In relation to South Asia, the basic story goes like this: Once upon a time, there existed a composite or syncretic culture among the Hindus and Muslims. Then, sometime during the eighteenth or nineteenth century, in some cases even the twentieth century – depending upon the place and the context, the ‘frail’ composite culture was fractured. The broad trajectory of this fracture was influenced by, one, the conversion and purification movements of Shuddhi and Tabligh, two, by the emerging politics of representation in the process of ‘democratisation’, and finally by the demand for clear-cut identities by the British colonial government. These changes have increasingly led to support of the idea, which has gained prominence globally, of a monolithic Islam and a homogeneous Muslim community. This, in turn, has encouraged reinventing of histories, emphasizing the natural and foundational separation between Hindus and Muslims. The volume under review here, edited by Asim Roy, attempts to deconstruct the theses of ‘monolithic Islam’ and ‘homogeneous Muslim community’ by looking at complexities in various aspects of lived South Asian society where a very large part of the world Muslim population lives.
The volume has seen a decade in its publication in 2006 since the papers were presented at a symposium in 1996. ‘The essays included in this volume have, with some exception, been the outcome of the first major international symposium on South Asian Islam held in Australia, presented at the forum of the South Asia section of the Asian Studies Association of Australia Biennial Conference, 1996’ (p.x). Some of the more than fifty papers presented at the symposium were then brought out in a 1999 special issue (volume XXII) of South Asia, the Journal of South Asian Studies. That special issue was finally turned into the present book because of ‘far too limited international accessibility of the journal version of a major contribution of its kind…’ The volume has eleven chapters, apart from the Introduction by Asim Roy. The three chapters by Asim Roy, including his Introduction, take up more than one-third of the book. Out of the remaining nine, two essays, presented towards the end, deal with the political history of Pakistan; the other seven are located in colonial India. All the essays do not hold together easily. Therefore we will introduce all of them very briefly.
Roy, in the Introduction, is concerned about the global (mis)understanding of Islamic radicalism. He identifies two basic problems in the explanations offered for the recent rise of Islamic radicalism in different parts of the world. Firstly, it is the mutual exclusion between the essentialist and the instrumentalist views. ‘There is an extraordinary degree of vagueness and confusion about what constitutes the core of Islamism, or Islamic radicalism, or political Islam. Opinions are distinctly polarized between the normative, or essentialist view of religiously inspired action and the ‘instrumentalist’ perception of socio-politically motivated secular source of apparently religious action’(p.5). His own understanding is that ‘It is clearly rooted in both religious and secular grounds and is an outcome of both internal and external factors, that is, reasons originating from within the Islamic community and those imposed from outside it’(p.5). Several essays in the volume, including the one by Roy (Impact of Islamic Revival and Reform in Colonial Bengal and Bengal Muslim Identity: A Revisit) present cases to support his view. The second problem Roy identifies is that ‘…there is very little awareness of the inner divergences and comple-xities in the religious contents of Islamism’(p.7). According to him, various debates in the world today ‘…in relation to Islamic fundamentalism, radica-lism, and militancy, have had the consequence of reinforcing the stereo-typical non-Muslim image and notion of a centrali-zed, unified, and mono-lithic Islam……This exclusive focus on a largely imaginary, fictional, and unhistorical Islamic monolith has a critical bearing on Islamic studies….’(p.17). In contrast to this image, he emphasizes the significance of ‘historical’ and ‘lived’ Islam with its ‘breadth, elasticity, tolerance, and creativity in the process of its historical development in space and time’ making it ‘a rich, vital, living, and great civilization’(p.17). The diversity within Islam and heterogeneity within Muslim populations is, then, demonstrated through the essays on South Asia included in the volume.
In the first chapter, Francis Robinson asserts that the South Asian Muslims, “along with Muslims elsewhere in the world”, started making a shift from other-worldly to this-worldly Islam in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This idea of an empowered self emerged in various different streams of Islamic thought and was, probably, a response to the loss of Muslim power in different parts of the world. In the next chapter, Javeed Alam explores the ‘frail’ nature of composite culture and its ‘infirmities’. It survived as long as it was left alone, without any intervention from above. He discusses various exclusivist interventions, with different motives, which started “roughly from the first half of the nineteenth century”. With the fracture of the syncretic tradition, Alam argues that “the militant and politicized forms of the re-worked tradition have completely filled up the public sphere, and the mass mobilization now in the name of tradition, unlike those of Gandhi, are all around these” (p.44). W.H. McLeod (chapter 8) argues that the relations between Muslims and Sikhs remained cordial despite wars and tensions until the eighteenth century when the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, Gobind Singh, and his two sons were killed, followed by the plunder of Amritsar and the destruction of Harmandar sahib, the holiest of Sikh shrines, by Ahmad Shah Abdali in 1762 and consequent retaliation by the Sikhs at Lahore. Thus he traces the ‘causes of enmity’ between Sikhs and Muslims to the events of the eighteenth century.
