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Jamaat-e-Islami India -Tamed by public opinion

‘Religion is like a candle that can illuminate one’s cottage; it can also set it on fire: the choice is one’s own.’

Irfan Ahmad’s book; "Islamism and Democracy in India": The transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami, traces the ‘transformation’ in the ideology of the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) of India, its repudiation of an Islamic state as the party’s aim, and support for secular democracy. In a book focused entirely on the JI in India, the author traces the party’s history before partition, a brief biography of its founder, Maulana Maudoodi, his view of the freedom struggle, and his policies toward the Congress, Muslim League and the two-nation theory.
Unlike the general impression, Maudoodi was widely read in the works of western philosophers, owned a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica and was especially influenced by Marx and Hegel. Ahmad avers that Maudoodi modelled the JI on Marxist lines and quotes passages from his writings to show the remarkable similarity between the Communist manifesto and Maudoodi’s own dialectics revolving round an eternal conflict between haq and baatil. Just as Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, so Maudoodi thought of Sufism as ‘afim, chunya begum’ because it made Muslims fatalistic.
The book succeeds in pointing out the immense challenges faced by the party in post-partition India after Maudoodi moved to Pakistan. It discusses how the JI adopted a pragmatic attitude and gradually came around to adopting secular democracy as its ideological goal.
Since Maudoodi had forbidden Muslims from voting for the League in the 1945-46 elections, ‘arguing that to vote for the League violated Muslims’ faith in monotheism’, the JI continued its boycott of the electoral process in post-British India. However, when the average Indian Muslim started taking part in the electoral process the JI had to do some rethinking. But it was as late as 1984 that the Jamaat finally decided to change its attitude towards elections, which until then it had considered a process that strengthened shirk and taghut. It also began defending the Aligarh University’s ‘Muslim character’.
JI chief Abullais Nadvi said that not to take part in elections would amount to suicide on the part of India’s Muslims and the party dropped hukumat-i-ilahiya as
its aim and fixed istiqamat-i-din as its goal. However, it was in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the rise of Hindutva that the JI Shoora passed a resolution that contained a ‘passionate defence’ of secular democracy, which it called ‘a divine boon’. As the author points out, the JI’s support for secular democracy was ‘only logical’ because the party was operating in a Hindu-majority country.
In the aftermath of partition, the party was so dogmatic that it would refuse to share a dais with non-Muslim leaders as well as with secular-minded Muslims who believed in the ‘kalima of secularism’ and not of Allah. However, in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid destruction, the Jamaat established a ‘Forum for Democracy and Communal Amity’, 20 of whose 35 life-members were Hindu. It was, the author says, the ‘Muslim public’s disavowal of the Jamaat’ that led to the ideological revision.
Ahmad adopts a methodology that is unquestioningly scientific, but perhaps he did not anticipate reader fatigue caused by the details he goes into when writing about a school which the JI established in Aligarh and which underwent transformations which the author argues were symbolic of the changes in the party.
According to the Ahmad, since Maudoodi called Aligarh Muslim University a ‘slaughterhouse’ and an institution of jahiliyat, the JI decided to open a school of its own. At the time of the school’s inception it was called Darsgah-i-Jamaat-i-Islami and students were not allowed to wear trousers. After a decade though, the number of students dropped as parents didn’t want to send their children to a school which did not seek recognition by the state, which considered employment with the government un-Islamic and which regarded studying at Aliglarh Muslim University haraam.
Later, though, the name was changed to Green School, students were allowed to wear trousers, and the ban on going to the ‘slaughterhouse’ that was the AMU was abolished. The author dwells at length on the changes in uniform and syllabus, the removal of Jamaat-oriented textbooks and the invitation to non-Muslim leaders to address the students. ‘Instead of transforming the society, the school was transformed by the society’, he writes.
The author’s own interpretation of Islam is contained in this sentence: ‘Jihad in particular and Islam in general should be seen in their specific historical moorings, and not as a decontextualised abstraction’. Ahmad’s is a scholarly work and attempts to ‘think through the complex interrelationships among Islamism, Muslim minority identity, and the politics of secular democracy.’
Pakistanis should take note of the following Persian adage quoted by the author: ‘Religion is like a candle that can illuminate one’s cottage; it can also set it on fire: the choice is one’s own.’

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