muslims to rely on the Qur’an alone. They argued that since the Prophet was the best interpreter of the Qur’an, it was impossible to understand the Qur’an independently of how the Prophet had understood it. Hence, they argued, the Qur’an had to be interpreted according to the books of Hadith, many of which contained sayings that were fabricated and wrongly attributed to the Prophet.

The development of Hadith, and, later, the various schools of fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence in the centuries after the death of the Prophet led to a radical re-definition of understandings of the shari’ah. The shari’ah was no longer seen as a loosely defined moral path. Rather, it was gradually reduced to an elaborate and convoluted se of rules about every conceivable aspect of life. This was promoted by the emergence and development of the ‘ulama as class of religious specialists or clerics, whose specialised in the rules of the shari’ah and whose claim to authority rested on this knowledge. Over time, with the crystallisation of the ‘ulama as a class of religious specialists, it was claimed that it was only the ‘ulama who had the rightful authority to interpret Islam, for it was argued that the ‘ulama were the true ‘heirs of the Prophet’. By claiming to be authorities in matters of the shari’ah they were able to exercise their control over society. In this they were often supported by Muslim rulers, on whom they depended for patronage, in return for which they provided them sanction for institution of monarchy, for which there is, strictly speaking, no Qur’anic legitimacy.

The development of numerous schools of Muslim jurisprudence or fiqh from the tenth century onwards exemplifies the emergence of this notion of shari’ah as a system of rules. However, the very fact of the multiplicity of fiqh schools itself suggests that the precise content of shari’ah remained disputed, as rival schools provided different, often diametrically opposed, prescriptions on a range of matters of legal import, even as each school claimed to represent the single ‘authentic’ Islamic position on every conceivable matter. Since most of the early masters of the schools of fiqh were Arabs or Arabised non-Arabs, it was but natural that in their approach to shari’ah and to the rules of fiqh that they formulated they were indelibly influenced by Arab cultural norms, values and practices. This is how the corpus of laws and rules that the early specialists in fiqh, the fuqaha, developed and which came to form an integral part of the historical shari’ah were inseparable from the Arab cultural context in which they were formulated.

As Muslims see it, the Prophet Muhammad is the ‘perfect man’ (al-insan ul-kamil) and, hence, is the ideal model for all Muslims to emulate. Accordingly, for many early ‘ulama, particularly the more literalist-minded of them, every aspect of the Prophet’s life or sunnat came to be seen as integral to his message, and hence, as the norm for Muslims. It was made to appear as if the Prophet was uninfluenced by his own spatio-temporal location in every action of his and that, therefore, there was nothing in the Prophet’s life that was limited in its application to seventh century Arabia. Obviously, therefore, many aspects of the Prophet’s personal sunnat that were conditioned by his own social and temporal location and were not, strictly speaking, an integral part of the Qur’anic or Islamic message, were also included as an integral part of the Islamic tradition, at least by the literalist school. For many ‘ulama, this meant that many aspects of seventh century Arabian society and culture came to be seen as somehow an inseparable part of the faith, at least as an ideal model for other Muslims to emulate. This included such matters as how the Prophet dressed and smiled, the food he ate, the medicines he used, the sort of tooth-stick that he used and so on.

The sunnat of the Prophet, as understood by the early ‘ulama, naturally included many aspects of the Prophet’s personal life that went beyond the minimum duties or fara’iz needed to qualify as a Muslim. Several of these were unique to the Prophet while others were aspects of life in seventh century Arabia that did not necessarily have to do with the central tents of Islam as such. Yet, in their zeal to present the Prophet as a perfect model to be emulated as closely as possible by Muslims, these aspects of the life of the Prophet and his companions were also projected as integral to the sunnat of the Prophet and, consequently, as part of the historical shari’ah. Since the Prophet spoke in Arabic, it was said that the language spoken in heaven would be Arabic, and reports were manufactured to argue the point. Since the Prophet enjoined his male followers to shave their moustaches and grow their beards, in order to distinguish them from the Jews of Medina of his times, it came to be held that pious Muslim males must do this no matter where they lived. And so on. To innovate, to do anything that might deviate from the sunnat of the Prophet, was declared to be bidd’at or sinful ‘deviation’ or ‘innovation”. To denounce any such ‘innovation’ the ‘ulama claimed that the Prophet had declared that any ‘innovation’ from his sunnat was condemnable would inevitably lead one to hell.

This conflation of aspects of seventh century Arab culture with Islam in the minds of many of the early fuqaha naturally resulted in presenting Islam in a somewhat ‘Arabised’ mould, thereby undermining the universalistic thrust of the Qur’an. This process was further promoted by Arab imperialism and territorial expansionism, starting with the Ummayad dynasty. The Prophet, during his last pilgrimage to Mecca, is said to have clearly declared that an Arab was not superior to a non-Arab. As the Qur’an puts it, the only criterion for superiority in God’s eyes is taqwa or piety. Yet, the conflation of Arab culture with Islam in the minds of many of the fuqaha was amply used by the Umayyads, and, following them, the Abbasids, in the service of Arab imperialism against non-Arabs, such as the Persians, who were not granted an equal status even after conversion to Islam. In order to be accepted as ‘full’ Muslims, it was thought necessary by the more literalist of the ‘ulama, that one had to culturally Arabise oneself. This Arab-centric understanding of Islam and the shari’ah was also reflected in the books written by the early and medieval ‘ulama, Arabs and Arabised non-Arabs, which were taught in most medieval Indian madrasas, to which we now turn.

