Examining Islam in India through a modern lens

15 July 2021
A street scene in Nizamuddin, New Delhi.
Sumeet Inder Singh / The The India Today Group / Getty Images
A street scene in Nizamuddin, New Delhi.
Sumeet Inder Singh / The The India Today Group / Getty Images

“As a child, Islam came to me gently, and in driblets,” the journalist Ghazala Wahab writes in the hard-hitting introduction to her recent book, Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India. She recalls that, when she was very young, she imbibed the religion through proverbs and stories her parents told her as well as questions she asked them about the faith, rather than through structural learning. She notes that various experiences contributed to how she navigated faith. For instance, when she was young, several Urdu poets exposed her “to an irreverent and critical perspective on Islam.” Her early childhood in Agra, the absurd questions she had to answer at school, visits to a dargah in Ajmer when she was young and several incidents later in life brought upon a wholly different way of experiencing the religion.

In her teenage years, Wahab perceived religion as a divisive factor but, in the time leading up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, she noticed it becoming more “demonstrative” and important to the people around her. She cites pivotal memories from the intensely political decades of the 1980s and 1990s, such as recognising in 1989 that her friends at university were voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party and noting that “none of them had any curiosity about Muslims.” Or that, although her family had had “no prior experience of communal violence,” the violence that erupted in the wake of LK Advani’s rath yatra “hit home,” with an attack on her house in November 1990—a mob with tridents and flaming torches smashed windows and, that night, some of her relatives were picked up by the police. These memories are often intertwined with echoes of previous instances of anti-Muslim violence. “Though I didn’t realize it at that time, memories of the Hashimpura massacre must have sent cold shivers down the backs of my parents and uncles,” she writes, remembering that her family often discussed at this time where a Muslim may be safest during episodes of communal violence. Wahab also recalls actively suppressing such memories. “We collectively worked towards erasing the memory of those days from our lives,” she writes. “Perhaps, to some extent, we succeeded. Since nobody spoke about that time, the memories started to fade, despite the trail of blood that the 1991 elections left across India.” However, she acknowledges the realisation that 6 December 1992 was a turning point not only for her family, “but for most Indian Muslims. We may ignore politics and turn our backs on it, but politics doesn’t ignore anyone.”

Drawing on this maxim, Wahab attempts to answer questions of relevance to the Indian Muslim community, despite acknowledging that it is not a monolithic group. According to her, three factors unite the community, in India at least: “a craving for a uniform pan-Islamic identity created by Saudi Arabia; relative socio-economic backwardness; and the discrimination by state authorities because of religious prejudice and, to some extent, violent persecution.” The book is divided into eight chapters, each shedding light on what it is like to be an Indian Muslim “by looking at the broad sweep of issues that bedevil the Muslim community.” Among the areas it examines are the origins of Islam in India, the different Islamic sects, sectarian strife within the community, the role of organisations such as the Tablighi Jamaat and Jamaat-e-Islami in shaping Islamic thought, the prevalence of the caste system among Muslims, the madrasa-education system, political representation and the state of Muslim women. The book also traces the genesis of recent communal strife by revisiting episodes involving violence against the community and offering reasons for the prevailing “insecurities” of contemporary Indian Muslims. It presents an in-depth survey of Islam and the journey of its Indian adherents, who, according to the author, “started shrinking away from the national mainstream” after experiencing prolonged invisible discrimination and visible social prejudice.

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The book begins its story with anecdotes from Muslim workers who had to hide their identities in order to keep their jobs. Wahab examines various reasons for the Muslim community to have become insecure and ghettoised, including state indifference and persecution as well as property owners’ refusal to rent accommodation to Muslims. “Ghettos are most often found in cities with a history of communal violence,” she writes, noting that with events such as the Batla House encounter, “even a decade after the incident, the ghost … lives on.” This scenario, she writes, induces a cycle of poverty and stereotyping. Wahab also quotes the former vice president Hamid Ansari when appraising the current situation: “The Muslim identity has never been under such overt attack in the past as it is today.”

M Saad is a Delhi-based writer currently working on his first novel about Delhi.

Keywords: Islam Muslims religion Agra Babri Masjid politics
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