Interview: Iqbal Ahmad On Dalit-Muslim Unity
By Yoginder Sikand
29 April, 2010
Bangalore-based advocate Iqbal Ahmed Shariff is an activist associated with the Bahujan and Dalit-Muslim unity movements. Author of numerous books in Urdu, he was also the editor of the Urdu and Hindi Dalit Voice. In this interview he talks with Yoginder Sikand on a wide range of issues, including Dalit-Muslim unity and the problems of the Muslim leadership in India.
Q: How did you get involved in the Dalit-Muslim unity movement?
A: It was through reading literature about Sufis and Sufism that I developed an interest in the cause of Dalit-Muslim unity. Sufism takes the human being beyond all boundaries of religion and community. It teaches one to dedicate one’s life to service of the oppressed, irrespective of religion or caste. And in India the most oppressed, the most marginalised groups are the Dalits and the Muslims. Before I got involved in the Dalit-Muslim unity movement, I was in government service and I was deeply influenced by Marxism and was involved in the trade union movement. Then, I happened to read V.T.Rajshekar’s fascinating book called ‘How Marx Failed in Hindu India’. V.T.Rajshekar is the editor of the Bangalore-based magazine ‘Dalit Voice’. That book changed my whole perception of Marxism in India.
Q: What did the book have to say about Indian Marxism?
A: Basically, Rajshekar argued that Marxism had failed in India because it had been hijacked by the ‘upper’ castes, who, while they call themselves ‘Marxists’ and ‘progressives’, still refuse to give up their caste privileges. The leadership of all the various communist parties in India, he pointed out, was firmly in the hands of the ‘upper’ castes. This book convinced me that service to the ‘lower’ castes is service to the lower class, for class is caste in India. Gradually, I got involved in the work that Rajshekar was doing, translating many of his writings into Urdu and helping to spread his message among the Muslims.
Q: Rajshekar, while bitterly opposed to Brahminism and ‘upper’ caste Hindu hegemony, is also a strong critic of various Islamic groups in India, such as the Jama’at-i-Islami and the Tablighi Jama’at. What do you feel about his views on these Muslim groups?
A: As I see it, these various so-called Islamic organizations preach a doctrinaire Islam that does not represent the true spirit of Islam. Take the case of the Jama’at-i-Islami, which has a very important influence on the minds of Muslim intellectuals in India and elsewhere in South Asia. It talks about establishing the ‘rule of God’, the hukumat-i-ilahiya. This itself is absurd, as God has ruled the universe ever since He created it and shall do so till as long as the universe lasts. The Jama’at believes that besides the Prophet and the first four caliphs of the Sunnis, there have been no other true Islamic rulers in the last 1400 years. What does this mean? Do they mean to suggest that Islam failed within fifty years of the Prophet’s demise? Or, that for the last 1400 years Muslims have not been true Muslims, and that only the Jama’atis are true Muslims? The truth is that even the four model caliphs ruled in different ways. Their priorities were different, being conditioned by the historical and social conditions of their times. These differences clearly suggest that rulers need to rule according to the particular conditions that they find themselves faced with, and that, therefore, there can be no rigid or static model of an ‘Islamic state’, such as the impracticable and utopian model that the Jama’at propagates.
Q: By the ‘rule of God’ the Jama’at-I-Islami claims that it seeks to establish an Islamic state ruled in accordance with Islamic law. All other Islamist groups share the same goal. How do you see this?
A: According to my own reading of Islam, there is nothing as a concept of the Islamic state. Rather, what the Qur’an talks about is Islamic politics, politics conducted in accordance with the spirit of Islam. And this means a politics characterized, above all, by a spirit of justice, equality and social concern, and the equal treatment of all people, irrespective of caste, creed or social status. It has nothing at all to do with a rigid, doctrinaire understanding of state institutions and practices that the Jama’at talks about. The Prophet permitted his followers to consult each other in matters of warfare and politics, on the grounds that there could be no fixed, hard-and-fast methods in these matters. Hence, Islamic politics is a far cry from the static, rigid models that groups like the Jama’at seek to impose. As the Qur’an says, all people have the right to follow the religion of their own choice or no religion for that matter, and so there can be no compulsion in matters of faith. A true Islamic politics would work to guarantee this freedom, not to stifle it.
