Theorizing Modernities article

The Formation of Religious Identities in Modern Islam: Recounting a Story from Nineteenth-Century South Asia

Shrine to Salim Chisti, a Sufi Mystic. Photo Credit: Flickr User Soham Banerjee.

The Historical Context of the Debate

Intra-Muslim polemical debates have remained a persistent feature of Islamic intellectual life since the inception of Islam. In early Islam, these debates pivoted mostly around theological questions concerning the concept of God, such as the interrelation of God’s knowledge with human agency, the anthropomorphic expressions found in the Qur’an for the person of God, and the boundaries that demarcate belief from unbelief.

A significant shift took place in nineteenth-century South Asia when the person of the Prophet became the center of theological debates. A new set of contentions came to center-stage, opening up new avenues of theological wrangling. These new modalities of contestation are exemplified by questions like: Does or does not the Prophet have access to knowledge of the unknown (‘ilm al-ghayb)? Was his physical essence similar to or different from ordinary humans? Is his physical presence subject to human spatio-temporal constraints? Does he have the capacity of being simultaneously present at several places? Is he or is he not privileged with divine powers of intervention in the fate of human beings? Is it possible for God to create another being possessing the same stature as that of the Prophet? These trajectories and questions of contention in Muslim theology curiously mirror early Christian theological debates about Jesus’s divinity, with the caveat that they intensified in Islam at a much later period.

To be sure, even in the premodern period, the temptation to assign divine aura to the person of the Prophet found expressions in the extravagant imagination of the laity. However, these popular temptations rarely found their way to the scholarly theological domain explicitly; they instead had to be channeled through esoteric ontologies conceived mainly by mystic thinkers. These ontologies imagined the world as populated by a hierarchy of sub-divine entities that culminated in the person of the Prophet. These entities were believed to possess specially bestowed divine powers. This belief inspired a popular culture in which visiting the shrines of famous Sufi saints and invoking their intervention in human affairs became a common practice among the masses. But these Sufi practices did not pass unquestioned, and were subjected to a long and intense counter tradition of criticism and reform, often executed by Sufi scholars themselves. For instance, prominent Muslim reformers from the early Mughal era voiced their censure of what they considered deviations in the beliefs and practices of the common people.

From the sixteenth century onwards, these reformist tendencies received additional impetus from newly opened Indo-Hijaz scholarly connections. As Aziz Ahmad points out, these connections redirected intra-cultural intellectual affinities from Iran to Hijaz, and were facilitated by the maritime colonial presence in the Arabian ocean (which became the main route that South Asian pilgrims would use to reach Makkah). Scholars like Sheikh Abdul Ḥaqq Muḥaddith Dihlavī (d.1642), Sheikh Aḥmad Sirhindī (d.1624) and Shāh Walīyullāh (d.1762) vehemently criticized several creeds and practices, though never severing their attachment with the dominant Sufi tradition. Shāh Walīyullāh, for example, likened those who visited the shrines and prostrated before the graves asking for the favors of the saints with the polytheists of Arabia. He even ventured to assert that if one wanted to catch a glimpse of the (polytheistic) belief system that the Qur’an had so vigorously criticized, one should look no further than popular Sufism prevalent in Muslim India in his time. So clearly, the critique of widespread Sufi practices is not an invention of the colonial period but a feature found copiously in the religious imaginary of precolonial early modern Muslim scholars, in South Asia and indeed elsewhere.

But the loss of Muslim political power at the hands of British colonialism engendered a crisis of identity and set the stage for unprecedented normative battles, in terms of content and intensity. The ensuing chaos presented a prime opportunity for British colonizers to play a decisive role in reshaping the political and cultural landscape of South Asia. This process was accompanied by an intensification of already existing tensions and fissures within South Asian Islam. By the end of the eighteenth century, the printing press had created a new public space in which religious preaching could be directed to larger numbers of common people. Intricate theological debates could now be contested in the public sphere and a fertile ground was irrigated for the formulation of new political theologies that corresponded with new normative projects and imaginaries.

In this context, what transpired in the early nineteenth century in Northwestern India was but a next stage of an ongoing reform movement. Critical shifts in the political and social order enabled an enthusiastic reformer like Shāh Muḥammad Ismāʿīl (d.1831) to launch and execute a public movement that challenged the doctrinal legitimacy of long running beliefs and practices in the public sphere while also laboring to purge from South Asian Islam the stain of accrued heresies and deviations. Shāh Isma‘il’s movement was the catalyst that unleashed the struggle for defining religious identities anew in South Asian Islam. The move he made was astute and, in terms of its effects, devastating for the popular Sufi narrative. He took as his point of departure the vigorous reassertion of divine sovereignty in a way that negated the Prophetic persona and authority as held in the religious imagination of the masses. As the Prophet stood at the apogee of the hierarchical order on which the entire ontology of Islamic mysticism hinged, divesting him of a unique cosmological status in the divine providential schema would cause the entire edifice of that ontology to crumble. With this purpose in mind, Ismāʿīl consciously chose to punctuate divine sovereignty and emphasize the Prophet’s completely subordinate status in the cosmological scheme in provocative, and at times even crass idioms that were bound to invite charges of blasphemy. In fact, some controversial phrases of his well-known tract, Taqwīyat al-Īmān (Strengthening of the Faith) (analyzed by Tareen in part 1 of his book) have been acknowledged even by prominent Deobandi scholars as inappropriate and ill-suited. For example, Anwar Shāh Kashmīrī (d. 1933) has been quoted by Sayyid Aḥmad Raz̤ā Bijnaurī as saying:

