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Who shrunk the Muslim intelligentsia?

Sunday March 10, 2013 09:52:47 AM, Kaleem Kawaja

In recent years I have observed that frequently when there is a public discourse in India on the socioeconomic, political and educational issues of the Muslim community, majority of the Muslim leaders addressing these matters are clerics.

Again when the community’s representatives meet with Government officials on the issues of the community, or Muslims organize public rallies or they discuss the community’s issues with the national media, those speaking for the community are often clerics (maulanas). While in some instances these clerics are Islamic scholars, in a majority of instances they are run- of- the- mill maulvis with inadequate educational background and inadequate ability to articulate issues.

This raises the question: why the leadership of the Muslim community in India is dominated by clerics? Why is the proportion of the community's leaders from the Muslim intelligentsia or academia or the political establishment so small?

It stands to reason that when the topics are of a religious nature, e.g. interpretation of Quran or Hadeeth or religious edicts (fatwas) or the role of Islamic guidance of the Muslim personal laws, or matters dealing with madrasas, the leadership belongs in the hands of the Muslim clerics and Muslim religious organizations.

However when issues are of a non-religious nature, for instance Muslim educational institutions, or affirmative action programs for Muslims in educational institutions and jobs, or the need to address the 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, Muslim political leaders and non-religious Muslim organizations.

Yet it is noticed that in the last few years, when such issues or even others of over-riding national importance have been discussed in public – as for instance the upsurge of terrorism in India, the India-US nuclear accord, the Sachar Committee report on the Muslim community’s socio-economic status, I have noted with surprise to find that community feedback has inevitably come from Muslim clerics.

In fact on these important issues that require expertise in technical, economic, educational and military subjects, it was surprising to see some Muslim clerics negotiate on behalf of the Muslim community with some senior leaders of political parties. In stark contrast only rarely do I find opinions in the public forums from Muslim intelligentsia.

This is not an ideal situation for a variety of reasons. First, most clerics do not have adequate background in subjects like economics, law, sociology and technology that is needed to understand and debate today’s complex issues. Secondly, because of their background, most clerics typically look at even non-religious issues from a religious perspective. Thirdly, most of them are not proficient in the English language, modern methods of presentation and today’s vibrant style of communication powered by the electronic media.

The net result is that disjointed and sensationalized expressions from some clerics are displayed in the media as the opinions of the entire Indian Muslim community. 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 being reactionary. Often the entire politics of the Muslim community is misunderstood as a mirror image of the non-Muslim sectarian political parties and politicians.

In other words the fact that a majority of non-religious issues of the Muslim community are being addressed mostly by clerics has skewed the very perception of others about the Muslim community and its issues, and has created a stereotypical picture of the Muslims in the minds of mainstream Indians.

The mainstream's perception is that the Muslim community wears its religion on its sleeve, looks at most issues from a religious angle, has hardly any national perspective and does not introspect on its problems.

Compare that to the Hindu or Sikh or Christian communities. The number of mahants, sadhus, Gyanis and clerics in the leadership of the Hindu and Sikh community, or of pastors in the leadership of the Christian community is very small. Hindu clerics come in the picture mostly when issues are related to Hindu temples, seminaries, places of pilgrimage or religious organizations, and the same is the case with the Christians.

The fact is that most Hindu community leaders are from the intelligentsia and political background, and this is true of even those political parties that claim to protect the interests of the Hindu religion.

In contrast, the Muslim intelligentsia in the country often remains invisible on the core socio-economic-educational-political issues of the community. With their more pluralistic background and their diversified knowledge base the intelligentsia has a distinctly different and broad based perspective on issues and this should be the community's dominant perspective on issues, if the Muslim community wants to claim its due place in today's resurgent and modernizing India.

The situation is compounded by the fact that when the nation's mainstream media wants an opinion pertaining to the Muslim community or even the Muslim view of national issues, it turns to the clerics – often to clerics who are not well educated, but can be counted on for provocative, even incendiary comments . Similarly the major political parties often negotiate with and give heightened importance to Muslim clerics rather than the Muslim intelligentsia, in matters that pertain to the Muslim community.

The result is uninformed opinions, communicated in an archaic manner that creates an uncalled for stereotypical sectarian image of the community. The truth is that on the whole, despite large number of Muslims being depressed in education and economic status, the community is reasonably vibrant, has a broad perspective, is usually in synch with the rest of the nation and is trying to find its place in the mainstream.

Perhaps there is a residual effect here from the early years of India's freedom movement when Mahatma Gandhi launched the Khilafat movement in 1920 to protest against the abolition of the Islamic Khilafat rule in Turkey, as a way of activating Muslims more enthusiastically in the freedom movement itself. Gandhi's strategy did make Islamic scholars and Jamiat ul ulema, a major religious organization of Muslims, become active freedom fighters and later active opponents of Muslim League's demand for the partition of the country.

I recall that after the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque the Muslim intellegentsia 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. After a few meetings however, they stepped back and left a vacuum in the leadership arena at a critical time for the community – and thus, yet again a golden opportunity was lost to change the direction of the Muslim community's leadership.

The foot-dragging reluctance of the intelligentsia to get involved with the affairs of the community at the grassroots level is alienating them from large segments of Muslim masses, and is resulting in the Muslims being without a coherent leadership.

If we look at the leadership in various Muslim countries or Muslim communities in Western countries, we will find that most community leaders are from the intelligentsia or political background. Clerics assume leadership role only when issues are of a religious nature.

Most of the Muslim intelligentsia in India comprises of practicing Muslims who have a healthy respect for Islamic scholars. Thus, it should be possible to bridge the wide gap between the Muslim intelligentsia and the clerics. The need of the hour is not a leadership contest between the intelligentsia and the clerics, but cooperation and utilizing the strengths of both segments.

The Muslim intelligentsia can guide the clerics on properly understanding the broader national perspective and how to present religious elements in more acceptable modern jargon. The clergy can assist the intelligentsia with their grassroots contacts at the street level with the illiterate among the Muslim masses. The Muslim clerics should focus more on the religious institutions and organizations and on character-building within the community. They should leave the rest of the community's affairs in the hands of the intelligentsia, who should step up to the plate and take charge.

The mainstream political parties and the media can also help in improving the situation. The political parties should give much more recognition to the Muslim intelligentsia in policy making forums and get them more involved on issues pertaining to the Muslims, instead of negotiating with the clerics. Similarly, the print and electronic media should more often seek out the opinions of the Muslim intelligentsia, and give it prominent coverage instead of merely going to the clerics for their sound bytes.


The writer is a Washington based activist. He can be reached at






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