Author Ghazala Wahab talks about her new book, Born a Muslim, what it means to live as a Muslim with the fear of violence and humiliation in today’s India, and why she’s hopeful amid a wave of Islamophobia.
New Delhi: Weaving personal narrative from her birth in a middle-class Muslim family in Agra with a historical perspective that goes back to the birth of the Prophet of Islam in the seventh century, Ghazala Wahab’s Born A Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India is essential reading for every Indian citizen. The book is breathtaking in its scholarly ambition and scope, tracing the birth of Islam, its introduction into India and the rise of the various sects from Barelvi to Deobandi that have taken root in this country. It is also a deeply-felt personal account that seeks to understand how a syncretic Islam that thrived for centuries through a culture rooted in Sufi philosophy has come to be so reviled by a section of the right wing. It explores the insecurities and internalised fears of living as a Muslim in India.
Wahab’s sweeping book, already in its third reprint since its launch on 1 March, examines the various aspects of contemporary politics that has resulted in this situation for 14.23% of India’s population. From the First War of Independence in 1857 to the trauma of Partition; from the over-ruling of the Shah Bano judgement by the Rajiv Gandhi government to the deliberate cultivation of the stereotype of the Muslim “other”, first as foreign invader and now as lesser-than-equal citizens, this book as an honest examination of where and how we went wrong. It is unsparing too, of exploitative mullahs who hold large swathes of an illiterate and fearful populace captive.
To read Born a Muslim is to understand a little of what it means to be a minority in a country dominated by majoritarian politics. In this interview with Article 14, Ghazala Wahab spoke on video call about living through the 1990 communal riots in Agra that ensued in the wake of L.K. Advani’s rath yatra, the current breach between communities, gender rights in Islam, and, hope.
Edited excerpts of the interview:
Reading your book, left me with a sense of shame really of how little I know about being born Muslim in India. For me, the most evocative portion is the first part of the book, which is your personal account of your family, childhood and coming of age. Given its emotional immediacy, how difficult was it for you to write this portion?
It was actually not very difficult at all. I wrote this portion at a time when even the structure of the book was not very clear in my mind. At that time what I wanted to focus on was how my extended family had drifted from this state of this laid-back, easy-going sort of relationship with religion to becoming increasingly conservative, and at some point even dogmatic.
I have been concerned about how this change happened in my family where earlier nobody had been judgmental or told anyone to do certain things or not do them. When you grow up in a joint family, you have a connect and imagine that all your life it will be like this. But over the last two decades, as everybody's relationship with religion started to take change, we also started to drift apart as a family because our priorities and attitudes changed.
What I wanted to trace was this process of how socio-economic and political factors have worked in tandem to push a very moderate family towards more radical thinking.
One of the dilemmas that comes across in this section is your father's dilemma: Does he move out of a lower middle class Muslim-majority mohalla where there is safety in numbers to an upscale Hindu-majority neighbourhood? Of course, in your description of the 1990 riots [in Agra following L K Advani’s rath yatra], there is no safety in numbers since all the boys and men in your family who live in the mohalla are rounded up and arrested anyway. It’s heartbreaking to read how you and your father were making phone calls to the police and administration and nobody would take your calls. But what stood out for me was your mother's advice to not talk about what your family had gone through during the riots. Where did this advice come from?
My father had a slightly exaggerated sense of his own personality. He felt that he is one person who is looked up to by everybody. Whenever a new district magistrate would be appointed, for instance, he would call upon my father as one of the prominent citizens of the area.
I'll give you an example which is not there in the book. My father had a shoe factory and once was in talks to collaborate with a large European shoe company. The representative from this shoe company, a tall, bulky European man, came to visit the factory, but because he didn’t speak very good English, was speaking rather loudly and in a very aggressive manner. My father is of medium build and became conscious that his factory workers would think that this tall man was scolding him. He tried a few times to tell the representative to talk a bit softly. But the man wouldn’t listen. And finally, my father slapped him.
Back in his cabin, he tried to explain why he had to slap him to save face before his own workers. “If my workers feel that you have no respect for me, they will stop listening to my orders. I have to maintain hierarchy,” he explained. Of course, the shoe company representative could not understand and we lost that contract.
This was his mental makeup. When the riots happened and his brothers were picked up by the police, my father went to the station where he was made to sit on the same bench as so many others with all sorts of complaints. It was very humiliating for him, this big businessman and winner of awards at whose home the police commissioner would come to visit, now sitting outside on this bench. This is where my mother’s advice was coming from.
I understand. But by not talking about it, how do you process the post-traumatic stress of what you had undergone? Did you ever talk to your father about it?
No, never. But I spoke to my younger siblings about it. My younger sister was just four-years-old when it happened so she has no recollection of it but with my younger brothers, we have re-lived that event so often, sharing our memories and fears of what could have happened. We have gotten over it really. But, for my father, he is still in that place.
I’m asking because as you mention, riots have been a part and parcel of our society right from Independence. In fact, as you write, these are not so much about inter-community tensions as much as they are about planned state actions with police complicity, and this includes the most recent riots we saw in New Delhi in January 2020. So, my question really is, how do you process that trauma when you just go back to living your life as though everything is normal?
One of the ramifications of this is that in your mind you accept your place in society as you think you have been shown it. My father, for instance, tells me, “When you write your next book, try and be a little balanced. You must also praise the government sometimes and say that the prime minister has done a lot of things for minorities.” His biggest worry is that he doesn’t want some disaster to happen to the family. He has internalised this fear that somebody might target us. It's not so much fear of violence as it is a fear of further humiliation.
So many people with this sense of self-respect worry about how people perceive them; how they are seen by others. When last year, people were asked to bang thaalis [to fight the coronavirus pandemic], my parents also did it because they wanted the entire neighbourhood to see them doing it. I refused because I told them it was stupidity. But they were anxious and my mother said, “You are living in a housing complex and if everybody is doing it and you don't do it, then what will they think?”
I really didn't care because I feel that I am as much a part of this country as anybody else. Why should I need to do something that goes against my grain, just so that others see that I'm doing it?
Similarly, when people went around collecting chanda (donation) for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, my father was anxious that I should contribute generously and people should know that I have contributed. I said I don’t want to contribute, and fortunately they did not come to my neighbourhood to collect. But when you internalize your anxieties, you're always trying to show yourself as somebody who should not be distrusted or suspected of anything.
Let's talk about the coming of Islam into India. You write of how the right wing has successfully fuelled the notion that Hindus have been persecuted in their own country. The plundering of the Somnath temple by Mahmud of Ghazni has repercussions even today. Yet, he had no interest in extending his territory here–just plunder and leave. Even his namesake, Mohammad of Ghori left behind his two slaves to establish the sultanates in Delhi and Bengal. So, consequently, the Islam that took root in India was a syncretic Islam, what you call the Ganga-Jamni tehzeeb, deeply influenced by Sufi philosophy. As you point out, none of the Mughal emperors ever went to Hajj, preferring to revere indigenous Sufi saints. So where does this idea of the evil foreign invader come from?
In retrospect, it goes back to when Christian-Islamic rivalry was playing out in the other parts of the world. The Christian-based British Empire was deeply prejudiced against Muslims. In any case, Muslims were the rulers they were deposing to take control of the country. The vilification of Muslims was part of the political project to convey to the people here the emergence of the new masters of the region. They cultivated the notion of Muslims being barbarians and cruel people. It was part of their political project to create this prejudice, and its impact was immediate.
This permanent tension and continuous disharmony was useful to the British because then they could then play one against the other. I was surprised to see the earliest literature that even people like Veer Savarkar have referred to is Western literature, they actually have no reference points of their own. When they are talking about the destruction of thousands of temples, they have no Indian reference for that and are resorting to Western literature to support this argument.
Another very interesting thing I discovered while I was researching this book was that the Muslim rulers did not encourage people to convert. Wherever they went, from Spain to Central Asia, they were happy with indigenous people following their own religion and paying the jiziya tax, paid by non-Muslim subjects.
So this would explain why despite 1,000 years of Islamic rule, including under Aurangzeb who is seen as the Black Villain of the Mughal Empire, we remain a Hindu-majority country. If you look at where the Christians went through the conquest of the New World, they decimated the local culture and religion. Why didn’t it happen with Muslim rule in India?
Jiziya is one of the reasons. The other was that these conquering rulers had a superiority complex. Most of them traced their lineage to the Prophet's family through his daughter. They had a sense of superiority over the locals and were reluctant to convert them to Islam, believing that the ‘superiority’ of the community would get diminished by it. This is what I discovered by researching. I never had thought of it like this.
