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Liberalism is a lonely, moral stance. —AMartin Luther King, Jr


Islam At A Glance Introduction

PART ONE _ The Identity Trap _Who Is a Liberal Muslim? ‘Old’ Liberals Vs ‘New’ Liberals _Liberal Roots of Indian Islam _How Liberal Islam Lost the Battle 6. Trapped in Mental Ghettos 7. Secular Islam is a fantasy 8 Why Are Young Muslims leaving Islam 9. At the Bottom of the Heap 10. Let us Stop Being So Boring And Pious


View From The Ground

1. Only Judiciary Can Initiate Reforms

2. Liberally Speaking...

3. Every Drop Contributes to the Ocean

4. To Hyphenate Or Not Is The Question

5. A Reassessment of Theology Is The Need Of The Hour

IN In J [bo [No [-—

7. Openness Is The Key 8. The Closed Door Of Ijtihad Needs To Be Opened 9. Islam Has Been Hijacked By Extremists

Conclusion Postscript

Appendix 1: In the Words of.a Practising Muslim Woman AE ECE PICT talk

Pe ey Te




Founded in the seventh century CE by Prophet Mohammad after he received divine revelations from Allah, it is the youngest monotheistic religion. It is based on the belief that there is only one God, and that Mohammad is the messenger of God.

The word Islam literally means surrender (to the will of Allah.) Islam originated in Mecca and Medina and gradually spread across Arabia and beyond.


For all the negative perceptions and controversies that surround Islam, it is the world’s second largest—and fastest growing—religion with approximately 1.8 billion followers spread across seven cultural and geographical regions. Nearly a quarter of the world is Muslim. By 2050, Islam is predicted to catch up with Christianity worldwide, according to Pew Research Center.

India is home to 180 million Muslims making them the world’s third largest Muslim community. Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country, followed by Pakistan. Only 20 per cent of the global Muslim population lives in the the Middle East where Islam was founded. The West has a large Muslim diaspora, and despite widespread Islamophobia, their number is growing.


There are two broad segments in Islam: Sunnis and Shias, and most Muslims belong to one of the two. Sunnis are the dominant group

representing almost 90 per cent of Muslims. Islam’s holiest sites—Mecca and Medina—are controlled by Sunnis.

Iran is the largest Shia-majority country followed by Iraq.

The Shia-Sunni rift is the biggest and longest-running divide in Islam, going back to its early years. But the origins of this division is so arcane that, let alone non-Muslims, even many ordinary Muslims struggle to explain it.

What started off as a succession feud after Prophet Mohammad’s death has come to define Islam for the modern world, thanks to the geopolitical dimensions it has taken, with a Shia-Iran and a Sunni-Saudi Arabia competing for the leadership of the Muslim world. And both have their respective Big Power patrons—the Saudi-Sunni alliance is backed by America, and Iran by Russia. A rather obscure centuries-old religious rift has become a convenient peg on which to hang ‘today’s many disasters in the Middle East,’ according to British academic John McHugo in his book, Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is.


In Arabic, the term literally means path; path to water or the way to a watering hole—guiding nomadic people to a source of drinking water in the desert.

But after the advent of Islam, its followers started using it in the sense of a guide to law and morality. Broadly, it has come to mean Islamic law derived mainly from the Quran, the Sunna (the actions and authentic sayings of Prophet Mohammad), Ijma (consensus of legal scholars), and Qiyas (analogical reasoning. )

It is often described as God’s Law and considered immutable by conservative Muslims. But liberals question the divine status accorded to Sharia. According to renowned liberal Islamic scholar Ziauddin Sardar, ‘Sharia is not a Quranic concept’ and the term occurs only twice in the Quran as a reference to ‘guidance that God has provided to all nations and communities through His prophets... In neither case can we infer that the term Sharia represents a codified canon of unchanging law designed to exist for all time.’ (Reading The Quran, Ziauddin Sardar)

The interpretation of Sharia has long been the subject of a divisive debate between traditionalists and reformists. Historically, Sharia was interpreted by muftis and their opinions (fatwas) were taken into account by judges appointed by the rulers of the day. In modern times, Sharia-based criminal laws have been incorporated into Western-inspired secular laws, with Sharia being restricted to family laws variously called Personal Status Laws and Muslim Personal Law.

Militant Islamists such as the Islamic State, Taliban, and al-Qaeda want a return to ‘pure Sharia,’ including reinstatement of stoning for adultery though there is no mention of stoning in the Quran. In India, Muslim opposition to changes to the Muslim Personal Law hinges on fears that it is an attempt to undermine Sharia.


1. Shahadah—A profession of faith.

2 Salat—Prayer five times daily.

3 Zakat—Alms giving.

4 Sawm-Fasting.

5 Hajj—Pilgrimage to the Holy city of Mecca.


In my last book, India’s Muslim Spring: Why Is Nobody Talking About It? | quoted a Hindu friend telling me that the idea of a liberal Indian Muslim was a ‘misnomer.’

‘I have yet to meet a devout Muslim who doesn’t have fundamentalist views. And mind you, I’m 70-plus and have known at least three generations of Muslims,’ he said while profusely apologizing for his bluntness.

Even to me—a strong critic of Muslim fundamentalism—his remarks sounded too much like a sweeping generalization about a 180 million- strong diverse community. And had I not known him as well as I did—a progressive man and a Muslim well-wisher—I would have suspected him of anti-Muslim prejudice and stereotyping. Indeed, some readers accused me of providing a platform to Islamophobic voices; some even suggested I had made up the quote to ‘sex up’ the text. But, come to think of it, he was not really way off the mark. Where he was wrong was in portraying all devout Muslims as fundamentalists, but he was dead right in lamenting a dearth of liberal Muslims. A liberal Indian Muslim is indeed a rarity, judged by the generally accepted standards of liberalism—a respect for human rights, free speech, dissent, tolerance of individual freedoms and lifestyle choices, gender equality, etc.

The frequently asked question, ‘Is there such a thing as a liberal Indian Muslim at all?’ is a legitimate one to ask despite its offensive and provocative tone. Muslims, including many moderates, though, remain in denial. There are few things that irritate them more than being asked about the crisis of liberalism in the community. Almost reflexively, they become defensive, calling it an attempt at stereotyping them. A familiar line is that liberal Muslim voices are deliberately suppressed to create a perception that there are no liberal Muslims. The media in particular is seen as the chief

villain with its penchant for playing up controversial fundamentalist views in the garb of news. As a media person, I admit there is a bias but it is not so much about wilfully suppressing liberal voices as about playing up potentially headline grabbing views. Simply because controversy sells. That is the nature of the beast: it thrives on sensationalism.

For the moment, let us take at face value the Muslim denial that the community suffers from a crisis of liberalism, and run a reality check. So, who are these liberal Muslims that it is supposed to be teeming with? And how representative are they of the wider Muslim society? How much influence do they wield on fellow Muslims? And are they numerous and influential enough to swing opinion in favour of reforms? These are important questions but have been swept aside in an increasingly polarized debate in which all Muslims are either versions of mad mullahs (as in my friend’s version), or all bleeding-heart liberals as implied in the defensive Muslim reaction. The whole issue has been reduced to competing extreme narratives depending on which side of the divide you are on.

This book is an attempt to bring some perspective to the debate by challenging the self-serving claims of both sides of the aisle. But my specific aim is to lay bare the reality behind the generally touted notion of a liberal Muslim and his/her supposed clout in the wider community. In particular, I question the authenticity of the kind of Muslims who are commonly presented as the liberal and progressive public face of the community. Yes, they are liberals, but Muslims? The fact 1s that they simply happen to be Muslims. Most of them have about as much to do with Islam or the Muslim community, as champagne socialists with socialism.


To borrow Jean Paul Sartre’s description of self-loathing Jews, they can be classed as ‘inauthentic’ Muslims: a small English-speaking urban elite of mostly left-wing, non-practising Muslims (many of them even atheists) with the most tenuous of links with the mainstream community. Their grounding in Islam and understanding of Islamic issues happen to be even more superficial. To be fair, they themselves make no claims about their religiosity. On the contrary, they proudly flaunt their aversion to religion

and barely conceal their impatience with people proclaiming the faith. This group looks down upon them as ignorant and regressive.

Towards the wider Muslim community, their attitude is one of a mixture of condescension and contempt. The community, in turn, has no love lost for them and regards them with as much suspicion and contempt. They are seen as ‘outsiders’ who are not to be trusted as honest brokers. The liberals’ tactless approach that includes aggressive secularism and sweeping criticism of Muslims who are not like them, has alienated the moderates as well. Anyone who has ever heard self-proclaimed atheists like Javed Akhtar or Naseeruddin Shah lecture conservative Muslims, would have noted their patronizing tone—something that even those broadly in agreement with their views find irritating. I would, if I were them.

The central point the book seeks to make is that the left-wing Muslim intellectuals paraded as the community’s beating liberal heart—the Muslims who write op-ed pieces and appear on TV to denounce Sharia—have in fact done more damage to the cause of Muslim liberalism than good. They are not agents of change. On the contrary, by coming across as confrontational and hostile, they have the effect of undermining the few moderates in the community who are trying to bring about change.

And here is a confession: I too was once a part of this cabal of self-styled modernizers. Until the penny dropped and I realized how delusional I had been in believing that a faith-baiting liberal would be embraced by a deeply religious and socially conservative community. Imagine a serial sinner wanting to run a seminary and expecting to be taken seriously!

Let us flip the situation around: what if a liberal-baiting mullah were to come along expecting the liberals to hug him? Will the liberals take him seriously? I argue that the role of Left liberals in weakening the pushback against fundamentalists has not only not received enough attention, it has gone almost unnoticed. It is time to hold them to account for their back- handed approach.

At this point, readers could legitimately ask: So what’s the right approach? To which the answer is: For starters, stop treating 180 million Muslims as a fundamentalist monolith. Because they are not. The fact is that contrary to the popular perception, the community 1s largely moderate. There are Muslims who may not answer to the Oxford Dictionary’s description of a liberal, but may strongly believe in change and the need for

the community to modernize. Some are even quietly working to bring it about. These are mostly young practising Muslims who, despite their fixation with Islamic symbols of identity (most wear hijab or have beard), are refreshingly modern, open-minded and secular.

If I were a gambling type, I would put my money on these Muslims—not on left-wing liberals—as drivers of change. For the simple reason that they have the insiders advantage and approach issues from a Muslim perspective, as against the Left liberals’ secular viewpoint. As an integral part of the community they have a better sense of its disposition and how far it is prepared to move forward. They are aware of the limits of the community’s appetite for reforms. More importantly, the community sees them as their own (as against ideological zealots seeking to impose reforms from above), and is therefore more willing to listen to them. They have street cred that Left liberals sorely lack.

Meanwhile, a fact often lost in the din of a polarized debate is that except for the mullahs, whose size and influence has been grossly exaggerated by the way, most mainstream Muslims are not opposed to reforms. What they are opposed to is any attempt to impose changes on them—and to be presented with a fait accompli. They are suspicious of any hint of outside interference either by the state or individuals who they regard as outsiders. And high on their list are posh liberals whether Muslim or Hindu, particularly Muslims of the type I have just described.

I believe that the job of reforming Indian Islam is best left to those who are better equipped and better placed to do it—the moderates within the community. And instead of dismissing them as ‘soft fundamentalists,’ we should support them in the very difficult task they are trying to do in a challenging environment. It must be remembered that India has a long history of Muslim reformers who were deeply religious (the sort our Left liberal set would have turned their noses at), and in fact used religion to sell their reforms—Sir Syed Ahmed, Zakir Husain and Abul Kalam Azad, just to mention a few household names. I devote a whole chapter to these pioneering home-grown reformists who didn’t allow their religiosity to stand in the way of progress.

While the focus of my book is on Indian Muslims, I also look at the broader global debate over liberalizing Islam. Drawing on historical debates and writings, I contest the routinely made claim that a historically liberal

and tolerant religion has been ‘suddenly’ hijacked by extremists, and show how, in fact, Islam lost to the hardliners very early in its history. Sporadic attempts to revive it haven’t worked. It is notable that there has been a backlash whenever reformists have sought to railroad reforms and push them before the community was actually ready for them. It is a warning to impatient Indian secularists seeking sweeping reforms overnight.

Citing research, I contend that claims relating to Islam as a peaceful religion are based on a cherry-picked reading of Islam’s chequered history, ignoring its history of violence, intolerance, repression and cruelty as rival schools of thought competed for supremacy and patronage of the ruler of the day. Three successive Caliphs—Umar, Uthman, and Ali—were assassinated in a long and bloody battle for succession. Islam’s subsequent history as it spread across the world was also marked by violence and repression. No doubt, like all religions, Islam too is inherently peaceful and preaches tolerance and co-existence. It was founded on the principles of equality and justice and was considered quite revolutionary at the time, but like all revolutions it lost its way in its quest for supremacy.


In order to answer this question we first need to clear the confusion around what we mean by ‘modernizing’ Islam. This confusion has led to two very different aspects of Islam to be conflated. Thus, there is a tendency to speak about ‘secular’ Islam and ‘liberal’ Islam in the same breath, with one being substituted for the other. They are presented as two sides of the same coin. But I argue that they are not, and it is important to understand the distinction between the two. Because, while Islam is open to liberalization, a secular Islam is a fantasy.

Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk and the Shah of Iran chose the secularization path to modernizing Islam by literally banishing it from public life altogether. And look what happened: Islam is back with a bang in both countries—the result of a backlash which might have taken some time to kick in, but it 1s a warning to our own reformists who confuse modernization with secularization.

It is important to understand why the idea of secularism is incompatible with Islam’s inherent all-pervasive philosophy. In other words, Islam

doesn’t recognize that there is any such thing as a secular public space; Islam is ubiquitous. It is said that if you are a Muslim, the religion has something to say to you every second of your life—right from personal habits to food choices.

But contrary to what the fundamentalists might claim, Islam is not resistant to specific reforms if it can be done by shedding or tweaking practices that no longer fit the purpose. Such reforms have already occurred in a number of Muslim countries, and Indian Muslims can take a cue from them. It will require some hard decisions, but it is doable if there is a will to do it. I believe that Indian Muslims remain overwhelmingly moderate— conservative but not fanatical, and under the right kind of leadership, they can be won over and Indian Islam restored to its tolerant heritage. But it will not be easy and the task is made more difficult by the rising tide of right-wing Hindu _ nationalism which, besides fuelling Muslim fundamentalism, has put even moderate Muslims on the defensive. In the current political climate, ‘achhe din’ for Muslim reforms look far off.

Since the crisis of liberalism in Indian Islam cannot be looked at in isolation from what is happening in the wider global ‘umma,’ the book offers an overview of the issues of democratic legitimacy and socio- educational backwardness in the Islamic world, citing UN Human Development reports and informed commentators.

Finally, Muslims from across the spectrum define liberalism in their own words and what it means to be a Muslim today. Because of its association with Western political and cultural hegemony, liberalism has always been a contentious issue in the non-Western world, particularly in the more conservative Asian and Middle Eastern societies. And, of course, Islam has its own particular problem with the idea of free-wheeling individualism that liberalism has come to imply. But, like it or not, it is also the only antidote against the growing culture of hate and intolerance—of which, by the way, minorities are the worst victims, as Muslims so well know.

My intention in writing this book is to help concentrate Muslim minds on an issue that they have sought to avoid discussing mostly on flimsy grounds. It is time to at least start a serious debate and see where it goes. Is that too much to ask for without being seen as pushing an Islamophobic agenda?


April 2019

Part One


is not entirely without precedent. Besides, I have lived long enough and experienced rather a lot to realize that the line between fiction and reality is not as clear-cut as we wish to believe. So, here it goes:

Imagine that by an unlikely quirk of fate, Indian Muslims find themselves stranded on a desert island with no prospect of being rescued. Faced with the task of building a new community or society from scratch, what kind of society will they seek to build? A liberal and secular one? Or one shaped by the idea of Muslim ‘identity’? And if they were to stumble upon some non- Muslim native settlers, how would the Muslims treat them? As equal partners in building a diverse community? Or as infidels?

Which way they swing in such circumstances—choose faith as the building block of a new Muslim-majority community, or take the liberal and secular path—will be the test of Indian Muslim liberalism.

Historical precedents of Muslim majority behaviour are not promising. It is faith, the idea of Muslim brotherhood, and an overwhelming sense of Muslim superiority that have won most of the time. And I would be surprised if my fictional lot of Muslims would behave any different. Over time, the imaginary island will transform into an Islamic Republic of sorts.

It is not that all Muslims are closet fundamentalists waiting to impose Sharia on the rest of the world. It is the nature of Islamic faith. The sense of being a Muslim is simply too overwhelming to resist by even non-practising or liberal Muslims. Islam is not just a religion—it is a vast smothering

L et me start with a fictional scenario which may sound a bit silly but

brotherhood, and it sucks you in whatever your private views may be. Willy-nilly you become part of it. There is a seductive charm about being part of a global community bound by a common faith and rituals. And Islamic rituals—namaaz congregations, Hajj, Ramzan—were designed to create this sense of Muslim identity that subsumes all other identities.

Asra Nomani, a well-known American Muslim journalist of Indian origin, who says she had zero knowledge of Islam and ‘never felt a connection to the Muslim community,’ suddenly felt connected to the global Muslim ummah when she went on a Hajj pilgrimage out of sheer curiosity and to write about it for an American journal. She writes that she was overwhelmed by a sense of community the moment she landed at the Jeddah airport amid a ‘sea’ of fellow pilgrims from all parts of the world.

My father looked around in awe. “This,” he said, “is ummah.”

Ummah? I didn’t understand what the word meant. My father explained that it meant community...with awe, I looked at the diversity in front of me. It was a window for me into the breadth of the Muslim ummah, and I was struck by its plurality. What I saw was people who were very different from each other coming together for a common purpose...On the Hajj we were equalized by what we wore: the men were cloaked in the same seamless white fabrics, and the women in simple clothes.

(Standing Alone in Mecca: A Pilgrimage into the Heart of Islam, Asra Nomani)

All religions have rituals that bring their followers together, but the spirit of communitarianism that Islam seeks to foster, is unique in its intensity. It almost doesn’t recognize any identity outside the ummah. Being a Muslim comes first. So, when Muslims are thrown together, they instinctively wind up forming a bond that excludes all others. Non-Muslims are seen as gate- crashers.


Pakistan was founded not by thuggish mullahs but an educated and mostly liberal and secular elite, on grounds that they may not get a fair treatment in a Hindu-majority India. Mohammed Ali Jinnah projected it as a replica of the Indian model, with freedom of worship and equal rights for all,

irrespective of one’s faith. In his address to Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly on 11 August, 1947, he emphatically invoked the vision of a secular State in which every citizen would be free to follow his or her own religion. The State, he declared, shall make no distinction on the basis of their faith.

Ostensibly, Pakistan was conceived as a secular, liberal and democratic State with no reference to Islam—a view endorsed by many leading historians like Ayesha Jalal (The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League, and the Demand for Pakistan) And, indeed, initially this is how it was—‘no Sharia, no clerics, no ban on alcohol; people remember women on bicycles’—as Aatish Taseer writes in his book, Stranger to History: A Sons Journey Through Muslim Lands.

But soon enough the long arm of ‘Muslimness’ caught up with Pakistan, consigning Jinnah’s vision to the dustbin of history. Bangladesh’s transformation from a child of revolution to a playground of Islamists is even more egregious. At the heart of it all is the irresistible pull of identity which sweeps aside all other impulses. In her book, Making Sense of Pakistan, Pakistani historian Farzana Shaikh has written incisively about the tension between the collective Muslim sense of identity and their individual liberal impulses as illustrated by the failure of Jinnah’s original vision.

Aatish Taseer cites the case of his own father, Salman Taseer, the liberal Pakistani politician who was killed by his bodyguard in 2011 because of his opposition to the country’s blasphemy law. He was not a practising Muslim and liked to describe himself as a ‘cultural Muslim.’ Yet, he saw himself as a defender of the faith and felt himself a part of Muslim or Islamic history. He hated Jews and used anti-Semitic tropes to denounce them, stopping just short of questioning the Holocaust. He also shared some of the 9/11 conspiracy theories that cast doubts about the extent of Muslim involvement in the attack.

Hindus, he thought were ‘weak’ even though he had been briefly married to a Hindu journalist Tavleen Singh and had many Hindu admirers in India. Glories of Islamic past apparently excited him no end, and he didn’t brook any criticism of either his faith (though he himself didn’t believe in it), or the wider Muslim brotherhood. He fell out with his son after he wrote a critical piece about Britain’s Pakistani Muslims following the 7 July, 2005

terror attack on the London Underground which was masterminded by a group of Muslims of Pakistani origin.

Asked by his son what it meant to be a ‘cultural Muslim,’ he replied: “You see it all around you. Everyone I know is Muslim. You see namaaz (prayers), and rozas (fasts), all the servants are Muslim, and with Islam, people believe deeply. It happens that I don’t privately, but I wouldn’t dream of criticizing Islam.’

Aatish Taseer’s verdict on his father’s liberalism is this:

..1 felt sure that none of Islam’s once powerful moral imperatives existed within him, but he was a Muslim because he doubted the Holocaust, hated America and Israel, thought Hindus were weak and cowardly, and because the glories of the Islamic past excited him. The faith decayed within him, ceased to be dynamic, ceased to provide moral guidance, became nothing but a deep, unreachable historical and political identity.’ (italics mine)

Salman Taseer typified the liberal ‘cultural Muslim’: having nothing to do with the faith but still weighed down by the sheer force of Muslim or Islamic identity. He was the embodiment of a South Asian liberal Muslim— who is neither a Muslim, nor a liberal. There is a Salman Taseer in every ostensibly liberal Muslim: our liberalism (yes, I include myself among them) is, in the end, defeated by a compelling sense of our Muslim identity which we believe makes us unique vis-a-vis others.

Deep down, all Muslims harbour fears about attempts to undermine their identity—sources of threat ranging from the Hindu Right and the Far Left, to Jews and the Christian West. This fear binds the umma together.

Indian Muslim community is full of these cultural Muslims for whom being Muslim boils down to Friday prayers (not even that for many); Eid; and saying /nshallah and Mashallah on appropriate occasions. They take pride in their liberalism—they drink, they party, some even marry non- Muslims though most men insist on converting their partner to Islam, and they make no pretence of their disdain for religion. But, crucially, they never forget that they are Muslim. Not only that, like Salman Taseer, they fancy themselves as keepers of the faith and are quick to take offence at even well-meaning criticism of Islam—or Muslims. That is how deeply embedded the idea of identity is. It never lets go of you. Remember the

famous 1970s Hotel California lyric: “You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave!’


scene variously hailed as an act of bravery and a stunt. An Algerian-

German Islamic scholar called Abdel Hakim Ourghi, nailed ‘40

Theses’—a manifesto of reforms to bring Islam into modernity—on the door of the mosque. It was a re-enactment of the famous ‘95 Theses’ that Martin Luther, the reformist German Catholic monk, had nailed to the door of a church in Wittenberg half a millennium ago, setting in motion a revolution in the Catholic Church.

Ourghi, who teaches Islamic theology at the University of Freiburg and is one of the founders of a liberal mosque in Berlin, said, ‘I’m asking: what Islam do we need in Germany? And my answer is: one that is humanist and moderate, one that can be reformed. It is the task of liberal Muslims to reform our religion.’ The reforms included a radical ‘reinterpretation’ of the Quran (‘The Koran is lifeless, only its interpretation makes it come alive.’) and more freedom for Muslim women who, he said, were being treated like ‘slaves.’

It is hard to imagine a similar protest by a liberal Muslim in India. I’m not even sure how many would come out to support such a person in the unlikely event of someone taking the plunge. Or if there is even such a thing as a liberal Muslim?

It is a provocative question and generally posed by Muslim-baiters. But, surprisingly, I first heard it from Muslims themselves in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) way back in the 1980s, when it was captured by a

I n the autumn of 2017, a mosque in Berlin witnessed an extraordinary

politically influential cabal of right-wing Muslim groups who promptly set about ‘Islamizing’ the university and targeting liberal faculty members as well as students. I had gone there to report on the incident for The Statesman, and I remember asking some teachers why wasn’t there a liberal Muslim reaction to the fundamentalist attempts to destroy AMU’s famed secular character.

They gave me a look of bewilderment and asked, ‘Are you serious? Do you really believe in the idea of a liberal Muslim? Wake up, man.’ I am, of course, paraphrasing what they said in Urdu. But such is the general perception even in a so-called secular space as AMU. Later, a colleague was told by a prominent Muslim left-wing AMU academic that the term ‘liberal Muslim’ was a contradiction in terms. ‘You’re either a liberal or a Muslim. Can’t be both,’ he had reportedly said. As it was an off-the-record conversation, I am not at liberty to disclose his name.

That was a rare admission, even if it was meant as a joke. The default Muslim response to the question: ‘why is there such a dearth of liberal Muslims,’ is exactly the opposite. It is to get into a full-on defensive mode, angrily rejecting the suggestion that Muslims are not liberal and accuse the questioner of nursing an anti-Islam bias.

‘Of course there are plenty of liberal Muslims but nobody wants to notice them,’ they complain. But when you ask them their definition of a liberal Muslim, they clam up. The biggest problem I had in writing this book was getting a straight answer to the questions: Who is a liberal Muslim? And are there enough of them to make a difference?

Such questions make most Muslims extremely suspicious; they see it as an attempt to box them into binaries of liberal/ illiberal and good/bad Muslims. The issue is so sensitive that several prominent self-described liberal Muslims declined to be interviewed, presumably to avoid controversy. Some pulled out citing sudden illness or workload, one high- profile figure said it was not fair to look at a large and diverse community in ‘black and white/either or terms.’ Some argued that the idea of an ‘all- weather’ liberal was a bit silly. A person could take different positions in different situations. ‘Depends on the context,’ they say. For example, a Muslim woman might take a liberal position on gender equality and equal rights for women under Sharia, but then not be so liberal when it comes to —for instance—allowing her daughter the right to wear what she likes, or

marry whoever she wishes.. How would you describe her? Liberal or illiberal?

Frankly, it sounds like a lot of quibbling to me. After all, there is a widely accepted broad definition of liberalism which includes open-mindedness, tolerance, freedom of thought, individual liberty, critical thinking, inclusion, rule of law, gender equality, pluralism, democracy, secularism, et a/. And then, there is the Oxford English Dictionary definition of a ‘theological liberal’ (a religious person with a liberal outlook) as one who regards ‘many traditional beliefs as dispensable, invalidated by modern thought, or liable to change.’ In other words, someone who gives precedence to reason and rational thought over dogma and orthodoxy; who accepts that traditional beliefs are not sacrosanct or written in stone, but open to reconsideration if the situation or the context demands it.

Muslims, however, believe that the Islamic doctrine is immutable. It is a deeply held belief particularly among practising Muslims. Thus, the Quran and Sharia are strictly no-go areas and any suggestion that they need a fresh look is seen as an attempt to interfere with divine laws.

‘Sharia is the biggest obstacle to change,’ according to historian S. Irfan Habib. This, despite the fact that the Quran is only one of its four sources along with Qivas (human reasoning), /jma (consensus) and Sunnah (sayings of the Prophet), most of which were written some 200 years after the Prophet’s death and many having no authenticity. A number of practices justified in the name of Sharia, have no Quranic sanctions.

For example, the Quran does not mention stoning adulterers to death, killing apostates, or throwing homosexuals from tall buildings. Nor does it mention men growing their beards ...or women (from) covering their hair (italics mine.) All these actions are derived from alleged sayings of the Prophet. Muslims have lost the courage to question hadiths that do not align with the Quran.

(The House of Islam: A Global History, Ed Husain)

Indian Muslims, certainly, have. Rare is a Muslim who will countenance criticism of Sharia or the Prophet. Note the deafening silence over blasphemy and apostasy—both of which are punishable by death in many Islamic countries, including Pakistan. Their liberalism is _ heavily constrained by their rigid belief in the divine nature of Islamic scriptures,

and the infallibility of the Prophet, though he himself never claimed exemption from criticism. Indeed, he was a keen listener and extremely receptive to public opinion. He listened, he debated and he strove to understand the opposite viewpoint. He was constantly aware of his own fallibility and, I quote: ...everyday he begged God to forgive his own failings and oversights... He loved, he forgave... and when a man or a woman came to him burdened with a mistake, however serious, he received that soul and showed her or him the way to forgiveness... (The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad, Tariq Ramadan).

The Prophet would have been shocked that people are being hanged for allegedly insulting him. Every time someone is prosecuted in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, one expects at least a murmur of protest from self- proclaimed liberal Muslims. But there is never even a squeak. Only deafening silence. The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian Pakistani woman sentenced to death on the charge of blasphemy but later acquitted, caused outrage around the world but Muslims everywhere remained unmoved. In fact, the British government was so nervous about the Muslim reaction that it turned down her request for asylum. Salman Rushdie remains the most hated figure among Muslims of all stripes for ‘insulting’ Prophet Mohammad in his The Satanic Verses.

Take another burning issue: the persecution of vulnerable religious minorities. It is supposed to be the hallmark of a liberal to be instinctively empathetic towards victims of religious or racial hate, and to speak up for them. Liberal Hindus consistently stand up for Muslim victims of Hindu fanatics but it is rare for Muslims to raise their voice against the plight of non-Muslim minorities—Shias or Christians in Pakistan; Christians and Yazidis in the Middle East; or Kashmiri pandits nearer home. Let alone public protest, it is not even a topic of academic discussion in the community.

We spring into action only when other Muslims are in trouble; Muslim violence against non-Muslim minorities leaves us cold. It seems those outside the umma are not our problem. Can there be a more glaring example of ‘othering’ those with whom we don’t feel religious affinity? It is

an astonishing attitude to take for a community that itself is a victim of religious prejudice and constantly expects others to stand up for it.

But then, ‘we are like that only,’ to borrow the title of Rama Biyjapurkar’s best-seller about the quixotic behaviour of Indians, and the difficulty of making sense of it.


For all the quibbling, the fact is that there are definitions of liberalism, however imperfect, and the argument that it is a nebulous concept or a trick to ‘box in’ Muslims into good and bad categories, doesn’t hold water. You don’t even need a definition to spot a liberal. It is one of those things that you can tell when you see it. There is the famous observation of an American supreme court judge, late Justice Potter Stewart, about the difficulty of defining obscenity. Presiding over a case in 1964, he said, ‘I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.’

