Examining Islam in India through a modern lens

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

“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.


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.”

She attributes much of the community’s suffering to “sociopolitical discrimination” and the systemic denial of justice and equal opportunity. “This situation has worsened with the rise of Hindu right-wing political forces that demonize Islam and Muslims, holding them responsible for countless supposed wrongs throughout history,” she writes. “This forces Muslims to seek security in their own numbers, and they withdraw into ghettos on the periphery of the mainstream, thereby limiting their choices in terms of accommodation, education, and profession.” She makes pithy observations about the practice of halala in India—a practice that requires a Muslim woman to marry another man, consummate the marriage and then get a divorce, before remarrying her husband; tolerant Sufism and Wahhabi extremism; and the absurdities of the infamous criminalisation of triple talaq under the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019.

The book also revisits the events of Partition and its aftermath at length, and argues that the Revolt of 1857 eroded the economic and educational foundations of Muslims. Wahab highlights many events to suggest that the marginalisation of Muslims began escalating after 1947. Take, for instance, the representatives of the new government of independent India: Wahab quotes S Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru’s biographer, who wrote that Vallabhbhai Patel thought of Muslims in India as “hostages to be held as security for the fair treatment of Hindus in Pakistan.” Patel wanted Muslim officials, “even if they had opted for India,” to be dismissed because he considered them “disloyal.” Because of this mistrust, Wahab writes, some Muslim military officers, including one colonel—who later went on to set up India’s first military school, the National Defence Academy­­­­—were asked to resign their commission, but the order was rescinded after Nehru’s intervention. The book also looks at the role played by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in disseminating propaganda during the 1970s to stir up communal tension. It deftly connects these histories to Muslim representation and offers an analysis about the implications for employment for the community: “A certain percentage of Muslims are employed in professional categories such as teachers, government officials, managers, service shop owners and sales … though much poorer than the upper-caste Hindus, they fare better than the SC communities.”

 “Just as radicalization among Hindus crept in slowly and insidiously after Independence, the political marginalization of Muslims has also been a gradual but steady process,” she writes. Although she connects the rise of the BJP with dwindling Muslim representation in parliament, Wahab misses analysing how other parties also began showing reluctance in fielding Muslim candidates in constituencies that did not have a Muslim majority. In the past four decades or so, Muslim representation in parliament has deteriorated rapidly—according to census figures, their population rose from 75 million (11 percent of the total population) in 1981 to 173 million (14 percent) in 2011; Wahab notes that MPs from the community halved from 49 in 1980 to 23 in 2014. Four more Muslim MPs were added in 2019, which only suggests Muslims are increasingly losing touch with power politics in the country.  

In any case, very few Indian Muslims are able to hold positions of authority and influence, and these are largely Ashraf Muslims with access to education and political power. As Wahab writes, the caste system among Indian Muslims “is the worst-kept secret of the community.” Since Ashraf Muslims “didn’t have to face problems in areas of education and employment, they engaged with issues like religion, language, and culture.” She also refers to the sociologist and activist Khalid Anis Ansari, who has written about the increasing Pasmanda demand for representation in electoral politics and argued that, in this scenario, “caste overrides religion.”

In her attempt to decode Islam, Wahab has partly relied on attacking its orthodoxies rather than elaborating on its nature. She addresses the important question of how Muslims in India can break the shackles of social and political prejudice in the concluding chapter, talking about much-needed educational reforms and shattering the connotations of intolerance and terrorism that have become synonymous with Islam and the self-serving politics of Saudi Arabia. Wahab writes in her introduction that she felt a need to “represent the case of Muslims to those who wonder about them” and suggests that the “seventh-century template” of Islam is ill-equipped to solve the problems of the modern world. Her main point here is that, unless Muslims become progressive, they cannot compete with the world—an undoubtedly salient idea. She then asks how this modernity can be achieved within the framework of Islam. The book, however, does not provide a coherent answer. To say that Muslims striving to be true to the Islam of Prophet Muhammad appear “more out of time and backward,” and to urge Muslims to be forward-looking by reiterating that it is no longer intellectually modish to follow the example of the prophet, is certainly insufficient. Wahab’s call for modernity could easily be interpreted as a call for Muslims to breach religious barriers—abandon the old; embrace the modified, if not the new. But her attempt results in a portrayal of the spirit of Islam as merely a revolutionary idea emerging from the deserts of Arabia, which, she claims, has been allowed “to putrefy over the centuries,” and consequently, a type-casting of certain Muslims as blindfolded, sluggish and illiterate.

