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Divisions, divides and diversity in Islam in South Asia

Published Mar 12, 2019 07:17pm
A 150-year-old mosque around 40 kilometres from Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
A 150-year-old mosque around 40 kilometres from Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Aziz Ahmad was probably the first scholar to write a cultural history of Islam in India. His 1961 book, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, is a path-breaking survey of 1,200 years of Muslim presence in the Indian subcontinent. It explores how, throughout this time, there has been opposition as well as accommodation, even borrowing and assimilation, between Muslims and non-Muslims living in this part of the world.

Ahmad wrote another pioneering work, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 1857-1964, that deals with the impacts of modernity and colonialism on Muslims living in the two countries. Even fifty years after its publication, the book remains an unparalleled critique of the numerous Islamic groups, movements and ideologues that emerged in South Asia after the advent of the British colonial rule.

With the publication of Muhammad Qasim Zaman’s 2018 book, Islam in Pakistan, by the Princeton University Press, we may say that Ahmad’s work has finally been updated. Zaman has incorporated in his book a scholarly overview of contemporary Islamic groups and movements besides including in it an exhaustive commentary on academic literature and controversies generated by and about these groups and movements.

The two authors, however, belong to two different intellectual traditions and this is reflected in their respective works.

Ahmad – like other historians of his age such as Jadunath Sarkar, Sheikh Muhammad Ikram, Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi and K K Aziz – had a literary background. In addition to being a historian, he was a novelist and had a grasp over classical Persian as well as some European languages. His primary focus in Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment has been on arts, aesthetics and literature, rather than on the drab chronicles of wars and other political events.

Zaman, on the other hand, is trained as a historian and has expertise in the Arabic language. He moved to a study of South Asian Islam after doing his doctoral dissertation on the Abbasid Caliphate. His main area of interest is the notion of religious authority and the way it has been exercised in the modern period. In his various works, he has also debunked the notion of stagnation in Islamic thought and has highlighted how traditional religious scholars, ulema, have engaged with classical texts to bring them back into the public sphere and make them relevant to personal, political and even economic aspects of modern-day life.

The two authors also have different writing styles. Ahmad’s prose surpasses that of Zaman’s in its literary flavour and is highly readable but Zaman makes up for that with the seriousness of his purpose and a sharp eye for detail.

Their approaches towards their subject matter, too, are dissimilar. Ahmad’s work on Islamic movements is limited to summarising key texts written by influential thinkers of the modern period. Zaman, instead, explores the connections, conflicts and congruence, or lack thereof, among individual scholars, as well as Islamic groups and movements. He highlights their ideological links and focuses on their shared intellectual genealogies. He, for instance, explains how Islamic modernists of the 19th-20th century denounced Sufi ideas and practices just as Salafis – locally known as Ahl-e-Hadith – had done before them, though for a different reason. The modernists see in Sufism a negation of reason and the laws of nature while Salafis regard it as being outside their own narrow interpretation of religious texts.

Zaman similarly explores the internal contradictions of various groups and movements: sometimes their members are at variance with each other even while they profess the same broad ideology. This is manifest in how some modernist scholars find in Sufism an alternative to religious violence and terrorism in the post-9/11 world though, on the whole, the modernist discourse remains wary of Sufism’s propensity to develop cults and promote unquestioning loyalty.

Contrary to what its title suggests, Islam in Pakistan is neither limited to Pakistan nor is it simply a history of Islam in the country. Given the cross-continental networks of ulema, madrasas, movements and ideas that have shaped Islamic discourses since the late 18th century, no study of modern-era Islam can be confined to a single region. Just to cite a couple of examples, Syed Ameer Ali, the Indian author of a modernist treatise, The Spirit of Islam, has had influence on Islamic modernists in Indonesia, and the works of Jamaat-e-Islami founder, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, became an inspiration for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement in Egypt.

Nor does Zaman treat Islam as a rigidly set system of beliefs and practices. He explores it via various traditions and intellectual trends that have been debated, contested, defined, redefined and appropriated by a range of actors — sometimes in cooperation with the state and on other occasions in conflict with it. He tells us that South Asia has been home to a wide array of Islamic traditions and institutions including “Sufism; traditionalist scholars, the ulama, and their institutions of learning, the madrasas; Islamism; and Islamic modernism”.

