Life under India’s Muslim rulers

Book: Ahd-i-Islami Ke Hindustan Mein Mu’asharat, Ma’ishat Aur Hukumat Ke Masa’il (Urdu) Author: Zafarul Islam Islahi
Publishers: Islamic Book Foundation, New Delhi
Year: 2009
Pages: 200
Price: Rs 120

This is a work of the well-known Islamic scholar and historian, Professor Zafarul Islam Islahi of the Department of Islamic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University. The author has given the copyright of the book to Darul Musannefin Shibli Academy, Azamgarh. Professor Zafarul Islam is a genuine researcher whose writings are known for originality and documentation. He has mastery over Arabic and Persian, and freely writes in English and Urdu. Over the years he has been writing on a variety of subjects related to the study of Holy Qur’an, Qur’anic Sciences, Islamic scholasticism, Islamic education, agrarian laws of Medieval times, studies on Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Shibli Nomani, role of the Muslims in the Freedom Movement, and the relevance of Qur’anic Studies and its understanding in modern times. But of late he has paid more attention to the study of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and fatawa (verdicts), literature of Medieval India in an attempt to draw out inter alia the complex socio-economic and religious problems of contemporary Indian society that arose on account of Muslim dominance and their intermingling with non-Muslims. The examination of these fatawa shed light on how some of the problems were overcome by the Ulama and rulers. On the basis of pronouncements made, can the medieval state be characterized as repressive, or protective and reconciliatory in nature?

The book under examination comprises of six chapters, which were earlier published in the form of articles in various journals, but have now been revised and improved. The objective of the writing is to remove some of the misgivings about Islamic polity and practices as spread by the critics of Islam and to highlight that though the medieval Indian state was monarchial in nature, there is no dearth of examples to show that in many cases Shariat laws were given due importance and strictly enforced and that several institutions were established to monitor the religious needs and functioning of the State. The author asserts that the Muslim rulers, howsoever indifferent attitude they may have held with regard to Shariat, in principle, they could not entirely ignore it; conversely, they felt gratified in projecting themselves as promoters of Shariat. The author has drawn heavily from religious opinion or pronouncements mentioned in Fatwa-i-Firuzshahi, Fatwa-i-Ghiyasiah, Fatwa-i-Hamadyah, Fatwa-i-Ibraheem Shahi, Risalah-i-Darbi Arazi and various other Arabic and Persian sources, which were compiled to serve as guidelines to the qazis (judge) and muftis (jurist) in particular and to the Muslims in general.

The author points out that of the several vexed problems for which fatawa were sought included questions on military expeditions and participation of women, whether the policies of a tyrannical ruler should be accepted or it ought to be protested and condemned, relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims regarding marriage and related affairs, whether it is legal for the state to determine the market price of saleable commodities, and on matters relating to establishment of partnership in trade and business. Some of the fatawa (decrees) implied no restriction for a Muslim to dine and be a guest of a non-Muslim, giving alms to the poor irrespective of his creed, attending an ill-person, taking care of non-Muslim parents or near relation by a neo-Muslim, etc. A Muslim could be arrested if he owed a debt to a non-Muslim.

A zimmi (protected non-Muslim) enjoyed the right to purchase, mortgage and sell his property. A Muslim was liable to be punished and penalized for damaging the property of a zimmi. A non-Muslim could keep wine and swine, but was forbidden to do so in the capital city and other Muslim populated areas. Significantly, it has been brought to notice that though the Ulama and rulers were largely of Hanafi creed, yet, at times they were liberal enough to refer the matter of discussion to theologians/jurists belonging to the Maliki or Shafii School of law if it was considered expedient. For example, the Market Control Scheme represents the thinking of Indian Ulama of Maliki school of thought. All this shows the liberal attitude of many Ulama and how their decisions contributed in building up harmonious social relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, making room for compatibility between State laws (zawabit) and Shariat. It contributed a distinct colour of social and political acceptability. Relatively an important aspect brought to notice is that Ulama of the early medieval period were not prepared to include the Hindus among the Ahl-i-Kitab (People of Divine Book), but later scholars such as Sufi Mirza Mazhar Jan-e-jana Naqhsbandi (1698-1781) and Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) show inclination to accept them as such.

An extensive study has been made of Baitul Mal (State Treasury)- its evolution, its resources under the Arabs and Perso-Turkish polity, its gradual expansion of functions, the nature of rights exercised by the common people over it, and how far the State was accountable to the public.

The author has critically examined landholding rights of the cultivators/zamindars as well as their succession and occupancy rights and settlement with the State, with examples enumerated and propounded by the Hanafi and Shafii School; drawing attention to the fact that land tax (kharaj) exacted often- trespassed Shariat norms.

Finally, the author discusses the missionary and reformist activities of Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) and his efforts to ameliorate the state policy and the thinking of the rulers in accordance with the Shariat, calling upon the Muslims to meticulously observe the obligatory prayers and to forsake unIslamic practices, so that a righteous Islamic way of life might be followed.

In short, the discussions based on fatawa provide an insight into some of the socio-economic problems and seemingly related crises that had arisen in the society and how efforts were made to resolve them. Preliminary step towards highlighting fatawa literature was, perhaps, initiated by scholars such as Maulana Riyasat Ali Nadvi, Khaliq Ahmad Nizami and Afsar Umar Salim Khan, but the importance of Zafarul Islam Islahi’s work lies in the fact that he has made an in-depth analytical study, providing new approach and making the subject matter more refreshing and informative. Professor Zafarul Islam deserves full congratulation for his serious effort in expounding the merit and significance of fatawa literature and the information that can be accrued from them.

The reviewer is Associate Professor in the Department of History, Shibli National College, Azamgarh