Madrasas and the Arab-Centric Shari’ah in India

Madrasas in medieval India served the function of producing not just religious specialists but also administrators to staff the royal bureaucracy. Muslim elites, and, in many places, ‘upper’ caste Hindus, would send their sons to madrasas to study from learned ‘ulama. Since the medieval Indian madrasas provided a well-rounded education and were not geared simply to the creation of religious specialists, it is hardly surprising that their curricula did not focus only on subjects thought of as ‘Islamic’ or, as today, as specifically ‘religious’, although these were taught as well, with regional variations. Given the clientele they were catering to, a major focus of most medieval madrasas was on a range of ‘secular’ subjects, the ‘ulum al-‘aqaliya, or the ‘rational sciences’, such as astronomy, geography, philosophy, medicine, architecture, logic, literature, calligraphy and so on. The ‘ulum al-naqaliya, the ‘revealed sciences’, such as Qur’anic commentary and Hadith, received relatively less attention in most medieval Indian madrasas. Often, students were taught just a single commentary on the Qur’an, and the science of Hadith, which forms the bedrock of contemporary notions of shari’ah, was sorely neglected, much to the chagrin of many ‘ulama. Although Arabic was taught as a subject, Persian received considerably more importance since it was the language of the courts and was spoken and understood by ruling Muslim and Hindu elites.

The tradition of ‘rational sciences’ promoted by the madrasas contributed to the development of a rich cultural synthesis, exemplified in what is often referred the Indo-Islamic or the Mughal tradition, in which both Muslim and Hindu elites played a contributory role. The relative neglect of the ‘revealed sciences’ in the medieval madrasas was naturally resented by many shari’ah-minded ‘ulama, who periodically raised their voice against this state of affairs. Their opposition gathered particular momentum as the Mughal Empire began showing signs of crumbling, faced with effective challenges from a range of non-Muslim powers, including the Marathas, the Sikhs, the Jats and the British. It was in this context that the doyen of the contemporary Indian Sunni ‘ulama, Shah Waliullah of Delhi (b.1703), began what later grew into a movement to promote the study of the ‘revealed sciences’.

The Waliullahi tradition was instrumental in introducing and popularising the study of the six collections of Hadith regarded as authoritative by most Sunni Muslims and also in gaining a limited legitimacy for the translation of the Qur’an into local languages. As Shah Waliullah the proponents of his school and other ‘ulama like them saw it, the rapid decline of Mughal power owed to the fact that the Indian Muslims, particularly the ajlaf, Muslims of indigenous, mainly ‘low’ caste, origins, had ‘strayed’ from the path of the shari’ah, which they typically interpreted in terms that were heavily influenced by Arab-centric notions. Hence, they regarded a wide range of local practices and customs associated with many Indian Muslims, particularly the ajlaf, as ‘un-Islamic’ innovations, insisting that only by abandoning them and strictly abiding by the standards set by the Arab-centric historical shari’ah could Muslims gain the pleasure of God and, thereby, hopefully, revive the political power that they had once enjoyed. Attacking popular customary practices and substituting them by practices associated with the historical shari’ah was to become a central pillar of the agenda of various Muslim reformist movements after Shah Waliullah, most of which were influenced by him. These included the Faraizis in Bengal and the Mujahidin in the Pathan borderlands in the early nineteenth century, and, from the late nineteenth century onwards, the Deobandis, the Jama’at-i Islami and the Ahl-i Hadith. Shah Waliullah’s approach to the shari’ah and popular custom also inspired numerous madrasas that began being established in the wake of the establishment of British rule.

Promoting a shari’ah-centric Islam influenced, to varying degrees, by Arab cultural norms, was, as its proponents saw it, a means for the defence of the faith from the menacing threat posed by the British and the Hindus. It was also seen as a return to Islamic ‘authenticity’, because many popular customs and beliefs associated with the Indian Muslims, particularly the ajlaf, were seen as having no sanction in the shari’ah and as clearly contradicting some of the central teachings of Islam, most particularly that of unsullied monotheism. Further, it was also a means to lay down clear symbolic markers of identity, setting Muslims as clearly different from the Hindus, and, in the process, attempting to create the notion of a monolithic Muslim identity. It must be remembered that at this time, and, in many places, even today, there was little to distinguish Hindus from Muslims in large parts of India, particularly in the countryside. Popular religion, in many places, consisted of a myriad cults of diverse origins, incorporating Sufi, ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ elements. Stressing markers of external ‘Islamic’ identity and crusading against popular ‘un-Islamic’ customs, practices and beliefs was a powerful means of critiquing shared local cultural and religious traditions, drawing clear symbolic lines between ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’, where such did not hitherto exist, and, in the process, helping to crystallise the notion of a single, homogenous Muslim community pitted against the Hindu ‘other’. Similar processes were at work in the Hindu case as well, unleashed by Hindu elites.

Madrasas and the Spread of Shari’ah-Centric Islam Under the British

This agenda of promoting shari’ah-centric Islam, particularly among the ajlaf Muslims, gained particular momentum with the onset of British rule. For the ‘ulama, especially those associated with the Mughal court, the rise of British power was seen as heralding the collapse of dar ul-islam, the abode of the faith. For centuries the ‘ulama had regarded the existence of a Muslim Sultan as a guarantor of the supremacy of Islam, although no Muslim Emperor of India actually ever ruled entirely in accordance with the shari’ah. The powers and privileges of the court ‘ulama were inextricably linked to the state. Muslim Emperors had generously patronized them to win their support. The rise of the British was seen as threatening the entrenched privileges of the ‘ulama, and hence as particularly menacing.

In the centuries of Turkish and Mughal rule centred in Delhi, the court ‘ulama seem to have displayed little concern for the vast majority of the Indian Muslims, who were of ‘low’ or ajlaf origin. Their close relations with the royal courts ruled out any strong links with the larger community outside the pale of the ashraf elite, Muslims who claimed foreign origins for themselves. They wrote and spoke in Persian and Arabic, languages almost completely foreign to the ordinary ajlaf. They tended to look down upon the ajlaf, who remained rooted in the ‘un-Islamic’ traditions of their ancestors, regarding them as Muslims in name alone. The near monopoly over the cultural capital of scripturalist, shari’ah-centred Islam that the ashraf exercised created an almost unbridgeable barrier between them and the ajlaf, thereby serving to bolster their own claims to higher social status.

