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Indian Muslims and reforms - The Hindu

Asghar Ali Engineer ()
March 25, 1998

Title: Indian Muslims and reforms
Author: Asghar Ali Engineer
Publication: The Hindu
Date: March 25, 1998

It is usually maintained that Indian Muslims resist all attempts
at social reform due to their conservative nature and also
because Islam is considered a 'rigid religion. Such ideas, to
say the least, are superficial and do not go to the heart of the
matter. Nor do they look at the deeper causes of lesser
acceptability of reform among Muslims.

It is not true that there have been no attempts at reform. In the
19th century when Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Dayanand Saraswati, Mahatma
Phule and others were trying to reform age-old Hindu traditions,
some prominent Muslim reformers also appeared. on the scene,
though somewhat later.

Syed Abroad Khan, popularly known as Sir Syed, started the
reforms movement much before he founded the Mohamedan Anglo
Oriental College in Aligarh, which was later converted into a
full-fledged university in 1920.

Sir Syed started a journal Tahzibul Akhlaq on the pattern of
journals of 18th century England Spectator and Tatler. His
journal deeply stirred the stagnant life of Muslims in the north.

However, there were important differences which made the task of
the Muslim social reformers difficult. While Sir Syed was
slogging for the promotion of secular education in the north, no
such difficulty was faced by educationists such as Badruddin
Tyabji in western India. In the south, too, the education
movement did not encounter great difficulties among the Muslims.
One must probe why. The Muslim elite in the north had a feudal
background and suffered the most in the post-Mutiny period. Most,
if not all, of them were ruined and many eminent personalities
were publicly executed. It thus prejudiced them against the
British and their education system.

The Ulema too lost not only their influence but all executive
posts in the Shariat courts and most of these courts were
replaced by secular courts. The tribe of Muslim theologians,
therefore, adopted an intensely anti-British attitude. Syed Ahmad
Barelvi and his supporters even launched a war against the
British in the North Frontier region, though the attempt failed

There is another important reason for the failure of the social
reform movement among Indians in general and Muslims in
particular. In England, papers such as Spectator had a much
greater impact because England was a free country and confident
of marching ahead rapidly.The elite there were in need of such a
movement for change so that the traditional way of life did not
become an impediment to social progress.

Things were different in India, a colonial country, and, the path
of social change was tortuous. The reform movements tended to
strengthen the colonial regime. Even Ram Mohan Roy had to take
British help for the enactment of a law against 'sail'. Without
the active support of Lord William Bentick, he would not have
succeeded in abolishing the abominable practice of widows burning
to death on the pyre of their husands

Similarly, those who fought against the caste system such as
Mahatma Phule and E. V Ramasami Naicker had to take pro-British
positions. Sir Syed too was no exception. He had to persuade the
Muslim elite not to be hostile to the British rulers and
explained to them the 'benefits' of the British rule.

It was difficult for the elite to accept this position as they
had lost their everything with the advent of the British rule.

Reform movements generally benefit the rising classes and those
who lose out with the introduction of the new system oppose them
vehemently. The Muslim elite were the greater losers in the north
compared to the Hindus.

Also, capitalist and middle classes began to emerge among the
Hindus with the introduction of new industries and the
development of commerce, on the one hand, and the creation of
higher administrative jobs in the colonial administration, on the

The Muslim elite had a feudal background and the new industrial
and commercial system did not benefit them. The Muslim business
communities of Gujarat were fewer in number and, with a few
honourable exceptions, did not take to industrial enterprises.

The Hindus, on the other hand, fast developed an entrepreneurial
class and took to insurance, banking and finance. Thus, not only
an entrepreneurial but also a middle class dependent on the
former developed fast and it is these classes which needed the
reforms most. They found the old traditions a stumbling block and
hence developed a mindset desiring change.

This was totally absent among the Muslims in the north. They had
a hostile mindset towards change and thus were the losers. Sir
Syed tried hard to change all that. He succeeded but only with
those who were aspiring for jobs in the British Government.

The Muslim middle class was considerably weaker compared to its
Hindu counterpart. However, in western India, Badruddin Tyabji
did not encounter any fierce resistance to establishing
educational institutions as Muslims in this region saw clear
benefits in them. The Muslim business communities supported the
founders of the Anjuman-e-Islam liberally as the new educated
classes would meet their requirements for accountants and clerks.

The new breed of educated Muslims made heroic efforts to promote
education and social reform in their community. There was a whole
galaxy of reformers such as Nawab Mohsinul Mulk, Maulvi Chiragh
Ali, Maulvi Nazir Abroad and Mushtaq Husain. Tahzubul Akhlaq, in
fact, became the main forum for the reformers to express their

Maulvi Mumtaz Ali Khan wrote a book in Urdu on Huququn Nisa (the
rights of women) and maintained that the holy Quran gave equal
status to both the sexes. He, in fact, demolished the arguments
put forward by the Ulema about the inferiority of women. Even Sir
Syed, due to problems he was facing on other fronts, did not
encourage Mumtaz All Khan to publish his work which he,
nevertheless, did on his own.

Mumtaz Ali Khan was really radical in his views. justice Ameer
Ali too wrote his magnum opus The Spirit of Islam and explained
the progressive aspects of that religion and advocated reform.
There was yet another formidable obstacle to overcome. The
educated elite led by Jinnah supported the Muslim League, while
the mases led by the Ulema supported the Indian National
Congress. The elite had their own political interests vis-a-vis
the masses. Himself a liberal in outlook, Jinnah supported social
reforms. But the Ulema vehemently opposed any change in the
orthodox traditions and the Congress valued their support (which
was politically crucial) and hence assured them that it would not
bring about any change in the personal and other Islamic laws.

For any reform to be legally ushered in, political aspects become
crucial and cannot be ignored. In the post-Partition period, the
whole social and political scenario changed. There was an exodus
of the Muslim elite to Pakistan and obviously their support was
crucial to bring about reform.

Those left behind were mostly poor, unlettered and socio-
economically backward. Their needs and priorities were different
>from those of the elite. Social reforms cannot be prioritised
over their basic needs.

Another impediment is the politics of identity in a democratic
society. Every caste or community is getting politically
mobilised on the basis of primordial identities and this has a
social fallout as well. Primordial traditions and practices
acquire a new significance and are zealously guarded. The
identities are so strong that even the victims of these
traditions justify them as they belong to those traditions. This
phenomenon too has to be understood sympathetically.

The fear of social consequences prevent people from supporting
the reform movements. The best example of this is the fate of the
Bohra movement. The Bohras, victims of religious priesthood,
though inwardly against it, stand with it and oppose reform for
fear of dire consequences.

The reformists are socially boycotted and isolated. A majority of
educated and economically better-oft Bohras would like the fresh
wind of change to blow about them but feel helpless for fear of
consequences. Thus, it is not the 'rigidity' of Islam but the
social and economic context which becomes the real impediments to
reform. The societal base must change before reforms become

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