A Muslim and a Socialist — ‘Contradictory’ Images?
Not a contradiction at all. Both Islam and socialism preach equality and brotherhood, and advocate egalitarianism.
- The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the First World War (1914-18), and the developments on the eve of and in the aftermath of the Khilafat movement (1919-1922) had deep impact on writers and poets, including Urdu litterateurs.
- The Russian Revolution opened a window to the future. It triggered new debates on state and society.
- Many scholars and theologians attempted to prove the link between socialism and Islamic tenets – they did so by stressing that while the Prophet’s socialism was ‘ethical’, the modern breed of socialists were ‘materialists’ who attacked capitalism but espoused agnosticism.
- Is Islam so antithetical to the notion of socialism? Are a Muslim and a socialist a contradiction in terms? Not really. After all, both Islam and socialism preach equality and brotherhood, and advocate an egalitarian society.
The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), the First World War (1914-18), and the developments on the eve of and in the aftermath of the Khilafat movement (1919-1922) had a profound effect on Indian politics. Creative writers were no less affected, giving expression to the sense of disquiet over the repression unleashed by the colonial government.
Such sentiments were echoed, with equal vigour and finesse, by the Urdu poets and writers. The nationalist trends in the country as a whole strengthened the growth of socialist thought, and socialistic ideas influenced a cross-section of Urdu writers well before the establishment of the Communist Party of India (CPI).
The establishment of the CPI helped channelise the anti-imperialist sentiments and made them acquire a sharper, more focused, more pronounced pro-nationalist hue, while at the same time strengthening the socialist sentiment that already existed in a large section of educated Indians, especially the Muslims.
Russian Revolution Opened a Window to the Future
By the early-twentieth century, the impact of socialist thinking was much less felt, though the theme of exploitation — both by the colonial government and its collaborators — had begun to figure quite largely in both prose and poetry. But it was not till the October 1917 revolution that the floodgates of socialism and communistic ideas opened into India. Before that, the Japanese victory over Russia in 1904-05 had been a significant landmark in galvanising the Asian nations against the hegemony of the European powers. Jawaharlal Nehru, writing in his Autobiography, captured the excitement of those years:
“Japanese victories stirred up my enthusiasm and I waited eagerly for papers for fresh news daily… Nationalistic ideas filled my mind. I mused of Indian freedom and Asiatic freedom from the thralldom of Europe.”
The Russian Revolution opened a window to the future. It triggered new debates on state and society. Some of these debates found expression in the establishment of the Communist Party of India in 1925, which, in turn, provided a fertile ground for Left-leaning writers to gain a stronghold, and eventually led to the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM) a decade later. However, there were existing liberal and enlightened trends in Urdu literature prior to the formation of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) — the PWA was, if anything, a logical extension of what was already being debated from social platforms and also increasingly, being written about by Urdu writers.
The influence of the Russian revolution was recognised not just by Indians but also by the British. Montagu, the British secretary of State to India, and Chelmsford, the Viceroy, in their momentous Report on Indian Constitutional Reforms noted thus: “The revolution in Russia in its beginning was regarded in India as a triumph over despotism; and notwithstanding the fact that it has since involved that unhappy country in anarchy and dismemberment, it has given impetus to Indian political aspirations.”
Proving the Link Between Socialism & Islamic Tenets
During the First World War, the Ghadar Party and its associates in Berlin had prepared brochures in Urdu and Punjabi which were dropped among Indian soldiers in France by German aircraft. These brochures and pamphlets played up issues such as ‘poor pay, racism and British attacks on Indian religion.’
Back home, some socialist literature was being made available in the form of British newspapers like The Herald, Workers’ Dreadnaught, and Soviet Russia. The first Urdu translation of the Communist Manifesto was serialised in Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s weekly newspaper Al-Hilal; the translation was done by Maulana Adur Razzaq Malihabadi (1889-1959). Musheer Kidwai, the taluqdar of Gadia in Barabanki district, influenced by the rising tide of socialism in the west, wrote a pamphlet called Islam and Socialism (London, 1913) which attempted to prove this radical connection through references from the Holy Quran and the Hadith.
