Friday, May 27, 2011

Social Impact of Islam

Although as a religious faith, Islam is commonly believed to provide for the "equality" of all believers, the Quran and the Hadith bith justify the second-class or third class treatment of non-believers and infidels. thta is why there is considerable evidence that most Hindus experienced considerable downward mobility as a consequene of the Islamic invasions. Only those social groupings that actively collaborated with the alien rulers were able to maintain their wealth and status (or in some cases, move up the ladder)
The general bias towards trade, and the trend towards higher taxes on the peasantry led to far greater concentrations of wealth amongst the social elite. Not only did the distance between rich and poor widen with the arrival of the Islamic invaders, Islamic rulers did not contribute in any meaningful way to breaking down the caste system.
Hence, it would be wrong to exaggerate the "egalitarian" character of Islam versus the "discriminatory and sedentary " character of caste-driven Hinduism. As some historians have pointed out - those who earned their living by "unclean tasks" (such as corpse-handling, tanning/leather work, or janitorial work) were often treated with disdain by both the Islamic and Hindu elite. The majority of the Islamic conquerors and ruling dynasties refrained from close social interaction and marriage with the local artisans and working castes just as much as did Brahmins or Kshatriyas. It would also be wrong to argue that caste rigidity was uniformly enforced in 'Hindu' India. Many of India's greatest ruling dynasties sprang from lower castes or socially "inferior" mixed castes. The Nandas were shudras, the Mauryas hailed from a mixed caste, and Harsha was a Vaishya. The Rajputs were of Central Asian stock and became accepted as Kshatriya after they had established their power. And just like the Muslims, the Kalingas of Orissa allowed anyone to join their armies and rise to the top by demonstrating their skills in battle. Moreover the Vaishnava and Bhakti movements had already been popularizing the notion that spiritual devotion superceded caste in terms of gaining salvation. Hence, Islam did not offer anything that was substantially new or more radical to the majority of India's Hindus and this is why the majority did not convert to Islam.
This is particularly evident in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa where few artisans or craftspeople converted to Islam. There is evidence of social mobility across caste groupings in the Pratihara period in Rajasthan. Caste divisions were not significant in the early Kalinga period in Orissa and the Chandella rulers of Madhaya Pradesh were reputed to have an egalitarian attitude on matters of caste and may have been of lower caste origin themselves. Some rulers had tribal origins (such as the Meena kings of Rajasthan and the erstwhile rulers of Jabalpur before its defeat at the hands of the Mughals).  Just as the impact of Islam varied considerably, it would be wrong to generalize about pre-Islamic India. Caste rigidity and Brahminical conservatism were not uniform or  all-prevalent features of the sub-continent. Had Islam offered a truly radical alternative to the Indian masses, a much greater proportion of the Indian population would have converted.

As pointed out by Amartya Sen and others, the majority of conversions took place directly from Buddhism to Islam or amongst certain mercantile communities and specific categories of skilled artisans.

Growth of Clerical Obscurantism

Although  conversions may not always have been forced, local histories from several districts in the Hindi-speaking parts of the country (especially the gangetic plain) allude to considerable pressure on local rulers and chieftans to convert. This is because the Islamic rulers wanted their intermediaries with the Indian masses to also be Muslim so that their rule was less easily challenged or thwarted.
Ibn Batuta also points to coercion in forcing people to attend the daily prayers. Indians who were used to religions where they had considerable autonomy in terms of when and how often they went to the temple - initially resisted the regimen of frequent daily prayers. Imams often had to threaten and cane convertees into attending.
Another negative consequence of Islam was that because Islam was against idol worship, the rich ancient Indian tradition of sculpture suffered a major setback. This also had certain profound though less apparent consequences. At one level - praying to a stone deity may seem very irrational, but in practice it was certainly no worse than praying to an invisible entity. At least the stone deity that was sculpted with human features embodied the fantasies and wish-fulfillment desires of the people. Daily and forced obeisance to an invisible god with the power to punish with eternal damnation was potentially far more spirit deadening and mind-numbing.
Islamization thus led to a steady loss of independent thinking and religious dissent. Unlike the polycosmological practises that prevailed in India wherein all manner of heterodox and conservative traditions competed, and allowed atheism and goddess worship to coexist with Brahminical orthodoxy, Quranic Islam more often demanded complete submission to its precepts and allowed much less room for heretic beliefs. For instance, students of Indian philosophy were familiar with several atheistic traditions which included the Nyaya-Vaisheshika, the Sankhya, the Mimamsaka, the Yoga, and several Jain and Buddhist currents. State support of such atheist and other currents contributed quite substantially to the expansion of literacy beyond the elite castes and also helped in the expansion of scientific knowledge and in further development mathematical and epistemological analysis.
While obscurantist ideas emasculated followers of both faiths, the power of the Islamic clergy was considerably greater in enforcing social conservatism. This trend became notable during the reign of Shah Jahan and climaxed during the reign of Aurangzeb.
By the time Aurangzeb took over, much of the state's social budget had come to be expropriated by the conservative clergy. The only scholars to be promoted were Islamic scholars who became prisoners to the unworldliness that is ingrained in any religion that makes absolute devotion to an unknown and indescribable entity its paramount aim. Towards the end of his life, Aurangzeb regretted his turn towards Islamic conservatism and exclusivity, but by then the conservative clergy had developed a momentum of its own.
Being a religion of the book, Islam was more easily hijacked by dogmatic currents than Hinduism which lacked the formal and centralizing institutions that came with Islam. There was no council of Ulemas with the power to issue fatwas (threatening religious edicts). There were no daily prayers. There wasn't even a single sacred book that could resolve religious disputes. While some followed the Gita or the Upanishads, others followed the Ramayana which itself came in multiple versions. Many of these texts were highly polemical, embodying intense philosophical ambiguity and debate. Concepts like "dharma" were loosely defined and abstract in their conception, enabling them to be adjusted to the changing needs of changing times. The concept of "karma" furthered a sense of secular responsibility and some understanding of causality and proportionality in a manner that had no comparable counterpart in Quranic Islam.
The Quran offered little secular ambiguity or possibility for new philosophical development. Quranic interpreters could only spend their time quibbling over historic minutiae, obsessed with statements of the 'prophet' and what judgement day might bring and who would enter heaven. It was questions of the after-life that concerned them, and day-to-day reality had to be analyzed only through a medieval Arabist lens. Although there were currents within Hinduism that also emphasized detachment from real life - there was still space for more contemporary (and geographically more relevant) worldly currents.
Prior to the arrival of Islam, some Hindu rulers supported emerging scientists and rational scholars. Although the support for the sciences and education was never broad based and did not penetrate deep into society it allowed India's secular and rational traditions to survive - even if in a weakened and restricted form. But in some cases, there is evidence of quite vigorous intellectual activity.
Some Hindu rulers like Raja Bhoj were particularly notable in that they were renowned architects and engineers and were highly respected for their many building projects. Raja Bhoj was also noted for his engineering innovations relating to town planning, civil construction and engineering and mechanical inventions such as  time-telling devices. Recently, treatises on earthquakes and geological analysis have also been discovered suggesting that pre-Islamic India was not as stagnant or moribund as some Isalmic historians have tried to imply.
The more liberal of the Islamic rulers like Akbar attempted to follow in these footsteps and keep the Madrasahs (Islamic Schools) in line by compiling regulations that required them to also include secular subjects in their curriculum. Courses on ethics, mathematics, astronomy, agriculture, medicine, logic and government were recommended in addition to religious studies. The study of Sanskrit was prescribed including Vyakaran (Grammar) and Nyaya - (Rational Philosophy). During Akbar's reign Hakim Shirazi (d. 1589) and his followers attempted to combine the study of mathematics and science with Islam at seminaries founded by them. Perhaps as a consequence of his father's open-mindedness, Emperor Jehangir was also encouraged to pay attention to secular matters and took an active interest in botany and zoology. But neither Akbar nor Jehangir were to have any significant impact on the outlook of the Madrasahs. The actual practice of the Ulema - the clergy who ran the Madrasahs, remained theocratic, and they resisted Akbar's modest attempts at secularizing the Islamic educational system. This was not entirely out of character because as early as the 11th C. the Central Asian scholar Al-Beruni had been jailed for his "heretic" beliefs, and for 'challenging the supremacy of the knowledge contained in the Quran'.
In social matters also, there were distinctions that became apparent over time. Outside the ambit of Brahminical or Kshatriya orthodoxy, the triumph of patriarchy was only partial in India. Amongst some communities of artisans and the peasantry, there was a greater sense of realism and tolerance in matters of personal relationships and human sexuality. Gods and goddesses were propitiated based on local and even individual needs. Religion was more a matter of individual or group choice than a rigid doctrine imposed from above. Regional, even local variations and adaptations coexisted and survived.
But over time the conservative Islamic clergy attempted to limit or quash flexibility in such matters. Using their Friday sermons and power to issue fatwas they were able to exercise greater influence on the polity than were Hindu priests. With the rulers on their side, it was much harder to challenge them. This may have also had an indirect impact on some rationalist and autonomous schools within the broad Hindu umbrella who may have also came under some pressure.
Although the Sufi and Bhakti traditions challenged religious bigotry and intolerance, both traditions came under the sway of mystic renunciation of the real world. Even as they eased the pain of religious and social autocracy - they were unable to offer a realistic counterpoint to the imposition of religious sectarianism and bookish rigor. A powerful humanist reform current also appeared in the form of Sikhism which in its practice of social welfare measures for the poor and disenfranchised exceeded any faith preceding it. But like the Sufi and Bhakti faiths, it too incorporated elements of mystic withdrawal and saintly devotion to the 'almighty' as its high ideals.
The retreat from India's long tryst with rationalism had already started in some parts of India with the ascendancy of those who believed strongly in astrology and ascribed to it a dominant role in shaping human destiny. But in other parts of India, scientifc and engineering research was not entirely dead. Not only did Islam aid and abet the retreat from scientifc rationalism, it further deepened it. 
This was in stark contrast to what was happening in Europe in that same period. By the 18th century Christian religious orthodoxy was facing powerful movements for social reform and was under attack from both internal and external humanist and rationalist currents. Rather than the rational currents being subsumed by religion, they were trying to raise their head to rise above the ocean of myth, superstition and religious confusion that had imbued the masses of the medieval world.
In India the trend was in the wrong direction and this undoubtedly fed into the process of cementing colonial rule.  For instance, several recent economic hostorians have indicated that until the 13th C, India led the world in terms of its GDP. Four centuries of Islamic rule allowed China to gain parity with India, and later, Europe outpaced both China and India.
While the British used all shades of religious obscurantism to divide and subjugate the Indian masses, Islamic separatism became a particularly dangerous tool in the hands of the British. The complicity of the Muslim League served as a catalyst for the unfortunate vivisection of the sub-continent. Today, in Pakistan, Islam has become a vehicle for spreading venom and hatred against India. This has led to a growing revulsion against Islam and unfortunate stereo-typing of all Muslim nations and people in some sections of Indian society. Progressive forces in India have been caught in a curious bind.
Earlier in the century, in the fight against colonial rule, the widest possible unity of the Indian people was deemed essential. As a result, forces that were based on mystic renunciation or religious obscurantism (or even religious chauvinism) were tolerated, even welcomed in the freedom movement. Criticism of religion, even religious absolutism was avoided. The fear of communal riots and religious separatism prevented many of the nation's most advanced freedom fighters from combating religious conservatism head on.
After independence, similar fears (of fomenting needless divisions) often led to the quiet censorship of essays containing a critique of Islam. However, because, Hinduism was viewed as the faith of the 'dominant majority' there weren't the same fears of critically dissecting Hinduism. It was possible for the many weaknesses and failures of Hindu obscurantism to be exposed, but Islam, on the other hand was somewhat protected from critical analysis.
Today, this has led to a severe backlash. It has led to an exaggerated glorification of Hinduism - and a lack of historical distance from the odious aspects of Islam's role in India. India thus faces an enormous challenge. At the same time, it has left many Muslims with an overly sanitized record of the Islamic and little respect for the much more intellectually virile Indian traditions.
The old solution of avoiding controversy or holding back from a frank and deeper assessment is clearly unsustainable. Historians cannot refrain from telling the truth for too long. Yet, the truth can also be told in ways that are enlightening, and without it being incendiary. If the record of India's Islamic courts is presented in an unbiased and impartial way, and without stirring feelings of retribution towards Muslims,  it is likely that most ordinary Indians will react in a manner that is sanguine and circumspect. It may also create an opportunity for fighting anew all the forces of obscurantism that hinder India's progress.
If India is to meet the challenges posed by technology dominated globalization, it cannot afford to continue stumbling under the shadow of any type of religious obscurantism. The same applies to Pakistan and Bangladesh. In all three nations, there is tremendous poverty and oppression. While India, having embraced a secular path, offers somewhat more hope than either of its neighbors, a secular and cooperative federation of the Indian sub-continent offers the greatest hope of progress for the vast majority of the sub-continent's people.
Between the nations of the sub-continent there exist the natural resources and the scientific and technological prowess to raise the average standard of living to modest but very respectable levels, and to do it in an environmentally sustainable fashion. But today, by and large, only India has elements of the requisite scientific and technological foundation in place. However, due to Pakistan's proxy wars it is unable to tap the available energy resources and other natural resources and develop in a balanced way. Pakistan and Bangladesh on the other hand have rich energy reserves but lack the scientific and technological know-how, or industrial base to develop or use them. It is a poignant stalemate.
The forces of Islamic jehad have won a partial victory through partition and in keeping India bleeding. But it has undoubtedly been a very pyrrhic victory in which all except a very narrow elite have been big losers. Islam at one point served to unite the medieval world into one huge trading bloc. It is ironic that today, it is the forces of Islamic Jehad that prevent even bilateral trade from taking place between India and Pakistan. Rather than unite disparate social systems, Islam is being used to divide a people with a long and common culture and history.
In many ways, the key to the future is in the hands of the region's ordinary Muslims because only they can successfully challenge the power of the conservative and now militarized clergy. India's Muslims have a special role to play because they have the best chance of winning over the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh and exhorting them to work towards a cooperative and mutually beneficial federation with India.

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