Since the authority of the ashraf rested on, among others, on their claim of representing ‘Islamic’ culture and knowledge, it is hardly surprising that Muslim rulers as well as the ashraf ‘ulama associated with the courts took little or no interest in the ‘proper’ Islamisation of the ajlaf, being content simply with their formal acceptance of or association with some form of Islam or the other. The rapid collapse of Mughal power brought in its wake a growing shift in the focus of the ashraf ‘ulama. Over time, with effective power increasingly slipping into non-Muslim hands, no longer could the Muslim ruler be regarded as effectively guaranteeing the supremacy of Islam. In this rapidly changing political context, the ‘ordinary’ Muslim increasingly emerged as the symbol of the faith, taking the place earlier occupied in the minds of the court ‘ulama by the Muslim ruler. The ‘ordinary’ Muslim, fired with a passionate zeal for and commitment to shari’ah-centred Islam, was to be promoted to the status of the defender of the faith. This, in turn, was to have crucial implications for the understanding of what it meant to be Muslim. No longer would it suffice to be Muslim by simply having been born in a Muslim family or possessing a ‘Muslim’ name. Rather, as it was now to be increasingly stressed, one’s ‘Muslim-ness’ was to be a self-conscious decision that was to be based on knowledge of the demands of the faith. This meant that all customs that were seen as ‘un-Islamic’ were to be shunned and that the individual believer was to consciously strive to mould himself consciously on the Prophetic model, presented in a form that was inextricably related to seventh century Arab culture.

The collapse of Muslim political authority, a valuable source of patronage for the ‘ulama, ironically strengthened the claims of the ‘ulama as representatives and leaders of the community. Faced with the rapid territorial expansion of the East India Company, numerous charismatic leaders arose from among the ashraf ‘ulama, seeking to mobilize ordinary Muslims, including the ajlaf, against encroaching non-Muslim powers. These reformist movements and the efforts of the ‘ulama to reach out to the ajlaf helped rally mass support for efforts to recover the fast declining political power of the ashraf elite. For the ‘ulama involved in these movements the ajlaf increasingly provided new sources of patronage, now that support from earlier patrons, such as Muslim rulers and landlords, had considerably declined. For many ajlaf who enthusiastically participated in these movements for reform, the access that they provided to the valued symbols of ashraf ‘high’ culture opened up a new channel for upward social mobility. Abiding by the dictates of the shari’ah was a means to claim a higher social status. These movements must not be seen as purely religious. In the case of several such movements, such as the uprisings led by Titu Mir and Dudu Miyan in early nineteenth century Bengal, a strong class element was involved. In Bengal, scores of peasants and weavers, ruined by the policies of the East India Company, abject victims of a new breed of largely ‘upper’ caste Hindu landlords whom the British had helped set in place, enthusiastically supported the Islamic reformists. If they were to strictly observe the commandments of the shari’ah, they were told, divine intervention would put an end to their worldly woes.

The rise of Islamic reform movements seeking to reach out to the masses of ‘ordinary’ Muslims was thus one of the principal outcomes of the rapid spread of British power. Some of these were armed rebellions, but they were soon crushed by the British. Following these abortive jihads, few Islamic activists seriously contemplated military means to re-establish Muslim power in India. However, the legacy of the jihadist uprising movements lived on, spawning new efforts at reforming Muslim religious practice and working for the eventual setting up of what their leaders and followers regarded as a truly Islamic society. A major such effort was reflected in the establishment of a chain of madrasas with the onset of British rule.

The promotion of shari’ah-centric understandings of Islam among the ajlaf and the growing critiques of popular custom by the ‘ulama and their madrasas were a product of rapidly shifting forms of community identity in which the establishment of British rule had a central role to pay. To the British impact, in fact, we owe the creation of the notion of a unified, homogenous and well-defined pan-Indian Muslim, as well as Hindu, community. The pan-Indian Muslim ‘community’, then, was very much an ‘invented’ and ‘imagined’ identity, like its alter ego, the pan-Indian ‘Hindu’ community, against which it sought to define itself. Those engaged in constructing this identity sought to paper over internal differences of caste, class and region at the same time as they sought to stress, highlight and manufacture points of difference between Hindus and Muslims. In the process of reformulating of community identities, Hinduism came to be projected by Hindu ‘high’ caste elites as synonymous with Brahminical Hinduism, while Muslim elites, including the ulama, increasingly projected Islam in terms of the shari’ah-centric tradition. Shared spaces and customs as well as diverse and alternate understandings of religion, both Hindu and Muslim, were sought to be combatted in this process of homogenisation of Hinduism and Islam. N this process of refashioning community identities, madrasas were to play a very crucial role.

At the same time as the British rule was accompanied by the setting up of a number of madrasas that saw themselves as working to defend Muslims from the lure of ‘irreligious’ Western culture and Christianity and as taking ‘revenge’ for the defeat of the 1857 Rebellion and the collapse of the Mughals, the period witnessed also gradual shift in the class composition of the clientele of madrasas. Increasingly, Muslim elites preferred to send their sons to English-medium schools, while, over time, madrasas became largely the bastion of the poor, in many cases of ajlaf Muslims. The emergence of new forms of education under colonial rule that catered to Muslim (and Hindu) elites and the development of the notion of religion as simply a private matter had momentous consequences for the ‘ulama and the madrasas that continue to be felt even today. It meant, in effect, that the madrasas no longer would provide a general sort of education, but, instead, would increasingly come to restrict themselves to what was to be narrowly defined as ‘religious’ (dini) or ‘Islamic’, which was sought to be presented in strictly shari’ah-centric terms. Since madrasas increasingly restricted the teaching of the ‘rational sciences’, their role in promoting a shared elite culture in which Hindus and Muslims both participated was radically narrowed down, if not reduced altogether. From being vehicles of promoting and sustaining a rich shared elite cultural heritage, they increasingly turned into a means for promoting narrowly defined shari’ah-centric understandings of Islam, treating local cultures as of no importance or even as ‘un-Islamic’, and catering essentially to the Muslim poor, mainly the ajlaf.

Madrasas and Cultural ‘Arabisation’ in India Today

Today, for various reasons that, for want of space, cannot be discussed here, madrasas, by and large, limit themselves to the study of the sciences associated with the shari’ah, as the term is generally understood. Since the shari’ah, as it has come to be imagined, is significantly shaped by seventh century Arab norms and practices, many madrasas play the role of instruments of ‘Arabisation’ of local culture, in the limited sense of presenting those aspects of Arab culture that are associated with the Prophet and his companions as somehow intrinsic and integral to their way of imagining Islam and the shari’ah. This role is strengthened by the fact that Persian, which boasted of a rich literary tradition, often humanist and even iconoclastic in its content, with an appeal not just to strict practitioners of the shari’ah but to other Muslims and even to Hindu elites as well, is no longer the medium of instruction in any madrasa in India. Elementary Persian is taught as a subject in some Indian madrasas today, though the number of such madrasas is rapidly declining. Its place has been taken by Arabic, reflecting the notion that Arabic is the Islamic language par excellence because the Qur’an is revealed in that tongue. In contrast to medieval madrasas, their contemporary counterparts give much greater stress to the study of the Hadith, which, as mentioned earlier, is the basis for the development of notions of shari’ah that are heavily influenced by early and medieval Arab cultural norms. Likewise, most Indian madrasas continue in the tradition of teaching the books of medieval fiqh, mostly developed in early medieval Arabia or authored by Arabised non-Arabs, thus reinforcing the tendency of imagining the shari’ah (and, therefore, Islam) in terms of Arab cultural norms.

One of the principal aims and roles of many madrasas today is the propagation of shari’ah-centric forms of Islam and the undermining of popular forms of Islam, which are seen as having no sanction in the shari’ah. This opposition to popular custom is part of a broader agenda of drawing firmer and clearer lines between Muslims and Hindus, thereby working to further crystallise and solidify the notion of a Muslim community as neatly separated from and radically different from the Hindus. This, of course, reflects a common agenda of Hindu and Muslim elites, competing with each other for numbers and, through this, for political power, which is based on numerical strength of the respective communities of whom they claim to be the spokesmen. The process of limited Arabisation’ that madrasas promote today must, therefore, be seen in the wider context of inter-communal relations in India. It is, at least in part, a reaction to Hindu fascism, which is premised on an unrelenting hatred of Muslims, and to dominant official forms of Indian nationalism that are based on Brahminical Hinduism and have little or no place for Islam, Muslims and the Indian Muslim cultural heritage. Living as a threatened and beleaguered minority, often victims of murderous pogroms engineered by Hindu fascist groups and agencies of the state, and fearful of being de-Islamised and absorbed into the amorphous Hindu fold, for many Muslims the madrasas have come to be seen as the ‘forts of the faith’, the ‘bastions of the believers’, preaching and propagating ‘authentic’ Islam and keeping alive the faith of millions. Obviously, in a very real sense, the exclusivism and limited cultural ‘Arabisation’ that many madrasas promote must be seen, at least in part, as a reaction to the tremendous feeling of fear and insecurity that Muslims in many parts of the country experience.

The limited cultural ‘Arabisation’ promoted by madrasas is also related to internal processes of social mobility. Most madrasa students come from poor families. Many of them are first-generation learners and come from ‘low’ or ajlaf castes, who, for centuries, have lacked access to the Islamic scriputuralist tradition. The limited process of cultural ‘Arabisation’ that madrasas facilitate opens up to them a means for upward mobility within the local Muslim community, enabling them to claim a higher social status for themselves because of their access to the scripturalist tradition, which provides them the new-found opportunity of serving as authorities in matters of faith and the shari’ah. At the same time, this enables them to distance themselves from their humble origins, relatives and neighbours. This process of cultural change among sections of the ajlaf also reflects a symbolic critique of established elites, who are condemned as being not ‘Islamic’ enough by following a number of ‘un-Islamic’ practices, including those of local origin, which are seen as ‘Hinduistic’. This process is referred to in the social science literature as Ashrafisation, emulation by ‘low’ caste Muslims of the cultural norms associated with the ashraf, Muslims who claim ‘high’ caste, foreign descent.

The limited cultural ‘Arabisation’ promoted by some madrasas owes to additional factors, too. In recent years, a growing number of madrasa graduates have been enrolling in higher institutions of Islamic learning in the Arab world. This is particularly the case of graduates of educational institutions associated with the Jama’at-i Islami, the Deobandis and the Ahl-i Hadith, all three of which are fiercely opposed to a range of popular customary practices and preach forms of Islam that, in different ways, are similar in significant respects to the ‘Wahhabi’ form of Islam that is patronised by the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Once they return to India, graduates of madrasas and Islamic universities in the Gulf states often go on to teach in madrasas or set up Islamic institutions of their own that propagate the sort of Islam that they have imbibed during their years of study in the Arab world. Many of them are also engaged in publishing literature, in Urdu, English, Hindi and regional languages, that reflect forms of Islam that are inherently opposed to many aspects of poplar Indian Muslim culture, reflecting, once again, the notion that key aspects of medieval Arab culture are integral to their way of imagining Islam. Thus, for instance, numerous Ahl-i Hadith scholars in India are known to receive money from generous ‘Wahhabi’ benefactors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf states to publish translations of Arab ‘Wahhabi’ ‘ulama that routinely condemn other forms of Islam as virtual ‘disbelief’, presenting the ‘Wahhabi’ model, which has no room for popular custom, as the ‘normative’ form of Islam.

In the writings of some of the more literalist Indian ‘ulama, such as those associated with the Jama’at-i Islami and the Ahl-i Hadith, local cultural norms and institutions are bidd’at or wrongful innovations. A Hadith report, attributed to the Prophet, is routinely evoked, according to which every bidd’at is condemnable and would lead to hell-fire. Another Hadith report is often adduced—to the effect that he who imitates members of another community would be raised along with that community on the Day of Judgment. The suggestion is obvious: if a Muslim ‘imitates’ non-Muslims by following or adopting ‘their’ dress, habits, cultural norms, practices and institutions, he or she would be raised along with those non-Muslims (and not with Muslims) on the Final Day. In other words, he or she would be sent to Hell. The message, then, is clear: Muslims must shun aspects of their culture that they share with non-Muslims, particularly those that seem to militate against the sunnat of the Prophet. Every effort must be made to distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims, including in such minor matters as dress, so that boundaries are clearly drawn and the notion of a homogenous, well-defined Muslim community is thereby manufactured or solidified.

Significantly, this identity is sought to be constructed by drawing, deepening and reinforcing differences and contrasts with non-Muslims, who are routinely depicted as the ‘other’. In the process, many aspects of what Muslims share in terms of culture with non-Muslim Indians come to be condemned as ‘un-Islamic’, ‘Hinduistic’ or ‘Shi’a’, as the case might be. Sometimes these may be aspects of culture that clearly militate against Qur’anic prescriptions, such as praying to buried saints, celebrating their birthdays or visiting in temples. But, equally often, these may include such aspects of popular Muslim culture that, while not directly opposed to Islam as such, have no sanction in the understanding of the shari’ah that the literalist ‘ulama uphold, such as listening to or performing qawwali at Sufi shrines, attending the death anniversaries of Sufi saints, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husain, grandson of the Prophet, using the Persian/Urdu word khuda in place of Allah, the use of saris by Muslim women instead of the ‘Muslim’ shalwar-kameez or their use of the ‘Hindu’ bindi, and so on. The fact that it was precisely by accommodating themselves to pre-existing local norms, cultural forms and institutions that the early carriers of Islam to India were able to register successes in their missionary successes is lost on these advocates of Arabisation in the name of Islam.

A more clear ‘Arab’ identity, based, at the same time, on opposition to local customary practices, is a sure means for several madrasas and their ‘ulama to garner funds from rich prospective Arab donors. Advocacy of strict shari’ah-centric Islam, based on unrelenting hostility to local customary practices that are seen to conflict with the shari’ah, can often help promote personal material advancement for numerous ‘ulama associated with leading madrasas, winning for them trips abroad, invitations to international Islamic conferences, posts in international Islamic organisations and committees and funds for themselves and their madrasas.

Financial links are key to this process of limited cultural ‘Arabisation’ promoted by some madrasas. It is hardly surprising that madrasas and Muslim organisations, such as the Ahl-i Hadith and the Jama’at-i Islami, that are most vehemently opposed to local customs (branding these as ‘un-Islamic’), get the most funds from Arab patrons, while madrasas associated with the Barelvi tradition, centred on the traditions associated with the Sufi shrines and vehemently critical of the ‘Wahhabis’, get almost none at all. Financial assistance for promoting new, shari’ah-centric, often heavily ‘Arabised’, forms of Islam is also provided by some Indian Muslims working in Gulf states who are exposed to new, particularly ‘Wahhabi’, forms of Islam, which they come to believe are more ‘authentic’, primarily because these are practised by many Arabs themselves, who are seen somehow as representatives of a more ‘authentic’ version of Islam. This, in turn, further reinforces the process of limited cultural ‘Arabisation’ that some madrasas that receive such assistance (admittedly, a minority) are consciously engaged in. This impacts not just on the madrasas that receive such financial assistance, but has wider consequences. Local mosque architectural styles, reflecting remarkable local cultural syntheses, disappear and are replaced by what many see as unaesthetic, even ugly, ‘Wahhabi’ equivalents; dargahs or Sufi shrines fall into ruin, being condemned as centres of ‘idolatry’; men begin to sport beards and shave their mustaches and some even start to wear the thoub, the long flowing Arab gown; and women are forced or themselves willingly adopt the veil.

Appeals to shari’ah-centric Islam by the ‘ulama of the madrasas are often related to internal rivalries between different schools of Muslim thought, each claiming the mantle of Islamic normativity. Thus, Ahl-i Hadith denunciations of popular customs practised by many Muslims are often presented as a condemnation of ‘Hinduistic’ and ‘polytheistic’ practices, but at the same time they also represent a powerful and shrill condemnation of the rival Barelvi school of thought and of the Shi’as, with whom many of these customs are associated. Claiming to represent the sole normative Islamic tradition, rooted in an Arab-centric cultural matrix and worldview, Ahl-i Hadith denunciations of popular custom are inextricably linked to fierce contestations between them and their Shi’a and Bareilvi rivals as to who represents the single authentic Islamic tradition. In some cases, shari’ah-centric Islam and associated Arab cultural practices are used by rival Islamic groups as rhetorical devices and symbolic resources both to condemn each other as well as to compete with each other to seek the patronage of prospective donors, often in oil-rich Arab states. Thus, for instance, over the last decade or so, Indian Deobandi and Ahl-i Hadith ‘ulama have been at fierce loggerheads, each claiming to represent the tradition of Muhammad bin ‘Abdul Wahhab and branding the other as virtually apostates, thereby hoping to win the favour of prospective Saudi patrons. In the process, naturally, the compromises that both these groups have made with local traditions and contexts are sought to be downplayed as they come to present themselves as virtual carbon copies of the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’.

Limits of Cultural ‘Arabisation

In his Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, the Trinidad-born writer V.S. Naipaul argues the case for ‘Arabisation’ as an integral part of the Islamisation of non-Arab peoples historically. If he were to be believed, Islam and Arab culture are inseparable. To become Muslim, he would argue, non-Arabs have perforce to relinquish all elements of their pre-Islamic culture and become, to put it baldly, Arab clones. This thesis is, however, far-fetched, conjuring up the image of a monolithic pan-Islamic ummah and of Muslims as inherently advocates of pan-Islamism, which, although it might reflect the understanding of Islam of some ‘ulama and Islamists, on the one hand, and Orientalists and contemporary Islamophobes, on the other, is far from being the case. The tremendous variety of expressions of Islam, historically as well as today, as well as the rich cultural diversity of multiple Muslim communities is ample testimony to the falsity of this argument.

The extent of cultural ‘Arabisation’ being promoted by madrasas is, it must be recognised, limited, and must not be exaggerated. Exaggerating this phenomenon is a danger that must be guarded against, for facile assumptions of ‘Arabisation’ being allegedly promoted by madrasas can be used as an argument to legitimise anti-Muslim policies and stances. True, many madrasas employ Arabic as a medium of instruction, but there is nothing to be alarmed about this. If English, which is more ‘foreign’ to Indian history and tradition than Arabic, can be used as a medium of instruction in elite schools all across the country, what, one must ask, is wrong if Arabic is used as a medium in madrasas? To further puncture the alarmist thesis is the related point that even after undergoing years of supposed Arabic-medium education, most madrasa students are unable to speak or understand the language properly. But even if this were not the case, and suppose if madrasa students were able to speak and write in Arabic fluently, what, one must ask, is wrong with that? The positive aspects of this prospect must also be recognised—if India could boast of madrasas that produced great Arabic and Islamic scholars, it could only work to enhance the prestige of the country in Muslim lands and help salvage India’s image among Muslims in other countries, which is today badly tarnished by anti-Muslim Hindutva fascists.

True, madrasas do propagate understandings of Islam that, being rooted in the historical shari’ah, draw heavily on aspects of early Arab Muslim culture and traditions. But to argue against this, as many do, is to seek to restrict the freedom of religion and choice that the Constitution of India provides every citizen. Those alarmed by the promotion of cultural ‘Arabisation’ through the madrasas need to be reminded that advocacy of shari’ah-centric Islam need not necessarily lead to ‘anti-nationalism’ or ‘pan-Islamism’, just as advocacy of popular Sufi traditions need not necessarily lead to ‘national integration’. After all, Abul Kalam Azad and the vast majority of the ‘ulama of the Deoband school were firm supporters of a free and united India and of ‘composite nationalism’ and fiercely opposed the concept of Pakistan, the Muslim League’s ‘two nation theory’ and the Partition of India. On the other hand, the majority of the Barelvi ‘ulama, defenders of the cults of the Sufi saints, solidly backed the Muslim League and its Pakistan scheme.

The sort of cultural change that the madrasas seek to promote is, it must be recognised, limited in its scope. Most ‘ulama, barring some of the most literalist, make pragmatic adjustments to existing cultural traditions and institutions, opposing only those that are seen to be clearly opposed to the central teachings of Islam, such as monotheism and the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad. This adjustment they seek to do through recourse to the notion of ‘adat or ‘custom’, which has historically been accepted by the ‘ulama as a valid source of law. ‘Adat consists of the entire gamut of local customary, including pre-Islamic, traditions, and many aspects of ‘adat that do not militate against what are seen as the central teachings of Islam have been accepted as valid by the ‘ulama. This has historically enabled Islam to spread outside the Arab world, inculturating itself in local forms in order to make itself intelligible and appealing to a host of non-Arab peoples. This pragmatic adjustment to local cultural contexts through acceptance of ‘adat remains the hallmark of many Indian ‘ulama by and large, except for some fringe groups like the Ahl-i Hadith, who preach a stern literalism.

Related to this is the distinction made by many Indian ‘ulama between the sunnat-i ‘adat or ‘habits’ of the Prophet’s practice or sunnat and the sunnat-i ‘ibadat or methods of ‘worship’ associated with the Prophet’s sunnat. While the former are not regarded as essential to the faith but, rather, as aspects of seventh century Arabian culture, the latter are considered to be central to Islam. The former include such things as the exact dress the Prophet wore, the animals he ate or rode on, the language he spoke, and so on. The latter include the entire gamut of ritual actions, such as methods of prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and charity associated with the sunnat of the Prophet. This distinction between the sunnat-i ‘adat and the sunnat-i ‘ibadat, provides, once again, room for pragmatic adjustment to pre-Islamic as well as local traditions that do not conflict with the central beliefs and practices of shari’ah-centred Islam, as it is diversely interpreted. However, although the ‘ulama may not insist that all ‘habits’ of the Prophet, the entire range of ‘adat associated with him, must necessarily be followed by every Muslim in order to qualify as a Muslim, many of them would argue that a Muslim who does exactly as the Prophet did is a better Muslim than one who does not do so. In this regard, they would admit to the distinction between what is farz or compulsory (such as regular ritual prayer, fasting during Ramadan, etc.) and actions considered to be sunnat (aspects of the Prophet life that are not compulsory for Muslims to adopt but, nonetheless, are recommended), such as using the sort of tooth-stick the Prophet used or the animals he ate or rode on, much of which, of course, is specific to the context of seventh century Arabia. They would recognise that all aspects of the latter need not be strictly followed in order to be classified as a true Muslim. At the same time, however, they would insist that a Muslim who follows the latter in addition to abiding by the farz is probably a better Muslim than one who abides solely by the minimum farz rituals and duties.

Another concept that is marshalled by some ‘ulama, particularly those associated with the Shi’a and popular Sufi traditions, to sanction local cultural practices that are, as the more literalist of the ‘ulama see them, ‘un-Islamic’, is that of the bidd’at-i hasanah or the ‘praiseworthy innovation’. The extreme literalist ‘ulama, such as those associated with the Jama’at-i Islami and the Ahl-i Hadith, brand all innovations in ritual practice from the path of the Prophet as ‘condemnable’ and as leading those who practice them to hell. In the Shi’a case, the practice of mourning the martyrdom of Imam Husain, grandson of the Prophet, and in the case of a range of popular Sufi traditions, performing and listening to qawwali at dargahs and touching the feet of Sufi preceptors, are clearly not part of the sunnat of the Prophet and, hence, are, technically speaking, bidd’at, being a product of local cultures. Yet, defenders of these practices would argue that far from being ‘condemnable innovations’ (bidd’at-i sayyah), they are ‘praiseworthy innovations’ because they aid in one’s religious life, complementing the sunnat of the Prophet, rather than replacing it.

A third and related conceptual tool that is sometimes used in order to defend departures from a strictly literalist approach to the sunnat of the Prophet, and justifying adjustments to local social and cultural contexts, is that of the maqasid-i shari’ah, ‘the aims of the shari’ah’. This tool has been historically used by the ‘ulama to engage in what is known in Islamic legalistic parlance as qiyas or ‘analogy’. Thus, for instance, the Qur’an explicitly forbids the consumption of wine but does not mention a similar prohibition of a range of other intoxicating substances. By taking recourse to the analytical tool of maqasid-i shari’ah, early Muslim jurists were able to expand the Qur’anic prohibition of wine to include all other intoxicating substances. They argued that he maqsad or aim of this particular Qur’anic prohibition was more general—to restrain people from consuming not just wine but, in fact, all other intoxicating substances as well. Today, some ‘ulama and other Muslim intellectuals, concerned about the petrifaction of traditional fiqh and the insistence on the part of many ‘ulama on taqlid or rigid conformity to medieval fiqh and the literalism with which this is associated, are arguing for the use of maqasid-i shari’ah as a means for justifying rethinking on a range of fiqh-related issues, such as democracy, secularism, the nation-state, the reality of Muslims in India living as a minority, women’s rights and so on. Many traditional ‘ulama are, of course, opposed to the use of maqasid-i shari’ah to depart from established fiqhi precedent, believing that the consensus of the early ‘ulama on a range of fiqh-related issues must be firmly adhered to. They fear that unrestrained use of maqasid-i shari’ah would ultimately subvert the shari’ah, as they understand it. Yet, today several Muslim modernists and a small, yet significant and growing, number of ‘ulama trained in the madrasas, are advocating a reformulation or expansion of fiqh rules on several matters, using the tool of maqasid-i shari’ah for this purpose. A good example of this is the work of the Islamic Fiqh Academy, New Delhi, which recently organised a conference on maqasid-i shari’ah and published its proceedings in the form of a book.

If taken further, it is possible that the concept of maqasid-i shari’ah can be used as a tool to fashion Islamic perspectives that are more contextually-grounded and appropriate for the Indian context, making a clear distinction between Islam per se and the Arab cultural trappings that are, in the eyes of some, associated with it. Thus, for instance, it could be used to argue that it is not necessary for Muslims to wear exactly the same dress worn by the Prophet and his seventh-century Arab companions. It can be argued that purpose or maqsad of the long, flowing gowns that they wore was to preserve their modesty, and if any other dress can serve the same purpose then it, too, is Islamically legitimate. Likewise, in the case of a range of other matters associated with culture on which traditionalist ‘ulama have taken a rather literalist, Arab-centric approach when seeking to understand and interpret the sunnat of the Prophet and the shari’ah.

Related to the concept of maqasid-i shari’ah is that of ijtihad or independent reasoning in the light of the primary sources of the Islamic scripturalist tradition, particularly the Qur’an and genuine Hadith. The traditionalist ‘ulama have all along sought to restrict the scope of ijtihad, if not to ban it altogether, although they also recognise that the Prophet had insisted on it. Today, a number of Muslim scholars are advocating the ‘opening of the gates of ijtihad’, although it must be recognised that, contrary to what is often claimed, the ‘gates’ were never firmly closed. Ijtihad can be, and has been, applied in matters of culture, too, in the same way as the concept of maqasid-i shari’ah can, to enable Muslims living in India today to formulate more contextually relevant Islamic perspectives on a wide range of matters related to culture, including language, food, dress, relations with other communities and so on.

What the above discussion points to is the fact that there exist within the broader framework of the historical shari’ah, the forte of the ‘ulama of the madrasas, adequate conceptual tools that can be employed to help deconstruct Arab-centric notions of the shari’ah, thereby enabling many non-Arab Muslims to adjust to the realities of their cultural surroundings. Interestingly, this is precisely what has happened historically, enabling the emergence and flourishing of a multiplicity of rich Muslim cultures, each different in many respects from all others, sharing much with the cultural worlds of neighbouring non-Muslim peoples, but being Islamically valid to those who partake of them.

This, in turn, points to the fact that the cultural ‘Arabisation’ that madrasas are alleged to promote must not be exaggerated. For one thing, as numerous scholars have pointed out, only a very small minority of Indian Muslim children study in madrasas to train to be professional religious specialists. Further, the ‘ulama of the madrasas are not the only recognised authority on Islamic matters, being increasingly challenged by a rage of alternate voices, ‘modernists’, Islamists and self-taught scholars. Such voices, understandably, are looked at with suspicion and hostility by many traditionalist ‘ulama, who insist that they cannot speak for or about Islam because they lack a traditional madrasa education. But, increasingly, many Muslims in India are hearing these voices and recognising them as authoritative spokesmen of their faith. Several of them are ardent defenders of ‘Arabised’, forms of Islam, but there are others (the Mumbai-based Asghar ‘Ali Engineer and the New Delhi-based Rashid Shaz are two of the most notable of these, but there are several more) who call, in effect, for inculturated and contextually relevant understandings of Islam suited to the reality of contemporary India.

In discussing the cultural consequences of madrasa education, it must also be noted that the sort of cultural ‘Arabisation’ that most madrasas (barring the most literalist, such as some associated with groups such as the Ahl-i Hadith) aim at promoting is somewhat limited in its scope. The ‘cultural package’ that madrasas offer to their students is, admittedly, often heavily Arab-centric. Yet, to brand the entire ‘package’ as wholesale ‘Arabisation’ is fallacious. The ‘package’ also includes aspects of ‘high’ Indian Muslim culture traditionally associated with the Muslim ashraf elite, such as the Persian and Urdu languages, rules of adab or deportment and so on, that are not specifically ‘Arab’ in origins or inspiration. Even if they were, this is unexceptionable and hardly different in nature from the Sanskiritisation or Hinduisation that is so aggressively promoted among the ‘low’ castes by Hindu organisations and even by the Indian state.

That said, what must be recognised as a matter of concern is the fact that a few Islamic organisations in India, some with links to Arab patrons do, in fact, seek to promote new forms of culture and identity that militate against harmonious relations with people of other faiths, and, in a few cases, firmly oppose ‘non-Islamic’ rule and exhort their followers to struggle to establish an ‘Islamic state’. These, however, are a fringe minority and are, mercifully, not taken seriously by the vast majority of the Indian Muslims.

