If there is anything we have discovered in the year since the pogrom and the pandemic, it is the existence of fighters and resisting men and women who do not curse time or say “what if…”, but instead seek dignity not just for their loved ones but for their communities at large.
يٰٓأَ يُّهَا الَّذِينَ ءَ امَنُوا اصْبِرُوا وَصَابِرُوا وَرَابِطُوا وَا تَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ
O you who believe! Have patience and contend in patience, be vigilant and informed, and fear Allah, so that you may be successful. – Al ‘Imran: 200
Sabaq Phir Parh Sadaqat Ka, Adalat Ka, Shujaat Ka
Liya Jaye Ga Tujh Se Kaam Dunya Ki Imamat Ka
Read again the lesson of truth, of justice and valour, You will be asked to take on the work of leadership of the world.
— Allama Iqbal, (Bang-e-Dara-163) Tulu-e-Islam (طلوع اسلام)
We are at a point that marks a year of the beginning of the pandemic in India. Things looked very different last March, although in many ways equally difficult and complex, particularly for the marginalized sections of the country. In March 2020, the Muslim community in Delhi was only beginning to count its losses and nurse its wounds from the horrific pogrom in North East Delhi that took place in February. The pandemic and concerns over public health, along with the immensely fearful post-pogrom atmosphere put a stop to the public protests against CAA and NRC. What followed subsequently was the criminalisation of the community through a series of arrests under UAPA and other anti-terror laws of many of the leaders and activists who had led the movement. In a cruel and ironic twist, they were then held responsible for the very pogrom that had taken the lives of many of the members of their community. Sporadic arrests continue today, and while there have been spirited campaigns of the release of many of the activists, the combination of the state machinery, the police and judicial apathy has ensured that most of them remain behind bars attempting to prove their innocence. A similar pattern has followed in the Bhima Koregaon case, as well as in arrests of journalists and threats given to lawyers fighting such cases. A Reporters Without Borders report has confirmed the dire situation of journalists in India, with the country ranking a lowly 142nd in press freedom rankings.
March 2020 also marked what would be later called the “Tablighi Jamaat hotspot”, which led the government to claim that over 4000 cases were linked to the congregations at the Nizamuddin Markaz itself, which were held in a period where there was no government curfew or social distancing norms in place. But due to the media frenzy as well as the statements of many right-wing politicians, the spurt in COVID-19 numbers became attributed to Tablighi Jamaat and the broader Muslim community. 2020 was marked, therefore, by twin streams of persecution and pandemic, all of which made everyday life extraordinarily precarious. Violence against women has also remained constant, with horrific incidents such as the Hathras case making the news. The pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns have also seen a spurt in domestic violence. It is a sobering reality that the news we hear is merely the tip of an iceberg, with much more being brushed under the carpet or suppressed.
A year on, there is a sense of melancholy and weariness that remains, even as news of a vaccine has raised spirits and offered some light at the end of a tunnel. A mismanaged pandemic, which rendered millions of migrant workers on the roads trying to return home, as well as a shattered economy as its consequence, has also silenced much of the resistance to oppression and state violence, forcing people to go online to make their voices heard. The India Exclusion Report (2019-2020) released in January 2021 highlights the immense inequality that was exacerbated over the year with the lockdowns, loss of employment and mass hunger. But even as the past twelve months have been one of difficulty, one must remember a very necessary hadith: Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Allah Almighty said: The son of Adam abuses me. He curses time and I am time, for in my hand are the night and day.” (Sahīh al-Bukhārī 4549, Sahīh Muslim 2246.)
If there is anything we have discovered in the year since the pogrom and the pandemic, it is the existence of fighters and resisting men and women who do not curse time or say “what if…”, but instead seek dignity not just for their loved ones but for their communities at large. The best of men and women in our history have instead, sought to dream of a different tomorrow, with a belief that the darkness will not persist. Even in their most dire situation and calamities, they renewed their commitment to their faith with tawakkul (trust and reliance in Allah’s plan) and sabr (endurance or forbearance). The Qu’ran too repeatedly promises success and leadership even from the midst of the worst crises to those who remain righteous and steadfast, and do not lose hope.
