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Scripting a Democratisation

By Fahad Hashmi

The central fact for me is, I think, that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug. The intellectual does so on the basis of universal principles: that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behaviour concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously. (Edward Said 1996: 11-12)

There is no dearth of work on Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (hereafter SAK) and his immense contribution. Repetition of the same will amount to reinventing the wheel. Denying SAK’s entire contribution from any specific vantage point will be an act of gross injustice to the man and his legacy. Even Akbar Allahabadi, SAK’s contemporary and a fierce opponent of his mission, had to review his own stance and recognise the latter’s contribution:

Hamari baten hi baten hain
Syed kaam karta thha

Or, take this couplet:

Koi kuchh bhi kahe hum to yahi kahte hain aye Akbar
Khoda baqshe bahut si khoobyan thhi marne vale me

SAK’s colossal contribution to the field of education, Urdu literature, historiography, journalism, and scores of other areas should not deter us from critically evaluating his theory of modernism and its shortcomings. Critiquing SAK’s theory or Aligarh as a ‘school of thought’ does not rule out SAK’s role or Aligarh’s contribution in bringing about an educational renaissance in the country in general and in the Muslim community in particular following the ‘Mutiny’ of 1857.

On the eve of his bicentenary, it is also important to look at his theory of modernism and reforms, taking into account the spirit of our age. It needs to be emphasised that critical evaluation of the worldview and initiatives of SAK or any other reformer for that matter, should not be seen as an effort at mudslinging. Notre eminent contemporain, undoubtedly he was!

Professor Imtiaz Ahmad was invited to the Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI) to deliver a talk on the pros and cons of getting minority character for JMI in 2010. The demand for getting a minority character for the university had been in place for long. At that point in time, however, the effort was initiated by Najeeb Jung. Prof. Ahmad was accompanied by Professor T. K. Oomen. After listening to two brilliant talks, a bunch of students including myself got a chance to talk to Imtiaz sahib on many issues. The topic of caste in the Muslim society had also come up, quite obviously. I asked the professor, a bit bluntly: ‘Was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan against OBC Muslims?’ ‘Class orientation,’ he retorted curtly!

This class orientation of SAK is quite naked if one flips through the text of Asbab Baghawat-e-Hind 1857 (The causes of India’s Mutiny of 1857). While repudiating varied reasons that were believed to be the causes of the ‘Mutiny’ by the British, SAK, at one place writes, ‘Julahon ka taar to bilkul toot gaya thha jo badzat sab se zeyadah is hangama me garmjosh thhey’1 (The location of Julahas, the lowly evil people [badzaat] who were at the forefront of the rebellion, had completely been dislodged). Hali’s Hayat-e Javed, a remarkable account of SAK’s life, makes it very clear that he was a ‘fine’ product of his habitus. For instance, he was not even allowed to play with the ‘children of servants and Ajlaf, and uncouth sons of Ashraf.’2

The theory that was propounded by SAK for reform has got two most obvious blindspots that seeks our attention and calls for remedy. He was not in favour of providing education to women and Pasmandah Muslims.

Given the fact that modernisation has its own problematic in terms of its definition and ideological underpinnings, it does, however, entail a few features that have got universal appeal. One of them is questioning hierarchies, a fundamental constituent of it.

Social hierarchies cannot be taken for granted and normal in the present times. Questioning hierarchy is entangled with the idea of social justice which in turn is linked with pedagogy of justice. And the idea of justice is linked with the notion of masawat (equality). And the issue of masawat could never be addressed without taking cognizance of structures that give rise to inequality from where injustices take birth. Thus, this understanding necessitates that we question hierarchies based on caste, gender, alternative sexualities, and others that go into the making of the Muslim community in India.

The institution of caste is deeply entrenched in Indian Muslims and its presence could easily be spotted in day to day conversations, rituals, dietary habits, sartorial choices, and a host of social transactions. The red colour, for example, has a pejorative connotation among Ashraf, and is associated with Julahas (the weaver community). The ascension of Ajlaf and Arzal up the socio-economic ladder is understood and explained in religious terms. One comes across sentences like ‘qeyamat nazdeek hai, chhoti kankariyan ooper ja rahi hain’ (Doomsday is round the corner as small pebbles [euphemism for Ajlaf and Arzal] are going up the echelons).The edges of caste get sharper and come to the fore when an issue of inter-caste marriage comes up. The irony is everyone starts talking about the elephant in the room as if the caste is the most cherished treasure!

