Muslim Publishing Houses in Delhi
Naseem ur-Rahman & Yoginder Sikand
Delhi, for various historical reasons, is the hub of the Muslim publishing industry in India. Most of the prominent Muslim publishing houses in the country are located in Muslim-dominated parts of the city, notably in Old Delhi, Okhla and Basti Nizamuddin. Literature produced by these houses are found in Muslim-owned bookshops across the country and even abroad.
Our study looked at various aspects of these Delhi-based Muslim publishing houses, based on a survey of some fifteen publishing firms. We noted significant similarities common to almost all the publishing houses we studied and would like to describe them here.
Firstly, most of these firms are family-run businesses, some having been in existence for two, three or even four generations. Even the few that are registered as limited companies are actually family run businesses. Decision-making is thus concentrated in the hands of a single proprietor or family of proprietors.
Secondly, almost all these firms specialize in Islamic literature and other such issues that would be of concern particularly to Muslim readers alone. This is of course true for the Urdu publishing houses, the language now being almost a wholly Muslim preserve, but also in the case of those firms that have now also started publishing in Hindi and English. They assume, therefore, basically a Muslim readership with a primary interest in Islam. Some of these houses have started producing literature on Islam aimed at a non-Muslim readership, seeing them as potential converts and/or seeking to disabuse them of what are seen as misunderstandings about Islam or to offer alternate understandings of key Islamic themes and issues which are hotly debated in the media, such as women’s rights, terrorism and so on.
The vast majority of the titles of the books published by the firms we surveyed related to various aspects of Islam, including the Quran, the Hadith or Prophetic Traditions, Islamic Jurisprudence, Islamic Rituals, Islamic History and so on. In short, the discourse that they articulate is a normative one, seeking to define what ‘true’ Islam means and what this demands of those who are presented as ‘true’ Muslims, although these are variously defined.
In addition to religious themes, a smaller number of these firms also specialize in publications dealing with Urdu literature and Indian Muslim history. This again reflects the fact that they aim essentially at a Muslim readership.
Conversely, we noted just one publishing house that also produces literature on issues related to the actual, existing or empirical social conditions of the Indian Muslims. In this case, the quality of the publications, in terms of their content, left much to be desired. This paucity of literature on the empirical conditions of the Indian Muslims, in contrast to the abundant literature on Islam and Muslim history, reflects several important features of the Indian Muslim publishing industry, as our interviews with several publishers and others revealed.
Most of the authors whose works are published are madrasa-trained ulema, who have no exposure to modern social sciences. They have been trained in the traditional way, having received an education that focuses mainly on the Islamic scriptural and jurisprudential tradition, which provides the prism through which they are taught to see the world. The solutions to the various ills facing the community, they believe, is by encouraging Muslims to abide closely by the dictates of the faith, as they interpret them to be. Only then, it is argued, might God change their conditions. Success in the eternal life after death, they stress, is more important than success in this temporary world. Hence, they argue, learning about and faithfully abiding about what Islam says is of principal concern. This explains the overwhelming focus on religious themes, often narrowly defined, in the content of most of the firms we surveyed.
A related point is that of market demand. Since religious books are what sells, many publishers admitted, this is what they publish. Scholars who have done empirical research on Muslims generally write in English and prefer to get their work published by non-Muslim-owned publishers, who are seen as more ‘reputable’ in academic circles. Unlike before 1947, when considerable Muslim-related social science literature was produced in Urdu, today Urdu has become the preserve largely of the ulema of the madrasas, owing particularly to the Government’s discriminatory policies related to the language. This is reflected in the fact that a considerable majority of Urdu titles are penned by the ulema and are about issues related to Islam, which is what the ulema claim to specialize in.
Numerous publishers we interviewed lamented the fact that there is almost no Muslim institution in the country that commissions research on Muslim social issues, the findings of which could be published for a wider audience. This they attributed to various factors, such as the paucity of Muslim social scientists, and non-Muslim social scientists interested in Muslim-related issues, the fact that those who do such research prefer to have their works published by other, what they see as more ‘respectable’ publishing houses, and the perceived insensitivity of Muslim social, economic and political elites towards the problems facing the Muslim masses.
Interestingly, most of the firms we surveyed produced not Islamic literature plain and simple, but, rather, literature that reflected one or the other sectarian version of Islam, reflecting the fact that the lived Islamic tradition is not a monolith, but, rather, is defined variously. Almost all the publishing houses we examined are associated, formally or informally, with one or the other Muslim sects or maslaks, such as the Jamaat-e Islami, Ahl-e Hadith, Barelvi and Deobandi, among the Sunnis, and the Ithna Asharis among the Shias. The literature that they produce is geared to proving the claim that their own particular sect is the only ‘true’ Islamic one, the implication being that the other sects are not really ‘Islamic’ enough or, in fact, are ‘un-Islamic’ and even ‘anti-Islamic’. Consequently, scores of books published by several of these firms seek to denounce, in no uncertain terms, rival Muslim sects as firmly outside the pale of Islam. Such literature plays a major role in sustaining and promoting inter-sectarian rivalries.
Publications produced by these firms, particularly in Urdu, are often much cheaper than English books, reflecting the fact that the market for these publications is characertised by a considerably lower purchasing power. In turn, this reflects the fact of general Muslim economic marginalization. Lower prices often mean poor paper and printing quality, but a number of firms are able to maintain good quality standards yet keep their costs low by getting subsidized by various Islamic charitable organizations, or, for instance, in the case of certain publishers associated with the Ahl-e Hadith sect, the Indian counterpart of the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’, by getting funds from the Gulf.
In terms of payments to authors, it was felt, so several authors told us, that the firms paid very little, sometimes nothing at all, and even sometimes took money from authors to have their works published. This was said to be yet another reason for what was perceived as the relatively low quality of many of their publications, because they are unable or unwilling to attract better authors who would expect more remuneration.
Some publishers and authors we met offered constructive suggestions for improving the quality of the publications of Muslim-owned publishing houses. These include:
- Broadening their focus from their present concern almost wholly with religion to include the actual social conditions of the Muslims, thereby being able to play a more constructive role in promoting social change.
- Publishing literature of interest not just to Muslims alone but to non-Muslims as well.
- Encouraging Muslim organizations to consider the setting up research centres to focus on Muslim social issues, this research then being made available in the form of publications.
- Commissioning and publishing Urdu translations of works in English on Islam and Muslims by scholars, both Muslims and non-Muslims [Presently, most of the translations that these houses publish are of works by Arab ulema].
- Encouraging Urdu newspapers to include a book review page. Presently, few of them publish book reviews.
- Promoting Islamic literature penned by non- ulema, including ‘progressives’‘, ‘modernists’ and women, and also on themes of contemporary import and debate (such as women’s rights, relations with non-Muslims, peace, war and terrorism).
Findings that emerged from our study were presented in the form of six postings to the SARAI mailing list. These also appeared in various websites and some of them were published in Muslim periodicals. In the course of our study we collected considerably more material, which we hope to write-up in the form of articles in the near future.