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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 measures inspector.

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


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