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Indian Muslims and renaissance

Submitted by Tarique on Sun, 06/08/2008 - 06:23.

By Asghar Ali Engineer,


It is often asked why Indian Muslims did not go through renaissance? By implication it is suggested Islam prevents any such possibility. I think it is quite simplistic assumption. Religion by itself neither obstructs nor helps the process of renaissance. To understand possibility of renaissance or otherwise one has to understand the complex processes at work in the society.

Europe experienced renaissance not because of Christianity but in severe opposition to Christianity. Once a society, through certain processes is ready for change, religion can no longer stop it. Religion can become pull to an extent but not all the way. If society is ready to change, religion may even become helpful to an extent but not otherwise. Certain social theorists ignore social processes and structural forces at work when they assume religion to be driving or impeding force.

Indian society is highly diverse even though Brahminical Hinduism has been a predominant force. It would also not be wholly true to maintain that non-Muslim India as a whole has already experienced renaissance. It is far from true. What is true is that Indian society itself is highly complex and has to be understood at different levels. Only a small section of Brahminical Hindu society has accepted modernity wholeheartedly. Rest of the society can still not be said to be modern and in the throes of renaissance.

In Europe it was emergence of bourgeois class that led the renaissance movement after 16th century. In fact one can say Mughal India was far ahead of Europe in philosophy, fine arts, architecture and liberal outlook. Indians had far greater achievements in classical learning and sciences. It was left behind only after progress of science and technological achievements for variety of reasons, not to be discussed here.

In fact as far as Islamic world was concerned the Abbasid period from 9th up to early 13th century had already experienced sort of renaissance. Its achievements in the fields of philosophy, mathematics, classical arts and sciences were par excellence. This era produced great philosophers like Avicena, Averros (Arabic Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd) and others. Logarithm and Algebra were invented and great progress was made in chemistry and optics. In fact Europe was passing through dark ages when Abbasids were encouraging transfer of treasures of knowledge into Arabic from Greek, Persian and Sanskrit languages through Dar al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) established in Baghdad.

In fact the knowledge from Greece was transferred to Europe through Arabic translations and philosophers like Avicena and Averros were taught in some of the universities established in Europe. Thus it will be seen that Islam did not come in the way of tremendous progress made by Arab intellectuals in worldly sciences.

It is true that there was some resistance by orthodox 'ulama to dissemination of these sciences and especially to rational philosophy but it could not become a powerful impediment in the way of excellent achievements of these illustrious thinkers and scientists. Some of the theologians developed science of dialectics ('Ilm al-Kalam) but then there were two streams of knowledge existing side by side and orthodox stream could not overpower the rational one. Even today eminent thinkers and philosophers like Avicena, Averros, Ibn Hayyan and others are great names from that period.

Al-Ghazzali, it is true, is also great name from amongst the theological thinkers of the orthodox stream but he himself had passed through various phases including the rational phase when he even became atheist. However, he felt that reason alone is inadequate to understand ultimate reality for which revelation, intuition and inner experiences are necessary.

Ghazzali had great debate with Averrose and wrote to a book denouncing philosophy and called it Tihafut al-Falasifa(Perplexity of Philosophers) to which Averros replied by writing Tahafut Tahafut al-Falasifa (i.e. Perplexity of Perplexity of Philosophers). This shows that opposition of orthodox Ulama could not impede progress of rational sciences in the Islamic world of that period.

However, decline of movement of renaissance began after fall of Abbasids in 13th century. This all the more shows that much depends on power and prosperity and sense of security in the society than on religion. If society is on decline such movements cannot flourish and if society is prospering and has grip over power such movements flourish. Thus it has much greater connection with society than with religion.

After decline of Abbasids whose centre of power and whom Toyenbee, the renowned historian, calls 'universal state of Islam', a sense of insecurity gripped the Islamic world and many scholars have suggested that thereafter intellectual decline of Muslims began and orthodoxy took over. One of the Abbasid caliphs in the period of decline al-Mutavakkil, sided with the orthodox Ulama and severely persecuted rationalists. It would be interesting to note that it is the rationalists (Mua'tazila) who persecuted the orthodox in the beginning of the Abbasid period and the same dynastic period ended with the persecution of rationalists.

In Europe too, orthodoxy prevailed and kept its tight grip over Christians. A great struggle ensued against the Church only when a powerful bourgeois class appeared on the scene and became confident of its power and grip over the situation. Europe, however, never looked back ever since and science and technology went from strength to strength and religion lost its centrality and grip over the minds of people of Europe.

In case of Muslims though some regional powers like Fatimids in Egypt Ottomans in Turkey and Mughuls in India and Safavids in Iran did emerge on the scene and these regions too had great achievements at their credit but they could not regain and continue their achievements what they had achieved during the Abbasid period. Their 'universal state' declined and could never look up again. The regional powers could not match the centrality of the Abbasid achievements. The theologians also felt insecure and closed the gates of ijtihad (creative interpretation).

