Guest Editorial – On Factionalism and Keralite Islam: Raise questions, even if you do not find answers!
By Mahmood Kooria
Institute of History, Leiden University, the Netherlands
In The Coffee House of Surat, written in 1885, Leo Tolstoy brings together a Persian theologian, an African slave, a Brahmin, a Jewish broker, an Italian missionary, a Protestant minister, a Turk office-holder, the Assyrian Christians, Llamas from Tibet, Ismailians, and Fire-worshippers, all arguing about the nature of God and whose country owns the true God. The debate was started by the Persian over a zip of opium and was ended by a Chinaman with a long conversation in which he says: ‘… it is chiefly pride that prevents men agreeing with one another on matters of faith… it is pride that causes error and discord among men…Each man wants to have a special God of his own, or at least a special God for his native land. Each nation wishes to confine in its own temples Him, whom the world cannot contain.’
Moving forward chronologically and geographically southward, we arrive at the Malabar Coast in the twentieth century. There, I am tempted to place all these argumentative representatives from diverse ethnic backgrounds into a single religious community of ‘Keralite Islam’, which has been numerously factionalized and fighting each other. Their disputes, however, are concerned with rather trivial attributes related to divinity and its various manifestations. Unfortunately, there is no Chinaman whose words would put an end to the debate: ‘all who were present in the coffee-house were silent, and disputed no more as to whose faith was the best.’ Therefore, their resilient arguments, commenced almost a century ago, still continue in the religious public sphere without any change in the topics. If you are not interested in such topics but are interested in the betterment of the society, in general, and, of this community, in particular, what would you do? Would you wait for a Chinaman, and if you do so, will it be simply another ‘waiting for Godot’? This volume of Café Dissensus is an attempt to raise questions about organizational factionalism in ‘Keralite Islam’, and, if possible, to find answers.
Let me, first, clarify the term ‘Keralite Islam’ a bit. An Indian state, Kerala is a narrow strip of land in the southwestern India — bordered by the Western Ghats in the east and the Arabian Sea in the west — with a long history of active participation in the social, cultural and economic trends of the Indian Ocean, which acted as a trans-way to the arrival of Semitic religions, including Islam to the region. The Islam in this region, conveniently termed as ‘Keralite Islam’, has many strong similarities with the Islamic practices visible across the Indian Ocean coastal belt stretching from East Asia to East Africa.
When such an international online magazine as Café Dissensus decides to have an Issue on ‘Keralite Islam’, the primary question that we must address is: What makes Keralite Islam/Muslims specific in a broader context? A possible answer could be a technical one backed by statistics: among the minorities of Global South, particularly of South Asia, there are very few communities like Keralite Muslims, which have managed to advance their social, economic and political strengths in an otherwise negative post-colonial circumstance. The Keralite Muslims have been, thus, greatly appreciated for their higher social development, relative economic stability, educational achievements, and active political participation, compared to other Muslim minorities of the subcontinent. This has been corroborated recently by the Prime-Ministerial Committee headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar. Though such statistical data may provide us with a picture of a much improved community, it would not, of course, tell us what the actual cultural and intellectual spheres of the community are like. This is where this issue of Cafe Dissensus on ‘Keralite Islam’ tries to intervene as it addresses the question of ‘organizational factionalism’ among many other possible predicaments facing Keralite Islam.
If you read the magazines or newspapers of any of the factions, and believe me there are around a hundred periodicals published by the Muslim community alone in Kerala, you would quickly notice that all of them constantly boast about their socio-economic and cultural pedigrees over the rest of the Indian Muslims. They claim to be more progressive and ‘modern’ than all other Muslim communities in India. But if you step out of their columns and try to look at this community from outside, you would see that they uphold the most ‘conservative’ standpoints, as many contributors in this volume have articulated quite convincingly.
It is almost unmanageable and impossible to bring about unity in Keralite Islam. The history of these sturdy organizational disputes itself started in the early 1920s with the formation of an organization titled, Association for Muslim Unity. Since then, there have been numerous attempts to bring all the Muslim organizations and their representatives under a common platform. However, most of those attempts were either short-lived or unsuccessful. The very mention of the ‘unity of the community’ itself generated factions and fractions. Thus, I do not think that it is something that most of the younger generation would even dream of.
