Ghazala Wahab, author, Born a Muslim: ‘The Muslim vote bank is a myth’
The author, whose book has been longlisted for the ₹15 lakh Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize 2022, talks about the increasing political irrelevance of Muslims in India and the importance of feminist interpretations of the Quran
Last year, Born a Muslim won the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Award (Non-fiction) and Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book of the Year Award (Non-fiction). Now it’s on the long list of the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize. Did you expect such a warm reception? What do you think has resonated with readers?
Several times during the writing of the book, I had misgivings about the project. I used to think that fellow Muslims would get offended by my opinions. Similarly, I thought that many that Hindus would get offended by the chronicling of post-Independence communal violence in India. As it turned out, most people on both sides of the religious divide accepted the book in the spirit it was written. I think readers could see that I wrote Born a Muslim with candour and without prejudice. Also, the fact that I drew upon my experiences to make the larger points perhaps touched those who read it.
How did this book come into being?
After my earlier book Dragon on Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power – published by Aleph – came out, I was keen to get started on another book lest I lose the discipline and the momentum. I proposed two subjects to Aleph. One was a book on Islam based on my upbringing and experiences. My editor, Pujitha Krishnan, and I continued the conversation over the next few months, after which I sent a detailed proposal to Aleph breaking down the book into chapters as I envisaged them and the outline of each. My original plan was to address Muslims and attempt to dispel misconceptions about Islam for them. However, as my conversation with Aleph progressed, along with the writing of the book, the scope kept getting wider. Eventually, Born a Muslim became a book that aspired to start a dialogue between the two communities – Hindus and Muslims – overcoming suspicion on both sides.
Was it challenging to find the right voice for a book that weaves together history, reportage, personal memoir, scholarship and interviews with people? How did you find the best way to communicate this material?
The voice was the first thing in place, even before the proposal. I write a column called First Person for FORCE, the magazine I edit. Combining personal experiences and conversations with ground reportage has been my style in the column for several years now. Even before the proposal for Born a Muslim was written, I had sent a selection of my columns to Aleph to give them a sense of the style that I wanted to employ in writing the book.
You say that Islam was “envisaged as a classless and casteless religion” but “could not overcome the human obsession with social hierarchy and power”. Do divisions among Muslims in India weaken their access to political power through electoral politics?
Since independence, Muslims progressively became politically irrelevant primarily because of their decreased numbers. This has nothing to do with their internal divisions. I don’t know why divisions among Muslims are blown out of proportion, given that they have no impact on anything. The only division that impacted the larger society was the Sunni-Shia divide, which, once upon a time, led to violence in Lucknow, thereby creating a law and order situation. Beyond that, there hasn’t been any instance of fratricidal violence among Muslims.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) outreach to backward Muslim communities or the Pasmandas is an attempt to eat into the vote share of other political parties, such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) or the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD). But honestly, except for the loss to the rival political parties, this has no effect on the state of the Muslims today. The majoritarian politics of today, irrespective of the political party, has rendered Muslims as citizens with fewer rights than Hindus. This is unlikely to change in a hurry.
The reason for this is two-fold. One, Muslims’ rights to practice their religion have been systematically encroached upon constitutionally and judicially. For instance, cattle slaughter, religious propagation, offering namaz in public spaces, etc. Two, the physical assault on them comes from non-constitutional organisations like various Dals and Senas, which should be held accountable but are not because popular sentiment supports them.
Finally, the Muslim vote bank is a myth peddled by political parties to discredit the political agency that Muslims exercise or try to exercise. Muslims are a diverse people spread all across the nation in varying numbers. Their voting decisions are based on universal factors, such as winnability of the candidate, personal security, government largesse etc. Yes, the only unifying thing about their pan-India voting pattern is that they mostly don’t vote for the BJP. But no surprises there, because the BJP’s electoral pitch in any case casts Muslims as the primary adversary.
You write about mosques as “places to hang out and befriend fellow Muslims” given their low numbers in mainstream educational institutions and professional workplaces. Does sex-based segregation in religious places limit whom one can be friends with?
This applies to all conservative societies where intermingling among the young is largely gender specific. I don’t think many in India are comfortable with their girls/ women befriending men, even if they are from their own community. Remember the famous Hindi film dialogue, ‘ek ladka aur ladki kabhi dost nahin ho sakte hain’ (a boy and a girl can never be friends), and then they prove it right by falling in love!
So while gender segregation may restrict a Muslim’s access to fellow Muslims of another sex, it is not a big deal. Because when it comes to marriage, the region, religion, caste, class specific matrimonial options ensure that you do not breach any traditions.