Many other scholars and theologians subsequently attempted to prove the link between socialism and Islamic tenets – they did so by stressing that while the Prophet’s socialism was ‘ethical’, the modern breed of socialists were ‘materialists’ who attacked capitalism but espoused agnosticism.
Are a ‘Muslim’ and a ‘Socialist’ a Contradiction in Terms?
‘One of the great paradoxes of the history of Islam in the twentieth century,’ according to Humayun Ansari in his seminal work on Pan-islamism and the Making of the Early Indian Muslim Socialist, ‘is that many of the first Muslim socialists were men who at earlier stages in their lives had been devout Muslims, often passionately involved with the fate of Islam throughout the world.’
Why should this be considered a paradox? Is Islam so antithetical to the notion of socialism?
Are a Muslim and a socialist a contradiction in terms? Not really. After all, both Islam and socialism preach equality and brotherhood, and advocate an egalitarian society. The best example to illustrate this point is the remarkable and varied career of a man like Hasrat Mohani. A romantic poet in the classic ghazal tradition (remembered today for his sweetly sentimental Woh tera kothe pe nange paon aana yaad hai immortalised by Ghulam Ali), journalist, politician, parliamentarian and freedom fighter, Hasrat Mohani was impressed by the Russian revolution and carried its imprint on all his later writings. It was Hasrat Mohani who used the slogan Inquilab Zindabad as a rallying cry at a trade union rally in Calcutta in 1925.
‘Long Live Revolution’
Ghulam Rabbani Taba (1914-1993), a Communist and an active member of the PWA, in an essay entitled ‘Some Thoughts on the Soviet Union’, recalls: “During the closing years of the 1920s, while still at school, we at times heard some fragmentary stories about Russia that trickled though colonial censors. The news of the Russian revolution and its achievements thrilled us. I had no perception of a revolution but the term had been familiarised by the full-throated cries of ‘Long Live Revolution’ ringing throughout the country.”
Taban goes on to mention how Nehru’s Soviet Russia and Tagore’s Letters written from Moscow were hugely popular with college students because ‘they gave a glimpse into a fairytale world.’
He also mentions Iqbal, as one of the tall poppies who was also the earliest to introduce socialism and the socialist movement to young people in India through his rousing poetry
Sir Muhammad Iqbal introduced modern philosophical concepts, gleaned from his study in Europe, and vastly broadened the scope of the existing intellectual discourse among educated Muslims, keeping it all the while tethered to its quintessentially religious moorings. In his passionate protests against the capitalist and imperialist forces, he propounded the message of ‘socialism’ couched in Islam:
The capitalist from the blood of workers’ veins makes himself a clear ruby;
Landlords’ oppression despoils the villagers’ fields: Revolution
What is the Quran? For the capitalist, a message of death:
It is the patron of the property less slave
Socialism Gave Next Gen Muslims Courage to Speak Up
The majority of the Muslim socialist writers came from families who had served the British and knew, therefore, the inequities of the colonial administration at close quarters. The suffering that many Muslim families had endured after 1857 perhaps explains the attraction their descendents felt towards a new movement which was propelled on the twin engines of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. Ahmad Ali, writing in Twilight of Delhi, speaks of the trauma of his own immediate family in the aftermath of 1857: “My grandmother was five and my grandfather eleven, when the ghadar of 1857, the blind persecution and massacre of the citizens of Delhi, took place. The triumphant British held an orgy of blood and terror, all mention of which has been dropped by their historians…”
As Ahmad Ali suggests, the concern was also with the effacement that the British had so successfully implemented, and the conspiracy of silence in which some Muslims had themselves been a party.
