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Good Education for Indian Muslims: Historical Perspective


By R. Upadhyay

The Union Human Resources Development Minister Prakash Javedkar while inaugurating the 20th All India Urdu Book fair (Bhiwandi-Mumbai) on December 17, 2016 said that India won’t progress if one section of society (read Muslims) does not get good education. The Minister however, didn’t elaborate the reason as to why this section of Indian society lagged behind in getting good education despite equal opportunites provided to them since Independence.

When a delegation of Muslim leaders met the Prime Minister Modi on January 19, 2017; it eulogised him for his performance so far but didn’t talk about the need for good educational opportunities for the Indian Muslims. Instead of putting forward some constructive suggestions for good education to their community, all they did was to appreciate Saudi government’s decision to increase the quota of Haj pilgrims from India.


The history of Indian Muslims is so complex that their isolation from the national mainstream particularly good education and consequent socio-psychological confusion remained a puzzle for social scientists. A study on the factual developments related to this distinct and a unique religio-social group may help the reader to draw the right conclusions.

After partition, a sizeable section of Muslims chose to stay back for good reasons in a democratic and secular India. But then they made the mistake of turning to their religious leaders for guidance in social, educational and political development. Even Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as a first education minister in democratic and secular India did not take the initiative to encourage the community to go for mainstream education. This resulted in the Islamist priestly community gaining an upper hand on religious/madrassa education.

The Muslim bourgeoisie too supported the religious leaders as they saw this an opportunity to use the community as a vote bank to bargain with other political classes not for the benefit of the community but for their own selfish ends to get access to power centres. The Muslim Clerics were equally clear about the objectives of keeping the flock together with a separate identity for their own selfish ends. Thus the interests of the clerics and the Muslim political class converged to keep a stranglehold on the community with a separate identity to be used for their selfish ends and not for the welfare of the community as a whole. Add to this, the mind set of those descendants of the former ruling class and the converts from the upper castes who preferred to call themselves ‘Muslim Indians”- (read Muslim first and Indian later) who in league with the priestly class looked upon the common people of the community to be used as foot soldiers of Islam.

It is this group that kept the community as a separate class from the so called Qafirs. With a binary approach of Muslims and Qafirs they succeeded in keeping the people of the community away from common education with the mainstream people.

Post Independence

A look in the life and politics of post-Independence Muslim Indians suggests that they are solely responsible for hampering educational, social and political progress of Indian Muslims by discouraging them to be truly modern. One good example how the vote bank politics boomeranged on the community was their failure in 2014 Lok Sabha election when not a single Muslim was elected from Uttar Pradesh – a State that has over 20 percent Muslims.!

The disturbed socio-political Hindu-Muslim relation in India as we see today is nothing but the historical legacy of the enslaved mindset of Indian Muslims being carried forward from generation to generation. The answer to their problem of so-called religious identity as often highlighted by the leadership in the community therefore, solely lies in their freedom from the grip of Islamic radicals. Ironically, even the contemporary Muslim ‘liberals’ have not made any concerted and unified efforts to rectify this historical wrong.

Historically, the movement to keep the Indian Muslims under siege dates back to the last decade of sixteenth century when the great Mogul Emperor Akbar’s religious ‘liberalism’ started decaying. Starting from Shaikh Ahmad Sarhindi (1564- 1624) and followed by Muslim thinkers like Shah Wali Ullah (1704-1762), Saiyid Ahmad Barelavi (1786-1831), Sir Sayed Ahmad Khan(1817-98), Mohammad Allama Iqbal (1873/76-1938) and others the movement for a separate Muslim identity which is basically synonymous to separate political identity remained a permanent feature of the Muslim society in India.

