The Dar ul-‘Ulum in Deoband, one of the largest madrasas in the world, played a leading role in spearheading India’s freedom movement. The active involvement of many Deobandi ‘ulama in the struggle against the British is today a little-remembered story. Indian school textbooks refuse to mention it, probably deliberately in order to reinforce the stereotypical, yet misplaced, image of Muslims as congenitally ‘anti-national’. At the same time, however, they extol the alleged exploits of Hindutva activists in the fight against the British, while records have proven beyond doubt that leading Hindutva spokesmen, in the Congress, the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha, actually collaborated with the British and worked against the freedom movement. In this they played a similar role as that of the Muslim League.
One of the leading figures of India’s freedom movement was Maulana Husain Ahmad Madni (1879-1957). Madni served for decades as the rector of the Deoband madrasa and as head of the Deobandi-dominated Jam’at ul-‘Ulama-I Hind (‘The Union of the ‘Ulama of India’). Madni was also a leading Muslim political activist, and was closely involved in the Congress Party in pre-1947 India. At a time when the Muslim League under Jinnah had raised its demand for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan, based on the so-called ‘two nation’ theory, Madni came out forcefully as a champion of a free and united India. He insisted, arguing against the claims of both the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha (which, too, subscribed to a ‘two nation’ theory of its own version), that all the inhabitants of India were members of a ‘united nationality’ (muttahida qaumiyat) despite their religious and other differences. Hence, he argued, Muslims, Hindus and others must join hands to work for an independent, united India, where all communities would enjoy equal rights and freedoms.
Madni elaborated on his theory of ‘united nationalism’ in a book penned in the early 1940s as a reply to Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s critique of his own political position. By this time, Iqbal had turned into an ardent pan-Islamist and had clearly distanced himself from his earlier nationalist stance. Madni’s book ‘Muttahida Qaumiyat Aur Islam’ (‘United Nationalism and Islam’) was published before 1947, and long remained unavailable after that, being only recently reprinted by the Jami’at ul-‘Ulama-i Hind’s headquarters in Delhi.
Madni’s central argument is that Islam is not opposed to a united nationalism based on a common motherland (vatan), language (zaban), ethnicity (nasl) or colour (rang), which brings together Muslims and non-Muslims sharing one or more of these attributes in common. In the Indian context, a united nationalism that embraces Muslims and other peoples is, therefore, he says, perfectly acceptable Islamically. In making this argument he stridently opposed Iqbal and the Muslim League, as well as radical Islamists such as Sayyed Abul ‘Ala Maududi, founder of the Jama’at-i Islami.
As a Muslim religious scholar, Madni naturally sought to justify his argument in Islamic terms. He marshalled support from the Qur’an and from records of the practice (sunnat) of the Prophet in support of his thesis. He noted that the word ‘qaum’, which is used as synonymous with ‘nation’, appears some 200 times in the Qur’an. It is sometimes used in the Qur’an to refer to the ‘people’ of a particular prophet, such as the ‘qaum’ of Noah or the ‘qaum’ of Abraham, and in these contexts it applies to all the members of these communities, including both the followers as well as opponents of these prophets. In other words, these Qur’anic verses suggest that the prophets and their followers as well as those among their own people groups who opposed them were considered to be part of the same ‘qaum’, owing to a common land, language or ethnicity. This is further evident from the fact that the Qur’an mentions various prophets as addressing those among their own people who rejected them as members of their own ‘qaum’, exhorting them to heed God’s word. From this, Madni argues, it is clear that, in contrast to the claims of the Muslim League and Maududi, Muslims and non-Muslims cannot be considered to be members of two different ‘qaums’ if they share a common ethnicity, language or motherland. If they share these traits in common they can be said to belong to the same ‘qaum’. The ‘two nation’ theory (do qaumi nazariya) of the Muslim League, therefore, has no Qur’anic basis at all.
Having thus argued that Muslims and non-Muslims who share the same country or ethnicity should be considered to be members of a single ‘qaum’, Madni suggests that on issues of common concern Muslim and non-Muslim members of a particular ‘qaum’ can, indeed should, work together. This means, he says, that the Indian Muslims must join hands with non-Muslim Indians, on the basis of belonging to the same ‘qaum’, and work together for the unity, freedom and prosperity of the country. In seeking proper Islamic legitimacy for this argument, Madni draws upon the practice of the Prophet. When the Prophet migrated from Mecca to Medina, he writes, he entered into an agreement (muahida, mithaq) with the Jewish tribes of the town. According to the terms of the treaty, the Muslims and Jews of Medina were to enjoy equal rights, including full freedom of religion. They were also to jointly work for the protection of Medina from external foes. Interestingly, the treaty identified the signatories to the treaty, the Jews and Muslims of Medina, as members of a single community or ‘ummat’. This suggests, Madni argues, that Muslims and non-Muslims of a particular state or country could be considered to be members of a common ‘ummat’ if they entered into a similar treaty.
Each individual, Madni writes, has multiple identities. One can be a Muslim, an Indian, a trade unionist or a politician at the same time without these various identities being regarded as contradictory to each other in any way. While Islam binds together Muslims all over the world, this does not negate the 'national' or 'qaumi' particularity of different Muslim groups that binds them to non-Muslims from the same 'qaum'. Following the example of the treaty of Medina, Muslim and non-Muslim members of the same 'qaum' can work together for the overall social, educational, economic and political progress of their common homeland, as well as for defending their country. The Jews and Muslims of Medina were, under the joint treaty that they entered to, required to jointly defend the town from external enemies. In the Indian case, both Muslims and non-Muslims face a common external enemy—the British—and hence, following the sunnat of the Prophet, they must jointly struggle to oppose them, based on a commitment to and consciousness of belonging to the same ‘qaum’ and ‘millat’.
By thus stressing the 'Islamicity' of his demand, Madni forcefully interrogates his Muslim opponents who claim that his theory of 'united nationalism' would result in Muslims losing their separate religious and cultural identity, and being absorbed into the Hindu fold in the name of a homogenous Indian nationalism. As elsewhere, here, too, Madni argues in strictly 'Islamic' terms to press his case. The British, he writes, are the greatest enemy of Islam and the Muslims. Most Muslim lands, he notes, have been occupied by the British, whom he also blames for having overthrown the Ottoman Caliphate. In India, the British deposed the last Mughal Emperor and brought centuries of what he (erroneously) calls 'Muslim rule' to an abrupt end. To add to this, British education and culture, he says, are exercising a pernicious influence on many young Muslims, causing them to abandon their faith and culture. In this sense, then, Britain is the greatest enemy of the Muslims the world over, including in India. This being the case, the future of Islam and the Muslims crucially depends on the Muslims' ability to challenge British imperialism. In the Indian context, the British can be overthrown only if Muslims join hands with other Indians in a joint struggle. No single community can effectively challenge the British on its own. Hence, the necessity of Muslims joining hands with other Indians, based on a commitment to a 'united nationalism', to rid India of the British and thereby protect and promote what Madni sees as the larger interests of Islam.
Since 'united nationalism' is important not simply in itself, but also for the cause of Islam, Madni charges those Muslims, such as members of the Muslim League, who oppose his thesis as playing, inadvertently or otherwise, into the hands of the British, the most inveterate foes of Islam, and thereby working against the interests of their community and religion. The British, he says, are deliberately seeking to create confusion and scare Muslims into imagining that in a free India Muslims would lose their separate identity, and be absorbed into the Hindu fold. In this way, they aim at de-politicising the Muslims, weaning them away from the struggle for independence. Ultimately, this serves to further protect and entrench British imperialism. Hence, he suggests, the ‘two nation’ theory and the demand for Pakistan, which is supported by the British to divide the anti-imperialist movement, cannot be said to be ‘Islamic’ at all.
Madni insists that the fear that the advocates of Pakistan play on—the absorption of Muslims into the Hindu fold in a Hindu-dominated united India—is not warranted. He writes that when Muslims first came to India, they were very few in number. Yet, they did not fear being absorbed into the Hindu fold, and rather than abandoning the country, they stayed here and rose to the position of rulers. Today, he says, Muslims are much larger in number, and so the possibility of losing their identity if they live in a united India alongside other communities is even more remote. Taking a dig at the advocates of a separate Pakistan, he says that a Muslim majority state is no guarantee that Muslims would be able to preserve their Islamic identity. Egypt is a Muslim-majority country, but yet it is being swept by the winds of 'irreligiousness' and 'atheism'. It is thus not the communal composition of the population of a country that can guarantee its religious identity. Muslims will be able to preserve their Islamic identity only if they make organised efforts to do so. This applies in the case of both Muslim-majority as well as Muslim-minority countries. It would, Madni says, apply equally to Muslims living as a minority in a united India as it would to Muslims living in the proposed Muslim-majority state of Pakistan to which he is firmly opposed.
In the united India that Madni envisages, communities would be defined essentially on a religious basis. Each community would be allowed full freedom to follow its own religion and personal laws and to preserve its culture, within the bounds of general morality and social peace. All communities would enjoy equal rights and no one would be discriminated against on the grounds of religion. While religious communities would, therefore, be culturally autonomous, in matters of common this-worldly concern their members would work together for the overall benefit of society. Madni argued that this was perfectly acceptable according to his understanding of Islam. The shar'iah, he wrote, had left several spheres of life open to new rules depending on changing conditions. In some other spheres, the rules that it lay down, such as punishments of certain crimes, were applicable only in an Islamic state, and could not be enforced in the absence of such a state. Hence, he argued, it was possible, even from the point of view of the shar'iah as he conceived it, for Muslims to live in a secular, united India as co-citizens, instead of rulers, along with people of other faiths. In such a state, Muslims need not fear the prospect of losing their identity. Since they would have full freedom of religion, they could set up organizations and schools of their own to preserve and promote their religion and culture and to ensure that these were transmitted to their children.
Six decades after Madni penned his plea for a united India much has changed, but much more seems to have remained the same. Despite Madni's pleas, India was partitioned, thus fulfilling the dreams of the Muslim League and its Hindu counterparts, who were equally opposed to a common Indianhood. Far from solving the communal 'problem', Partition only exacerbated it by converting what was till then a domestic issue into an international one. In India itself, the Medina model of interfaith faith entente remains a far cry, with the rise of Hindutva fascism and Islamist militancy in Kashmir. And what could be a more telling sign of the way that we have headed that while in Pakistan Madni is remembered as a vehement foe, in India we have completely erased him from our history books?By Yoginder Sikand