Past present: Identity cri­ses


Mubarak Ali May 18, 2014

When the Mughal Empire was at its ze­nith; no­bles, po­ets, ar­tists, and ar­chi­tects from all over the Muslim world ar­rived in India in the hope of roy­al pa­tron­age at the Mughal court; and they were cer­tain­ly not dis­ap­poin­ted.

They set­tled in the sub­con­ti­nent and in rec­og­ni­tion of their serv­ices, they were gran­ted priv­i­leg­es, ja­girs, pow­er­ful po­si­tions and ti­tles. There are no his­tor­ic re­cords that show any evi­dence of the mi­gra­tion of Mughal aris­toc­ra­cy to oth­er Muslim states for eco­nom­ic op­por­tu­ni­ties. As long as the Mughal pow­er was sta­ble, they had no feel­ings of in­se­cur­i­ty.

The sit­ua­tion, how­ev­er, changed af­ter the death of Aurangzeb in 1707; as the proc­ess of de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion be­gan and re­gion­al pow­ers chal­lenged the au­thor­i­ty of the Mughal em­per­or. At this junc­ture, the Mughal no­bil­i­ty re­ac­ted by mi­grat­ing to Awadh and Hyderabad in search of new pa­trons. Those who chose to stay back at the roy­al court fell in­to a rath­er crit­i­cal so­cial and eco­nom­ic sit­ua­tion.

While Delhi, Agra and oth­er north­ern cit­ies were ran­sacked by the Jats, the Marhathas and the Ruhellas; the Mughal court was un­able to deal with these chal­leng­es. This was when Shah Waliullah ap­pealed to Ahmad Shah Abdali to at­tack the sub­con­ti­nent and res­cue the Mughals from their en­e­mies. Article continues after ad

Although Abdali de­fea­ted the Marhathas in 1761, he fur­ther weak­ened the Mughal em­per­or and the no­bil­i­ty by plun­der­ing their wealth. The idea of re­viv­ing pow­er and sta­bil­i­ty us­ing for­eign help failed; so no les­son can be learned from this dis­mal ep­i­sode.

When the East India Company gained po­lit­i­cal pow­er in the sub­con­ti­nent and grad­u­al­ly seized most of the states, the rul­ers who wan­ted to re­tain their in­de­pend­ence felt threat­ened. After los­ing all hope of any sup­port com­ing from the Mughal state; Tipu Sultan of Mysore (d.1799) wrote a let­ter to the Ottoman ca­liph for help. Instead of ex­tend­ing help, the ca­liph be­trayed Tipu Sultan by hand­ing over the let­ter to the British gov­ern­ment.

In 1857, af­ter the re­volt against the British rule, the ca­liph ex­hor­ted the Muslims of the sub­con­ti­nent to sup­port the British rule in­stead of fight­ing against them.

The lead­ers of the Muslim com­mun­i­ty in the sub­con­ti­nent were not aware of the dis­mal and de­gen­er­ated sta­tus of the ca­liph and the de­cline of the Ottoman Empire. Neither were they aware of the dec­a­dent sit­ua­tion of Afghanistan, Iran and oth­er Muslim coun­tries which were in no po­si­tion to help them. Oblivious, the Muslims of the sub­con­ti­nent launched a move­ment in fa­vour of the ca­liph who was even­tu­al­ly de­fea­ted in World War 1. Ironically, the new po­lit­i­cal pow­er un­der Mustafa Kamal threat­ened to abol­ish the in­sti­tu­tion which had lost both its util­i­ty and sig­nif­i­cance.

The Khilafat move­ment in the sub­con­ti­nent was mere­ly the out­come of the sense of in­se­cur­i­ty and in­sta­bil­i­ty of the Muslims of the sub­con­ti­nent who wan­ted to save and re­tain a re­li­gious sym­bol which they be­lieved would pro­vide them with a sense of iden­ti­ty. Interestingly, the British gov­ern­ment was in fa­vour of em­pow­er­ing the ca­liph to use him to ob­tain a fa­vour­a­ble trea­ty. Therefore, the British gov­ern­ment sup­por­ted the Khilafat move­ment in the sub­con­ti­nent.

When in 1924 the Khilafat was abol­ish­ed by the new Turkish gov­ern­ment, the whole move­ment col­lapsed. The Muslims of the sub­con­ti­nent re­al­ised they had was­ted their en­er­gy and re­sour­ces for a lost cause and had on­ly in­creased the in­flu­ence of the ule­ma in pol­i­tics.

The out­come of the Khilafat move­ment was a fat­wa is­sued by Maulana Azad and Maulana Abdul Bari of Farangi Mahal; ad­vis­ing the Muslims that, as the sub­con­ti­nent had be­come Dar-ul-Harb or the Abode of War, it was a re­li­gious du­ty of the Muslims to mi­grate from the sub­con­ti­nent. Many Muslim fam­i­lies sold their prop­er­ties and mi­gra­ted to Afghanistan where they were not wel­comed. After much in­sult and hu­mil­ia­tion, they re­turned to the sub­con­ti­nent to find that they had lost more than they had thought.

The ques­tion aris­ing here is that why did the Muslims of the sub­con­ti­nent look out­side for help in­stead of re­ly­ing on their own re­sour­ces? Perhaps, the rea­son for this out­look was their pe­cu­liar his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing. Since they be­gin their his­to­ry from 711AD, when Muhammad Bin Qasim con­quered Sindh, they dis­con­nect their re­la­tions with the Indian past and link their his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive with an Islamic past. The re­sult of this his­tor­i­cal con­scious­ness is that they tend to look out­side the sub­con­ti­nent for their iden­ti­ty and in­volve them­selves in all is­sues pre­vail­ing in the Muslim world.

This trend is fol­lowed to the pres­ent day. Religious ex­trem­ists are im­por­ted and ac­cep­ted; the re­sult of which is sec­tar­i­an­ism which has de­stroyed re­li­gious tol­er­ance. The con­cept of Wahabism im­por­ted through for­eign fund­ing has cre­ated so many con­flicts in our so­ci­ety, that it now threat­ens our sta­bil­i­ty as a coun­try.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 18th, 2014