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Imtiaz Ahmad: A Seminal Authority on Muslim Community and an Unsparing Critic of Muslim Communalists

Imtiaz Ahmad: A Seminal Authority on Muslim Community and an Unsparing Critic of Muslim Communalists

  • The JNU professor who died last week was a scholar, activist and mentor to students in their academic, personal and professional life.

When Prof. Imtiaz Ahmad of Jawaharlal Nehru University was being laid to rest at a graveyard near Lodhi crematorium in New Delhi around 8.30 pm on 19th June, there was no one from his immediate family to do the last rites. We, some of his former students in JNU, bade our beloved professor final farewell. Prof. Ahmad was not merely a teacher to us; he was a mentor, a guide, and an inspiration for all of us. What always amazed us was that despite being an internationally acclaimed academic, he was generous with his time with each of us, as and when we needed his guidance in both our personal and professional life. 

When I joined the Centre for Political Studies at the JNU in the late 1970s, Prof. Ahmad was less than 40 years old, but his reputation as a formidable scholar had traveled worldwide. His book, ‚ÄúCaste and Social Stratification among Muslims in India,‚ÄĚ published in 1973 introduced a new dimension in the debate on the homogeneity of the Islamic brotherhood. Prof. Ahmad was quite emphatic in his conclusion that Muslims must not be viewed as a monolithic community. Those who rely on the Islamic text often make the mistake of treating Muslims as undifferentiated followers of a religion, he said. It is important to note the local practices and the time-honored traditions that different Muslims follow in their personal and social life, and that must be the fulcrum for our analysis of the religious community, Prof Ahmad emphasized. His extensive field study complemented his academic rigor; he came to be known worldwide as a pioneering scholar on diversity and plurality in the Islamic faith.

Prof. Ahmad was best known for his seminal research on the Muslim community, but he had a vast repertoire of academic interests and he made meaningful contributions in those fields. A cursory view of the glossary of the books he had written/edited and the articles that he had contributed to internationally recognized journals over the years ‚ÄĒ on topics as diverse as communalism, ethnic conflict, social movements, refugees, migrants, poverty alleviation et al ‚ÄĒ stand testimony to his intellectual contribution as a political sociologist. 

Muslims must keep faith in the secular character of India and maintain secular practices within the religion itself. We can be religious and secular at the same time, he used to say.

Prof. Ahmad had a brilliant academic career. He was a gold medalist at Lucknow University where he got his Master’s degree in 1960. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Delhi. Then he joined the Chicago University as a Fulbright Scholar. Before returning to India, he served for three years as a visiting faculty in the University of Missouri. P

Prof. Ahmad joined the Centre for Political Studies in JNU in 1972 where he served for 30 years till his retirement in 2002. During the intervening years, he had the distinction of serving as the Visiting Professor at the Institute of Higher Studies in the Social Sciences, Paris, at the Institute of Refugee Studies, York University, Canada, at the University of Sherbrooke, Canada, at International University of People’s Initiatives in Peace, Roverato, Italy, among others.

But what made Prof. Ahmad an extraordinary scholar was that he was not confined to just theoretical research and relevant fieldwork; he was actively involved in responding to the burning issues confronting the nation. He was truly an organic intellectual in the Gramscian sense. Prof. Ahmad was deeply concerned about the rising communal tension in the country. But, unlike many who resorted to polarizing invocations, Prof. Imtiaz’s voice was that of sanity and sagacity. He had an abiding faith in the secular tradition of India. He believed that even as the RSS/BJP whipped up the communal temperature in the country, the majority of the Hindus would not fall for it; he was certain that the majoritarian communal design of those in power would be defeated by the majority of the Hindus themselves.

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Prof. Ahmad was also unsparing in his criticism of the communalists among the Muslims. The response to the majoritarian communalism was not minoritarian communalism, he insisted. Muslims must keep faith in the secular character of India and maintain secular practices within the religion itself. We can be religious and secular at the same time, he used to say.

Prof. Ahmad believed that the current communal frenzy is a passing phase; we would return to our secular foundations sooner than later, he would say. But he did not live to see that day. Hope, his words come true; hope we, his students, will see the dawn of a new, secular India during our lifetime. It will be a tribute to Prof. Ahmad’s memory if we follow his thought process and spread the word around to shun animosity and embrace plurality and diversity as the credo of our life.


Nalini Ranjan Mohanty is the Director of the Jagran Institute of Management and Mass Communication. He is a former Assistant Editor with the Times of India and a former Resident Editor of the Hindustan Times.

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