Indian Muslims and Modernity

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By Inayatullah Din

THE Muslims-stirred to the acknowledgment of their actual situation in India especially after the Mutiny of 1857. The exit of the last Mughal monarch from the throne of Delhi was not only a symbol of their downfall but also an end to their existence as a separate and dominant group in Indian political life. A new phase in India’s history opened after the 1857 rebellion and the consequent dissolution of the East India Company. The era of the colonial Raj began with Queen Victoria’s proclamation of 1 November 1858. This benign document set a new tone of authority and conciliation. The post-Great Revolt period was probably the gloomiest period in the history of the Muslim community in the Indian Subcontinent. Muslims had created and taken an unmistakable part in the events of 1857, in the British eyes, whereas Hindus kept a low profile. Therefore, the Muslims were to bear, alone, the fault. Two factors influenced the creation of this image: the first was, of course, the nature of the movements led by Shariatullah and Syed Ahmad decades before the Mutiny; and second was the lingering imagery in the West of Muslims authored by European Christian perseveres during the Crusades (1095-1291). Quick and savage responses were to be incurred by the British administration, which would bring about a cruel reality for the Muslim people group. They lost their moorings, their confidence, their hope. And, for the first time, they realized with the anguish of bitterness that they were nothing but a weak, powerless, supine minority. This was the first casting of the seeds of nationalism, the first kindling of a feeling of loneliness and prostration, the first awakening to the need of solidarity. It was a period of gigantic political, social, economic, and social change that stirred a feeling of nationalism in the people groups of India. It was a period when a modernized Muslim scholarly and political initiative came to characterize and explain fundamental Muslim community and political necessities under the Raj, simultaneously as a beginning nationalist development was being fashioned by a more extensive working-class tip-top challenging British absolutism. The pressure among Hindus and Muslims started to arise in this period. At the point when it turned out to be extraordinarily disturbed after the mid-1920s, a practically unrecoverable hole opened up between what we may call Indian nationalism and Muslim rebellion, prompting the decisive division of Pakistan from the remainder of India in 1947.

It was a period when questions began emerging among the Ashraf classes about how Muslims could approach obliging western social impacts without negating the religious statutes of Islam. It was an issue stacked with subtleties, owing more to singular inclinations than a communitarian agreement. There were tones and layers of dark in trades between Muslims of various leanings on the suitable Islamic reaction toward the western experience. Modernity itself was a challenging thought, open to many fluctuated understandings. One of the main courses through which modernity contacted the Muslim people group of India was through the press. Also, it was one of the main channels through which educated Muslims aired their perspectives on the degree to which a social system informed by Islam could serenely get the inundation of western thoughts and innovation.

It was also a time when an extremely important character came into the frame, which went by the name of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. The founder and intellectual pioneer of Muslim nationalism. And it was this nationalism that evolved into becoming a movement that strived to carve out a separate Muslim-majority country in the subcontinent, and then further evolve to become Pakistani nationalism. Sir Syed is the one who acted with the tide of functions and established the Aligarh’s framework in the unfriendly, undoubtedly threatening milieu of the 1880s. Sir Syed, though by no means consciously made possible the emergence of two most outstanding Muslim leaders who had enthusiastically started out as staunch Indian nationalists, ended up finally at the threshold of Muslim nationalism. Belonging to a family which had roots in the old Muslim nobility, Sir Syed’s prolific authorship on the Muslim condition in India (during British rule) and his activism in the field of education, helped formulate nationalist ideas in the Muslims of the region. These ideas went on to impact and influence a plethora of Muslim intellectuals, scholars, politicians, poets, writers and journalists who then helped evolve Syed’s concept of Muslim nationalism into becoming the ideological doctrine and soul of the very idea of Pakistan. It was Sir Syed that had initiated the educational, intellectual, ideological, cultural and political trends and engendered tendencies that laid the groundwork for a Muslim renaissance in India. It is certainly true to say that Sir Syed was too much impressed by western rationalism and wanted to show that every doctrine of Islam could measure up to all principles of science, reason, and common science. In doing this, he was trying to be both rationalist and a good Muslim. He was one of the first Muslim scholars to offer a point by point answer to British authors who were presenting and introducing the tradition of Islam as something which was damaging and retrogressive. Sir Syed reminded the British that Islam was inalienably a progressive and modern religion, and it had empowered and encouraged the study of philosophy and the sciences. He actively campaigned for the adoption of modern Western education in India, particularly for Muslims. He both started and joined a number of organizations whose purpose was to make European knowledge accessible to young Muslims and other Indians in Urdu vernacular. In 1870 the appearance of Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Tahzib-ul-Ikhlaq exhorting Muslims to reform their religious worldview had a catalytic effect on the newspaper business. Sir Syed reprimanded ulema for compelling the Muslims to dismiss science. He composed that Muslims needed new religious philosophy of Islam, which was discerning and dismissed all doctrinal ideas that were in conflict with good judgment and reason. Threatened by Sayyid Ahmad’s bold forays into the domain of Islam, many of his co-religionists ventilated their outrage by resorting to the print medium, colonial modernity’s most attractive gift for instantaneous self-promotion. The response to Sayyid Ahmad’s arguments on the compatibility of Islamic teachings and modern ideas was similarly sharp in the North-Western Provinces and Punjab. While in the North-Western Provinces numerous new names arose on the guide of Urdu journalism as pundits of the Aligarh school, Sayyid Ahmad’s religious thoughts were given an extreme dressing down in Punjab by the Ahl-I-Hadith’s Ishaat ul Sunnat. Sayyid Ahmad’s way to deal with Islamic religious philosophy and statute acquired him the gashing maltreatment of “orthodox” Muslim ulema. His advancement of ijtihad or free-thinking and dissatisfaction with regards to taqlid or adherence to the four definitive schools of Islamic statute set him at loggerheads with the ulema who effectively found in it a scarcely masked attack on their pre-famous status as the strict watchmen of the Muslim people group. His support of western knowledge and culture as well as loyally to the raj drew astringent remarks from Muslims joined to their cultural moorings and the ideal of an all-inclusive Muslim ummah. Among Sayyid Ahmad’s fiercest critics was the Persian scholar Jamaluddin al-Afghani who lived in India somewhere in the range of 1879 and 1882 and called for Hindu-Muslim solidarity as the initial step to dislodging British imperialism.

Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani — a bright young political activist, journalist, reformer, and Afghan ideologist who showed up in India in 1855.  He one of the most prescient of modern Muslim thinkers, who had travelled and preached across British India. In contrast to the conventional ulema, Afghani didn’t perceive any great in turning inwards and drastically dismissing the modernity associated with British rule. His belief in the potency of a revived Islamic civilization in the face of European domination fundamentally impacted the development of Muslim thought in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He recognized the matchless quality of Western education, however, accentuated that Muslims should grasp it to improve their parcel and afterward reverse the situation against Western imperialism by ousting it and setting up a worldwide Islamic caliphate. Al-Afghani held that Hindus and Muslims should work together to overthrow British rule in India. He worked to transform Islam into a lever against western imperialism. Afghani was the prototype of the modern fundamentalist. Like Sir Syed, he also had been influenced by western rationalism and the ideological mode of western thought. Afghani welded a traditional religious hostility towards unbelievers to a modern critique of western imperialism and an appeal for the unity of Islam, and while he inveighed against the west, he urged the adoption of those western sciences and institutions that might strengthen Islam. Afghani saw Western innovation as a solution to recover regenerate the Muslims, not as an approach to assist them in discovering a spot inside colonial settings yet to completely comprehend and afterward eradicate imperialism. Afghani was rather progressive and modernistic in his thinking. A contemporary English admirer described Afghani as the leader of Islam’s liberal religious reform movement. The pan-Islamist thought which he spearheaded esteemed the significance of changing and reforming the Muslim mentality through modern scholarly methods, and afterward utilizing the transformed as a weapon against the political incomparability of Western imperialism.

Another prominent sage of the modern Muslim intellectual movements of the time was Justice Ameer Ali. His History of the Saracens and Spirit of Islam enjoyed a wide readership both in India and Britain, but his target audience was the Western public. He wished to familiarize this public with the history and religion of Islam, and he was successful at that. He accepted that there were issues that made it problematic for his Western contemporaries to appreciate Islam as a religion suited to the needs of the modern world, but he remained unapologetic on central Islamic beliefs. Chiragh Ali (1844–95), a lawyer from Hyderabad, argued for the reform of Muslim civil law and the establishment of a humane Islamic law based on the Quran rather than on later accretions and interpretations. Altaf Husain Hali’s The Musaddas described the drama of Islam, its glories and its tragedies, in simple, sensuous, and passionate poetry; and, at the same time, he highlighted the need for the reform of Muslim society. The Musaddas became a best-seller in Urdu-speaking India, and it is still read and enjoyed by thousands even today. The scope and spirit of Urdu literature augmented during this period. Akbar Allahabadi (1846–1921), acclaimed for his gnawing parody, censured Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s zing for Western culture and analyzed Muslims aping Western ways of life as ‘playing out monkeys’ for their British coaches. The Urdu weekly by Agra Akhbar, distributed by Khwajah Asif Ali denounced the Muslim Anglo-Oriental University conspire at Aligarh as ‘eccentric and illusory’. Much good Urdu prose was being written in this period; however, three specific improvements significantly advanced its reach and quality. The first one was the development of journalism. Despite the fact that the Urdu press returns to the late eighteenth century, it started genuinely to thrive and flourish from the 1870s onwards. Papers like Akhbar-e Am in Lahore (1870), Oudh Punch in Lucknow (1877–1936), and Paisa Akhbar in Delhi (1888) revolutionized journalism by receiving new patterns, for example, eye-getting features, notices, modest value, newspaper design, alongside the publication aptitudes of ironical composition, spontaneous extemporization, and powerful questioning. Hostile to British assessments were regularly communicated in such political papers as the Zamindar of Lahore, the Al-Hilal, and Al-Balagh, began by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in 1912 and 1915, and the Hamdard edited by Muhammad Ali. The second significant advancement in Urdu writing was the introduction of the novel. Finally, we must record the rise of Urdu drama in this period.

To sum up, Sir Syed received harsh criticism. His religious naysayers remained positioned in their mosques and madrassahs. Thus, the greater part of his religious adversaries couldn’t discover a spot in the school that he set up in Aligarh. This school evolved into becoming a college and then an institution which began to produce a specific Muslim world-class and metropolitan bourgeoisie who might go on to dominate Muslim nationalist thought in India and eventually decide the course in 1906 when the consciousness of Muslim nationalism took practical form when a deputation of Indian Muslims – Shimla Deputation  – held a meeting with the Governor-General Lord Minto in Shimla and secured the viceroy’s consent in respect of separate electorate for Muslims.


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • The author is a student at University of Hyderabad

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