Real Cause of Decline of Muslim Culture; Suspension of Hikmah: A Tentative Analysis

Anwar Moazzam

The strength and weakness of a culture depends, largely, upon the objective realities of time and space, on the one hand, and the ideas working upon those realities, on the other. A culture is strong if it is capable of maintaining its social, economic and political structure in a given area at a particular time with built-in ideological contents to keep pace with change. Social, economic and political structures are shaped by ideas – scientific, philosophical or religious. Ideas, on the other hand, are often, but not always, the outcome of the objective material realities, but they have to transcend the existing realities anticipating the future situation demanded by change.

Religion is one of the sets of ideas which shape culture. Religion is distinguished from other sets of ideas because of its claim that its ideas (beliefs) are eternal and not vulnerable to change. The question is how the unchanging ideas can keep pace with change. It appears illogical. How about other systems? Is it possible for any value-system to servive and produce results without unchanging, consistent principles and concepts? No. Absolutely true principles are essential to constitute a system of thought. So, religious and non-religious systems both are based on unchanging ideas. But the two differ on a very vital point. It is the question of authority on which these two systems are based. While religion places its beliefs on Divine authority and, therefore, rules out any possibility of their being invalid, the non- religious systems recognize the infallibility of their concepts until and unless they are proved wrong on the basis of human reason. Another distinction between the two systems is the recognition it non-material existence by religion and its rejection by non-religious systems. Now, religion claims that its beliefs are eternal because of their Divine origin and encompass all the possibilities of change in human terms, is too insignificant to affect the infinite validity of beliefs. Therefore, eternal beliefs can absorb the change. Rationalism of non-religious systems rejects all authority except that of reason and of the concepts based on reason.

The case of the rationalists is simple and straight forward. However, religion complicates its position by according a place to reason, as well, in its belief-system which is, to be sure, subordinate to divine authority and restricted to the physical world only. In Islam, this dual authority is represented in the Qur]an’s terms of Kitaab and Hikmah. While Kitaab, the Divine Will as reflected in the Qur]an, is the source of divine authority, Hikmah represents its operational wisdom in terms of human knowledge.

“God hath caused the Book and the wisdom (hikma): and what thou knowest not He hath caused thee to know, and the grace of God toward thee hath been great.”(4:113)

The Qur]an defines reason in its own way and assigns it a role which demolishes the frontier between the rational and the non-rational. This Qur]anic Reason (Hikmah) extends itself beyond the time-space and brings God-man relations into its area of operation:

Read: In the name of your Lord who created: Created man from clot of congealed blood.

Read: Your Lord is the most bountiful one, who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know.” (96:1-5)

Thus speaks Allah in His first address to Muhammad 610 years after Christ, assigning him the status of Messenger of Allah and the task of re-establishment of the eternal life system – Islam. Through Pen (qalam) and knowledge ([ilm), the creator man makes men aware of the Being and the beings. It was not a new message; it was the same eternal faith in one God and aakhirah earlier conveyed through His messengers in all regions of earth and through Abraham, Moses and Christ; but, now, it was in the version of ‘knowledge’ (‘ilm). Another reference to this dimension is available in the event of Adam’s designation as Allah’s vicegerent on earth.

And when the Lord said unto the angels: Lo, I am about to place a vicegerent on the earth, they said: Will thou place therein one who will do mischief and shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and extol thy holiness? He said: surely, I know that which ye know not. And He taught Adam all the names: Then showed the objects to the angels saying: Inform me of the names of these, if ye are in the right. They said: Glorious art Thou: we have no knowledge saving that which Thou has taught us. Surely, Thou alone art the knower, the wise: He said: Adam: Inform them of their names and when he had informed them of their names, He said: Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of the heavens and the earth?” (2:30-33)

Man, according to the Qur]an, was endowed with the knowledge of the names (asma) of all objects (kulluha). What is name (ism)? Name is the identification of the nature of the object. That is, the Qur]an’s justification for man’s creation in time and space, in spite of his mischievous nature, in his ‘knowledge’ of things besides God.

That Islam, that is, Qur]an, is knowledge is further explained by its view of man as the seeker of knowledge through his senses, intellect and intuition. The Qur]an invites people to know the Truth and does not impose it upon them. As Iqbal says, “The main purpose of the Qur]an is to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his manifold relations with God and the universe.”1 The repeated emphasis in the Qur]an upon ‘knowing’ the Truth indicates the importance which is attached to human faculty of reasoning. The ideal Muslims have been described variously according to the roles they play in society as Saaliheen, (those who follow the right Path), Muhsineen,(those who do good deeds in a manner calculated to stimulate the thought of good deeds in others and help them to rectify their errors and do else and practice equity, and not merely give freedom of action to those whowidh to do good deeds, but also help them in so doing), Mufliheen (those who reform or improve the condition of society).Siddiqeen, (those who meticulously adhere to fact and truth), Muslimeen, (those who confirm their will to the Will of God or submit) etc. – roles which cannot be done justice to without proper knowledge.2 Knowledge sometimes assumes the status of the primary quality of a Muslim. “Say: Shall they who have knowledge and they who have it not, be treated alike! (39:9) Meaningfullness of a thing or an event has been used by the Qur]an as an argument for truth.

And many are the signs in the Heaven and on the Earth; and in the succession of the night and of the day are signs for men of understanding,

Who standing and sitting, and reclining, bear God in mind, and muse on the creation of the Heaven and of the Earth, O “Our Lord! Say they, ‘Thou hast not created all this in vain.’” (3:190-191)

Besides the external signs in the aafaaq (universe), “There are signs in your own soul.” (51:21) In another place the Qur]an says: “We have not created the heavens and the earth and whatsoever is between them in sport. We have not created them except to bear truth; but most people know it not.” (44:38-39)

As Dr. Syed Abdul Latif points out, “Wherever attention is drawn to the manifestation of life calling for reflection and introspection, expressions such as ‘herein are portents,” “herein are signs for folk who reflect”, for “men of knowledge”, for “folk who heed’, for “folk who understand”, echo and reverberate only to emphasize the importance which the Qur]an attaches to reflection as a means of obtaining insight.”3 Besides reason, another source of knowledge, according to the Qur]an, is history. “Certainly in their histories is an example for men of understanding.” (12:111) Inference through historical events is another form of rational understanding.

The Messenger said: “Acquire knowledge. It enableth the possessor to distinguish right from wrong. It lights the way to heaven; it is our companion when friendless, it guides us to happiness; it sustains us in adversity; it is a weapon against enemies and an ornament among friends. By virtue of it, Allah exalteth communities, and maketh them guides in good pursuits, and giveth them leadership; so much so that their footsteps are followed, their deeds are imitated, and their opinions are accepted and held in respect.4 Faith has been almost equated with knowledge. The religion of man is his sense of understanding, and he who has no sense of understanding, has no religion.5 The fourth Caliph, Ali, says: ‘knowledge is your lost property, get it from wherever it is available even from the associaters (mushrikeen,that is those who associate some one else with One God).6 Again, he says, “learn knowledge and when you have learnt it, bear its burden.”7


The above section was devoted to an attempt to explain the expression Hikmah–Qur]an’s Reason. Following are its implications:

  1. Qur]anic Reason is based on Kitaab: the eternal principles, concepts, beliefs given by the Qur]an as explained and implemented by the Messenger, and as contained in ahaadith that are in harmony with the Qur]an

  2. It covers both the inner and the external worlds (anfus and aafaaq)

  3. It stands for sensory perception, reasoning and intuition.

  4. Its object is to attain knowledge of the ultimate as well as of the concrete realities— Ultimate Reality, that is, God and akhira, concrete reality, that is, of nature, man and society

  5. This two-fold knowledge implies its implementation through action ([amal) by man in time and space. While with the knowledge of the Ultimate Reality man achieves his own knowledge leading to a correct moral,social behavior, the knowledge of the concrete reality paves the way for the conquest (taskheer) of nature (through science).

Now, my submission is that Muslim culture remained strong as long as it was permeated by the Qur]anic Reason (hikmah) and weakened when it was ignored by the Muslims. So far as the Muslim culture is concerned this will be the case in future, also.

The Qur]anic Reason produced a culture based on knowledge – new knowledge of human mind and soul, of social, economic, political and ethical values and relations. This culture, which started taking shape during the later Umayyad period and reached its zenith during the second and third centuries of Islam, sustained its strength till the 6th Century. After that it lost its vigor and vitality except in mystic and theological thought.

