Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Greencrescent pointed me (on this thread) to this important essay by Barbara Metcalf. In particular, the following passage threw me onto a tangent*:
Aside from Deoband’s enduring influence, it exemplifies a pattern, represented in general terms in a range of Islamic movements outside South Asia as well, of a pattern of “traditionalist” cultural renewal on the one hand coupled with political adaptability on the other. This tradition, seen over time and across a wide geographic area, illustrates that there are widespread patterns of Islamic a-politicism that foster a modus vivendi with democratic and liberal traditions. It also demonstrates, most notably in the teaching and missionary dimensions of their activities, that the goals and satisfactions that come from participation in Islamic movements may well have little to do with opposition or resistance to non-Muslims or “the West.” Their own debates or concerns may well focus on other Muslims, an internal, and not an external “Other” at all. And what they offer participants may be the fulfillment of desires for individual empowerment, transcendent meaning, and moral sociality that do not engage directly with national or global political life at all.

There remains, however, an elephant in the room: Metcalf speaks of "other Muslims" as if this were a self-evident category; yet it is precisely this category that was affected by colonialism in significant ways. Nor is this simply a Muslim issue: it is surely no coincidence that "reformist" Hindu and Muslim movements arose at roughly the same period in colonial India, from the latter half of the nineteenth century onward. Nor is it a coincidence that the strategy of both movements seems to have been broadly similar, namely to stabilize the community of "believers." With the likes of the Arya Samaj and others, this consisted of what has broadly been termed "Sanskritization" of groups that traditionally did not conform to (what was familiar to caste Hindus, orthodox Muslims, and colonial administrators, as) "mainstream" Hinduism. Where the likes of the Tablighi Jamaat (arguably reacting to similar movements on the Hindu "side") were concerned, the idea was to purge the religious life of millions of Indians who either self-identified as Muslims, or were rationally classifiable as such, of all manner of "corruption", religious "innovation", and even shirk (literally, "associating" partners with God, the highest form of blasphemy for orthodox Sunnis and Shiites).

How does colonialism fit into all of this? At its most basic level, of course, by means of the introduction of the census, and (subsequently) some of the institutions of representative government. As Nicholas Dirks eloquently showed in Castes of Mind, the first British Bengal census was a kind of watershed moment: prior to that, it had never really been necessary to determine how many Hindus or Muslims lived in the province -- or perhaps, more accurately, the contours of political discourse did not depend on what portion of Bengal's province was Hindu as opposed to Muslim. By itself the mere counting of heads would be unremarkable, and would be the prerequisite for any kind of representative polity seeking to mobilize popular support. The problem for the orthodox, however, was the realization that many -- very many -- of their supposed co-religionists were rationally classifiable under the sign of more than one religious community. Stated differently, Muslim and Hindu orthodoxy (not to suggest, of course, that the two functioned identically), while supremely influential, even authoritative, when it came to official texts and authorized interpretations of those texts; or official religious practices; did not come anywhere near to exhausting the possibilities of what religion meant to millions of Indians. That is, what on earth was one to do with the marginal traditions, the vast plethora of local cults, shrine-worship, animisms, and sheer (from the orthodox perspective) oddity that defeated classification?

"Marginal" is in fact a misnomer: any system of classification is rendered problematic at the margins (duck-billed platypus, anyone?), but in the Indian sub-continent, even until very late into the modern era, the "exception" threatened to eat up the (orthodox) "rule" (indeed, Charlotte Vaudeville estimated that as many as a third of all Indians might well have been classifiable as adherents of more than one "major" religious tradition; the point, of course, is not the number she comes up with; it is the realization that one isn't talking about an isolated community or two here, but about a whole host of traditions that have left far lighter traces in the historical records than the orthodox have managed). Nor does one need to subscribe wholly to Dirks' ascription of overriding significance to the Bengal census to appreciate the link between colonialism and the religious "reform" movements: the British colonial state's civilizing mission (existing uneasily with the strategic conservatism that saw interference in religious affairs as the prime cause of the 1857 uprising), and its vast intellectual prestige, premised on its monopoly on rationality, technological development, and progress, was internalized by the Raj's colonial subjects, especially orthodox cultural elites who were both most likely to inform the colonial state's view of what "standard" Islam or Hinduism was supposed to be; and who were (especially among Muslims) the ones most likely to have been politically displaced by the rise of British power. Orthodox Hindus and Muslims seem to have implicitly accepted the colonial account of "Oriental" cultures as decadent, while preserving a worldview that saw their traditions as potential vehicles for cultural and political renewal, as the core of future projects that would be politically anti-colonial, even as they were informed by colonial theories and forms of knowledge. For the renewal to occur, the traditions would have to be reformed, and purged of those elements that made them weak or backward -- and the needle pointed to the millions of Indians "lost" by virtue of religio-cultural adherence to overlapping religious traditions, difficult to galvanize in the service of religious projects beyond the local, and by their very existence challenging the notion of "internal" and "external" on which orthodoxy depended. These local or "liminal" identities were subversive of orthodoxy (or at least starkly demonstrated its limits), and were simultaneously stubbornly irreducible to the logic of the modern nation-state, or any notion of liberalism. In sum, the likes of the Hussaini Brahmins (who believed Husain ibn Ali was an avatar of Vishnu), the Bauls of Bengal, the Meos of Mewat with their "Muslim Mahabharata", or the millions of "untouchables" mourning in Muharram processions, were a profound embarrassment, the symbols of the sort of superstitious backwardness that had contributed to the past weakness of Hindus and Muslims (in the case of the former, the argument went, this had contributed to the displacement of Hindu political authority by Muslims in North India from medieval times onward); and that served as a formidable barrier to future hopes of renewal.

It is thus difficult to approach "reformist" movements such as the Arya Samaj, Deobandis or the Tablighi Jamaat without accounting for the difference that colonialism made. I do not quarrel with Metcalf's suggestion that to their members, these movements (Metcalf doesn't discuss non-Muslim reformist movements) were not necessarily "about" opposing Western domination. However, it is the political fact of Western domination (the form in which "modernity" arrived in India) that galvanized these movements to have as their primary object their co-religionists (or those imagined to be co-religionists). For instance, the Tablighi Jamaat might not have been primarily "about" opposing the West, but its drive to "rescue" Muslims from heretical religious practices was surely a response to the political crisis caused by the West's triumph over the political primacy of an Indo-Islamic order. That order was itself not orthodox in the sense that it functioned according to the precepts of groups like the Jamaat (it most certainly did not), but it was an order where orthodox Islam was symbolically enshrined in the polity. [By smashing the old order, colonialism might even be said to have liberated political Islam, unmooring notions of orthodoxy from any particular polity, and broadening its horizons to nothing less than an imagined community of global believers.] The dismantling of that order, and the rise of notions that tied political legitimacy to democracy, contributed to a logic of numbers, putting "fellow Muslims" or "errant Hindus" into play like never before. Metcalf is surely right (referring to the Muslim reformist movements) that they were ""traditionalist" because of their continuity with earlier institutions, above all those associated with the seminaries and with the `ulama in general" -- but traditionalism does not explain the newness, and the scale, of what can only be called proselytization movements targeting co-religionists. The ulema presumably always regarded the religious practices of the "lower orders" as un-Islamic, Brahmin priests presumably always had little religiously in common with the utterly non-Sanskritic belief systems of millions of "lower" or even out-castes. But it is only after colonialism that this became a problem that needed urgent rectification, and the proper object of a religio-political project. Not to mention that the colonial era's far greater dissemination of printed matter, the increase in literacy, and the development of communications technology, shored up the plausibility of the orthodoxy's claims. The ulema could now "prove" -- to audiences far and wide -- that this or that religious practice was contrary to Quranic precepts, or that it blurred the distinction that "ought" be there between Muslims and "others"; Hindu reformers likewise pointed to hazy communal boundaries as having contributed to Hindu political weakness; to the modern mind, the notion of throngs of Hindu worshippers commemorating the urs of Mahmud of Ghazni's nephew, seemed not so much un-Hindu as absurd. Perhaps most important of all, since the only religious categories the colonial state recognized were orthodox ones -- "Hindu" and "Muslim" for instance, sub-divided into castes and sects -- the political order of the day invisibly supported orthodox pretensions, incentivizing the choosing of sides. In order to be recognized by the modern state (whether pre- or post-1947), one almost had to declare oneself "Hindu", "Muslim", and so on. An identity or mode of practice that couldn't be shoehorned into one of these categories was worse than hostile -- it was aberrant.

The trend has continued in the contemporary sub-continent: "secular" people have imbibed and perpetuated the prejudices of colonialism and of the more orthodox, dismissing the religio-cultural practices of millions of co-citizens as simply backward or little more than superstition, not real religions at all (indeed, the definitive "otherness" of non-believers often commands greater respect, which should surprise no-one: the "other" is necessary, inasmuch as he enables the constitution of the self; but the otherness of the "marginal" is of a different kind, calling into question the stability of the order that has been erected (despite) him, even as it speaks in his name). The cause hasn't been helped by the fact that "secular" support has often proven cynical: "marginal" traditions are trotted out as anthropological curios to make political points; testifying to the "tolerance" of Indian society (immediately after a religious riot), or the essential goodness of Pakistani Islam (as opposed to the bad Taliban-style fundamentalism). The fact that "Sanskritization" efforts have come in for greater challenge in recent years in India itself testifies to this opportunism, as secular opponents of Hindutva groups have belatedly discovered outrage at the notion that adivasis are being "proselytized" by those for whom the adivasis apparently aren't good enough as they are. This outrage has been accompanied by left-wing silence in the face of Christian missionary activity that aims at much the same thing (the right, predictably, complains about Christian missionary activity, but has nothing to say about Hindutva's "Sanskritization" drives), not to mention silence in the face of the physical dispossession and marginalization of adivasis in the name of development. The material basis of adivasi cultures being rapidly consigned to the dustbin of history, we offer them the comforts of "mainstream" Hinduism and Christianity. And with the exception of a few scholars like Yoginder Sikand and Shail Mayaram, orthodox Muslim attempts to efface the local have flown under the radar (it bears mentioning that the progressive Sanskritization of the cult of the Sai Baba (a Sufi saint) was the result not only of greater "Hinduization", but of the progressive abandonment of the shrine by educated Muslim patrons). The result has been that orthodox Muslim authorities have been able to advance, un-challenged, the notion that only they are afforded unimpeded access to what "correct" Islamic practice is (the "marginal" traditions are not represented, either in the institutions of the nation-state, or in the waqf boards; the only exceptions are the important Sufi shrines, themselves under increasing strain, but which can partake of a sort of alternative orthodoxy) -- a conviction reinforced by the interchange permitted by communications technology, immigration patterns, Saudi wealth, and a "war against fundamentalism" that has historically drawn few distinctions.

It would be wrong to say that the "marginal" religious group in the Indian sub-continent does not have time on its side; it does not have reigning ideology on its side (depressingly, the best friend of the survivability of these traditions has been neglect and indifference -- but the number of places and communities that can count on being ignored is dwindling to zero, and "reformist" zeal shows no sign of flagging). And it is with the ideological plane that we must begin: by accepting the "marginal" religions as they are. Liminality is not backwardness to be redeemed, nor is it a political pamphlet to be trotted out any time one wishes to tell oneself comforting stories of good and bad Islams, or tolerant and intolerant Hinduisms, or pluralistic or monolithic Indias (those op-ed writers and policy-makers who troop to Nizamuddin for this purpose might as well head for Karim's Kababs near the Awlia's shrine instead; there, at least, satisfaction is guaranteed). As goes without saying, the heterodoxy of a religious tradition is no guarantee of anything: the heterodox may be as violent, bigoted, sage, or gentle, as the orthodox. The first step is simply to let it be.

*[ENDNOTE: I use "tangent" deliberately, as the issue I discuss here isn't the focus of Metcalf's piece, and I certainly do not criticize her work up as any kind of exemplar of the way in which "liminal" communities have flown under the radar of much historiography (indeed, I would note that the likes of Metcalf and Francis Robinson, extensive work on "high" Muslim religious culture -- as distinct from the social/literary culture that usually stands for "the Muslim" in many mainstream accounts on nineteenth century Urdu-centric cultures -- has performed an invaluable service by introducing English-speaking (not to mention secular, whether or not Muslim, and whether or not Indian or Pakistani) audiences to worlds and modes of thought that they are far more removed from than the mere passage of time might suggest); rather. her essay got me thinking about (what I have experienced) as a lacunae in even progressive scholarship on Indian history.]


Salman said...

Check out Yoginder Sikand's piece, if interested.

Scholarly Research in the Madrassa: A Brief Overview by Maulana
Waris Mazhari (Translated by Yoginder Sikand)

Qalandar said...

Thanks Salman, definitely interested!