What do you think of the term “Islamic feminism”, and efforts by women scholars to bring out new translations of the Quran and interpretations advocating for women’s rights?
The more the merrier! While researching for Born A Muslim, I discovered that Islam is among the most feminist of all religions. No other religion gives the kind of agency, financial independence and rights that Islam gives. All the rights that Muslim women enjoy come from the religion itself, unlike women of other faiths who get these from the laws of the land — from divorce to inheritance. And all the curbs that Muslim women suffer come from the subsidiary texts written by male scholars, centuries after the revelation of the Quran. Given this context, feminist understanding and interpretation of the Quran is not only welcome but necessary. Male versions over the centuries have been tainted by patriarchal insecurities.
Is there a sisterhood of Muslim women that you personally draw strength from?
I am extremely close to my younger sister and a few of my cousins, all of whom are much younger to me. But this is a sisterhood of confidence, love and shared interests. While womanhood has played a role in this, Islam has had no role. As I have said in my earlier interviews, I am the first person in my extended family – that includes my grandfather’s cousins – to step out of the city for an education and career. Given this, I willy-nilly became a role model of sorts for younger women in the family who aspired to get away. While they sought guidance from me, I sought fraternity, which became my source of strength.
READ MORE: Excerpt: Born a Muslim by Ghazala Wahab
You credit Muslim rulers in India for working towards “greater synthesis between Islam and Hinduism” and note that they were driven by pragmatism, not altruism. Which political leaders in contemporary India seem capable of enabling this synthesis?
Present-day India is unrecognisable from what it was even 20 years ago. Today, political pragmatism dictates pandering to majoritarian sentiments by fanning the notion of centuries of historical oppression. At this moment, it is difficult to say which political leader/s can enable a synthesis. Perhaps Rahul Gandhi can, because the Bharat Jodo Yatra seems to have stemmed from the sentiment of overcoming prejudice and artificially-created divisions.
You say that the concept of “love jihad” is used to “militarize unemployed Hindu youth – men and women”. According to you, what can Hindus who support inter-religious marriage do in order to ensure that Muslims – their fellow citizens – are not vilified?
Stand by these marriages. Celebrate them. Ensure support and protection to couples who risk limb and life for love. Most importantly, create a movement for review and revision of the Special Marriage Act. Don’t just count how many Hindu women marry Muslim men instead of the opposite. Remember, you can’t fall in love if you don’t meet or know the person. Because of gender segregation, school dropout rates and poor representation in employment, where can a Hindu man meet a Muslim woman for them to fall in love? Rest assured, when they do meet and fall in love, they marry, even if the numbers may be comparatively smaller.
You write, “Historically, Muslims have been less enthusiastic about non-Islamic education, especially for women. It was generally expected that women only needed to be Quran-literate.” Is this changing? Do Muslim girls and women see you as a role model, someone who is a successful professional and is speaking up for the community?
Of course, more Muslim women are getting educated now as compared to a generation ago. Both the Sachar Committee (set up in March 2005) and the Kundu Committee (set up in August 2013) have noted this change. But the comparative figures with other communities remain poor. As far as my being a role model is concerned – to be honest – I have no idea about this. Yes, many Muslims, including women, have reached out to me to express their praise for the book, but I do not know if they regard me as someone that they look up to.
In the book, you urge fellow Muslims to hold the kingdom of Saudi Arabia accountable for what they have or have not done for Muslims in other countries who contribute to the Saudi economy through hajj and umrah pilgrimages. How have readers reacted?
I believe in this idea. And I really hope that someone takes it up and builds a movement around it. Unfortunately, except for a handful of Muslims who made a specific mention of this to me, most who have given me their feedback on the book have not mentioned it. This makes me think that they believe that either it is far-fetched or too harsh on the Saudi regime.
You call out “unthinking Muslims” for entrusting their “thinking faculties” to Islamic organizations and mullahs, “allowing themselves to be herded… unquestioningly”. Do you think they assume faith and reason cannot coexist? What changes do you propose?
According to the Prophet’s sayings, Muslims were advised that they must learn, study, debate and interpret the larger meaning of the Quran instead of blindly following it. The Quran is not a book of law, but a book of guidance. However, learning and interpreting implies taking responsibility for your beliefs and actions. Most people do not want to take responsibility for their own decisions even in the non-religious domain. Hence, taking responsibility for something that is likely to determine your hereafter is too much.
My suggestion is simple: educate yourself and take responsibility for your actions. There are several suggestions in the Quran, which imply that Islam was not meant to impose hardships upon the believers but simplify their lives. What more needs to be said?
Chintan Girish Modi is an independent writer, journalist and book reviewer.