Zaman also does not employ Islam as the main lens through which to look at and understand the complexities of the Pakistani state and society. Islam, he argues, does serve as a common denominator for a range of public activities and mobilisations. He also acknowledges an almost universal tendency among Pakistanis to have religion inform their world views and grants that a receptive audience for religious ideas has proliferated in the country. All this, though, is not just because of Islam’s pre-eminence in national life but is also partly owed to the deliberate marginalisation and active suppression of liberal ideas and leftist movements, such as secularism and Marxism. An unstinting state-sponsorship for Islam-related ventures and a large-scale clampdown against political and ideological alternatives have both contributed to the ascendance of religion in this part of the world, he explains.

Worshippers arrive at a mosque in Dhaka to offer Friday prayers in the month of Ramzan | AP
Worshippers arrive at a mosque in Dhaka to offer Friday prayers in the month of Ramzan | AP

Pakistan’s journey from a liberal Muslim polity to an obscurantist state and society is not a linear one — as is clear from Zaman’s analysis. He, in fact, avoids using the mutually exclusive terminologies of liberal and obscurantist and, instead, offers a discursive framework that is porous and allows borrowing and exchange of ideas across all types of social, political and religious groups and movement. He also highlights some external factors, such as social and political contexts, that have impacted – and also have been impacted by – Islamic discourses in Pakistan.

A major factor that he brings to bear upon his analysis is that Pakistan inherited all its state institutions, mechanisms for the creation and propagation of ideas – such as printing presses, study circles, literary groups and educational institutions – and social and economic hierarchies from the British colonial masters. Many Islamic groups and movements that made Pakistan their home also had their origin in British India. These groups and movements were often either a response to, or a result of, British-era power structures — a dialectical relationship that has continued after Independence.

Zaman points out how the collision started soon after 1947. He quotes Liaquat Ali Khan’s speech of March 1949 at the passage of the Objectives Resolution to highlight how the first prime minister of the country adopted a modernist stance by stressing upon Islam being devoid of ‘priesthood’ and, thus, being immune from theocracy. Shabbir Ahmad Usmani, a traditionalist stalwart of the independence movement, immediately came up with an opposite world view. While also marking the passage of the resolution, he repeated a 1945 Eid message by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah that said “every Musalman should possess a copy of the Quran and be his own priest”. But, as Zaman points out, Usmani “quietly omitted this line about the priesthood of all believers”.

Also from the very beginning, the ulema stressed upon their own religious credentials – and that too using a legal and constitutional idiom – as rightful interpreters of Islam and its place in the state and the society. They got together as early as 1951 to issue a charter of demands and come up with an outline for the future constitution of the country. Two years later, Mufti Muhammad Shafi, a traditionalist scholar, published a Quranic constitution written in precise legal language. Its second article, for example, tackled the issue of sovereignty in a sentence that curiously mixed religion with western constitutionalism. It stated that the “highest authority (iqtidar-i a’la) in the state belongs exclusively to God”.

Yet, as Zaman notes, the state remained under a modernist influence well into the late 1960s — giving Islam the pride of place but conducting business of the realm through administrative and judicial mechanisms inherited from the British. This approach was warranted by the state’s aversion to surrendering its authority to the ulema, while at the same time using religion as an ideological superstructure to keep the country’s disparate parts together. Led by such scholars as Ghulam Ahmad Parvez and Dr Fazlur Rahman, the modernists initiated reforms in areas as diverse as law and education. Jamal Malik, a Pakistan-born German professor of Islamic studies, refers to these developments as the colonisation of Islam in Pakistan.

The most enduring legacy of this era is the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 that offers an instructive case study into the conflict and the gap between the state’s writ and the people’s propensity to follow the ulema’s interpretation of religious subjects. These fissures explain why the issue of triple talaq, that has no place in the state’s family laws, continues to inform individual understanding of the process of divorce.