When a large number of the lower classes or the low-caste communities converted, there was always a bit of reluctance. One of the leaders of the Muslim Dalit community said that if they converted in large numbers, then who would do the dirty work because Islam believes in the idea of equality? In fact the idea of equality in Islam is followed to such an extent that when Muslims pray together their ankles must rub against each other so that there is no feeling of untouchability.
Hillary Clinton said during her failed bid for presidency that Donald Trump and his ‘basket of deplorables’–though she later retracted that term–had enabled the mainstreaming of hate and bigotry. Do you see a parallel in India, where things that could never have been stated in polite company prior to 2014 are now being openly voiced; stereotypes of Muslims or triumphalism about majoritarian politics? Surely this bigotry was not born in 2014. So I want to ask you a fundamental question: Where does this almost visceral Hindu-Muslim hatred spring from? How did we veer so far off course from our Sufi beginnings?
It's an entirely manufactured enmity. This is not something that was natural to Indians. We talk of the Ganga-Jamni tehzeeb which is confined to the north Indian belt. But everywhere else you go, even in the South, you see it. Look at the Sai Baba cult, which is symbolic of this Ganga-Jamni culture. Look at the number of shrines visited by both communities. Or see the tradition where it is Muslim artisans who make Hindu religious statues even though Muslims are supposed to hate statue-building, and should be destroyers of statues. But here, they're treating it as an art form. Look at the music. It’s not just the north Indian plain, but as a society we have been very closely intermeshed with one another.
This visceral hatred is largely an urban and large city phenomena where you hear of people not finding houses or apartments. It does not exist in parts of small town India. As I have mentioned in the book, Agra, my hometown, had only one communal riot and this happened when Advani had taken out his rath yatra. There was no communal violence before that or even after that.
My parents are the only non-Muslim family in the locality where they live. And, as the eldest person in the area, my father is respected as the senior-most; everybody consults him on community issues. The women in my neighbourhood go to my mother. Last year, during the lockdown one of the neighbours had a bereavement in her family. But nobody could go anywhere so she came to my mother and told her she just wanted to hold somebody and cry. My mother was reluctant to take off her mask or get physically close to her but she said, “Auntie I want to only hug you because such a thing has happened and there is nobody in my family who can I go to.” So, my mother just hugged her. I was really moved when my mother told me this.
Whatever they may be thinking about politics, whatever may be their love for the prime minister or they may even be voters of the BJP, but at a human level there is a connection that has always been there.
We all know people who say, “But some of my best friends are Muslims.” So, yes, at a human level, we will sit together. But at a community level, there seems to be such a wide breach that I fear it will take a long time to bridge it. If you look at other political parties and their competitive nationalism and religious politics–Rahul Gandhi and his temple visits in Gujarat before the election, or Aam Aadmi Party saying they will introduce nationalism as a subject in school curriculums–then how do you begin to bridge this breach?
I agree with you but I want to believe that it's possible to bridge it. If we don't have this kind of staged support to this hatred, if this example is taken away, if this government loses, perhaps we can start a new conversation of trying to understand each other.
This is a state in our lives where we believe the worst of each other. I don’t know if it’s possible in the short-term, but we do have a long history of living peacefully and amicably together. If we only look back at our shared memories. My mother, for instance, comes from Mumbai and grew up in Bandra with a mixed population of Hindus, Muslims, Catholics. Christmas was a huge festival, and so was New Year.
These are the feel good, positive stories that I grew up with. Now when I tell my nieces and nephews the same stories, they do not see this happening any longer. But these are memories they can rely on. If everybody does that, share the pleasant memories from the past, talk about inter-community harmony, then you might start wondering: “Why do I hate? Why do I believe the propaganda?” Maybe you can start to question at some stage.
We'll come to propaganda in a bit. But for now, one of the criticisms that even the BJP points out is that the Congress was in power, give or take, for 70 years. They did nothing to build the sort of strong institutions–an independent judiciary and media–that would withstand authoritarianism and an assault on our Constitutional values, as happened in the US to enable the eventual overthrow of Donald Trump. Even now, I’m not sure that if a secular party or a coalition of secular parties were to come to power, they would do that course correction so that we never find ourselves in a similar situation again.
I think that some sort of a course correction can take place, but it's going to be a very long haul to redeem the institutions. The RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) tentacles are widespread and it has through its institutions, training organisations and political movements like the ABVP (Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad), been able to evolve a cadre of ideologically-committed people who are now in positions of authority in various parts of our society, including higher judiciary, lower judiciary and media. For these people it’s not about opportunism that they will change their ideology the moment the political dispensation changes. Their commitment is ideological. So, for them to do any kind of course correction, it could be a long haul.
But we can assist this process of getting rid of this propaganda and misconceptions about the Muslim community if at least some part of media becomes a little more proactive in dispelling rumours around issues like ‘love jihad’, which started out as a propaganda policy and against which so many states have now brought in laws.
So, a good place to start the process would be television, which is one of the biggest influencers of public opinion.
Let's talk a little about Islam and gender rights, on which you have an entire chapter. You've gone so far as to state that a few Quranic verses do lend themselves to problematic interpretation. But let's just stick to the temporal. Please take me through the triple talaq argument, because my question is that can there be any position, apart from the one that says that triple talaq, halala and polygamy are detrimental to the rights of Muslim women?
You have to see these things in context. There is no such thing called halala in the Quran. This is a very Indian practice that doesn't happen anywhere else in the world.
Polygamy is part of the religion and triple talaq is also part of Islamic law. One of the Islamic laws does validate triple talaq. But the Shariah mentions only one kind of talaq and that is the talaq which you give at intervals. But during the wars when people were constantly moving, somebody approached one of the caliphs and said that this man has said triple talaq to his wife. So the person said, okay, let's accept it. But this should not become routine but can be accepted only in exceptional cases. Now because there's a precedent, some people say that it's part of Islamic jurisprudence.
The Quran by itself has been as fair as any religion can be to women. Unfortunately all religions are unfair to women and all establish male authority over women. But within these limitations, Islam has tried to be as fair as it could in terms of giving women rights to property, to remarry, to education and employment. A man, for instance, has no right to his wife's earnings. A wife cannot give her earnings to her husband. I mean she can give it as a gift, but the man has no right.
The lack of rights or powerlessness of Muslim women is a consequence of society and how religious laws have been manipulated by men because men have always been in a position of influence. People who wrote the laws, all these ulemas who have interpreted laws, are all men. Men are the biggest advocates of full hijab and full burqa and women not stepping out of their homes because obviously, any kind of liberty given to women is detrimental to their own authority. Having said this, most Muslim countries in the world do not recognise triple talaq. They have interpreted the law in a manner that this is not a part of the Shariah and is a later addition.
In India, as I've written in the book, irrespective of the manner of divorce–instant triple talaq or stretched out over a period of three or four months–the fate of a poor woman doesn't change.
If you are a destitute woman dependent on your husband's benevolence, then you are rendered homeless and support-less either way. So it's just quibbling to focus on how the woman has been divorced. The fact is, after a divorce, a man has no liability towards the wife. He just pays a fixed amount for the duration of iddat, which is three menstrual cycles. It’s really immaterial how he divorces the wife.
Today, people tend to forget that it was not the government but a five-judge Supreme Court bench that banned triple talaq in this country.
The judiciary was correct in its interpretation that it is not an Islamic law. As I said, the Shariah doesn't list this category of divorce. It’s not even part of the religion, so why are you clinging on to it? The ulema themselves could have pronounced it as un-Islamic. But from my perspective, it’s always been a non-issue until the BJP made it an issue. We have a Supreme Court ruling on it. We have the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce), Act, 1986 that was passed by the Rajiv Gandhi government which facilitates the giving of a lump sum amount during the iddat which could take care of the woman for the rest of her life. There is no limit to the money that can be given to the wife. There is a precedent where the courts are given judgments in favour of Muslim women. So now suddenly when this whole triple talaq thing was blowing in our faces, you have to conclude that it was very obviously a political gimmick.
Isn’t it ironic that the two great champions for a uniform civil code (UCC) have been the right wing and the feminists who argued that a UCC would be good particularly for women from the minority community. Clearly this is not the time for UCC, given the majoritarianism that prevails and the insecurities it has given rise to. But in principle, at a time when a truly secular world is established, do you think we will be ready to talk about a UCC?
The UCC has been a highly politicized debate. All over the world, religious communities are allowed to manage their personal affairs, whether it's marriage or divorce or family disputes. Even in the west you have Shariah, or some semblance of Shariah, permitted in personal matters.
