Most writings on the Muslims of contemporary India have suffered from an overdose of fixation with religious, social and political elites. These groups represent, however, only a small, admittedly influential, minority within the community. The domain of popular representations of Islam at what could be called the subaltern level has received only limited attention so far. It must be stressed that, contrary to what many seem to believe, there is a great diversity of understandings of Islam within the Indian Muslim community. If elite Muslim understandings of Islam tend to focus on memories of Muslim power and grandeur, subaltern understandings often see Islam as a force for social justice and liberation from oppression. If the one harks back to the lost glories of the past, the other is infused with a passion for struggling for a better future.
One of the most remarkable, yet little noticed, developments within India’s large Muslim community since the early 1980s has been the growing articulation of dissatisfaction with and protest against the traditional Muslim religious leadership by sections of the community. This has been accompanied by growing moves towards building alliances with marginalised non-Muslim groups, in particular the Dalits (the so-called ‘untouchables’), the Tribals and what are known as the Backward Castes, in the process fashioning new Islamic perspectives on religious pluralism and social liberation. This chapter examines these new ways of understanding Islam based on an examination of writings by Muslims in the Bangalore-based English fortnightly Dalit Voice.
Established in 1980, Dalit Voice is India’s most widely read Dalit journal. Edited by the well-known journalist V.T. Rajshekar, Dalit Voice describes itself as ‘The Voice of Persecuted Nationalities of India Denied Human Rights’. Although Rajshekar is not a Muslim, he has a large following among the Muslims of the country for his unstinting commitment to Muslim causes, for his favourable views on Islam as a force for social liberation and for his fierce opposition to ‘upper’ caste Hindu aggression. Dalit Voice passionately advocates a broad-based unity among all marginalised communities of India. These are identified as all religious and caste groups other than the ‘upper’ caste Hindus. Taken together, these groups form some eighty-five per cent of the Indian population. They are said to be victims of ‘upper’ caste Hindu domination and oppression, which, Dalit Voice insists, can only be effectively challenged if they all unite and struggle together against their common ‘foe’.
Several Muslims write regularly for Dalit Voice, and the magazine gives considerable coverage to Muslim and Islamic issues. It has a large number of Muslim readers, estimated at around a fifth of its total subscribers. Many, though not all, of the Muslims who write for Dalit Voice belong to marginalised biraderis or caste groups considered low in the caste hierarchy, being descendants of ‘low’ caste converts to Islam. All of them are ‘lay’ believers, not a single one being identified as a madrasa-trained ‘alim. None of them is a professional writer, being, for the most part, students, teachers, social activists, local-level politicians and traders. With a few exceptions, all are ardent advocates of the cause of the unity of all oppressed groups that Dalit Voice argues for. Interestingly, most of them are also critical of the existing Indian Muslim religious leadership. They regard the principal Islamic groups in the country, the Jama’at-i Islami (JI), the Tablighi Jama’at (TJ) as well as the custodians of the Sufi shrines, as having betrayed what they see as the true teachings and spirit of Islam. These writers call for a new and what they consider as a revolutionary Islamic leadership, one that champions the ‘true’ teachings of Islam while at the same time uniting the Muslims along with other marginalised communities to challenge the domination of the ‘upper’ caste Hindu minority, which is seen as the principal cause of the manifold problems facing the Muslims and other suppressed communities in India.
This chapter looks at these voices of protest against and critique of the traditional Indian Muslim religious leadership. The growing dissatisfaction among many Muslims in India with the traditional religious leadership must be understood in the light of the failure of the latter to respond to what are seen as the basic concerns of the Muslim masses and their inability to protect Muslim lives and interests in the face of the increasingly menacing threat of ‘upper’ caste Hindu aggression. The representations of Islam that they put forward must be seen as a powerful instrument of social critique and as laying the framework of what could be called a new Islamic perspective on liberation and pluralism.
Critique of the Muslim Religious Leadership
Several Muslims who regularly write for Dalit Voice are advocates of what they call an ‘Islamic revolution’. They are critical of the established Islamic leadership in the country, seeing it as having ‘sold out’ to the ‘upper’ caste Hindu elite by preaching restraint, instead of struggle, in the face of mounting ‘upper’ caste Hindu aggression, and thus having, in the process, betrayed Islam’s ‘revolutionary’ message. Thus, for instance, Rahmatullah, a regular contributor to Dalit Voice, alleges that the Muslim religious leaders have ‘spiritualised Islam’, and hence, he says, they must be ‘thrown out’. Many traditional ‘ulama, he alleges, have ‘become stooges of the Aryan [Hindu] ‘upper’ castes’. Qurban ‘Ali Zameenzad, another frequent contributor to the journal, writes that by preaching peace in the face of rapidly escalating attacks on Islam and Muslims, Muslim leaders have ‘fallen prostrate’ before ‘Hindu fascists’, an unforgivable crime because in Islam, prostration (sajjada) is to be made to God alone. In a similar vein, Muhammad Kamran comments that there are, in fact, ‘no Muslim leaders worth the name in India today’. At most they could be called Muslim scholars, preachers, ‘holy’ men and politicians, all of whom, he says, ‘think and act within the limits of their self-created little world’. Instead of struggling for the liberation of the oppressed, he writes, they slavishly follow the ‘upper’ caste Hindus, who use them to keep the Muslim masses as ‘slaves of the Hindu Nazis’. Borrowing from the discourse of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, another Muslim contributor to Dalit Voice laments the fact that the leadership of Muslim organisations in India has failed completely in its Islamic duty of championing the cause of the oppressed (mustadifin) and crusading against oppression, the root cause of which he identifies as Brahminism, whose victims he regards as not just the Muslims alone, but, in fact, all Indians other than ‘upper’ caste Hindus.
