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Religious Heads as Community Leaders

By Mariam Karim

The truth is that religious heads should not be the representatives of a community. Because although there seems to be an obvious link between religion and community, elected community heads should deal with the religious aspects of the community, not vice versa. For example, I may be a part of the Muslim community, but I would prefer to put my trust in a person of that community who has secular and humanitarian values, who is not backward looking in his/her view of women, who does not identify himself/herself using explicit symbols of religion, who does not start quoting/misquoting the Quran in each argument, and one who has learning in other fields, like sociology, medicine, history, anthropology, or any human science. In the same way, I may be part of the Hindu community, but why should only a religious head have the right to decide how I as a Hindu should lead my life?

Learned men and women of proven character, leaders because of their way of life, ideals, human values, and their work for the betterment of society and community, should be heads of communities. Being a religious head shouldn’t qualify one to lead the community which may consist of various kinds of people following various kinds of lifestyles. Religious heads tend to coerce people into a single way of life, valuing one kind of existence over another.

Another feature of this kind of leadership is that most religious heads are men, so articulating the needs and aspirations of women is actually quite beyond them. Women are beyond the understanding of male religious heads. These heads see the world as a place where men are the natural leaders and women must follow and fulfill the requirements of the patriarchal system. This they view as the main role of women. Equality for women is something which they will definitely not want, and respect is only for women who follow patriarchal norms set by men. The definition of ‘respectable’ women set by religious heads is a patriarchal and unequal definition. It is also a classist definition, as women of different classes are wont to have different ways of dress and life.

Religious heads are very welcome to offer spiritual guidance to people, to interpret events, to represent a community’s requirements, to answer their queries, and solve their problems. But should they be consulted on how people should lead their lives? Should they be taken as true representatives of an entire community? Are the male heads meet to represent the women of that community? I do not think so, although the women are normally so brainwashed that they see themselves worthy only in the roles designed for them by the male religious heads, who interpret religious books to their advantage and to keep women subordinated.

Communities should have ways of electing/ appointing representatives. The leaders and learned men and women, who have the good of the community in their heart, should become heads, so that religious leaders , whose mindsets are normally quite narrow, can have their place, but shouldn’t be taken as embodiment of the aspirations and views of a whole community.

And the truth is that it is the political leaders who have encouraged this kind of religious leadership, to create vote banks and ‘control’ the public.

[Mariam Karim was born in Lucknow, India. She was educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and at the Sorbonne in Paris in French Literature and Pedagogy.  Her first novel, My Little Boat, published by Penguin India in 2003, was nominated for the International IMPAC Award. Mariam was Writer-in-Residence in Paris in 2005, collecting material for the submitted work. She writes for children under the name Mariam Karim-Ahlawat, and some of her children’s books are translated into many Indian languages. She currently lives in New Delhi.]

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. ayesha karim #

    Well said! In an ideal world religious figures are supposed to be divorced from the materialistic world of power and money. Political leaders ideally are those who practice the code of ethics found in all religions….while not wearing their religion on their sleeve.

    February 16, 2013
  2. Aneesh Zutshi #

    Nice Blog, but I have another take on this. 🙂

    In my opinion, you may call yourself muslim and may want to identify yourself with the “muslim community” but in reality , it is a very vague concept. Though Islam may have several shades and versions, evolved under different contexts, your beliefs are quite far from any of the original versions of Islam(shia/sunni). The first step that Islam asks you is to believe the Quoran/Hadees as the only true source containing all aspects of life, morality, laws, and even how politics and economics should run. There may be some differences in their interpretations, but one thing is clear, that while Islam respects women, it doesnt believe in equal rights. Man is always the head of the family. (Its true for all religions and cultures that existed 1000 years ago)

    However once you have decided to abandon the core principles of islam, follow the neo-western philosophies of women’s equality with men amongst other things, all you want to do is justify that the western liberal ways of life, is compatible with your verison of Islam. But that is not the original islam, so dont blame the ulemas, the imams who have spent years reading up all the hadeeses and are simply telling what they read.

    In reality there is no Muslim Community, because the only thing common is that members of the so called muslim community call themselves “muslims”. How do you define a muslim? If there is no one community, Then what is the need for a representative for all the so-called muslims? You are already living in a democratic system without religion based representatives.

    I think it is obvious that there is no hindu community, because there is no “hindu religion”. Hindu was a term given by the persians to refer to people living on the other side of Sindh river. In today’s context, it is just a term for everyone not following non-abrahamic faith, but living in the subcontinent, So why do I even need to say that I am not related to Mr. Praveen Togadia! However, In reality, every muslim in india is also a Hindu, since most continue to follow the cultural features of the pre-islamic subcontinent.

    The solution is when people stop to see themselves as members of a community but rather as citizens. Then there is no need for a representative , no need for a leader.

    In reality , the muslim community is too diverse to be a community, and the muslims must realise that they should stop clubbing themselves as one, just on the basis of a common “name” when most muslims (especially educated ones in india) are not even following the core principles of Islam anymore, and following what is convenient, and then blaming the imams for doing their jobs!

    February 17, 2013

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