In Depth : Evils of the Indian Muslim society and how to reform them

Zafarul-Islam Khan adressing IMPAR Leadership Conference, IICC, New Delhi.

By Dr Zafarul-Islam Khan

Our old friend, Dr. MJ Khan, told me over the phone three days ago that we are holding an IMPAR Leadership Conference on April 2 where you have to speak about the reasons why the contemporary Indian Muslims are backward. At first, I tried to apologize, but MJ Khan is not one who easily accept a “no” for an answer. That’s why I am standing here today in front of you to speak on some of the issues that we all know but hardly speak about them publicly. And since we don’t discuss them, we do not try to correct them.

I have been speaking and writing on the problems the Indian Muslim community is facing but probably not as openly as it should have been done. After my speech is over today, it is quite likely that excommunication fatwas will follow. I may also be declared an agent of this or than organization or party. However, I do not care if the community and the nation gain and I lose because the community and the country come first.

There are other issues also which relate to the government, judiciary, police and media etc. but today we will not talk about them. We will concentrate today only on the issues which trouble us from within and which only we can correct.

First, let us look at the political situation. We find ourselves pushed to a corner and seemingly there is no way out.  Hindutva or the politics of hate has isolated us to some extent or attempts are being made to do so. But did it all happen suddenly and is our leadership not responsible?

Our problems started in 1857 when the British colonialists blamed us squarely to be responsible for the “Mutiny,” killed us to the fill of their hearts, snatched away our properties and marginalized us in society. We were stunned for some time and there was no reaction for the next two, three decades. Here a mujahid, Syed Ahmad Khan, stood up. On one hand, he calmed down the anger of the British and on the other he showed Indian Muslims the only way ahead for their development and progress and this was to acquire modern education. Syed Ahmad Khan was humiliated, excommunicated, hit with shoes and chappals, but he never gave up. He established MAO College in Aligarh in 1875 which was later transformed into a university in 1920. As time went by, more and more such colleges and universities were established which helped Indian Muslims regain some of the lost ground.

But unfortunately, Muslims failed to adopt a far-sighted, wise approach and became victims of emotional politics and followed emotional leaders. In 1920, we saw a foolish movement called “Tahrik-e Hijrat” (Hijrat Movement). Tens of thousands of our young people sold their properties for a pittance and migrated to Afghanistan raising the slogan, “Qandhar chalo, Qandhar chalo; Darya-e Atack ke paar chalo” (Come, let’s go to Kandhar, let’s go to Kandhar; let’s go beyond the river Attock). This was an utterly emotional and idiotic project. The people who planned this project had not done their homework about Afghanistan’s political, social and economic conditions; if they be able to settle there and work from there for the freedom of India. As a result of the practical problems of life and being cold-shouldered by the Afghan authorities, these people returned to India within a few months, dejected and with broken hearts. Among the returnees was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan who for the rest of his life shunned such emotional slogans and joined the Indian freedom movement wholeheartedly.

Our emotional and overzealous leadership did not learn any lesson from the failed Hijrat Movement. Soon they came up with the idea of ​​saving the Ottoman Caliphate, thousands of miles away from India. As a result, this leadership kept the whole nation irrationally busy for years in the name of “Khilafat Movement”. When Mustafa Kamal announced the end of Khilafat in Turkey, the bubble of Khilafat Movement burst in India. Apart from emotional and imaginary slogans, these people had no knowledge of the situation on the ground because of which the Ottoman Caliphate had been rejected in its own country as well as in nearby Muslim countries and the people there were eager to get rid of it. That is why Mustafa Kamal had no problem in overthrowing the Sultanate and deporting the last caliph, Muhammad VI, from Turkey at only a few hours’ notice in November 1922. Thus, this movement met its natural death in India as well.

After the failure of the Khilafat Movement, our emotional leadership got another slogan in the shape of the call for Pakistan. This leadership got Muslims of India with the exception of some parts of South India agitated on this issue until India was partitioned in 1947 when the country, rather the Indian Muslim community, was divided. As a result, lakhs of people were killed and about nine million Indian Muslims had to migrate to Pakistan on their own free will or by force. The Muslim League, Congress and the Britishers were all responsible for Partition but, ultimately, the whole blame was placed on the weak victims, Indian Muslims, and this blame game continues till this day. With the formation of Pakistan, Indian Muslims overnight lost their prestige and position in the country. Leaders fled to Pakistan or hid in their homes. A huge intellectual vacuum was created which has not been filled till this day. Muslim economy was so much devastated that Muslims are yet to recover to pre-Partition days.

Then, in the 1980s, two more emotional movements gripped us. These were the Shah Bano or Personal Law issue and the Babri Masjid case. During both these two movements we employed sentiments more than wisdom. Many slogan-masters became leaders and kept Muslims engaged for years. The demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 demolished this leadership also. Ever since no new leadership has emerged among us.

The social, political and economic situation that evolved in new India, and the way we were marginalized in every way, meant that no emotional politics will ever succeed.  We had to find some other way to succeed and regain our lost position in the country’s economic and political life. We had to adopt some plan like that of Japan and Germany after the Second World War.  Instead of resisting or continuing their war against the United States, both these countries changed their strategy to rebuild their respective countries and within decades changed their destiny with wisdom and hard work. Unfortunately, we did not have a leadership which would turn us towards education and economy. As a result, we continued to suffer from emotional politics and spent all these past years locked in one cul-de-sac or another. Still we are wandering away from our destination. If Indian Muslims have made any progress, it is because of personal initiatives of individuals and not due to the wisdom of our leadership.

I am not saying that the fate of Shah Bano and Babri movements should have been the same as it happened. What I want to say is that we should know that political and legal rights do not exist outside ground realities. In the beginning, an attempt was made to solve the problem of Babri Masjid in a reconciliatory manner in which Muslims would not look as losers. But emotional and fiery leaders frustrated those efforts. As a result, we have earned such failure that we are no longer able to raise our heads again.

This same emotional politics has also strengthened the politics of hate that seeks to change the constitutional structure of our country, even though there are still large numbers of just people in this country who stand up for the law and the Constitution but their numbers are decreasing by every passing day.

Since Independence, instead of building our own ground force, we blindly endorsed a few political parties and leaders. We did not make rapport with new emerging powers. Instead, we kept challenging them. Making them enemies was not wise in any way. Even today, instead of endorsing one party or advising our people to vote for this or that party, we should leave it to the people to vote for the candidate they prefer on the basis of his good track record. In recent years we have seen that no political party stands with us. We faced big challenges and no one was ready to speak for us. In such a situation, why should we tie our fate to any particular political party and why make the opposition of any political party our community politics.

The fight for our rights and against atrocities should continue through institutions and courts. This should be done by some individuals and organisations. We should not drag the whole community to the roads for these issues and should not openly abuse and condemn anyone for such issues. In this legal battle, we will not make a large section of society our enemy. We must maintain relations and have dialogue with all representative forces and parties of our society. In politics, none is untouchable. We must follow this wisdom.

Another problem we suffer from is that we take interest only in those issues which we think directly affect us or concern us. We are not bothered by other issues of society and do not care about excesses perpetrated against others. We must change this attitude and we must take interest in all issues that affect our country’s present and future.

Economic Problems: The majority of Indian Muslims is poor. To date, no organization has developed a plan or programme to improve the economic situation of Indian Muslims. Every calamity presents a chance for these organisations to go to our poor people begging for contributions. Since “interest” has been declared haram (unlawful), no Muslim is ready to offer loan to another Muslim. Our organisations have not evolved a system to meet this need. Now Muslims in need of loans take loans from others, often from Muslims, at exorbitant interest rates, which ruin them.

“Islamic economics” has been talk of the town for decades, but to date no viable model has been evolved to ensure timely help to the poor or where ordinary Muslims may deposit their savings. The “Islamic banks” that have sprung up outside India are failures. In my personal experience, they are more dangerous than ordinary banks. In 1984, I deposited a few thousand dollars in Faisal Islamic Bank in Cairo. The bank charged me a few hundred dollars as “service charge” which no bank charges to open an investment account. Thereafter, I came to India and I needed funds, so I wrote to the Faisal Islamic Bank to close my account and send me the proceeds. They did close my account but charged me another few hundred dollars for closing the account within a year.  No ordinary bank will do it. At most an ordinary bank will deduct a part of the interest money for the deposit period.

