Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine
Rabi-Ul-Awwal \ Rabi-Ul-Akhir 1424 H
June 2003
Volume 16-06 No : 198
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Insight


Servants, Not Masters
The Right to Convert


Servants, Not Masters

Several rulers of yore set precedents that need to be followed by us. They would go to extraordinary lengths to serve people.

Commentary by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj


People who hold the reins of governance nowadays consider it infra dig on their part to carry out menial jobs pertaining to people. In their own knowledge, they are masters of people, not servants. Even if they have to do something of this nature as a token, the pomp and pageantry of the occasion makes it more than obvious that it is more a show rather than a genuine effort to identify with the common masses.

Several rulers of yore set precedents that need to be followed by us. They would go to extraordinary lengths to serve people, patrol the streets of their capital during dead of night to know about the lot of the ordinary men and women who inhabit their lands. This enabled them to fashion the policies of the state in a manner that the woe and weal of the common man is addressed. Here are some instances that speak of how the rulers of the yore identified with the people.

The fourth caliph of Madinah, Hazrat Ali went shopping in the market of Madinah with his slave. Stopping at a textile shop, he asked his slave to choose some clothes for both of them. The slave chose an expensive variety of cloth for the caliph and an ordinary one for himself. Next, the slave led the caliph to a tailor’s shop where he signalled the tailor to stitch a garment for the caliph out of the expensive variety of cloth. Ali could not brook this. He asked the tailor to use the ordinary variety for himself (Ali) and the expensive variety for the slave. The slave was aghast. He told Ali, “You are the ruler of the Muslims. It is quite befitting of you to wear the costly variety.”

Ali said shyly: “I have grown old. You are young and deserve to be dressed smartly”. Salman bin Farisi had been appointed the Governor of Madain, a province of the Islamic caliphate. Once a Syrian merchant arrived with loads of merchandise in the market of Madain. He was looking for someone to carry his load to his destination. Salman was on his daily rounds of the market. Shorn of any attendants and retinue of officials and dressed like a common man, he appeared just an ordinary person. Unable to recognise, the merchant beckoned him for the job. Salman readily agreed to help the man out of the crisis. He lifted the loads on his back and followed the merchant on his way to his final destination. Barely a few steps later, the people began to look at him in amazement. Someone asked the merchant whether he knew that the man he had chosen for the job was the ‘Ameer’ (Governor) of Madain.

Realising his folly, the merchant sought pardon from Salman. But Salman was unperturbed. He said he would not stop before he delivered the load at his destination. Salman said: “I had determined to add a virtue to my record of deeds. I won’t stop before I carried out the assignment I chose for myself.” Hazrat Umar bin Abdul Aziz was the caliph of the vast Ummaiyad sultanate. Though he became a caliph at a time when the caliphate had turned into sultanate, Umar did not give up his simplicity and frugal ways. He would accord the highest degree of dignity to his slaves. Once it so happened that he was engaged in official work at the peak of summer. A slave woman was appointed to turn the hand fan on him. The sun was beating down mercilessly. Intensity of heat was crossing all limits. Wearied, the slave woman caught sleep. It did not take much time for Umar to realise the stab of heat. He turned around and found the slave woman fast asleep. He took the fan from her hands and began turning against himself. But then a thought crossed his mind. He said to himself. “After all the slave woman is made of the same flesh and blood. The intensity of heat should not be any different for her”. He just turned the direction of the fan at the slave woman and continued to fan her till she woke up from sleep. The sight before her eyes was unbelievable. Ruler of the sultanate was turning fan on her.

Embarrassed, she offered apology. But then Umar replied , “After all you too are a human being like me. The heat does not spare you. What if I turned the fan upon you.”The first caliph of Islam, Abu Bakar was the guardian of an orphan girl. He would visit the girl’s house before dawn, milk her goats and arrange for its sale and leave the proceeds for the girl and her mother towards their livelihood. When Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) died, Abu Bakar was appointed his successor. When the news reached the orphan girl, she came crying to Abu Bakar’s court. She was grief stricken. “You were the one who were the pillar of support for our family. Now that you have been appointed the Caliph of Madinah, who will milk our goats and who will look after us? You have now greater responsibilities on your shoulders.” Abu Bakar replied: “Don’t worry. I will be no different. You will find mean even better caretaker of your family than earlier. Caliphs are servants of people, not their masters.” History records that Abu Bakar kept his promise till he breathed his last.

