September 18, 2013 By Shameer KS

Dalits According to the Quran?


A question arises: ‘Do the oppressed signify Muslims alone?’ Most Islamist groups the world over single out as beneficiaries of their multifarious projects as Muslims even in societies where there are weaker sections than Muslims

In the Quran, the word mus’taḍʿafīna (widely translated as ‘weak’ and ‘oppressed’) and its verbal derivative us’tuḍ’ʿifū and  is’taḍʿafūnī (be oppressed) occur 14 times. The chapters where these words are mentioned are 4 (al Nisa’-women); 7 (al A’araf-The Battlements); 8 (al Anfal-Booty); 28 (al Qasas-History); and 34 (Saba’-Sheba). In the historical narratives of the Quran, the word has been specifically used to describe the Mosaic society except in 8:26, where, according to Muhammad Asad, there is “a reference to the weakness of the believers in the early days of Islam, before their exodus from Mecca to Medina.’ Here, Asad says, ‘it is a reminder to every community of true believers, at all times, of their initial weakness and numerical insignificance and their subsequent growth in numbers and influence.’

As the weakness and powerlessness are not fixed attributes, but they wax and wane, ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’ don’t remain the same. Those who are oppressed today can claim power in future and become oppressors. In the Mosaic tradition narrated in the Quran this transformation is clearly mentioned. The climax of Moses’ encounter with Pharaoh, the oppressor, is that God ‘caused the people who had been oppressed to inherit the eastern regions of the land and the western ones, which we had blessed. And the good word of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel because of what they had patiently endured. And we destroyed all that Pharaoh and his people were producing and what they had been building.’ (7:137).  But, later, the same community of the oppressed whom the God made the inheritors of the earth came to be oppressors in their turn. When Moses came back after his Meeting with God with Revelations, he saw his people in open rebellion. He said, “How wretched is that by which you have replaced me after my departure. Were you impatient over the matter of your Lord?” And he threw down the tablets and seized his brother by [the hair of] his head, pulling him toward him. [Aaron] said, “O son of my mother, indeed the people oppressed me and were about to kill me, so let not the enemies rejoice over me and do not place me among the wrongdoing people.” (7:150)

In the context the Mosaic society, the Pharaoh ‘turned its inhabitants into diverse classes, holding a group among them to be weak’ (28:4)-the Quranic reference to feudalism. Here, God wanted to ‘establish the oppressed firmly on earth and to make Pharaoh and Haman and their troops witness at their hands what they once feared (28:5)’.  The Quran exhorts believers to fight ‘in the cause of Allah for the oppressed among men, women, and children who say, “Our Lord, take us out of this city of oppressive people and appoint for us from Yourself a protector and appoint for us from Yourself a helper?” (4:75).

A question arises: ‘Do the oppressed signify Muslims alone?’ Most Islamist groups the world over single out as beneficiaries of their multifarious projects as Muslims even in societies where there are weaker sections than Muslims. A friend of mine, who lectures in a professional college run by Muslim business tycoons, approached the administrators for scholarship for an Ezhava (belonging to the backward classes in India) student. He got disaapointed by the reply: only Muslims can benefit from the scholarship scheme in the college. Also, Muslims’ assistance and recognition of members from other communities is based on the latter’s potential for being Muslims. The fight that the Quran exhorts believers to undertake takes on the form of preaching Islam to others. They earnestly beg your help; and you tell them how far better you are than they in the sight of God.

This question has been brilliantly analyzed in Farid Esack’s Quran: Liberation and Pluralism where he examines the angle of liberation in the Exodus Paradigm of the Mosaic tradition in the context of the Apartheid in South Africa. Important themes in the Exodus paradigm, according to Farid Esack, are:

1, “Neither God nor Moses abandoned the Israelites before they reached the Promised Land despite their recalcitrance in kufr 2, an effective distinction was made in response to the Kufr of the Israelites and that of Pharaoh and his supporters…….4, During the period of slavery, Moses’ prophetic responsibility was essentially to act in solidarity with the Israelites, rather than to preach to them 5, Moses did not offer his people a balm to heal the wounds of oppression. Instead, he acted in solidarity with them in order to secure their liberation.” (Farid Essack, Quran: Liberation and Pluralism, An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression, Oneword Publications, page 196-7)

The chapter of the book where this analysis is done is titled ‘Redefining Comrades and Opponents’ which is crucial in our understanding and discussion of the oppressors and oppressed in the Quran. Essack says with reference to the situation in South Africa: ‘In South African liberatory discourse too, one finds distinctions made within the framework of the reinterpreted theological categories of Mu’min, Muslim and Kafir. While the progressive Islamists did not articulate these distinctions at a public level, it is evident that they refrained from using the term kafir to apply to the oppressed religious Other and withheld the appellation Muslim from the collaborating Muslim Self. Careful reflection in their rhetoric though reveals that all the Quranic vituperation against the kafir was reserved for, and unleashed against, the apartheid regime and all its supporters, irrespective of their formal religious affinities. On the other hand, all the texts consoling, encouraging and exhorting the mu’minun and the Muslimun were applied to the wronged, irrespective of their formal faith commitments, or even absence of them.’ (Ibid page 201-2)

In India, the communities who were oppressed in the theologically stipulated caste system which is similar to the feudalism exercised by Pharaoh are now categorized as the scheduled castes. There is concern among the activists who work for the oppressed group that this classification helps prevent people from embracing other faiths.  Once scheduled castes and scheduled tribes converts to Christianity and Islam, they will not be able to have the same benefits that they would have had, had they remained in the scheduled caste criterion. This means in theory that Muslims and Christians don’t hold people inferior by their birth, which several Muslim leaders claim with hauteur. In fact, among Indian Muslims and Christians, people in the lower strata are treated inferior in the same (if not worse) way than they are in the cast-ridden Hindu societies. So there is a just demand for using (reviving) the word Dalit to signify the oppressed. ‘Dalit’ is, under a minute observation, a translation of the Quranic mus’taḍʿafīn-a category which transcends religious and scared affiliations and denotes the victimhood out of the skewed categories of men.

I would prefer to read the etymology of the word ‘Dalit’ from the commentary of a noted Dalit scholar and rethink the divine verses on mus’taḍʿafīn from a new perspective: ‘Dalit is not a recently coined word. Many centuries ago, Kalidasa used the word in Sanskrit and Ezhuthachan in Malayalam. In Kalidasa’s Shakunthalam, Shakunthala, when she saw Dushyanda, pressed the petals of a flower and scratched them with her nails in a warm blush. The pressure exerted on the petals waxed and waned according to the fluctuations in her blushes. Kalidasa used the word ‘Dalit’ to denote the condition of those petals. Ezhutahachan called Arjuna, now battered and emaciated in the Mahabaratha battle, Dalit as in ‘Dalit-bodied Arjuna‘. The use of the word to mean the oppressed is old, too. A working committee meeting of the National Congress in 1922, reflected on the condition of the Dalit and formed a committee for their emancipation. Arya Samajam leader Swami Shradhananda was elected the convener of the committee. When he resigned from the committee over its dismal performance, he submitted his papers where it was mentioned that he was the president of the Dalit Emancipatory Council’ based in Delhi (Complete Works of DR BR Ambedkar, Volume V, page 303). It means that the word Dalit was used in the beginning of the 20th century to mean the oppressed.” (Translated from Gandhi, Gandhism, Dalits, by Dalit Bandhu)

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