This Eid celebration was spent thinking of two disturbing propositions in Muslim history. The first was on the difference in being irreligious in a religion-driven state, compared to a religiously-neutral modern and secular republic. If you were a Muslim living in Saudi Arabia and openly declared at the end of the month of Ramzan, or during Ramzan itself, that you didn’t keep a fast, you would most likely lose your head. The self-appointed guardians of Islam would not tolerate any deviation from what is considered to be one of the obligatory practices. Imagine the stupidity: a moderate Wahhabi position, even in India, is that if you don’t keep fast you have no right to celebrate Eid.
Mercifully, there’s no political support to such totalitarian proposition in India. The beauty of Indian secularism is that the state will not prevent people from practising their varied customs and rituals, nor will it use power to force people to practice something that they do not want to practice. And, so long as people’s practices are not in contravention to the ideals of the state — of tolerance for difference, respect for a pluralistic culture, social and communal harmony — it will not create any difficulties by resorting to measures appearing in any way to be against traditional practices of a particular community, nor should it be seen as imposing religious practices of a particular community as the representative of India’s national culture, resembling a totalitarian regime of the kind mentioned at the beginning of this column.
If Hindu-Muslim riots were not a political reality in India, there would be serious Shia-Sunni riots and violence of the kind reported on a daily basis from elsewhere in the Muslim world.
The second proposition was regarding the Shia-Sunni problem, with killings of hundreds of innocent people even on the day of Eid no longer considered a matter of shame. If production of Hindu-Muslim riots were not a political reality in India, there would be serious Shia-Sunni riots and violence of the kind reported on a daily basis from elsewhere in the Muslim world: 10% Shia minority, pitted against 90% Sunni majority. From historical experience of societies under the grip of majoritarian aggression, members of small minorities resort to a number of strategies to protect themselves — from concealing identity to avoid becoming a victim of violence and crying for help against the oppressors to assertively negotiating for protection of their life and property as well as distinguishing markers of their separate identity.
The orthodoxies of various different kinds tell us that we should not talk about such unpleasant aspects of war-within as the image of Islam is tarnished, even as the origins of all the sectarian conflicts and violence go back to the day of the death of the Prophet of Islam. The followers and members of the extended family of Muhammad fought even as his body was lying unattended and the news of his passing undeclared, and burial eventually done in a hurry and privately. This is what the lust for power can do to most sincere of the people, who were closely attached to the Prophet and trained by him on how to lead a good Muslim life. The wretched struggle for the leadership of the community undid all the good work he had done, then and there. Subsequently, various sects and their branches, multiplying into the proverbial 72 firqas — such as legitimist Shias, extremist Khwarijis, rationalist Mu’tazila as well as various offshoots of the vast Sunni majority — have been busy outdoing each other in their claims of being the most righteous one; and, harder the circumstances for a sect, darker will be the red line of boundary-markers. The various perspectives on Islam are, thus, framed by sectarian interests and sectarianism among Muslims is a historical reality.
Hundreds of people are being killed on a routine basis, both the killers and the killed are mostly Muslims, while conscience-keepers are either sleeping or silently at work, often at cross-purpose. When questions are raised about violence involving Islam’s internal others going all the way to the first centuries of Islam, they can rise to suppress it in the name of the threat to Islamic unity and brotherhood. The fallout is intolerance of any voice calling for sanity, and the tragedy is all the sects, who are otherwise involved in an eternal struggle, join rank in what they call a cause of Islam.
The original enemies of Islam — the kafirs of Mecca and certain Christian and Jewish tribes siding with the opponents of the Prophet early in his career, or the hypocritical opportunists referred to as munafiqun — may not have done as much harm to the image of the Prophet and the religion that he preached as his own so-called righteous followers, resorting to violent means to establish their own interpretations of Islam, instead of waiting for the Day of Judgement for almighty Allah to have the last laugh.