But here is the problem: we don’t ‘see’ Muslim liberalism. Anyone trying to look for it on the basis of any of the above definitions, including that of Potter, are likely to struggle. Take any standard measure of liberalism and Indian Muslims will flunk it.

The depth of the crisis is underlined by the fact that there is so much equivocation and hair-splitting in the community around the issue. Most Muslims, I discovered while working on this book, are reluctant to have a conversation on the subject, exposing an extraordinary intellectual timidity to confront the problem. And this intellectual faint-heartedness, in a way, lies at the heart of the crisis of liberalism among Indian Muslims, and explains why we rarely hear an honest Muslim critique of the community’s many self-inflicted ills. Everything, we are told, is somebody else’s fault— either stereotyped by a biased media, exploited by secular parties, or abused and intimidated by Hindu nationalists.

Ovais Sultan Khan is a young and articulate rights activist with supposedly progressive views. An interview he gave to the UK-based video media website Cine-Ink has been widely hailed for offering ‘positive

perspectives’ about Indian Muslims, and I was strongly advised by friends to watch it. So, I did. And it was like watching a re-run of a very old film. The entire narrative, couched in polished rhetoric, was one of victimhood— exploited by ‘secular’ forces, hounded by RSS storm-troopers—with no mention of the community’s own responsibility for the situation it finds itself in. Muslims are always right; others always wrong. Here is a sampling:

¢* Question: why must calls for namaaz be broadcast through loudspeakers five times a day and disturb others?

Answer: But what about all-night jagrans broadcast through loudspeakers? Why doesn t anybody object to that? Why should Muslims be discriminated?

¢ Question: Why offer namaaz in a public place and cause inconvenience to others? Answer: What else to do, when they don t allow us to build mosques?

So low is the Muslim liberal threshold that Khan is being hailed as a future ‘progressive’ leader of the community! The future of liberal Muslim leadership doesn’t look exactly promising.

Meanwhile, we can rail at the media all we like for stereotyping Muslims and ignoring moderate voices in favour of fatwa-spewing mullahs, but the reality is that when offered a platform, the moderates have nothing new to say, and, like the young Khan, end up sounding much like the mullahs themselves. With the exception that they don’t scream and shout or abuse their critics; instead they are articulate and use sophisticated argument to justify and rationalize the most regressive ideas.

Then there are those who clam up fearing imagined hidden traps; or simply try to play safe. To be sure, speaking up has its hazards—you end up ruffling feathers, and making enemies while risking handing ammunition to critics, or to the ‘other’ side. There is also the notion of Muslim solidarity— you don’t beat up your own side when it is already down and under attack from external forces. ‘This is not the time for self-flagellation,’ one friend told me. But, conversely, there is no good time to speak up either. The need for liberal intervention and leadership is the greatest in times of crisis such as the one Muslims are facing today. It is in situations like these that the

liberal mettle is tested: you can either choose the path of least resistance and remain silent, and in the process come across as a bit of a wimp. Or, you can take the plunge and offer the community a credible leadership. Martin Luther King (Jr), breaking his silence over the Vietnam war despite warnings of a patriotic backlash, had said, ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’

Unfortunately, India’s liberal Muslims have chosen silence as the default option. ‘It is time for them to emerge from their armchair discussions... Islamic Liberal discourse needs to play a key role. It is time for them to address Constitutional rights, individual liberty, freedom of thought and expression, rule of law, accompanied by critical thinking, the ability to transform without fear or favour. Development, advancement in ideas and progress on national and international affairs are the need of the hour,’ said Zeenat Shaukat Ali, former Professor of Islamic Studies, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and Director General, The Wisdom Foundation.

Sometimes, it is hard to believe we are the descendants of a generation of Muslims who stood up to be counted when it mattered: in 1947 our parents and grandparents rejected narrow Muslim identity politics that led to the Partition, and instead chose to embrace pluralism even at the cost of losing family members and friends, not to mention potential career opportunities in Pakistan. Of course, this argument can be turned on its head, and it can be said that those who chose to go to Pakistan were also our ancestors. But, it is often forgotten or wilfully overlooked that a majority of Muslims chose to stay back in India in a massive thumbs-down to the idea of a Muslim homeland. We are the inheritors of their values. Faced with a choice between an exclusionist Muslim nationalism on the one hand, and inclusive secularism on the other, they had no doubt what was the right thing to do.