Manabendra Nath Roy was neither a scholar of Islam nor he professed to be so. But, certainly he was not ignorant of it. Roy’s only book on Islam titled “The Historical Role of Islam” is sufficient proof of his erudition. Written from a purely orthodox Marxian perspective, the book espouses and preaches an impartial, objective and unprejudiced historical analysis of the causes that lead to spread of Islam in the world, particularly in India. But, unlike many Orientalist writers who have written extensively on Islam, Roy does not find himself in consensus with the argument or what he dubs as “vulgar theory” or “vulgar interpretations” of Islamic history, “that rise of Islam was a triumph of fanaticism over sober and tolerant people”. For Roy, unlike many Orientalists , the role of sword and the military conquest in the rise of Islam was only subsidiary. “The phenomenal success of Islam, for Roy, “was primarily due to its revolutionary significance and its ability to lead the masses out of the hopeless situation created by the decay of antique civilizations not only of Greece and Rome but of Persia and china and of India”.
As an orthodox Marxist, (Roy had not yet turned to radical humanism ) believing in a cyclic notion of history, that is, history governed by certain definite objective and scientific laws manifesting themselves at the material level in a dialectical process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, M.N. Roy declares that Islam originated out of a “ historical necessity”. The rise and triumph of Islam was a feast guaranteed by the circumstances of the age. Islam , for M.N. Roy, rose in the period of intellectual and spiritual decline of the ruling classes throughout the world of ancient civilization. It was a period of history impregnated with perpetual destitution of the common masses throughout the world.
The degeneracy, decadency and corruption of the elites on the one hand and the abject social and political destitution of the masses on the other hand had reached to its limit. The objective laws governing the progress of history demanded the rise of revolution, a movement with a revolutionary social programme. Islam provided such a revolutionary programme built on the principles of equality and justice. It was under the zeal of this revolutionary programme of social equality and justice that the oppressed masses throughout the world rallied under the banner of I slam.
Islam and India
What was the modus operandi by which Islam ingrained its roots in India? Was it entirely the sword and forced conversions as the popular narrative goes, which decided the fate of Islam in India or the, “revolutionary social programme” of Islam played its role in India as well as it did in many other parts of the world? For Roy, the timing of reaching of Islam in India was occasioned by the existence of a Brahmanical orthodoxy infested with multitudes of persecuted heretics who eagerly welcomed Islam. India had been through a failed Buddhist revolution, a revolution aimed at liberating the masses, the lower caste Hindu’s from the Brahmanical tyranny manifesting itself in unbearable social discrimination and grave practices of injustices against the masses. The message of Islam enshrined in the principle of social equality appealed to the oppressed masses of India and they happily and eagerly gathered under the banner of Islam. For M.N. Roy, “it was not the philosophy of Islam but its sociological programme which won so many converts for it in India”. Although for Roy when Islam reached India it nearly had played out its , “ progressive role” but “ it had not altogether played out its social- revolutionary role and that it was by virtue of its social- revolutionary character that it struck so deep a root in India”.
Relevance of the book
“The Historical Role of Islam” was first published in 1938. The immediate purpose of the book as explicitly mentioned in the book by M.N. Roy was to show to the average educated Hindu that how ill-informed he/was is about the teachings of the prophet of Islam(SAW). The bluntness with which he condemned the ignorance of the average Hindu about the faith professed by a significant portion of the population of his country can be inferred from the following line of the book. “No civilized people in the world are so ignorant of Islamic history and contemptuous of the Mohammedan religion as the Hindus”. The then prevailing notions of Islam in the minds of average Hindus for M.N .Roy were ridiculous and were to be combated not only for the sake of national cohesion but most importantly for the interest of science and truth.
M.N. Roy was a die-hard rationalist and his rationalism combined with his unshakable belief in science prevented him from looking at world religions from a theological or metaphysical perspective. He looked at Islam as he looked at any other religion from a social science perspective. For him, Islam was essentially a social project with important economic and political dimensions. He wanted his fellow Indians particularly his Hindu brethren to realize the important social role that Islam had played in uplifting the downtrodden and the destitute of the Indian soil on its arrival in India. The contemporary average Hindu is as ignorant of the teachings of Islam as was the Hindu who lived in the times of M.N. Roy.
The only difference that one can think of is that the cotemporary Hindu has been taught to imagine or more correctly to construct a past for himself where the ordinary Muslim of India is vivid as an unwanted, cruel and despotic foreigner whose only motive is to convert and loot the “indigenous Hindu”. In this whole process of imagining and construction, the average Muslim of India becomes the crusader and the religion which he professes becomes in substance the religion of sword. It was this very parochial and prejudiced subjective view of history of Islam that M.N.ROY tried to negate and preach against in his book.
He stood for a factual and objective analysis of history of spread of Islam in India rather than indulge in prejudiced imagining and construction of an unreal and untrue past. Roy’s opus seeks to provide an astoundingly simple solution to the otherwise a notoriously gigantic problem of communal violence in India and the solution is, “re-read, not imagine or construct, the history or past with a un -prejudiced and un- biased mind”. The solution suggested by M.N. Roy for clearing the poignantly blurred image of Islam in India has a general or universal rather a particular or limited applicability. The great author does not shy away from stating that the West that we know and praise today owes much of its current intellectual prowess and glory to a religion that it later on took pleasure in calling as “religion of sword and violence”. M.N. Roy states his case with some great authorities at his back. He quotes extensively from “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon and “History of Saracens” by Okley. Invoking the Marxian dialectical and cyclical notion of history, Roy considers Islamic civilization a prelude to the rise of Western civilization. Roy does not stop here and moves on to defend Islam against some of the greatest unfounded allegations leveled against it. The myth of the destruction of the famous library of Alexandria by Muslims, the myth so strictly upheld and adhered to by Orientalists, is unmasked by M.N Roy by writing this, “The library of Cairo contained over one hundred thousand volumes; whereas Cordova boasted of six times as many. This fact gives lie to another calumny which depicts the rise of Islam as an eruption of savage fanaticism, namely the tale of the destruction of the famous library of Alexandria. One must have a pious mind or credulous disposition to believe that those who took delight in founding and supporting such noble seats of learning, would have callously set fire to the library of Alexandria……….When dispassionate and scientific study of history dissipates legends and discredits malicious tales, the rise of Islam stands out not as a scourge but a blessing for the mankind”.
The current outrage against Muslims, both local and global, the roots of which in one form or the other are embedded in the same unscientific, biased and malicious reading of history of rise of Islam, makes “The Historical Role of Islam” excessively relevant to our contemporary times. The appeal of the book for a scientific and dispassionate study of history of rise of Islam is an appeal which goes far beyond the territorial and geographical limits of India. The message that Islam is a blessing and not a scourge for mankind is undoubtedly extraterritorial and transnational in character but more importantly it is contemporary.
The author is an Assistant Professor at Government Degree College, Pampore. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org