The first six centuries of Muslim history witnessed the emergence of a dynamic culture with minds of exceptionally high order with a vast sweep covering hadeeth, tafseer, fiqh, philosophy, all natural sciences, medicine, and mathematics. Their achievements in philosophy and natural sciences did not consist of mere reproduction of Hellenistic sciences but a creative development of the same which, as is well-known, after being learnt by Europe, paved the way for the Renaissance. How to explain this phenomenon taking place in a culture without any scientific traditions of its own? The only plausible explanation appears to be in terms of the nature of Muslim culture throbbing with Qur]anic Reason. That is why other contemporary cultures could not achieve what the Muslim culture achieved.

Approaches oriented to theological aspects often tend to obscure the multi-dimensional thrust of Muslim culture during this period in various branches of sciences. Intellectual activity, naturally, started with the collections of traditions and jurisprudence along with initial discussion on the subject of freedom and predestination. It is to be noted that Abu Hanifah, the jurist, and Waasil b. [Ata, to whom is traced the beginning of the rationalist school,the Mu[tazilah, were contemporaries. The second century was dominated by Traditionalists (muhadditheen) and jurists (fuqaha) like Maalik b. Anas, Abu Hanifah, Shaafi[i and Ja[far al-Saadiq and mystics like Hasan al-Basri, Ibraheem b. Adham and Shaqeeq al-Balkhi. However, the most important development was opening the gates of Greek knowledge through translations under the knowledge-loving Abbasid Caliph, al Maamun. During this period,the esoteric aspect of the revelation was also added to its external aspect by the Baatiniyah. The third century was the most crucial insofar as it laid the foundations of a vast intellectual structure producing the six authentic collections of ahaadeeth, besides the Musnad of Ahmad b. Hanbal, Mu[tazilites, like [Azzaam, Jaahiz, Abu]l Hudhayl Allaaf, and Jubail; philosophers like Kindi and Faaraabi, the school of Zaahiriyah, mathematicians, physicists and astronomers like al-Khwaarizmi, alchemists like al-Raazi, historians like Ibn Hisham, Ibn Sa[d, al-Balaadhuri, Ibn Qutaybah and al-Tabari, in medicine, medical scientists like the Nestorian, Hunayn b. Ishaaq, geographers like Asma‘i Basri and Sarakhsi, etc. Side by side this legal, philosophical and social science contributors, seekers of truth like Dhu]l-Noon al-Misri, Baayazid Bistaami, Junayd al-Baghdaadi and Mansur al-Hallaaj were enriching the mystic thought of Islam.

Doors of human mind were wide open to all knowledge. One is specially struck by the spirit of free inquiry which ruled the scene. Till this stage no theological censorship existed although so far as the theological issues were concerned there were mutual allegations of deviations from the revealed truth among various schools and sects. However, secular sciences remained out of theological scrutiny. Within theology itself, as we shall see later, freedom of inquiry became suspect when it was directed towards the beliefs. Otherwise, hadeeth and fiqh, disciplines under the direct authority of revelation, were subjected to scientific and rational examination. In the sphere of hadeeth, the science of hadeeth criticism is based on several rational principles of riwaayah (narration) and diraayah (a discipline for ascertaining the authenticity of ahaadeeth.) In the legal field, the scientific spirit of the period was perhaps most forcefully expressed. The fact that there emerged several legal schools based on difference in the choice of sources of law and methods and principles of legal deductions (like, raa]y, qiyaas, istihsaan and ijma[) again indicates the freedom of intellectual decision making.

In the process of organization of theology certain polarization of authority took place. This authority having its validity in the Qur]an, the Hadeeth, the tradition of the companions of the Prophet and the interpretations by the later generation scholars, acquired a form of a frame reference to the orthodox school but, this authority was not as rigid and broad-based as it became later. The Qur]anic reason was there and made its presence felt in various impressions of culture.

The conflict between the given authority (manqul) and rational (ma[qul) came to prominence with the emergence of the Mu[tizilite Kalam during the third century itself.7 The Mu[tazilites, described as Qadarites by others and as ahl al-Tawheed wa]l-[Adl by themselves, are considered as the rationalists in the Muslim intellectual traditions. This does not appear to be totally correct if rationalism stands for acceptance of truth exclusively on rational grounds. The Mu[tazilah recognized the Qur]an as a revealed truth; what they aimed at is to prove the revelation in rational categories. This was quite different from the traditional view point of judging the truth on the basis of wahi. According to the traditionalists reason cannot remain independent of wahi and cannot subject the infinite to the finitude of reason. The Mu[tazilite [ilm al-kalaam developed around two concepts:

  1. Absolute unity of God implying denial of attributes and

  2. Justice of God implying that God’s justice necessitates that man must be the creator of his actions.8 The other related issues were the created nature of the Qur]an, denial of miracles (since it goes against causality), denial of beatific vision, etc. The Mu[tazilite objective of maintenance of absolute unity of God led them towards the denial of attributes as separate from His essence, while justification of reward and punishment under God’s justice required man’s being the author of his own actions. In their system, the Mu[tazilite employed logic and theoretical reason. Shahristaani sums up their position by putting all objects of knowledge under the authority of reason.9

One of the reasons underlying the emergences of [Ilm al-Kalaam 10 appears to be the induction of the Magians, the Jews and the Christians in the academic life of the early Abbasid caliphs who had allowed full freedom in religious affairs. These people with a firsthand knowledge of Islamic beliefs started raising awkward questions which could not be answered through the traditional methods and created doubts in the beliefs of the Muslims. Caliph al-Mansur and al-Mahdi desired that these objections should be satisfactorily refuted. Almost during the same epoch a deep acquaintance with Greek logic helped the Muslim defenders of faith to meet this challenge on more solid grounds. This step, Shibli Nu[maani points out, was similar to the steps of the Muslim scholars, earlier, to meet the needs created by circumstances in tafseer, fiqh, Arabic lexicography and grammar, etc.11 Notwithstanding the bitter resentment of the traditionalists against rationalization of Islamic beliefs by the Mu[tazilites,it remains a fact that the latter always reained rooted in the Islamic belief system in their own way.12

On the other hand, logic and reasoning, for the first time, found a place as an instrument of knowledge in scholarly pursuits. Its most forceful expression was made in the system which emerged during the 4th century—Asha[rism, as a refutation of the Mu[tazilah. Al-Ash[ari (d. 345/956), a well versed in the Mu[tazilite methods and a Mu[tazilite himself in his early years, developed a formidable scholastic system treating wahi as the primary authority, which has acquired an almost permanent place, at least in the Sunni theology.

Al–Ash[ari could totally agree neither with the Mu[tazilite method of dialectical reasoning nor the uncritical traditional school. He attempted at reconciling the manqul (what has come from generation to generation) and the ma[qul.( dedductio by reasoning) Applying logical reasoning in the Mu[tazilite fashion, he refuted their interpretations of concepts of God’s justice, beatific vision, causality, etc. Ash[ari’s main objective was to re-assert, in philosophical terms, the abstract as well as the imminent nature of God as against the Mua[tazilite God which could neither be known nor felt. Hence his view that God is the creator of every action and of both cause and effect (later emphasized by al-Ghazali). The chief point of contention between the Mu[tazilah and the Ashaa[irah appears to be whether God has become alienated with his creation after the act of creation or He is still in active relationship with man and the nature. Earlier the muhaddithun (traditionalists) held that such doctrines were to be believed, without asking why (bilaa kaif). The Mu[tazilah and the Ashaa[irah, both, posed the same question since the answer to this question was vital in he Rationalization of Islamic beliefs had produced an equally opposite view-point taking the revelation in literal meanings leading to anthropomorphic representations. Asha[ri avoided both these positions. Through the doctrine of mukhalafa (difference in meaning of attributes of God as they are and as they are understood by man), that is, attributes of God like seeing, hearing, knowing, cannot be understood in terms of human understanding), the Ash[arites made a distinction beween the reality and its understanding. They contended htat the meaning(mafhum) of God’s essence and attributes are not one but their reality (haqiqah) is one.13 On the issue of human freedom of action Asha‘ri almost agrees with the fatalistic school although he believes in kasb, that is, human freedom in axcquiring an action by God’s will. Al-Maaturidi, a contemporary of al-Ash[ari, deserves more attention as one who attempted to adopt a middle course, like al-Ash[ari, between the Mu[tazilah and the Traditionalist.14 Although he agrees on several points with the Mu[tazilite rational interpretations, he restricts the role of reason within limits and not in matters of religion where only revelation is the final authority.

