Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Monday, March 09, 2009

Socially Engaged Islam: A View From Kerala

By Nabi Arshad

Unlike much of the rest of India, Islamic organizations in Kerala are heavily involved in various forms social activism, not limiting themselves simply to religious education and preaching or to petitioning the government for sops. This is one of the major reasons for the remarkable social, economic and educational progress that Kerala’s Muslims, who account for around a fourth of the state’s population, have witnessed in recent decades. Among the major Islamic movements in Kerala is the Jamaat-e Islami (JI).

The Kerala JI’s headquarters are located at the Hira Centre, an imposing multi-storey building in the heart of Calicut (Kozhikode), a town which, for centuries, has been a major Muslim centre. Enter the building and the stark contrast with north Indian Muslim organizations—even with the JI’s units in the north—is immediately evident. The building is sparkling clean and well-maintained, and it has separate offices for its different wings, which are a staffed by team of professionally qualified activists (and not just maulanas).

The ‘Dialogue Centre’ is one of the Kerala JI’s major initiatives. Set up six years ago, it aims at promoting inter-community dialogue and understanding. Says Shaikh Muhammad Karakunnu, its Director, ‘In recent years in Kerala, particularly after 9/11, there has been a sudden surge in debates about Islam—mostly negative though—and so we felt it important to reach out to Hindus, Christians and others in the state to address their misunderstandings about our faith.

The Dialogue Centre seeks to do that by publishing literature and by organizing periodic seminars and public conventions, to which we also invite Hindu and Christian religious leaders as well as Marxists. We dialogue in a friendly way, not in the old-fashioned polemical manner, and do not limit ourselves simply to religious issues but also take up matters of common social concern, on which people of different faiths can work together.’

‘Dharma Dhara’ is the Kerala JI’s communications division. So far, it has produced some 50 CDs in Malayalam, mainly about Islam, but also on social issues and struggles for justice for marginalized groups. One of its most recent productions is a digitalized edition in Malayalam of Syed Abul Ala Maududi’s voluminous commentary on the Quran, Tahfim ul-Quran. It has also produced tapes and CDs containing Islamically-inspired feature films, dramas and songs, some by non-Muslim singers and actors, something quite inconceivable in the Urdu-Hindi belt.

Through its ‘Jana Sevanam’ wing the Kerala JI engages in small economic development projects for the poor and assisting people affected by natural calamities. In the wake of the deadly Tsunami which struck coastal India some years ago, it collected and disbursed more than three crore rupees to victims in Kerala and the Andaman Islands. Says T.K.Hussain, the head of the programme, ‘Jana Sevanam runs more than 300 small interest-free lending institutions to help poor families set up small scale industries and for loans for emergencies and for education. Taken together, every year then lend out more than five crore rupees, the money being collected from zakat funds and donations or sadqa.’

Jana Sevanam’s ‘Ideal Relief Wing’ has trained some 500 volunteers, including girls, to help in relief work, and its teams have worked in emergency situations not just in Kerala but in Kashmir, Bihar and Rajasthan as well. Recently, it sponsored the repair of two general wards in the Calicut government hospital. Activists associated with Jana Sevanam run six hospitals in Kerala, including a new three hundred-bed super-speciality medical centre, and also provide subsidized medical treatment, including to poor non-Muslim patients, through the Association of Ideal Medical Services, a network of Muslim and non-Muslim doctors in the state. Across Kerala JI activists run some 150 regular schools, mostly from kindergarten to the twelfth standard and affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education, in addition to some 200 part-time madrasas and a dozen or so Arabic Colleges for higher Islamic learning.

Established in 2003, ‘Solidarity’ is an organization led by youth activists of the Kerala JI. It has been involved in generating mass awareness on a range of social issues as well as leading and participating in social movements against anti-people government policies, fascism, imperialism, terrorism and environmental degradation. Says Solidarity’s Public Relations Secretary K.K.Basheer, ‘We now have a membership of some 4000, including some two hundred non-Muslims. Most are teachers, businessmen, doctors, but also fishermen, small farmers and labourers, between the age of 18 and 40. Members provide one per cent of their income to Solidarity’s bait ul-mal (treasury) to meet our expenses.

We work closely with non-Muslim groups in Kerala, particularly leftists, who are concerned about similar social causes. Some of our activists work with Adivasis in Wynad, on issues of empowerment, education and drug de-addiction. Some other activists helped out with the government’s Ambedkar Housing Scheme for Dalits. We’ve constructed some 500 houses for the poor, and plan to build a hundred homes for Adivasis soon.’ Over the years, ‘Solidarity’ has organized mass rallies across Kerala, to which it has invited such noted social activists as Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy, Sandeep Pandey, Ram Puniyani, Suresh Khairnar, Iftikhar Gilani, Ajit Sahi, Yvonne Ridley, Claude Alvares and Kuldeep Nayyar.

‘Kerala is very different from north India,’ Basheer goes on, with evident pride. ‘People here, including Muslims, are much more socially aware and politically conscious. The contrast with north Indian Muslims is glaring. But the Solidarity experiment in Kerala has definitely had an impact on youth associated with the Jamaat-e Islami, some of who are now trying to get more socially involved as a result, moving beyond issues that are narrowly framed as specifically Islamic or Muslim.’ But this is not a phenomenon limited just to the JI. As Basheer adds, ‘Other Muslim groups in Kerala are also, like the Jamaat, increasingly working on social, economic and educational empowerment, and for communal harmony and against terrorism and fascism. These initiatives in Kerala, which, unfortunately, are hardly known elsewhere in India, can provide a powerful inspiration and example for Muslim activists in the rest of India to learn from.’
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