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  • Ali Altaf Mian

Traditions and Tensions: Islam in Modern South Asia

Ali Altaf Mian on SherAli Tareen

SherAli Tareen’s Defending Muḥammad in Modernity models an extended set of close readings of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Indo-Muslim theological polemics. His nimble analyses offer us an opportunity to observe how the study of Islam in South Asia can speak productively to debates in religious studies, especially concerning secularism and political theology.

This monograph draws on conversations in cultural anthropology and postcolonial studies to complicate matters of representation, translation, and the politics and ethics of scholarship. Tareen’s book contains numerous insights that advance the scholarship on Islam in modern South Asia and the interplay among religion and modernity more broadly.

My comments here focus on how Tareen allows us to rethink intra-Muslim factionalism in modern Muslim South Asia. Tareen proposes an innovative answer to the question that has puzzled scholars for decades: How do we explain differences of creed and ritual practice among Sunni Muslims in colonial India and postcolonial South Asia that are intensely debated but substantially similar? His novel argument is: We ought to approach intra-Muslim discursive tensions as competing public translations of divine sovereignty on the part of Muslim theologians. This argument enables us to pay attention to the hermeneutic ingenuity of his Persian and Urdu sources. Yet, at the same time, I would like to draw attention to some other aspects of intra-Muslim factionalism, that is, the formation of distinct schools of thought (maslaks) among Muslims in fin-de-siècle colonial India. I also examine critically the limitations of Tareen’s critique of binaries and his claim that the use of binary logics is also connected to scholars’ (often-implicit) secular liberal assumptions. Finally, I identify some areas of research that this book opens for future scholarship on intra-Muslim differences in modern South Asia and in the South Asian diaspora.

Ordinary Scenes of Intra-Muslim Factionalism

The central concept animating the pages of Defending Muḥammad in Modernity is divine sovereignty. This term has multiple connotations in Tareen’s sources, but in general he reads sovereignty through the analytical prism of political theology in the tradition of the German jurist Carl Schmitt. Tareen’s careful textual excavations allow readers to piece together the semantic puzzle around this term in texts by a range of Indo-Muslim theologians, such as Muḥammad Ismāʿīl (d. 1831), Faz̤l-i Ḥaqq Khayrabādī (d. 1861), Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān Barēlvī (d. 1921), and Ashraf ʿAlī Thānavī (d. 1943). The polemical exchanges of these scholars, Tareen shows, elaborated competing public translations of political theology that had wide-ranging implications for Muslims’ social lives in a shifting political terrain. The latter framework for understanding intra-Muslim factionalism in colonial South Asia allows academic inquiry to move beyond the use of politically dangerous and empirically fraught frameworks.

The formation of maslakī mentality and sociality was, of course, elaborated in theological polemics, as Tareen demonstrates so convincingly. Yet, there were also other sources and scenes of intra-Muslim factionalism, which were embodied in ordinary life. It is important to attend to these other scenes, since they flesh out the sensibilities that were being formed in and through, but also alongside, discursive developments in theological polemics. This is another way of attending to what Talal Asad calls the sensible body and the forms of life embedded in the grammar of tradition. This is to say that attention to ordinary life allows us to look at the tensions of tradition.

The first text I would like to discuss comes from a collection of Ashraf ʿAlī Thānavī’s Sufi conversations (malfūẓāt) put together by his scholar-disciple Muftī Muḥammad Shafīʿ (d. 1976). Thānavī reportedly said:

In my Kanpur days [from the mid 1880s to the late 1890s], a person started to bad mouth the people of illicit innovations” (ahl-i bidʿat). When I offered apologetic explanations (ta’wīlāt) on their behalf, he started to think I was myself one of them. He then started to bad mouth Ahl-i Ḥadīth Muslims. When I offered apologetic explanations on their behalf, he was befuddled and asked me: “I give up! What is your religious orientation (mazhab)?” I replied, “My religious orientation is encapsulated in two scriptural pericopes: ‘Be upholders of justice, witnesses for God, even if this is against your self-interests…’ (Qur’an 4:135) and ‘Be steadfast witnesses for Allah in equity, and let not hatred of any community seduce you to deal unjustly…’ (Qur’an 5:8)” (Muḥammad Shafīʿ Majālis-i Ḥakīm-ul-ummat [Karachi: Dārul-Ishāʿat, n.d.]).