Ash[arism, however, obtained its fullest exposition in al-Ghazali (d. 1111 A.D.), in spite of his disagreement with the former on several issue. In between al-Ash[ari and al-Ghazali, the philosophers had entered the scene in a big way. Al-Kindi (d. 260/873), al-Farabi (d. 339/950) and Ibn Sina (d. 428-1037), great minds mastering all sciences besides philosophy, steeped in Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, further consolidated rationalization of Islamic doctrines. Apart from their individual thoughts on various controversial issues, we have to note that all the three philosophers, like the Mu[tazilites, did not question the philosophical validity of essential Qur]anic doctrines; they argued that philosophy and religion are not mutually exclusive but are co-terminus on the truth. They held revelation as a direct experience of truth by the Messengers of God and rationally valid. As a whole, rational validity is what they are concerned about. Ibn Sina is perhaps the first philosopher who believed in the Qur]anic expression of truth symbolically and not literally and suggested that the common minds should follow the literal meaning.

Al-Ghazali’s problem was quite different from his predecessor. He was working in a society which, unlike the previous epoch, was passing through great social and political strains. The state was crumbling under the divisive undercurrents. The Turks were gaining the power. The culture was fast losing its power obtained from the Qur]anic Reason. The common masses that up till now, because of political-economic stability, were considered to be secure from the Islamic or non-Islamic thought currents on the higher intellectual levels, appeared vulnerable to all non-traditional views. That ordinary minds acquired greater importance during the 9th century is indicated in the methodology of al-Ghazali itself. What Ibn Sina had suggested earlier regarding the advisability of literal understanding of Qur]an, was developed by al-Ghazali in to a deliberate division of knowledge on two levels – one for the learned and the other for the layman.15 Explaining the aim of kalam as prevention of bida[ and removal of doubts, he said that he had written this science in two ways—firstly, for the common people to safeguard their beliefs and in such works (which include Ihya]) the real facts had not been mentioned and, secondly, the works, which discuss those facts (like Jawahar al-Qur]an). The latter works, he suggested were to be studied only by men of learning and of pure conduct who had no other interest except of knowing the truth. The delicate doctrines demanding such care included essence and attributes of God, human actions, Day of Judgment, etc. (such division of knowledge was latter suggested by al-Raazi, as well as Ibn Rushd).16

Al-Ghazali after passing through various ‘stages of deliverance from error’ reached to the conclusion, that true knowledge could be achieved only by direct religious experience; all other knowledge was false. With intuition as the only source of ultimate truth, al-Ghazali went on to demolish philosophy in his Tahaafut al-Falaasifa. In fact the discussion on the manqul and the ma[qul reached a decisive stage in al-Ghazali’s Tahaafut and its refutation a hundred years later by Ibn Rushd.

Al-Ghazali criticizes the philosophers on twenty points, seventeen metaphysical and three physical or on nature. He refutes the philosophers’ views that the world is uncreated, God is devoid of attributes, God’s ignorance of the particulars and that there is causality. Secondly, he challenges that the philosophers cannot prove God’s existence and essence and soul as a self-subsisting essence. Philosophers have to be atheists. It is to be noted that in the Tahaafut, al-Ghazali’s objective is only to expose the errors of the philosophers and not to expound his own views, and, in the process, to refute the Aristotelian philosophy as available in al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. Al-Ghazali accused the philosophers of heresy on three points which violate Islamic beliefs: (i) Eternity (qidam) of the world and of all essences, (ii) God does not possess the knowledge of the particulars and, (iii) Denial of bodily resurrection. On other points, he suspends his judgement.17 Restricting ourselves to his method, we select a few arguments denying causality. He says that causal relationship is based merely on the observation of a necessary relationship between two incidents in immediate succession, viz., fire burning cotton. The philosophers believe that fire is the cause of burning of cotton. That is, fire acts by its nature and not by acquisition (kasb). Al-Ghazali rejects this explanation and argues that the creator (faa[il) of burning and of the quality of being burned in cotton is God. What is the proof that fire is the creator of burning except observation? Al-Ghazali, however, concludes that causal relationship does exist, but it is because of the will of God. With the same basis of the God’s will, al-Ghazali goes on to prove the occurrence of miracles. If it is recognized that matter can change its form from one kind into the other in a period of time, then God can reduce this time-span and a rod can become a snake in no time.18

About one hundred years later, Ibn Rush wrote a refutation of the Tahaafut. Ibn Rushd held that the Qur]an permits philosophical investigation for the knowledge of God and the universe. “True knowledge is the knowledge of God, of all other things as such and of the happiness and unhappiness in the hereafter”19 Regarding a possible conflict between the manqul and the ma[qul, Ibn Rushd suggests that in such a case the manqul is to be so interpreted (that is) by ta]weel that it conforms with manqul.20 Like al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd also is of the view that the inner meanings of the Qur]an are not to be disclosed to the common peope.19 He rejects al-Ghazali’s assertion that mystic experience is the only source of knowledge of God since this view goes against the Qur]anic insistence on speculation. Regarding al-Ghazali’s charges against the views of the philosophers, Ibn Rush accuses him of not having studied them, particularly Aristotle in original sources but only in al-Farabi and Ibn Sina who did not represent him faithfully. He alleges al-Ghazali of ascribing views to those Greek philosophers which they did not actually hold. Al-Ghazali’s target, he points out, were in fact all those philosophical views which were floated by various sects among the Muslims in his time including the Baatiniyah, and, in that way al-Ghazali’s criticism was valid. He draws attention to the fact that beliefs like miracles, beatific vision or bodily resurrection had no connection with Greek philosophy, neither were they discussed by those philosophers. Again, Ibn Rushd makes a distinction between matters of Shari[ah and those of philosophy. Matters of Shari[ah cannot be discussed; however, matters about which Shari[ah is silent can be discussed.21

On al-Ghazali’s denial of causality, Ibn Rushd says that it was done in order to prove the occurrence of miracles. Ibn Rushd holds that the only miracle is the Qur]an which does not signify kharq [ada (against nature, abnormal)but it can be established by perception. Then he argues that things are perceived by the intellect along with their causes. He who denies causes, denies the intellect. Denial of causes, therefore, implies denial of knowledge.22 According to him al-Ghazali’s denial of causes is mere sophistry. While leveling charges against al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd does not treat al-Ghazali’s views as truly representative of him. According to him, al-Ghazali was apprehensive of his reputation among the orthodox of being a follower of the philosophers himself and the Tahafut was written to counyter this opinion.23

The above reference to this controversy was made in order to indicate the state of nature of the thought currents during the 5th century Hijrah when al-Ghazali attacked philosophers. The attack was decisive in discrediting philosophy in the later Muslim tradition to such an extent that Ibn Rushd’s counter refutation could not salvage the situations. Al-Ghazali’s main objection was against the rationalization of those doctrines which, in his opinion, could lose their religious validity when rationalized. Otherwise, he had no objections against philosophy or rationalism in matters other than metaphysical. He gave currency to logic and himself used philosophical methods in his works to the great resentment of the orthodoxy. It helped in encouraging the teaching of ma[qulaat (rational sciences) in the educational centres, although not for the progress of these sciences but for their refutation. This paved the way for the emergence of leading figures like Shaykh al-Ishraaq, Shihabuddin Suhrawardi Maqtul and al-Razi, who were the masters of both rationalist and traditional sciences.24

The foregoing account offers two conclusions:

(i) Scholastic and philosophic traditions up to al-Ghazali were focused mostly on the methodology of investigating the relationship between wahi and reason, and (ii) both had gradually become irrelevant to the actual problems of society and culture. The net outcome was that the scope of Qur]an’s Reason was restricted to metaphysics and the culture of knowledge lost its vigor. Earlier, all discussions were directly or indirectly related to concrete problems of man and culture.

Al-Ghazali, as a mystic-philosopher, although intended to demolish philosophers’ hold but in the process helped in removing philosophy from the intellectual scene. His anti-rational approach appears to be one of the chief causes of the Muslim cultural decline which set in after him. The other reasons being the destructive impact of the Mongol invasion, passing over of the state from the Arab-Persians into the hands of the Turks who had no cultural tradition of their own and, thirdly, absence of the participation of the ruling elite, in general, in the academic life. Closure of the door of ijtihaad, declared by the theologians, was a decisive negative factor, freezing the capacity of Muslim culture to keep pace with change. In the post Ghazalian period the intellectual activity shifted from the east to Spain in the West which witnessed the emergence of Ibn Baja, Ibn Rush and Ibn Tufayl in philosophy and Ibn [Arabi in mystic thought. In fact the later centuries can boast only of mystic thinkers like Rumi, Shihabuddin Maqtul, al-Jili, Shakh Ahmad Sirhindi, Sadr al-Din Shirazi – all from central Asia.

However during this period there was one thinker, Ibn Khaldun, who tried to re-establish the link between thought and culture. Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) sounds very modern in his objective of development of a science of culture ([umraan) which should be demonstrative, devoid of dialectical, rhetorical and poetic arguments. He accepts the validity of divine law but rejects philosophers’ attempts at rationalizing it. Ibn Khaldun gives due importance to philosophy and science in their own spheres, but criticizes philosopher’s role as a theologian.25 He holds that kalaam is not necessary for faith, but is required for the defense of faith. Likewise, it is futile to reconcile religion with philosophy; it is unscientific to do so. Therefore, Ibn Khaldun suggests for a study of culture on the basis of natural sciences with a focus on the social solidarity ([asabiyah) and concrete needs of society. In this study faith remains as one constituent factor in its simplest form. Needless to point out, this approach was never incorporated into the Muslim tradition mainly because the post-Ghazalian age had become unfamiliar with any sources other than the manqul.

The following appears to be the factors underlying the decline of Muslim culture:

  1. Primary place was given, instead of hikmah, the Qur]anic Reason, to the traditional manqul theological methods for understanding Islam

  2. Instead of Kitab and Hikmah, multiple authorities taking a partial view of the Qur]anic Reason came to dominate the intellectual scene.

  3. Closure of the gate of ijtihaad for fear of disintegration of a unified Shari[a.

  4. Transformation of culture of knowledge into a culture of theological censorship.

For a rethinking of this whole problem, the Muslim world had to wait till the middle of the 19th century when Muslim culture had to come face to face with the powerful scientific brilliance of the West with its political and economic advances into Muslim lands. Discussions on mutual relationships between Islam and science which were started in 19th century have still not reached any decisive stage. Modern [Ilm al-Kalaam, the development of which was suggested by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Shibli Numani in India is still to be developed. Sir Sayyid himself did not do more than restating mostly the Mu[tazilite positions in a different context. Shibli also could do the same according to the change temperament of the age.

The problem, as suggested by Ibn Khaldun, is not of proving the rational basis of Islamic metaphysics but of providing a functional ideological apparatus for Muslim culture. It is to be admitted that Qur]anic Reason has been blurred because of the theological and philosophical authorities standing between it and the contemporary cultures.

From the 5th century of Islam onward, certain distortions in the Qur’anic theory of knowledge have taken place. Firstly, reason has been relegated to the background and the whole area of knowledge is occupied by the post-Qur]an and post-Messenger authorities. Secondly, sciences have been divided into artificially mutually antagonistic categories of Islamic and non-Islamic sciences. Thirdly, the natural and social sciences could not develop as a result of the first and second distortions. Fourthly, instead of functioning as a system of life as a whole, Islam has been transformed into a mere theology, thus delinking it from culture itself. These distortions are to be removed, as early as it is possible. For this the Qur]anic Reason (hikma) is to be re-stated and re-asserted in its virgin form and not in its authoritative versions constructed in history. The crucial question is not the survival of Islam as a faith because it would always remain alive.. The question is of the survival of Muslim society with its political, social and economic institutions in the contemporary world.


  1. Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Lahore, 1994), p. 8.

  2. Dr. Syed Abdul Latif, The Mind Al Quran Builds, Delhi,1977 edoition,pp.30-31

  3. Dr. Syed Abdul Latif, Bases of Islamic Culture (Hyderabad, 1959), pp. 88-89

  4. Ibid., p. 96

  5. Ibid.

  6. Ibn Abdul Barr, Al-[Ilm Wa]-l[Ulama], Urdu tr., Abdur Razzaq Malihabadi (Delhi, 1953), p. 8.

  7. Ibid., p 83.

  8. Called Kalaam either because the most discussed issue had been the Kalaam of God or the word Kalaam stood for logic (mantiq). Shibli Nu’mani supports the latter opinion. [Ilm al-Kalaam, (Karachi, 1964), Vol. I, pp. 35-36

  9. A. J. Wensinck, The Muslim Creed (Cambridge, 1932), pp. 62-63.

  10. Shibli, op. cit., pp. 34-35

  11. Ibid., p. 35.

  12. Abdul Hudhayl Allaaf, a prominent Mu[tazilite, is reported to have converted three thousand persons to Islam through his discussions. Ibid., pp. 38-39.

  13. M. M. Sharif, History of Muslim Philosophy (Germany, 1963), Vol. I, pp. 227-28. See also Al-Ash[ari, Maqalat al-Islamiyin, Urdu tr., Muhammad Hanif Nadvi, Musalmanon Ke Aqaid Wa Afkar, (Lahore, 1968), Vol. I.

  14. Sharif, op. cit., pp. 259 et seq.

  15. Shibli, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 158-160.

  16. Ibid., Shibli refers to such differences of opinion in Ghazali’s works.

  17. Tahaafat al-Falaasifah, Urdu tr., Mir Valiuddin (Hyderabad, 1962), p. 289.

  18. Ibid., pp. 219 et seq.

  19. Sharif, op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 544-45

  20. Ibid., p. 546

  21. Ibid., p. 557

  22. Ibid., p. 559

  23. Abdus Salam Nadvi, Hukama-i Islam (Azamgarh, 1953), Vol. I, pp. 423-29.

  24. Ibid.,pp. 422-23

  25. Sharif, op. cit., p. 972.

Islamic Culture/Muslim Cultures: An Attempt at Understanding Relationship between Uniformity and Variety

Anwar Moazzam

Any attempt at understanding the social, religious or political behavior of human groups any where ultimately demands a conceptual framework which can help in defining the identity of such groups in terms of religion and/ or culture. It is a historical fact that all contemporary societies have had religion, in some way or the other, in the distant or recent past, as one of the basic constituents of their cultures. This is especially true of Muslim groups. Islam has been the most important factor in the making of the personalities of Muslim societies and in giving them a philosophic content. Thus, it would not be wrong to state that the centre of cultural gravity of Muslims is Islam. Therefore, in order to determine the identity of Muslim groups for the sake of understanding their multi-dimensional problems, it is necessary to focus our attention on the theme of culture.

The expression ‘Islamic culture’ is generally applied on cultures of Muslim groups living in different territories which are in many ways quite different from each other. How different are these cultures from what is described as ‘Islamic culture’? There is certainly a serious mismatch between this phenomenon and its terminological identification. There are several such instances of terminological distortions of identities of the Eastern world, especially with regard to issues related to the Islam and Muslims. One has to guard oneself against the use of misleading ascriptions.

Among the Muslim philosophers who have discussed the problem of culture, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and Muhammad Iqbal (-1938) are the most prominent. They both have, from a philosophical point of view, studied the basic values of culture. Iqbal appears to have prefered Ibn Khaldun’s interpretation of Muslim culture. The basic ideas underlying the spirit of Muslim culture, according to Ibn Khaldun, are two: first, the unity of human origin and, second, the concept of life as a continuous movement in time. The process of history is not a determined one but a continuous creative movement. Accepting this, Iqbal brings up Islamic faith as the source of the values of Muslim culture. He believes that the attitude of Islam towards Time and Space is crucial in order to appreciate the spirit of Muslim culture. Stating that the spirit of the Qur’an is essentially anti-classical, he points out that the Muslim culture rejects the static view of the universe which is not ‘being’ but ‘becoming’. It concentrates on the concrete and the finite. Second, the Qur’anic concept of the finality of prophet-hood implies that now onwards all sources of knowledge, besides higher mysticism, are open to man for the understanding of his outer experience through the operation of human reason. Thus ‘anfus’ and ‘afaq’ both, are valid sources of knowledge.

It would be observed that Iqbal’s interpretation of culture is more philosophical than social. He uses the term ‘Muslim culture’ in his discussion of ‘Islamic culture’. However, it is to be noted that his criticism of Spengler’s concept of culture as a specific organism, having no room for contact with the past and the contemporary cultures, shows that he believes the cultures are not closed systems but, on the other hand, are open to external cultural influences. If this is so, then the question arises as to how to reconcile Iqbal’s concept of Muslim culture as a distinct personality of its own and his view of it as a culture being open to influences of other cultures.

This question is of crucial importance in order to understand the crisis of Muslim culture in the contemporary age. In what sense is ‘Muslim culture’ unique and at the same time open to the impact of other cultures? In the context of Iqbal, is it possible to establish any relationship between these two theories of cultures, that is, (i) culture is always based on faith, and (ii) culture is not essentially faith-based but is a territorial phenomenon.

Islam is a faith; it is also a culture. Is any distinction between the two possible? Before answering this question, let us answer another question. Is there any thing like Indonesian culture, Arab culture, Turkish culture or Iranian culture? Yes. There do exist such cultures. What is it which distinguishes Indonesian from the Arab culture? It is in this context that the term ‘Muslim culture’ becomes meaningful. In fact, it is more relevant than the term ‘Islamic culture——if the purpose is to understand identities of Muslim groups existing in various regions of the world. Adopting the term “Muslim cultures” does not imply abandoning the term “Islamic culture”. It rather helps in establishing a relationship between the two. Let us go back to our earlier question: how to reconcile the faith-based character of culture with that of territory-based character of culture?

