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Muslim Leadership: Clerics or Intelligentsia?

Monday April 25, 2011 08:49:10 PM, Kaleem Kwaja

Why is the politics of the Muslim community in India being dominated by clerics, most of whom are not even Islamic scholars?


Whenever I look up the news reports on the issues and problems of the Muslim community in India, I find that often the Muslim leaders addressing these matters are clerics. The question arises, why is the politics of the Muslim community in India being dominated by clerics, most of whom are not even Islamic scholars? Why is the proportion of the community’s leaders from the Muslim intelligentsia so small?

The Clerics
Obviously when the topics are religious issues of the Muslim community, for instance interpretation of Sharia laws or Hadeeth or Fatwas or Personal laws or matters dealing with madrasas, the leadership belongs in the hands of the clerics and religious organizations. But when issues are of a non-religious nature, for instance Muslim educational institutions, or reservation for Muslims in educational institutions and jobs, or the need to address the community’s socioeconomic and educational uplift, or the political situation of the community, or the civil liberties, or the situation of Muslim women, the primary leadership role belongs to the Muslim intelligentsia and Muslim political leaders.

Firstly, most clerics’ background in subjects like economics, law, sociology and technology is not up to date for today’s issues. Secondly, because of their background, most of the clerics (but not all) often look at even non-religious issues from a semi-religious perspective. Thirdly, most of them are not very proficient in English language usage and oral communications with modern electronic media journalists.

Altogether it reinforces in the minds of the mainstream media and the nation at large a stereotypical image of the entire Muslim community and its mindset as overtly religious. Often the entire politics of the Muslim community is painted as a mirror image of the BJP style religion-oriented politics. That causes many secular Hindus to become indifferent to the deserving issues of the Muslims, e.g. implementation of the Sachar Committee recommendations.

The fact that a majority of non-religious issues of the Muslim community are being addressed by clerics is skewing the perception about the community, and is creating a stereotypical picture of the Muslims in the minds of mainstream Indians, the Indian media and the majority Hindu community. The mainstream’s perception is that the Muslim community is often obsessed with religion and looks at most issues from a religious angle, which is contrary to the facts.

Indeed in the last couple of decades a genre of ‘political maulvis’ have evolved who have had hardly any formal Islamic education or record of service to the community, yet they take lead in bargaining for the community with the political parties at election time. After the elections they also recommend to the parties in power the names of Muslims to be given appointments to government commissions and committees.

Compare that to the Hindu community and you find a stark contrast. The number of mahants, sadhus, and Hindu clerics in the leadership of the Hindu community is rather small. Hindu clerics come in the picture when issues are related to Hindu temples, seminaries, places of pilgrimage or religious trusts. Otherwise most Hindu community leaders are from the intelligentsia and political background. This is true of even the BJP which is a Hindu fundamentalist party.

The Intelligentsia
In contrast the Muslim intelligentsia in the country often remains invisible on the core socio-economic-educational-political issues of the community. With their broader and more pluralistic background the intelligentsia has a distinctly different perspective on issues, which should be the dominant perspective on mainstream issues, if the Muslim community wants to claim its due place in today’s resurgent and modernizing India. However often when the media wants an opinion on the issues of the Muslim community, it turns to the clerics. The result is a stereotypical image of the community. Whereas on the whole despite large number of Muslims being depressed in education and economic status, the community is reasonably vibrant, has a broad perspective, and is trying to move ahead in the nation’s mainstream.

I recall that after the demolition of the Babri mosque the Muslim intelligentsia held a well attended conference in New Delhi in 1993 where they pledged to take more active role in the political and socioeconomic affairs of the community. But after a few meetings they stepped back and left a vacuum in the leadership arena at a critical time for the community. The over all foot-dragging of the Muslim intelligentsia in getting involved in the affairs of the community at the grassroots level is alienating them from large segments of Muslim masses.

Most Muslim intelligentsia comprises of practicing Muslims who have a healthy respect for Islamic scholars and learned clerics. Yet there is a communication gap between these two sections of the community that must be bridged. The need of the hour is not a leadership contest between the intelligentsia and the clerics, but cooperation and utilizing the strengths of both sections. The intelligentsia can guide the clerics on how to present Islamic elements in more acceptable modern jargon. The clergy can assist the intelligentsia with their grassroots contacts at the street level.

If we look at the leadership in various Muslim countries we find that most leaders are from the intelligentsia or political background. Clerics assume leadership role only when issues are of a religious nature. So why should the situation in India be different?





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