The traditional ‘ulama come in for special attack by several Muslim writers associated with Dalit Voice, who see them as concerned with empty ritualism rather than with what is regarded as Islam’s message of radical social equality. In bitterly critiquing the ‘ulama, these writers challenge the notion of a special class of official interpreters of Islam, which they see as itself ‘un-Islamic’. In thus denying the very institution of the traditional ‘ulama they call for a ‘lay’ leadership to lead the community and to represent Islam. Thus, for instance, S.A. Mujeeb, a senior Bangalore-based advocate, writes that ‘maulanas are a pest on the Muslims’, and says that there is no room in Islam for a separate priesthood, which he sees the ‘ulama as having taken the form of. ‘Maulanaism’, he says, is a ‘cult’ that is ‘playing havoc’ with the Muslims in India, with the ‘ulama reducing Islam to merely a few rituals. The word maulana, he comments, means ‘our lord’ or ‘our master’. It appears only at two places in the Qur’an, and in both is used to refer to God. To use the term for a human being, he insists, is ‘un-Islamic’, for that would mean setting up partners to God (shirk), an unforgivable sin. The traditional ‘ulama are also accused of posing major hurdles in the path of the development and emancipation of the community. Thus, Mujeeb goes on to accuse the ‘ulama of being opposed to modern education and of indulging in fierce polemical battles with each other, hurling accusations of apostasy against Muslims of rival schools of thought. Despite their protestations of being apolitical, most ‘ulama, he says, support the Congress, ‘the original Brahminical party of India’, and they interpret Islam to suit the interests of their ‘upper’ caste Hindu patrons. They live off the donations provided by poor Muslims, building lavish mosques and madrasas, but, in turn, do nothing for the educational, economic and social development of the poor. The sort of Islam that the traditional ‘ulama preach, concerned particularly with the minutiae of correct ritual observance, while ignoring issues of social justice, is said not only to constitute a betrayal of ‘true’ Islam but also to eminently suits the interests of the ‘upper’ caste Hindu ‘oppressors’ and the ‘anti-Muslim’ West. As a consequence, Muslims have been ‘driven to impotency and impassivity’. Another writer goes so far as to insist that these ‘ulama are actually the ‘progeny of Iblis [Satan]’, and he appeals to Muslims must stop reading their literature forthwith. Such ‘ulama should be ready, he declares, ‘to face the curse of Allah and His men’. In the face of mounting ‘upper’ caste Hindu aggression, Muslim religious leaders and ‘ulama who preach docility, driving Muslims ‘defunct and dead’, he writes elsewhere, are actually ‘hypocrites’ (munafiqin) and, because they ‘disguise’ themselves as Muslims, they are more dangerous than the ‘open enemies’ of the Muslim masses. They advocate peace because they are afraid that revolutionary struggle will hurt their own economic and political interests, which are inextricably linked to the status quo.
Several other Muslims who write for Dalit Voice articulate similar views of about the leadership of major Muslim religious organisations in the country. We now examine their critique of the established Islamic leadership, represented principally by the JI, the TJ and the custodians of the Sufi shrines, taking up each in turn.
Critiques of the Jama’at-i-Islami
Founded in 1941 by the Islamic scholar, journalist and activist Sayyed Abul ‘Ala Maududi, the JI is a cadre-based movement with branches all over India. Maududi envisaged the JI as the vanguard of the ‘Islamic revolution’, crusading against all ‘man-made ideologies’ and political systems, striving to replace them with Islam as a comprehensive ‘way of life’ and by an Islamic state ruled according to the shari’ah. While in Muslim-majority Pakistan and Bangladesh the JI is a registered political party, in India it restricts itself to what it calls ‘religious’ and ‘cultural’ activities, focussing mainly on publishing and disseminating literature on Islam, promoting Islamic awareness and Muslim interests and attempting to reach out to non-Muslims with the message of Islam. Unlike in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the JI in India accepts democracy and secularism, in the restricted sense of state neutrality towards all religions, for, as it rightly sees it, the only alternative to secular democracy in contemporary India is Hindu fascism. It has a strong support-base among middle class Muslims in certain towns, but, unlike the TJ, for instance, it has failed to emerge as a mass movement.
Advocates of a new ‘radical’ Islamic leadership who write in Dalit Voice are bitterly critical of what they see as the JI having reneged on the principles and vision of Maududi, diluting his revolutionary message and allegedly collaborating with ‘upper’ caste Hindus. Thus, one Dr. N. Sirajuddin writes that JI has today become ‘dormant’ and ‘senile’, drained of the ‘zeal, courage and ambition’ of its founder. Unlike the Sufis, to whose missionary endeavours most Indian Muslims owe their conversion to Islam, the present-day JI leaders, he claims, ‘shun’ the Dalits, and, instead, seek to court the favour of ‘upper’ caste Hindus, including even the leaders of fascist and fiercely anti-Muslim Hindu organisations. Rather than providing a revolutionary lead to the Dalits, the Tribals and the Backward Castes in their struggle against Brahminism, the JI is said to preach the ‘simplistic doctrines’ of ‘peace and love for all’. The Islamic injunction of armed jihad against oppression has been conveniently forgotten, he writes. The JI interprets the term ‘Islam’ as meaning ‘submission’, while another meaning of the term, ‘security’, is ignored. ‘Security’ actually means, Sirajuddin says, that Muslims should provide safety to each other, with the entire community ‘standing like a wall welded together with lead to fight the forces of evil’. Voicing a similar concern, the JI, alleges another contributor, ‘Abdul Ghaffar Shah, has betrayed the ‘Islamic revolution’, by silently watching as ‘upper’ caste Hindu chauvinists wreak havoc on the Muslims. Instead of retaliating, in accordance with the Islamic principle of ‘a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye’, the JI is, he says, ‘following a Christian policy’ by offering the other cheek.
Allegations of elitism are levelled against the JI by others writing in Dalit Voice, too. As a cadre-based party, charged with what it sees as a divine mission, the JI has a restricted membership, largely confined to sections of the literate, middle-class urban Muslim population. Consequently, it is seen as indifferent to the plight of the Muslim masses. Iqbal Ahmed Sheriff, a regular writer in Dalit Voice and editor of the Urdu edition of the paper (now no longer being published), argues that because of its strict membership conditions and its ‘reified’ understanding of Islam, the JI is ‘cut off’ from the Muslim poor, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the community. Rather than focussing on the manifold social, economic, educational and social problems of the community, it ‘talks only of Islamic morals, law and theology’. Consequently, it regards all the problems facing the community simply as a result of their neglecting their religious duties. It believes that if Muslims ‘become good Muslims’ God would put an end to all their troubles. This, Sheriff argues, is not only unrealistic and naive but also profoundly un-Islamic.
