Why I reject Indian Islam

Representational image. Photo: Maktoob

I am Muslim. I am Indian. I choose to write “Muslim” before “Indian” in defiance. Defiance of the pressure, often from within the community, to say “I am Indian” before “I am Muslim”, or even “I am Indian Muslim”. Does a Hindu identify as “Indian Hindu” or a Sikh as “Indian Sikh”?

A Christian, however, like a Muslim, might be self-compelled, or otherwise, to identify as “Indian Christian” because his religion, like Islam, has foreign origins and a global following. But Christians are rarely subject to such demands/pressures, at least not to the extent Muslims are, given their distinct histories and current realities in the Indian context.

It’s thus common to see Muslims publicly asserting their dual identity, with “I am Indian” often preceding “I am Muslim”, and an influential section among them claiming adherence to “Indian Islam”. In a recent video, actor Naseeruddin Shah said he followed “Hindustani Islam, which is different from the Islam the rest of the world follows.” Shah did not define “Hindustani Islam”, or its tenets, or how it differs from the Islam “the rest of the world follows”, and asked Indian Muslims “if they want reform/modernization of their faith or a return to the barbaric values of the past”. He based his rather dramatic appeal on “sections of Indian Muslims’ jashn (celebration)” over Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, a gross exaggeration of some Indian Muslims congratulating Taliban on social media. That’s far from bursting firecrackers or hosting parties or other forms of celebration the Urdu word “jashn” evokes.  

I defy once again, not for the sake of defiance, but for the sake of truth: I do not follow Indian or Hindustani Islam. If anything, I reject “Indian Islam”. Like I reject Islamophobia. “Indian Islam” is an Islamophobic proposition that posits Islam as an inherently violent and intolerant faith which, in its “Indianised” form, becomes peaceful and tolerant. It assumes Islam and India to symbolize opposing values, with the latter “taming” the former in their “fusion”. It supposes an “Indian Muslim” to be civil because of being Indian, and despite being Muslim. 

In their emphatic distancing from “global Islam”, proponents of “Indian Islam” reinforce, rather than break, stereotypes about Islam. They also fail to define what constitutes Indian Islam other than suggesting that it is a “syncretic” or “less rigid” form of Islam, one that upholds partaking in Hindu rituals as an example of “peaceful coexistence”. This is a problematic stance as it attempts to “Hinduise” Muslims in the garb of “Indianising” them, as if being Hindu is equivalent to being Indian; as if speaking the same language, using the same spices in our food, wearing salwar kameez or sari, following the same Constitution isn’t being Indian enough. 

“Indian Islam” is also understood to be free or scornful of “Arabisation”, one that is free of hijab, burqa and Arabic pronunciation of Arabic-origin Urdu words, such as “Ramzan” being said as “Ramadan”. This, to call a spade a spade, is anti-Arab racism, and by extension, Islamophobia, as it links Arab symbols with Islam. If “Westernising” in attire or speech isn’t a problem, why should “Arabising” be? If you welcome Indian youth wearing jeans, eating burgers and paying “bucks” instead of “rupees”, but outrage over Indian Muslims wearing a hijab or abaya or saying “Allah” instead of “Khuda”, then you need to question your intellectual honesty (or lack thereof).

Dishonesty often springs from insecurity. In the case of the usage of the term “Indian Islam”, it is the insecurity of a section of Indian Muslims, who, in order to be accepted or validated by non-Muslims in Islamophobic times, criticize ordinary practicing Muslims for no good or logical reason. Hence, Shah blasts Indian Muslims with a choice between “modernizing religion or returning to barbarism”. If this isn’t textbook Islamophobic language, I don’t know what is. At a time Muslims in India are facing the brunt of Hindutva, Shah’s choice of words epitomizes irresponsible, callous use of influence. 

Those supporting Shah’s call for “reforming” Islam would do better to purge the glorious so-called “Indian Islam” of practices unique to Indian Muslims such as instant triple talaq, dowry, and non-payment of mehr (a sum paid by the groom to the bride at the time of marriage). These practices violate the rules of the much vilified “global Islam”.

 If “reform of Islam” implies not reform of the religion per se but of its followers .i.e Muslims, nothing could be more patronizing. Institutions are reformed. Systems are reformed. Policies are reformed. Hence, states undertake judicial reforms, prison reforms, economic reforms etc. To reform an entire people is to mock their existence. Instead of “reform”, Muslims in India need political and socio-economic empowerment. “Empower”, not “reform”.  The former is sincere and uplifting, the latter is insincere and belittling. 

A Muslim can counter Islamophobia in two ways – like Shah, slam “bad” global Islam, endorse “good” Indian Islam or rubbish such binaries and assert your religious identity, like the thousands of ordinary, practicing Muslims who wore hijabs and chanted “La Ilaha IllalAllah’ (There is no God but Allah) during protests against the decidedly anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). 

But even then, Muslim protestors, for fear of “being too Muslim” for their Hindu liberal allies, gradually rephrased their slogan from “saving Muslims’ citizenship” to “saving the Constitution”. A life-size cut-out of a map of India was raised in Shaheen Bagh to stress the “Indianness” of the cause of the protests. As if fighting for rights of Indian Muslims runs counter to fighting for the Constitution. But Indian Muslims have sadly internalized a feeling of guilt in asserting their religious identity, even for urgent causes like protesting against the CAA. 

Muslims of India need to unshackle themselves from the need to visibilize their Indianness and invisibilize their Muslimness. They need to reject all ideas and labels that seek the approval of others at the cost of their own dignity. “Indian Islam” is one such label. As an Indian who follows Islam, I absolutely reject it. 

Irena Akbar runs an Islamic art enterprise in Lucknow. You can read the original article here.