Muslim Publishing Industry in India
Yoginder Sikand, November 5, 2007

Maulana Waris Mazhari is a graduate of the Deoband madrasa and of the Nadwat ul-Ulama in Lucknow. He is the editor of the Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Old Boys' Association of the Deoband madrasa. Despite his madrasa training, he is remarkably original in his thinking. Clearly, he is a maulana with a difference, as emerges in this interview with Yoginder Sikand on the issue of the Muslim publishing industry in India.

Q: How do you look at the Muslim publishing industry in India today?

A: The situation is not very heartening. Most Muslim publishing houses in India are geared only to a potential Muslim readership, being victims of extreme sectarianism. They publish only on those issues that have some relation or the other to Muslims. There are very few books published by such houses on the problems of other communities, their rights, their history, their culture and their contributions to humanity. I can say with confidence that the picture is quite different on the other side. Numerous books have been written by non-Muslim writers and published by non-Muslim publishing houses that give an objective and balanced picture of Muslim issues and problems.

Because Muslim publishing houses focus on a Muslim readership, they do not consider it important to maintain quality and standards, because those who purchase and read these books have a particular mentality or way of thinking which corresponds to what these publishing houses publish. The Muslim ghetto mentality - of wanting to remain limited to Muslims alone - has meant that these publishing houses do not feel the need to enter into healthy competition with non-Muslim publishing houses. But success in business depends crucially on competition.

Q: How do you explain the fact that relatively few Indian Muslim publishing houses publish books on the actual, empirical conditions of the Muslims, focusing, instead, much more on religion, hagiography and literature?

A: This issue is related to the fact that there are almost no secular Muslim publishing houses at all. This is why secular Muslim writers almost always get their books published by non-Muslim publishing houses. Most Muslim publishing houses are associated with and propagate the views of a particular Muslim sect, organization or institution that funds them. So, obviously, these publishing houses cannot even conceive of publishing literature by writers whom these sects or organizations disapprove of.

There is not a single quality national-level English language daily, weekly or monthly published by Muslims and there are very few Muslims in the electronic media. Some Muslims have tried to launch English newspapers and television channels, but I believe they cannot succeed if they do not learn from the experience of others. However, the so-called traditional religious mentality of the Muslims acts as a major hurdle in this regard.

Unfortunately, a large number of Muslims are concerned solely with the issues and problems of Muslims alone and not those of the wider humankind. And here, too, their focus is on certain narrow issues, such as the impact of Hindu and Western culture on the Indian Muslims, the decline of the purdah system, minority institutions, madrasas, Muslim rights and so on. In creating this narrow and insular mentality, anti-Muslim Hindu chauvinist forces have had a major role to play, forcing Muslims to be constantly on the defensive. Consequently, Muslims feel that their lives, their religion, their culture and their history are all under grave threat from aggressive Hindutva forces. In my writings I have repeatedly argued that this is a conspiracy to cause Muslims to ghettoize themselves and cut them off from the broader Indian society. Muslims should be aware of this.

So, to come back to the point about the content of the Muslim publishing industry, I would argue that Muslim-owned publishing houses must also publish literature of general interest, not just on issues of particular concern to Muslims alone. They must cater not just to Muslims alone but to others as well, which means that they must also publish on issues that others would also be interested in. They must desist from trying to present or project everything as 'Islamic'. We need to realize and keep in mind that non-Muslims, too, have played a very important role in humankind's progress and civilization. Hence, Muslim publishing houses must also give attention to their histories and cultures, and present them in an objective manner. I do not say that such books are not at all being published. There are indeed some books on these topics, but these are very few.

Q: Do the themes that many Muslim publishing houses focus on have to do, at least to some extent, with the fact that many of the writers they promote are ulema?

A: True. Many of the writers whose works Muslim publishing houses produce are graduates of madrasas. Sadly, no importance is given at all to social sciences in the madrasa syllabus. That is why madrasa graduates do not have the required social awareness. Nor can they write on such issues properly. And it is these people who influence the minds of the Muslim masses. They publish a lot on political issues, but these are mostly defensive, apologetic and one-sided, and often reflect the political interests of the Muslim middle-class and elites, not that of the vast majority of the Muslims, who are impoverished.

I have repeatedly stressed in my writings that the madrasas must incorporate social sciences in their curriculum, so that their students can gain a realistic understanding of the empirical conditions and social issues affecting the community and the country at large. This is vital if they are to provide proper direction to the community, and to enable it to play a productive role in the development of the country. If this happens surely it will have a positive impact on the Muslim publishing industry by widening its scope.

Unfortunately, much of what is taught in the madrasas has no relation with the present age. Many rules of traditional Muslim jurisprudence have today become irrelevant. They need to be re-thought. Several writings precisely on this question are available in English and Arabic, and I feel these must be translated into Urdu so that madrasa teachers and students can benefit from them. Muslim or Urdu publishing houses can take up this task. As things stand, today the only available such work is the Urdu translation of Muhammad Iqbal's "Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam", which was written decades ago. I think there should be a separate institution that must train madrasa graduates in promoting this task of the reconstruction of Islamic theology.

