There are certain established biases underlining the world view of people like Syed Manazir Ahsan Gilani that we would do better to acknowledge and understand at the outset. The first assumption that they take as a settled, unquestionable affair, is the supremacy of Islam over all other religions. For example, while talking about the materials used for writing before the introduction of paper, Gilani mentions an old library which was acquired in his time by Osmania University and which had a large collection of ‘books’ written on toddy-leaves with iron pens and tied together with a string. The contents of such books could not be ascertained, he says, ‘because they are mostly in Kannada, Telugu and Marathi languages and some in Sanskrit’. He spoke to some ‘Hindu’ professors of the university and came to the conclusion that they contained nothing but qissa-kahanis of eras gone-by and mumbo-jumbo used for jhaar-phoonk. That some of those devoted to this other religion might have considered these writings a treasure of religious knowledge would break no ice with people like Gilani, because for them religious knowledge or ilm could only be in languages such as Arabic, Persian and well, Urdu, and could only deal with the single true faith in the world, professed incidentally, by a minority of humankind.
There was a long-held belief that each non-Muslim that ever existed in the world, no matter if he is pious according to his religion or good to people, was inevitably destined for hell while heaven was reserved for Muslims. The political power held by Muslims in the Islamic mainland and elsewhere, including the subcontinent, had generally caused this belief to be taken as something like as an established fact. In the new era of the colonial rule, when group identities became the basis for politics in the public sphere, the question whether all non-Muslims were to burn in hell after death came into sharp focus and became a constant topic of religious debates. As identities started to solidify, the maulvi of the modern era hardened his stance on this point, although the laws of the colonial government did not normally allow him to go further than propagating it as a mere religious belief.
There was another very active bias that worked within the collective Islamic community at large. The supremacy of the Sunni theology over Shia or other sects within Islam was and, still is, considered as much a settled affair as that of Muslims over all the rest. The Muslim body politic had broken into two groups at the beginning of the caliphate which later came to be known as Shias and Sunnis. The ascendance of the latter under the Banu Umayya and Banu Abbas dynasties politically subjugated the Shias except in places where they themselves were able to relegate Sunnis to a subject status. The proportion of Shias among Muslims as a whole is believed to be close to a quarter. In the Sunni power circles, Shias of various persuasions were considered as insurgent political groups, always scheming to dislodge and replace Sunnis from positions of authority.
The canonisation of Islamic learning — the compilation of six books of hadith (Sahah-e Sitta) and the establishment of four schools of interpretation and fiqh — was carried out in the time and places where Sunnis were in power. Men of learning who were Sunni, backed by men of authority who were also Sunni, did not treat the Sunni-Shia divide as a sign of diversity. They took a view under which Shia religious thought was nothing but a deviation from what they thought to be the true faith. The proponents of the four schools of fiqh, came together and declared that the work of interpreting the religious texts had been completed and since human life was not likely to throw up any new matters to resolve, therefore, the door of ijtehad was closed from then onwards. This was a political move meant, at least in part, to isolate the Shia minority.
Many of the preachers who came to the subcontinent and spread the message of Islam were Shias, which resulted not only in the conversion of a number of local castes into Shia biradris (such as Ismaili, Asna-Ashri) but also created a soft corner among the converted population of Sunnis for religious concepts associated with Shias as well as public feelings for them. This was unbearable for the orthodox Sunni clergy and the maulvi of modern times has tried to isolate and fight such trends which has created sorry results, as we all know. The political subjugation of Shias wherever they acquired power was also considered necessary. For example, Mahmud Ghaznavi in the 10th century, first invaded and destroyed the Fatimid Shia kingdom of Multan before turning his destructive attention towards Somnath.
The darbar politics during the Mughal era and in the states away from the centre also sharpened the Sunni-Shia political tussle. In an interesting, revealing footnote, Gilani mentions that Tabatabai, the author of the history Seerul Muta’akhhereen, calls the Nizam Asif Jah a dunyadar and a zamana-shanas, not because the Nizam deserved these epithets as a collaborator of the East India Company, but because Tabatabai was writing under a heavy, incorrigible Shia bias! The fact was only that Gilani was in the service of the Hyderabad state and felt that he had to defend his masters.
The third strong bias that we can sense in Gilani and his likes is against the local coverts. He mentions a great Muslim preacher and sufi-saint who was taught the Quran by a "Hindu", and later clarifies that the Quran teacher was actually a respected Muslim and was called a Hindu only because he was a convert. He insists that this very atypical, isolated incident of a person of a low status being allowed to teach the Quran should be taken as proof that in matters of knowledge, Muslims treated everyone equally! The fact is that the growing caste-consciousness among the lower-caste Muslims as a result of social change had made it difficult by the 1930s and 1940s to treat them as incapable of accessing religious and other knowledge.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 3rd, 2011.
Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated Syed Manazir Ahsan Gilani as Yousuf Raza Gilani. The changes have been made.