Suleiman Farooqui, another regular contributor to Dalit Voice, offers a more sophisticated analysis of the predicament of the JI, locating it in the class character of the movement. Rather than accusing it of consciously acting in concert with ‘upper’ caste Hindus to present a distorted message of Islam, as some other Muslims writing in Dalit Voice seem to allege, he argues that the world-view of JI activists and leaders is shaped essentially by their own social location, they being, for the most part, middle class Muslims who have only recently experienced some degree of upward social mobility. Haunted by the ever-present possibility of being forced down to join the ranks of the mass of pauperised Muslims, this class desperately seeks to distance itself from them. Consequently, it unconsciously evolves its own ‘elitist’ understanding of Islam that sets it apart from the popular religiosity of the Muslim masses. A literalist, scripturalist understanding of Islam, he says, is used by this class as a means for upward social mobility, to rise up within the existing system rather than as a means for the creation of a new social order. As a result, he says, the JI’s understanding of Islam does not take cognizance of the acute problems of the Muslim masses. To expect a truly radical and emancipatory understanding of Islam to emerge from among this class which seeks to distance itself from the Muslim masses, he says, is unrealistic. Borrowing a term from Gramsci, he writes that it is only ‘organic intellectuals’ from among the Muslim masses who can develop a radical Islamic vision.
The JI’s ‘conservative’ understanding of Islam is seen to also influence its understanding of how Muslims should relate to people of other faiths. Consequently, its efforts to reach out with the message of Islam to non-Muslims, which it sees as one of its principal tasks, is also critiqued by many Muslims writing in the columns of Dalit Voice. Thus, Sheriff castigates the JI for seeking to ‘win the hearts’ of the ‘upper’ caste Hindu minority, while completely neglecting the need to build bridges with the Dalits, Tribals and Backward Castes, who are, he says, the natural allies of the Muslims because they share a common origin, common living conditions, and, above all, a common condition of oppression at the hands of the ‘Brahminical Social Order’. The JI’s alleged failure to take seriously the question of Dalit-Muslim unity and dialogue, Sheriff says, shows that ‘despite all its scholarship’, it is ‘totally cut off from the realities of life’.  Likewise, another Muslim writer argues that while the JI’s missionary goals are laudable, one of the principal means it has adopted for this purpose—inter-religious dialogue with ‘upper’ caste Hindus—is futile, for Islam, ‘the deadliest enemy of racism’, can enter into no agreement with Brahminism, which he sees as ‘sanctified racism’. If JI leaders, he says, had a proper understanding of Indian social realities, they would realise that it is dialogue with the Dalits and other oppressed non-Muslim groups that is of paramount importance.To advocate Hindu-Muslim unity as the JI does, says Zameenzad, another Muslim contributor to Dalit Voice, is to call for ‘class collaboration’ and ‘the peaceful coexistence of reactionaries and revolutionaries’. This can only mean a ‘betrayal of the revolutionary urges’ of the Muslim masses and the Dalits, Tribals and Backward Castes. Instead of chasing after the mirage of ‘Hindu-Muslim’ unity, he suggests, the JI must seek to build up a powerful movement for Dalit-Muslim unity.
Although the JI has sought to present itself as the vanguard of the ‘Islamic revolution’, many Muslims writing in Dalit Voice see its the JI’s efforts to combat the rising force of Hindu fascism as completely ineffective and as, indeed, wholly counterproductive. Thus, for instance, Zameenzad comments that the JI sees Hindu fascism as simply a result of anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim prejudice. Hence, it believes that it can be countered solely at the level of ideas, by dialoguing with Hindu chauvinist groups and publishing literature seeking to present a proper appreciation of Islam. In actual fact, however, he says, Hindu fascism is a product not simply of prejudice but of a set of caste-class factors, rooted in a complex web of social and economic structures. Hence it can be effectively only by taking up the struggle against caste and class oppression. This, he says, the JI cannot do, for its own diagnosis of the problem is wrong, a result, he says, of its refusal to ‘descend from its ivory-tower’. He argues that Hindu chauvinists actually are not opposed to the Muslims as such. Rather, Muslims serve as a scapegoat for them for all of India’s ills, and by fanning anti-Muslim hatred they actually seek to prevent the possibility of all oppressed groups, particularly the Dalits, Tribals and Backward Castes, from uniting against ‘upper’ caste Hindu domination. This being the case, it is pointless seeking to dialogue with them. What is needed, he suggests, is dialogue with, and a movement for building unity between, Muslims, Dalits, Tribals and Backward Castes. Here the JI can have little or no role to play, for, as Zameenzad and other Muslims writing in Dalit Voice see it, the JI is hostile to such an agenda.
The Tablighi Jama’at
Like the traditional ‘ulama and the JI, the TJ also comes under sharp critique by many Muslim contributors to Dalit Voice, the reasons being, broadly, the same. The TJ is said to be the largest Islamic movement in the world today, with a presence in most countries, its activists numbering several millions. The TJ was founded as a movement for the preservation and promotion of Muslim identity and faith by the charismatic Maulana Muhammad Ilyas in the early 1920s. The Maulana’s efforts were, to begin with, focussed on Delhi and its environs, particularly the region of Mewat, but soon spread all over India and beyond. The TJ sees its essential task as exhorting Muslims to strictly abide by the commandments of Islam in their personal lives. Although its founder seems to have envisaged this as simply a means for and the initial step towards the creation of an ‘Islamic society’, on the basis of which an ‘Islamic state’ could finally emerge, today the TJ maintains a clear distance from involvement in conventional politics. It sees the solution to all the woes of the Muslims as lying simply in strengthening faith and in private acts of worship, in the belief that this would win for them God’s help and favour. The movement has a large following in several parts of India, particularly among sections of the Muslim upper peasantry and the lower middle classes.
Several Muslims who regularly write for Dalit Voice are vehemently opposed to the TJ, principally for what they consider as its ‘other-worldliness’, which they see as only further helping the ‘upper’ caste Hindus. This is said to be a complete betrayal of Islam. Thus, Zameenzad writes that although the TJ started off with the ‘laudable’ aim of crusading against ‘un-Islamic’ practices and teaching poor Muslims the basics of the faith, it is today threatening to ‘degenerate into a mere prayer-preaching club’. With its vast network spread all over the world, it could have played a key role in the social, political, educational and economic development of the Muslims, but this it has consistently refused to do. Instead, headed as it is by ‘ulama ‘whose lives have revolved solely around madrasas and mosques’, it preaches, he says, a form of Islam that is ‘non-revolutionary and passive—the Islam of mere external practices’. Voicing a similar concern, another Muslim writer comments that TJ leaders insist that instead of concerning themselves with worldly affairs Muslims should focus all their hopes on the Hereafter, while they themselves lead comfortable lives. He accuses the TJ of promoting indifference to the world and ‘monasticism’, although both are ‘un-Islamic’. The Qur’an explicitly states, he points out, that happiness in this life can be had not simply by mechanical recitation of prayers and litanies, as the TJ advocates, but, rather, through good deeds, such as helping the poor and the needy and struggling for the liberation of the oppressed. However, he laments, the TJ remains completely silent on the Islamic injunction to struggle for the rights of the persecuted, and has thus turned its back on one of the fundamentals of the faith.
In a similar vein, while appreciating the TJ’s work in opposing ‘tomb-worship’ and other un-Islamic customs among the Muslim masses, P.A.Salam, in a letter to the editor of Dalit Voice, writes that the TJ completely ignores its Islamic duty of opposing ‘Brahminical oppression’. Echoing the same sentiment, Mushtak Ahamed remarks that the TJ propagates an ‘elitist, shallow and ritualistic Islam’ that has no relevance for the real-world concerns of the oppressed. Rather than helping ‘liberate humanity from the clutches of tyranny’ and from the ‘agents’ of oppressive powers ‘in religious garb’, the TJ, he says, focuses all its attention on such ‘trivia’ as ‘toilet training’, ‘clipping one’s nails’, ‘supplications to be reciting while on a journey’, etc.. Likewise, another writer laments that by confining Islam to the mosque and restricting it to mere ritual actions, the TJ has sought to drain Islam completely of its radical social programme. Islam, he says, is opposed to the distinction that the TJ makes between religion (din) and the worldly affairs (duniya). By abandoning any concern for the worldly affairs of the Muslims, he argues, the TJ has effectively denied the Muslims their rightful share in economic prosperity. This, he claims, ‘eminently suits’ the ‘upper’ caste Hindus who do not wish to see the Muslims progress.
The TJ’s supposed aloofness from political affairs is condemned by several Muslims writing in Dalit Voice. Thus, it is argued that although in Islam there is no separation between religion and politics, the TJ insists that Muslims should not concern themselves with politics. While many of the problems afflicting Muslims all over the world are actually rooted in politics, the TJ believes, these critics argue, that they are a result of Muslims’ having strayed from the path of Islam. Hence, instead of advocating a political solution to these problems, the TJ mistakenly believes that if Muslims were simply to become ‘good Muslims’ in their personal lives, regularly saying their prayers and so on, God would be moved to intervene to put an end to all their woes. In this way, they write, the TJ is playing into the hands of ‘upper’ caste Hindus, who wish to see Muslims reduced to a state of abject surrender and passivity.
For the TJ, detailed knowledge of the Qur’an is considered to be a privilege of the traditional ‘ulama, who are seen as the authentic guardians of the faith. Insisting, instead, that Islam demands that all Muslims should have access to knowledge of the scriptures, critics of the TJ have forcefully challenged its position on religious authority. Some Muslims writing in Dalit Voice accuse the TJ of seeking to deny Muslims knowledge of the Qur’an by using the specious argument that only the ‘ulama can understand the sacred text, while ordinary Muslims who do not know Arabic must rely instead on the Tablighi instructional manual, the Faza’il-i ‘Amal. It is argued that the Faza’il-i ‘Amal actually consists largely of ‘concocted tales’ of great heavenly reward for ritual acts that serve the function of a ‘bed-time story’ to lull the Muslims into deep slumber so that they cannot rise up to fight oppression. By allegedly denying Muslims access to the Qur’an, working, in effect to preserve it as a monopoly of the ‘ulama, the TJ is said to have disempowered the Muslims, snatching away from them ‘the only effective weapon to fight all anti-Islamic forces’. These writers directly challenge what they see as the ‘monopoly’ exercised by the ‘ulama over the interpretation of the Qur’an, arguing against the Tablighis that all Muslims, and not the ‘ulama alone, have the duty of studying and understanding the holy book. In this way, the very notion of a class of religious specialists, so central to the TJ’s understanding of religious authority, is explicitly challenged on solid Islamic grounds. 
Custodians of Sufi Shrines
Sufis belonging to various different orders have played a principal role in the spread of Islam in India. Dargahs, shrines containing the graves of deceased Sufis, are found all over the country and are centers of popular reverence and devotion. The custodians of these shrines (mujawirs, sajjada nashins) claim to be descendants of the Sufis and to stand in some sort of special relation with them.
Several articles have appeared in Dalit Voice critiquing the mujawirs, accusing them of claiming a special status for themselves as intermediaries between God and the individual, this being seen as completely opposed to the teachings of Islam, which is seen as the most ‘democratic’ of all religions. In these writings, popular, institutionalised Sufism is seen as ‘feudal’ and anti-democratic’, and, in its place, a more democratic understanding of Islam is sought to be promoted wherein religious authority is shared by all Muslims and is no longer the closed preserve of a small elite. By denying the very notion of a special class of intermediaries between God and human beings, the individual Muslim is thus sought to be charged with a special responsibility of carrying on the mission of Islam. The mujawirs are roundly condemned, compared with the Hindu pandits in claiming an almost divine status for themselves, and in the process their very legitimacy is radically challenged. In line with Islamic reformist critiques of popular Sufism, the mujawirs are accused of promoting ‘un-Islamic’ customs and beliefs simply in order to make a living from off the credulous. Furthermore, they are also seen as being complicit in working to tame the Muslims, by promoting an ‘un-Islamic’ monasticism, or, as one writer suggests, turning Muslims into ‘cowards’, draining them of their enthusiasm for jihad against oppression.