The first thing to note here is that in urban settings the tripartite organization of Sunni Islam into Deobandīs, Barēlvīs, and Ahl-i Ḥadīth was already present by the late 1890s. The questioner even uses the word, mazhab, to refer to sectarian identity or maslak. One therefore wonders about the exact function of the later theological polemics Tareen examines between Thānavī and Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān. Were they performative of sectarian formation or had theological polemics become a discursive practice integral to embodying creedal and cultural differences in a world of competing moral communities (maslaks)? Looming behind this question is a historiographical one: When exactly did Muslims start to use maslakī mentality and sociality as forms of identification? Second, note, on the one hand, the derogatory term for the Barēlvī movement as “the people of illicit innovations,” as opposed to their preferred identification category, “ahlus-sunnah wa’l-jamā‘at” or simply “Sunnis,” and, on the other hand, the use of a laudable identification category for Ahl-i Ḥadīth Muslims (who are affirmed as “the people of the Prophet’s sayings”). This discrepancy in nomenclature reveals an internal hierarchy within intra-Muslim factions. Finally, note how Thānavī invokes scripture to deflate intra-Muslim factionalism. In fact, the tropes of sectarian difference and Muslim unity were two dimensions internal to the dialectic of Islamic identity in colonial India. It is therefore important to attend to counter-sectarian formations (Tareen attends to this without naming it as such in his thought-provoking analysis of Ḥājjī Imdādullāh’s hermeneutics of reconciliation).

In another textual scene we encounter a cordial exchange between two theological rivals: ʿAbdus Samīʿ and Rashīd Aḥmad Gangōhī. Tareen sheds light on a polemical exchange between the former and the latter’s student and Sufi disciple Khalīl Aḥmad Sahāranpūrī. Yet the theological texts Tareen consults do not comment on ordinary life encounters. We must turn to other sources for this kind of information. An account preserved in a collection of correspondence (maktūbāt) tells a story that allows us to imagine the forms of life attending theological polemics. In one of his letters, Rashīd Aḥmad reported of a “kind meeting and a shared meal” with ʿAbdus Samīʿ. The letter was addressed to his scholar-disciple Ṣiddīq Aḥmad, and it further mentioned that ʿAbdus Samīʿ “neither brought up the controversy nor apologized or offered an excuse.” Rashīd Aḥmad further wrote, “If this book [a revised edition of Anwār-i sāṭiʿa] contains a rebuttal of Barāhīn [a shorthand for Khalīl Aḥmad’s theological polemic, Barāhīn-i qāṭiʿa] then we shall author a response to it in due course” (Rashīd Aḥmad Gangōhī, Makātīb-i Rashīdiyya, ed. Muḥammad ʿĀshiq Ilāhī Mīrathī [Lahore: Idāra-yi Islāmiyyat, 1996]).

I would like to highlight two things here. First, it is crucial to consult a broader source base for properly contextualizing theological polemics. This reading strategy would enable us to posit textual debates not as mirrors of social reality but as situated discursive practices. Social reality might have been more divisive than what is conveyed within the pages of theological polemics. In other cases, cordial relations might have continued between scholars whose texts paint a picture of stark opposition. In both cases, we must ask: What kind of a discursive practice was the writing of theological polemics? Perhaps the imagined textual spaces of theological polemics and the physical spaces of theologians’ publics were structured by different normative orders and scripts of mutual respectability (adab)? Second, note the use of the collective pronoun on the part of Rashīd Aḥmad: “we shall author a response.” Why did he say this when the theological polemic unfolding was happening between ʿAbdus Samīʿ and Khalīl Aḥmad? Rashīd Aḥmad did so because he saw Khalīl Aḥmad as his public voice, an assumption that was authorized by the fact that he was Khalīl Aḥmad’s Sufi master. This letter thus gives us a clue that something of Sufi charismatic authority was channeled into intra-Muslim factionalism. We see this especially when we consider the use of Sufi motifs and emotions in the letters of Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān.

Writing to the Hyderabad-based scholar Mawlānā Anwārullāh, Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān complains that some scholars he respects have criticized his views on a minor jurisprudential matter regarding the second “call to prayer” (adhān) during the Friday congregation—whether it should be performed inside or outside the mosque’s prayer hall? He writes:

This [minor matter] is not a part of the essential creedal and ritual elements of religion (ḍarūriyyāt al-dīn). It is ironic that the scholars who criticize me have maintained silence on the views of apostates (murtaddīn). They say nothing when the Deobandīs and others, the so-called claimants of Islam, defame God and the Prophet, may God’s choicest blessings be upon him. They pretended to hear nothing when that defeated Qādiyānī wrote several accursed treatises insulting God’s prophets and messengers, may God’s choicest blessing be upon them. They acted as if his curses did not require rebuttals, as if he was defaming the god and prophet of a religion (dīn) altogether foreign to them. While I accept that they might be justified in criticizing my jurisprudential reasoning, it still befuddles me to see these luminaries highlighting a minor jurisprudential opinion authored by this poor Sunni (gharīb Sunnī), as if their great obligation (farz̤-i aʿẓam) consisted only of refuting my position” (Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān, Maktūbāt-i Imām Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān Barēlvī, ed. Maḥmūd Aḥmad Qādirī [Lahore: Maktaba-yi Nabawiyya, 2001]).