The texture of Ashraf-Ajalaf dichotomy could easily be felt whose existence is usually ignored and repudiated by taking recourse to the egalitarian ethos of Islam. Though it cannot be denied that there is no scriptural legitimacy to such a hierarchy, it also needs to be emphasised that caste-based stratification is very much part of the ‘discursive formation’.

There is a complete lack of will among intellectuals and intelligentsia of the community when it comes to dealing with caste and corroborative evidences of discrimination. One major perception is that Muslim is a monolithic category wherein no caste system exists. Islam is the currency of transaction in every affair of life, and taqva (piety) ought to be the standard of measure for any hierarchy to exist. That segment of Muslim population that recognises caste seldom deals with it sincerely. The argument that is put forth is that caste is an alien institution, and Muslims have borrowed and imbibed it from Hinduism. Thus, the usual remedy that is often suggested is that the moment Islam would be followed in its pure form, all shades of jahiliyya, including caste system, would automatically come to an end. In order to substantiate their point, people of this view argue that OBC Muslims frequently lead the prayers as imams in mosques wherein Ashraf also say their prayers. The question that should concern us is: how many Ashraf send their children to madrasas to become future imams? Akbar Allahabadi’s couplet comes to the mind:

Council me bahut sayyed
Masjid me faqat jumman

There is an unnecessary and failed effort at reconciling ‘doctrinal Islam’ with ‘lived Islam’ for presenting a sanitised version of Indian Islam. One cannot strike out the ‘tradition’ of caste with a single stroke of brush by stating that it is not present in the scriptures.

A particular segment of the Muslim population that comprises academics, activists, and journalists constantly propound that ‘class analysis’ leaves out many important dimensions that need to be brought in for an analysis of predicaments of Muslim as a minority category. There is no denying that claim. However, it needs to be stressed that the minority framework too does not help in reflecting, as well as in giving a complete picture of diversity that the category ‘minority’ ought to reflect. There is a complete annihilation of space for the two segments, that is, Pasmandah group and Muslim women. These two domains get ruled by ‘political elite’ and ‘religious elite’ respectively, which are again not mutually exclusive groups. From the perspectives of these two marginalised identities, ‘minority politics’ is statusquoist par excellence. In other words, this politics is also not helping in breaking social constructs, prejudices, and stereotypes. On the contrary, it is only helping in producing and perpetuating the existing oppressive and domesticating structures. Furthermore, these two deprived groups are not getting their due share in political, social and economic life. The emergence of these two voices only points towards the limitations of the minority politics at the first sight.

Koi karavan se toota, koi badguman haram se
Ke meer-e karvan me nahi khoo-e dilnawazi

The argument that is repeatedly brought forward from particular quarters for ushering in change is that all such reforms should be deliberated and initiated within the community. This line of argument appears to be rhetoric which only helps in stifling and blocking the voices of reforms that are being raised by the different marginalised groups. For instance, had these groups been sincere in their intentions, they would have solved the issue of triple talaq long back. It has almost been three decades or more since the Shah Bano case took place. These people deliberately fail to read Muslim as a sociological category given the entanglement of their vested interests with the larger power structure. Doing justice to marginalised groups would only minimise the negotiating and bargaining capacity of the hegemon.

Being a student of social sciences, one is more concerned about the ‘living Islam’ in the Indian context. Otherwise, how could empirical realities as well as experiences of people who are at the receiving end of this system be read and understood? How does one deal with the cognitive status of caste in the collective memory of Ashraf and its binary opposite, Ajlaf? In a nutshell, it is a no-brainer to see that caste is written into the very fabric of the Muslim society.

How do we deal with the issue of kufu (parity)? One comes across a few hadith, too, on the issue of kufu:

Do not marry your women except that you find those who are of their kufu.

(Dar Qatni, Baihaqi, cited in Siddiqi 1992: 59)

Search out good women for the propagation of your generation. And marry your women with those persons who are their kufu.

