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    By Asghar Ali Engineer
    The world is on the threshold of the 21st century and people expect
    great changes in the beginning of the next millennium. The changes
    will not only be technological but also social, political,
    religious and economic. Some fundamentalists maintain that the
    concept of millennium itself is Western and hence should be
    dismissed. But it is found in all religious traditions, including
    Islamic, in one form or the other. It is called alf i.e.
    millennium. It was in this sense that the great reformer of Indian
    Islam was called Mujaddid Alf-e-Thani i.e., renewer of the second
    millennium. The second millennium of Islam began in 1591- 92 during
    Akbar's reign.

    In its beginning, great changes took place as far as Indian Muslims
    were concerned. The Mughal rule was at the height of its glory and
    Akbar's liberal policies won him great acclaim. Again, it was
    during this period Mujaddid Alf-e Thani launched his reform
    movement and set out to purify Islam of its Indian influences.
    These were contradictory processes but great social events are
    never uni-dimensional. These events took place according to the
    Hijri i.e., Islamic calendar.

    As per the Roman calendar, it was at the beginning of the second
    millennium (1000 A.D.) that Muslims began to penetrate India from
    the North (in the south, Muslim traders had already settled down
    for more than 200 years. It was near about this time that Mahmoud
    of Ghazni launched his invasions and the Muslim ruling classes were
    in the ascendant. But towards the end of second millennium, i.e.,
    in the 19th century, their decline began and ultimately the British
    seized power.

    When their political power declined, the Muslim ruling classes
    evolved new strategies of survival. Social and religious movements
    were launched by different sections to overcome the effects of
    declining political power. Since the community was not homogeneous,
    the survival strategies also sharply differed. The Ulema and the
    religious-minded people believed that the decline in the Muslim
    political power was due to the neglect of religious teachings and
    deviant behaviour. Shah Waliyullah, Islamic thinker and religious
    reformer, inspired many along these lines. The Deoband School
    followed this line.

    But the intellectuals led by Sir Syed thought otherwise. According
    to them, the decline would be steeper if they did not take to
    modern education and modern ways of living. As Shah Waliyullah
    became a great leader of the Deoband School of Ulema, Sir Syed
    became a hero of the modernists. Unfortunately, both sections were
    polarised and followed the exclusivist line. What was needed was a
    creative synthesis of the two. While the Ulema ultimately stood by
    the secular Indian National Congress, the modernists threw their
    lot with the Muslim League. While the Ulema stood for the composite
    nationalism, the modernists opted for separation in order to
    monopolise power.

    Thus, breathtaking changes had taken place by the time the British
    left India. Then began a new phase of decline for the Muslims. The
    educated elite and the modernists left for Pakistan, whereas those
    who were known as Ajlaf or low caste Muslims were left behind in
    India. Thus, the formation of Pakistan was a traumatic experience
    what with killings and the tearing asunder of Muslim families; more
    so, because it brought about a new phase of decline in the status
    of Indian Muslims. They have not been able to achieve much in the
    last 50 years. The reasons are complex. It would not help the
    Muslims themselves to put the entire blame on the majority
    community or the Indian Government.

    An honest analysis on the eve of 21st century will be of great help
    in bringing about a positive change. The Indian Muslims have been
    mostly converts from the low castes of Hindu society and they faced
    acute poverty and illiteracy even at the height of the Mughal rule.
    Thus their historical legacy is quite comparable to that of the
    Dalits. Sir Syed worked mainly for the advancement of Ashraf i.e.
    the ruling classes among the Muslims. What the Indian Muslims need
    today is a leader who is devoted to the uplift of the low caste

    As there is acute poverty among them, the literacy levels are
    abysmally low. More than 70 per cent Muslims are illiterate. The
    condition of their women is even worse, their literacy rate is not
    being more than 15 per cent, which means more than 80 per cent of
    the Muslim women are illiterate. The Muslim leadership is
    complacent about this problem. Though some intellectuals are aware
    of it, nothing much is being done to promote even elementary
    education. Right now, the emphasis should not be so much on higher
    education (which, of course, is also necessary) as on achieving
    widespread literacy.

    The Muslim leadership is overemphasising the identity problems
    rather than the educational and economic difficulties. In a
    democratic polity and pluralist society, such problems do have
    their importance. But they should not be overemphasised at the cost
    of the educational and economic woes. In fact, what is needed is a
    fine balance between the two. It has been observed that the north
    Indian Muslim leadership, which plays a more decisive role in
    Muslim politics (on account of the population and the historical
    legacy), is obsessed with the politics of identity. in South India,
    which was away from the centre of power, there has traditionally
    been a greater emphasis on education. The Muslim Education Society
    did better work in spreading education among the Muslims. Literacy
    among the Muslims of Kerala, for example, is higher than that among
    the Muslims, say in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. Again, it is because of
    the higher level of literacy among the Muslim women in Kerala,
    there is a greater degree of adoptions of family planning among
    them. In fact, it is higher than among the Hindus in Uttar Pradesh.

    The Muslims should realise that the spread of literacy will benefit
    them in several ways. In this age of information technology, there
    is no greater curse than illiteracy. The Prophet was born in a
    society which almost took pride in illiteracy and thence he laid a
    great emphasis on acquiring knowledge. He said that acquiring
    knowledge was worth the while even if available in China (China was
    considered the remotest area those days). He said acquisition of
    knowledge was obligatory to both men and women. He also said hell-
    fire would never touch those who brought up their daughters well
    and gave them the best of education. Despite these clear teachings,
    the Muslims shy away from pursuing literacy in a big way. The sole
    mission of their leadership today should be the spread of literacy.
    No doubt, poverty is a stumbling block but it can certainly be

    Another important area needing urgent attention is socio- religious
    reform. Sir Syed initiated reforms but was forced to give up in a
    compromise, since his top priority was education. His contribution
    in this field was no less significant but he could not carry them
    further. His colleagues and followers continued the work but the
    subsequent political developments pushed such attempts to the
    background. This project for socio- religious reforms, particularly
    in personal laws, needs to be revived.

    The Shariat unfortunately is being treated as a closed system. It
    is far from being so. Many progressive theologians such as Muhammad
    Abduh of Al-Azhar in late 19th century realised the urgent need for
    reform to overcome social stagnation. Contemporary theologians in
    the Islamic world such as Yusuf Qardawi are continuing the work.

    Islam's fundamental emphasis is on justice and equality and the
    Quran applies these notions to the treatment of women too.
    Unfortunately, its potential could not be realised in the preceding
    centuries. The time has come to actualise these ideals and give
    women their due.

    The Shariat laws should be made more dynamic and justice, rather
    than custom, should govern them. The next century will be the
    century of women's rights and human rights. Human equality and
    human dignity will win ever more recognition in the coming decades.
    The Indian Muslims too cannot avoid a meaningful encounter with the
    emerging social and cultural ethos for long. The Shariat laws
    certainly accommodate the new spirit within the Islamic framework.

    I wonder where you got the idea that muslims are not allowed to read and write?