There are a couple of papers in the volume which deserve more attention. One is by Ian Copland (Islam and the “Moral Economy”: The Alwar Revolt of 1932) and the other by Dominique-Sila Khan and Zawahir Moir (Coexistence and Communalism: The Shrine of Pirana in Gujarat). These are more intensive case studies of composite culture and its fracture, and bring out forcefully the complexities in defining lived Islam and the problems of arriving at clear-cut religious identities. The latter study of the Imamshahi tradition (an offshoot of Nizari Ismailism which is a branch of Shia Islam) of Gujarat, centred on Pirana near Ahmedabad, is a fascinating case of a sect called as Satpanth (true path) which “admitted among its members Hindus as well as Muslims without demanding conversion” (p.149). In this context, Khan and Moir state that “the figure of the Imam, so essential in Shia and, in particular, in Ismaili philosophy, was associated with Vishnu and his ten main incarnations (das avatar)” (p.150). However such syncretic cultural ideas and associated liminal identities have been in the process of being purified and homogenized. ‘In the new context which arose before and after Partition, a major split emerged within the community over questions of religious identity, which, once more, could not be dissociated from issues of power and money” (p.154). The movement from coexistence to division of the sacred space of dargah/Samadhi also entails rewriting / reinventing of history. Pirana is obviously not a unique case in South Asia of composite culture and its ‘infirmities’ in the face of ‘interventions from above’.
Ian Copland’s paper on the Meos of Alwar is the most impressive in the volume. His analysis of the conditions of this liminal community deals with all the complexities of understanding historical or lived Islam in South Asia. Engaging with the ‘middle peasant thesis’ of peasant revolt, Copland demonstrates that the Meo revolt of 1932 was simultaneously concerned with class interests and religious solidarity. “If religion is a factor, then so is livelihood” (p.125). It is also to be noted that liminality of religious identity need not diminish the feelings of religiosity. ”As Ranajit Guha remarks, “ignorance of scriptures” need not be a barrier to religious fervor” (p.124). Copland also shows the critical role played by ‘interventions from above’ which resulted in increasing communalization of the state and society in Alwar. “In spring 1947 RSS cadres, assisted by elements of the Alwar army, used the pretext of a second Meo revolt to launch a coordinated pogrom against the state’s rural Muslims. Thousands were brutally murdered, thousands more forcibly re-converted, in the worst episode of Partition violence outside the Punjab” (p.136). It reminds one of a similar massacre of Muslims in Hyderabad state in the 1948 ‘Police Action’ and its aftermath.
The essays based in the colonial period of India look at the Muslim issues as concerns of a ‘minority’. However, Pakistan, created on the basis of Islam and protection of ‘Muslim interests’, does not present a very different picture. Adeel Khan (Ethnicity, Islam and National Identity in Pakistan) looks at the contradictions and tensions in the social structure in Pakistan and examines the uses and abuses of Islam as an ideology by the elites. “The areas that were to form the state of Pakistan, after the Partition of British India, had five major ethnic groups, namely, Bengalis, Punjabis, Pakhtuns, Sindhis, and Baloch – each with its own distinct language and culture. To that, another group, Muhajir (literally meaning migrant), was added in the shape of Indian Muslim migrants, predominantly from Muslim minority provinces of north India” (p.181). However the state, bureaucracy and the army were almost completely dominated by the Punjabis and the Muhajirs. “Urdu, the language of 3.7 per cent of the population, was imposed as a national language” (p.185). East Pakistan, in 1948, with a population of 54 per cent, had only 11 per cent share of the civil service. The problem of suppression of ethnic ‘Muslim’ voices in a highly centralized ‘Muslim’ state continue to haunt Pakistan polity even to this day. In contrast to the lived Islam which is “based on the syncretic Sufi traditions”, “the Islam that is projected by the state, is an ideology, an instrument to deny diversity and difference” (p.188). Samina Yasmeen (Islamization and Democratization in Pakistan: Implications for Women and Religious Minorities) shows how the centralized and militarized state, especially during the regime of General Zia ul-Haq reduced the women and minorities into ‘lesser citizens’ of the nation by the use of Islam as an ideology. Overall, the essays in this volume provide support to the already established view which challenges the twin theses of ‘monolithic Islam’ and ‘homogeneous Muslim community’. They also corroborate our basic South Asian story of composite culture and its fracture. What are missed in a volume like this are intensive fieldwork-based studies of lived Islam and the complex heterogeneity of Muslim social structure in South Asia which includes Sri Lanka and Nepal. A lot of good work in this area has been done by historians. What is puzzling is the silence of sociologists and social anthropologists in relation to this research area which certainly demands urgent attention.
Vinod K. Jairath is in the Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad.