By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
Arndt Emmerich, a young German researcher from the Oxford University has visited me twice in the span of two years. He has been studying issues pertaining to Indian Muslims. He got in touch with me after having come across my interview by researcher Yoginder Sikand in some journal in the Oxford University Library. I admire the energy and indefatiguable effort he has been investing in his endeavour. I hope one day Emmerich’s studies will serve as point of reference on Indian Muslims, something reminiscent of Annemarie Schimmel, the German Orientalist who came to be known all through the Islamic world.
Years ago, while in Delhi, I met Prof. Theodore P. Wright Jr. at least twice and later exchanged letters. He taught at the Department of South Asian Studies at the State University of New York at Albany. Wright had by 1990s written at least 40 research articles on Indian Muslims. His latest CV on the internet informs me that research articles by this expert on South Asian politics number around 80.
Only last month, I met Prof. Peter Scharf, Lecturer and researcher in Sanskrit at Brown University, Rhode Island, US, in a conference on digitization and editing of Indian manuscripts. Having published several books and research articles on Sanskrit, Scharf is engaged in a collaborative project with several American universities on developing an integrated international digital Sanskrit library.
As a student of Journalism at the University of Madras in the late 70s we had itinerant visitors such as novelist Saul Bellow, Palestinian activist Clovis Maksud and Hindu activist in the US Rajan Zed. Still later I had interaction with novelist Grace Halsell for a few hours at Delhi’s Palam Airport in the 1990s while she was in her 70s. Halsell had served as speech writer of President Lyndon B. Johnson during 1965-68. She specialized in writing about people on the society’s fringes. As she recounted, once she took pills to turn her skin to black and went to live in New York’s black neighbourhood of Harlem in order to personally experience the life as an underdog. She wrote about this in her 1969 book, Soul Sister in which she described the anonymity and degradation of being a black domestic worker in a world of white employers, one of whom tried to rape her. The book in paperback sold more than one million copies and was translated into six languages.
I am choosing a few encounters with the writers and journalists from the West which I am able to recall. I keep bumping into several others from among them on a daily basis. There are, by grace of Allah, fifty six Muslim countries, some of them being filthy rich and not knowing what to do with their wealth. But I am yet to have any such interaction with an Arab researcher or writer from the Muslim world. Perhaps the only names that come to my mind are that of Omar Khalidi and Aminah Arif from France. Khalidi, the intrepid writer of Indian origin based at MIT, Cambridge either called on me whenever in India or spoke over phone on a regular basis. Several of my studies find reference in over half a dozen books by him. He died young, a couple of years ago. Aminah has been visiting us regularly for input on Indian Muslims. Her study on Bangalore Muslims finds place in the recent book Muslims in Indian Cities by Christophe Jaffrelot.
Muslims neither gather nor produce knowledge. So they have nothing to disseminate. The best—as well as the worst—books about them are published in the West. The idea of investing in knowledge production, research-related travel and exploration is alien to them. Wealthy and religious Muslims are scared of journalists and researchers. General tendency to suspect the bona fides of scribes and distaste for change, dissuades budding writers from taking up journalism. Anything new and different from the old, faces rejection at best, and condemnation at worst. The general rule is ‘anything other than conventional will be controversial. New interpretation for sacred text is frowned upon. So, Muslim journals revel in peddling old stuff. If you have read one of them, it is like you read them all. Abundant quoting, rather than drawing new inference, is hallmark of the Islamic research. As much you are able to quote the hackneyed stuff, that much credible it is considered.
This being the state of affairs, no wonder the community remains mired in the traditional vs. modern and right vs. wrong debate rather than judging the issues on the criterion of values that Islam and the whole world hold dear.
It is time we bid adieu to this attitude and start looking at issues from the modern perspective. No people who are prisoners of the past can expect to be the standard-bearers of civilization.