Shaikh Ahmad Sarhindi (1564- 1624)

Sarhindi a hardcore Sunni Muslim and an eminent Islamic mystic of his time strongly rejected the ‘heterodoxies’ of the great Mogul Emperor Akbar and made a major contribution towards rehabilitation of orthodox Islam in India. He tried to influence the courtiers of Akbar and continued his tirade against the Hindus as well as Shia Muslims aggressively when Jahangir ascended the throne of Delhi. Widely known for his letters written in Persian not only to his disciples but also to the influential Muslims in the court of Jahangir, he succeeded in exercising great influence in turning the heterodoxies of Akbar to orthodoxies, which were pursued by all the subsequent Mogul rulers from Jahangir to Aurangzeb. His tomb at Sarhind in Patiala is still an object of veneration (Islamic Encyclopaedia, Vol. I, Page297).

Shah Wali Ullah (1704-1762)

Under the influence of Sarhindi’s writings Shah Wali Ullah another Islamist mystic who claimed his lineage from Quraysh tribe of Prophet Mohammad and of Umar, the second caliph was found more concerned with the political disorder after the death of Aurangzeb. The political rise of non-Muslims like Maratha, Jat and Sikh powers which led to the fading glory of Muslim power and consequent danger to Islam and its political heritage was unbearable to Shah Wali Ullah. The slogan of ‘Islam is in danger’ – was profoundly embedded to his hate-non-Muslim ideology. His religio-political thought that was based on the ‘Persio -Islamic theory of kingship’ (Shah Wali Allah and his Time by Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, page 397) was the basis of the ideology of his political Islam. A great Muslim thinker and promoter of one of the most emotional chapters of Islamic revivalist movements in Indian subcontinent his political thought had brought the Indian Muslims under perpetual siege of Islamic orthodoxy. He wanted the Muslim masses to return to the Prophet era for the political unity of the then Muslim rulers for Islamic sovereignty in the sub-continent. His invitation to Ahmad Shah Abdali, the king of Afghanistan to fight against the Marathas to save the subjugation of Muslims by the Hindus vindicates his hate-Hindu ideology. In his letter to the Abdali he said, “…All control of power is with the Hindus because they are the only people who are industrious and adaptable. Riches and prosperity are theirs, while Muslims have nothing but poverty and misery. At this juncture you are the only person, who has the initiative, the foresight, the power and capability to defeat the enemy and free the Muslims from the clutches of the infidels. God forbid if their domination continues, Muslims will even forget Islam and become undistinguishable from the non-Muslims” (Dr. Sayed Riaz Ahmad in his book ‘Maulana Maududi and Islamic state’ – Lahore People’s Publishing House, page 15 – 1976). He translated the writings of Sarhindi from Persian to Arabic to inspire the Muslim Indians and sowed the seed of the separate political identity and Muslim separatism in a Hindu-majority India.

Being proud of his Arab origin Wali Ullah was strongly opposed to integration of Islamic culture in the cultural cauldron of the sub-continent and wanted the Muslims to ensure their distance from it. “Waliullah did not want the Muslims to become part of the general milieu of the sub-continent. He wanted them to keep alive their relation with rest of the Muslim world so that the spring of their inspiration and ideals might ever remain located in Islam and tradition of world community developed by it”. (The Muslim Community of Indo-Pakistan subcontinent by Istiaq Hussain Qureshi, 1985, Ibid. page 216).

The most significant contribution of Wali Ullah (Allah) for his community is that his teachings kept alive the religious life of Indian Muslims linked with their inner spirit for re-establishment of Islamic political authority in India. It was the political theory of Wali ullah that kept the Indian Muslims deprived from a forward-looking vision and good education.

Saiyid Ahmad Barelavi (1786-1831)

Waliullh’s son Abd al Aziz (1746-1823) carried forward the legacy of his father, used his disciple Saiyid Ahmad Barelavi (1786-1831) of Rai Bareli for execution of the jehadi spirit of the faith propounded by Waliullah and Sunni extremism of Maulana Wahab of Saudi Arabia. Accordingly, Barelvi launched jehad against the non-Islamic power of the Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh with a view to restore Dar-ul-Islam (A land, where Islam is having political power). Though, he was killed in the battle of Balkot in May 1831, Indian Muslims continue to regard him as martyr for the cause of Islam. Tired with their failures in re-establishing Muslim rule the followers of the jehadi spirit of faith kept their movement in suspended animation for decades due to the firm grip the British established on this country.

After the failure of the Sepoy mutiny in 1857, the demoralised Muslim radicals lost all hopes to restore Islamic power in India and launched an institutionalised Islamic movement.They founded Islamic institutions like Darul-Ulum at Deoband and Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama at Lucknow which have been carrying forward the legacy of the religio-political concept of Wahab and Waliullah. Farangi Mahall was already founded at Lucknow during the period of Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb. These institutions, which continue to draw students “mainly from the starving Muslim peasantry and working lower middle classes” (Deoband School and Demand for Pakistan by Faruqi, page 40) are the representative bodies of Muslim proletariat. Leave aside the restoration of Islamic polity, these theological seminaries are today producing thousands of unemployed or under employed Islamic clerics without caring for their material prosperity.

In the absence of any scope for re-interpretation of religion for democratic, secular, scientific, industrial and modern condition of the society, common Muslims do not see beyond mosques and madrasas. These institutions have therefore, succeeded in producing only self-proclaimed holy warriors of their jehadi faith. In the name of preserving the cultural identity of the Muslims these holy warriors are in fact serving the cause of self-seeking Muslim elite.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98)

Parallel to the Islamic revival movement through institutionalised theological education, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98), a Mogul scion and loyalist to British power launched a unique Muslim separatist movement popularly known as Aligarh movement with a political and educational ideology with an objective to provide modern education to Indian Muslims. Though, a staunch believer in Sunni order of Islam, his outlook took a decisive change after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 when he had personally witnessed the sufferings of his community members at the hands of the British. Deeply aggrieved with the plight of Muslim Indians and “acutely sensitive to the ending of Mogul dominance”, his ambition was to restore the lost pride of his community. Widely known as founder of Islamic modernism in India his tactical move was to bring the Muslims into the confidence of the British to continue the dominance of the community over the Hindus who were the subjects of the Islamic rulers. He even convinced the British rulers that the two major religious communities of India were not capable of unity. (Hali’s Hayat-e-Javed, translated by K.H.Kadari and David Matthews, 1979, page 199, Idarh-e-adabiyat-e-Delhi Qasimjan Street, Delhi – Quoted from Pioneer dated 20.10 2004 in a letter to editor column by Roopa Kaushal). His loyalty to the British throne continued till his death.

Inspired with the ‘hate-Hindu campaign’ of Shaikh Sarhind, Shah Wai-Ullah and Ahmad Barelavi , Sir Sayed Ahmad Khan believed in tactical moderation of Islam and formulated the two-nation theory. Through scientific and modern education to Muslims his movement produced a sizeable section of Muslim middle class with doctors, engineers, scientists and scholars of modern subjects. This new class of Muslim however, also came under the influence of the fundamentalist forces, worked as the fighting force for Muslim elite and gradually succeeded in besieging the mindset of common Muslim masses. Strongly opposing the formation of Indian National Congress in 1885 on the plea that it was a Hindu dominated organisation Ahmad Khan prevented the Muslim elite from joining it. A noted Muslim scholar M.R.A.Baig also observed:

“Being a descendant of high Mogul officials, he emotionally could not accept that Muslims should be ruled by their former subjects (Read Hindus). He also feared that Hindu rule will result in the imposition of Aryo-Dravidian culture on the Muslim Perso-Arabic civilisation” (The Muslim Dilemma in India by M.R.A. Baig – page 51-52). Restoring confidence among the despairing Muslims of his age he is largely regarded “as a forerunner of Pakistan”.

Internationally known historian R.C.Majumdar in his book ‘Struggle for Freedom’ (Page 127, 1969) maintained:”Aligarh movement gradually alienated the Muslims from the Hindus in the political field…..The anti-Hindu feeling was conspicuously shown in the Muslims’ attitude towards Indian National Congress since its very inception”. He added, “the spirit of Syed Ahmad dominated the Muslims who with rare exceptions, regarded themselves as Muslim first and Indian afterwards” (Ibid. Page 152). He quoted Sir Percival Griffiths, ICS, who “stressed the Muslim belief that their interest must be regarded as completely separate from those of the Hindus, and that no fusion of the two communities was possible”(Ibid. Page153). “Middle class Muslim nationalism sabotaged the natural process of electoral democratisation”(Ameena A.Saeed in an interview in Times of India dated November 29, 2003).