“I am not much pleased with Taqwīyat al-Īmān. Perhaps it was written in view of the needs of a specific moment. In fact, a committee of five persons . . . were given the task of reviewing the words and phrases of Taqwīyat al-Īmān and was even authorized to make changes. The committee became divided. . . . One group held that the wording chosen was inappropriate. The other was of the opinion that it [the doctrine of tawhīd] must be stated in a very explicit and unequivocal language and that without using pungent expressions, the intended message would not be communicated clearly. . . . I am not pleased with these phrases because they have engendered a lot of controversy. . . . I have also been informed that Mawlānā Qāsim Nānautvī held the same opinion, even though he had a profound affection for Shāh Ismāʿīl.” (Aḥmad Raz̤ā Bijnaurī, Malfuzat Muhaddith Kashmiri, 177–78)

In any case, Shāh Ismāʿīl’s over-charged enthusiasm for doctrinal reform, premised on deflating any supernatural associations with the Prophet, ironically and inadvertently provided the occasion for a hitherto latent Muḥammadology to find an articulate expression in the style of an explicit creed. The ineffable notion of Haqīqat-i Muhammadiyya or Muhammadan Reality that had so far been considered to be accessible only to those possessing higher cognitive and gnostic abilities was now made to undergo a far-reaching process of profanation. A normative expectation central to the Sufi tradition, that privileged mystical knowledge is not revealed to the simple-minded common people, was thus left in tatters with the ruthless attack of Shāh Muḥammad Ismāʿīl and his likes.

Tareen’s Intervention

It is this story of transformation that SherAli Tareen’s recent book, Defending Muhammad in Modernity recounts and explores primarily for a Western audience. His objectives in writing this book are manifold. He wants to correct the misreading of the Barelvī-Deobandī divide in terms of law versus spirituality, or the mystical versus the legal traditions. As he rightly argues, both of these groups of towering modern South Asian Muslim scholars, the Barelvīs and the Deobandīs, steadfastly adhere to the Sufi spiritual tradition and propounding Sufi modes of piety constitutes an integral part of their reform programs. Tareen also brings to light important features of the reform agenda that the Barelvī ‘ulamā’ (traditionally educated Muslim scholars) sought to introduce in the popular Sufi culture while preserving the hierarchical ontology without which institutional Sufism would have no attraction for the laity. In this, the Deobandīs took a middle ground between them and the Wahhābīs or Salafīs who rejected Sufism as totally alien to Islam.

Courtyard of Jamia Naeemia, a Barelvī madrasa in Lahore, Pakistan. Photo by Josh Lupo.

Another primary objective of Tareen’s endeavor is to expose the inadequacy of analytical categories derived from dominant secular liberal frameworks in the study of intra-Muslim debates and divisions. Because of its self-imposed blinkers, Tareen argues, liberal secular approaches to religion and Islam fail to see what lies at the heart of such intra-Muslim debates. In the present case, for example, what is often regarded as the manifestation of a perennial legal/Sufi tension in Islam is, in fact, a face-off between two opposing political theologies that adhere to, and take inspiration from, the same canonical sources and traditions of Islamic law and Sufi spirituality. Tareen’s critique of and disappointment with dominant secular liberal paradigms in the study of religion, especially Islam, is a recurrent theme throughout the book. This critique finds its sharpest expression in Tareen’s skewering of historian of South Asian Islam, Ayesha Jalal, who in her book on Jihad in South Asia Partisans of Allah conceptualized Sayyid Ahmad (d.1831) and Shāh Muḥammad Ismāʿīl’s jihad against the Sikh regime in Punjab and tribal chiefs of the Muslim Northwestern Frontier Province as an instance of privileging “religion as demarcator of difference” over “religion as faith.” Jalal valorizes the latter as it belongs to what she terms the realm of private inner experience, but finds the former distasteful as in her view it is preoccupied with the external world of public ritual performance and the exercise of violence for the establishment and maintenance of political power. Tareen quarrels with this binary division between the purity of privatized spiritual religion and the impurity of publicly performed material religion stained by violence and politics as the product of what he calls a “liberal secular theology.” This is just one example of several instances throughout the book where contemporary scholars of South Asia and Islam are keenly taken to task for their explicit or implicit attachments to secular conceptual and political frameworks.

