• Bhanavi Bahl

ISLAMIC IDENTITIES IN SOUTH ASIA


The Lucknow Pact: A long lost utopian dream of camaraderie


Can you briefly share your thoughts on the formation of the modern Muslim identity in South Asia?


Dr. Faisal: The prefix modern needs a bit of consideration. One must understand that modernity’s values of human rights, economic development, the nation-state, growth, welfare etc. advance a universalizing normative imperative to make all humans become part of the modern value system. It is not just the conception of modernity as universal but also the normative imperative to make all humans adhere to a progressive target that makes modern values distinct from other values upheld by people across time. To put these values in practice the Indian subcontinent had to be treated as a society on the lines of post-industrial societies that emerged in Europe with uniform legal regime and political structure. Societies are regulated through state authorities and the rule of law. In Europe, the modern state replaced the Church and gained almost total power to govern matters of private and public relations. In postcolonial contexts, the doctrine of secularism, as implemented by the state, served primarily to bridge cultural differences and introduce a standard legal governance. The discourse generated through media and modern education systems derided quotidian ways of life to establish a new society. This is where the modern identity of Islam gets interesting. The modern educated middle-class Muslims responded to this derision by recovering a theological-juridical interpretation of Islam that espoused universal values of humanity. Central to this interpretation was the idea of a single human race, which aims to overcome differences of race and ethnicity under the rubric of Islam. Thus, modernist readings of Islam reoriented the capacious Islamic tradition to make it compatible with modern ideas of progress and development.


However, historically, Islamic cultures have sedimented across Africa, Asia and Europe through cross-cultural interactions. People embody Islamic ideals very differently in different places. Often, Islamic theological values have existed in productive tensions with various cultures, giving rise to multivalent modes of living. As the modernist Islamic narratives only espouse the universal theological values of Islam, the experiential aspect of Islamic values have lost any meaningful importance in the making of modern Islam. Islam now seems to have a clear voice in relation to modern forms of thinking. This dynamic puts modern Islam in conflict with modern values. Its conversation with modernity has facilitated a condition in which it can use its own textual resources to claim a distinct identity in relation to modern values. Hence, there have been expositions and even experiments of an Islamic state, Islamic finance and a certain kind of public sphere. These have all emerged as a counter to and a by-product of colonialism to fill a certain void of power and authority that colonialism has brought in.


Modern values spread around the world through the modern nation state and colonialism. Many Muslim-inhabited territories were subjugated in the process. Thus,


Islamic thinking became a source of conflicting responses like resistance and accommodation. For example, in nineteenth-century India Sayyid Ahmed Barelvi waged a jihad against the British. In contrast, Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan responded to colonialism by promoting British education among Muslims with the aim of regaining power.

The pre-modern state was not a government like the state today; it did not to define religion or identity. In contrast, the colonial powers classified identities as a means of governance –solidifying differences and erecting boundaries, as a consequence. In the modern state, Muslims began to define themselves in religious terms in relation to the state. If the state as governing party did not exist, the Muslim identity that we are familiar with would not be what it is today.


What is your view of political Islam? How are Western powers any different?


Dr. Faisal: In premodern times, the vast majority of Muslims did not concern themselves with temporal power. With modern democracy it is possible to capture or reform political power. The educated middle classes everywhere aspire to influence politics now. Islam has become a sort of support and refuge to articulate this new politics after colonialism. In non-modern contexts Mystics challenged temporal power without seeking to replace it. For example, when Guru Nanak refused to be identified as either a Muslim or a Hindu the Sikh faith posed a challenge to the Mughal Sultanate as it embraced Islamic mysticism but ignored the claim of temporal authority of the sultanate. But it did not try to overturn the sultanate. Faqirs have always been admired for their courage and the character of abandon by common people. The nineteenth-century poet of central Karnataka, Shishunala Sharief combined Islamic mysticism with Indian traditions. His radical asceticism challenged the institutional orthodoxy of the Lingayats and the conservatism of Muslims equally. He compared colonialism to a natural calamity, believing that it cannot sustain for long and that it will crumble on its own. According to this metaphor we should rescue ourselves from the mechanisms of colonialism and not use it as a source of power. Common people in general were detached from the structures of power. Humor often was a source of dealing with the powerful. They did not expect much from them and organised their daily lives through intercommunity networks. The insignificance of powerful people in determining common people’s lives is evident from the fact that people flock to the shrines of mystics and ascetics rather than to the kings and the generals once their power wanes.


