Islam in South Asia

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    The social situation of Muslims in India

    Following the division of the subcontinent in 1947, a great many Muslim intellectuals, civil servants, doctors and lawyers emigrated to Pakistan. This led to a transformation in the social structure of the Muslim community. A large proportion of the Muslims who stayed in India came from rural areas. In consequence, apart from weakening the Muslim community economically, the departure of the urban, financially strong Muslim avant garde also accelerated its political decline. After 1947, Indian Muslims lacked economic resources, continued to lose out on account of their religion as the Indian civil service was restructured and were bereft of political leadership. Economic misery and social disintegration led to more pronounced communal conflicts in the major urban centres again at the end of the 1950s.

    Today, the majority of Indian Muslims still live from agriculture. Since, in secular India, the employment market in the higher ranks of the administration seems to be limited for Muslims, it is noticeable that sections of the middle classes are turning their backs on education and schooling and increasingly attempting to establish themselves on the employment market with relatively low levels of qualification, e.g. in the commercial sector.

    Religious differences within the Muslim community

    Despite its formal orientation towards the Islamic scriptures that guide Muslims everywhere, Islam in India is adapted to the cultural peculiarities of each particular locality, above all at the ritual level.

    The popular Islam practised by rural Muslims may be described as a product of indigenisation: local and Islamic culture complement each other, are closely interwoven or coexist happily. A good example of this is the widespread worship of saints, which is practiced equally by all Indians – both Muslims and Hindus – and runs counter to the text-focussed Islam of the fundamentalists. Local shrines serve as meeting places where the divisions between religious groups are blurred. For instance, one not infrequently finds Hindu musicians at the graves of Islamic saints, etc.

    On account of the tendencies towards segregation between the majority and minority in urban areas, stricter, more “Islamist” forms of devotion predominate in the cities and towns than in the country. A rigorous interpretation of Islam often strengthens urban Muslims’ identification with their religious background and gives the kind of social support many people need. Urban groups tend more to a form of religion based on textual exegesis (what is known as scripturalism) of the kind propagated, for example, by the representatives of political Islam, although city-dwellers too regard popular Islamic values with affection. The scripturalists mainly have their social base among the middle and lower classes and not infrequently advocate an Islamisation that would purify Indian Islam of local influences. This purism often encourages Muslims to shut themselves off and isolate themselves from an environment that is perceived as culturally alien, triggering religiously motivated conflicts. Apart from these tensions between urban and rural social strata, there are disagreements, on the one hand, between the various Sunni philosophical movements and, on the other, between Sunnis and Shiites. Violent clashes between these groups occur again and again.

    The caste system

    One result of Muslims’ adaptation to the local culture is that the social structure of the Muslim minority in India is clearly influenced by the Indian caste system. In contrast to the Hindus, however, the caste system is not religiously legitimised among Muslims. Endogamy and the idea of pride in birth and ancestry are widespread, but they are not founded on an ideology of purity. Levels of prosperity and other non-religious factors appear to have more significance in determining social status among Muslims. Furthermore, the Muslims do not have a pure, ritual caste with specific functions like the Brahmins.

    Muslim identity and conflicts

    In spite of the internal differences that are apparent within Indian Islam, some sections of the Muslim elite left behind in India – though not those that are secularly oriented – do aspire to a monolithic Muslim identity. Most of the representatives of this elite, which is concentrated in the urban centres, tend to proclaim their own ideas as projects with validity for the whole of society and regard their community as a religious minority merely working for the maintenance of its language (Urdu) and culture, not as a politicised national minority. They promote the isolation of the Muslim community from the Hindu majority, which results in the continuing underrepresentation of Muslims in the civil service and is therefore making the dilemma faced by Indian Muslims a permanent condition.

    The Muslim collective identity that is being propagated and a heightened sense of Hindu nationalism are exacerbating the existing potential for conflicts. The numbers of clashes between Muslims and Hindus have risen significantly over the last few years. However, these conflicts are not triggered by religion as such, but by lifeworld interests that are articulated in religious terms. The representatives of religious purism are successfully exploiting religious feelings among economically and socially weak groups, politicising them and radicalising them. Socio-economic concerns play a central role in this unrest, including inadequate opportunities to meet fundamental needs, obstacles to vertical mobility and the social disorientation caused by migration.



    Annemarie Schimmel: Islam in the Indian Subcontinent, Leiden-Köln 1980

    Jamal Malik: Islam in Südasien, in A. Noth & J. Paul (Hg.): Der islamische Orient - Grundzüge seiner Geschichte, Würzburg 1998

    Imtiaz Ahmad (Hg.): Caste and Social Stratification among the Muslims, New Delhi 1973

    Imtiaz Ahmad (Hg.): Family, Kinship and Marriage among Muslims in India, New Delhi 1976

    Imtiaz Ahmad (Hg.): Ritual and Religion among Muslims of the Sub-continent, Lahore 1985

    Imtiaz Ahmad (Hg.): Modernization and Social Change among Muslims in India, New Delhi 1983

    Jamal Malik
    is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Erfurt. His research interests include Muslim minority communities in Europe, the social history of South Asia, colonialism, interculturality, political Islam and the sociology of religion.

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