Across history, light has always emerged and leaders have bloomed from the belly of the whale and the darkest depths of prison. Even in successive centuries, people have kept their hopes alive in the midst of immense torture, oppression and violence from which it would appear there was no escape. Yet, it is this moment of apparent impossibility where dreams become vital, and a vision becomes necessary. Without a vision, we become merely reactionary, responding to every barb and every stone thrown at us in the same language, driving ourselves to eventual and inevitable hopelessness. Instead, we must remember to hold fast to the greatest of promises offered to us – “Surely those who believe and do good will have gardens under which rivers flow. That is the greatest triumph” (Al-Buruj: 11) – if only we envision a just world based on ethical principles and work toward it.
Having a vision of what is deemed socially impossible has been the hallmark of some of the greatest movements in the sub-continent itself. As Gail Omvedt recalled, all the major anti-caste intellectual thinkers – such as Ravidas, Tuka, Jyotiba Phule, Iyothee Thasar, Ramabai, Ambedkar and Periyar – too envisioned alternate worlds from within their very locations. Whether it was Ravidas’ Begumpura – a city without sorrow, one devoid of caste hierarchies and violence or Periyar imagining dignity in alternate religions such as Islam, and most significantly, Ambedkar imagining Prabuddha Bharat; all constituted dream-worlds, which could be mocked by those who saw themselves as ‘rationalist’ or ‘realistic’. But what these detractors failed to see was that these dreams were not wisps of fantasy devoid of imagination, but strongly located in an imagination of justice that was social, economic, ethical and political in nature. They imagined these precisely from a location of rejection, abject humiliation and isolation that they faced due to a caste hierarchy which rendered social solidarity and imagination of community beyond one’s caste impossible.
Women are often accused, in a similar vein, of being unrealistic and given to hysterics at the slightest injustice. This is a common hallmark of our society in particular, where the pain, anxiety and humiliations of everyday living that women often face is dismissed for triviality, or never spoken of at all. Women have also faced the brunt of pogroms and state persecution – whether it is sexual violence, loss of livelihood, and then facing injustice within police stations and courtrooms, often being told that their memories of violence are either false, exaggerated or inaccurate. Muslim women are constantly stereotyped in media and find themselves defending their very existence and their faith. Yet, we find that it is women who are at the forefront of many movements, whether in universities, or on the streets, or in their everyday resistances of attempting to educate themselves and articulate their hopes and dreams in the public realm. We see that Dalit and Adivasi women in educational campuses battle for dignity and respect on an everyday basis, facing taunts, attacks and humiliation, but persisting to study and pursue the careers of their dreams. We find women resisting on the streets, fighting off tear-gas and rubber bullets, and then defending themselves against slander, stereotyping and media trials. We find women who rebuild their own lives, and that of those around them after pogroms, such as in Gujarat 2002 and now, in Delhi, ensuring that rehabilitation, legal justice and reconciliation reaches as far as possible. We find older women, whom the media deems as uneducated and ignorant, educating themselves on what CAA and NRC was, and fighting being because they saw young students being beaten up in Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. Women such as Fatima Nafees and Radhika Vemula have been leaders from the front as they have fought for justice for their sons; as have women like Nargis Saifi, Sabiha Khanum and Reyhana Siddeque and many others. We find quiet survival within our own homes – of women educating themselves, teaching their children, and embodying care in a world stripped of it. Many women we know have secretly borne more injustice with dignity and resilience than we can imagine, yet, these stories are not seen as the epitome of success, leadership, or victory. The other perspective with which such examples of leadership is viewed is utter shock and astonishment – the fact that Muslim women can be leading a movement, or bringing about change as seen as impossible, and is then read as an act that is in defiance of their community, which is seen to be inherently oppressive. This perspective was very visible in the coverage of the anti-CAA-NRC protests, where it was seen as an unprecedented fact that Muslim women had stepped ‘out’ of their homes. This ahistorical reading betrays a deliberate misreading of women’s histories and activism, as well as one that is driven by bias against a community. Perhaps this is because our idea of success is utterly clouded by what the media tells us, and what we, in turn, tell