By the 1980s, the tables were turned and the ulema occupied an ascendant position to lead and direct a state-powered project of Islamisation. While major – and enduring – institutional changes were made during this period to secure an eminent place for religion and men of religion in the polity, this did not put a permanent end to the struggle between the traditionalists and the modernists.

A modernist comeback, Zaman argues, would materialise two decades later during the government of Pervez Musharraf. In addition to a symbolic amendment in the Hudood laws in 2006 (through the promulgation of the Protection of Women Ordinance), this period also witnessed the modernists developing a fascination for Sufism. A relentless search for a ‘soft Islam’ in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States by Muslim terrorists led to such meaningless acts as the setting up of a national Sufi council. American money also poured in for the restoration of Sufi shrines and to hold cultural activities promoting the ‘Sufi message of peace and tolerance’.

All this happened despite the fact that similar attempts in the past to appropriate Sufism for state-led social and cultural engineering had no major success. Zaman points to how people like Qudrat Ullah Shahab – a self-proclaimed Sufi of the Owaisi order who served as a senior bureaucrat during Ayub Khan’s military regime – played a central role in projecting Pakistan as a special land foretold and blessed by many prominent Sufis of the past.

A 2016 protest  in Dhaka against a court petition seeking to remove Islam as the state religion | AP
A 2016 protest in Dhaka against a court petition seeking to remove Islam as the state religion | AP

The author of Islam in Pakistan does not include all religious scholars under the single category of ulema. He has included a whole spectrum of researchers, academics, religio-political leaders, and madrasa heads in his study. Even traditionalist ulema, Zaman explains, are not all alike. They enjoy varying degrees of status, respect and popular following besides having different sectarian origins. The Deobandi ulema, according to him, are the most successful as they have been able to “combine scripturalism with a continuing fidelity to the Hanafi legal tradition, religio-political activism with Sufi piety, scholarly productivity with populism”. This ability, he says, “has paid [them] dividends in terms of a greater reach and influence in state and society”.

But, while Deobandi ulema might have been more pre-eminent than others, significant contributions to Islamic discourses have been made by numerous other individuals and institutions, even those who did not have specific training in Islamic studies and also did not have any sectarian affiliations contributed to these discourses. They include people like jurist A K Brohi, who served as attorney general and law minister under the military dictatorship of Ziaul Haq, and Dr Ghulam Jilani Barq, a literary scholar who received his early education at madrasas but then did a PhD in Islamic studies.

Some other religious leaders who find a mention in Islam in Pakistan are Dr Farhat Hashmi who founded Al Huda, a religious training institute for women, and Dr Tahirul Qadri who has tried to replicate the same combination of scholarship, oratory and politics that many Deobandi ulema adopted — though he comes from the Barelvi part of the religious spectrum.

Zaman’s extensive survey of the kaleidoscopic range of Islamic movements and groups discerns and dissects dominant trends in Islamic discourses over the last seven decades. He, however, leaves out the person at the receiving end and does not discuss how and why people on the ground do – or do not – incorporate these trends into their daily lives. This is the most significant limitation of Islam in Pakistan — that it does not extend itself into studying the lived experiences of Pakistanis.

Maulana Abul Ala Maududi | White Star
Maulana Abul Ala Maududi | White Star

Dr Tariq Rahman’s book, Interpretations of Jihad in South Asia: An Intellectual History, does not have the expanse of Zaman’s book. Published in 2018 by a Berlin-based publishing house, De Gruyter, it has a sharper focus.

Drawing upon German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer’s hermeneutics, or the science of interpreting divine and literary texts, Rahman talks about how an interpreter brings his or her own consciousness, moulded by his or her own milieu, to the study of a particular text. To quote directly from Gadamer: “we regain the concepts of a historical past in such a way that they also include our own comprehension of them”.

To understand a text on its own terms, says Rahman, our present horizon must expand and meet other horizons. The prejudice against an author or commentator, therefore, has to be discarded to enable an expansion of horizons and a comprehension of a range of visions “that includes everything than can be seen from a particular vantage point”.

Rahman then proceeds to identify the ideological constraints of the exegetes, or the interpreters of scriptures, from various periods in order to understand their horizons. This inevitably offers insights into the limitations of interpretations by each of them.