(narrated by Ayesha, Anas, and Omar, cited in Siddiqi 1992: 59)

It goes without saying that there are many things that are not present in the Quran and Hadith but contribute to the warp and weft of the community. More important, the Quran and Hadith do not stand on its own. Rather, the way it has been understood and interpreted by theologians over a long stretch of time. Similarly, the particular way the notion of kufu has been conceived, understood, and interpreted over time by the ulema of different persuasions clearly makes it part of the canon of Indian Islam.Put differently, there is a dominant pattern of interpretation of Ashraf-Ajlaf dichotomy that has determined superordination of Ashraf vis-à-vis  subordination of Ajlaf.

Those who support the Pasmandah movement and propound gender justice are regularly stigmatised and discredited through smear campaigns, and their trolling on the social networking sites also take place. The accusation that is generally lobbed against these people is that such a solidarity with weak voices helps in dividing the quam in India! Such an allegation, it could easily be deciphered, is an effort in keeping the homogenous character of the community intact and not dealing with the pressing issues of masawat and social justice. The irony is that the same people would talk about alliance between ‘Dalits’ and ‘Muslims’!

If we are really concerned about empowerment of Muslims and want it to happen, then we need to take into account the grievances – political, social, and economic – of all such disrespected identities that are constitutive elements of the Muslim society, and are struggling hard for their emancipation from oppressive structures. Without sincerely and squarely dealing with the question of Pasmandah and women, I don’t think any empowerment is possible. And this is not going to happen unless we question hierarchies present within the Muslim society, and speak truth to power that does not want these issues to come forth under the rubric of ‘quam’, ‘community’, and many such categories. To this end, we need to learn to question and challenge truths that circulate in the community about structures that have been begetting and perpetuating oppression, humiliation, marginalisation, and exclusion of a large chunk of people.

Committing ourselves to the idea of social justice and extending solidarity to the marginalised groups in the struggle for ensuring justice and equality would make a worthwhile tribute to SAK on his bicentenary. An attack on these two movements (I mean movement of gender justice and backward castes’ movement of equality and justice) will amount to attacking the ideals these two movements stand for, and a world that they conceptualise and hope to bring into existence. I would also hasten to add that an endeavour to sabotage these two movements would be an attempt at blocking the beginning of democratisation and modernisation of the community from within.

While reading Hayat-e Javed and other works for preparing this piece, one often gets reminded of this couplet:

Go waqt ke aiwaan me gul ho gayin qindeelen
Yadon ke shabistan me barham na hue mehfil


  1. (a) Asbab, p. 37. (b) The translation, lowly evil, of Badzat, attached with Julaha, to my mind, fails to carry an array of meanings that are usually attached to it during its deployment in different contexts. The word Julaha entails a slew of pejorative connotations that William Crook has defined as ‘cowardly, pretentious, factious and bigoted’ (see Pandey 2012: 66).
  2. Hayat-e Javed, p. 50.
  3. Falahi (2009) has provided a detailed account of the importance of kufu and its explanations by Ulema of varied persuasions.


Ahmad, Imtiaz. 1966. ‘The Ashraf-Ajlaf Dichotomy in Muslim Social Structure in India’. Indian Economic and Social History Review, vol. 3: 268-78.
Ahmad, Syed. Undated. Asbab Baghawat-eHind 1857 (The causes of India’s mutiny of 1857). Lahore: Mustafa Press.
Falahi, Masood Alam. 2009. Hindustan me zaat paat aur Musalman (Casteism in India and Muslims). Mumbai: Ideal Foundation.
Faridi, F. R and M. M. Siddiqi (eds.). 1992. The Social Structure of Indian Muslims. New Delhi: Institute of Objective Studies.
Hali, Altaf Hussain. 1999. Hayat-e Javed. Delhi: National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language.
Hasan, Mushirul. 1998. ‘Aligarh’s “Notre eminent contemporain” Assessing Syed Ahmad Khan’s Reformist Agenda’. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33(19): 1077-81.
Pandey, Gyanendra. 2012. ‘The Bigoted Julaha’ in The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 66-108.
Said, Edward. 1996. The Representation of the Intellectual. New York: Vintage Books.
Siddiqi M. M. 1992. ‘Inter-caste integration among Indian Muslims’ in The Social Structure of Indian Muslims, F. R. Faridi and M. M. Siddiqi (eds.). New Delhi: Institute of Objective Studies, 57-63.


Fahad Hashmi 
holds an MPhil in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, India. He regularly writes on political Islam, issues of minorities, and on other issues of political and social concerns.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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