Socialism gave to the Muslims born a couple of generations later, the courage of their convictions to speak up, and, in a sense, avenge the wrongs done to their ancestors.
The ‘disproportionately large’ number of Shias among Muslim socialists is also noteworthy: ‘whereas Shias formed a mere three percent of the Muslim population of UP, twenty percent of the Muslim socialists (surveyed) were Shia, as were forty percent of the organisers of the PWA (as we shall see later). Their development was affected by the relatively more privileged position enjoyed by qasbah Shia elites.’
Shias Were the Earliest Organised Group of Dissenters
Also, the word ‘Shia’ or ‘Shiah’ literally means ‘followers’ or ‘members of party’, referring to those who joined the group of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet. The Shias, then, can be seen as the earliest organised group of dissenters, or those who raised a protest against a political stalemate. In India, the Shias have been more organised – more organised that is in comparison to the Sunni masses (but not more organised than other Islamic sects such as the Ahmadiyas or the Bohras) and in many ways, more progressive. A sizeable number of Muslims in the PWM, too, were Shias.
Surely, this had less to do with coincidence and more with the ‘separateness’ or ‘distinctiveness’ that marked the Shias in India. Or, perhaps, it had something to do with the Shia consciousness of being a minority within a minority.
Another interesting fact is that despite the larger world view afforded by their ‘conversion’ to socialism, many retained their affiliation to their qasbati origin by calling themselves ‘Sandelwi’, ‘Kirhani’, ‘Rudaulvi’. ‘Orainvi’, and so on. The qasbati culture also encouraged the development of wit, humour, satire, ridicule and lampooning – all valuable skills for a critic of society. One such young man, Wilayat Ali (1885-1918) wrote mostly in English under the nom de plume ‘Bambooque’. He mocked the British rule in skits and sketches, published mostly in the Comrade, that were modeled on the Tatler and the Spectator. He also made fun of the imperialist arrogance and cultural superiority with as much tartness as the ‘England-returned’ natives. In column after column he made fun of the servility of the Indian babus.
Towering Figure of Poet Premchand
In prose, the figure of Premchand (1880-1936) looms large over his contemporaries. Some of his finest writings, written in the last twenty years of his life, portray the influence of Gandhi and the Russian revolution in his choice of subjects: widow remarriage, dowry, untouchability, the rich-and-poor divide, the problems of landless labour, the inequalities of the caste system, etc.
Some of Premchand’s notable works of this period are Nirmala and Narak ka Marg (both appeared in 1925 and both dealt with May-December marriages caused due to the problems of dowry); Rangabhumi where a woman leaves her husband for the larger cause of nationalism; Godan (1936) with its depiction of Malti and Govindi as the ideal traditional Indian women, paragons of devotion and kindness. Premchand, incidentally, supported the Sarda Bill which aimed to raise the age of marriage for girls and advocated the right to give widows a share of their late husband’s property.
War Cry: Freedom from Foreign Rule
The Urdu poet and prose writer took up newer, more immediate concerns like never before. No longer was he content to sing of the gul-o-bulbul (the rose and the nightingale that are traditional motifs) or traipse around in the magic gardens of the fasanas. This literary ‘adventurism’ required a new diction, and a new vocabulary. For these writers, language became a means, not an end of a creative exercise. No longer was it necessary to revive the debates on whether — or the extent to which — literature should reflect contemporary realities.
Realism had crept into the writings of even those who shied away from labels or chose not to belong to schools of thought. These changes were as much evident in popular writings, be they in the form of ‘literary’ digests, pamphlets, or the novels of respected writers such as Premchand.
Individuals apart, Indian society in general and creative men in particular, were being swayed by the themes of colonial exploitation and subjugation on the one hand and, on the other, the centuries-old injustice and intolerance that had weakened Indian society from within. Freedom from foreign rule became the war cry, and liberation from the clutches of landlordism and capitalism the rallying point.
(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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