Here in India, voices of Islamic banking or finance are raised from time to time. But these companies run Ponzi schemes to rob our people, like Al-Mizan and Al-Falah which had procured fatwas from some muftis and used to print them in their booklets and brochures. Despite losing billions through such bogus companies, we have learnt no lessons and the charade goes on and on in the name of “Islamic finance”. Recently, a lady called Nohira Sheikh wasted billions of hard-earned savings of ordinary Muslims in the name of “Islamic finance”. There are small shops called “Islamic Funds” in some of our towns but these do not meet the needs of the ordinary Muslims. As a result, Muslims fail to make economic progress and whatever small savings they have are destroyed, rather robbed. There is no one to offer them loans to do legitimate business. At the same time, we have millions of our people who leave interest monies in banks. Some media reports have said that Indian Muslims leave thousands of crores of interest money in banks every year or do not keep their money in banks due to which their money is counted as “black money”. As a result of this tendency, such people suffered great loss during the demonetisation drive in November 2016 because they had kept their money at home instead of banks. One of my relatives used to withdraw interest money from his bank every year and burn it even though there were thousands of destitute Muslims in his own town who deserved this money. A helpless poor Muslim fearing death is allowed even to eat pork in order to survive.

One thing to note in this regard is that the “interest” or “profit” paid by banks is not “Riba” (usury) which is forbidden in Islam. The first thing is that the bank does not take a loan from us. Instead, it is we who deposit our money in a bank for our own need and for security of our money. The bank lends that money to someone else and takes a profit from him. A part of this profit is passed on to the depositor and the rate of this share is not fixed – it may increase or decrease. At times, a depositor may not be paid anything at all at the end of the year. In modern times, due to inflation, the value of money is constantly decreasing. It is about 9-10 per cent annually in our country. So long as gold and silver coins were the currency, inflation did not exist. Rather prices of goods remained constant for centuries.  Now the money that a bank gives us in the name of “interest” is around the inflation rate. In other words, the price of our money remains the same as it was a year ago.

What is known now as “interest” is not what was known as “Riba” in Arabia. The excess money, known in Arabic as “Riba,” was when a man borrowed money from someone for a period of time on which there was no interest but when the debtor failed to pay back the loan, the lender would extend the loan period on the condition that a certain additional amount be paid by the loanee in addition to the original amount. The other form of Riba was to take a loan in kind, like a certain amount of dates or flour, and return it with an additional weight of the same kind after an agreed period. This too was forbidden. In short, these two transactions are forbidden in Islam. We have created an unwarranted problem for ourselves by translating Riba as “interest” while its correct equivalent is usury (as defined in the Qur’an – 3:130).

I have published Allama Iqbal Suhail’s book Riba Kya Hai?” in Urdu, English and Arabic in 1999 and sent its copies to ulama and Muftis in India and abroad. To this day, I have not seen any rebuttal of this work. However, the then Grand Mufti of Syria, late Shaikh Ahmad Kaftaroo, replied and thanked me for this service.

Confusion about “interest” is a serious issue due to which the Muslim society is surrounded by many problems and is not able to move forward because we have blocked the way and provided no alternative. At the same time, some of our scholars have declared insurance too unlawful due to which many people find it very difficult to stand again on their own feet after losses in riots and other calamities.

Education: Muslims lag behind other groups about 40-45 percent of our society is illiterate. Our community suffers from the highest rate of dropout children. This is despite the fact that our religion from day one exhorts us to acquire knowledge. Now knowledge no doubt includes religious sciences but modern science and technology are as important. When the Messenger of Allah (pubh) said, “Acquire knowledge even if in China,” he certainly did not mean religious knowledge. It is our duty to acquire all knowledge and sciences which are required in our age and excel in them. In our old madrasas, there was no distinction between religious and scientific education. As a result, those madrasas produced scholars of hadith and tafsir and also masters of mathematics, astronomy and medicine. With the advent of the Western colonialism, this chain was broken and Muslims started building private madrassas where only religious education was imparted. This process was started on the assumption that the colonialist rulers may start interfering in our religion. With passage of time, these private madrassas and their educational system became sacrosanct. Now, any talk of change or reform in their system becomes tantamount to endangering religion.

According to the Sachar Committee, there are about 33 thousand madrassas in the country. But, in my opinion, the number of madrasas runs in lakhs. These madrassas are of primary, middle, secondary, Alimiyat and Fazilat levels. It is my guess that about 10 percent of our children should be studying in these institutions. After spending 8, 10, and 12 years in these institutions, students leave them being useless for this world. They are not well-versed even in religious sciences and Arabic language. They are unable to write and speak even modern Arabic.

