Born A Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India opens with a 42–page long introduction in which the author, Ghazala Wahab, writes of her experience of growing up as a Muslim in the northern part of India. She also tells us insightful personal stories with details of the class and caste systems among Indian Muslims, while underlining the anxieties and challenges of being a Muslim in post-Babri India.

Reading through these pages, every middle class Indian Muslim will have a sense of déjà vu. The fine introduction works as an appetiser, offering a fair idea what the full course is going to be like. As expected, in the subsequent chapters, these personal stories flow into the larger narrative about India’s largest minority – its history, its social structures, its insecurities, its positions in the hierarchy of Indian political system – in the “New Modified India”. At a time like this, when Indian Muslims are being marginalised, demonised and humiliated on a daily basis, a book like this was much needed.

Arrival and consolidation

In the first chapter, Muslims in Independent India, Wahab talks about the socio-political conditions of Muslims and tells us how social prejudices (in addition to a total absence of credible and progressive Muslim leadership) are major deterrents in allowing them to join the so called “mainstream”. She holds a mirror to the moderates from the majority community, who don’t support right wing politicians but harbout many preconceived notions about Muslims perpetuated by right wingers.

Why, many of them believe in the propaganda of “Muslim appeasement” and “all Muslims are radicals”. Describing the predicament of the Muslim community in India, Wahab aptly quotes the Sachar Committee report which says that “Muslims carry a double burden of being labeled ‘anti-national’ and of being ‘appeased’ at the same time.”

The second and third chapters focus on the history of Indian Islam, including important details about the social structures of Indian Muslim communities, especially in the context of various sects and sub-sects. Starting with the birth of Muhammad, the book captures the entire trajectory of early Islam, including the power struggles within the ummah after the death of the Prophet.

During the regimes of the first four caliphs, disputes about the rightful spiritual successors of the Prophet was so pronounced that it led to the assassinations of three caliphs and divided the community into its two major sects, Sunni and Shia. Later, these sects were further divided into several sub-sects.

Writing about the advent of Islam in India, the author emphasises that it came via Arab traders and, subsequently, Sufi saints who were believers in the philosophy of Wahdat-ul-Wazood, the unity of all beings. The most important tools for them to propagate their spiritual message were love and brotherhood. The Islamic concept of egalitarianism appealed to many of the socially oppressed castes of the Hindu community, and they willingly accepted this new religion. However, there were some Muslim converts who accepted the religion either under duress or in order to impress the rulers of their time – facts that the author doesn’t flinch from accepting.

Communities and society

Unequivocally underlining the fact that Indian Muslims are not a monolithic community, the author says that they are not only divided on the basis of sects and sub-sects, but also on caste lines. Islam professes a classless society where all the faithfuls are supposed to be treated equally despite differences in their occupations, national identities and racial profiles. But in practice, Indian Muslims, like Hindus, also follow a caste-system, Wahab reminds us.

Thus, Sayyeds, Sheikhs and Pathans are the top three in the caste hierarchy, and are collectively called the Ashraf. Others are considered to belong to the “lower castes” or Ajlaf. Although the caste system is not as strict as it is among Hindus, and there are no untouchables, traditionally, Ashraf and Ajlaf Muslims don’t intermarry.

The chapter on Islam, Tabligh and the Jamat explains many important Islamic terms for readers, and in the process debunks several popular myths about the rituals and practices of Islam. For example, how many of us know that the fatwa is a non-binding piece of advice? Or that when one talks about the Shariah, it also involves ijtihad (interpretation), ijma (consensus), and qiyaas (analogical reasoning)?

In this chapter, we also get to know about two important Muslim organisations, the Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat-e-Islami. The former was founded in 1920, with a mission to promote da’wah, which means “invitation” (read” invitation to Islam). In India this invitation is mainly directed at Muslims, especially Muslim youths, who do not perform the obligatory prayers and are only occasional visitors to the mosques.

The Jamaat-e-Islami, on the other hand, is a socio-political organisation which re-established itself as a socio-religious entity after the partition. Wahab writes: “But even in the realm of socio-religious emancipation of Muslims lies an undercurrent of exclusionary politics, which Maulana Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, believed was an integral part of Islam. This is the reason that the Jamaat has often been equated with the RSS.’

Contradictions and confrontations

In the next two chapters, the writer delves deep into pre-independence history, pointing to the sources from which communal politics arose in India, ending with the bifurcation of the country. The legacies of the divisive politics of pre-independence days still affect Hindu-Muslim relations, and give ammunition to some political parties and organisations. Wahab shows that Muslim political entities and socio-religious organisations which should have been countering the propaganda against them failed miserably in the absence of progressive leadership.

“The women have not been treated fairly by the Muslim community,” laments the writer in the chapter titled “Women”. Indeed, Muslim women have not only been denied opportunities to educate themselves and become financially independent, but are also forced to follow the commands of conservative clerics or elders of the society in almost every aspect of life.

From sartorial preferences to choosing partners, everything is guided by the community’s strict parameters of moral values and good behaviour. But the same set of strict rules is not applied to Muslim men. Additionally, family laws related to inheritance and divorce are unfairly skewed in favour of males.

The title of Chapter Eight, “The Changing Face of Muslim Society”, is self-explanatory, delving into shifts in responses, structures and behaviour in the face of sustained hostility. Many Muslims who earlier used to discreetly disown their religious identity have now begun to assert it. A good number of them have decided to contribute positively to the betterment of their community – for instance, some offer free coaching to poor Muslim boys and girls. Political developments have also made the community introspect and question its leaders, and it is hoped that something good will come out of this.

In the concluding section, “What Muslims Want”, Wahab proclaims in clear terms that, like any other community, Muslims too want a decent life and security. They want to be treated at par with fellow Indians. However, to achieve all of these, they have to work towards improving literacy levels and sidelining undesirable and radical elements, and stop being herded by Islamic organisations and mullahs. Remember, Wahab tells us “Islam didn’t encourage a hierarchical clergy because Prophet Muhammad understood that power corrupts”.

Wahab skilfully uses personal memoir and history to build the narrative in this book, and then, with the help of her reporting, interviewing and researching skills, adds insightful and data-backed details to prove her arguments. As a result, Born A Muslim is informative and poignant in equal measure.

Abdullah Khan is a Mumbai-based novelist, screenwriter, literary critic and banker. His debut novel Patna Blues has been translated into eight languages. He can be reached here.

Born A Muslim

Born A Muslim: Some Truths About Islam In India, Ghazala Wahab, Aleph Book Company.