A New Islamic Leadership
Critical as they are of the established Muslim religious leadership for what they regard as its betrayal of Islam and for allegedly collaborating with the ‘upper’ caste Hindu elite, many Muslims writing in Dalit Voice press the case for a ‘revolutionary’ Islamic leadership, one that, in their view, is true to the Islamic principles of equality and social justice. Such an Islamic leadership would seek to struggle for the emancipation of all oppressed communities in India, and not simply for the Muslims alone. These writers regard Islam as positively enjoining such a radical social and political programme. Islam is seen not as just a set of rituals, but, above all, as a force for social transformation. It is interesting to note that almost none of the Muslims writing in Dalit Voice refer to matters of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), the domain that the ‘ulama have been most concerned with. Instead, these writers insist on going straight to the Qur’an for inspiration, denying the need to understand the divine text with the help of medieval commentaries and completely side-stepping the nitty-gritty of the rules of fiqh.
By developing a new understanding of Islam, writers associated with Dalit Voice call for a new Muslim leadership, branding the existing leadership as corrupt, inept, and, above all, ‘un-Islamic’. The new leadership is envisaged as ‘revolutionary’, boldly challenging ‘upper’ caste Hindu hegemony. In contrast to the existing leadership, it would actively seek to co-operate with other marginalised groups in a united struggle against oppression. Thus, in a lengthy article that appeared in the columns of Dalit Voice in the wake of the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992 and the ensuing mass killings of Muslims in various parts of India, Qurban ‘Ali Zameenzad pointed out that while the established Muslim leadership were fervently preaching ‘peace’ and ‘restraint’, they were only helping to further strengthen the structures of ‘organised Brahminical fascism’. In the face of growing ‘upper’ caste Hindu aggression, Zameenzad argued, a new Muslim leadership must emerge, fired by an Islamic zeal to struggle against oppression. It cannot, however, he said, struggle alone, but, instead, must seek alliances with ‘co-sufferers’, other victims of ‘Brahminical oppression’, such as the Dalits. The need for building alliances with other similarly placed marginalized groups, he argued, was not simply because of the demands of pragmatic politics. Rather, he suggested, Islam itself enjoined upon Muslims to struggle for the cause of all oppressed people irrespective of religion. Not all non-Muslims were enemies of the Muslims, he insisted. Rather, like the Muslims of India, other communities in the country, particularly the Dalits, were also victims of the same ‘enemy’—the ‘Brahminical Social Order’. Hence, he stressed, Muslims must struggle unitedly with the Dalits against their common ‘foe’.
For many Muslims writing in Dalit Voice the particular regional and ethnic origins of the Indian Muslim leadership are themselves a major cause of the problems affecting the community as a whole. Some writers point out that the established Muslim religious leadership is based largely in the Hindi/Urdu-speaking North Indian ‘cow-belt’, being mainly dispossessed former landlords and ‘ulama belonging to ethnic groups that claim foreign, and hence, superior, status, such as the Sayyeds, Shaikhs and Pathans, or else groups that claim descent from ‘upper’ caste Hindu converts. These groups, collectively called the ashraf (‘noble’), form only a small minority among the Muslims, and are seen as imposing their own agendas on the entire Muslim community, whose concerns and problems are very different from, and, in some cases, even antagonistic to, their own. They are also sternly condemned for what is said to be their indifference to the plight of the ‘lower’ caste Muslim majority, while priding themselves in their claims to superior ethnic status, which is said to have no sanction in Islam. Because of this, they are regarded as incapable, indeed unwilling, to champion the rights of the Muslim masses. Instead, they are seen as complicit with the ‘upper’ caste Hindus, working along with them to promote inter-communal strife, setting ‘low’ caste Muslims against the Dalits and other marginalised communities and thereby preserving their own hold over the Muslim masses.
For a significant section of the Dalit movement today, the antagonism between the ‘upper’ castes and the ‘lower’ caste majority is seen as having its roots in the age-old historical conflict between the ‘indigenous’ Dravidians, ancestors of today’s ‘lower’ castes, and the ‘foreign’ Aryan ‘invaders’, from whom the ‘upper’ caste Hindus trace their descent. Interestingly, the Aryan-Dravidian controversy is also carried over into the writings of numerous Muslim contributors to Dalit Voice. Some writers locate the indifference of the Muslim ashraf elite to the plight of the Muslim masses to their putative ‘Aryan’ racial origins, as opposed to the indigenous ‘Dravidian’ roots of the Muslim masses. Thus, parallel to the use of religion by the ‘upper’ caste Hindus to suppress the ‘low’ caste majority, ‘upper’ caste ‘Aryan’ Muslims are said to employ Islam and the rhetoric of ‘Muslim unity’ simply to ‘rule over’ the Muslim masses, in complete violation of the teachings of the Qur’an. Further, because of their ‘foreign’ ‘Aryan’ origins, the ashraf are seen as hostile to the cause of the unity of the Dalits and the indigenous non-ashraf Muslims, both of whom are said to derive from the same pre-Aryan Dravidian race. They are thus seen as working together with their ‘fellow Aryan’ ‘upper’ caste Hindus to sabotage any effort on the part of the ‘lower’ caste Hindus and Muslims to unite and struggle for their rights. Hence, ‘upper’ caste Muslims are said to have no place in the ‘revolutionary’ struggle that these writers advocate, which is seen as directed against both the ‘upper’ caste Hindus as well as the Muslim ashraf.
Opposed as they are to the established, almost entirely ashraf, leadership, Muslim writers in Dalit Voice call for a new Muslim leadership to emerge from among the ‘low’ caste Muslim majority, particularly from regions outside the Hindi/Urdu-speaking heartland. It is these Muslims, they believe, who, in contrast to the Urdu-speaking Muslim ashraf of north India, have a proper understanding of and empathy for the problems and sufferings of the Muslim masses and who can therefore articulate a radical Islamic vision shorn of the feudal trappings associated with ashraf culture.
Liberation and the Pluralist Predicament: A New Islamic Vision
Because they believe that the established Indian Muslim religious leadership has effectively ‘distorted’ the ‘true’ ‘revolutionary’ message of Islam, several Muslim contributors to Dalit Voice stress the need for a new Islamic vision for contemporary India, one that entails and a radical reinterpretation of Islamic theology. This, however, is presented not as a novel reading of the Islamic tradition, but, rather, one that seeks to recover the ‘true’ essence of Islam from the layers of misinterpretation at the hands of the established Muslim religious leadership. This ‘revived’ Islamic vision is seen as seriously addressing two questions of particular importance to the Dalit-Muslim unity movement that these writers advocate: social liberation and unity of all oppressed groups transcending religious barriers.