Wahab’s otherwise expansive work has occasional lapses, which is understandable given the mammoth project of dissecting a religion with so much literature, and a divine book containing both muhkam and mutashabihat verses—established or decisive verses, and allegorical and difficult ones, respectively. Wahab’s reading of Quranic verses at some points is pertinent. For instance, the verses about paradise in Surah Rehman and Surah Waqiah mention houris, whom some translators interpret as “fair-skinned, doe-eyed” virgins, but these verses are, in literal terms, referring to houris as heavenly companions whom no man has ever touched for the sake of purity, not necessarily implying a sensual or sexual sense. Wahab suggests that the reference is indeed to beautiful women, not any sort of misinterpretation of “white raisins”—as some Western scholars have suggested based on a Syriac reading to interpret the term hoor. “In the Arab society to which Prophet Muhammad was preaching,” she writes, “women were treated as objects meant for the fulfillment of sexual desires.” This is an apt analysis while explaining the concept of the houris, but it does not adequately capture the complexities of Arab society of the period, which saw the coexistence of female infanticide and slavery with women leaders and public figures.

When it comes to the compilation of the Quran, Wahab claims that it remained an oral tradition until the demise of the prophet, who is credited for teaching the katibs—scribes—and the hafizs—those who memorise the Quran—the proper sequence of surahs, or chapters, of the Quran. She asserts, deploying evidence in support of her claim, that a complete copy of the Quran was not available during Muhammad’s lifetime. It is well-known that, during the lifetime of the prophet, there were scribes among his companions, who used to note surahs and verses on whatever material was available to write upon at that time. In those days, parts of the Quran were scattered among his companions and, since the revelations did not stop until the prophet’s return to Medina from the farewell pilgrimage to Mecca in 632 CE, it is very likely those fragments remained in possession of his companions alone and the written version of the complete Quran could not be compiled. However, narrations in the books of Hadith suggest that the prophet himself ordered the Quran to be written during his lifetime—though it is unclear if it was written in its entirety. The book, however, assumes the absolute absence of the written version.

According to Wahab, at first, when Umar ibn Khattab, who later became second Rashidun caliph, suggested a book of written verses be compiled, people were divided on the issue. She writes that these early Muslims—including Zayd ibn Thabit, who transcribed the first copy of the Quran—argued, “If the Quran was meant to be written down then the Prophet would have ordered this in his lifetime.” Zayd was tasked with writing the first complete copy of the Quran during the Rashidun caliphate of Abu Bakr Siddique, and the copy was passed on to the next caliph, Umar, and then to his daughter Hafsa. Until the days of the third Rashidun caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, people largely recited the Quran from memory, and there were only a few copies of the written version. Wahab asserts that, when it was brought to Uthman’s notice that Muslims outside Medina were disputing the recitation of some Quranic verses, the caliph ordered Zayd and three other scribes to make seven copies from the original copy—acquired from Hafsa—and, once it was done, “the original version was destroyed so that the Uthmanic version was held as final.” This observation is debatable, because a hadith from Sahih al-Bukhari clearly says that Uthman had returned the original copy to Hafsa after the scribes had made copies from it. This suggests—contrary to the book’s claim about the destruction of the original Quran—that it was not the original copy, but variant ones, that were destroyed.

Wahab makes apparent her disregard for hadiths, implying that they are untrustworthy sources. Scholars do consider the Quran to be a more reliable source than hadiths. The earliest source of Islamic literature, Ibn Ishaq’s Sira Rasul Allah, was written some seventy years after the prophet’s demise and the most popular books of hadiths—Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim—were written more than two centuries afterwards, and so, some Muslims maintain the stand that hadiths cannot be taken seriously. The printing press did not exist at the time and books were hand-written, so the possibility of errors creeping into hadith books cannot be dismissed entirely. However, the methods of determining the authenticity of the traditions mentioned by these books, through examining their chain of narrators, are also what has earned them the approval of scholars over the centuries. Several schools of Islamic thought are of the opinion that Muslims should not repeal hadiths. Many Muslims, however, reject them, or at least a part of them. Nevertheless, hadiths do still form an important source of Islamic faith. There are 40 Qudsi hadiths, while some narrations in the reputed collections are allegorical, contradictory and dubious. The scholars who compiled the two most popular books of hadith, Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim—a teacher–pupil duo—consolidated the work done by the eighth-century theologian Imam Abu Hanifa in Musnad Abu Hanifa (written around sixty years after the prophet’s demise) and Imam Malik in Muwatta Imam Malik, which are considered two of the oldest hadith books. Sahih al-Bukhari alone contains six hundred thousand narrations in several volumes.


One of the biggest challenges Islam faces today is sectarianism within its two main divisions: Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. This has left the Islamic world divided into two groups, which have been further divided into many sects over the centuries. Today, Arab nations are engulfed in regional conflicts over the same division. What began ostensibly as a quest for truth became a quest for power and annexation.    