I would like to elaborate two points here. First, there is not only a hierarchy within the maslaks (as we saw above) but also internal differences within a single maslak. The author of these lines expects fellow “Sunni” scholars to adhere to a certain decorum of mutual respectability and not to oppose him openly. Instead, they should expend their polemical energies in anathematizing “apostates” such as the Deobandis and Ahmadis, he argues. Second, for Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān the real basis of sectarian formation is deviation from the so-called “necessities of religion,” namely, the scripturally mandated elements of creed. Differences of opinion on minor jurisprudential matters, however, should not create sectarian fault lines. This view is ironic given the fact that he often ridiculed others for differing with him on minor jurisprudential details (as we see below).

Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān understood the power of emotional language, which he infused in his clever use of rhetorical strategies to make his case. Note his appeal to the emotion of honor, which he located in both “religious knowledge” (ʿilm) and sayyid lineage (which often means claims to nobility vis-à-vis a genealogical trace to the Prophet Muḥammad). Our next pericope comes from Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān’s letters to a Muslim luminary in colonial India who was seen as possessing both ʿilm and sayyid lineage, namely, Mawlānā Muḥammad ʿAlī Mongīrī (the founder of the Dārul-ʿUlūm Nadwatul-ʿUlamā’ in Lucknow). He was a traditionalist theologian who had begun to cooperate with Muslim modernists at the Anglo-Mohammedan College. Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān found this collaboration to be reprehensible since he despised the ideas of the so-called “naturalists” (or nēcharīs, as the modernists were called by some traditionalists). He thus urged Muḥammad ʿAlī to reconsider his cross-sectarian collaboration:

Mawlānā! I ask you: is it better to repent and return to God or to persist in falsehood? Mawlānā! I am among the seekers of poverty (fuqarā’) who have benefited from a relation of benevolence with respect to your elite presence, even if we maintain distance from members of your organization. Please reconsider your position in light of your beneficial knowledge and calming insight. If you have made an error of judgment in establishing this confounding collaboration, then it is entirely fitting for gracious scholars and noble sayyids such as yourself to repent and return to the truth, instead of—God forbid!—persisting in shame and disgrace” (Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān, Maktūbāt-i Imām Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān Barēlvī, ed. Maḥmūd Aḥmad Qādirī [Lahore: Maktaba-yi Nabawiyya, 2001]).

The repetitive use of the address, mawlānā (“our master”), on the part of Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān, is a rhetorical technology of shaming. On the surface it seems that the latter is showing respect to Muḥammad ʿAlī. Yet, a considered reading reveals that what Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān articulates here are the terms of a conditional recognition of his addressee’s knowledge and noble status. Muḥammad ʿAlī would only be recognized as a religious authority and a sayyid if he repents of his collaboration with “heretics” and reaffirms his exclusivist commitments to creedal orthodoxy and ritual normativity. Thus, the rhetorical strategy Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān deploys allows him to assume the position of a gatekeeper of orthodoxy and normativity. This letter also shows us that in addition to the triangulation of maslakī mentality and sociality around the Deobandis, Barelvis, and Ahl-i Hadith, there were also alternative traditions of religious belonging, such as Muslim modernism.

The two letters of Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān we have just analyzed demonstrate his affective rhetorical prowess. I would like to point out that his strategies were not always effective. His collected correspondence attests to the fact that Anwārullāh ignored him and Muḥammad ʿAlī remained unpersuaded by his stipulation of terms. Yet, Aḥmad Riz̤ā’ Khān was an indefatigable prose writer who understood that his “true” addressees were the lay Muslims who would read these letters, and his prolific writings in general, thanks to modern sensibilities (such as autodidacticism), technologies (such as print), and infrastructure (such as the colonial postal system). If we approach his letters in this context, it becomes possible to view theological polemics as affective performances of intra-Muslim factionalism.

Rethinking Binaries

Tareen also mounts severe criticisms on the use of binaries, such as modernity/tradition, liberal/conservative, and so on. He demonstrates how these dichotomies feed into the problematic framing of “good Muslim”—“bad Muslim.” Yet he pursues this analytical endeavor largely disregarding certain binaries found in his sources. For example, consider the opposition between “inner” and “outer,” or, bāṭin and ẓāhir, respectively. The deployment of this binary in the sources requires on the part of critical readers both descriptive analysis (how does this binary work in a given discourse or ritual or institution?) and deconstructive analysis (what is foreclosed by the deployment of this binary?).

