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Updated: April 7, 2014 23:59 IST

The evolving worldview of South Asian Muslims

A. Faizur Rahman
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Muslim Voices- Community and the Self in South Asia: Edited by Usha Sanyal, David Gilmartin, Sandria B. Freitag; Yoda Press, 268 A/C, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi-110070. Rs. 695.
Muslim Voices- Community and the Self in South Asia: Edited by Usha Sanyal, David Gilmartin, Sandria B. Freitag; Yoda Press, 268 A/C, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi-110070. Rs. 695.

South Asia is home to about 40 per cent of the world’s Muslim population. Ever since the Muslims arrived here, first as Arab traders to Malabar in the 7th century and then as Central Asian conquerors in the later centuries, Muslim thought has been in a state of flux. Because of their exposure to different cultures and pluralistic religious societies, South Asian Muslims exhibited a variety of religio-communal orientations such as scholasticism, Sufism, shrine worship, sectarian legalism and traditional literalism. These conflicting beliefs have been the field of study of several reputable historians; the most famous among them being Barbara Daly Metcalf. Muslim Voices is a collection of essays by 15 eminent scholars that serves both as a festschrift to honour Metcalf’s contributions, and an attempt at understanding the evolving worldview of South Asian Muslims in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Some of the interesting contributions include S.A. Zaidi’s article which describes how for the Muslims of 19th century north India “print capitalism” became a critical tool in forging identities. He examines some lively public debates (munazaras) of this period between Muslim, Christian and Hindu theologians and draws the conclusion that these well-attended polemical exchanges, and their written accounts, fortified the “link between orality and print” and transformed contending clerics into political leaders thus giving them power to assert their sectarian views.

Mushirul Hasan narrates the eventful 1929 Hajj journey of Munshi Amir Ahmad Alawi, a scholar from Kakori (a town near Lucknow) known for its inter-religious harmony and the distingue connoisseurship of its literati. Hasan beautifully brings out the tussle between the liberal Islam of Amir Ahmad and the intolerant traditionalism of the self-appointed “Najdi” guardians of Islam, and informs us that Amir Ahmad, despite the Hajj inspiring in him a new concept of spirituality and a renewed love of the ummah (the Muslim community), was completely disappointed with the Saudi rulers’ understanding of Islam and felt more at home in Kakori where Hindus were as much a part of his social and cultural landscape as the Sunnis and Shias.

The diversity of Muslim thought is further revealed in stirring discussions on the surreal dreams of Sir Sayyid Ahmad, the obituaries of eminent Muslims written by Sayyid Sulayman Nadwi, the humanitarian verse of the “pardah-nishin poet” Zahida Khatun Sherwani and the “jurist-sufi” Ashraf Ali Thanawi. But for some strange reason the editors have ignored the most progressive Muslim philosopher and thinker of the 20th century, Muhammad Iqbal. It was Iqbal who brought the spotlight back on ijtihad (deductive reasoning) in his revolutionary book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam and said that Muslim liberals were “perfectly justified” in wanting to re-interpret the foundational legal principles of Islam in the altered conditions of modern life. Yet this liberal Muslim voice finds no place in Muslim Voices. An inexpiable omission, to say the least.

Nevertheless, two essays — by Francis Robinson and Muhammad Qasim Zaman — stand out for their exceptional quality of research and can therefore be termed the loci classici of the book. Robinson’s thesis, titled “Strategies of Authority in Muslim South Asia in the 19th and 20th Centuries”, looks at the common themes in the strategies adopted by the ulama, the Unani hakims, literary leaders and the rulers to construct their authority.

Starting with the ulama, Robinson argues that their aim was to find ways to create an Islamic society in the absence of political power which had collapsed with the Mughal Empire. This was sought to be achieved in two ways. In the first, authority was authenticated in the traditional method of the oral dissemination that is certified by an ijaza (permission) to teach transmitted and rational sciences that were deeply rooted in the Islamic past. In the second, the Quran and the hadees were made the basis of authority after the complete rejection of the ijazas that justified the teaching of rational sciences as if the Quran and authentic Prophetic traditions were opposed to rationalism. The first method was adopted by the Farangi Mahal ulama, the Barelwis and some Shia mujtahids of Lucknow while the Deobandi and the Ahl-e-Hadees ulama followed the second.

The hakims on the other hand, linked Unani system (tibb) to the Muslim past and started calling it “Islamic Medicine” perhaps to exploit the authority the Prophet’s tradition could bring to their practice. The result was that a great system of medicine which had nothing to do with religion got permanently linked to the Muslim community. Dominant literary figures too, such as Muhammad Husayn Azad , Altaf Husayn Hali and Nazir Ahmad, claimed their authority in the deployment of “the Arab inspiration” to awaken the Muslim community as they felt that the “failed courtly culture” of the Persian language had outlived its usefulness. Post-colonial Muslim rulers did the same towards the end of the 20th century. Ziaul Haq of Pakistan and Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh sought to appropriate the name of the Prophet for their Islamisation programs. The former claimed to establish Nizam-e-Mustafa (the Prophet’s system) while the latter made Eid al-Nabi (the Prophet’s birthday) a national festival to win the support of the masses.

In Socio-Economic Justice in Deobandi Thought Zaman focuses on strands within the ranks of the ulama that represent an engagement with social issues. He reviews the contributions of three most socially conscious Deobandi scholars namely, Ubaydullah Sindhi, Abdur Rahim Popalzai and Hifzur Rahman Seoharwi.

Sindhi, a Sikh convert to Islam, graduated from Deoband where he studied under the hadees scholar Mahmud Hasan. He displayed an amazing insight into the socio-economic teachings of the Quran and believed that a government guided by Quranic norms was obligated to serve the interests of the poor and hence, entitled to impose on the rich whatever taxes it deemed necessary beyond the Zakat. He incurred the wrath of the ulama when he accused them of maintaining their own privileged position by placing limits on people’s access to religious knowledge, and failing to address the economic concerns of ordinary people.

Popalzai, the Peshawar born peasant activist cum scholar, had a lot in common with Sindhi but went beyond his thought and viewed large landholdings as Islamically illegal. He argued that true Islam was in accord with the idea that economic resources were for the common good and could therefore be brought under government regulation.

Seoharwi, on the other hand, tried to wean Muslims away from Communism by showing that economic well-being of the society had always been a central Islamic concern as per which any government that fails to ensure the availability of the means of livelihood to all members of the society is unjust and corrupt.

Muslim Voices methodically illustrates how Muslim thought has come a long way from the rigid legalism of medieval times as delightfully demonstrated by the advanced socio-economic views of the Deobandi ulama mentioned in Zaman’s essay which were in perfect consonance with the primary mission of the Prophet of establishing peace and justice through the elimination of social evils such as infanticide, misogyny, oligarchy, extremism and violence.

Without a doubt this well-researched book would be useful to students and scholars of Muslim history. But its biggest beneficiaries could be the Muslims themselves. For it would equip Muslim youth with enough information on liberal Islamic thought to intellectually counter radical ideologies propagated by some extremist televangelists.

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