Rule of the unruly Ulema
By Meenakshi Jain
The current furore over the functioning of ?Islamic courts? as a parallel judicial system glosses over the ulema'sunwavering commitment to the maintenance of an ?autonomous Muslim society? in India. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the ulema, bereft of the patronage of a Muslim state, concentrated upon guiding the Muslim community in political and non-political matters, from a religious point of view. It specially emphasised the writing of judicial opinions (fatwas) for individual Muslims as a method of dispensing instruction on correct beliefs and practices.
The Deoband seminary, established by a group of ulema in 1867, has issued 269,215 fatwas in the first century of its existence, thus acquiring the reputation of being the authority on all aspects of Muslim life. To maintain a distinct identity, it actively discouraged social and business relations with Hindus and even frowned upon ?tashabbuh? (infidelity by resembling infidels), ?whether in dress, hair style, or the use of brass instead of copper vessels.?
Despite their commitment to ?the sharia vision? of non-Muslims (i.e. as kafirs), the ulema endorsed the Indian National Congress? demand for independence. Yet it did so without compromising its commitment to the consolidation of a separate, distinctly Islamic order in India. Indeed, it roundly rejected ?a unitary democratic state in India with authority over all persons and causes?.
In 1919 the ulema established its first political organisation, the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind, which soon came under the hold of the Deobandis. Maulana Azad, closely associated with its founding and proclaiming himself principal spokesman of the religious school, articulated its goal of a ?self-regulated millat?. He said, ?the only basis of the true nationality of Muslims is the comprehension and implementation of the doctrines of the Sharia.?
Lamenting the lack of communal unity among Indian Muslims who had no leader or Amir, Azad took the initiative to set up a religio-political authority?an Imarat?which would owe allegiance to the universal Khalifa and regulate the social and political life of Indian Muslims. Maulana Abul Mohsin Sajjad prepared the draft of the entire system of Imarat government in conformity with the Sharia? from the village and district level upwards, with the responsibility of the whole country resting with the Amir. Azad described the setting up of such an organisation in Bihar:-
?In Bihar the primaries had been working for the last three or four years. Therefore, the first attempt was made there? At a meeting under the auspices of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema attended by 300 ulemas of Bihar an Ameer-i Sharia was unanimously elected?.
The constitution of the Jamiat clearly identified among its aims and objectives the organisation of the Muslim community (millat) on Sharia lines, the establishment of Sharia courts and no less significantly, missionary activity to propagate Islam.
Interestingly, there was a remarkable similarly in the orientation and beliefs of the Jamiat and the Muslim League, though the Jamiat distrusted the westernised leadership of the Muslim League and opposed partition on the ground that it would divide the Muslims into three parts and thereby enfeeble them. Separatist Muslims and nationalist ulema had near-identical views on the issue of identity. But while the League pressed for the ?physical and mental partition? of India, the ulema worked for ?mental partition? alone. They viewed India as a ?minimal federation? of religious communities, where Muslims with their self-governing institutions would be an imperium in imperio (state within a state).
The ulema was adamant that Muslims in independent India would not be subjected to the Indian Penal Code but to Sharia-based courts. They would not avail of an Indian education, which could inculcate a sense of common purpose, but continue to be educated in Islamic traditions. In the laws they followed and the values they uphold, they would be a separate people in the Indian nation.
Inhabiting the same space as Hindus, the Ulema argued that Muslims would remain culturally apart, till such times as they could win over the Hindus to Islam. A major objective of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema was to propagate and spread Islam through peaceful missionary work. It feared that the antagonism created by the Muslim League'sdemand for a separate homeland would hamper Islam'sproselytising agenda. Maulana Madani articulated this clearly in a speech at Delhi on September 19, 1945:-
?At the termination of Muslim rule there were about 25 million Muslims in India. Within a period of less than a century their numbers increased to 100 million. The missionary work of the ?ulema? has a great contribution in this increase? The great objective of an overall spread of Islam in the whole of India cannot be realised by appealing to passions of hatred and antagonism. It is the non-Muslims who are the field of action for the ?tabligh? of Islam and form the raw material for this splendid activity. Today, by propagating hatred towards the Hindus, this field is being closed and this material wasted. It is contrary to the universal message of our great Prophet (Peace be upon him).?
Madani continued: ?Our object is to bridge the gulf of hatred which is being created by the protagonists of the scheme of Pakistan; we are opposed to the idea of limiting the right of missionary activities of Islam within any particular area. The Muslims have got a right in all the nooks and corners of India by virtue of the great struggle and grand sacrifices of their ancestors in this country. Now it is our duty to maintain that claim and try to widen its scope, instead of giving it up.?
Clearly, despite the loss of state power, the ulema commitment to a state within a state until they repossess the entire state continues unabated.