The demand for a UCC is just a code for managing the personal affairs of people and it has to come from the people who are affected by it. So if Muslims are affected by it and they think that secular laws would be more useful to them, we could consider it. The demand is a requirement that this movement should be run by Muslim women and men. If the government imposes something on communities, it will not be taken in the spirit that it should be taken.
I'll give you an example. I was talking to a journalist from Turkey. In Turkey you can have a nikaah, a religious wedding ceremony. But unless the marriage is registered, the state will not recognize that marriage. Muslims do not register marriages unless they need a passport or some government documentation. This is the goal: a law that says that you can have your religious ceremony as a personal thing but when a marriage has to be registered, well, it is registered.
There has been a lot of campaigning against Muslim personal law. Divorce is only one aspect of it. But unless this demand comes from within the Muslim community, it will not work.
Let’s talk about propaganda. You write about the two developments that have changed the way Muslims see themselves in India. The first is the rise of Narendra Modi and his brand of “unapologetically provocative politics”. And, the second is the growth of social media, which has given a platform to people to express themselves. But social media has also resulted in the most insidious propaganda machine we have ever seen with all the fake news and forwards. On one hand, the liberal impulse is to keep social media unfettered and outside of government control. And yet, we all know that it is being used to perpetuate and even legitimize bigotry. So what is the solution? How do you counter this propaganda, and I'm sure there is propaganda on both sides.
If we try and bring any kind of regulation on social media, it will be a double-edged sword. It will impact even true news. This is an evil we have to live with. The only way is to constantly check and counter it with the correct version as frequently and as rapidly as the other side is doing.
Under the current dispensation, it's only going to harm people who are fact-checking or stand against fake news. The way to fight propaganda is by correct dissemination of information. I'm very grateful to organisations like Alt News and the kind of work they do. If there are more people like this who can counter propaganda with facts, then it can help in some level of dissemination of correct information.
I want to share with you what my friend says to me. He says, “You are born here. You are Indian by birth; you had no choice. I am Indian by choice. My father had the option of leaving for Pakistan but he chose to stay saying, this is the land of his birth and where his ancestors are buried.”
For Muslims, going to the graves of their forefathers and family members is a very sacred duty. The festival of shab-e-barat culminates with the family going to pray at night at the graveyards of their family. If you believe the graves are unattended, it's a very bad reflection on the family. So, leaving a country is a very difficult decision especially for religious, conservative Muslims. They worry about who will look after the graves of my forefathers.
They also have a sense that they should be buried along with their family members because they feel that it gives them some sort of connection even after death with the people they loved. In my family too, there's a part of a graveyard in Agra which has been earmarked for my family members, everybody from my great-grandfather onwards is buried. So, there is a very deep connect to the land. It's not just a question of your political and economic choices. There's so much emotional attachment to the land per se. It’s not just an amorphous idea of the country.
When I say I love India, I don't know how to describe my love for India. I mean, I like the food but I can get this food in a lot of other places if I'm cooking. It’s the weather, the seasons, the flowers. How do you feel your love for country? What do you put it down to?
Everything comes down to the fact that you have so many memories here. You are familiar with the smells, the environment, the sounds. It's a very primitive sort of attachment to the place where you have spent your life. This sense of belonging can only come if you have lived in the place where you were born for an extended period of time. And if it is for generations, then the sense of belonging is even greater.
You write about the women of Shaheen Bagh and the number of women-led protests. Where do you actually see hope for the future?
Hope comes from the fact that we have a legacy of living and working and loving together. Even today I'm probably one of the few people who has not lost a single friend to Islamophobia. All my friends are non-Muslims and all of them are like me; they think like me. When people say that families are divided that they have lost so many friends, I am fortunate that everybody I know from my high school to my college–well, ok, not college because college there’s a problem–the friends I made in my first job at The Asian Age and then at Telegraph all worry about bigotry; all worry about the rise of propaganda. I think there are many, many people who are on the other side or at least on my side. And that is the most optimistic thing.
From your lips to God's ears, as they say. And I’m sorry that this is happening in the name of my faith, even though I’m not at all religious.
It's happening only because of opportunist politics. It has nothing to do with faith.
[Ghazala Wahab, Born a Muslim: Some Truths About Islam in India, Aleph Book Company,
(Namita Bhandare is gender editor and on the editorial board of Article 14)