The existing vast scholarship on collective identities in India, whether it deals with caste, creed or nationalism, is dominated by a concern with their modern ‘construction’, a process generally seen as having occurred during the colonial period. So in the last two decades historians have carefully described the way in which communities of all kinds are invented or reinvented through a set of debates, practices and, most important of all, ‘reforms’. They have shown us how certain narratives of collective belonging end up defining the terms of debate on any given identity, thus closing some avenues of thinking while opening others in the process. In one sense Justin Jones’s important book extends this ‘constructivist’ argument to the Shia of northern India. For example, he tells us in meticulous detail how the fall of the court in Lucknow during the Mutiny forced a community that had heretofore been defined by its aristocratic allegiances to remake itself.
Thus the ulama or religious scholars of the sect not only found themselves bereft of aristocratic support, but also freed from the control exercised by these great magnates in the past. Compelled to turn for patronage to ordinary believers, these men were able to consolidate themselves into a corporate group for the first time (just as their peers in the great shrine cities of Iraq were doing) while trying to manage what was now their most important relationship, that with the sect’s ordinary laymen, to their best advantage. In the meantime these laymen were similarly institutionalizing themselves as Shia representatives, each group turning to the colonial state from time to time in order to stake its claim to speak on behalf of the Shia as a whole. And Jones very effectively describes the way in which the gradual emergence of electoral and then mass politics in twentieth century India further shaped the character of the Shia debate and activity, as it did that of every other group in Indian society.
The emergence of mass politics, Jones argues, led to an increase in the contestation for Shia representation internally, while externally also putting Shias on a competitive footing with the much larger community of north Indian Sunnis. Indeed one of his chief claims is that what other scholars have referred to as the ‘construction’ of the Muslim community in this period was consistently undercut ...
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