A: I was born in a village in Aurangabad district in Bihar in 1949. My father, who was a maulvi, worked as an Urdu teacher in a government middle school. We come from a family of maulvis, and my father,
carrying on in this family tradition, also served as the imam of a local mosque and a teacher in a madrasa.
I studied at home for the first few years and then in a local Hindi-medium school till the eleventh standard. My father could not afford to send me to college, so after this I began helping out at home, grazing cattle and cutting wood. One day, my friends and I began to talk about what we felt was the most difficult thing in the world. After much debate, we arrived at a consensus. The most difficult thing in the world, we decided, was to learn English. That very day I
decided that I must learn the language. My father bought me a dictionary, and I began learning English myself.
Some years later, my family shifted to Aurangabad town, where I began giving tuitions, earning just ten rupees a month from each student I taught. I enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in Patna University, and in 1972 came to Delhi. In Patna I wrote for a paper called Searchlight, focusing on students’ issues. When I came to Delhi, I took up a job with Radiance, the official English-language organ of the Jamaat-e-Islami. This was the beginning of my journalistic career and my interest in writing on Muslim issues.
Q: Where did you go on from there?
A: I stayed with Radiance for just a few months. It was the first time I had worked with an ideological group, and I soon began feeling uncomfortable and out of place, although many of the people in the Radiance office were wonderful human beings. Yet, I found some of their attitudes, such as to do with women, very stifling and narrow,
even absurd, even from the Islamic point of view as I understood it.
Gradually, it dawned on me that the agenda that Radiance was pursuing, one which it shared with the Jamaat-e-Islami, was something that I could not subscribe to. Hence, I left the magazine, and then worked for several years with various papers and news agencies and also freelanced for a while, including in London. I came back to Delhi in the early 1990s, where I worked for a year with the Nation and the World, a magazine set up by a group of supposedly progressive Muslims, but I had to leave within a year because the management could not
accept the fact that my wife, mother of my children, was a Hindu and had not converted to Islam! They even went to the extent of trying to coax me to get her to become a Muslim, but I refused as I believe that religion is something very personal. Because of my refusal, I was summarily sacked!
Q: For many years now, you have been writing against Islamist extremism and intolerance. How did all this begin?
A: I have been writing on Muslim issues since the very beginning of my journalistic career in1972. But a note of urgency about the dangers from Islamic radicalism came into my thinking a little later. It began back in the mid-80s, when I was staying at a Pakistani friend’s home in Nottingham in Britain. One day, I overheard the kids of this family conversing with a friend of theirs about Islam. This friend belonged to the Ahl-e Hadith sect, who are known for their stern literalism, being almost identical to the Saudi Wahhabis. This is a sect massively promoted by petrodollars and may even be termed Petrodollar Islam. I heard him telling the kids that the Ahl-e Hadith alone were true Muslims and that the other Muslims were not just really non-Muslims but that, in fact, they were the biggest and the first enemies of Islam. I asked him what he proposed to do with the “first and the foremost enemies of Islam,” that is something like 99 percent of Muslims who are not Ahl-e-Hadees. He said: “Kill them!!!”
You can imagine my horror at hearing this! Here was a bunch of Pakistani youth, who could easily have a bright future in Nottingham University, but who, instead, were discussing hatred, murder and
things like that. These children were not alone. By this time, many British mosque communities and Muslim organizations in British universities had been radicalized by Wahhabi and other extremist groups funded by tens of billions of petrodollars. The maverick hate-spewing Islamist Omar Bakri Mohammad was drawing huge crowds of
British Muslims wherever he spoke. Muslim bookstores were stocked with Wahhabi-inspired and Saudi-funded books, openly preaching hatred and contempt for non-Muslims.
All this made me suddenly wake up to the very real possibility that this hatred in the name of Islam could easily spread elsewhere. It could easily come to our very doorsteps, into our very homes, even in India, if it was not countered immediately and effectively. It would create even more destruction and terror for Muslims themselves than
for others. That is why I decided to start writing about these issues, to counter extremist and radical misinterpretations of Islam and to present what I felt were the true teachings of the faith. I was fearful that if these radical teachings were allowed to spread, they would destroy the Muslims themselves, consuming them in the fires of hatred and violence. It was not simply to salvage the image of Islam that I was doing this. Rather, it was also to protect Muslim parents
from allowing their children to be influenced and then destroyed by hate-driven ideologues parading in the garb of Islamic 'authenticity'. There were enough and more provocations directed against Muslims happening all over the world to provoke them to be attracted by these wrong, militant interpretations of Islam as a means for responding to
the sense of siege that they felt.
In 1991, on being thrown out of the Nation and the World, I went into a deep depression that lasted several months. What shocked me was that the men behind this magazine were supposedly the ‘cream’ of Indian Muslim ‘progressive’ circles. If such people were to betray such narrow communalism and lack of understanding of Islamic tenets, I asked myself, what would happen to our community in the days to come?
I remained bed-ridden for almost half a year. This was a period of great introspection for me. When I got up finally, it was with a resolve to do whatever little I could to combat extremism and hatred in the name of Islam, to articulate a more relevant understanding of Islam in today’s context, and also to highlight various Muslim concerns and issues. Since then I have been regularly writing on these issues—for various papers such as The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, The Asian Age and for various websites and
My resolve to carry on this mission is strengthened every day when I look around, on the Internet and in the print and electronic media, and see how ideologues spewing hatred in the name of Islam, thereby sullying its name, are so deeply-entrenched, and when I see that even in the locality around the shrine of one of India’s greatest Sufi saints Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, shops are selling books by Wahhabis and Muslim supremacists like Zakir Naik and by Ahl-e Hadith mullahs who claim that Sufis are kafirs and Sufism is sheer infidelity. Hardly anyone is rebutting this poisonous propaganda.
Q: What made you set up your web-magazine NewAgeIslam.com?
A: In 2005, my wife was posted as the Indian cultural attaché to Suriname, and I accompanied her there. We lived there for three years. I was a house-husband with lots of time to spare, and so I began reading up books on Islam and Muslims from a wide range of perspectives that I had bought much earlier but had not been able to read properly. It was then that I came upon the idea of starting a web-journal to propagate progressive views on Islam and Muslims and to counter extremism and hatred in the name of Islam, because starting a regular magazine or newspaper was simply too expensive. And that is how NewAgeIslam.com was set up, a little over two years ago, while I
was still in Suriname.
Q: What is the basic purpose of your web-magazine?
A: NewAgeIslam.com seeks to promote rethinking on various aspects of traditional Muslim thought so as to enable Muslims to integrate in today’s world. We are discussing such fundamental issues as what Islam actually is, who or what a ‘Muslim’ is, what the notion of a ‘practising Muslim’ is or should be, what Islam actually says about such issues as women’s rights, freedom, democracy, nationalism, peace, justice, war, politics and relations with the state. It discusses how Muslims living as minorities should relate to the state and dominant non-Muslim majorities and so on. It also seeks to highlight human rights abuses of minorities in both Muslim-majority and
Ours is an open forum, where divergent views on a wide range of issues are freely debated and contested. It seeks to urge Muslims to introspect, to cease blaming others for all their ills, to recognize where they have gone wrong, in terms of both thought and action.
In the particular Indian context, NewAgeIslam.com seeks to make Muslims realize and recognize the fact that we do enjoy the very same rights in this country as other citizens, and that our story is not just about unrelenting discrimination, in contrast to the impression created by the Muslim media. We point out the fact that Muslims have
much more freedom in India than non-Muslims in most Muslim countries and even Muslims in such countries. We need to talk about all this, and about supremacist, aggressive, intolerant and patriarchal interpretations of Islam because by and large the Muslim media simply refuses to deal with these issues.
We Indian Muslims need to rethink our position in India and in the Indian polity. We need to be appreciative of what we have received in this country—which is a lot more than non-Muslim minorities in most Muslim countries, particularly in our own neighbourhood. We need to combat the propaganda that India is an enemy of Islam and is
vociferously opposed to Muslims—which is the image that influential sections of the Urdu press so sedulously create. We have to stress that we are an integral part of this country, and although we also recognize that the Indian state and system do not fully live up to their promises of true democracy and secularism, we must appreciate their positive aspects and express our gratitude. Islam teaches us to live with an attitude of gratitude even when we are in distress. One can understand sections of Pakistani establishment having a vested interest in propagating this communal, confrontationist view. A Muslim community well-integrated in the Indian society and polity hurts their self-image and the very raison d’être of the creation of Pakistan. Those generals in Rawalpindi - I have met some of them over the years, mostly in England – who dream of conquering India, unfurling the green flag over red fort and nurse other crazy ideas like that, cannot but promote strife in the Indian society, particularly involving Indian Muslims. But sections of Indian Muslim media and intellectuals themselves presenting the Indian state as inimical to our interests
and promoting a confrontationist attitude among Muslims is the height of stupidity as much as it is contrary to facts on the ground.
Most importantly, we need to develop progressive understandings of Islam that are rooted in inter-community dialogue, friendship and solidarity. We need to learn how to live in harmony with our Hindu brethren, accepting them as our own, not as ‘impure infidels’ and ‘enemies’, as some Muslims do. After all, we have to live and die in
this country, and we as a minority have no option but to try and earn the goodwill of the Hindus. It is our Hindu neighbours who can protect us in the event of an attack, not our communal leaders nor for that matter even the Home Minister. Islam places great stress on the rights of neighbours, so one thing we urgently need to do is to build bridges
of friendship and solidarity with our neighbours, the Hindus.
This, in turn, requires us to creatively reinterpret traditional Muslim understandings of the term Ahl-e Kitab or ‘People of the Book’. After all, there are entire passages in several Hindu scriptures that are identical to passages from the Quran. The Quran itself says that God has sent prophets to every people, and hence it is obvious that India, too, has been blessed by prophets. There are many Hindus who also believe in one, formless God.
Alongside this, we also need to challenge the notion of Muslim supremacism and redefine what we mean by ‘Muslim’, a ‘practising Muslim’ and the ‘Other’. The well-known Munir Commission set up several decades ago by the Government of Pakistan interviewed several Pakistani Muslim clerics from different sects and arrived at the conclusion that no two clerics could even agree on the definition of the term ‘Muslim’, each sect branding the others as deviant or even as wholly outside the pale of Islam. The clerics have given rituals andmarkers of identity such enormous stress that they seem to have forgotten that belief in the one God and doing good deeds, serving the
rights of the creatures of God (huquq ul-ibad), are central bases ofIslam and of what a true Muslim is.
Q: How has your web-magazine been doing? Has it made any sort of impact?
A: In the short while since we started, NewAgeIslam.ccom has been able to make quite a splash. We now have some 117,000 subscribers across the world, Muslims as well as others, to whom we send out daily updates. We host some 2900 articles in our archives. Only some of these articles are by me as I don’t want the journal to be seen as a
personal propaganda site. Rather, it is an open forum for debate and serious discussion. It welcomes dissenting views even on its main pages, not to speak of the widely popular comments section which is absolutely open to all views. I allow all sorts of criticism and comments, except, of course, downright abuse.
Q: How do you feel extremism and hatred in the name of religion (not just Islam, but religion in general) can be best countered?
A: Radical Islamism or radical Hindutva, for that matter, are ideologies, and an ideology cannot be countered by a ban. The RSS has been banned three times and yet, as both an organization and as an ideology, it remains so powerful today. Banning it served no purpose other than giving it even more publicity. Likewise, hardly anyone knew
of the Students Islamic Movement of India until it was banned by the Government of India. An ideology is best countered by a counter-ideology, and this holds true in the case of religiously-based
extremism as well.
Q: What you seem to suggest is that it is not just media sensationalism or anti-Muslim prejudice alone, as many Muslims argue, that is responsible for deeply-rooted prejudices against Muslims and Islam among non-Muslims. Rather, hate-driven and Muslim supremacistinterpretations of Islam, as well as the actions of certain self-styled Islamist groups are also to blame. Is that what you are saying?
A: Exactly. And I would go so far as to say that we Muslims are more to blame for our poor image than any non-Muslim media or whatever, although I must add that, lamentably, the media loves to sensationalise and generalize about any small Muslim aberration. Much of the poor image of Muslims has to do with their deep-rooted sense of Islam supremacism, which has no Islamic sanction really.
Let me cite a small but telling instance in this regard. Recently, I was in Patna, in the home of a Muslim friend. My friend’s son had a fight with a Hindu boy and complained about it to his maulvi. The maulvi’s response was, ‘Oh, he is a kafir! You should have beaten him up!’
I would like to cite another personal instance to further clarify my point. Some years ago I hired a local maulvi, a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, to teach my daughter Urdu and the Holy Quran. I gave him an Urdu primer prepared by the National Council for Educational Research and Training and requested him to use it for teaching my
daughter. It is an excellent book and is probably the best way I know to teach Urdu. The maulvi took the book in his hands and opened it, only to see on the very first page the name of the editor, the renowned Urdu scholar and linguist of international repute, Gopi Chand Narang. I noted the revulsion that suddenly gripped the maulvi’s face, just because Narang was not a Muslim. He slapped the book shut and refused to teach from it. If this is not a reflection of a very narrow, communalized, indeed Talibanesque mindset, what is?
So, as I was saying, it is pointless saying that the media is biased, because anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim biases are not a new thing. They have been in existence for a long time. Simply blaming the media and branding them as being engaged in a conspiracy is not going to change things at all. What we Muslims should be doing—which is what NewAgeIslam.com is trying to do in a humble, very limited way—is to introspect, to see why this is happening, to identify where we have gone wrong, in terms of both thought and action, to examine our own role in creating negative images of Islam and Muslims. Our focus should be constantly on trying to find ways of promoting peace and harmony and asking ourselves: “Is there something we can do to move beyond this conflict situation?” This cannot be done by calling this land of ours “Kufristan”, as some of our Mullahs do, while knowing full well that the overwhelming majority of our countrymen are believers in God.
Q: But obviously you cannot deny the existence of forces inimical to Islam and Muslims. One cannot expect Muslims not to be moved or to remain inert when thousands of their co-religionists are slaughtered by Hindutva mobs, in league with the state, in Gujarat, by American imperialists in Iraq and Afghanistan or Zionist occupiers in Palestine. All this and more are certainly contributing to the sense of Muslims being under attack and are definitely giving strength to advocates of militancy.
A: You are quite right, of course. I recognize that Muslims are not entirely to blame for their plight, and I admit that there are a hundred and more issues and problems that Muslims face that are not of their own making. We do need to acknowledge that in the face of tremendous provocations by Hindutva forces and even by some self-styled Muslim ‘leaders’, the Indian Muslim masses have, generally speaking, exercised considerable restraint.
We do need to criticize and oppose Hindutva, manifestations of American imperialism or Israeli terror wile all the time trying to engage in a dialogue with them and seeking to at least understand their attitudes. However, my point is that only by blaming others, we Muslims are not helping our cause. Also, our leaders and intellectuals tend to exaggerate things quite a bit, seeking to find an American, Zionist or Hindu conspiracy everywhere. Moreover, we cannot deny our own role in exacerbating conflicts in some places, in propagating supremacist and aggressive understandings of Islam, in denying rights to women, to fellow Muslims and to people of other faiths living in scores of Muslim countries, and so on.
Q: In recent years, a number of Indian Muslim organizations as well as leading madrasas have openly condemned all forms of terrorism, including by Muslim groups, as un-Islamic. How do you look at this
response of theirs?
A: I think this is a valuable step in the right direction, but it is not enough, as is apparent from the fact it has failed to create much of an impact. What they must also do is to explicitly name and condemn the individuals and self-styled Islamic groups who are engaged in promoting terror in the name of Islam. They must also critique, in a scholarly manner, radical and extremist interpretations of specific Quranic verses and Hadith reports which these radical groups misuse to promote and justify terrorism. This would also entail a proper contextual interpretation of these verses, pointing out that these verses applied to only a particular historical context.
For all this, of course, we need far more socially-engaged and progressive Islamic scholars than we have at present. Helping to develop such scholars is one of the major aims of our web-journal NewAgeIslam.com.