There has been talk about reforming madrasa curriculum for almost a century, but in practice no reform has been forthcoming. The need was for these madrasas to impart both religious and modern education. A madrasa graduate should come out holding high school and senior secondary certificates. But the certificate which a madrasa graduate possesses is worthless in this world. He is qualified only to become an imam, muezzin or to teach in a madrasa. A few smart ones start their own madrasas. A few hundred graduates of madrasas enrol in some Indian universities to do humanities courses while ten or twenty of them get admission in some Arab universities. But the majority of the madrasa graduates is forced to live on the margins of life.

I proposed a few years back to adopt a curriculum similar to Al-Azhar University schools (ma’ahid azhariyah) but no one paid attention to it. The schools of Al-Azhar University impart such modern and religious education that after matriculation, the student can go to any stream. We have here in India a madrasa which calls itself “Azhar of India” but the real Al-Azhar, which is in Egypt and where I have studied, is very different from the madrasas we have here.

As an educational institution, Al-Azhar started from a mosque a thousand years ago but it kept changing over time according to new requirements. Today, it is an international standard university whose city-like campus teaches all possible courses and its degrees are acceptable to every university in the world, while only some Indian universities accept the certificates of a few designated madrassas for admission to certain courses in humanities only. It seems that under the new admission policy, this facility will probably be abolished as there is now Common University Entrance Test (CUET) for admission in universities.  This year, CEUT has been made mandatory for 42 universities and gradually it will be adopted by all universities in India. Graduates of madrasas will not be eligible to take this test for which senior secondary school certificate is required and madrasa certificates are not recognised as such. Managers of madrasas are perhaps unaware about this new development and if there are, they would be happy that their students will no longer go to universities and get spoilt there.

About a decade ago, the UPA government proposed to form a Central Madrasa Board, but due to opposition from some big madrasas, the government backed down and no one is talking about it now. I think there is still a need for the government to set up such a central board for madrasas so that the certificates of madrasas get official recognition. Any madrasa which has reservations about such a board can keep away without forcing others to benefit from the scheme.

At the same time, I would like to say that the condition of our Muslim-run modern schools is not good either. Our forefathers established “Islamia” or some similar schools in almost every city and town. These schools still exist but local people indulge in so much politics that the condition of such schools is not in good shape in terms of both management or quality of education. As a result, our Muslim children do not get good education there and have to go to other schools where they have to pay higher fees and face taunts including facing the hijab issue as in Karnataka these days.

We shed so much tears for Urdu but we do not teach Urdu to our own children.  If our new generation will not read Urdu, then how will Urdu survive? In Israel, Jews revived Hebrew language, which had been dead for two thousand years and is now a very developed modern language. How will this language survive without us teaching Urdu to our children, without us using it and without us buying Urdu newspapers and books? We fail to do what we can, yet curse others for killing Urdu. If we are cut off from Urdu, we will lose our great milli treasures which are preserved in millions of books, and it is impossible that we will be able to transfer this treasure to another language. We have to protect Urdu for our identity.

Organizations: There are thousands of local and “All India” Muslim organizations in our country but they have no coordination or cooperation with one another. Despite repeated requests, they do not disclose to whom they are extending help. As a result, some clever people rake in funds from multiple of organisations while the deserving are left out. We sent a proposal to various organisations that there should be a common website on which the particulars of recipients and amounts paid to them are uploaded so that any person is not able to garner help from more than one organisation but no attention was paid to this suggestion. Every organisation thinks that it alone is doing some work. Some clever people propagate even their small work but rarely any organisation publishes its audited accounts or uploads it on its website.

Social Issues:Socially, our families are falling apart. There is no attention to real issues like education and business. Available money is being squandered on extravagant rituals, especially marriages. Because of this, people are getting heavily indebted and are forced to sell their ancestral properties. Those who have some excess money are repeatedly performing Hajj and Umrah while the poor, needy, madrasas and orphanages etc are short of funds. Every year, millions of our people take out their children from schools only because they cannot afford to pay school fees.

In the case of inheritance, we are violating the Islamic Shariat almost in its totality. Rarely is inheritance being distributed according to the Shariat as powerful people deprive their weak relatives of their legal share. Moreover, generally, our women do not get their share in inheritance.