However, modern politics has transformed this attitude of apathy towards world power, and the educated middle classes everywhere have become desirous of power. Though humans have gained mastery over the natural and social worlds like never before, political reform has not achieved what it set out to in terms of its emancipatory ideals and representative strategies in the last two hundred years. This applies to the governments in the West as well as their imitations in postcolonial societies. Political Islam embodies the ethos of western reform through Islamic religious ideals without any clarity about the nature of political power. It is a departure from Islamic attitudes toward power in the medieval times and is closer to the western imagination of the state.


Can you explain to us the history of the rise of global Islamophobia?


Dr. Faisal: Islam emerged as a reform of Christianity in the seventh century. The Arabs unified their warring tribes under the new religious identity and staked claim as the true heirs to the Semitic values of monotheism and universal brotherhood. This challenge has been a sore point between Christians and Muslims since the beginning. In the Christian traditions, Muslims were seen as usurpers of sorts, which led to the medieval crusades. But Muslims have maintained that Christians have forgotten the true message of religion. When combined with theological Islamic values that embody its legalist traditions modernist Islam has become a potent counter to western modernity, which in itself, is a reformed version of Christianity. This has become particularly acute in recent decades with large scale migrations of Muslims from formerly colonized countries to western countries. A decline in the western economic growth and the curtailing of government welfare through stringent austerity measures have necessitated cheap immigrant labor.


The lower rung of western societies who have lost the most in the economic downslide has perceived a threat from the migrants who seem to be doing their jobs for less. This has generated a crisis of confidence in the western welfare state. The popular support garnered by nativist populist parties against the ruling elite is a testimony to the erosion of the all-powerful twentieth-century states. However, the Muslim migrants have sought to organize around religious identity in the new lands. This has disrupted the totalizing western cultures as they have failed to assimilate the migrants. The failure of the welfare state is forcing people to revive and rely on local communities. But Europeans have gotten used to the comforts that states have provided over three generations now. Hence, they keep imagining the possibility of reforming the state through political means. Though with the crisis of globalism the environmental crisis and now the public health emergency like Covid there is no way strong global economic infrastructure can be maintained which has been substantially depended on extracting resources from the third world. The European states will only diminish in strength from here. These conditions have only given to more frustration. Populist politicians have blamed it on Islam and migration. But to my mind the crisis of the state is central to this issue. Hence, a combination of historical animosities, the Muslim experience of colonialism, the recent austerity and migration waves and the emergence of modernist Islamic values have together made Islam an apprehensible threat. Islamic theological values as manifested in its legal traditions mirror modern values and emerge as a visible threat. It is not a lack of communication but mutual intelligibility between Islamic theological-legal discourse and modern secular ideals that is key to the emergence of Islamophobia.


In contrast, I think the most effective resistance to modern colonialism has been from tribal traditions across the world. They have practiced a certain disavowal to modern colonial values. Their resistance to assimilation is not of armed warfare or ideological restatements like political Islam. It is their non-cooperation with the modern political structures that characterizes their response. Modern nation states do not see this as a threat but as a project of eventual reform. Another instance is of the bazaar traditions of trade. Bazaar forms of economic practices are not perceived as a threat to capitalism, but are considered as deviant or backward because they do not have any alternate notions of productivity and economy. These cultures have not accepted the state as a third party and are oblivious to its moral demands. This also applies to the Islamic Sufi traditions.


How were relations with other communities and cultures possible when there was no state secularism during pre-modern times and how was this coexistence made possible?


Dr. Faisal: Coexistence was enabled through a degree of indifference to other communities. This meant an acknowledgement of the distinct ways of living of different communities. But there was no value attached to what others were doing. For example, the medieval kingdoms did not impose a uniform rule of law on everyone. Conflicts were settled without mediation of a third party according to various inter community customs for example the jirga traditions amongst the Pushto tribes. These customs acted as a deterrent against wrongdoing and disputes were resolved through consultative processes. Hence, there were mechanisms of coexistence despite differences. Modern notions of humanism place a positive value on treating all humans as the same. The moral imperative of sameness compels the state institutions to eradicate differences through legal and social reform. Modern states are incapable of normatively dealing with differences. They have to think of all the people in a nation state as one. Differences are tolerated as long as there is an opportunity to eventually reform them. Despite this, humans have only perpetuated more violence on other humans in the last two centuries.


