بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
والصلاة والسلام على رسوله الكريم
وعلى آله واهل بيته الطيبين الطاهرين المظلومين
وَنَحْنُ لَهُ مُسْلِمُونَ
And We are to Him Muslims
The question we are being aggressively asked these days “Are you Indian or Muslim?”, or its slightly more tempered form “Are you Indian first or Muslim first?” has caught the vast majority of ordinary Indian Muslims (or is it Muslim Indians?) off guard and bewildered. Before addressing this question directly it is beneficial to first understand from where and why it arises in the first place, especially now. The nation of India has by and large adapted a highly nationalist narrative where every Indian is expected to take great pride in his history, culture and heritage. The rise of the far-right, ultra-nationalist BJP government in India, and the Hindutva ideology from which it was derived, is merely the political implication of this broader tendency, which has, perhaps more importantly, social, cultural and intellectual aspects too. The Republic of India is relatively a young state, but Indians are discovering that their nation and civilization is much older than the Republic. Rediscovering the past and making it part and parcel of the nation’s narrative is necessary in the process of decolonization. Indians consider themselves as not only having been colonized by the European British, but before that by various Muslim conquerors, i.e., Arabs, Turks, Mughals, Afghans, etc. Like Christianity, Islam is viewed as a foreign religion that penetrated India through armed conquest and invasion, which resulted in the disruption of India’s romanticized Vedic civilization. The contemporary Hindu nationalist movements in India, such as rebuilding the Ram temple in Ayodhya, wanting to proscribe cow slaughter, the eating of beef, and even things like the official promotion of yoga and devotional Hindu hymns and slogans such as vande mataram, should all be understood in the wider context of decolonization and a return to an embrace of Vedic civilization as the foundation for the identity and narrative of the modern Republic of India. Secularism, especially in how it has been implemented in the modern Republic since the time of Nehru, the first Prime Minister, is increasingly viewed as an obstacle for India achieving “greatness” in the return to an embrace of its Vedic heritage and identity. Likewise, a simple civic form of patriotism, as it exists in most Western/European countries, is considered far too insufficient. The Hindu nationalist seeks a much stronger bond between the Indian and his country, in which the country is not only the motherland but is considered sacred, holy even divine! That is in fact the implication of slogans like vande mataram - one must not simply love and be dutiful to “mother” India, rather, one must worship her. The more extreme and fanatical Hindu nationalist believes that the extermination of Islam altogether from his country is a step without which the project for a national consciousness rooted in the ancient Vedic civilization cannot be complete. This is what motivates the shuddhi and ghar wapsi movements which aim to reconvert local Indian Muslims back to Hinduism en masse. While Islam may have been introduced to India by foreigners from west and central Asia, the vast majority of Muslims in India are racially Indian and are descendants of Hindus, especially of lower castes like the Sudras, who were impressed with Islam and decided to convert. Thus short of an outright holocaust, the only way to get rid of the Muslim is to remind him that his ancestors were Hindu and that he should “return home” and embrace his own heritage by becoming one himself.