Indian Muslims should not be treated as a monolithic bloc. They were highly stratified due to Indian caste system. Muslims in India except those who came from Iran and Central Asia, never shared power and remained a deprived lot. Indigenous Muslims were generally converts from amongst the dalits and OBCs and always remained poor, backward and illiterate.

Before we passed any judgment it is very necessary to understand the sociology of Indian Islam. Though the Muslims belonging to ruling class did merge with indigenous society and assimilated Indian culture and languages, they remained a distinct lot and called themselves ashraf (of noble decent) as against those converts from dalits and OBCs whom they described as ajlaf and arzal (of low decent and untouchables).

Ashraf never intermarried with ajlaf and arzal. These low caste Muslims themselves are divided in various professional castes called biradaris. Generally these biradaris also don't intermarry among themselves. A large number of Indian Muslims today come from these low caste biradaris. Its estimate is any body's guess. Recently the Sachar Committee Report gives their number as 41 per cent. But it is largely underestimated as many Muslims describe themselves as belonging to higher castes of sheikh or syed. Anyway we can say that much higher percentage of Muslims belong to these low caste biradaris.

The decline and end of Mughul rule was another severe blow to Indian Muslims. They lost power and upper caste Muslims too felt greatly insecure and failure of 1857 mutiny (or war of independence as we prefer to call in India) was much greater blow to Muslims of ruling class. British power almost destroyed them as they had seized power from the Mughals and many Muslims had joined this war.

It was indeed a death blow to Muslims of ruling classes in India. Only a few zamindars who chose later to support the British rule could survive and regain their landed estates and influence with the British rulers. Also, it is a well known fact that Muslims were left far behind in the field of modern secular education as they feared alien western culture and education.

It was great foresight of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan that emphasized the importance of modern education and founded the first major institution of modern education for Muslims in Aligarh which was known as MAO college (Mahomedan Anglo-Oriental College). Here also mainly the children of Muslim zamindars and jagirdars (feudal lords) came for education though scholarships were available for some other Muslims also.

It is these scions of jagirdar families who became lawyers, doctors, engineers and other professionals and came to constitute Muslim middle class. This middle class was quite small in size as Muslim masses, mainly artisans and small peasants, had no access to modern education and had no incentive to opt for it and they remained, by and large confined to their hereditary professions.

These jagirdars and zamindars were also mostly from UP and Bihar, both being Muslim minority areas. Muslim majorities lived mainly in the Punjab and Bengal and this jagirdar class in these two regions was very weak and bulk of the Muslims were poor and downtrodden. Now part of the Punjab and Bengal with Muslim majority are in Pakistan and Bangla Desh. Both these regions are still quite poor on the whole.

Sir Syed, himself a member of the Muslim nobility, was harbinger of Muslim renaissance in India. He not only promoted modern secular education he also founded Indian Scientific Society and translated various scientific works in Urdu for benefit of north Indian people. He also founded educational congress to popularize modern education among Muslims. He proposed many modern reforms and even advocated westernization to an extent. 

He started a magazine called Tahzib al-Akhlaq (Refining the Morals) and advocated change of old cultural practices and introducing modern ways in different fields of life. He also disseminated through this magazine modern knowledge, science and technology. This magazine rendered yeoman service to Muslims in North India and introduced them to modernity. This magazine has been revived again a few years ago and is published from Aligarh Muslim University.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was an institution himself and he created a band of scholars and followers who acquired eminence in different fields of scholarship. One of his followers and colleague Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan wrote a book Huquq al-Niswan who, through this book, pleaded cause of gender equality. This book, I can say, was beginning of Muslim feminism in India.

Justice Ameer Ali, a product of this movement, wrote several books of which Spirit of Islam became very popular. It was an attempt to see Islam and its teachings in the light of modernity. Another leading light of this movement was Maulavi Chriagh Ali who too advocated modern reforms in Muslim Personal Law and also wrote a tract on jihad and tried to show that the Qur'an ;does not advocate war through this concept but promotes goodness through maximum human endeavours.

Thus Sir Syed and his colleagues made efforts to bring about renaissance among Indian Muslims. However, its momentum could not be sustained through basic and fundamental changes in the society. In Europe renaissance movement went much further thanks to sustained social and scientific changes in the society. This did not become possible for various reasons in Indian sub-continent.

Main reason was political turmoil and politics of identity during late thirties and fourties of last century. The political controversies between Hindus and Muslims became serious obstacle in the process of social and attitudinal change. Identity politics leads, more often than not, to revivalist movements with emphasis on the past. These political developments ultimately led to division of the country in 1947 followed by communal carnage on both sides of the division.