Since Rahman’s project is specific to the study of Quranic injunctions related to jihad, he lists at the end of the book 183 verses that deal with different aspects of the subject. He points out that even the number of verses that directly or indirectly refer to jihad – whether as a violent act or a peaceful one – is subject to interpretation based on the intellectual conditioning of the person counting.

Rahman, however, focuses on eight specific verses that either refer to the word qital (translated both as fighting and killing) or any other aspects of warfare in an unambiguous manner. To make a comparison easy, he juxtaposes the summarised versions of their various interpretations in the form of a table.

Some of the exegetes listed in the table insist on treating all the wars fought during the lifetime of the Prophet of Islam as essentially defensive endeavours. Such an approach, the author argues, drastically limits the range of possible meanings that can be drawn from the Quranic texts on jihad. The ideological reasons for this narrow interpretation, in all probability, would include attempts by some exegetes to offer a reading of the scriptures that is compatible with modernity and the canons of international law.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, many commentaries can be found that emphasise the urgency of waging jihad whenever and wherever Muslims are under real or imagined subjugation — regardless of whether that involves disobeying the state and disregarding international treaties.

Though Rahman’s work is focused on Quranic exegesis carried out since the late 19th century, he also provides a comprehensive overview of literature going as far back as the early centuries of Islam — especially the works of those exegetes who have been popular in South Asia. Based on his analysis of these texts, he concludes that traditional Islamic jurists justified jihad both in its defensive and offensive forms. They, however, put many conditions for it to be justified: first, it does not become obligatory for all Muslims until they come under direct attack by infidels; second, it must be undertaken for the glory of Islam rather than for the pursuit of land and wealth; and third, it cannot be waged if the enemy is more than two times as powerful as Muslims.

One of those traditional exegetes is Shah Waliullah whose writings inspired numerous Muslim scholars in the 19th century to pursue either the revival or reform of Islam in India. According to Waliullah, jihad of both defensive and offensive kinds is justified when it is waged against the ‘people of the book’ in order to overpower them “in such a manner that they should be psychologically subdued and manifestly subordinated”. This does not necessarily imply killing them — not at least indiscriminately.

The most important feature of Waliullah’s theory from a contemporary perspective is his clear stance that jihad against Muslims is prohibited even when they are living in violation of the dictates of sharia. He also declares that it is illegal for non-state groups or individuals to declare jihad without the approval of the state.

Worshippers praying at Faisal Mosque in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Worshippers praying at Faisal Mosque in Islamabad | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Rahman identifies various devices through which individual interpreters have arrived at widely varying interpretations of the verses on jihad. These devices mainly include: resorting to a literal meaning of a term, specifying the context in which a verse is said to have been revealed, and expanding a term semantically to explore all its possible meanings.

Both the modernist scholars and their traditionalist rivals have employed these devices, in line with their ideologically-affected and historically-informed world views, to read and interpret texts on jihad. Some of them even combine various devices if and when it suits them.

To cite just one example, a focus on literal meanings helps Sir Syed Ahmad Khan emphasise the purely defensive nature of jihad mentioned in some verses of the Quran. But when he is dealing with an aggressive jihad mentioned in other verses – such as those on waging war against non-Muslims who invade Muslim lands, attacking non-Muslims who break their oath of allegiance or are capturing Muslim women and children – he moves to a contextualised interpretation. In all these cases, he resorts to offering specific historical contexts that justify the specific act of war.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, a Muslim scholar who opposed the creation of Pakistan, offers another innovative interpretation. Driven by his anti-British politics, he resorts to a semantic expansion to explain that the word fitnah used in a verse that says “fight them until there is no [more] fitnah …” is a conceptual equivalent of oppression and exploitation of colonialism. The verse, according to him, seeks the creation of a peaceful world where everyone – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – is free of oppression and exploitation.

Rahman then elaborates how some modern day jihadi leaders, such as Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar, have used the same interpretive devices to arrive at entirely opposite conclusions. Their interpretations are heavily informed by the contemporary global political context — just as interpretations by modernists are informed by the British colonial context of their own time. Inspired by radical Islamists from the Arab world, Saeed and Azhar see the world as the site of a ceaseless conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims — unlike modernists who regard the world as a space where people from different religious traditions should, and can, live peacefully together.

