Young Muslims in India: In between worlds

  • Shaikh Mujibur Rehman, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 23, 2016 15:36 IST
A lady in Moradabad, Uttar Pradesh. Muslim women straddle both tradition and modernity. (Sushil Kumar/HT Photo)

The Indian Muslim population is somewhat greater than the total population of Germany and France today. That being the case, how can research based on a sample of only a few thousands in the Jamia neighbour hood represent the entire community spread across diverse regions of India? Despite this rather obvious unrepresentative nature of the sample, the book, Beyond Hybridity and Fundamentalism, does shed crucial insights into the Muslim question in general and the Muslim identity debate in particular.

At this stage, it is worth recalling one of the earliest researches on the subject by WW Hunter titled, Indian Musalmans (1871), based on fieldwork in the then Bengal. Generalisations arising out of it are widely employed in the writings on Indian Muslims even today. Hunter’s work was a response to the colonial government’s attempt to understand the Muslim’s rebellious psyche during the post-Mutiny era of British rule.

Beyond Hybridity seems to be guided by an intellectual curiousity in the context of the fast-changing Indian political economy in which the market and consumerism have become integral parts. Employing the Jamia neighbourhood as a field, this book seeks to address the changes taking place in the young Muslims’ shifting social, cultural and ideological life. At the end, it argues the following: first, interactions with modernity by Muslims has created a new hybrid that the author describes as “convoluted modernity.” Second, it recognises that while Muslim youths are attracted to new forces of modernisation, they are also very resistant to changes imposed by Hindutvavadi. It further notes growing anxiety among the older generations about these changes seen among youths as they find them moving away from the traditional environment and thus from their culture.

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The book begins with penetrating interrogation of some of the major arguments over identity and culture. According to the author, “The focus on how the Muslim youth’s expectations are being shaped at the intersections of local realities and mythical imaginaries, ideologies, lifestyles, selfhoods presented by global narratives helps demonstrate the Indian Muslim community’s investment in India’s express destiny (as opposed to their presumed disconnect) and these proofs of engagement help in making a more substantive claim for their rights as equal citizens, which the scholarship mapping Muslim disempowerment and impoverishment has been unable to do.”

One major limitation of scholarly writings on Indian Muslims has been that the issues of north Indian Muslims are invariably presented as their key issues. What is often barely recognised in such claims is that Kerala Muslims are very different from Muslims from Rajasthan or Kashmir or Assam. Lucknow and Hyderabad are important epicentres of Muslim politics or culture, but they are far from representative of pan-Indian Muslim identity. There are issues of politics as well as sub-culture. This research neither overcomes nor explains why a study based on a neighbourhood in north India should automatically address such investigations.

Two chapters in this book, however, clearly stand out and are worth reading: the chapter that addresses the issue of identity in the context of MTV and PeaceTV, and the other, on the women’s question. The author discusses in details various issues and situations that young people face and also presents a long narrative about the impact of Peace TV and of Dr Zakir Naik, its presenter. Furthermore, she reflects on how Jamia Millia Islamia as an institution plays an important role in shaping the dreams of local people and serves as the main window to modernity. She concludes by saying that Muslim youths “address their question of being both Muslim and modern by borrowing forms and practices from consumerist modernity to rewrite their religious identity.”

Beyond Hybridity and Fundamentalism: Emerging Muslim Identity in a Globalized India

The chapter on Muslim women and how they deal with the issues of identities is perhaps the most important part from the point of view of theoretical arguments. In it, she formulates the notion of “convoluted identities”, which is some kind of a “consciousness which while acknowledging modernity’s myriad projects, has garnered enough confidence to question the significance and meaning of many of its established forms.” That sounds persuasive. What we need to ask, however, are the following questions: how unique is the Muslim women experience in the context of convoluted modernity? What about other women, say tribal or Dalit, or even women of other religious minority groups such as Sikhs. How does the story fare in the comparative scenarios? Conceptually, if there is something called, convoluted modernity, there could also be convoluted traditions. How do all these forms of modernity and traditions interact and shape the discourse of identity in our time? These are important questions for research.

The most crucial finding in this research, however, is the claim that Muslim youths want to end their isolation on their own terms. It indicates the arrival of a new Muslim personality that is confident and also seeking to negotiate with challenges posed by modernity.

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Indeed, it is encouraging to learn more and more research is conducted in the Jamia neighbourhood. For instance, there is an another book by Nida Kirmani, Questioning the Muslim Woman: Identity and Insecurity in a Urban Indian Locality (Routledge 2013).However, for wider understanding of the Muslim identity, it is also important to include new neighbourhoods from new regions to make a more convincing case. All in all, scholars would definitely find this research on Indian Muslims, particularly its attempt to grasp the changing notion of identity in the context of transformations unfolding in India’s political economy enormously rewarding.

(Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. He is the author of Communalism in Postcolonial India: Changing Contours)

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