This new understanding of Islamic departs from traditional Islamic theology on several important counts. Firstly, in contrast to traditional Islamic theology, it is inductive in its methodology and contextual in its approach, in that it emerges from reflection, in the light of the Qur’an, on the actual context in which oppressed Muslims find themselves confronted with. It is thus not a disengaged, academic discipline deriving from a study of texts divorced from actual social reality. As Rahmatullah writes, it is a new way of understanding Islam, one that interprets the Islamic scriptural tradition in the specific context of contemporary India. Secondly, it takes a definite stand in favour of the oppressed, judging all theological statements from this perspective. It could, in fact, be said to represent an Indian Islamic theology of liberation, because it stresses praxis, union of theory and practice, action and reflection. Thus, Islam is seen as a programme for radical social transformation and a call for crusading against oppression, rather than as simply a set of beliefs and ritual practices. Salvation comes to be redefined in this-worldly and collective terms as well, as suggesting liberation from oppressive structures and traditions, this being seen as a necessary condition for personal liberation in the Hereafter. This reading of Islam relies principally on the Qur’an, and, to a limited extent, the Traditions of the Prophet, completely by-passing centuries of jurisprudential Islamic tradition, one of whose principal purposes is seen as having been to legitimise inequality and autocracy. By doing so, it challenges the monopoly of the traditional ‘ulama over scriptural resources and their interpretation. In this way it also represents a liberation of theology, freeing it from the shackles of taqlid (blind imitation of past precedent), arguing strongly in favour of creative interpretation of the law in the light of changing contextual demands (ijtihad). Finally, and in sharp contrast to traditional Islamic theology as it has come to be developed in India, it seeks to articulate a theology of religious pluralism, one that allows for Muslims to collaborate with others for causes of common concern. While other marginalized groups are invited to accept Islam, it being presented as ‘a revolutionary message based on equality and brotherhood’, building alliances with them to jointly struggle against Brahminism and ‘upper’ caste oppression is not made conditional on their conversion to Islam. Islam is said to positively enjoin on Muslims the duty to struggle for the liberation of all oppressed people, including non-Muslims, but this alliance is not predicated on their acceptance of Islam.  In the process of this radical redefinition, the very notion of Islam as a religion is transformed, from a set of rituals and beliefs into, as one writer puts it, a ‘socially revolutionary programme […] which can bring about the social, economic, cultural and political liberation of humankind irrespective of religion’. 
The liberative perspectives that Muslims writing in Dalit Voice articulate derive directly from the Qur’an. These are significant in two important respects. Firstly, these are readings of the Qur’an by ‘lay’ Muslims, who stress the need for Muslims to relate to the holy scripture directly rather than through the mediation of the ‘ulama. Secondly, they represent an interesting transformation in the manner in which the scripture itself is perceived and used. The Qur’an is not to be treated, as one Muslim contributor to the magazine puts it, as ‘an idol’, to be adorned, used as a magical charm or recited like a mantra without understanding its meaning, as is the common practice among many Muslims in India. Rather, he says, it is to be read in translation by Muslims who do not know Arabic and its teachings are to be acted upon in actual life. In this regard, the traditional ‘ulama come in for particular attack, being accused of keeping the Muslim masses ignorant of the ‘revolutionary’ teachings of the Qur’an, for fear of their own authority being threatened. Such ‘ulama, one writer goes so far as to insist, actually worship the ‘Brahminical Social Order’ instead of Allah, and hence must be regarded as ‘idol-worshippers’.
In the development of a new theology of liberation and pluralism, Muslims writing for Dalit Voice have dealt at length with issues of peace and violence. Most seem opposed to the principle of total non-violence if it demands that they should desist from struggling for their rights or remain a silent victim of ‘upper’ caste aggression. Since the plight of the ‘lower’ caste Muslims is said to owe to ‘upper’ caste oppression, they argue that to advocate peace with the ‘enemy’ is tantamount to legitimizing their own plight. ‘Elite’ Muslims, who call for restraint and for ‘peace at all costs’ between Hindus and Muslims, are thus roundly condemned as reneging on the Islamic duty of struggling against oppression. While it is recognized that Islam does exhort its followers to work for peace, it is stressed that the peace that Islam desires is ‘not the peace between wolves and lambs, murderers and victims, oppressors and the oppressed’. Rather, it calls for ‘an honorable peace’, one based on social justice, which can, in the Indian context, only be established through ‘militant struggles’ against all forms of oppression. In this effort, Muslims are to unite with other oppressed people searching for liberation. This joint struggle for social justice is said to be the ‘highest form of prayer’ in Islam, and nothing, it is said, is more pleasing to God than this ‘form of worship’.
The new vision of a socially engaged Islam that Muslim contributors to Dalit Voice put forward is seen as laying the basis of a radically egalitarian society, crusading against all forms of oppression. Key Islamic beliefs are thus given a novel interpretation to serve the ‘revolutionary’ project. Thus, one writer argues that the Islamic creed of confession, ‘There is no God but Allah’, is a ‘revolutionary proclamation’ that denies and rejects all ‘lords and patrons in society’. It is also a clarion call for the destruction of all ‘idols’, not only those in the form of statues that are worshipped but also those ‘which come in the name of power, caste, class, economic or even religious hierarchy’. Since the struggle against all forms of injustice and oppression is seen as the defining feature of Islam, the ‘letter’ of the religion, as reflected in its rituals, is believed to be strictly subordinate to its ‘spirit’, which is identified with God’s call for the oppressed to join in the struggle for their own liberation. The core of the Qur’anic message is said to lie in ‘good deeds’ (‘amal-i saleh), without which faith and ritual acts are futile, and the highest form of good deeds is equated with involvement in the struggle against all forms of oppression. The traditional ‘ulama, for their part, are accused of having promoted the ‘letter’ of Islam above its ‘spirit’, ‘merely growing yards of beard and idling away their time praying the whole day’, and hence preparing their path to everlasting damnation in Hell. By thus placing ‘the petty externalities of religion’ over the ‘great liberative essence’ of Islam, they are said to have completely renounced their claims to leading the community, and a new class of Muslims, emerging from among the ‘oppressed’ majority and charged with the ‘revolutionary’ spirit of Islam, is urged to take their place.
Since the core of the Islamic faith is located in the struggle for social justice, conversion assumes a new meaning for advocates of this new Islamic vision. Conversion of ‘sinful’ social structures that give rise to oppression comes to be regarded as the principal task of the true Muslim, going beyond the conventional understanding of conversion as being restricted to a mere change of religious beliefs or community allegiances. The task of conveying the message of Islam to others (tabligh) and ‘inviting’ them to the faith (da’wah), is not neglected, but it is argued that conversion to Islam should not be made a precondition for Muslims to help other oppressed people or to ally with them against ‘upper’ caste oppression. Rather, it is argued that the Qur’an explicitly lays down that Muslims should help the oppressed (mustadifin), irrespective of religion, and that the latter are entitled to follow their own religion. Sanction for this position is sought from the Prophetic example, and it is pointed out that Muhammad entered into alliance with Jewish tribes to fight their common enemies without requiring that they should accept Islam.
As this survey of Muslim writings in Dalit Voice suggests, increasing numbers of Muslims, particularly from among long-marginalised ‘low’ caste groups who form the vast majority of the Indian Muslim population, are now demanding that their voices be heard, thereby implicitly challenging the established Muslim leadership as spokesmen of Islam and representatives of the community. These growing voices of protest are directed both internally, at the ‘ulama and the ashraf elite, as well as externally, at ‘upper’ caste Hindus, all of whom are seen as complicit in the oppression of the Muslim masses. The increasing salience of these voices must be seen in the context of the growing political awakening of the Muslim masses, the proliferation of regional and caste-based political parties, the spread of Dalit and Backward Caste movements against ‘upper’ caste control and Brahminism, and, above all, the widespread perception of the complete failure of the established Muslim leadership in protecting Muslim lives and property in the face of aggressive ‘upper’ caste-led Hindu chauvinism.
These Muslim voices of dissent are particularly significant in that they offer an interesting case of ‘lay’ perspectives on Islam that emerge from a situation of struggle against oppression. In this sense they can be said to represent a form of what can be called an Islamic theology of liberation. Insisting that Islam is not simply a set of doctrines and rituals, which they allege many ‘ulama have reduced it to, Muslim writers associated with Dalit Voice present Islam as a ‘revolutionary’ political programme, crusading against all forms of oppression. This can be seen as a borrowing of ideas and themes from the writings of Islamist ideologues such as Maududi and Imam Khomeini, but they are sought to be applied in a very different context and for very different purposes. Interestingly, the politics and practice of Islamist groups such as the JI are also not spared from critique by these writers, who see them as collaborating with the ‘upper’ caste Hindus despite their radical rhetoric. Equally significant is the stress that these writers pay to building bridges and alliances with other oppressed communities, seeing Islam as positively enjoining this rather than acting as a stumbling block in this regard. A unique Islamic perspective on inter-religious dialogue is thus also being articulated in the process. Dialogue here is understood as collaborative efforts with other oppressed sections in the common cause of social liberation, a significant advance over conventional models of dialogue that see its role as being restricted largely to the level of exchange of ideas about beliefs and practices between professional religious specialists.
A crucial consequence of these new voices that are now being articulated in the columns of Dalit Voice as well as in new Backward Caste Muslim journals and papers is the challenging of the authority of the ‘ulama, with some writers going so far as to brand the very institution of the ‘ulama as ‘un-Islamic’. This constitutes a radical alternative to religious authority, a questioning of traditional monopolies over interpretation of scripture, and a plea for a more democratic form of authority, one that rests firmly with ‘lay’ Muslims from marginalised groups.
One feature of many Muslim writings in Dalit Voice that may appear to be disturbing is the tendency to essentialise all ‘upper’ caste Hindus and all ashraf Muslims as ‘oppressors’. While some writers clearly state that what they are opposed to is Brahminism and ashraf prejudice, and not to individual ‘upper’ caste Hindus and ashraf Muslims as such, this clarification is not made in the case of most others. This may well seem as racism and discrimination in reverse, but it needs to be understood in the context of the pervasiveness of caste prejudice in India that still continues unabated. Likewise, seeing caste and Brahminical hegemony as the principal contradictions in Indian society, while completely ignoring issues of patriarchy and class, might seem simplistic, and certainly points to a lack of critical sociological insight. This is a question that seems to have plagued the broader Dalit movement as such, of which Dalit Voice is a part.
With increasing political consciousness and growing literacy, there can be little doubt that voices of protest, such as we have examined here, would acquire a growing salience and relevance. The crucial task of uniting these stirrings with the broader struggle for social justice and with other movements challenging both the chauvinism of the ultra-Hindu right wing and the reactionary politics of the Muslim elite, however, remains largely unattended to in practice. On this hinges the fate of not only the Muslims of India but of all other marginalised communities in the country as a whole.
Mr Yoginder Sikand
 Interview with V.T. Rajshekar, Bangalore, 1 February, 2001.
 A detailed treatment of the question of caste among the Muslims of India is to be found in Imtiaz Ahmed (ed.), Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India, Manohar, Delhi, 1978.
 Rahmatullah, ‘Curse of Allah on Muslim Religious Leaders For Flouting Koran’, in V.T.Rajshekar (ed.) Curse of Allah, Dalit Sahitya Akademy, Bangalore, 1997, p.13.
 Qurban ‘Ali Zameenzad, ‘Beware of Three Internal Enemies Who Killed Muslim Militancy: Medieval Mullahs, Marxists and Secularists’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 July, 1993, p.17.
 Muhammad Kamran, ‘Dalit-Muslim Unity Will Revolutionise Islam’, Dalit Voice, 1-15 June, 1997, p.19.
 A Correspondent, ‘Jama’at Blow to Dalit-Muslim Unity Movement’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 August, 1991, pp.9-10.
 S.A.Majeed, ‘Islam Prohibits Priesthood: Maulanas Are A Pest on Muslims’, Dalit Voice, 16-30 April, 1997, pp.6-10.
 Shamsul ‘Arifin, ‘Pro-Hindu Maulanas Suppressing Spirit of Islam’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 August, 2000, p.6.
 Shamsul ‘Arifin, ‘Rich Muslims Rushing To Join BJP’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 January, 2001, p.23.
 For an Indian Muslim modernist’s critique of the ‘ulama and the madrasa system, see S. Maqbul Ahmad, ‘Madrasa System of Education and Indian Muslim Society’, in S.T.Lokhandwala (ed), India and Contemporary Islam, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Simla, 1971, p.32-36.
 A detailed study of the Jama’at and Maududi is Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr’s The Vanguard of the Islamic Revolution: The Jama‘at-i Islami of Pakistan (I.B.Tauris, London and New York, 1994). See also, by the same author, Maududi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 1996.
 N. Sirajuddin, ‘DV Debate Reveals Dilemma Facing Jama’at-e-Islami’, Dalit Voice, 16-30 Nov., 1992, pp.19-21.
 Letter from ‘Abdul Ghaffar Shah, Dalit Voice, 16-31 October, 1991, p.10.
 Iqbal Ahmed Sheriff, ‘When Will the Jama’at-e-Islami Learn?’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 August, 1991, p.4.
 Suleiman Farooqui, ‘Middle Class Muslims Using Islam As A Ladder Duping the Oppressed’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 March, 1992, pp.19-20.
 Iqbal Ahmed Sheriff, ‘When Will the Jama’at-e-Islami Learn?’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 August, 1991, p.4.
 Letter from Tariq ‘Ali, Dalit Voice, 16-31 March, 1992, p.13.
 Qurban ‘Ali Zameenzad, ‘Hindu-Muslim Unity: Is It Possible?’, Dalit Voice, 16-28 Febrauary, 1993, p.19.
 Qurban ‘Ali Zameenzad, ‘Beware of Three Internal Enemies Who Killed Muslim Militancy: Medieval Mullahs, Marxists and Secularists’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 July, 1993, p.17.
 For details on the movement, see Khalid Masud (ed.), Travellers in Faith: Studies of the Tablighi Jama’at as a Trans-National Movement for Faith Renewal, E.J.Brill, Leiden, 2000. See also my The Origins and Development of the Tablighi Jama’at (1920-2000): A Cross-Country Comparative Study, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2002.
 Qurban ‘Ali Zameenzad, ‘Beware of Three Internal Enemies Who Killed Muslim Militancy: Medieval Mullahs, Marxists and Secularists’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 July, 1993, p.17.
Nafisul Hasan, ‘Koranic Directions Suppressed: Maulanas Misleading Muslims By Ignoring Duties in This World’, Dalit Voice, 1-15 April, 1996, p.11.
 Letter from P.A. Salam, Dalit Voice, 16-31 October, 1995, p.23.
 Letter from Mushtak Ahamed, Dalit Voice, 1-15 February, 2000, p.16.
 Letter from S.M.Ebrahim Madani, Dalit Voice, 16-30 June, 1989, p.10.
 S.M.Mir, ‘Tablighi Jama’at Ignoring Spirit of Islam’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 January, 1999, p.15.
 A book compiled by the leading Indian Tablighi ideologue, Maulana Muhammad Zakariya, containing traditions attributed to the Prophet as well as apocryphal and other stories related to the early Muslims.
 Shamsul ‘Arifin, ‘Pro-Hindu Maulanas Suppressing Spirit of Islam’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 August, 2000, p.6.
 Letter from M.N.Mustafa, Dalit Voice, 1-15 March, 1992, p.10.
 Letter from Naveed Hussain, Dalit Voice, 1-15 February, 2000, p.13.
 Mahboob Subhan, ‘Islam Alone Can Defeat Brahminism’, Dalit Voice, 1-15 November, 1992, p.19.
 Letter from Iqbal Ahmed Sheriff, Dalit Voice, 1-15 April, 1996, p.18.
 Ejaz ‘Ali, ‘Anti-Islamic Elite Muslims Opposed to Reservations for the Oppressed’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 January, 1996, pp.8-9.
 Letter from Ejaz ‘Ali, Dalit Voice, 16-30 April, 1996, p.22.
 Letter from S. Shafiq Ahmad, Dalit Voice, 16-30 November, 1999, p. 17.
 Intezar Ansari, ‘Elite Muslims Warned: Will Meet Fate of Nazi Vaidiks in Bloody Revolution’, Dalit Voice, 16-30 November, 2000, p.6.
 Nizamuddin Ansari, ‘Dalit-Muslim Unity Failed As Elite Muslims Hate Dalits’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 January, 2000, p.15.
 Rahmatullah, op.cit., p.15.
 Mohammad Kamran, ‘Dalit-Muslim Unity Will Revolutionize Islam’, in V.T.Rajshekar (ed.) Curse of Allah, Dalit Sahitya Akademy, Bangalore, 1997, p.33.
 S.N.Mandal, ‘Elite Muslims Closer to Upper Castes Than Oppressed Muslims’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 August, 1992, pp.17-18.
 Masood Azhar, ‘Elite Muslims Have Become Idol-Worshippers’, Dalit Voice, 1-15 August, 1994, p.19.
 Qurban ‘Ali Zameenzad, ‘Beware of Three Internal Enemies Who Killed Muslim Militancy: Medieval Maulvis, Marxists and Secularists’, Dalit Voice, 16-31 July, 1993, p.16.
 Qurban ‘Ali Zameenzad, ‘Wanted Dalit-Muslim United Front’, Dalit Voice, 1-15 Febrary, 1993, p.21.
 Vinod Ahmed, ‘Muslim Masses Deceived From Fighting Dalit Oppression’, Dalit Voice, 1-15 December, 1999, p.11.
 Letter from Darvesh, Dalit Voice, 1-15 January, 2000, p.17.
 A Correspondent, ‘Mischief Lies in Suppressing Spirit of Islam and Preaching Religion of Islam’, Dalit Voice, 1-15 April, 1997, p.22.
 Qurban ‘Ali Zameenzad, ‘Dalits, Islam and Ivory Tower Maulvis’, Dalit Voice, 1-15 December, 1992, p.20.
 Naim Suhrawardi, ‘Muslims Cannot Fight Brahminism Without Joining Non-Muslim Groups’, Dalit Voice, 1-15 March, 1992, p.14.
 Isa Haque, ‘Dalits Are Blood-Brothers of Muslims: Together They Must Fight Aryans’, Dalit Voice, 1-15 August, 1992, p.17.