But Saeed does not limit his interpretations to what most commentators – including some known traditionalist scholars – have stated: that the commandments for an aggressive jihad are limited to fighting against Jews and Christians during the days of the Prophet of Islam in order to drive them out of the sacred environs of Mecca and Medina and/or to punish them for their breach of treaties. He, on the other hand, states that an aggressive jihad against Hindus is also justified because they have invaded the Muslim territory of Kashmir and enslaved its Muslim population.

Azhar, on the other hand, adopts an interpretive strategy remarkably similar to the one adopted by modernists. He plays on the word fitnah to expand its meaning to a ‘state of unbelief’. This makes jihad an unending enterprise which must continue until the ‘state of unbelief’ comes to an end.

He, in fact, finds a justification for jihad even in the verse that enjoins Muslims to not fight against those infidels who do not take up arms against them. According to him, the verse grants permission rather than issuing an order: it permits Muslims that they can choose to avoid a fight against those infidels but does not specifically prohibits them from doing so. In any case, he argues, the verse has been abrogated by subsequently revealed texts and is no longer applicable.

Also, following the lead of radical Islamists from the Middle East, Saeed and Azhar do not consider it necessary to require formal approval from the state before waging jihad. This creates room for carrying out jihad without the state’s approval, either by questioning the legitimacy of Muslim rulers or by declaring that non-state groups can appoint their own leaders for the purposes of declaring and leading jihad.

The debate for the state’s approval for jihad, indeed, is as old as the state of Pakistan. When a jihad was initiated in Kashmir in 1948, Abul Ala Maududi opposed the campaign. He stated that it required an open and public approval from the state as well as a revocation of all state-level ties and treaties between India and Pakistan. Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, on the other hand, contested Maududi’s position and cited the oppression and subjugation of Kashmiri Muslims as a legitimate reason for waging jihad against their oppressors. Rahman, surprisingly, does not dwell much on the exchange between the two.

Times have changed a lot since 1948. Countering the interpretations being made and promoted by jihadists is a risky business these days — as is painfully obvious from the cases of Professor Shakeel Auj, a professor at the University of Karachi, and psychiatrist Farooq Khan, who was also the vice-chancellor of the Swat Islamic University. Both were assassinated, in 2014 and 2010, respectively, for coming up with narratives that challenged those being advanced by radical Islamists. Rahman summarises the views of many such scholars who have tried, against all odds, to provide a critique of jihadist interpretations.

This critique is important now that the state is eager to reverse its earlier ideology of using jihad as a policy tool and stop non-state individuals and groups from carrying out jihadi activities that have resulted in widespread violence and killings, especially since 9/11. The fact that most of the victims of this violence have been Muslims makes it even more important for Muslims to come up with an authoritative interpretation on where, how and why jihad can be carried out.

The position of radical Islamists on these issues has depended upon the nature of their relationship with the Pakistani state. Various factions of the Pakistani Taliban that have fallen out of favour with the state have openly sanctioned the killing of Pakistani Muslims but others like Saeed, who have worked closely with the state, do not endorse such killing.

Zaman’s mapping of a broad Islamic landscape and Rahman’s focused study of jihad, despite being vastly different from each other in many respects, have a number of common themes: that the evolution of a religious idea does not take place merely in the minds of its exponents; that every religious idea is contingent upon the social, political and economic landscape of its time; that biases of the initiators and promoters of an idea are as important as the religious roots of that idea.

Regardless of the fact that the two books are quite extensive and leave little room for improvement, these are expected to encourage other researchers and scholars to go further — particularly by conducting studies that combine an ethnographic method with textual analysis. These future studies should look into the lives of individuals as believers as well as individuals qua individuals. It will be informative to see how people at an individual level engage with Islamic discourses — whether by challenging them to carve a niche for alternative discourses or by acquiescing to them under the burden of cultural, ideological, political and economic superstructures.


The writer is an associate professor of history at LUMS.


This article was published in the Herald's January 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.