Who is an Indian Muslim? It became a sizzling topic of debate on identity of Muslims after the revolt of 1857. Some scholars suggest after 1857, indeed minoritization of Muslims in subcontinent found a new ground in history of India, and thousands of books have been written on this topic both fiction and non-fiction including, travelogue, diaries, memoirs, novels and history.
All attempted to rationalise inherent religious bound to be rebel by the Muslims and that colonial interpretation of Muslims are still a shadow for Indian Muslims. Unfortunately, the projection of Muslims with centrality of religion has never been questioned in the history of Muslim scholarship. After the introduction of the Codification of Law (1861) on religious ground, it was incumbent before the colonial authority to identify people on the basis of religion, as a result they started identifying people, who are Muslims that resulted in an exclusive Book on Indian Muslims with title ‘The Musalman’ by W.W.Hunter, a civil servant of British Government. Later on it became a trend to discuss Muslims identity with religious glance, in court proceeding too, as in a historical judgment of Jiwan Khan v Habib, Lahore bench of the Court it was concluded- ‘Muslim-who is- So long as the two fundamental principles of Mohammedan religion are observed in faith by any person, he will be considered to be a Mohammedan.’ Thus, a Muslim, any person who professes belief (shahadat) that there is but one God and that Mohammed (PBUH) is his prophet is a Mohammedan religion, which emphasizes the monotheistic aspects of Islam.
Can all Muslims be referred as a monolithic block? Though all Muslims who can be classified as ‘Muslims’ adhere to Islam and its customs, is it an adequate basis for referring to them as collective entity or into an undifferentiated category? Are there no differences of caste, social class or region among them and even their physical outlook? Indeed, Islamophobia was a pampered child of the Indian mutiny. Hence Muslim has been projected as per their imaginations and requirement. However, three kind of approach has been very strong to gauge Muslims identity.
First and foremost, the stereotyped of Muslims as a category contrast to Hindu, depicted in Western Thought and Writings.
The first question that comes to mind is, ‘who is the Indian Muslim/Musalman?’ The definition provided in colonial deliberations and census reports is: ‘one who eats cow, who hates pork, who believes in one God and does not believe in idol worship; whose men keep beards and wear skull-sized caps, and whose women wear a burqa.’ The general perceptions that form the Muslim identity are that Muslim women are veiled, as opposite to unveiled Hindu women, as Muslims always do the opposite of what Hindus do.
Indeed, ‘keeping their control’ over Indian society appeared to be a big problem for the British. It was, perhaps, necessary for them to classify the people of India into categories for easy governance. Since Hindus and Muslims were the two major constituents of the Indian population, it was natural for them to distinguish the people of India as per their own requirements.
The Indian Muslim faced several problems because the British perceived all Muslims of the world to be a monolithic category; they assumed that Indian Muslims were similar to the Muslims whom they had come in contact with in Europe or other Islamic countries. As a result, they started several hypotheses about Muslims.
The British needed to provide a moral basis to their rule, and therefore, they projected Indian society as uncivilized and backward. Muslims, being a part of that society, were put into same category. The British projected that their purpose was to introduce rationality in what they assumed as inherent irrationality in Islam.
1857 alarmed the British, making them think about how to control Indian society and what policy should be adopted towards Muslims. This incident also was a lesson in maintaining distance from Indians where administration was concerned.
Apparently, the objective behind the Census Report (henceforth referred to as CR) was to count the Indian people and know their statuses. As Bernard Cohn emphasises, the history of the Indian census must be seen in the context of the British colonial government’s efforts to collect systematic information about the many aspects of Indian society and economy. It seems they wanted to create a rift amongst Indians on the basis of caste and religion. The CR constantly expressed its great apprehension about the increasing growth rate of Muslims over the Hindus. Was it appropriate time to alarm people about growth rate? Although CR depicted the growth rate, it was unable to bring out the hidden motive behind this. Illogically, they considered Muslims more fertile than Hindus.
These reports, condoned by the government, were heavily centralised and therefore, its approach towards space and people was dominated by concern for centralisation like many other reports. The CR reduced numerous variabilities into uniformities. Thus, all Indian Muslim were treated as a part of a general phenomenon and the several reflections on their conditions were demonstrated in a general way. The Census made observations that were derogatory and humiliating to Indian Muslims, However, a serious error is nevertheless noticed in the report regarding the high population figures of Indian Muslims.