Q: What exactly do you mean by this?

A: Religion needs to be understood and taught in the context of the contemporary social context. I think the only notable Muslim institution to have done some work in this regard is the New Delhi-based Al-Risala Islamic Centre, run by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, which has produced a considerable deal of literature on this issue and has had a positive impact on a number of Muslim thinkers.

Q: Perhaps the fact that Muslim publishing houses focus particularly on religion has to do with the fact of Muslims being a marginalised minority and, therefore, more protective of their identity.

A: True enough, most minorities, like the Indian Muslims, are more conscious of their religion, identity and historical traditions. There is nothing unusual in this. But this should not lead, as it has in the case of many Indian Muslims, to a 'worship of the past'. Modernism is not opposed to religion. Rather, it is a means to express religion in a contemporary idiom.

Q: An enormous amount of literature produced by many Muslim publishing houses is devoted to rebutting the claims of rival Muslim sects. How do you see this?

A: Yes, much of the literature produced by Indian Muslim publishing houses that is classified as 'religious' is a product of intra-Muslim sectarian conflicts. So, polemical literature produced by the Barelvis, the Deobandis and the Ahl-e Hadith and so on, and sub-groups within these, sell like hot cakes! However, such furious polemics are opposed to, and even contradictory to, the true spirit of religion. If you take a glance at the catalogue of any Muslim publishing house, you will find mainly this sort of literature, geared to exploiting and cashing on the religious sentiments of the people.

Of course, this is not an issue specific to Muslims alone. Many non-Muslim publishing houses also fan superstitions and obscurantism in the name of religion, although I must say that the case with Muslim publishing houses is much more severe. I feel that this pathetic situation cannot change unless the Muslim intelligentsia who are not associated with any particular religious sect or organization also get involved.

Q: Why is it that despite a flood of books on issues related to Muslims and Islam coming out elsewhere in recent years, very few of them have been translated into Urdu and published in India?

A: Lack of interest perhaps. Lack of awareness, possibly. Maybe sheer laziness and inertia. I feel there is a desperate need for books and literature published abroad on global, as well as Muslim, issues and also material published in India in English to be translated into and published in Urdu, in addition to various other Indian languages. This will certainly help the masses, including the Muslim masses. We should have specialized institutions for this sort of translation work. However, as of now, only some books from Arabic are translated into Urdu, most of which are on topics not different from those that Urdu publishers have already produced many books on, such as Islamic beliefs, Islamic Sciences, the Quran, the Prophetic Traditions, Islamic History, the Life of the Prophet and his companions, etc..

Q: Perhaps this sort of work can be promoted through establishing Muslim research centres or think tanks.

A: There is a desperate need for Muslim think-tanks that can do research and publish on Muslim social, economic, political and educational issues, in addition to those related to the country as a whole. But these can only come about if there exists a demand for them, and the bitter truth is that this demand does not really exist. Perhaps no Muslim would deny the need for this sort of literature. Many Muslim writers keep mentioning the need for this sort of literature. But, as in other fields, they remain way behind in making practical efforts to do anything about it. This is not because of a lack of resources—after all, so much money is wasted on useless politicking. For instance, I've heard that the All-India Muslim Personal Board had set apart a sum of 75 lakh rupees for the Babri Masjid Action Committee, but how did this benefit ordinary Muslims? Couldn't the Board set up a research institution? It doesn't want to, because most of the people in it are not even aware of its importance.

Another point I'd like to make is that relatively very few Muslim women have had their works published, even by Muslim publishing houses. This is because of the very low level of female literacy among Muslims. Muslim women are marginalized or virtually invisibilised not only in the publishing industry but in all other spheres as well. The Muslim religious leadership has never been very enthusiastic about highlighting the real problems of Muslim women, including through publishing literature on these issues, and this leadership that exercises a very crucial role in moulding the minds of ordinary Muslims. In fact, for a very long time Muslim religious leaders were not willing to allow Muslim women from learning how to write. A well-known Indian Muslim alim, Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, even regarded writing and publishing about women as a source of strife (fitna) and as against the shariah.

Hence, in the face of this, Muslim women who take to writing might have to face considerable opposition. This is, admittedly, a very big problem. It can only be addressed if Muslim women themselves become aware and start a movement of their own.

Q: If you were to run a publishing house, what issues would you focus on?

A: If I were the proprietor of a publishing house, I would give more importance to social issues than to religious matters, because there is no paucity of literature already available on the latter. I think the biggest problem facing Muslims is that of intellectual crisis. This has been caused by the fact that they have been cut off from the general intellectual stream or paradigm. Hence, I would publish such literature, both by Muslims and others, as would enable Muslims to join the intellectual mainstream.


Waris Mazhari can be contacted at ws_mazhari@yahoo.com