The modern history of Islam presented in the book suggests that, in 1744, as a result of an agreement between Muhammad bin Saud and Abdul Wahhab, the House of Saud began propagating Wahhabi doctrines among the Bedouin tribes in the Najd region. Initially, these teachings—aligned with cultural codes of the tribes and Islamic beliefs­—were meant only for the people of Najdi tribes, largely to unite the people under a single leader but, after the Saudi conquest of Hejaz, the doctrines travelled quickly to other parts of the world due to the influx of scholars and pilgrims to Mecca and Medina—one of whom was the famous Indian scholar Shah Waliullah Dehlvi, who is credited for bringing them to India. Wahab suggests that the extremist doctrines of Wahhabism that are presently shaping the thought of contemporary Muslims have caused more harm to Islam’s tolerant nature. “The reason Saudi Arabia has been so successful in exporting its version of Islam is the exalted position the country enjoys in the minds of the Muslims,” she writes. The teachings, such as deeming veneration of graves tantamount to idol worship, the rejection of reverence to the dead and intercessory prayers to god by means of saints and prophets, the unchallenged authority of the Saudi king that none, including the imams of the Grand mosque of Mecca, can question, have not been without opposition. More so, Sunni Islam under the heavy influence of Wahhabism is more discordant with the spirit of Islam. Wahab criticises Saudi Arabia for dominantly attempting to change Muslims’ perspective of Islam, for lobotomising Muslim minds and for enervating the Muslim world through its war tactics in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere: “After the time of Prophet Muhammad, [the country] has only contributed to divisiveness among Muslims through self-serving opportunistic politics.” It must be noted that Saudi Arabia was formed only in the previous century and the country’s legitimacy to lead the Muslim world solely because its rulers control the two holy mosques is indeed deplorable.   

There are certain lacunae in Wahab’s method of approaching certain religious matters and systems, such as the fiqh—Islamic jurisprudence. She has raised questions over the authenticity of certain hadiths as well. The people of the newly founded nation of Islam had their own system of law called the shariat, and reinterpreting Islamic principles around the shariat in modern times has not been seen as a problem by many scholars of Islam. Wahab asks an important question in the book: what is the relevance of Islam, and Islamic laws, today, in a modern world deriving its spiritual knowledge from science? But she has failed to thoroughly tackle this question and largely evaded providing any sort of logical alternative or solution to what are seemingly troubling areas for her.

One possible answer could be found in the writing of the author Muhammad Iqbal. In his treatise on Islamic thought, called The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, he reproduced parts of Waliullah’s views on Islamic laws. According to him, Waliullah was of the opinion that the law revealed to a prophet takes into consideration habits, mannerisms, traditions, proclivities, living conditions and peculiarities of the people for whom they are initially intended. Iqbal writes, “The prophet who aims at all-embracing principles, however, can neither reveal different principles for different peoples, nor leave them to work out their own rules of conduct. His method is to train one particular people, and use them as a nucleus for building up a universal shariat. In doing so, he accentuates the principles underlying the social life of all mankind, and applies them to concrete cases in the light of the specific habits of the people immediately before him. The shariat values (ahkam) resulting from this application (e.g. rules relating to penalties for crimes) are in a sense specific to that people; and since their observance is not an end in itself, they cannot be strictly enforced in the case of future generations.”   

“Liberal Muslims decree that too much importance is given to fringe elements like the ulema,” Wahab writes. “But since the ulema manage the numbers on the streets, how can they be ignored? And how can the fact that they do control the minds of the insecure, illiterate Muslims, who believe that saving Islam is a bigger cause than improving their own lives, be ignored?” She also criticises Muslim preachers and refers to “semi-literate mullahs” on a few occasions. This raises the question: what do liberal-minded Muslims expect from the Muslim clergy or the ulema? Some working knowledge of English, or a limited Western education, can help a person expected to master the correct pronunciation and the true meaning of the Quran; lead or assist in prayers; advise on religious matters through a grasp over hadith books, and so on. But to imply that their religious education is insufficient in the modern world is akin to saying eating apples is archaic because they have been around for ages. That said, the book does rightfully attack some “ill-equipped single room madrassas,” where learning is no longer based on the knowledge of Arabic, due to which students in such schools remain oblivious to the complete understanding of the Quran.

The book’s main achievement is its thorough portrayal of the rise and expansion of Islam in India, and its presentation of a brief history of Indian politics and communal violence in the country. There are only a few points at which it concedes to popular yet inadequate theories about Islam, rather than attempting to emphasise the idea that the conditions of Muslims can only be altered through efforts by the community’s members to change themselves, and not by changing Islam.