The educational ideology of Sir Sayed Khan provoked a violent reaction from Islamic orthodoxy but his followers gradually overcame this problem. Aligarh Muslim University, a citadel of Muslim Middle class played a major role in Pakistan movement under the guidance of Muslim elite. The then Muslim leadership used this new class to strengthen the siege of Islamic orthodoxy over the common Muslims with the ultimate objective to achieve its political hegemony.

Allama Iqbal as Ideological Father of Pakistan

Allama Iqbal (1873/76-1938) widely known as a romantic and Indian nationalist poet of Muslim awakening in India. He however, experienced a “mental crisis” after his return from Europe in the first decade of nineteenth century when he used his intellectual brilliance only to strengthen the grip of All India Muslim League over Muslim masses. His spiritual and political guidance to his community for a separate Muslim state served as bedrock for demand for Pakistan. He is therefore, called ‘spiritual father of Pakistan’.

“Iqbal combines many contradictory trends in himself; his verses could serve both conservatives and progressives as weapons”(Encyclopaedia of Islam, Brill, Volume III, page 1059). “He stood for going ahead with the Quran and revival of Islamic polity without realising how the simple polity of earlier Islam was incompatible with the complexities of modern civilisation”. “He attempted to provide a systematic Islamic base to the socio-political ideas of Indian Muslims”. (Politics of Minorities by Moin Shakir, 1980, Ajanta Publication, Jawahar Nagar, Delhi, page142). His romantic ideas meant for reviving the interest of elite Muslim Indians to hypnotise the common Indian Muslims and subordinate them to the former. “Everything was made subordinate to the interest of ruling elite; science, philosophy, democracy, constitution and fundamental rights of equality and liberty were subservient to the exploiting class” (Ibid.).

Politicising the two-nation theory of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Iqbal also failed to assimilate his liberal thought with the global concept of democracy and could not free himself from the medieval moorings of Islam. He propagated the political solidarity of Muslims on the basis of religion, which fulfilled the political ambition of a section of Muslim elite who got independent power in Pakistan after partition of the country. Indian Muslims who supported the thesis of Iqbal but stayed back in India got nothing but only demoralisation and a betrayal of their leaders. But instead of taking any lesson from such betrayal there was hardly any change in their behaviour as they didn’t put any resistance against the multiplication of madrasas in post-colonial India, gave chance to the Islamist clerics to tighten their grip on the community and thereby kept away the latter from good education.


Unfortunately, through the ages from Shaikh Ahmad Sarhindi to Shah Waliullah and from Sir Sayed Ahmad Khan to Sir Allama Iqbal the Indian Muslims have devolved themselves to maintain a separate identity. On the other hand, the few ‘secular’ Muslim intellectuals in post-Independence India who could have arrested the trend, failed to do so and allowed the Mullahs and the Muslim elites to rule and maintain a separate identity for the community.

In fact, there is no dearth of Muslim intellectuals who write about this bitter truth even today but it is an irony that they hardly speak assertively when they face Muslim congregations. They often quote the address of Maulam Azad to the demoralised Indian Muslims in front of Jama Masjid after partition but they never assert to ensure that the Indian Muslims are freed from their medieval mindset and grip of Muslim Indians. If they are genuinely serious with conviction, they should launch an assertive movement and intellectual jehad to generate collective concern among the Muslim leaders to free the masses from the siege of the Ulema.

This is possible only if all the theological seminaries are converted into educational institutions to impart modern and scientific education with a paper preferably optional on theological subject. Will this ever happen? Will the entrenched class allow modern education for the community? This is a serious issue that needs to be debated openly and fearlessly.

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SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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