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Tilting at “factional” windmills: Towards a reorientation of priorities in Keralite Islam

By Muneer Aram Kuzhiyan

“And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.” (Dover Beach, 1867/Matthew Arnold)

Islam in Kerala prides itself, and rightly so, on the high religious literacy of its followers – a feature that is by and large conspicuous by its absence among the Muslim communities in the rest of the country. That this unique reputation owes a great deal to the immense investment of the state’s Islamic organizations in the arena of primary Islamic learning can hardly be overstated. But much of this potential religious sensibility of the Muslim community has also been overshadowed, as it were, by a culture of crass factional feud among the various warring religious outfits across the ideological spectrum in Keralite Islam. The bad blood among these groups does not stop at the leadership level, but rather seeps down to the grass-roots and, at times, takes alarming proportions, thereby making a mockery of the self-same Islamic principles of love, tolerance, and mutual respect that all these groups never tire of espousing. This groupism and infighting plaguing Islamic organizations of every stripe (whether “traditional” or “reformist”) has arguably undercut the dynamics of intra-community relations as well as made the community cut a poor figure before the larger society. I do not want to go into the details of this unfortunate situation, nor do I want to historicize it here, though I think that it is an important project worth pursuing elsewhere.

Neither do I intend here to discount the stupendous and wide-ranging activism of Islamic organizations in Kerala. Their role in shaping and fashioning the religious consciousness of the Muslims of Kerala and in enabling the social empowerment of the community commands special approbation. Nor is my aim to apportion blame – to say that one group is more responsible for this state of affairs than the other, though it is true that some groups are more parochial and combative than others. But the fact remains that when it comes to factional tug of war, no organization can absolve themselves from the blame. If anything, the blame is a matter of degree.

It goes without saying that differences of opinion, divergence of ideological persuasions, and disagreement over political affiliations are nothing new to Muslim societies or any society for that matter. This diversity of standpoints has, indeed, been woven into the warp and woof of the Islamic tradition throughout its history. So what is significant then for the growth of the tradition is to accept and honour its constitutive diversity and difference even as it allows its members to hold fast to the version of it that they deem right. The Islamic organizations in Kerala that “define” proper Islam for its members can first agree to disagree and debate and have dialogue on the issues that matter in a meaningful fashion rather than reduce Islam to the dirty linen that they all collectively wash in public. This is not to say that these organizations should not be defending themselves against attack from each other or outsiders nor that they should not be criticizing one another. Internal criticism is indeed desirable in that it is a source of enrichment for all involved. But that should not transcend the commonly understood limits of mutual respect and good taste. It is important for one to defamilarize some of one’s own understanding of things and to pause over the very assumptions upon which it has been built.  This leads to better or new understanding and help us have a different take on substantive issues.

The various Islamic groups in Kerala should rethink their agendas and set/reset their priorities right, if they are to save Keralite Islam from the quagmire of factionalism into which it has sunk.  Most of the resources of the community are squandered in these factional windmills such that Muslims of Kerala still have several priority issues on various fronts crying out for attention and well-thought out action. It is true that factionalism brought in its wake a sense of competition and triumphalism which gave rise to, for instance, a number of ‘Islamic’ and ‘secular’ educational institutions, as each group sought to outshine the other. Nonetheless, the educational standards of the community are not very encouraging for the obvious reason that it is not only the number of buildings but more importantly the time, attention, and devotion that one gives to the cause for which those buildings were erected in the first place that matter. When you have this great factional melodrama killing much of your time, you hardly have time for the issues that really demand your attention.

Surprisingly, the Muslim community in Kerala is always offered one red herring or another, as if out of nowhere. This, then, keeps deflecting the community’s attention from its priority concerns and ensures that the warring factions are at each others’ throats, doing nothing other than name-calling. One such red herring recently came in the form of a ‘holy relic’ controversy involving a breakaway Sunni faction. The story is longer than I have space to recount here. Suffice to say, this controversy succeeded in frittering away the invaluable resources of the community as each side vied with the other to prove their stance. I am not suggesting that an issue that pertains to an article of faith for Muslims does not warrant serious treatment and therefore should be given short shrift. All issues should be dealt with in a manner that it deserves to be, but by no means at the expense of long standing issues of concern to all. It is indisputable that a great amount of time and synergy of the community, which otherwise could have been directed to more fruitful ends, has been wasted in this ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ dini smear campaign surrounding the ‘holy relic.’ It doesn’t matter who has the last laugh in this factional tug of war; if anything, the victory in this case is always a Pyrrhic victory because the balance sheet of each instance of factional scuffle is a huge drain on the community’s resources and a heavy blow to the fabric of Keralite Islam.

So the importance of reorienting the priorities of the Islamic organizations in Kerala is paramount. Let me point up in passing some of the priority issues that I consider vital to the heart of the Muslim community of Kerala. One area  that has been pushed to the margins in the all-consuming factionalism is research and scholarship in the field of Islamic studies and allied disciplines in particular, and academic excellence in general. Kerala still does not have a full-fledged Islamic centre for advanced and cutting-edge teaching and research in Islamic studies nor  can it boast of scholars of Islam qualified enough to compete with the academic community worldwide. Of course, there are some fledgling institutions that want to bridge this gap, but they still have a long way to go. Indeed, this is a phenomenal task and cannot be accomplished overnight. But this requires an enormous investment on the part of the community in terms of vision, action, time, energy, commitment, and other material resources, which it cannot afford when factionalism is tearing it apart. However, I do not want to reduce the cause/s of this failure to factionalism, or, to use a standard phrase, ‘factionalist determinism,’ alone. It could be, and is, over-determined. But I am convinced that factionalism is no doubt a reason for this pathetic situation.

Another neglected area related to scholarship is the domain of literature produced by the Muslims of Kerala, which is in a sense the great legacy of the community. But unfortunately no concerted effort has yet been made to preserve this treasure of knowledge encompassing a wide range of subjects for future generations nor has any serious project undertaken to study and research this vast body of literature and make them available to an international audience. These issues are suggestive at best and there are many others on economic and political fronts that, by no means, are less pressing. The Islamic organizations in Kerala need to wake up to these harsh realities and get their act together rather than digging their own graves fighting a losing ‘factional’ battle.

[Muneer Aram Kuzhiyan is currently a Fulbright Scholar at University of California, Berkeley. He is also doing his PhD at English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at]

[This piece on Cafe Dissensus is protected under Creative Commons License. Once a piece is published in Cafe Dissensus, we will retain the exclusive copyright for a period of 30 days, from the date of publication. Within this period, the piece cannot be re-published elsewhere even in an adapted and modified form.Thereafter, it must be acknowledged that the piece was first published in Cafe Dissensus. Re-publishing articles from Cafe Dissensus in other magazines and newspapers without permission will amount to copyright violation and the publisher is liable to prosecution.] 

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