Between Predicament and Hope: Ghazala Wahab on Indian Muslims 

By Saleem Rashid Shah

GHAZALA Wahab starts her book, ‘Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India’ with a striking proposition: “Is it not possible to be Muslim and forward looking at the same time?” In her book, she probes into the fears and insecurities which confront Indian Muslims and comes up with a two fold analysis that explains the pathology of this fear and the concomitant underdevelopment that India’s largest minority has faced since partition.

In a searing forty two-page-long introduction, she lays bare an archetype and a path that the reader would undertake in the next 8 chapters of her book. The point of departure in her narrative is the assumption that for ‘Indian Muslims’ the source of their understanding of Islam does not come from a rational and an educated study of their religion but is rather handed down to them in their families and later concretised by semi-literate mullahs operating from single room madrassas.

In a bid to reconcile with the changing realities of a 21st century world, a template that is set in the 7th century often misses the mark. By misunderstanding the rationality of their faith ‘Indian Muslims’ tend to prioritize afterlife by paying a hefty cost of backwardness and underdevelopment in the present world.

She talks of a double edged sword that a moderate and a progressive muslim has to face in such a socio-political set up. On one side he tries to break free from the clutches of the conservative interpretations of Islam and aspires towards bettering his lot in the present world. On the other, he cowers and shrinks under the threat of being ostracized by the relatively conservative society he lives in.

Gazala Wahab delineates the factors that have been central in the depredation of Indian Muslims from the past 70 years and the most pivotal among them has been the partition of India. She cites a pathbreaking paper written by Prashant Bhardwaj, Asim Khawaja, and Atif Mian for Yale university which suggests that the outflow of a creamy layer of Muslims to Pakistan and the inflow of a well to do population of Hindus and Sikhs to India had a huge impact on the literacy rate of Muslims in India. The best had migrated and what had remained was a poor lot, disadvantaged both socially, politically and economically. It’s these Muslims who had to start from zero and rise up the socio-economic ladder in India which they did to some extent but still fumble on this upward march of theirs.

Apart from many external factors responsible for this downfall, Gazala Wahab also rests the blame with the community itself. She talks of Wajahat Habibullah’s doctrine of ‘Perception of Exclusion’ among Indian Muslims and explains the existence of an inertia and reluctance in the community itself to even try and claim their space in a competitive socio-political milieu.

The author cites Hamid Ansari, the ex-vice president of India, who has argued along the same lines and said, “Of course there is prejudice, but despite that the Indian system has room for people to find their own place, provided you go out and claim it. If you start with the conviction that you wont get a fair deal, you will not get it.”

Many Muslims, she says, make it as an excuse to not make an effort although the real reason for their lack of success might lie elsewhere. In her section on the evolution of Islam in India, Ghazala Wahab tracks a trajectory of the religion that was completely alien to India and how it got assimilated in the country with the coming of Mohammad Bin Qasim, a commander of the Umayyad Caliphate in early 8th century to the later and much established empire of Mughals that was deeply rooted in the cultural ethos of this country. Mughal emperors, she says, never went for Hajj and instead patronized the Sufi shrines, and the sufis in turn accorded spiritual and moral legitimacy to the emperors.

In the later part of the book, she talks about the different schools of Islamic thought that pervade the length and breadth of the country. She examines how these divergent interpretations of the same religion have had tremendous consequences on moderate muslims of the country who somehow want to get on with their lives.

Of all the minorities living in India, Muslims, says the author have been the least capable of availing governmental ameliorative schemes and scholarships. The level of education among muslims is the poorest in the country in proportion to their population. The reason that she cites is their disdain towards secular and modern education. Non-Islamic education has not attracted the community much and in the case of women it has been even a sorry affair. The women are generally expected to be only Quran literate and any exposure of theirs to modern education is considered to be rebellious.

Knitting together a wide range of scholarship, reportage, interviews and her personal accounts, the author entirely humanizes the account and gives to the readers a panoramic view of the predicament of Muslims in India. By examining and analyzing all these issues in depth she paints an extraordinarily compelling portrait of one of the largest and the most diverse communities in India.

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • The author is a non-fiction book critic and student of English Literature based in New Delhi

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