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Socially-Engaged Islam: A View from Kerala

Yoginder Sikand

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 profess`sionally
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 w e 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 (under the Banner of
Majlis Thaleem Al Islami - composer),
mostly from kindergarten to the
twelfth standard and affiliated to the
Central Boar d of Secondary
Education, in addition to some 200
part-time madrasas and a dozen or
so Arabic Colleges for higher Islamic
Established in 2003, ‘Solidarity Youth Movement’ 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, Arundhiti 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.’