I will take the help of a diagrammatic display to help a more descriptive understanding of the problem of reconciliation.

The ‘Islamic culture/Muslim cultures’ duality can be better understood with two concentric circles. As the diagram shows Islamic faith is the centre of two circles—the inner and the outer ones. The inner circle named as “Islamic culture” is formed by cultural values rooted in certain Islamic beliefs and concepts. The outer circle named “Muslim culture” is formed around the circle of “Islamic culture” by certain cultural characteristics and values absorbed from the area of the territorial culture in which a particular Muslim group exists. The centre of Islamic faith and Islamic culture are universal and do not change in whichever territory they are, while the nature of Muslim culture differs from region to region. Even in one ‘country’ with a wide geographical range with a variety of cultural streams, like India, Muslim cultures may exhibit variety. Thus, Muslim culture assumes not a singular but a plural character. In areas and countries of predominant Muslim character the Muslim culture expands and covers the territorial cultural zone as well, —-as in Iran, the Arab world or Turkey. However, in areas where the Muslims are in strong minorities, Muslim culture circle maintains itself within the territorial cultural areas—as in India.

Islamic Culture:

The values constituting the universal Islamic culture can be summed up as follows:


  • A dynamic concept of space
  • Unity of human origin
  • Concept of life as a continuous movement in time
  • Use of all sources of knowledge to understand outer experience


  • Religious brotherhood (institutionalized in Ummah)
  • Mutual help (institutionalized in Zakat, Sadaqah, Batul Mal, etc.)
  • Hospitality


  • Rejection of any authority other than Allah (produced by the belief in one God—Tauhid)
  • Tendency towards independence/freedom of action
  • A sense of superiority based on a sense of superiority of faith and past glories
  • Non-attachment to material wealth
  • Haya—There is no English word to explain it. It covers, shame, diffidence, bashfulness, timidity shyness, a strong sense of attachment to a civilized behavior, virtuous conduct; Muslim women keeping a distance from men and hijab are other forms of haya
  • A disciplined sex relationships and behavior
  • Cleanliness

Muslim Culture:

Muslim culture, social in character, is shaped by certain modes of thought and behavior, adopted from the cultural milieu in which a particular Muslim cultural group is located. This adoption takes place in the following areas:

  • Dress
  • Language, literature, arts, architecture, music
  • Customs—marriage, birth and death ceremonies, etc.
  • Festivals—social and religious
  • Saint-worship
  • Idea of fatalism

The frontiers of both the cultures are not fixed and rigid. They are flexible and contract and expand under pressures of the inner circle of ‘Islamic culture’ and the outer regional circle of ‘Muslim culture’. Muslim culture circle may expand outward by absorbing cultural values and influences of the regional culture with or without reducing the content of the ‘Islamic Culture’ circle. If the pressure of the regional culture is enormous and spread over a long span of time, there is a possibility of expansion of the ‘Muslim Culture’ circle—as has happened in India.
The size of the ‘Muslim Culture’ circle or the process of its inner or outer expansion depends on many factors. These factors revolve round the historical, intellectual and social preparedness of the Muslim group. Some of the important factors are: (i) the extent of Muslim urbanization, (ii) literacy among them, (iii) location of academic institutions in the area, (iv) economic development level, (v) their political strength, (vi) strength amidst the cultural milieu of the region, (vii) the role of Muslim religious elite and the intellectuals.

This theoretical framework can be conveniently applied to different stages of Muslim civilization. For instance, during the era of the Prophet, the circles of Islamic and Muslim culture overlapped. With the political expansion of Muslims in Iran, Palestine and Egypt, during the periods of early Caliphate and the Umayyads the circle of ‘Muslim culture’ starts emerging. During the Abbasid period it acquires a definite shape by absorbing the Persian cultural values and institutions with a forceful expression in the intellectual sphere. In the Sultanate and Mughal periods in South Asia, Muslim culture had a distinct imprint of Central Asian and Indian cultural streams in the areas of governance, literature and social norms and customs. Muslim groups in South-East Asia exhibit various features of existing Hindu civilization.

The ‘Muslim culture’ circles functioning in various countries and regions of even one country (like India) some times exhibit concepts, customs and attitudes which appear to be in conflict with the Islamic cultural values and have been labeled as bid’a (outside the original Islamic value system)and have given rise to a sustained conflict between the two. Recent history has exerted great strain on Muslim culture through regional/Western cultural values and their pressure for dragging it in their respective directions. All Muslim modernists like Jamal al-din al-Afghani, Shaikh Muhammad ‘Abduh, Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Ameer Ali and Zia Gok Alp have attempted to devise ways and means to resolve this problem. On the other hand, the traditional Muslim thinkers tended to ignore it. This has led to emergence of two approaches. First, a rejection of all non-traditional elements in the culture, ignoring the strength of and urgency inherent in these external/modern values and, second, an acceptance of these values, which, sometimes, make inroads in to Islamic value-system. Both these approaches are theoretical and not functional. They have failed to resolve the conflict. A case in point is that of Muslim dominated Pakistan. Its birth out of a thousand -year cultural history has posed to the Pakistan intellectuals the question of the identity of Pakistan culture, producing two points of view. According to one, the roots of Pakistan culture are in Islam and the West-Asian cultural history. The other point of view treats culture as a regional growth and locates the roots of Pakistan culture, besides Islam, in the history of the geographical regions of Pakistan itself. A much more consistent struggle for the ‘Islamic culture’ vis-à-vis the onslaught of Western cultures and its accompanying institutions is going on throughout the Muslim world.

In order to determine the nature of this conflict, a distinction between “Islamic” and “Muslim” cultures is necessary. The real conflict appears to exist not between the philosophical content of Islamic culture, which is anti-classical (as Iqbal puts it), and the regional/Western cultures, but between the regional/Western cultural norms and Muslim cultures; and unless the values of Islamic culture are identified and concretized, the negative or positive values of regional/Western cultures cannot be ascertained. In this context, the strength and pressures of the regional/Western cultural values cannot be totally ignored. It has been observed that the theoreticians in their zeal to protect their traditional or modern interpretations of Islamic culture have ignored the actual situation faced by Muslim cultures. The point here is that the development of Muslim cultures has been parallel to the assessments of Muslim thinkers. The cultural developments of Muslim groups have been taking place under the irresistible pressures of external cultures, quite independent of the idealistic analysis of Islamic culture by theoreticians. The gap between the two has resulted either in stagnation or half-hearted approaches to measures which the Muslims have perforce to take for their socio-economic reconstruction. Hence, the need for resolving the confusion between Islam’s universal ethical values and the cultural forms of these values in different cultural zones of the world. Appreciation of varieties of plural Muslim cultures would be a great help for the Muslim societies of the world to build realistic structures of socio-economic empowerment in their respective countries.

Identifications versus Identities: The Indian Muslim Religious Identity Syndrome

Anwar Moazzam


Identity has become an important reference point in the Indian social and political discourse sponsored by various conflicting vested interests. The paper, besides attempting at investigation of the nature and scope of this ambiguity, argues that, i) ’ functioning of identities’ is more relevant than ‘identities’ in this discourse, and , ii) it argues that in the process of the functioning of identities, the role of ‘identifications of identities’ has become more crucial than the identities in creating social and communal disturbances while the identities, themselves remain dormant in normal circumstances. Applying these formulations on the Muslims of India, it is proposed that no religious identity including that of Indian Muslims, can be defined in specific terms since it has various cultural, ethnic, linguistic and sectarian identities besides the religious identity. Like all Indians, the Indian Muslims also have multiple identities that pose no problem for Indian society. However, the communal forces in the name of Hindu rashtra have been’ identifying’ them as anti- Indian, anti-Hindu, terrorists, etc., for the purpose of gaining power through communal polarisation. It is a struggle between the identities and the identifications. This is a serious threat to the only real identity of India, that is, the idea of Secular India.

This working paper does not intend to attempt at theoretical constructions of identities, as such; I would argue that it is more meaningful to examine the “functioning of identities” in Indian societies. From the point of view of functionality, identities are not universal; they are contextual. This is truer about religious identities. As such, application of theories developed in the Western societies and cultures may not help in the understanding of context is totally different from the Western world due to its bewildering pluralities of religions, languages, regional cultures, social customs, festivals, etc. Again, what makes India unique in terms of socio-religious structure is its caste system. Therefore, India has to use its own conceptual tools for identifying Indian social, religious and cultural identities in order to develop theories and strategies for the resolution of existing and the potential conflicts among them. Much work has already been done in this field. This paper is a tentative analysis of various dimensions of the issue of religious identity of Muslims in India in the context of Indian cultural and social realities.

Identities are constructed of certain features drawn from various divisions based on religion (Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist), ideology (atheist, Communist), caste (Brahmin, Dalit), language (various linguistic groups), culture (UP culture, South-Indian culture, Mughal culture, Andhra culture), ethnicity (Dravidian, Aryan, tribal) and so on. Groups with such identities may also be called Socio-Religious Groups (SRGs) (borrowing Sachar Committee term for Muslim sub-identities). All these identities are common to all SRGs. For instance, a Muslim/Hindu may also carry ethnic, linguistic, cultural identities along with his/her religious identity. The identities may be divided in to two categories.

Before studying Muslim religious identity let us look at the broader Indian identity landscape. But, let us start with the question; is there any one single “Indian identity”?

Amratya Sen does not believe that Indian identity is based on Hindu identity on the basis of i) long periods of domination of Buddhism, Jainism, ii)plurality of religious and philosophical traditions and iii) the plurality of other than Hindu (the heterodox schools like Carvakya) within, what is called, Hindu system. Sen also refers to Tagore and Gandhi who accepted the presence of religious identities other than the Hindu religious identity. “Both emphasised the fact that the Indian identity could not favour any particular group over others within India.”1

Indian identities are numerous. They may be clustered under the following major categories:

  1. Social, anthropological, cultural
  1. Gender
  2. Culture,— with different cultural features of

different regions and different linguistic state

  1. Language: Groups speaking different languages–
  2. Ethnicity, race Aryan, Dravidian, Arab, Central Asian, Tribal
  3. Ideology- non-religious ideas (Marxism, etc.), political, etc.
  1. Religious Identities: Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian, Jain, Lingayat, etc.
  2. Caste Identities

While identities A) type are given and external to the person/group, the identities B) and C) belong to and are part of the person/ group.

Muslim Religious Identities:

Before studying the Muslim identities, it is to be noted that religious identities as declared either by the person or the group may not be absolutely authentic, that is, structured on the fundamental beliefs. Such declarations are, mostly, arbitrary.

Look at the following declarations:

1. I am a Muslim/Hindu.

2. I am a practicing Muslim/Hindu

3. I am a Muslim/Hindu by birth. I do not offer prayers regularly, but I consider myself as a Muslim/Hindu.

4. I am an atheist but, culturally, I am a Muslim/Hindu.

5. I am a Hindu. I regularly visit the dargahs and believe in the spiritual powers of the Muslim saints.

6. A conversation between Mani Shankar Aiyar and Arun Shourie: 2

Mani Shankar Aiyar: Would you describe your personal religious faith as Buddhist?

Arun Shourie: By practice Buddhist; by culture, Hindu.

MSA: Your ideological beliefs, would you say, are Hindu in origin but the rites that you follow are Buddhist?

AS: The rites that I follow are Hindu, in the sense that I would go to the temple, celebrate raksh bandhan or idolatry. But, in the sense of a religious ideology, or a body of ideas, I would be close to the ideas of the Buddha—-his explanation suffering and the way to mitigate it. I have derived great sustenance from it.

7. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan3

“I am a Pakistani for the last 40 years, a Muslim for the last 1400 years and a Pathan for the last 5000 years.”

All these declarations are, mostly, arbitrary. This is irrespective of their being practising or non-practicing Muslims. Theologically speaking, non-practicing or partially-practicing Muslims are not Muslims. However, for more than one thousand years, the Muslim international community (the Ummah) has been divided in to various schools of tafsir (exegesis), Hadith (Prophet’s Traditions), Kalaam (Islamic scholasticism), various sects, schools of Islamic laws and Sufi silsilahs (orders), that are not always in agreement with each other on the core fundamental beliefs of a true Muslim. In course of time, all these divisions have become too rigid to allow any possibility of developing a consensus on the minimum beliefs and practices essential for a person to be a Muslim. There are various sets of minimum essential beliefs and practices according to various sects, schools of thought, etc., producing different and some time conflicting definitions of true Muslim identity. Second, the Muslim mind, at the deeper theological and philosophical levels, has always remained engaged with a more complex question (faced by every religion at some or the other stage in its history), that is, what is the nature of relationship between belief (‘aqidah) and action (‘amal). Are the belief and action two unconnected entities? Can a belief exist sans its realization in action? Is belief or act sufficient for being truly religious? Suppose there is a Muslim, who considers himself as a Muslim and runs an organization for helping the poor and the needy, but he neither knows the necessary details of the fundamental Islamic beliefs nor does he offer prayers regularly. Is he a true Muslim or not? This and several similar questions may be raised with all religions without satisfactory answers. Third, in the post-Qur’anic era, various conflicting interpretations of these beliefs have been made by different schools of thought which, in course of time, were added to the core teachings of the Qur’an. This has resulted in the emergence of a host of Muslim sects/ sub-identities based on the conflicting sectarian versions of essential Islamic beliefs throughout the world. That is, the Muslim sects are structured, not on different fundamental beliefs of the Qur’an, but on man-made interpretations of those beliefs. The Muslim identity continues to serve as an umbrella-term for all conflicting sub-identities. The question is how this uniformity in conflicting diversities could be maintained throughout the last more than thousand years? It is difficult to offer any one explanation. One explanation could be the availability of certain provisions in the Qur’an for tolerance of minor digressions from the core area of faith. The Qur’an offers a set of eternal concepts (beliefs) and essential practices like salaat (prayers), zakaat (individual tax), saum (fasting), Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca), the negligence of which is sinful and attracts displeasure of Allah and punishment in life-after. However, Allah is also Merciful and His Mercy (Rahmat) is available to all sinners if they seek forgiveness of sinful acts and pledge that they would never commit them again. Therefore, as long as a Muslim continues to believe in the fundamental beliefs of Tauhid (Unity of God), Risaalat (prophet-hood of Muhammad) and Saza(punishment) and Jaza (reward), his other (minor) sins/errors do not divest him of his Islamic identity. The verbal/ non-performing self-declaration of one’s Islamic identity gets a self-satisfying justification from the Rahmat (Mercy) of Allah. There are some other invisible social, psychological and historical factors which appear to play a great role in protecting the over all Islamic identity. Muslims of different religious sub- identities carry their basic Muslim identity because i) they are born in a Muslim family, ii) they are brought up in an ambience of, what may be called, Muslim culture and, iii) because of the ever present consciousness of being a part of a long glorious socio-religious history gives them a great psychological comfort and a sense of belonging.

Here are some of the major religious sub-identities among Indian Muslims.

i Sects

i. i Sunni

i. ii Shi‘ah: Twelvers, Seveners, etc.

ii Maslaks (sub-sect- schools of thought)

ii. i Salafi/ghair muqallid/ahl-i Hadith (who follow only the Qur’an and

Prophet’s tradition)

ii. ii Muqallid (who follow, besides the Qur’an and the Traditions, the schools

of law, also)

ii.iii The Deobandis (belonging to the school of Islamic university of Deoband,


ii. iv The Barelvis, etc. (followers of Ahmad Raza Khan of Bareli, U.P.)

iii) Sufi silsilahs

iii. i Qadiriyah

iii. ii Chishtiyah

iii. iii Naqshbandiyah

iii. iv Shattariyah, etc.

iv. Fiqhi (Islamic legal) affiliations

iv. i Sunni laws

iv. i. i Hanafi

iv. i. ii Maliki

iv. i. iii Shafi’i

iv. i. iv Hanbali

iv. ii Shi’ah laws

iv. ii. i Jafri—Twelvers, Alawi, etc.

iv. ii. ii Zadiyyah

iv. ii.iii Ismailis—Nizari, Must’ali—Bohras

(Da’udi, Sulemani), etc.

v. Ethnic Identities

v. i Sayyid

v. ii Shaikh

v. iii Mughal

v. iv Pathan

According to Sachar Committee report, present  day Muslim society in India is divided in to

following major groups:


1. i who trace their origins to foreign lands, such as, Arabia, Persia, Turkistan or Afghanistan—

Shaikh, Mughal, Pathan

1. ii the upper caste Hindu converts to Islam

2. Ajlaaf

2. i middle caste converts whose occupations are  clean—Julaahaas (weavers), carpenters, artisans, painters, graziers, tanners, milkmen, etc.

2. ii converts from the erstwhile untouchable castes—Bhangi (scavengers), Mehtar

(sweeper), Chamaar (tanners),Domes and so on

3. Arzal: very low castes such as Halaal- khor, Laal Begi, Abdaal, etc.

Vi. Linguistic Identities: Muslims speaking different languages in different linguistic regions. Urdu is the mother –tongue of about 60% of Indian Muslims mostly living in north India

Vii. Cultural identities: Culture of the Muslims in India is the culture of the region to which they belong.