But one common secular liberal assumption that Tareen challenges in the “Postscript” that particularly caught my attention was this: that religious polemics by nature are seen as perpetually susceptible to descent into violence and thus as a perennial threat to the peace and order of society. For Tareen, the fact that the Barelvī-Deobandī polemic was fought out with much intensity and eagerness in the nineteenth century without turning into a physically violent conflict mitigates against this secular assumption. In this context, he finds the decision by the Government of the Punjab in Pakistan a few years ago to ban the polemicist literature comprising dozens of texts written by Deobandī, Barelvī, Shīʿa, and Salafī scholars a shallow act that represents the modern state’s propensity to control and manage the boundaries of religion and religious discourse in society for its own designs and power.

While Tareen’s main contention carries weight, a question that still warrants further probing is this: How are we to then understand the relationship between the often violent contestations over South Asian Muslim identity today that pit against each other actors and groups of varied stripes and the colonial context of these contestations that Tareen examines in his book? A mere glance at the religious and ideological landscape of contemporary South Asia reveals the preponderance of a political consciousness grounded in perceiving a particular “other” as an existential threat whose elimination or marginalization would guarantee the survival and prosperity of one’s own identity. Political theologies based on the identification of certain groups or narratives as the enemy was arguably pioneered in the South Asian context by the sixteenth-century scholar, Sheikh Aḥmad al-Fārūqī al-Sirhindī who, against the backdrop of rising Shīʿa political power, declared that Shīʿītes ought to be considered as outside the fold of Islam. In the British era, the same sledgehammer of identity formation was laid down by Barelvī scholars against adherents of all competing Muslim groups, particularly the Deobandīs. The emergence of naturalists, Aḥmadīs, and Munkirīn-i ḥadīth (those who deny or severely restrict the legislative authority of the Prophet) provided additional targets for all the extant religious groups to protect and assert their identity through the “othering” of internal and external “others.”

To play the devil’s advocate, what if one wagered that these clashes of identity did not turn physically violent in the nineteenth century, as Tareen claims in the Postscript to his book, because of the general stability and order made possible by the presence of the colonial state and its power? For otherwise, what explains the descent into rabid intra-Muslim violence in the postcolonial period, especially in settings like Pakistan. Are the violent denunciations of minority groups and subsequent attacks on the Shīʿas, Aḥmadīs, and Christians the product of unhinged power games aimed at the acquisition of political power in a contested normative battlefield? South Asian Islam, one might argue, still has to come to terms with the new political and cultural realities of the postcolonial context and to find a way in which different religious identities can coexist without undermining the underlying fabric of society, for that is what provides the state the opportunity to monopolize religious discourse in the public sphere.

Defending Muḥammad in Modernity provides a long awaited and much needed call to action for scholars and historians of South Asian Islam in particular and modern Islam more broadly to turn their gaze to such critical inquiries. To what extent will Tareen’s scholarship succeed in reorienting the discourse on South Asian ‘ulamā’ in the Western academy I am not in a position to tell or prognosticate. What I can say with confidence though is that his work can play a crucial role in providing indigenous South Asian scholarship in India and Pakistan a new theoretical lens through which to approach and understand its own history and tradition in a more sophisticated and nuanced manner.

Acknowledgment: The author wishes to thank SherAli Tareen, Ebrahim Moosa, and Josh Lupo for their feedback and suggestions on earlier drafts of this piece.

Ammar Khan Nasir
Muhammad Ammar Khan currently teaches Arabic and Islamic Studies at GIFT University in Gujranwala, Pakistan and edits a monthly Islamic magazine, Al-Sharīʿah. Prior to teaching at GIFT University, he taught various subjects of the Dars-e Nizami course at Madrasa Nusrat al-Uloom from 1996 to 2006. His body of written work is largely in Urdu. His first work, Imām Abū Ḥanīfa wa-ʿamal biʾl-ḥadīth (Imam Abu Hanifa and Adherence of Hadith) appeared in print in 1996. In 2007, he academically reviewed the recommendations of the Council of Islamic Ideology, Government of Pakistan, regarding Islamic Punishments. His research on the issue was later compiled and published by Al-Mawrid, a Foundation for Islamic Research and Education in Lahore, titled Ḥudūd-o Taʿzīrāt: chand aham mabāḥith (Discussions on Islamic Penal Code). His other works include Masjid Aqṣā kī tārīkh awr haqq-i tawalliyāt (History of the Sacred Mosque in Jerusalem and the Question of its Guardianship) and Jihād – Aik Muṭālaʿa (A Critical Study of Theological Understandings of Jihad). The work on Masjid Aqsa is especially related to the subject of religion and conflict transformation as it tries to hammer out a workable solution to the thorniest religious conflicts of the present-day world. His research articles on a variety of religious issues appear regularly in the Monthly Ishrāq, Lahore, and Monthly Al-Sharīʿah, Gujranwala. 

One thought on “The Formation of Religious Identities in Modern Islam: Recounting a Story from Nineteenth-Century South Asia

  1. Author Professor Dr. Sher Ali tareen is a very perfect and expert master in his subject,his book is a unique book in itself.
    The review of this book given by Dr. Ammar Khan nasir is also very good.
    This review gives a guidance towards the basic thoughts of the book.
    If a man wants to read this book, then he should definitely read the review written by Ammar khan nasir,I hope that he will be able to read the book very easily after review reading

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