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The Right to Convert

Every religious group ought to enjoy the right to propagate its faith, but this must be conducted according to well-defined ethical criteria.

Commentary by Yoginder Sikand


The issue of religious conversions in India has now snowballed into a major controversy, with hardline Hindutva groups condemning all conversions from Hinduism as tantamount to anti-nationalism, while themselves actively engaged in promoting conversions to Hinduism from other faiths. By seeking to define Indian nationhood and Indian culture as synonymous with Brahminical Hinduism, Hindutva groups insist that conversion to Hinduism represents the home-coming (ghar vapasi) of Indian Muslims, Christians and others who had gone astray in adopting foreign religions. At the same time, they roundly condemn Hindus converting to other faiths for allegedly betraying the country and playing into the hands of its enemies. On the other hand, Christian and Muslim groups have voiced serious concern at efforts by state authorities known for their pro-Hindutva sympathies, as in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, to police and control religious conversions, rightly seeing this as a gross violation of the Constitutional mandate of religious freedom.

The debate on the issue of religious conversions, between the state, Hindutva groups and their opponents, has been framed in generally legalistic terms, discussing the matter from the vantage point of the state and the law. Thus, while Hindutva groups see conversions to non-Hindu faiths as threatening the integrity of the state and conversely, regard conversions to Hinduism as strengthening the state, Christian, Muslim and other groups see the freedom of religious conversion as a right provided to all citizens of the state and one that the state is constitutionally mandated to protect. This state-centric debate on religious conversions has thus, unfortunately, remained almost completely oblivious to the converts themselves, to the ways in which they understand and construe the momentous step of change of religious affiliation that they decide to undertake.

This is where the importance of Ambedkar’s own views on religious conversion lies, suggesting that the complex set of factors and motives that lead a person to change his or her religious faith and community of allegiance must be placed at the centre of any debate on the issue of religious conversions. After all, besides being the architect of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar himself was a convert. At a massive gathering of his followers some years prior to his conversion, he had declared that he had been born a Hindu, but was determined that he would not die as one. Then, in 1956, he along with some 300,000 fellow Dalits, abandoned Hinduism for Buddhism at a mass conversion ceremony at Nagpur.

Ambedkar wrote extensively on the issue of religious conversion, passionately believing that conversion to any egalitarian faith on the part of the Dalits and other low castes was indispensable for their own liberation. Subjecting the Brahminical scriptures to close scrutiny and incisive critique, he argued that the edifice of Hinduism rested on, and indeed was actually geared to, the perpetuation of the slavery of the lower castes. This led him to insist that as long as the Dalits and other low castes remained within the Hindu fold, they would continue to suffer. He noted the failure, and general unwillingness, of upper caste Hindu reformers in his own times, including Gandhi, the Arya Samaj and even the communists, to challenge Brahminical hegemony, concluding that there was thus no hope for the lower castes within the Hindu religion and social order.

If Ambedkar saw conversion as a means of escape for the lower castes from Brahminical control, he insisted that the Dalits were not thereby abandoning a faith that their ancestors had willingly chosen for another. Rather, their forefathers had, he argued, been forcibly incorporated into the margins of the Hindu social order by the Brahmins as social slaves. It is in the light of Ambedkar’s quest for equality and self-respect for the lower castes, who form the vast majority of the Hindu population, that one must seek to understand conversion movements among the Dalits, from the earliest times, starting with the Buddha, down to our own.

The state has also sought to combat Christian and Muslim missionary efforts among the Dalits by denying Dalits, Christians and Muslims, Scheduled Caste status and all the benefits that accrue from it. In addition, Hindutva groups have been engaged in ambitious conversion drives, particularly among some neo-Muslim and Christian groups, seeking to convert them to Hinduism. Then again, in tribal areas in large parts of the country itinerant sadhus and Hindu missionaries are actively involved in propagating Brahminical Hinduism, bringing in a rich harvest of tribal converts every year. To imagine, then, that it is just the Christians and Muslims alone who are engaged in the business of winning souls and increasing numbers, as is commonly believed, is a complete travesty of the truth.

This said, one cannot but deplore the methods used by some missionaries, Christians, Muslims as well as Hindus, which include fraud, inducement and threats of the terror of eternal damnation. Every religious group ought to enjoy the right to propagate its faith, but this must be conducted according to well-defined ethical criteria, for even in so vital a matter as religious faith, seemingly noble ends can hardly justify unethical means. (The writer can be reached at ysikand@yahoo.com).

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