Awqaf lands and properties were endowed by our ancestors for many charitable purposes but today most of these are occupied and Muslims are at the forefront of awqaf usurpers.

Consumption of alcohol, gambling, usury, etc. are now openly practiced in Muslim neighborhoods and it seems that good and pious people do not care about what is happening in their neighbourhoods. There is need to form local social reform committees and tackle such vices right there by our own efforts. But it seems we have become apathetic. Even our ulama are unconcerned. They register their presence in same kind of marriage ceremonies and functions against which they warn the society in their writings and speeches.

Among the social evils are caste-related issues though caste has no place in Islam. This is gnawing at the roots of our society like termites. This curse has made inroads into our society as a result of local influences. There is no place for such discrimination in Islam. Islam tells us, as the Prophet (pbuh) said, “No Arab has a superiority over a non-Arab except by piety.” He repeatedly emphasised that all Muslims are brothers of each other and all human beings are equals.

Problems of the society include neglect of health issues and eating unhealthy oily and spicy foods. This is the problem of every household. Because of these harmful foods most people in our society suffer from various diseases and spend money in hospitals. If we take care of our health and avoid the wrong kind of oily and spicy foods, we will be safe from many ailments and will save our money too.

We talk a lot about protection of Muslim Personal Laws but our disputes are not settled in our neighbourhood reconciliation committees or in Darul-Qazas but we take them to courts and destroy ourselves by paying huge fees to lawyers.

Moral Decline: To me, moral decay of the Muslim community is at the forefront of all our problems.  It is true that large number of people with good morals are still found in our community but moral degradation is a general condition of the community. As a community, we are more morally corrupt than other sections of our society. Lying, betrayal of trust and breaking promises have become our hallmark. These are the very attributes about which the Prophet (pubh) said that if any one of these traits is found in a person, he is suffering from one trait of hypocrisy, and if all these three traits are found in a person, he is a complete hypocrite. This is the standard by which we can measure whether we are Muslims or not. It is a matter of great concern for us that a large section of our community suffers from all these three evil traits about which our Prophet (pubh) warned fifteen hundred years ago that those who suffer from these three traits are hypocrites and we know for sure that the last resting place of a hypocrite is Hell.

It should be our first priority to arrest the moral decay of our community and to make it God-fearing who for greatest worldly gains would not lie, break promises or betray trust.

One of the main reasons for this moral decay is our alienation from the Word of God, the Holy Qur’an. Today, we read parts of the Qur’an, without understanding it, in prayers or for heavenly reward (thawab). We must read the Qur’an for the eternal guidance for which it was revealed. Those who don’t know Arabic must read the Qur’an in translation which is available in most languages. Allah is speaking to each of us personally through the Qur’an.  It is a pity that we do not get the message of Allah from His book but from Maulvis who get knowledge of Islam not from the Word of Allah but from fiqhi books. Some of these maulvis are so daring that they forbid the masses to read the translation of the Quran claiming that they will be get misguided if they did so. As a result, we listen to the self-appointed maulvis, instead of reading the living Word of Allah, and fall prey to all the prejudices that are taught to our maulvis in their denominational seminaries. Another part of this problem is we have limited our mosques to offering prayers only. Mosques are centres of our community and as such should be used for our neighbourhood committee meetings, conferences, weddings, coaching classes as well as to impart training and education to our children and the like. Not only this, we have divided our mosques on sectarian and denominational lines. We do not allow “others” to enter “our” mosques, whereas Allah has said that “mosques belong only to Allah” (al-Masajidu lillah).  Another part of this problem is that we have wasted and suspended the great weekly teaching and training opportunity offered by the sermon or khutba of Friday, by insisting on the delivery of sermons in Arabic which is not understood by a vast majority of our people.  The Friday sermon is an opportunity to offer advice and educate the general public every week, week after week, but by insisting on Arabic sermons, we have wasted a great opportunity for mass contact with people every week on issues concerning the community.

If we are really concerned about ourselves, about our future generations and about the well-being of the nation and the country, we have to introspect and evolve a serious programme to reform ourselves.

(This is an English translation of a lecture delivered at IMPAR Leadership Conference held at India Islamic Cultural Centre, Delhi on 2 April 2022. The author is editor, The Milli Gazette and former Chairman, Delhi Minorities Commission)




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