ourselves is true. A great deal of success is what outwardly looks like failure to our deeply consumerist and judgemental society, which is dazzled by the most shallow displays of wealth and exposure and looks down upon on anyone who is seen to be orthodox. In order to fit in, we find that a great number of people try to chase the conventional notions of success and embrace it, no matter what their conscience tells them. A very interesting recent example is that of the supermodel Halima Aden. Of Somalian descent, born and brought up in a refugee camp, Aden had reached the pinnacle of success in the fashion industry, raking in modelling deals and covers worth millions. She observed hijab, and this initially made her stand out in the otherwise highly exposed media circuits. Yet, over time, with the methods of appropriation and fetishisation that the fashion industry is highly capable of, they managed to reduce her hijab – an idea she cherished growing up – to a shrinking piece of cloth which eventually had become meaningless due to the otherwise problematic nature of many of the covers and shoots she was engaged in. She was being celebrated as a “hijabi supermodel”, which was used to spin a story of inclusion and diversity. Yet, her mother, dedicatedly holding onto her faith and praying for that of her daughter’s, often chastised her, even in public interviews, and told her to leave the profession. While Aden initially ignored it, in late 2020, she had a change of heart and reflected on her actions publicly, dissociating herself from much of the industry and its practises. Similar stories have come forth in Indian media as well, such as that of former actress Zaira Wasim. Such incidents beg the question – if the heady vision of success as sold to us by media is so wondrous, then what makes some people reject it all, at the peak of their careers? What then, is a truly sustainable and community-oriented idea of success and leadership, and how do we work towards it? How do we resist the seductive pulls of what we are told is right for us by the charms of modernity?
Perhaps, this is why the answers lie in the illuminating knowledge that we are familiar with, but have often disregarded, or only understood in a very superficial way. By any means, the death, destruction and loss that lies in the wake of the past few months is a fork in the road. It can be a point for us to either become hopeless in our efforts, or worse, to lose hope in the mercy of Allah swt himself, or it can turn us away from our difficult struggles and towards an easier life only for ourselves as individuals, where we pay little attention to the demands of bringing justice and speaking the truth, which our faith requires of us. These are both possibilities, and the temptations will always remain to fall into either of these traps. Both of them will be deeply encouraged by the world around us, and its machinations. But there is another way – and that is to ensure that we steep ourselves in patience. The Prophet ﷺ said, “The real patience is at the first stroke of a calamity” (Sahih al-Bukhari 1302). The calamities are aplenty – but it is how we deal with them that will display our understanding of what leadership means. Too often, the debate around leadership in Muslims societies becomes a wrangle about the idea of women’s leadership and the debates around it – feminist media and ‘concerned’ people fuelling the myth that Islam prevents women from leadership roles; or what roles should women play inside or outside the household and so on. But the truth is that leadership is a much wider space that we imagine it to be. Leadership does not mean being so far on top that the people below become invisible, or shattering the ‘glass ceiling’ and trampling on everyone else on your way up. The Prophet ﷺ was the truest example of the fact that leadership is not devoid of community, but entirely devoted to it – shaping it, learning from it, living within it, and measuring one’s actions and speech in a way that they do not weigh heavy on everyone else. Leadership means to remember that the weakest and most vulnerable of us demands the most attention and respect, whether it is within our homes, organisations, or communities. It also means that the dreams that we dream of – of a society based on faith, equity and mutual respect – can only be found in circling back to and learning from the very journey that the Prophet ﷺ undertook, by shaping a society that used to bury its daughters, to one where women were respected by way of the dignity that Allah swt granted all of humankind. In that sense, the dreams we have are neither impossible nor unachievable – indeed, they are possible by treading on a path that is difficult but immensely familiar to us as students of the faith and its luminous history.
Across history, light has always emerged and leaders have bloomed from the belly of the whale and the darkest depths of prison.
Many women we know have secretly borne more injustice with dignity and resilience than we can imagine, yet, these stories are not seen as the epitome of success, leadership, or victory.