Challenge of Conservatism
By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
It is imperative for the Muslims and the Muslim world to shed the tendency to
resist new technology.
A letter by a madrassa (Islamic theological school) graduate in an Urdu daily
from Bangalore read thus: ‘We often feel ashamed when people describe us as
aalim (scholars). What is the use of this title, when we cannot fill up a
railway reservation form.’
The instance is illustrative of the low self-esteem suffered by the madrassa
graduates who provide the leadership to the Muslim multitudes in an India that
is at the threshold of emerging as a big power. One often feels pity when Sangh
Parivar accuses madrassas of super human feats of turning out fundamentalists
and jihadists. These terms are reserved for zealots who employ sophisticated
technology in translating their utopian ideals into reality. Far from it. The
thousands of archaic madrassas dotting India, tapping major chunk of the Muslim
charities, continue to tell their students that the solar system has seven
planets and that it is the sun that goes round the earth.
Much of the Muslim leadership comes from States of India where Muslims are more
numerous, but not more enlightened ones. So in any national Muslim conclave, the
pragmatic voices get suppressed under the rhetoric laced with Urdu couplets from
conservative leaders who do nothing other than singing paeans of the past glory.
Pleas to modernise madrassa curriculum and divert zakath (the tithe on the
annual savings) to raise social infrastructure like schools, media, libraries,
hospitals, convention halls, scholarship for students, are pooh-poohed.
Conservatism has deep and strong roots in the community. It spawns resistance
against reform and change. But situation of Muslims, and more so the Muslim
minorities (who constitute nearly 30 per cent of the 1.25 billion Muslims in the
world) is vociferously urging change. An individual Muslim feels the heat of
change every moment of his life. But those who have assumed the mantle of
leadership, stand resolutely against any change, dubbing all changes to be
stemming from enemies of Islam.
There is this plea for avoiding so much of controversy over sighting of moon for
the Eidul Fitr every year by taking the help of astronomers who can fix the
lunar calendar for the next 3,000 years. But the clergy has nothing, but
contempt for such ‘extraneous’ help. Consequently, Muslims in India celebrate
Eid on two or three days. In the British India extending from Karachi to
Rangoon, it used to be on a single day.
Two Muslim managed colleges in Chennai and Bangalore closed down their hotel
management and catering institutes during the last five years. Reason: clerics
opined that Muslim institutions should not teach how to serve liquor and cook
pork, even though these were included among hundreds of other skills imparted
under this course. What a grotesque irony! Muslim culinary traditions make
others drool over fares served by Muslim hotels, yet the Muslim students cannot
be taught how to blend culinary and hospitality skills in institutions managed
by the community. Would the clerics stop them from learning it elsewhere?
Perhaps not. It would have been instructive if these managements had looked into
how Jews and Jains run their hotel management institutes. They follow much
stricter kosher and vegetarian diets.
Hell broke loose in the tradition-bound town of Vaniyambadi where a newly
constructed mosque opened its portals for women and reserved the upper chamber
for them earlier this year. The mosque committee was forced to withdraw the
facility by a section of the clergy. Mosques all over the Middle East allow
women to pray inside. Even the mosques affiliated to Ahle e Hadith and Shafii
sects all over South India have this facility.
I notice a distinct dislike for courses like veterinary sciences among Muslim
boys, and nursing among girls. Lying beneath is the fear that veterinary course
would have piggery and nursing would entail attending to male patients. Islamic
traditions point out that the holy Prophet’s (peace be upon him) foster mother
Umme Ayman (RA) and one of the women among the holy companions, Khaula bint
Zarar (RA), served as nurses in the battlefield where wounded warriors were
essentially men from either side. Second caliph Hazrat Umar (RA) appointed
several women on key posts, of whom Shifa bint Abdullah (RA) was weights and
To err on conservative side is considered a great merit in matters of
interpreting Islam among the clergy in India. They vie with each other to
produce a more-conservative-than-thou interpretation, no matter how out of sync
it is with the time and society the Muslims are living in. The clergy generally
treats the new technologies with utter disdain. When cameras arrived a century
ago, photography was declared haram (illegitimate) by the conservative ulema.
Over the century, this interpretation was extended to television,
cinematography, videography, animation and cartoons. Cue is mostly taken from
the Prophet’s prohibition of making images of living objects. Perhaps the holy
Prophet wanted to warn his followers of dangers inherent in sculpting idols. The
clergy needed to ask the simple question if the Prophet made the mirror a taboo.
To the contrary, he often carried a mirror among his personal belonging to dress
himself. Isn’t it that the new technology is nothing but production of image
which can be preserved, printed, digitized, embossed, engraved or transferred
into so many other forms and for useful purposes. There was need to be guided by
the saying in which the Prophet encouraged girls to have dolls as they learnt
cultural mores. He would not have certainly meant cutting the Muslims away from
cultural, scientific and educational benefits of emerging technologies.
A modern economy, modern physical infrastructure and
state-of-the-art-communication cannot co-exist with tribalism and patriarchy.
The Muslim society has to contend with modern forces such as technology,
pluralism, democracy et al in interpreting their faith. Unless this is done,
Muslims who form a fifth of humanity would pale into further irrelevance. It is
said an average individual living in a middle sized town uses nearly 600 brand
products through his life span. Unfortunately the Muslim world does not produce
a single universally recognizable brand product. No student heads for a
university in the Muslim world, to learn science and technology. Muslims have
not contributed a single invention during the last 400 years, despite being the
pioneers in chemistry, astronomy, medicine, arithmetic, algebra, algorithms in
the medieval ages. This decline is directly related to repulsion bred vis-à-vis
the innovative spirit in the Muslim world. Be it Sir Syed Ahmed Khan or poet
Iqbal or Waheeduddin Khan, all have suffered at the hands of the outmoded clergy
which has nothing to offer other than protecting its vested interest by keeping
the Muslim masses steeped in backwardness. But dividends from the ‘Project
Backwardness’ are already petering off and the immiserization of the community
is leading to its complete marginalisation.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)