This issue is also not a call for vasectomizing the organizational affiliations of a large number of common Muslims. Going beyond the institutionalized Islamic activities in a rural setting of Malabar is, in itself, a very dangerous act, and one cannot survive that until or unless one associates oneself with some other alternative group(s). Some articles in this volume have explained that, too. This also indicates the disarming power of the institutionalized operation of Keralite Islam. There were some attempts to extricate Muslim youth from ‘traditional’ organizational setups in the last two or three decades, but all such attempts ended up generating even more radical forms of Islam: as was the case with the ISS and NDF. Both these organizations later went on to refashion themselves in the garbs of new political parties named PDP and SDPI, respectively. Any such attempts at mobilizing an impulsive mass of Muslim youth, by extraicating them from their religious organizational affiliations, will lead to much deleterious results.
So, without moving beyond or standing rigidly within the organizational setup, we should think aloud whether a ‘change’ is possible in ‘Keralite Islam’, beyond the factionalist concerns spread by the clerics and the elite leadership, who seem unconcerned and clueless about the social and community-related problems that their own followers or coreligionists face in their everyday lives. I have initiated such a criticism of the Muslim leadership in Kerala elsewhere (read my piece in the First Issue of Cafe Dissensus), which drew a lot of criticism, especially from those who are subscribed to different organizations. I am not repeating my arguments here. However, I would like to give a few examples of the societal detachment of the Muslim clerics. Even as I write this piece, the Kerala Police is extensively raiding the offices of various Muslim publishing houses on the pretext of terrorism, while some of the newspapers have been put under the threat of banishment. More shockingly, many public sector banks are asking Muslims, who want to open a new account, to produce a certificate that demonstrates they are not terrorists! While these events take place, the largest Muslim religious organization and its representatives are celebrating their victory in getting a favourable response from the Kerala-state government that it would give a statement at the High Court against their opponent religious group on the issue of an investigation into the authenticity of a hair-lock! None of the leaders of these organizations or, of other religious factions, have raised their voices against the widespread victimization that the common Muslim has to encounter in his/her everyday life. The state represses the voices of the weak that demand basic human rights, while the elite and the clergy, turn a deaf ear to their actual problems.
I do not wish to claim that this is an issue exclusive to the Keralite Islam/Muslims; it is happening throughout the subcontinent. For example, while Afzal Guru was executed in connection with an attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, his family was never informed and the act of execution was justified in the verdict as an attempt to satisfy the ‘collective conscience’. Even when many human-rights activists and non-governmental organizations raised questions about the flaws and prejudices of the state and media, none of the Indian religious or communitarian leaders opened their mouth. The issue of Guru was, thus, minimally termed as a matter of Kashmiri people. This is an instance of systematic marginalization of the issues by labelling them as someone else’s problem and this keeps on happening throughout the subcontinent. In this matter, Kerala is no different. When a larger chunk of Muslims or their institutions get interrogated and stereotyped on an everyday basis, the representatives of organizational Islam think that it is a problem of that particular individual or of that faction. It is even worse when one group accuses its opponent, in the course of their usual mud-throwing sessions, of connections with terrorist groups with no substantial evidence at hand.
If these organizations did not have much control over the community, especially over those who live in the rural areas, it would have been easier to just ignore them. Since that is not the case, we have endeavoured here to address the problem from different perspectives and many of our authors have suggested viable ways to move ahead. Even if the suggestions do not get materialized, the wider public can feel the angst of a group of younger generation of Keralite Muslims, who are really not interested in these factionalised Islamic spheres, while, at the same time, want to do something productive and creative for the society. I really hope that most of the contributors represent a collective in their own circles, which may bring some change in the future of Keralite Islam – in terms of its everyday modus operandi and deepening scholarship – through influential activism and intellectual engagements in the community, in particular, and the society, in general.
While being thankful to everyone who has helped me to bring out this volume – especially the contributors, as well as Mosarrap, Mary Ann, Saptarshi, Manhar, Anas, and Kunhi, I must admit a major drawback of this volume: I could not help but reflect on the male dominant expression of Keralite Islam, as is the case elsewhere. There is not a single entry by a woman writer in this issue. Though I had approached around fifteen-to-twenty women-friends and colleagues, who specialize on or belong to Keralite Islam/Muslims, I am surprised to notice that, at the end of the day, no one was able to contribute to this volume. I do not know what I should say on this. Let this better be an open-ended question or a question to my friends, who promised me their pieces, but did not manage to write!
Pic Credit: here
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