India is a multi-religious country. Hinduism and Islam are the two main religions of India. Over the years, Hindus who were suffering from such bad customs as Sati Pratha, the burning alive of the widow at the funeral pyre of the husband, polygamy, caste system, untouchability, etc., have reformed themselves.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy took cudgels on behalf of the widows and got the Sati Pratha banned by the British rulers. Then Mahatma Phule, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi fought against the caste system apart from the Sikh Gurus who had fought it earlier. As a result of their efforts, the caste system has been abolished and the practice of untouchability has become a crime. The Hindus after Independence reformed themselves socially by having an act called the Hindu Code Bill enacted by the Parliament which prohibited polygamy. However, Muslims stuck to their Sharia laws although these laws cannot be said to be divine. Moreover,Muslims are rapidly moving towards mass-scale Islamisation under the influence of Islamic clerics. They are forcing their women to wear veil or Burqa, practising polygamy and suffering from other social evils. They are also not exercising population control which leads to their living in poverty and also creating fears in the mind of Hindus that India would become an Islamic country. The fears are not real but are sufficient to lead to Hindu-Muslim discord. So, Muslims too need to reform themselves.
Fortunately, in its own limited ways India has an established tradition of intellectual and practical work in favour of Islamic reform and need for modern education among Muslims. In the aftermath of the 1857 War in which the Mughal rule was decimated by the British, two responses arose from within the Muslim community: one was led by Islamic cleric Muhammad Qasim Nanautwi (1832-1880) who thought that the welfare of Muslims would emanate essentially from the revival of Islam and went on to establish the Darul Uloom Deoband seminary. The Darul Uloom Deoband today continues to lead Muslims on the path of orthodoxy, seeds the ideology of Islamism and proactively undermines the welfare of Muslim women. It must be rejected.
A second response emerged under the leadership of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98) who thought that Muslims in India must learn material sciences, adopt the ideas of the European Enlightenment and inculcate a scientific temperament in order for success in this world; he went on to establish the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, now known as the Aligarh Muslim University. Sir Syed's educational mission, especially with regard to the cause of Islamic reform as espoused by his Urdu journal Tahzib ul Akhlaq has been abandoned by the leaders and students of the Aligarh Muslim University, whose only preoccupation in modern times is to organise Mushairas, Urdu poetry recitations for entertainment purposes. The growth of Burqa culture on the university campus in recent years is also a worrying sign.
In the post-independence era, a Maharashtra-based Muslim social reformer Hamid Dalwai was perhaps the most astute thinker to ponder over the future of Muslims in the democratic age. He grasped the workings of democracy and argued for securing the rights of citizens in democratic institutions and processes. Dalwai, who has recently been rediscovered and popularised by Ramachandra Guha, argued that secularism of Hindus who treat Muslims as a minority encourages the anti-secularism of Muslims; and minorities in a democracy like India have equal rights, not special privileges. Unfortunately, Dalwai died at the young age of 44 in 1977 and a great hope for Islamic reform in India was lost prematurely. The paths shown by Sir Syed and Dalwai are worth emulating.
Amid the growing radicalisation of Muslim youths in India under the influence of ISIS, it is being realised that the cause of Islamic reform is urgent. Given the nature of the problem India and other countries are facing from the jihadist onslaught, it is essential that various countries adopt a long-term strategy to counter radicalisation among Muslims. On its part, India needs to ensure that mosques and madrasas are regulated and their sources of funding audited by government officials. While the role of the Quran and Hadiths in influencing Muslims cannot be eliminated from Muslim societies, it is very much possible to push ordinary Muslims onto a path in which they begin to question at least those of their beliefs which are openly inimical to other communities. Therefore, any reform must also aim at preparing a primer that teaches Muslim children from elementary level about the great thinkers of India and the world, thereby promoting liberal arts and free speech. However, if the ulema really want to save Islam from being considered synonymous with terrorism, they should at least make the following commonsensical declarations, which are also consistent with the faith:
1. Quran is a created book of God, not divine as God Himself;
2. contextual, particularly militant verses, in Quran are no longer applicable to Muslims as these were for that period only;
3. Hadees is not an Islamic scripture a la Quran.
4. Shariah cannot be considered divine.
In this regard, it is required that Muslim women should speak out since it is they who are to teach the children before they are sent over to schools and Madarsas. However, to speak out is not easy. It requires gut feeling. A woman wearing a veil or a burqa can hardly have such gut feeling. So, to speak out, they must first of all discard veil or burqa. It was also a contextual requirement for early days of Islam and the versus related to it may be stated to be for that period only. Just as Hindu ladies have discarded Ghoonghat and given up the practice of Sati, burning at the funeral pyre of the dead husband, similarly Muslim women must discard veil or burqa. Only then they can speak out.