'Personal Law Board Initiating Reforms'
Shahabuddin believes the Babri demolition was a
watershed in the Muslim history
Syed Shahabuddin, a leading Muslim politician and a former member of Parliament, has been closely associated with the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. He talks to Yoginder Sikand about changing Muslim perceptions and attitudes in contemporary India
Q: Do you see any major changes occurring among the Indian Muslims in the post-Babri Masjid demolition period?
A: It is difficult to assess if any radical change has taken place in the total perceptions or priorities of the Muslims in the last seven years. But one thing is clear— that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a major historical watershed in determining the attitudes of the Muslim community. When I say 'watershed', I have in mind something like the Partition and then the establishment of Bangladesh, which set off a new wave among the Muslims of India. It was then that the community as a whole realised that India is their own land, that they have nowhere else to go and, if necessary, they will have to struggle to get their due. They realised there is no escape route and that gave them a base to stand on. It also made them a target for reaction, because if you begin to assert yourself after leading a docile existence for half a century, obviously you are bound to face some opposition, but you have to be prepared for that.
The Muslim community as a whole, from what I can see over the last seven years, has not been demoralised. On the one hand, they have not forgotten the Babri Masjid—it still rankles in their minds, as it does for many of their non-Muslim brethren who are committed to democracy and secularism. But what I find is the happy beginning of a process which, in a way, had begun after 1971— of greater attention now being paid to their political, economic and educational development. Particularly education—all over the country I can see new sprouts—little institutions, good, bad and indifferent, big and small, being set up by Muslims. A new sense of camaraderie, a new desire and will to come together to do something for the community. You can also see little Muslim-owned businesses coming up all over. So, you have a new emphasis on self-help as well as a growing awareness that they must get their due from the State.
Do you discern any changes in the nature of the Indian Muslim leadership as well?
I, for one, have always been emphasising that the problems faced by a large pan-Indian community like the Muslims simply cannot be handled by a one-point leadership. You need different layers of leadership on both the horizontal as well as vertical levels—people leading the community in the economic, social, educational and political spheres, at village, town, district, state and central levels, and they all have to network with each other. And this networking is gradually developing now.
But, to what extent does the leadership's agenda actually reflect the problems and interests of the common Muslims?
Your point has a validity, but only to a limited extent, because the Muslim masses also face certain problems as Muslims. And then, there are certain problems internal to the community, such as caste distinctions, which are not easy to tackle. But many Muslim organisations are concerned with such issues, and, in any case, economic and educational progress are the biggest social levellers. As for the ulema, I would say that the vast majority of them are not unfamiliar with the problems that poor Muslims face. The imam of a local mosque is not generally from among the elite. It is really the so-called lower classes who are now sending their children to madrasas only to be trained as ulema.
What role do you see for the Muslim Personal Law Board [AIMPLB] in nurturing a new Muslim leadership in India?
The AIMPLB is a very specific organisation. It is concerned primarily with the protection of the Muslim Personal Law. But it, too, is gradually moving in the direction of promoting social reforms within the Muslim community. I was present at its recently-held 13th session held at Mumbai, having been a member of the Board for many years as well as of its working committee. As I see it, the AIMPLB is now steadily going beyond its original positions, calling now for social reform. For the first time, the AIMPLB has taken up the question of a model 'nikahnama' [marriage contract]. There was a time when it had rejected, after intense debate, the position taken by some of us that every Muslim marriage should be registered. Now, they are talking about formulating a nikahnama which would lay down provisions for various contingencies that could arise in a marriage. For instance, provisions for the custody of children and the rights of the divorced The nikahnama has been drafted but has not as yet been approved of. The AIMPLB has set up a committee of five persons, including myself, to look into it, and we are getting a lot of inputs from Muslim women's groups. So, as far as the issue of Muslim law is concerned, there is a new awareness that it's not enough to tell the government not to interfere in our personal law, but that it's also necessary to set our own house in order. And I can tell you that this new awareness has, in a large measure, been brought about because of pressure from Muslim women themselves. We are now trying to get more Muslim women involved in the work of the AIMPLB.
What about changes, if any, in the madrasas? Are any efforts being made for their reform as well?
I personally feel that the question of reforms in the madrasas should be left to them. I would not like to inflict two systems of education —the madrasa and the school syllabus—on them. That has been done in Bihar with fatal results—the product of those madrasas are neither good maulvis nor good graduates. They are neither here nor there. I feel that every mosque should have a madrasa attached to it where essential Islamic education is provided to every Muslim child till the age of five to seven. The children of a locality should attend this madrasa as well as the regular school. But the community also needs some people who are experts in the Quran, the Traditions of the Prophet [hadith] and Islamic law [fiqh]. And so, some students should go in for higher Islamic education as well in order to become ulema. I would prefer it if the number of madrasas could be restricted to certain standardised institutions all over the country which would provide students with education right up to the research level. There should not be a glut in the market. Today, we have graduates of Deoband, the largest madrasa in India, with no place to go. Not all of them can become imams in mosques, so many of them are forced to set up their own little shops or petty businesses to make a living.
Further, I would like to see the madrasa syllabus, which has for long been in a process of change, to have a certain element of general education as well, so that the madrasa products, while being good ulema, are not men who live in a sociological vacuum. And this process has begun in several madrasas all over the country. But I think we should let the madrasas decide how to go about this. It is up to them to decide what they need. They should remain primarily attuned to their actual purpose, the training of religious specialists, and at the same time help train students who will go on to become aware and responsible citizens of the country. The madrasas are continuously interacting with the broader community, because it is from the community and not from the state that they get their funds, and so they do respond to the demands that the community places on them.