By Asghar Ali Engineer
Traditional ulema have nearly always opposed social reform calling it un-Islamic. Many are able to mobilise support from static Muslim societies by quoting either certain selected Quranic verses or the hadith. Historically, ulema have also declared reformers as kafir or mulhid, i.e. believers in naturism rather than God.
Once such fatwas are issued against a reformer, he/she faces total isolation in society and finds it extremely difficult to carry on reform. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, whose birthday was on Oct 17, was one such great social reformer.
He never laboured over religious doctrines. He just wanted Muslims to go for modern, secular education so that modern knowledge, which was mostly available in English, could be made accessible to the Muslims. The ulema opposed his movement for modern education, the founding of an institution of modern learning, and issued fatwas against him, dubbing him variously as kafir, Christian and Jewish. One of the ulema even travelled to Makkah and obtained a fatwa for killing Sir Syed.
The question arises: why this show of fierce opposition to social reform which was, after all, for the betterment of the Muslim community of India? It was certainly not religious belief alone because opposition to social reform emanates from a host of complex factors.
Firstly, change is always feared as it brings uncertainty and unknown consequences, especially on the part of those who do not benefit from change. Apart from theologians and community leaders, it is feared by the masses who have not experienced change and have lived amid ignorance and superstitious beliefs.
Secondly, it is feared by the priesthood, by theologians as well as some social and cultural leaders because it challenges their leadership. Priests and theologians have had a grip on the minds of the people for too long, and many feel any change will throw up new social or theological leaders in which case they will lose out. Thus they oppose reform to secure their own positions. To legitimise their opposition they find what they call religious reasons and try quoting out of context from scriptures to impress the public.
The ulema in the 19th century were highly apprehensive of English education as it would mean challenging the madressah education, coupled with the fear that Muslims would be moving a step nearer to Christianity. As Arabic education was considered a step towards Islam, English education was considered a step towards Christianity. There was little more reason for the ulema to oppose modern education.
The ulema had held high positions in Mughal courts and functioned as qazis or religious judges. They were being replaced by British judges and highly qualified Indians who had studied the law. This created strong resentment among the ulema; they denounced the English education system which was taking away everything from them. Thus they had everything to fear and nothing to celebrate.
Muslim masses also supported them, because they recognised the ulema as their religious leaders and men of great Islamic learning. Secondly, Muslim society at the time was either static or decadent. Any change made the people fearful and they rightly believed the British to be their enemy, one who threatened their religious belief and political hegemony. The future was unknown and in the hands of foreign rulers.
Also, as pointed out before, change is feared by those who lose out and celebrated by those who gain from it. Only very few side with reformers who have some idea of what the future may hold. Among Muslims in India Sir Syed began the vigorous movement for modern education even before a new class of Muslims who could be the beneficiary of English education emerged.
Eventually, of course, that class came to the fore, albeit slowly, and subsequently became the harbinger of change. Among these people a galaxy of intellectuals arose who are respected to date. They included people like Nawab Mohsinul Mulk, Maulavi Chiragh Ali, Justice Amir Ali and Maulvi Mumtaz Ali Khan among several others. They developed a new vision of life and laid the foundation for a better life for the Muslims in India. Many from this new class of Muslims joined the civil, police and other services and left a mark on society.
Today many ulema are not only learning English they are also trying to project Islam to non-Muslims in the English language. What was thought to be the language of kafirs in the 19th century has now come to stay in the Muslim world. Thus, those who oppose change subsequently not only accept it, but also find that it becomes the very means of survival.
It is very unfortunate that many ulema should still vehemently oppose everything new, only to accept it later, reluctantly, for their own survival. We often refuse to move with the times and then time forces us to move with it after extracting a price for our refusal to change.
The writer is an Islamic scholar who heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai