Commenting on the congruent genealogies of Oxford and the madrasas of South Asia (‘religious’ origins of both sets of institutions) and the eventual divergence (Oxford emerging as the fountainhead of ‘reason’ and madrasas positioning themselves as bastions of ‘orthodoxy’) between them, Masooda Bano argues that the main reason for the different development of these institutions was that they were operating in very different political environments. Thus the Oxford dons, in primarily catering to the emergent concerns of an industrial society were interpreting religion to suit the requirements of modernity while the Ulama, thoroughly marginalized due to colonialism, were charting a course of an ossified, non-integrationist Islam. The problem with Masooda Bano’s rather sweeping argument is that she has nothing to say about the more dominant integrationist strands within South Asian Islam. Her central frame, where she first categorizes religion as non-rational and then goes on to prove the rationality of Islamic institutions and actors is equally problematic.
Starting from Weber, sociologists and anthropologists have affirmed and studied rationality within a number of religious weltenschhaung, including Islam. It might be new for New Institutional Economics (NIE) to realize that informal structures (religion, norms) are more durable than the formal ones (law, etc.) but in her wholesale adoption of NIE framework, Bano seems to be oblivious of a much older tradition of scholarship on how informal structures of norms and values have reshaped our world.
Working within the NIE framework, Bano seeks to understand two critical questions: why rational individuals chose to restrict their choice and freedom in the light of religious beliefs and under what conditions, so religion or religious values rise, stabilize and change over time? In almost all the chapters in the book, these two questions provide the firmament around which arguments have been woven. Retracing the relationship between the Ulama and the state in the South Asian context, she tries to understand why they failed to modernize the madrasas. And by modernizing the madrasas she does not mean the addition of useful subjects, but raises a much more fundamental question: despite the presence of a modern state, why Islam continued to be regressive, anti-modern and in many instances anti-state. She identifies the reason at the intersection of the elite (religious and secular), formal scriptures and the followers. The argument is that since Islamic tradition is largely written, it is very difficult to have a new interpretative imagination of this religion as the followers of the traditions will see it as deviation from established canon. If only Bano would have looked at the experience of Turkey, she would have revised her position but perhaps more fundamentally, her claim that South Asian states failed to create an enlightened Islam is deeply problematic since the nature of the state here is much more managerial than an activist one like the French Republic. The simple point is that South Asian states never intended to create an enlightened Islam or Hinduism so the question of failing to do so does not arise.
If the state failed to deliver, the religious elite also faltered. Bano rightly points out that the nature of religious hierarchy is different from a secular hierarchy. The nature of religious good is such that the ‘religious elite is expected to adhere to high ethical standards of behaviour and not just preach religious values’. According to Bano, religious elites experiment with liberal interpretation when they are financially and politically secure; they tend to revert to orthodox interpretations when placed in hostile conditions. Thus the South Asian states failed to transform the madrasa education system because they did not provide strong incentives to the Ulama to engage with rationalist scholarship. Moreover, the Ulama in turn failed to initiate internal reforms because their own widespread following provides little incentive to invest in pursuing new forms of scholarship. In effect, Bano’s analysis cannot comprehend the possibility of the Ulama being entirely convinced of the existing Islamic discourse. Religion need not always be understood as a dependent variable. But then what of the people themselves? Why are they flocking in their hundreds to Islamic madrasas? In her research Bano finds that in Pakistan, more children from middle income groups than from rich or poor were enrolled in higher theology courses. She reasons that this is so because parents are constantly trying to maximize both their material and their ideal sources of utility. Thus, committing at least one child to madrasa education gives them both material as well as religious rewards. While the pattern of sending at least one child for religious education has been reported from different contexts, Bano’s correlation of the middle income group with this kind of education is a bit contentious. Also no attempt has been made to compare this assertion with other researches which have come up with a different kind of income and madrasa education correlation. Another important feature of the madrasa education in Pakistan (and possibly elsewhere) is the rise in the number of female madrasas. Bano finds that female madrasas account for 20-25% of all madrasas in Pakistan. While the reasons for sending sons to madrasas are to gain material and ‘ideal’ rewards, the reasons for sending daughters are different. Bano argues that parents find it cost effective to invest in the religious education of their daughters because by building their daughters’ convictions in religious beliefs, they would be able to constrain their choices. In other words, the choices the daughters would make later in life would suit the parents. But cannot a similar argument be made for sending sons to madrasas? The problem with Bano’s analysis is that she misses the obvious: schools and other educational institutions including madrasas exist partly to take away the socializing functions of family. Parents alone are not making that choice; it is part of the wider process of social differentiation. Bano is missing a more fundamental point. Female madrasas as a phenomenon also means that there are more women in the public sphere which symbolizes the breakdown of the traditional separation of men and women through the purdah system. Thus in trying to suggest that madrasas are producing subservient, docile future wives, Bano seems to be completely unaware of the agency that this form of education is instilling among Muslim women: an agency which has at times questioned the existing hierarchy rather than just meekly reproducing it. It is the same unfamiliarity which shapes her discussion on jihad in her last empirical chapter. Reading jihad as a maximization of ‘ideal’ reward is far too constrictive. As scholars have pointed out jihad is also about altering the landscapes of authority. Moreover, the interiority of the act of sacrifice may at times be more ethical than religious. This book would have made better reading if it had been familiar with existing literature in the field.
Arshad Alam is Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.