Religious extremism in Pakistan (Part III)

With Bahadur Shah Zafar banished to Rangoon, the Muslims were in a vulnerable state of mind due to the end of the Mughal rule after the war of independence. The end of the 1857 war also saw the expansion of the British government, whereby more Indians were inducted into government service. There was an increased emphasis on English, as it was the new official language of India, which led to more educated Hindus securing bureaucratic posts in the government services while Muslims – generally being uneducated – got neglected in the process, leading many Muslims to resent the Hindus. The British took advantage of the developing situation and launched their ‘Divide and Rule’ policy.

There is an impression that since the Muslims had ruled the Subcontinent for quite a long time before the British rule, the British felt threatened by them and thus funded the madrassas that were already in existence. Whether or not this is true cannot be validated as such, but after the end of Muslim rule, there emerged three factions in the Muslim community. One faction was composed of those who were co-opted by the British government and became ‘brown sahibs’. The second faction was made up of those people who wanted a Muslim Renaissance – a reformation of the Muslim community. The third and last faction was those of the Muslim extremists, who wanted an Islamic revival in the Subcontinent.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, a Muslim reformer, became quite concerned for the future of the Muslims in the Subcontinent. He was against traditional dogma and religious orthodoxy and knew that the reason for Muslim backwardness was the lack of a modern education. Thus he asked the Muslim community to get proper Western-style education, learn English and cooperate with the British in order to avert the Muslim community’s decline in political power. He found it extremely difficult to convince the Muslims, since the orthodox mullahs considered it a sin to get modern education and that too through the English language, which they considered to be the language of the infidels. He founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh in 1877 that later became the famous Aligarh Muslim University. To say that Sir Syed was the pioneer of the Muslim renaissance and was responsible for the ascent of Muslim consciousness would not be wrong. There were many other famous luminaries who supported his cause such as Altaf Hussain Hali, Maulana Shibli Nomani, Mohsin-ul-Mulk, Deputy Nazeer Ahmed, Chiragh Ali, Zakaullah and others.

Sir Syed wanted the Muslims to become enlightened and moderate. He wanted them to be more politically aware and get away from a religious doctrine that was full of dogmas, rituals and superstition. He declared that orthodox Islam had become cluttered with bidat (innovation in religion), thus leading to misconceptions and misinterpretations. He asked the Muslims to go back to the fundamental sources of Islam: the Quran and the Hadith (traditions of Prophet Mohammad [PBUH]). In a speech in Lahore in 1884, he said, "We need a modern ilm al-Kal├óm (way of knowledge) by which we should either refute the doctrines of the modern sciences or show that they are in conformity with the articles of the Islamic faith." The mullahs thus passed fatwas about Sir Syed and called him a Mulhid (Atheist) and Kafir. It is pertinent to note here that Sir Syed’s foray into Islamic thought paved the way for a liberal reinterpretation of Islamic political philosophy by Allama Iqbal, which would be discussed later in this series.

Sir Syed is also famous for presenting his ‘Two Nation Theory’, which to some paved the way for a Hindu-Muslim divide and was the basis of Pakistan. But in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, “Sir Syed was an ardent reformer and he wanted to reconcile modern scientific thought with religion by rationalistic interpretations and not by attacking basic belief. He was anxious to push new education. He was in no way communally separatist. Repeatedly he emphasised that religious differences should have no political and national significance.” Many historians endorse Nehru’s view and say that Sir Syed had no intention of a communal divide and that he only wanted to assert that since the Hindus and the Muslims were two different nations, therefore Muslims should have an autonomous homeland in the Muslim majority areas of British India to safeguard their political, cultural and social rights, within a united India. Yet it cannot be denied that it was the Two-Nation Theory as believed to be contained in Sir Syed’s reformation philosophy that later laid the political basis for a separate homeland for the Muslims.

Though Sir Syed’s effort was directed at making the Muslims empowered and outward looking as well as closing ranks between the Muslims and the British, his emphasis on Muslim resurgence triggered the Hindu fear that it could lead to a Muslim renaissance. So it can be said that Sir Syed’s reformation by default became a cause of the accelerated Hindu effort to keep the Muslims at bay at all costs, and subsequently resulted in multiplying Hindu revivalism and speeding up their endeavour to occupy the political space afforded by the British as part of their policy of political openness, which culminated in the formation of the Indian National Congress. The other aspect of these simmering divisive currents with respect to the Muslims and the Hindus was the solidification of the school of thought of Muslim extremists, who found no logic in becoming modern and resultantly succumbing to the nexus of the British and the Hindus.

Therefore, on the one hand, there was the Sir Syedian school of thought, while on the other there was the extremist school of thought. This comprised orthodox clerics and those with a jihadi mindset. "...The waqf, being fearful of the decline of Muslim prestige, power and civilisation, led the counter ‘Madrassa Movement’ which sought to establish Islamic schools where the Arabic-Persian legacy as well as Islamic sciences, faith and the way of life could be safeguarded. This was seen as the way by which Muslims in India could be revitalised...Today, there is an explosion of Madrassas inspired by the Deobandi model throughout Asia" (‘The Independent Madrassas of India: Dar al-‘Ulum, Deoband and Nadvat al-‘Ulama, Lucknow’, David Emmanuel Singh). The madrassas clung to Muslim orthodoxy and reminisced about Muslim glory, often creating the cult of Muslim conquerors who were deemed by the Hindus as invaders and ravagers of their culture and civilisation.

The formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 permitted the Hindus and the Muslims to bring their issues within the ambit of politics. To forge a strong Muslim political identity and to seek protection of their rights as a minority, the Muslims formed their own party, the Muslim League, in 1906. Under the leadership of Sir Aga Khan, the Simla delegation put forward the demand for separate electorates, which given the Muslim-Hindu acrimony fomented in no less measure by the extremists from both the sides, was a political demand for the legal right of the Muslims to have adequate representation in the councils. The political course to seek the Muslims’ emancipation and their rights as a minority within the Indian Union however, were affected among others, by the annulment of the Bengal partition, the Khilafat Movement, which led to the strengthening of fiery Muslim orators and the press inclined to adopt Muslim jingoistic discourse and subsequently feeding into the currents of communalism, and the anti-Muslim rule by the Congress ministries in the 1930s.


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