Now the standard response to the question “Are you Indian or are you Muslim?” tends to be that the two are not mutually exclusive, thus “I am both Indian and Muslim”. When asked which identity is prioritized, many of the modern educated but lost youth shockingly answer that they are Indian first, and their loyalty is to India before Islam. While it may be obvious that Indian and Muslim are not mutually exclusive, it has to be kept in mind that the way in which these terms are used with a specific intended meaning does make them mutually exclusive. Although the basic and obvious definition of an Indian is someone who is physically from India, this is not the meaning of Indian that is intended in the question “are you Indian or are you Muslim?” Here an Indian means not one who is merely one genetically or by citizenship, but one whose soul is Indian. For our purposes, an Indian is someone who feels pride in being one, who is absolutely loyal and committed to India and additionally has embraced and identified himself with its Vedic history and civilization. In light of this nuanced definition of an Indian, a true Muslim cannot be an Indian. A hippie from America who goes to India and permanently settles in an ashram adapting a radically different lifestyle and philosophy to the one from which he was born in to has much more right to be considered “Indian” than the ordinary Muslim who happens to have been born and happens to reside in India. That is because the former’s soul is truly Indian, whereas the Muslim is merely Indian by descent and citizenship. From the perspective of Islam, a Muslim’s first and greatest loyalty and attachment is to his God (Allah), his Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Religion, reflecting the three questions that we believe shall be asked in the grave. One can only be an “Indian” in a very limited sense with regard to acknowledging one’s descent and homeland, but beyond that, any kind of spiritual connection with India has no sanction in our Religion. If we do have a spiritual connection to any place, it is not India but the holy lands located in the Middle East, i.e., Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, and other holy places like Mount Sinai. We have no attachment to the rivers and forests of India, considered sacred and a manifestation of the divine by the Hindus. A typical Muslim home bears images of the sacred shrines such as the Ka'ba or the Prophet's Mosque with its green dome, or the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or the entrance to the Cave of Hira from where the Angel Gabriel first descended upon the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon them both). Virtually all of us Muslims from the Indian subcontinent were not only born into the faith, by the grace of Allah Most High, but in fact we have been Muslims for several generations. We have to ask ourselves why did our Hindu ancestors take such a radical step and convert to this foreign Religion, thereby rejecting virtually everything connected with their Vedic heritage and identity? To the modern day Hindu, our ancestors were weak minded people who literally sold their souls for some short term material gain that was available at the time. However, our own perspective is quite different, because we realize that our ancestors were broad minded individuals who sensed the compelling nature of an ideology and philosophy greater than mere attachment to blood and soil. The fact of the matter is that maintaining adherence to a particular religion because it is rooted in one’s ancestral heritage means one considers religion itself as a very superficial institution. The difference between the Muslim, that is, the true, believing Muslim and not a hypocritical so-called Muslim, and those of other religions is that we Muslims are obviously more committed and serious about our religion, a fact that is observed and admitted with great anxiety by the intellectual elite. They often express the regret that Muslims are too religious, too rooted in their Islamic identity, and thus the most resistant to the forces of secularity, nationalism and assimilation as compared to any other religious community. The secular nature of Christianity, “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”, combined with the Paulian doctrine that there is no longer any specific divine legal code that one must abide by, rather, every individual Christian is theoretically suppose to acquire his or her knowledge of morality and right conduct through direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, has practically meant that Christianity today is a dead and rotting corpse, robbed of any dynamism or energy it might have wielded once before the so-called “Enlightenment”. The result is that today an ordinary Christian’s first identity is his national or ethnic one, and his foremost loyalty tends to be to his national homeland and not to his church. This is why there is no “Christian question” or “Christian problem” today, but rather, a “Muslim question” or a “Muslim problem”, and the same question, or problem if you like, exists in India, and is perhaps most obvious and pronounced in modern India. A Hindu faces no dilemma, because to him India and Hinduism naturally go hand and hand and there exists no dualism between the two. He may at times be critical of the ruling government, especially one perceived as too secular and appeasing of the minorities, but he will never feel any anxiety about choosing between loyalty to his religion or his motherland. Similarly, those belonging to various offshoots of the Vedic or Dharmic tradition, such as the Sikhs, Jains and even Buddhists, though at times may emphasize their separate and unique identities, face much less of a dilemma in being comfortable with their Indian identity and heritage, especially because their particular religions are indigenous to India, and even they have to admit that their religions fundamentally share the same philosophy and worldview of Hinduism. As already mentioned, the secular and flexible nature of Christianity, which makes significantly less demands of its adherents than Islam, means that the Christian community of India can quite easily “assimilate” into the mainstream society, become swadeshi Christians, for whom Christianity is merely their private faith. As for us Muslims, our own Faith demands that we make the unpopular decision of identifying only with Islam, in other words, our sole identity is Muslim, and we have no other identity. We are only Indian or any other nationality incidentally, but that can never be the basis for our identity. When asked “are you an Indian or are you a Muslim?”, the simple and straightforward answer should be “I am a Muslim and only a Muslim”.