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June 1, 2016
FALSE PRESUMPTIONS OF MUSLIM CULTURAL HOMOGENEITY - DIVERSITY IS
AN EXISTENTIAL REALITY
By Hamid Ansari (Vice President of India)
Accommodating Diversity in a Globalising World: The Indian Experience (Text of a
speech at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco)
A traveller from a distant land in mashriq-al-aqsa comes to Maghrib-al Aqsa and
marvels at his good fortune. His sense of history quickly reminds him that centuries
earlier a great name from this land had travelled to India and recorded in some detail
his impressions about the governance, manner and customs of Indians. He attained
high office and also had his share of minor misfortunes.m
I refer, of course, to Sheikh Abdullah Mohammad ibn Abdullah ibn Mohammad ibn
Ibralim al Lawati, better known as Ibn Batuta of Tanja.
I thank the Government of the Kingdom of Morocco, and His Excellency the President
of the University, for inviting me to address the Mohammad V University today.
Even in distant India, the contribution of Moroccan intellectuals to modern thought and
challenges is known and acknowledged. Names like Abdullah Al-Arui and Abid al-Jabri
readily come to mind; so do the contributions of feminist writers like Fatima Mernisi
and Fatima Sadiqi. The challenge in each case was that of modernity and the
contemporary responses to it. Each addressed a specific aspect of the problem; the
general question was posed aptly by al-Jabri: 'How can contemporary Arab thought
retrieve and absorb the most rational and critical dimensions of its tradition and
employ them in the same rationalist directions as before – the direction of fighting
feudalism, Gnosticism, and dependency?'
This is a rich field, amply and productively explored by contemporary thinkers in Arab
lands. This included the debates on Arabism, nationalism, democracy and Islam.
Much has also been written about the trauma, self or externally inflicted, experienced
individually and collectively by Arab societies in the past seven decades. The
misfortunes visited on Arab lands since the 19th century was in good measure a
result of their proximity to Europe in the age of imperialism.
I would like to pause here and take up a related matter to draw the attention of the
audience to some terminological questions. In current discussions in many places, the
terms 'Arab' and 'Islam' are used together or interchangeably. But are the two
synonymous? Is Arab thought synonymous with Islamic thought? Is all Arab thought
Islamic or visa versa? Above all, can all Islamic thinking be attributed to Arabs?
I raise these questions because for a variety of reasons and motivations the
contemporary world, particularly the West, tends to create this impression of 'a
powerful, irrational force that, from Morocco to Indonesia, moves whole societies into
cultural assertiveness, political intransigence and economic influence.' The underlying
basis for this, as Aziz Al-Azmeh put it, are 'presumptions of Muslim cultural
homogeneity and continuity that do not correspond to social reality.'
Allow me to amplify. Islam is a global faith, and its adherents are in all parts of the
world. The history of Islam as a faith, and of Muslims as its adherents, is rich and
diversified. In different ages and in different regions the Muslim contribution to
civilisation has been note worthy. In cultural terms, the history of Islam 'is the history of
a dialogue between the realm of religious symbols and the world of everyday reality, a
history of the interaction between Islamic values and the historical experiences of
Muslim people that has shaped the formation of a number of different but interrelated
This audience is in no need of being reminded of the truism that reasoning should
proceed from facts to conclusions and should eschew a priori pronouncements.
What then are facts?
The Wikipedia indicates the world's Muslim population in 2015 as 1.7 billion. The Pew
Research Center of the United States has published country-wise and region-wise
religious composition and projections for 198 countries for the period 2010 to 2050. It
indicates that in 2010 Muslims numbered 1.59 billion out of which 986 million were in
Asia-Pacific. It projects that four years from now, in 2020, the corresponding figures
would be 1.9 billion out of which 1.13 billion (around 60 percent) would be in Asia-
Pacific. The comparative figures for West Asia–North Africa would be 317 and 381
million (19.9% and 20.52%) and for Sub-Saharan Africa 248 and 329 million (15.59%
and 17.31%) respectively. Within the Asia-Pacific region Indonesia, India, Pakistan,
Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey together would account for 830 million in 2010 and 954
million in 2020.
These numbers underline the fact that an overwhelming number of Muslims of the
world are non-Arabs and live in societies that are not Arab. Equally relevant is the
historical fact they contributed to and benefited from the civilisation of Islam in full
measure. This trend continues to this day.
The one conclusion I draw from this is that in ascertaining Islamic and Muslim
perceptions on contemporary happenings, the experiences and trends of thinking of
the non-Arab segments of large Muslim populations in the world assume an
importance that cannot be ignored. These segments include countries with Muslim
majorities (principally Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey) as also
those where followers of the Islamic faith do not constitute a majority of the population
(India, China, and Philippines).
Amongst both categories, India is sui generis. India counts amongst its citizens the
second largest Muslim population in the world. It numbers 180 million and accounts for
14.2 percent of the country's total population of 1.3 billion. Furthermore, religious
minorities as a whole (Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis or Zoroastrians)
constitute 19.4 percent of the population of India.
India's interaction with Islam and Muslims began early and bears the imprint of history.
Indian Muslims have lived in India's religiously plural society for over a thousand
years, at times as rulers, at others as subjects and now as citizens. They are not
homogenous in racial or linguistic terms and bear the impact of local cultural
surroundings, in manners and customs, in varying degrees.
Through extensive trading ties before the advent of Islam, India was a known land to
the people of the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and western Asia and was
sought after for its prosperity and trading skills and respected for its attainments in
different branches of knowledge. Thus Baghdad became the seeker, and dispenser,
of Indian numerals and sciences. The Panchatantra was translated and became Kalila
wa Dimna. Long before the advent of Muslim conquerors, the works of Al-Jahiz, Ibn
Khurdadbeh, Al-Kindi, Yaqubi and Al-Masudi testify to it in ample measure. Alberuni,
who studied India and Indians more thoroughly than most, produced a virtual
encyclopedia on religion, rituals, manners and customs, philosophy, mathematics and
astronomy. He commenced his great work by highlighting differences, but was careful
enough 'to relate, not criticize'.
Over centuries of intermingling and interaction, an Indo-Islamic culture developed in
India. Many years back, an eminent Indian historian summed it up in a classic
'It is hardly possible to exaggerate the extent of Muslim influence over Indian life in all
departments. But nowhere else is it shown so vividly and so picturesquely, as in
customs, in intimate details of domestic life, in music, in the fashion of dress, in the
ways of cooking, in the ceremonial of marriage, in the celebration of festivals and
fairs, and in the courtly institutions and etiquette'.
Belief, consciousness and practice became a particularly rich area of interaction.
Within the Muslim segment of the populace, there was a running tussle between
advocates of orthodoxy and those who felt that living in a non-homogenous social
milieu, the pious could communicate values through personal practice. In this manner
the values of faith, though not its theological content, reached a wider circle of the
public. This accounted for the reach and popularity of different Sufi personalities in
different periods of history and justifies an eminent scholar's observation that 'Sufism
took Islam to the masses and in doing so it took over the enormous and delicate
responsibility of dealing at a personal level with a baffling variety of problems.'
It also produced a convergence or parallelism; the Sufi trends sought commonalities
in spiritual thinking and some Islamic precepts and many Muslim practices seeped into
the interstices of the Indian society and gave expression to a broader and deeper
unity of minds expressive of the Indian spiritual tradition. The cultural interaction was
mutually beneficial and an Islamic scholar of our times has acknowledged 'an
incontrovertible fact that Muslims have benefited immensely from the ancient cultural
heritage of India.'
I mention this because I am aware, but dimly, about the role of Sufi movements and
'zawiyas' in the history of Morocco. There is, in my view, room for comparative studies
of Sufi practices in Morocco and India.
It is this backdrop that has impacted on modern India and its existential reality of a
plural society on the basis of which a democratic polity and a secular state structure
was put in place.
The framers of our Constitution had the objective of securing civic, political, economic,
social and cultural rights as essential ingredients of citizenship. Particular emphasis
was placed on rights of religious minorities. Thus in the section on Fundamental
Rights 'all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely
to profess, practice and propagate religion.' In addition, every religious denomination
shall have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable
purposes, to manage its own affairs in matters of religion, and to acquire and
administer movable and immovable property. Furthermore, all religious or linguistic
minorities shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of
their choice. A separate section on Fundamental Duties of citizens enjoins every
citizen 'to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the
people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities'
and also 'to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.'
Given the segmented nature of society and unequal economy, the quest for
substantive equality, and justice, remains work in progress and concerns have been
expressed from time to time about its shortfalls and pace of implementation. The
corrective lies in our functioning democracy, its accountability mechanisms including
regularity of elections at all levels from village and district councils to regional and
national levels, the Rule of Law, and heightened levels of public awareness of public
The one incontrovertible fact about the Muslim experience in modern India is that its
citizens professing Islamic faith are citizens, consider themselves as such, are
beneficiaries of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution, participate fully in
the civic processes of the polity and seek correctives for their grievances within the
system. There is no inclination in their ranks to resort to ideologies and practices of
The same diversity of historical experience, and the perceptions emanating from it, is
to be found in Indonesia that has the world's largest population of Muslims and where
two Islamist parties – Nahdatul Ulema and Muhammadiyah function legally, have large
memberships, and participate in political activities including local and national
elections. On a visit to Jakarta a few months back, I had occasion to solicit their views
on contemporary debates on Political Islam. They said Islam in Indonesia has united
with the culture of the people and their Islamic traditions have adapted themselves to
local conditions. They felt Indonesian Muslims are moderate in their outlook, that Islam
does not advocate extremism, and that radicalization of Islam is harmful and does not
benefit the community.
Both instances cited above indicate that in countries having complex societal makeup,
accommodation of diversity in political structures and socio-economic policies is not
an option but an imperative necessity ignoring which can have unpleasant
I come back to the principal theme of this talk. Why is the Indian model of relevance to
our globalizing world?
Globalization has many facets – economic, political and cultural. All necessitate the
emergence of a set of norms, values and practices that are universally accepted. A
sociologist has defined it as 'the compression of the world and the intensification of
consciousness of the world as a whole.' An obvious implication of this would be
assimilation and homogenization. In a world of intrinsically diverse societies at
different levels of development, this could only result in denial of their diversity and
imposition of uniformity. Such an approach can only result in conflict.
The challenge for the modern world is to accept diversity as an existential reality and
to configure attitudes and methodologies for dealing with it. In developing such an
approach, the traditional virtue of tolerance is desirable but insufficient; our effort,
thinking and practices have to look beyond it and seek acceptance of diversity and
adopt it as a civic virtue.
We in India are attempting it, cannot yet say that we have succeeded, but are
committed to continue the effort. We invite all right-minded people to join us in this