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Islam and Muslims in South Asia DCM Sadiq's lecture at the American University, Washington D.C.

By Yaseen Nazir and Seema Kareemi

Pakistan's Charge d'Affairs, Mr. Mohammad Sadiq made a presentation on “Islam and Muslims in South Asia” during an Asia Forum event at the Center for Asian Studies in the American University, Washington on October 7, 2004.

Mr. Sadiq stated that despite living in the age of information, we were ironically more ill-informed today about each other then ever. Lack of information was pervasive and the root cause of confrontations. In this so-called era of the Clash of Civilizations, death and destruction was trivialized to such an extent that it had lost the capability to shock people. He emphasized the need for dialogue between civilizations as he felt that only dialogue could set the world free from prejudices.

Mr. Sadiq highlighted the important role played by traders, rulers, warriors and particularly the Sufis (mystics and teachers) in spread of Islam in South Asia. He said in the late seventh century Arab traders began arriving in South Asia. It was later in 711 A.D., that a Muslim general, Mohammad Bin Qasim, invaded Sindh in reaction to the plunder of an Arab carvan by a local Hindu ruler. Sindh became an Arab outpost due to the arrival of Arab traders, warriors and Sufis and was thus called gateway to Islam (Bab-ul-Islam) in South Asia.

Mr. Sadiq said Muslim rulers contributed to the spread of Islam but by and large they were secular. The main source of spread of Islam was Sufis who were of Central Asian Turkic, and Afghan origin. They integrated local folklore, including music and dance, into their ritual to attract people to their outlook on life and religion. Sufis added a touch of color and beauty to the Islamic teachings. They believed in presenting the spirit of the scripture and did not limit themselves to its letter. Sufis' preached a universal message of tolerance and acceptance. They laid great emphasis on the rights of fellow human beings. Sufis' outlook on life was diametrically opposed to that of the rulers. Their teachings and followers transcended the boundaries of religion and caste.

Mr. Sadiq focused particularly on the contribution of Moeen ud Din Chisti whose teachings embodied the unique blend of older South Asian and Islamic traditions attracting a multitude of individuals to Sufisim.

Mr. Sadiq said virtually every region of South Asia today had at least one major Sufi shrine or dargah (gateway to God), which draws devotees from all religions.

Mr. Sadiq emphasized that Muslim contribution to art forms in South Asia was immense. It included areas such as painting, music, and architecture. Over a period of time, the Muslim art of South Asia evolved as a blend of Indian, Persian, Arabic, Afghan and Central Asian influences. For example, he said, the sharp colors used in the Mughal miniatures resulted from Rajput influence. Local music evolved with ghazal and qawali. Qawali to a great extent was influenced by bhajan-Hindu religious music.

Mr. Sadiq said Muslim civilization in South Asia attained its peak during the Mughal period. The Mughal dynasty reached its zenith during the rule of Akbar who became the most celebrated Mughal ruler not by the virtue of his conquests, but by his tolerant and benevolent treatment of his subjects. During the rule of the Mughals, a majority of converts to Islam were from the ruling elite of South Asia, who stood to benefit under Muslim rule. Groups that particularly benefited from Mughal rule included Maithal Brahmins of Bihar and Hindu traders who interacted with Muslim leadership in varying capacities. Muslim rulers promoted various local classes who became allies such as the Kayasthas or Munshies who became record keepers in courts and held administrative positions. Hindu traders and money lenders became rich by dealing with Mughals. Untouchables largely converted to Islam because of the respect they received from Sufis. During the rule of Aurangzeb the Mughal empire controlled the largest territory; but, during this period the decline of the empire also began.

Commenting on the colonial period, Mr. Sadiq said Muslims came to India and stayed there – they did not plunder the land and transfer its wealth like the British. They did not impoverish the peasants. Muslims were responsible rulers who took their duties towards their subjects seriously.

With the arrival of the British, Muslims lost their empire. There was great deal of resistance on their part to learn English, which was imposed as new medium of education. As a result, they got left behind in every field of human endeavor.

The Muslim Renaissance began with the Aligarh Movement launched by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan to educate the Muslims. He persuaded them to give up their old way of thinking and to adopt to the new system. He was also a strong proponent of Hindu-Muslim unity in the beginning. Faced with the continued hostility of the Hindu majority towards the Muslims, he was compelled to change his mind and became the first Muslim leader to propound the two nation theory which ultimately formed the basis of Pakistan.

Mr. Sadiq said the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah also began as a secular Indian nationalist, who believed in Indian identity. However, his views changed after close interaction with the Hindu leadership. After being thwarted by the Hindu majority in attempts to foster amicable relations between the two nations, he also came to accept Sir Syed Ahmed Khan's two nation theory.

Mr. Sadiq explained the two nation theory did not suggest that Hindus and Muslims could not live together. The two-nation theory was essentially instrumental in creating two geographical nations. He referred to Mr. Jinnah's address to the Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947 in which he called for ‘Pakistantanhood' regardless of religion, caste or creed. Mr. Jinnah said:

“You are free. You are free to go to your mosques and temples and any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”

Quaid-e-Azam envisioned Pakistan to be a modern state where the socio-economic and political rights of the Muslims could be secure. Conservative religious groups such as Jamiat-e-Ulema-Hind were fiercely opposed to the cause of Pakistan.

Mr. Sadiq referred to Allama Iqbal, the poet philosopher of Pakistan who was the first one to present the idea of a separate homeland for Muslims. He explained for his audience the importance of Iqbal's ideas on Muslim modernity and rejuvenation through Ijtehad.

The movement for the creation of Pakistan also played an integral role in bringing Muslim women to the forefront of South Asian politics. Prominent women politicians of Pakistan Movement included women like Shaista Ikramullah, Raana Liaqat, and Jahanara Shahnawaz. Miss. Fatima Jinnah, the sister of Mr. Jinnah, was a candidate in the election for the President in 1964 and came very close to becoming the first woman head of state in history. Benazir Bhutto became the first woman Prime Minister of a Muslim country.

Mr. Sadiq said, over one third of the world's Muslim population live in South Asia. These great numbers are acknowledged in an Arabic saying that “the Quran was revealed to the buddos (Araab), recited by the Egyptians and embraced by the people of South Asia (Hunood).”

The presentation was followed by a lively Q &A session. In response to a question, Mr. Sadiq elaborated the government of Pakistan's program to reform madrassas and to revamp the education system. In addition, he highlighted the initiatives taken by the government of Pakistan for improving the social indicators. In response to another question, he attributed the tendency of linking Islam to terrorism to lack of information. He added that terrorism had no religion. To eradicate terrorism, it was essential to address its root causes. He said injustice and poverty bred terrorism.

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