It appears that the greatest problem before the British government was to maintain a hold on Indian society, and for that they instituted commissions whenever problems arose. The Gazetteer and the CR were probably compiled by the government officials with the intention of demonstrating their moral superiority. Nevertheless, in the process of doing so, the government necessarily undertook a peculiar kind of exercise for system-building, which resulted in the introduction of a kind of social engineering of Indian society. In this manner, they classified Hindus and Muslims in two groups: those who ate cows were to be considered Muslim and those who performed idol worship, Hindu. Although child marriage was rare among Muslims, widow-remarriage and polygamy was considered a common phenomenon. As such, it was derived by numerous authors of government reports that a liberal diet and the propensity among them for marriage resulted in making them more fertile.
Although, certain observation of these government reports on social customs and behaviour might have been true, one cannot overlook that there was hidden intention behind projecting the Indian Muslims more sexually vibrant than others. It was in this environment that a debate on the fertility and fecundity of Indian Muslim was started in the early 20th century which is still going on that Muslim population is going to outnumber Hindus.
In a generalised manner, the British began attacking the diversity found at the provincial level. They not only divided Indian society according to religion and caste but also provided a permanency to the identities of people in written form through the Gazetteer and CR. In this way they reduced numerous flexibilities found in Indian society.
Several problems that Indian Muslim faced arose from the British perception of Indian Muslims. The British assumed that the Muslims spread all over the world formed one monolithic category. They assumed that Indian Muslims were similar to those they had come in contact with in Europe and other Arab lands. As a result they wondered who a Musalman really was. The British referred to Muslims as Moors on account of their language. The word Moor was understood as pidgin which Gilchrist regarded as barbarian gabble. Another British assumption was that the Indian Muslims could be understood from the Holy Books and that religious dogmas were the Muslims’ only concern.
Second how Muslim themselves identified –
Let’s begin with AllamaIqbal, two famous couplets about the Muslim; it would be interesting to see how he depicted his own people’s identity in his famous poem Shikwa-
‘Ek hi saf me khare ho gae sab Mahmud-o Ayaaz
Na koi bandarahaaurna koi bandanawaaz.’
Mahmood and Ayaz stood together in the same flank
The ruler and the ruled forgot the difference in their rank.
Banda 0 sahib-o Muhtaj-o ghaniek hue,
Teri sarkar me pahunche to sabhiek hue.
The rich and poor, lord and slave, all were levelled down,
All became brethren in love, with thy grace crowned.
However later on he himself changed his idea of Muslim brotherhood by acknowledging differences across the umma. But the problem of the Indian Muslim is not what they are, but how they have been perceived in western thought and discursive writing that needs to be checked thoroughly. Indeed, all scholars among Muslim elite adopted the approach of unified category of Muslim right from 19th century to this day that approach became problematic after independence and this was echoed by many the approach of Muslim as a distinguish category. No wonder when Muslim is considered ‘others’ because of their peculiar identity politics.
Third, as a result, Muslims identity has been hot topic for academic circle since 19th Century.Even to this day Muslims have been victim of political ideology, they have been projected as a most peculiar creature of this country. More interestingly, they have been projected by their outlook as depicted in popular media, a Kurta Paijama clad Muslim wearing a skull size cap with beard, taveez in his neck and many time Muslim men’s eyes filled with surma. There have been increasing trend in Indian cinema where his identity has been portrayed with many religious symbols. Furthermore, Muslim families often portrayed with many stereotype images. Furthermore, there has been clear message of perceived high fertility rate among Muslims, one can find this debate is fiercely going on, even the same colonial idea they are bound to be rebel. Interestingly popular media projected loose marriage ties among Muslims that resulted in triple talaq kind of issue. While the fact is unlike Islamic concept of contractual marriage Indian Muslim practice and believe in sacred bond.
No wonder if Muslims identity is being portrayed by their appearance and food habits. As an Indian, I find myself very uncomfortable if one distinguishes me with my dress, colour, food habits and religion. Such distinctions are illogical. I bear multiple identities, first, an Indian, second, a woman, third, a Muslim, and this trio makes me a perfect conglomeration of Indian Muslim Woman. I wonder how one can identify me by looking at my physical appearance and what religion I believe; I wear same dress, look same, and share same culture what my other co-sisters may possess. I wear sari, with a bindi on my forehead, did I renounce Islam. It is highly prejudice that in many places people has been asked their name, to recite Kalma, blamed to be Jihadi just because they happened to be student of an institution bearing Muslim’s name. The Indian Muslims feels at crossroads and struggling for their identity. In contemporary times, labelling them as a fundamentalist is very trendy if he/she is from a particular University or area. It is highly unfortunate that they have been portrayed in many stereotyped images. I wonder how one can distinguish me from my co-sisters, while we look similar in our outlook. It seems people are fully occupied with same colonial/western perception that needs to be given up.
*Firdous Azmat Siddiqui, Associate Professor, Sarojini Naidu Centre for Women’s Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia