Islam in South Asia

    South Asian Islam and its encounter with modernity

    Islam as a religion and its adherents are constantly being demonized ever since the twin towers in New York were blown up in 2001. Hence, in order to lend validity and credence to the whole process of portraying the grotesque image of Islam and its believers, Western academia is churning out a lot of literature. The menace unleashed in the name of Islam is being thoroughly analysed in a perspective, which is formed by the western discourse of Modernity. In the course of analysing Islam, it is typified more often than not, as a religion coterminous with fundamentalism and also terrorism.

    Since all the tools of analysis and trajectories employed emanate from the West, it can therefore be argued that Islam is being ascribed a new meaning emphasising its antagonistic posture against the “developed” and “progressive” West. Modernity with its theoretical underpinnings in rationality is being projected as an inalienable trait of the West. On the contrary all systems and codes originating from the Orient including Islam, being spun around intuitive and revelational ideologies, are projected as inherently bereft of rationality -- bedrock for the present day world with science and technology as its defining feature.

    That “present day world” has its centre in the West, mostly represented by America which is doing everything it can to dismantle the existing contours of the world and to re-do them to its own liking. The Muslims seem ineluctably fated to become the targets of the US liberation project. Taking all possible benefit from scholars like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington who are quite equipped with an understanding of Islam, the Muslims and their history, American establishment is doing to the Muslims what the British did to them in the 19th century: ascribing them new character and meaning.

    Therefore, Muslims are indiscriminately branded as fundamentalists as well as terrorists -- their religion Islam the raison d'être for their crimes.

    Unequivocal Belief in Rationality

    Western representation of Eastern ideas and cultural patterns has a particular background. Modernist understanding of Islam has its antecedents in Orientalist learning of the late 18th and the early 19th century. The unequivocal belief in rationality had, by that time, struck firm roots as the objective and authentic source of knowledge since the days of René Descartes (1596-1650) whose philosophy happened to be the main propelling force for the Age of Reason and Enlightenment during the 18th century. Physical sciences alone could, according to that philosophy, ascertain the true course leading to the truth.

    Inability of poetry, divinity and history in measuring up to the exactitude and precision signified in the physical sciences was underscored quite categorically. Thus, they were ruled out as the bearers of objective truth. Such epistemic formulation was further strengthened by the succeeding generations of Western thinkers like Spinoza and Leibniz, as an agent of truth, relegating, as a result, the revelation and intuition to nothing but superstition at large.

    Infusing Rationality in South Asian Islam

    Such mode of thinking germinated and flowered in the West but the Oriental cultures were also brought to bear the impact of rationality through the agency of colonialism. If the whole argument is posited in the South Asian perspective then one can contend that both the major religions namely Hinduism and Islam were redefined in the light of Western rationality after Colonialists had dug in little deep in the subcontinent. Prior to the onset of colonial rationality ascribing new meaning to the religions of South Asia and particularly Islam, the Sufi ethos formed the main galvanizing force that professed love for fellow humans without considering their religious adherence or caste, creed and lineage etc. The Sufi orders like Chistyia and Qadriya exemplified inter-religious mutuality and cultural syncretism in South Asian Islam. Therefore these Sufi orders afforded the much-needed social balance in the multicultural society of India. Colonial modernity had cast the corrosive effect on the Sufism that was the mainstay of medieval Indian sensibility.

    In the first quarter of the 20th century, reform movements sprang up like Brahmo Samaj of Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Roy was the major exponent of rationality to be deployed as the technology to reform Hindu Society. Syed Ahmed Khan (1818-1898) unfolded a similar agenda of reform among the North Indian Muslims a few decades later. He came up with a new exegesis of Quran, re-reading the revealed text and infusing into it rationality -- thus bringing about religious harmony among Christian rulers and the Muslim subjects of India. Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh (est: 1877) was established for the dissemination of Western knowledge. Syed Ahmed Khan, while acting as a mediator between the rulers and the ruled, brought about modifications in Islam, to make it palatable for the colonialists. So, the concepts repugnant to them like jihad were put to the back burner if not completely cancelled out.

    The academics on South Asia understand the overriding influence of colonial modernity over the modernist elements like Syed Ahmed Khan's Aligarh Movement or Raja Ram Mohan Roys Brahmo Samaj. However, elements espousing tradition like Deo Band movement or Arya Samaj too could not escape those influences, either. Not only did they adopt the modernist technologies to spread their message, the force of Western rationality pervaded quite thoroughly into the structural edifice of such reformist organisations. Thus esoteric content from the South Asian Islam was done away with.

    Mutation of Islam and Passion for Jihad

    Thus, religion sequestered from culture, was now confined only to matters pertaining to spiritual domain or the life hereafter, giving rise to puritanical religious belief. The immediate fallout of such mutation caused to Islam by rationalism during the pinnacle of Colonial Raj had been the inter-communal or sectarian infighting particularly in the subcontinent. Passion for jihad, ruthlessly unleashed against each other, became an everyday spectacle.

    Traditional syncretism latent in the socio-cultural ethos of South Asia seemed to have completely eroded, facilitating as well as fertilizing separatist tendencies from last quarter of the 19th century onwards. Although the upholders of the separatist agenda were modernists to the core, they used religious tradition for absolutely terrestrial motives. In the subsequent years it was largely due to the leadership imbued with Western ideas and partly because of Soviet threat, that Islam was not, supposedly, posing any serious challenge to the Western “way of life”.

    Conversely, the Muslim world with the exception of a few countries, lent full support to the American interest. Thus whipping up, hitherto, tepid sentiment of jihad into a wild and violent force that could not be harnessed in the post-communist era. It was these Jihadis who eventually defeated the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, playing as pawns to USA.

    In the post-9/11 world, the task undertaken by the US to make Muslims aware of the good that freedom and democracy can do to them is reminiscent of “White man's Burden” deployed by the British to civilize the Indian subjects. History is repeating itself in an uncanny way. The noble cause of disseminating the message of freedom and democracy might sooner or later boomerang on the faces of George W. Bush and the Christian Neo-Conservatives.

    Tahir Kamran
    is chair of history at GC University in Lahore, Pakistan.

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