The value of difference-based sociality can be understood through the millennia old Indo-Islamic culture. It gave rise to particular forms of poetry and music, cuisine, festivals, and kinship sociality. The confluence of Islamic practices with Indian cultures gave rise to new forms of experiences, possibilities of meaning-making, and human accomplishment. It led to creative synergies rather than subjugation of one culture to another. A particular type of practical living emerged that was distinct from modern secularism. The state did not intervene in everyday life. It certainly did not have policies regarding religion and its activities. In modern times, secularism assumes that religion should be relegated to the private sphere as a matter of governance. For the state, secularism serves as a moral code and a tool for governance. The state is the decisive juridical authority that controls other customary practices and institutions, colonizing them, rather than giving impetus to creative explorations.


Where do you think the specific departures in Muslim identity were from the pre-modern in South Asia?

Dr. Faisal: Muslim community was imagined as a political unit right after 1857 by the elites (the ashrafiya),as the British governance penetrated into the social fabric. The elite gained recognition in the colonial state and that gave them an advantage in the representation game on behalf of common Muslims. However, various Muslim reform movements absorbed the British influence. Altaf Husain Hali reformed the literary sphere by incorporating the Victorian moral discourse in his literary criticism. The Unani medicine started to reform in response to allopathy. Educational institutions like Aligarh were established to adapt to colonial demands of shaping young minds according to new challenges.


We also see radical elements in the Khilafat movement. Jamia Millia was established as a counter to the colonial project based on the idea of Nai Taleem. In 1937 Congress had won the elections with an overwhelming margin despite Muslim League positioning itself as a Muslim party. This victory of the Congress party shows that there were takers among the common Muslims for idea of a distinct political identity Muslims. However, the social power of educated Muslims and their reach within the colonial governance structures proved to be formidable. Soon after the loss, the Muslim League argued for an independent nation-state for the Muslims from the Indian subcontinent. In parallel, Hindu nationalism was getting crystallized in this quagmire of colonial politics.


The other departure was in the area of legal reform. Once Muslims were recognized as a separate community, a separate legal system was chiseled out from Muslim practices, called the Muslim Personal Laws. The legal systems turned particular theological-legal discourses in Islam into modern positive law, levelling all other differences to come up with one legal code for the Muslim community. For instance, Triple Talaq is only among many customs of divorce practice among the Muslim community, but it became the only mode of separation as it was recognised by the state. Modern secularism can only apprehend Islam through its theological-legal texts and cannot account for its cultural complexities because it is unable to comprehend them. This can be attributes to its own modern normative biases. This was also due to a larger social change. Muslims were conceptualized as a distinct community under the state. Eventually, they were viewed as a minority in post-independent India. Modern state-secularism classifies people, cultures and objects with a view to controlling them. It cannot deal with diversity of any kind which cannot be comprehended under its moral rubric. The normative imperative to govern distinguishes it from other cultural forms of shared, practical living. For the most part, the politics of educated Muslim middle classes has played into its hand. The exceptions I can think of are Maulana Abdul Bari of Firangi Mahal madrasa in Lucknow and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Pushtun independence activist.


There is a strain on “homeland” in your article. Can you please elaborate on that?


Dr. Faisal: I think the concept of homeland needs a bit of clarification. Islam is one among the many sources of value; there are other regional, professional and kinship-based value systems that Muslims in the subcontinent simultaneously inhabit. The creation of Pakistan sought to uproot people from these other sources, the strains of which are visible everywhere from Pakistan to India to Bangladesh. In my understanding, the idea of homeland is not merely a physical space; it is a milieu of meaning and comfort that people inhabit. For instance, nomadic groups like the Banjaras do not really have a homeland – a claim to a physical space that defines their culture. Rather, it is their yearly circle of various places that gives them a meaningful sense of belonging. Likewise, the sense of belonging the maritime businessmen of the Indian Ocean was rooted in various contexts that were connected through the trading routes. Communities were embedded through marriages and trade in the Indian Ocean from Malabar to Malay, Yemen and the east coast of Africa. All these places contributed to their sense of home, some more than others. Seen through the nationalist prism, the idea of homeland places value on territorial connections without any comprehension of other sources of value. Nationalist identities tend to standardize and eradicate differences to create a unified social object. In the Indian constitution, the desire of the directive principle for a that a project of sameness is paramount in modern state nationalism. Twinned with secularism it subjugates cultural diversity. To my mind, home is the experience of living and the values we acquire on the way. The freedom to experiment and reinvent oneself through cultural means. People, regions and communities emerge and transform. Their lives cannot be captured through objectified moral principles. The sense of home understood as practice is an ever-growing phenomenon in an emergent cultural milieu. It is riddled with tensions between customs and aspiration, like life is. That’s what makes it meaningful.


The Lucknow Pact Image: Source


Cover Image: Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

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