In a discussion of historian Barbara Metcalf that I believe merits revision, Tareen writes, “Metcalf’s conceptual frame imposes liberal secular binaries such as inner/outer and public/private on actors who did not live their lives or organize their ideas of reform under the limits of such binaries” (241). I find this to be a restricted reading of Metcalf’s work for a couple of reasons. First, as I mentioned above, these binaries are immanent to the relevant sources, which Metcalf read critically and against the grain of Orientalist knowledge production. Her 1982 pioneering book on Deoband reflects serious methodological engagement with the Foucauldian turn in the field of history that was popular at UC-Berkeley in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. Second, we should approach Metcalf’s work in its broader trajectory, and I make this point because it pertains to Tareen’s critique of her “inward turn” thesis (p. 241). Here, Tareen builds on Muhammad Qasim Zaman’s critical take on Metcalf’s work in his pioneering work, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam (Princeton University Press, 2002). Metcalf’s subsequent scholarship ameliorated her “inward turn” thesis with a monograph on the political ideas and activities of Deobandi theologians (looking at Husain Ahmad Madani as a case study). We can thus appreciate Metcalf’s own nuancing of this argument when we view her scholarship as a continuous line of inquiry that has demonstrated its capacity to transform itself in light of received criticisms from colleagues.

From another angle, it is ironic that a book so devoted to tearing apart binaries misses the opportunity to problematize the Deobandi-Barelvi binary. Deobandis and Barelvis debated and continue to debate a set of theological and jurisprudential issues in which a range of Muslim public actors also participated and continue to participate—in public, print, and online. We might therefore ask: Does Tareen further consolidate ideological differences that are more textual than practical or social? In local and everyday settings of colonial India, sectarian fault-lines did not always correspond neatly to ideological (and textual) distinctions. To be clear, I am not suggesting that there is no ideological coherence in Deobandi and Barelvi maslaks; rather, my point is to explore the interplay between textual polemics as a form of language (the discursive) and social practices as forms of life (the ordinary), in the methodological footsteps of Talal Asad.

Remaining Questions

Tareen commences and concludes his book with postcolonial episodic illustrations that speak to the continued relevance of the Deobandi-Barelvi schism in contemporary South Asia. A full examination of the institutional and socio-political implications of this schism in postcolonial South Asia and the diaspora is beyond the book’s scope. Yet, by alluding to contemporary episodes, Tareen invites scholars to think about the broader histories of conceptual configurations and discursive contestations. Some scholars have already examined Deobandi and Barelvi polemics in South Asia as well as in the diaspora. Yet significant gaps remain in the scholarship. For example, the prolific body of polemical literature authored by Sarfarāz Khān Ṣafdar (d. 2009), a major Pakistani theologian and graduate of the Deoband seminary, remains to be studied. Ṣafdar’s works, such as Tabrīd al-nawāẓir fī taḥqīq al-hāḍir wa’n-nāẓir and Izālat al-rayb ‘an ‘aqīdat ‘ilm al-ghayb, are extensions of the colonial-era debates examined in Defending Muḥammad in Modernity and reveal insights into sectarian formation in Pakistan from the 1950s to the present.

There are also other questions that future scholarship should explore. What intrigues me most is the following set of questions: What do we learn about global Islam by studying how theological polemics travel from South Asia to the United Kingdom, for example? How have social media and the Internet in general transformed intra-Muslim debates on creed and ritual practice? What modes of authority and authenticity structure online polemics between Deobandis and Barelvis—but also between South Asian Salafis and Hanafis, or between Sunnis and Shi‘is? Is divine sovereignty the operative concept in these online debates? Is there such a thing as virtual charisma, produced through the interaction of users with content, mediated by platform features, and facilitated by regimes of recognition such as likes, dislikes, and shares? How do Muslims navigate the question of “heretical innovations” amidst unprecedented technological innovations? How does neoliberal biopower shape the intellectual and affective dimensions of parallel theological polemics and competing moral orders in contemporary Muslim settings? I am indebted to SherAli Tareen for bringing these questions into the domain of what is thinkable, at least for me.


S Ali Altaf Mian is Assistant Professor of Religion and the Izzat Hasan Sheikh Fellow in Islamic Studies at the University of Florida. His research focuses on Islam in South Asia, Sufism, Islamic law and ethics, method and theory in the study of religion, gender and sexuality in contemporary Islam, religion and colonialism, and religion and psychoanalysis. He is currently preparing two manuscripts: Muslims in South Asia (contracted with Edinburgh University Press) and Surviving Modernity: Ashraf ‘Ali Thanvi and the Genres of Muslim World-Making in Colonial India. Mian also serves on the editorial board of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (since 2017). His peer-reviewed articles have appeared in Islamic Law and Society, History of Religions, ReOrient, Religion Compass, Islamic Studies, Journal of Shi‘a Islamic Studies, and the Journal of Islamic Studies (Oxford). His peer-reviewed articles, review essays, book reviews, and blogs can be accessed on his page.


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