Cultural ‘Arabisation’, Multiple Identities and the Myth of a Muslim Monolith

A powerful source of resistance to the cultural ‘Arabisation’ that is sought to be promoted by some madrasas are the deeply rooted multiple identities of Muslim communities living in different parts of the country. The rhetoric of Islamic unity that the ‘ulama and their madrasas constantly stress is accepted at one level by most Muslims, but has proved to be unable to destroy or render invisible their other identities, such as those based on caste, ethnicity and language.

A good example of this is the case of Kashmir, where groups such as the Lashkar-i Tayyeba, associated with a branch of the Pakistan-based Ahl-i Hadith, and the Jama’at-i Islami have been among the most vehement critics of Kashmiri nationalism, which is based on the notion of a unique Kashmiri identity or Kashmiriyat. These groups argue that nationalism has no place in Islam, which, they say, preaches the religious as well as political unity of all Muslims, transcending man-made national identities. The only identity a Muslim must have, they argue, is that of being Muslim. Other identities cannot be tolerated for they threaten that primary identity in a variety of direct as well as subtle ways. In place of the nation, they advocate the concept of the worldwide Muslim ummah, a seamless pan-Islamic monolith. They go so far as to argue that nationalism is an invention of non-Muslim ‘enemies of Islam’ in order to divide Muslims and thereby conquer, subjugate and rule over them. The nation, including the notion of the ‘Kashmiri nation’, they claim, is yet another ‘idol’ invented by the ‘enemies of Islam’. Since Islam is fiercely opposed to idol-worship, they contend, the Muslims of Kashmir must, accordingly, reject the Kashmiri nationalist agenda of groups such as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. Hence, it follows from this argument, Kashmiris should not struggle for establishing an independent Kashmiri nation-state. Rather, in order to pursue the agenda of pan-Islamism, they should join Pakistan. This is described as the first step towards dissolving themselves in the world-wide Muslim community, the initial move in the direction of establishing a single, monolithic Islamic Caliphate that would rule over all Muslims, no matter where they might live. This opposition to Kashmiri nationalism by strict Islamist literalists has gone hand-in-hand with fierce denunciations of a range of local customary practices, many of these associated with popular Kashmiri Sufi traditions.

Yet, it appears that despite decades of active presence and missionary work in Kashmir, the Jama’at-i Islami and the Ahl-i Hadith remain a minority. The vast majority of the Kashmiri Muslims still refuse to deny their separate Kashmiri ethnic identity while at the same time proudly claming to be Muslims. Unlike the Ahl-i Hadith and the Jama’at-i Islami, they do not see any fundamental contradiction between the two, arguing that it is possible to be both a good Kashmiri and a good Muslim at the same time. For this they take recourse to resources contained within the Islamic scriputural tradition: for instance, to the Qur’anic dictum that God has created people into different ‘nations’ so that they might know each other and to the Hadith report according to which the Prophet is said to have declared that love for one’s motherland is part of the faith.

A similar example to illustrate the same argument relates to caste identities among the Indian Muslims. The rhetoric of Muslim unity and pan-Islamism that some fringe Islamic groups mouth has been unable to transcend and destroy local caste identities. Despite the straightjacket, monolithic Muslim identity that madrasas seek to promote, caste distinctions remain significant among Muslims, especially in north India, including among the ‘ulama and madrasa students themselves. The marginalisation and subordination of the ‘low’ caste Muslims, who form the vast majority of the Indian Muslim population, has been sought to invisibilised through the rhetoric of Islamic unity and egalitarianism which is presented through discourses of shari’ah-centric Islam. Yet, today, particularly in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, ‘low’ caste Muslims are independently mobilising themselves on the basis of their caste identities, arguing that the shari’ah-based discourse of Muslim unity has been used by ‘upper’ caste Muslim elites to deny them their rights. This does not mean, they argue, that they are opposed to Islam or Muslim unity. Rather, they stress, genuine Muslim unity can only come about when internal caste divisions and the subordination of the ‘low’ castes are recognised and effectively tackled, something that the proponents of the notion of a seamless Muslim monolith are loathe to do. This mobilisation on the basis of caste identities effectively undermines and limits the appeal of the agenda of ‘Arabisation’ and the related notion of a monolithic Muslim identity that the ‘ulama of the madrasas seek to promote.

Finally, in discussing resistance to cultural ‘Arabisation’ wrought by the madrasas it must be recognised that Muslims do not differ from others in being pragmatic or ideologically programmed, as the case might be, in their approaches to religion. There can be no case for Muslim exceptionalism in this regard, as in any other. If a limited cultural ‘Arabisation’ is sought to be promoted by certain madrasas and Islamic groups in India today, countervailing forces, including secularisation, ‘modernisation’, democratisation, national ‘integration’, economic development and the sheer need to adjust to empirical realities are also operative, effectively challenging and undermining the limited cultural ‘Arabisation’ that some Islamic institutions in India seek to promote. Consequently, multiple identities coexist in a state of creative tension, although, admittedly, not always in harmony, but still pervasive enough to render impossible the agenda of destroying these identities in favour of just the Islamic, as advocated by the advocates of cultural ‘Arabisation’.

It is obvious that the appeal of the limited cultural ‘Arabisation’ promoted by madrasas among some Indian Muslims owes, in large measure, though not entirely, to the sense of siege, fear, insecurity and marginalisation that Muslims in parts of the country face. It serves as a defence mechanism, helping to draw clear boundaries between Hindus and Muslims and stressing the links between Muslims in India and elsewhere. Obviously, therefore, a principal task before those concerned with promoting inter-community harmony and solidarity and ‘composite culture’ in India today is to address the fundamental issue of Muslim marginalisation and insecurity. Mindless berating of the madrasas for allegedly being actively engaged in promoting ‘Arabisation’, without looking at the phenomenon as, at least in part, a reaction to Hindutva and to the homogenising agenda of the Indian state that defines itself in Brahminical Hindu terms, is hardly fair and can only further reinforce the insular, exclusivist character that most madrasas are today identified with. That said, the task of concerned Muslim activists is hardly less onerous. To them falls the responsibility of evolving ways of understanding their faith that are relevant to the contextual realities of contemporary India.

Show More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *