Equality & Islam

The social role of Islam in the Indian subcontinent has become a topic of global debate. The liberal world is looking at Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh as “bad states” and as uncritical and undemocratic societies because of the issues they grapple with.
There is a view that Islam has not gone through any reform, while other religious and civil societies have passed through reform after reform. There is a strong view that the Islamic civil societies are resisting reform, even while a religion like Hinduism, which practices caste and untouchability, is willing to change.
This view is now acquiring global acceptability with the recent developments in Pakistan — particularly in relation to the blasphemy laws.
Before examining this view, we must understand the social role of Islam in the subcontinent.
Before Islam came to India, there were two notions of God in India. One was that of Vaidic Brahminism, which believed that God (Brahma) created Indians into unequal varnas (or castes); The other was the Buddhist view of God, which was essentially agnostic. Though the Christian notion of God was also prevalent, it was confined to a small region, that of Kerala.
Once the Islamic traders came along, the notion of Allah, who created all human beings as equal (irrespective of caste, tribe and race), spread across the Indian subcontinent.
Though this was followed by the invasion of Muslim rulers, the Sufi movement began and started acquiring a pan-India character by the end of the 11th century itself. It was mainly from the Muslims and the Sufi movement that the Hindu notion of spiritual exclusion, which was based on caste, tribe and race, got challenged. Perhaps this caused enormous exodus of lower castes into Islam and the plural but unequal castes began to be homogenised within Indian Islam. At that stage, in the land of caste (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and so on), Islam became a massive agent of inclusiveness and oneness.
This new practice of homogenising hierarchal and unequal castes was seen as a blasphemous act by the native Hindu spiritual pundits. This must have resulted in enormous violence and counter violence in the subcontinent.
Islam in the process achieved what was difficult for even the Buddhists. As we know, by 1947 about 31 per cent of Indians (mostly lower castes) embraced Islam and thus the present Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh emerged as Muslim nations. This happened merely because of the inclusive spiritual policy of Islam in general and of the Sufi saints in particular.
Let us not forget that the inclusive Muslim trade even in the villages played a key role in expanding Islam. In fact, it seems to have broken what Karl Marx called “the self-sufficient (but under developed) village economy”.
Today the practice of untouchability exists in Hinduism, Christianity and Sikhism because of their notions of “blasphemy”.
The Christian world, which is attacking the Islamic blasphemy laws as medieval, should know that the Indian church — particularly the Catholic Church — still practices untouchability and casteism through a different mode of blasphemy laws that are borrowed from the Hindu system.
We do not have any statistical data on how many dalits and lower castes were punished or even killed in places such as Kerala by Syrians and Marthomas for engaging in social intercourse with upper castes — the character Velutha in Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things is a good example.
Now one central argument around “Islam as a global religion” is that it homogenises its civil societal order so much so that it does not allow any contending pluralities to exist.
Such a trend from within stagnates its civil societal transformation, for transformation requires pluralities to operate at least vertically. Blasphemy laws work as instruments against change and transformation.
Islam seems to have worked out the theory of blasphemy that makes it tightly inclusive. But this very tightly inclusive spiritual policy evolved through the Islamic history also made the expansion of Islam into caste society possible.
The caste culture worked out a theory and practice of blasphemy to establish strictly exclusivist social units. God in that society is not seen as a social unifier but as a divider. The strength of Islam and also the language of Urdu — perhaps after the decline of Pali — was unification through a spiritual discourse of inclusion and oneness of soul, body and the social organism.
What the Christian West has not noticed is that Indian Islam succeeded in abolishing untouchability from its social fold totally, though caste exists in some form.
Pakistan came into existence as an aggressive Islamic state. The Christian world has to understand its trauma and it must also ponder why it has failed to abolish untouchability within the fold of Indian Christianity.
Thus, the notion of blasphemy should not only be understood in terms of attack on one particular belief of God or a Prophet, but should also be understood as abusing a human being’s rights against the other in relation to God. This is where the discourse around God and the multiple forms of blasphemies must expand.

n Kancha Ilaiah is director at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad

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