Multiplicity of Identities:

This multiplicity of religious identities is not peculiar to Muslims only; all religious systems are similarly divided in to various sects. The multiplicity, plurality and overlapping among the identities in both the tables, leave no room for developing a meaningful discourse on the theory of religious identity. However, it does help in understanding the nature, scope of and inter-relationship within the identities and of their functionality in Indian societies.

Looked at from this point of view, it would be found that any religious identity of a person or group does not exist or function in isolation from other identities of that person or group. For instance, in the vast cultural expanse of India, the Indian Muslim, along with his/her main religious/Islamic identity also carries his/ her overlapping, multiple ethnic, linguistic, cultural and ideological identities. A Keralite Muslim belongs to Kerala cultural and social milieu shaped by Malayalam language and literature. He is, in this context, different from a Muslim from UP or Bengal. Such non-religious identities may change with migration of the person/group from one social, linguistic or cultural aria to another area.

Muslim Religious Identity:

Religious Identity of a person/group is too complex a concept to be defined in specific terms. It is multiple and changeable. As Table-B shows, Muslims are divided in to various religious sects like the Sunnis, the Shi’ahs, the Khojas, the Bohras, the Salafi, and in maslaks (sub-divisions within sects) like the Deobandis, the Barelvis, the Muqallid (followers of Islamic laws besides the Qur’an and the Traditions) Ghair-Muqallid (who follow only the Quran and the Hadith and not necessarily the schools of law), etc. Some consider each other as not true Muslims; the extremist among them even going to the extent of declaring each other as Kaafirs (non-Muslims). One of the main reasons of emergence of religious sectarian identities is the absence of any consensus among the followers of different groups on the “minimum fundamental beliefs essential for being described as the follower that religion”. (For instance, Justice Munir Report on the 1954 Qadiyani disturbances in Pakistan found in its investigations that no two ‘Ulama agreed on the definition of a Muslim.) In fact, if we go by the fundamental beliefs of different sectarian denominations, almost every Muslim sect stands as heretic or even as Kaafir according to some or the other Muslim sect. As pointed above, the sectarian disagreement has not led to any decisive split among the Muslims, as such. All the sects and sub-sects (firaq) continue to be within the umbrella denomination of Muslims. The second feature of these sub-identities is that they are not theologically and socially static in nature (like castes) and a person of any sect may shift his/her allegiance to any other sectarian identity within the main ‘Muslim identity’. For instance, a Shi’ah, Sunni, Hanafi, Qadiri can change his or her allegiance to any other sect, school of jurisprudence or Sufi order and still may maintain his or her ‘Muslim identity’.

Functioning of identities:

In India, debate on religious identity revolves around a movement (Hindutva) for politico-religious supremacy by a section of the majority (the Sangh Parivar) over the religious minorities (the Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, etc.) The Indian secular democracy is in a state of ideological and political war with the Hindutva forces demanding the conversion of Indian secular democracy in to a Hindu Rashtra. This constitutes what has come to stay as the typically Indian syndrome of ‘communalism’. Communalism has adopted as a political device the projection of Muslim religious identity as an existential threat to Hindu culture/Hindutva. Other, and much larger, typically Indian scenario of Indian identities is casteism. But, first, communalisation of Muslim identity.

In the context of normal conditions, the identities are dormant, in-active and communities are not conscious of their religious identities as they function in different social gatherings, cultural functions, in a market or in a theatre. However, when normal conditions are changed because of some actions or campaign against Muslim religious identity by some external agency like the Sangh Parivar or by some government action (like, arrest of innocent Muslims for alleged terrorist acts), the Muslims are made conscious of their having a religious identity which is a kind of threat to the majority community’s religious, political and cultural interests. This imposed religious identity, in its turn, activates it in to a responsive mode. It may take various forms of responses –chiefly political–leading to a sustained state of existential tension. I would call this process of projecting a religious identity as a threat to another religious identity as act of ‘identification’.

Identifications by identifiers external to Muslim religious identity:

I propose that it is not the “identities”, as such, but the “Identifications”, governed by the various interests /motives of the identifier (person/group/organisation, etc.), that are responsible for creating tensions within the Muslim community and disturbing, damaging and destroying communal peace and happiness in society, as a whole


Examples of identifications:

  1. Identification of Islam by the Christian West as anti-democracy and a militant ideology

Motive: to justify negative actions against Muslim nations not supporting them

  1. A conversation between Mani Shankar Aiyar and Arun Shourie: 4

MSA: So, does that mean being a Muslim makes it more difficult to be an

Indian than being a Hindu makes it to be an Indian?

AS: Adhering to Islam in purity would make it impossible to live in a

multi-cultural, multi-religious society and still abide by the tenets (of Islam). But for a


MSA: So you are saying you have to be a bad Muslim in order to be able

to live like a good Indian?

AS: Er … I think that’s putting it in strong words, but certainly he would

have to depart from the edicts of Islam as enshrined in the Koran and the


MSA: The obverse of that is if you’re faithful to the edicts of Islam as

enshrined in the Koran and the shariat, you would have difficulty in being

a good Indian.

AS: I think so”

  1. Murli Manohar Joshi:

All Indian Muslims are Mohammadiya Hindus,; all Indian Christians are Christian


In order to have a proper understanding of this identity discourse, it would help if its functioning is traced in the colonial period. In India, transformation of the co-existent, natural and inactive religious identities of the medieval period in to communal religious identities was planned as a policy and implemented by the British colonial strategy of divide and rule from the 17th century , onwards. It is this conversion of religious identity in to communal commodity which is essential to the present discussion. British policy of highlighting the difference in religious identities among Muslims and the Hindus in order to keep the two communities disunited in the freedom struggle. But, all identities were merged in to one single Indian identity during the Freedom Struggle. After Independence, the RSS/Hindutva forces accelerated their pre-Independence-Hindu Rashtra agenda by projecting Partition as an unholy act against Akhand Bharat and, launched a campaign of re-packaging the two-nation theory of Muslim League in to separate adversarial religious identities of Hindus and non-Hindus. M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS Sarsanghchalak, has declared this in no uncertain terms in 1966. He said:6

“At the outset we must bear in mind that so far as ‘nation’ is concerned, all those, who fall outside the five-fold limits (geographical, racial, religious, cultural and linguistic) can have no place in the national life unless they abandon their differences and adopt the religion, culture and language of the Nation and completely merge themselves in the National Race…There are only two ways open for the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the National Race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the National race may allow them to do so, and to quit the country at the sweet will of the National Race…the foreign races in Hindustan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold to reverence (the) Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of (the) glorification of the Hindu race and culture, that is, of the Hindu nation, and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race or may stay in the country wholy subordinated in the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizens’ rights.

So, the RSS believes only in one single identity—the Hindu identity and flatly denies any ‘identity’—Islamic, Muslim or Indian—to the Muslims in India. Needless to point out, this position is quite opposite to the concept of Indian peoples and religious minorities as enshrined in the Indian Constitution and all democratic norms. Indian identity;

These developments, Amratya Sen comments, 7

“ have the effect of forcefully challenging, in several ways, the broad and absorbing idea of Indian identity that emerged in the days of independence movement and that helped to define the concept of Indian nation.— homogeneous concept of Indian identity emerged during the independence movement as a kind of national consensus….The general idea of a spacious and assimilative Indian identity, which Gandhi and Tagore shared , was interspersed with somewhat different emphases by the two, and there were other differences in the characterisation of Indian identity by other theorists and intellectual leaders of the independence movement.

Amratya Sen also refers8 to the idea of inclusionary form of the idea of Indian identity advocated by Tagore and Gandhi.

This analysis makes it amply clear that in order to safeguard and strengthen Indian secular democracy we have to revisit the panorama of Indian heritage of integrating identities denying any space for interventions by the external identifications. It appears that there are no firm grounds for defining Indian identity or religious identities and it has also shown that the ‘Islamic identity‘ also seems to be something different from the ‘Muslim identity’. Is there any other theory of Indian identity/identities demanding consideration?

I am not sure if I am correct in suggesting that, due to near absence of Indian literature, arts and architecture as source-material for the studies of Indian history and culture done in India or abroad, have constructed an unsatisfactory and incomplete, if not distorted, narrative of the evolution of Indian cultural personality throughout the ages. In the discourse on religious identities, for instance, a study of Urdu creative literature, particularly, the poetry, would surprise the investigator by the phenomenon of quite a new Indian identity that defies all identity-construction formulae—religious, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, etc. Pre-colonial history is not exclusively the history of rajas, rashtras, shahinshas, courts, palaces, nobles, armies, wars, conquests and defeats, but of peoples, festivals, customs, philosophical systems, Bhagti and Sufi thought, literature, studies made in comparative literature, arts, architecture—that is, of Indian culture. These studies have most often portrayed religious identities in mutually adversarial positions which are vastly misleading.