The Islamic politics that I talk about is further represented in the lives of the Prophet and the four righteous caliphs who followed after him. Thus, the Prophet himself allowed a group of Christians to pray in his mosque in Medina. The Caliph Omar avoided praying inside a church in Jerusalem, after the city fell to the Muslims, although the Christian priests had invited him to do so. He told the priests that if he did as they had requested, in the future some Muslims might demand that the church be given to them as their caliph had prayed there. So, instead, he prayed in the courtyard of the Church, saying to the Christians that in order not to offend them he was offering his prayers within the compound of their shrine. Now, I regard all this as the true hallmark of Islamic politics, and you can see how different this is from the sort of Islam preached by the Jama’at. So, how can one agree with the sort of ‘Islamic state’ that these Islamist groups talk about?
Q: In your writings you make a crucial difference between what you call the ‘spirit of Islam’ and the ‘form’ of Islam, arguing that the former is the core of the Islamic faith. What exactly do you mean?
A: See, the sort of Islam preached by groups such as the Jama’at-i-Islami and the Tablighi Jama’at represents the outward, external form, peripheral or cosmetic issues, divorced from the actual spirit of Islam. It focuses on petty externalities, such as how one should eat and sleep, how long one should grow one’s beard, and what it sees as ‘proper’ ‘Islamic’ dress and other such external markers of identity. But if you look at the Qur’an, you would discover that more than nine-tenths of all its verses deal with ethics, with spiritualism, and with the need to exercise reason and scientific judgment. It contains statements of fact relating to human psychology, physics, biology, botany and so on. It exhorts the believers to actively struggle for social justice and against oppression, to help the poor and the needy, irrespective of religion. But these do not seem to be a concern for doctrinaire Islamists, and, instead, the focus on the less than one-tenth of the verses of the Qur’an that deal simply with legal injunctions, and with the external, apparent or what in Urdu is called the zahiri aspects of the faith. They turn a blind eye to what is called huquq-ul ‘ibad (‘the rights of other creatures of God’, and these includes all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, human beings as well as other creatures, animate beings as well as inanimate things), but only speak of huquq ullah (‘the rights of God’). In Islam, huquq-ul ‘ibad is just as important as huquq ullah, while the doctrinaire Islamists do not recognize this in practice.
Q: As an advocate for Dalit-Muslim unity, how do you see this broad coalition taking shape?
A: Unity between all oppressed groups in India, particularly Dalits and Muslims, is the need of the hour, and the only way in which India can be saved. Dalits and Muslims are both victims of Brahminical oppression. Most Muslims in India are of Dalit origin, whose ancestors converted to Islam to escape from the fetters of the Brahminical religion. In order to do free themselves from oppression there is no other course than for the Dalits and Muslims to unite, although this has been stridently opposed by the ‘upper’ castes, both the so-called ‘progressives’ and ‘secularists’ as well by the Hindutva fanatics. Despite this opposition, Dalits and Muslims have moved towards some sort of political unity, as is apparent in the growth of regional political parties under non-Brahmin leadership in various states. Although this may not have helped Muslims or Dalits in real terms, it has definitely led to a decline of Brahminical power.
Q: Some Muslims believe that Muslims can unite with the Dalits only if the latter convert to Islam. Others see the Dalit-Muslim unity movement as a means to get the Dalits to accept Islam. What would you have to say ?
A: I think this is a very distorted understanding of what we are trying to do. It is not at all necessary for the Dalits to convert to Islam for Muslims to unite with them to struggle for their rights. The Qur’an very clearly lays down that each human being has the right to choose the religion of his or her own choice and that there can be no compulsion in religion. Then again, the Qur’an exhorts the Muslims to help all people in distress, irrespective of religion. So, how can one say, ‘We will help you only if you turn Muslim’?. It is as absurd as saying to someone, ‘If you want to be my friend you must marry into my family’.
Q: But surely the Dalit-Muslim unity has not gone far enough. In the recent events in Gujarat, for instance, Dalits were in the forefront of the pogroms against the Muslims.
A: True, some Dalits were involved in the killings of Muslims in Gujarat, but they have been misused by ‘upper’ caste groups who see Dalit-Muslim unity as a major threat to their own hegemony. In politics, the rulers always seek to rule by dividing the oppressed against each other, and Dalits are often paid and recruited to attack Muslims. Yes, I also agree with you when you say that the Dalit-Muslim unity movement has not gone as far as it should have. One reason for this is that the Muslim elites of the Urdu-Hindi-speaking Gangetic belt, what we in Dalit circles call Aryavarta or the ‘land of the Aryans’, are opposed to such unity efforts. They suffer from an enormous sense of superiority, owing to their supposedly foreign extraction and because they claim descent from Muslim elites who ruled almost the whole of India for over a thousand years. Because of this, they feel they have the right to control all Muslims throughout India. On the other hand, now that they are bereft of political power, these Aryavarta Muslim elites feel a strong sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the ‘upper’ caste Hindus, who now have a virtual monopoly of power. This has given rise to tremendous fear and frustration, which the Aryavarta Muslim elites seek to impose on the Muslims of the rest of the country.
If you take even a cursory look at the history of inter-communal relations in India in the last one hundred years or so, you will see that all communal controversies that have assumed an all-India dimension have invariably started in Aryavarta, such as the Hindi-Urdu dispute, the issue of the Common Civil Code and Muslim Personal Law, cow slaughter and cow protection, the Babri Masjid controversy and so on. Intra-Muslim rivalries, between various groups like the Jama’at-i-Islami, the Tablighi Jama’at, the Deobandis and the Barelwis, have all originated in Aryavarta. There seems to be a conspiracy between the ‘upper’ caste elites of Aryavarta and the Muslim elites of that region to deliberately rake up these controversies so that each of them can claim the leadership of their own communities in the entire country.
Q: How do you have to say about the present Muslim leadership in India?
A: We have no leadership at all today, and the void is sought to be filled by the politics of religion by Aryavarta Muslims. Almost all India-wide Muslim religious organizations, such as the Jama’at-i-Islami, the Tablighi Jama’at, the Deobandis and the Barelwis, began and have their headquarters in Aryavarta, from where they have attempted to expand through the rest of the country to bring the rest of the Muslims in the country as a whole under their own leadership. They see themselves as having been rulers of India for a thousand years, and now, because they have lost power to the ‘upper’ caste Hindus, seek to compensate for this by establishing their control over the Muslims in the rest of the country through the politics of religion. They insist that Muslims must unite, but they themselves are divided into mutually bickering jama’ats and tanzeems. As I see it, these religious groups are incapable of providing the community with political leadership. They have become calamities for us.
Q: Do you mean to say that these so-called Muslim leaders do not really represent the Muslims of the entire country?
A: Exactly. Whenever an issue arises that concerns Muslims, the media approaches certain name-sake and un-elected Muslim ‘leaders’ in Delhi, who do not have the confidence and support of the Muslims, and presents them as ‘spokesmen’ for the 150 million Muslims of India. I feel this quest for an All-India level Muslim leadership is not only futile, it is also counter-productive. Muslims in India are regionally divided, and are organizing at the regional level. I think this is a good thing, because the social conditions in different regions are different. Thus, for instance, in Tamil Nadu Muslims might seek to establish ties with the Dravidian movement, while in Bihar they have united with the Yadavs and the Dalits. On the whole, Muslims living outside Aryavarta are better organized than Aryavarta Muslims.
Q: Critics allege that the Dalit-Muslim movement, and the Dalit movement more generally, is ‘communal’ and opposed to the Hindus and the Hindu religion. What would you say?
A: As we in the Dalit movement see it, ‘Hindu’ is a political term, not a religious one, and it represents the ‘upper’ caste Brahminical elites who have consigned the non-Brahmins to centuries-old slavery. In not one of the ‘Hindu’ scriptures is the word ‘Hindu’ ever mentioned. We are not opposed to individual ‘upper’ caste people, but only to the ideology of Brahminical chauvinism and is upholders, who are vehemently opposed to the Dalits, the Muslims, and other such marginalized group, who want to establish a Hindu Rashtra.