Much of the progress achieved by Sir Syed and his colleagues was undone followed by communal upsurge. Many eminent intellectuals had begun to critically examine various past practices. Now their sons and daughters began to sing glories of the past and began to justify all past tradition. Communal politics is a complete antidote to progressive social change. Partition in fact proved to be double blow to the process of change.

In Pakistan, the newly created country, orthodox Islamists asserted themselves aggressively. Pakistan was declared to be an Islamic country immediately after the death of Muhammad Ali Jinnah who was architect of that country. Maulana Maududi, founder of the Jamat-e-Islami in India migrated to Pakistan in the same year and launched a movement for establishing an Islamic state.

Though Pakistan got a breather during presidency of Ayub Khan when moderate Islam prevailed but this era proved to be short lived and once again political turmoil took over and Pakistan itself was divided and East Bengal emerged as Bangla Desh. Zulfeqar Ali Bhutto who took over from military dictator Yahya Khan, though moderate Muslim and modernist, had to make serious compromises with Muslim orthodoxy. He declared Ahmadiyas as non-Muslims and began to enforce Shari'ah measures.

Finally Bhutto was hanged and Zia-ul-Haq declared Pakistan as an Islamic state and enforced shari'ah laws replacing secular laws. It was the darkest period Pakistan had to undergo thanks to political upheavals and western and American interests. United States used Zial-ul-Haq to pursue their political interests to defeat Soviet Union in Afghanistan and backed up Islamic militancy for which Pakistani society is paying heavy price even today.

Not only Musharraf but even presently elected democratic government will find it extremely difficult to bring about social change in Pakistan. Both Pakistani Military and Islamic militancy have struck deep roots in Pakistan and continued policies of America in the name of 'war against terrorism' will further prop up militancy and violence. Thus Pakistan is fated to live with violence and turmoil for quite sometime to come.

Because of these political upheavals the basic problems of society cannot engage attention of politicians. Poverty and illiteracy among vast number of masses in Pakistan is a serious problem. No renaissance movement can ever flourish in these social conditions. High levels of education and prosperity and sense of security are needed to promote intellectual movements in the society.

Let us not forget that Europe immensely benefited from colonial exploitation and transfer of wealth from colonized countries like India. Some economists even maintain that the industrial revolution in England was financed through transfer of wealth from India. Whether it is true or not, one thing is certain that colonizing countries achieved more economic and political stability. Today their economies are self sufficient but not so until 2nd World War.

I am not reducing the significance of struggles which intellectuals waged in Europe to consolidate the gains of renaissance and progressive social change. I am only pointing out the benefits of colonial exploitation which accrued to certain European countries and how it aided the process of social change. One should not try to reduce importance of that process either.

Muslims in post-partition India faced worst situation compared to Muslims in Pakistan. The ruling class mainly feudals and middle class which, as pointed out before, mainly emerged from these feudal families almost entirely migrated to Pakistan and poor Muslims mainly artisans and small land holding peasantry was left in India. Thus educationally and economically Indian Muslims are far more backward today. This fact has also been very well brought out by the Sachar Committee Report submitted last year.

Due to economic and educational backwardness middle class among Muslims is very weak compared to Hindus, Sikhs and Jains and hence there is hardly any possibility of progressive social movements succeeding or striking roots. Muslims in India are also faced with security problems. Often communal violence breaks out further dealing economic blow to them. In several riots like the ones where Muslims had achieved economic prosperity like Meerut, Moradabad, Aligarh etc. Muslim businesses were ruined.

There are few trading communities in Gujarat like Bohras, Khojas and Memons who have achieved a measure of prosperity in post-independence India, were dealt severe economic blow in Gujarat communal carnage of 2002. Before that these communities had already suffered an economic setback in post-Babri riots of 1992-93. Many families had fled to Southern states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala etc.

Also, under communal onslaught of BJP even the secular governments dither in steadily pursuing policies of economic and educational uplift of Indian Muslims. Anytime the Congress or other government declares any intention (which may or may not be serious, BJP immediately raises the bogey of 'vote bank politics' and 'appeasement of minorities'. This has been going on for decades since independence.

I would also like to point out that cultural factor also plays important role in strengthening or weakening renaissance movement. Indian culture, though feudalism is dead and gone, is still feudal and feudal traditions play very important role among all communities of India. The caste system in India among Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, is quite illustrative example of this.

Caste is becoming stronger both socially and politically and it seems it here to stay and even most progressive Hindus cannot escape from its vice-like grip. India has experienced economic and industrial revolution but culturally it is still under the influence of traditional culture. Muslims, as pointed out above, have not experienced benefits of economic revolution. It will be too much to expect any movement for progressive social change.


Institute of Islamic Studies,

Mumbai:- 400 055,


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