During the medieval period, the religious identities remained as ‘natural’ and ‘dormant’ identities and not in any condition of mutual tension. There were battles among kings and states but there were no clashes between religious identities, as such. There is no evidence of invoking religious teachings or using religious symbolism by any religious community for the purpose of domination over the other. Contrarily, the native Indian spirituality devised a unique system of integrating values of love (‘ishq), Bhagti (devotion to and love for God-enshrined in Sufism and Bhagti, drawn from the spiritual content of different religious identities. This transformed different religious identities in to sources of values of universal peace. Since, for both Sufism and Bhagti, there is no intermediary between God and man and as there is only the path of love that leads to God, it leaves no space for any social division in society. The fundamental concept which shaped this system in both religious traditions is the concept of Unity of Being/ wahdat al-wujud.

Bhagti movement emerged around 10th and 11th centuries. The Bhagti (devotion) believed in One God and achieving Moksh through devotion to God. All human beings are equal before God. One can reach God through love/Bhagti. The Bhagti movement covered all regions of the country. Ramananda, Ramajuja, Sant Gianeshwar, from the South, Chatainya from Bangal, Kabir and Guru Nanak from the North were some the major figures. Similarly, there are several Sufis belonging to different orders that carried a similar humanistic message in various pats of the country, like, Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, Khwaja Banda Nawaz, and Nizamuddin Aulia. The unique contribution of the Indian Bhagats and the Sufis, as said earlier, was that they transformed different religious identities in to spiritual partners in the Indian cultural identity. The integrating role of mysticism in India is well documented and does not need further elaboration.

Equally significant contributions were made in the field of literature, particularly in Urdu language, produced during the last more than four hundred years where religions and religious identities are just sub-texts of creative human urges. The fact that Urdu literature has no space for religious identities has not yet been noticed and appreciated. Sufism, again, played main role in shaping Urdu literature, particularly Urdu poetry, as a powerful source of universal love and human conscience free from all ideological (including religious) bonds. Here, two relevant points are mentioned. Firstly, all the best contributions in Urdu poetry have an under current of Sufi surrealistic loneliness. Second, perhaps, as a corollary to the first, it is in open revolt against all authorities—of kings, feudal lords, men of wealth and the elite establishments of social norms and, specially, the institution of religious authorities. The poets either reject or ridicule these symbols of individual coercion. The Urdu poets just reject or ignore all theological prescriptions, instructions, prohibitions and the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, sin, paradise and hell; they are the citizens of a world where there are no religions and religious identities. Their language, vocabulary, idioms, symbols, metaphors, etc. denote meanings and implications totally different and often quite opposite to those in Islamic theology and jurisprudence. Some such converted symbols are as follows:

Ma’ekadah (pub)=this world, the world beyond

Saaqi (one who serves wine)=God as the Creator of the phenomenal world

Ma’e, Baadah, sharaab (wine)-= mystic intoxicant

Zaahid ( a rigid observer of religious practices)= is ridiculed for his narrow mindedness

Kaafir (heretic)=Beloved

Kufr (rejection of the message of Islam)=refusal of given commands/ attitude of freedom/ beloved’s rejection of lover’s expression of love

But, Sanam (idol)= Beloved

Conceptually, in the Urdu classical stream of ghazal, there are no exclusive places of worship of various religious communities. Haram, masjid (Ka’bah, mosque), Dair, mandir (temple), Kalisa (church) are all abodes of the same God.

Ghalib (d.1869) confesses that it is not possible to engage in discourse on the vision of God except in the idiom of wine and cup!

Har chand ho mushaahidah-i Haq ki guftgu

Banti nahin hae baadah-o-saaghar kahe baghair

Now, here are some of the couplets of Ghalib which offer a fascinating narration of the non-religious character of religious identities residing in Indian culture:

wafaadaari ba-shart-i ustwaari asl-i imaan hae

mare but-khaane men to Ka’be men gaaro Barahman ko

The basis of real faith is firm allegiance (to Faith)

(Therefore) If a Brahmin dies in the temple, bury him in Ka’bah)

nahin kuch subhah-o-zunnar ke phande men giraa’i

wafaadari men sheikh-o-Barhaman ki aazma’esh hae

There is no binding force in the Hindu rosary or Muslim rosary

The test of the Shaikh and the Brahman lies in their allegiance to their faiths

pakre jaate haen farishton ke likhe par Ghalib

aadmi koi hamara dam-i tahrir bhi tha?!

(On the Day of Judgment) we are being caught on the reports prepared by the angels; it is injustice

Was there any man from our side present at the time of recording (of our sins) by the angels?

ham ko ma’lum hae jannat ki haqiqat, lekin

dil ke bahlaane ko Ghalib yeh khayaal achcha hae!

We know the reality of paradise (there is no such thing), but,

Ghalib!, this concept is good for keeping us in good spirits (giving us a false hope of going to paradise if we perform good actions)

waa’iz na tum piyo na kisi ko pila sako

kya baat hae tumhaari sharaab-i tuhur ki

Preacher! Neither you can drink it yourself nor you can offer it to any one else

Undoubtedly, your sacred wine (to be offered to the virtuous in paradise) is unique!

go waan nahin, pa waan se nikaale hue to haen

Ka’be se in buton ko bhi nisbat hae door ki

Although they (the idols) are not there, (in the Ka’bah), now, but, for sure, they are the ones exiled from there

So, these idols also have a distant relationship with the Ka’bah!

bandagi men bhi woh aazadah-o-khud- been haen ke ham

ulte phir aa’e dar-i Ka’bah agar waa na hua

Even though under the state of God’s servitude, we are so independent and self- conceited that,

we turned back if the door of Ka’bah was not opened for us

Another specimen of ghazal’s identity-less culture is the poetry of Mir Taqi Mir (d. 1810) which reflects beautifully the irony underlying the tragic tension between human and religious identities. In fact, Mir’s poetic insight has revealed how the Hindus and the Muslims have to construct a human architecture providing enough space for all religious identities.

Ham na kahte the ke mat dair-o- haram ki raah chal

Ab yeh jhagra hashr tak Sheikh-o-Brahman men raha

Did we not warn you not to take the path of mosque and temple?

Now, this dispute between the Shaikh and Brahman would continue for ever

Mat ranj kar kisi ko ke apne tu i’tiqaad

Dil dhaa’e kar jo Ka’bah banaaya to tya hu’a

Do not hurt any one with your (religious) belief

How futile it is if you build Ka’bah by destroying some ones heart!

Does this extra-religious/spiritual/humanist image of religious sensitivities and religious identities available in Urdu literature reflect the authentic Indian cultural identity? In fact, if explored further, we would find that this approach is none other than what is called ‘Indian secularism’. Does this idea have any place in the present political scenario? Unfortunately, no. During the last 65 years Indian political culture has changed in to a culture of political/ electoral identities. In this changing political culture, the caste-, religious, linguistic and regional and cultural identities are being nurtured as constituencies of electoral gains encouraging exclusive tendencies. There are distinct possibilities of this process paving the way for promotion of sub-nationalistic sentiments in various linguistic regions. So far, instead of religious identities, religious identifications have been pushed in to the political main stream in order to divert attention from the main challenges of casteism. On the other hand, the coalition culture is paving grounds for the emergence of the oldest and the most oppressed lower castes on the identity chess-board setting their own rules of power-politics– in which religious identities may take a back seat or, may be, they would like to share the inclusive Indian identity with the Dalits. In that scenario of identities without identifications, Mani Shankar Aiyar might prove correct in suggesting that only secularism could be central to our identity as a people.9

If this sounds some what idealistic, then Edward Said’s realism may be helpful, in this regard.10

The construction of identity—for identity, whether of Orient or Occident, France or Britain, while obviously a repository of distinct collective experiences, is finally a construction —involves establishing opposites and as a ‘others’ whose actuality is always subject to the continuous interpretation and re-interpretation of their differences from ‘us’. Each age and society re-creates its ‘Others’. Far from a static thing then, identity of self or of “other” is a much worked over historical, social, intellectual, and political process that takes place as a contest involving individuals and institutions in all societies….In short, the construction of identity is bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society, and is therefore anything but mere academic wool-gathering.



  1. Amratya Sen, Argumentative Indian, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 352-355

  2. Mani Shankar Aiyar, Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist, New Delhi, 2004, pp.xi-xiv

  3. Ibid., pp. 10

  4. Ibid., pp. xiii-xiv

  5. Ibid., p. 24

  6. M.S. Golwalkar, Bunch of Thoughts, Bangalore, 1966, pp. 45-46

  7. Sen, pp. 348-349

  8. Ibid., 349-350

  9. Aiyar, p. 1

  10. Edward Said, Orientalism, New Delhi, 1995, p. 332