The India Islamic Cultural Centre (IICC) in New Delhi is nestled in the neighborhood of more high-brow institutions of intellectual activity such as the India International Centre (IIC) and the India Habitat Centre (IHC). However, some of the more seemingly mundane events it organises are, potentially, far more beneficial to India's inclusive development than a seminar at IIC or a talk at IHC. Under the able leadership of its amiable president, Sirajuddin Qureshi, IICC is quietly promoting awareness about the need for Indian Muslims' all-round development, while simultaneously weaving stronger bonds of national integration by proactively engaging with non-Muslim personalities who believe in the same cause.
Last week, I was surprised to get an invitation from my journalist-friend Wadood Sajid to be a guest speaker at a personality development course that he has helped IICC organise. What awaited me was a surprise, as revealing as it was pleasant. For the past five years, IICC (it scores high marks for its aesthetics and facilities) has been hosting this 40-day free-of-charge annual event that trains over 400 bright and aspiring students and young professionals in English-speaking, communication skills, competencies in team-building and leadership development, and so on. Most of them are Muslims. Many are from very poor backgrounds, and some from well-known religious seminaries. One-third of the packed hall was occupied by women, dressed both traditionally and non-traditionally. And the quality of presentations made by both male and female participants was outstanding, a pointer both to their own innate talent and also to the abilities of Munawar Zama, a young Hyderabad-based leadership trainer who conducts the course.
What appealed to me the most was that the course stressed not only on the superficial aspects of personality development but also on its ethical core. For example, on the day I was invited, the participants were given two topics to speak on ? 'Why, and how, not to tell a lie' and 'Why we should respect our parents.'
In my talk, I tried to explain how great personalities in all traditions had convergent views on the importance of education, understood as lifelong learning. Prophet Mohammed urged his followers to "go in quest of knowledge even if you have to go as far as China". The same thought is echoed in Mahatma Gandhi's exhortation: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever." Referring to the moral as well as modernising focus of IICC's personality development course, I said it would make Swami Vivekananda happy. For hadn't Swamiji said that true education is one that promotes "man-making and nation-building"? I urged the participants to participate in the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Swamiji, who championed numerous noble ideals, including Hindu-Muslim unity.
What I observed at the IICC programme has reinforced my belief that a silent revolution is taking place in the Indian Muslim community, as far as education is concerned. This, clearly, is a phenomenon that gathered momentum after the mandir-masjid dispute in Ayodhya made the community self-introspective. The thoughts, concerns and aspirations of the new generation of Muslims are pushing it away from the margins and into the mainstream of national life.
I'll never forget an interaction I had in the mid-1980s with a Muslim family in Mumbai's Mohammed Ali Road area, a highly congested Muslim enclave. A young male member of the family had been selected to join the Indian Navy. But several members of the community dissuaded him from doing so. Why? "Muslims should not serve in the military of a non-Muslim nation."! Not surprising, since quite a few people in the area were staunch supporters of the Pakistan movement before 1947. Now, in the same neighbourhood, I've seen seeds of new thinking sprout. Schezan and Munaif, the two prodigiously talented sons of my good friends Iqbal and Ayesha, are both exemplars of inclusive India. Schezan, who graduated from the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC) in Pune, is now proudly serving in the Indian Army. His younger brother Munaif has secured admission in the prestigious Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune.
Last week, I received a message from my dear friend Atik Muzaffarpuri, a Delhi-based Urdu journalist. His happiness knew no bounds because his son Mohammed Adil has scored top marks in an all-India entrance exam to secure admission in a coveted medical college to pursue MBBS. I have seen the extremely adverse living environments in which Schezan, Munaif and Adil grew up—and yet succeeded. This year, the highest number of Muslim students, many from very ordinary backgrounds, cracked the IIT entrance exam.
Due to space constraints, I can only make a brief mention here of the godly work that my other dear friend, Urdu writer Feroze Ashraf, and his wife Arifa, have been doing to spread education among girls belonging to the poorest of the poor Muslim families in Mumbai's slums. How the couple's incredibly devoted efforts have brought the light of hope in hundreds of gloomy lives is a story at once moving and inspiring.
Indian Muslims have begun to beat the odds because they have realised the importance of education more than ever before. So far, they've been helped mostly by their own efforts. With understanding and support from the larger society, with effective implementation of the governments' schemes and policies, and with the removal of internal obstacles in the community, this revolution will surely gain momentum. Apart from transforming Muslim lives, this can impart tremendous new energy to India's development.