Indian Muslims need to conquer their inhibitions

Formula for the Muslim community in India should be assimilation and not segregation.

A few days ago, Allahabad High Court disposed of a PIL seeking permission to offer namaz in mosques on the day of Eid. The court while setting aside the matter observed that the petitioner should first exhaust all the remedies and approach the UP government for the requisite permission.

This act on the part of the petitioner brings a realisation that it’s high time that certain Indian Muslims introspect and look inwards. At a time when the country is reeling under severe coronavirus crisis approaching a court with this kind of absurd petition is not only needless but also shows insensitivity towards other communities.

A needless assertion, it is nothing short of another invitation to further defaming and alienating Indian Muslim community. The general perception after Tablighi Jamaat incident, which happened due to callousness of a small Muslim group, has already dented the image of entire Indian Muslim community. In spite of a number of Muslim clerics including president of Jamait Ulemae-Hind Maulana Arshad Madani, Maulana Khalid Rashid Farangi Mahali of Lucknow, Shahi Iman of Jama Masjid Delhi Imam Bukhari appealing Muslims to offer namaz at home, moving such a prayer seeking permission to offer namaz even is another blunder.

Permission to offer namaz even for an hour at Eidgahs, where thousands of people would gather for prayers shoulder to shoulder, is bound to violate social distancing norms. According to Islam, offering Eid namaz is not a farz, meaning it is not mandatory like Friday prayers. However, an element of importance is attached to it due to the festivity, thanksgiving during Eid-ul-Fitr namaz, which is offered once a year after a month-long fasting by Muslims during Ramzan.

On Eid-ul-Fitr, which is also often described as Mithi Eid (Sweet Eid), Muslims wear new clothes, greet each other by three times hug after the namaz at mosques. Usually children, both little boys and girls accompany their parents to the mosque on the occasion hoping they would get new toys as gifts by hawkers who sell knickknack alongside the street leading to mosques.

At home people make savaiyan (sweet vermicelli), which is offered to visitors arriving for the greetings. It is also a fact that offering namaz on the occasion on Eid has more of celebratory connotations but is undoubtedly inappropriate during the pandemic and should be avoided. A large section of the Muslim community in India has come to terms with it.

A few days back a controversy erupted when noted Urdu lyricist Javed Akhtar said using amplified loudspeakers in mosques for azaan should be stopped as it causes discomfort to others. This opened a Pandora’s box, with some Muslim clerics opposing this idea vehemently by saying why should only Muslims be deprived of the practice of using loudspeakers for religious practices.

Loudspeakers are used in temples, churches, and gurdwaras as well. If using loudspeakers disturbs people of other communities, then the same rule should apply for everyone.  Javed Akhtar’s statement came close on the heels of the Allahabad High Court judgement in another hearing seeking permission to use of loudspeakers in mosques during physical movement restrictions imposed to check the spread of Covid-19.  azaan as we all know is a call by a Muslim muezzin (cleric) reminding Muslims to offer namaz five times a day.

The court in this matter ruled that use of amplifying devices is not an integral part of the religious practices and is not protected by the Constitution. The said decision was delivered in a petition arising out of restrictions placed through several administrative orders in various districts of Uttar Pradesh on the recitation of azaan.   The court had allowed recitation of azaan by a muezzin inside a mosque and also allowed the petitioner to approach the district administration for permission to use loudspeaker for azaan.

Both these matters, however, raise the question: should the Muslims be approaching for such exemptions when all other religions practised in the country are not doing so? Such propositions by certain people, who wish to carve out a unique identity for themselves among the Muslim community actually hold back the majority of Muslims from integrating and assimilating into the mainstream India.  The above two examples created due to folly of a few persons give an impression that Muslims are adamant in such testing times and are unwilling to evolve with the changing times.

There is a lesson to be learnt from these examples. That if Indian Muslims wish to be relevant and need to defeat agenda of certain groups trying to alienate them, then they must without losing much time start looking inwards. They have to be respectful towards sensitivities of others and at the same time evolve themselves with the changing times for the greater good.

Azaan is an Arabic word which means to listen. Azaan is an alert, which lasts for minutes indicating that prayers are about to begin inside the mosque. It is called out by the muezzin, who stands either in the mosque’s minaret tower or in a side door. However, the azaan is not an alert for Muslims to necessarily go to mosque and offer namaz. It is generally preferred, especially on Fridays that people go to mosque and offer namaz but even if they say their prayers at home it’s alright. In azaan there is no mention that Muslims should only go to mosques to namaz.

Actually, the practice of using loudspeakers at religious places is an issue which all religious communities need to ponder over to respect each other’s sensitivities. In several countries, religion is a private affair for all religious communities. Many Muslims believe that religion is a very personal thing, which needs to be cherished within and not necessarily displayed in the public. However, according to Khwaja Shams, a Supreme Court lawyer, a religion exists both in personal and public space. Our Constitution guarantees the state’s responsibility to protect people’s beliefs.

This factually correct view is taken by a majority of Indian Muslims. Unfortunately, in India religious identity of Indian Muslims has become more important than their nationality. Various factors are responsible for it including certain Islamic clerics who have failed to guide the community with the changing times. This trend is increasingly pushing the Indian Muslims to the brink of both social and political irrelevance. It is now well accepted among scholars of Islam that tradition and modernity are not inherently opposed.

Instead of approaching tradition as a field of discourses, types of knowledge, and norms that become irrelevant or outdated in the wake of modernity, it is more accurate to approach tradition as a continuing moral argument that has undergone particular shifts and transformations in new political and institutional conditions. The survival formula for Indian Muslims should be assimilation and not segregation.

But self-segregation and quest for security had led a majority of Indian Muslims into ghettoisation in areas like Juhupura, Ramganj, Abul Fazal Enclave and Shivaji Nagar. The ghettoisation has further insulted them from the outside world. A noted Urdu scholar once said the reinvigoration of the self, the elevation of self, required a renewed emphasis on the primacy of the Quran as the foundational source of Islamic practice. If such a project of reform required that certain non-essential rituals and customary conventions be jettisoned in order to serve moral and social change, then one should be prepared to sacrifice them.

Similarly, famous 19th century Egyptian Islamic reformer Mohammad Abduh in his well-known work Risalat-al-Tawhid said that his primary objection was “freeing minds of Muslims from the chains of belief in authority because God has not created humankind in order to be led by a halter”. Abduh was trained in the traditional canonical sources of law at the prestigious Azhar University in Cairo. His ideas are true for Indian Muslims who are in the clutches of self-centred Muslim clerics in positions of Muslim authority.

The feelings of insecurity of Indian Muslims have nurtured a minority complex which helps to explain the political inhibitions of the population, and at least until the early 1990s, its support for traditionalist religious elites known as ulemas. These ulemas have been more concerned with the cultivation of Indian Muslims’ socio-religious particularism rather than with uplifting of the community.

Unless Muslims, who are more than 14% of total Indian population, open their eyes and minds to the harsh realities, their statistics are not likely to change. According to 2004-05 report by National Sample Survey, average monthly expenditures of urban Muslims was Rs 800 a month. The share of Muslims living below the poverty line was 31%. They had the lowest literacy rate among all Indian communities.

In 2002, they represented only 6.26% of the judiciary in High Courts of India, 2.95% in the IAS and 4.02% in the IPS. Indian Muslims need to gather courage to conquer their inhibitions and return to the worldliness to address its challenges. And this can only happen with the support of fellow Indians.