Theorizing Modernities article

Prophet Motive

Pakistan Monument, Islamabad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A masterful study of the polemics over Muḥammad’s status that have been occurring for more than a century in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, SherAli Tareen’s book accomplishes a number of important tasks. It demonstrates the wrongheadedness of framing this debate in terms of a conflict between tradition and modernity, or mystical and clerical forms of Islam. It repudiates accounts that understand the issue either as a meaningless conflict about ritual matters or a purely instrumental battle over power, influence, and resources. And it shows us that this polemical tradition is founded in a genuine argument, whose philosophical and juridical implications are meaningful even for those outside its purview.

What I want to do in this brief blog post is explore one of the implications of this debate, that having to do with what Tareen envisages as the simultaneous appropriation and expulsion of sovereignty by Muslims debating Muḥammad’s status. He describes this paradox in the following way. The coming of colonialism to South Asia not only diminished the power and authority of Muslim rulers, but also allowed religious specialists in these regions unprecedented freedom in the newly secular conditions of European empires. They responded to this freedom by purging Islam of its historical links with monarchy and the entire language of political thought associated with it. Yet this excision was accompanied by new Islamic actors accepting a European notion of sovereignty which, however, they reserved only for God.

Impossible Sovereignty

What does it mean to replace the traditional forms and vocabulary of Muslim politics with a modern category like sovereignty, while at the same time forbidding its use among human beings only so that it can be placed at the very heart of Islam? On the one hand, a sovereignty unavailable to colonized peoples might in this way have been displaced onto God as a kind of compensation. On the other hand, its expulsion from the world of mortals may indicate a deep suspicion of sovereignty and the modern state it represents. Having been stripped of its own political tradition, in other words, new forms of Islamic thought were magnetized by the idea of sovereignty in a way not so very different from anti-colonial nationalism.

Since engaging a politics defined by sovereignty was unavoidable despite their fear of it, Islamic thinkers seem to have instituted it as a kind of taboo that came to define their debates and even the public controversies such debates sometimes gave rise to. The anxiety produced by this taboo finds its site of manifestation in the person of Muḥammad, who is, after all, the most important intermediary between the worlds of God and men. Like the fanciful accounts of medieval Europeans about the Prophet’s coffin magnetically suspended between the floor and ceiling of his tomb in Medina, Muḥammad occupies an impossible position in modern Islamic thought.

Tareen’s book describes the battles over Muḥammad’s difficult positioning between divine sovereignty and mortal sinfulness. And while he is concerned chiefly with the polemics of Barelvī and Deobandī writers, we can add to these the violent criticism levelled at Ahmadi and other Muslims for allegedly denying Muḥammad’s prophetic finality, and even the murderous controversies over “blasphemy” and insults supposedly directed at him. I enclose the term “blasphemy” in scare quotes because, as we shall see, it is used in these debates as a borrowing from Christianity and mostly in European languages. Despite the presence of comparable terms in Islamic history, what is interesting about modern controversies over Muḥammad is that they rarely deploy such theological terms. It is because he occupies such an ambiguous position between the sovereignty of God and that of men, in other words, that Muḥammad serves as a lightning rod for Muslim outrage. By contrast the act of blaspheming God rarely, if ever, becomes the subject of such debate and passion.

Controversies about the Prophet’s status rehearse a political as much as a theological paradox, since the very effort to expel sovereignty from human society while preserving it elsewhere sets the stage for its spectacular return. All three iterations of Pakistan’s constitution, for example, reserve sovereignty for God as a result of a compromise its drafters made with Muslim religious groups led by the Islamist intellectual Mawdūdī. But I would argue that precisely because it was not vested in any institution by these constitutions, sovereignty returned to Pakistani politics in the form of the coup d’état as an exception that served as a counterpart of the miracle in theology. For even in negative form it remains central to modern Islamic thought.

Depoliticized Islam

Like his contemporary, Carl Schmitt, Mawdūdī recognized sovereignty as a theological concept. Unlike Schmitt, however, he wanted to reserve it for God because human beings were incapable of exercizing the absolute power that the modern theory of sovereignty demanded. Rather than offering too much power to human beings, in other words, sovereignty was dangerous because no mortal institution could match up to its truly theological demands. It was their incapacity to exercize such absolute power that led to injustice, whose violence arose in the gap between sovereignty’s theological purity and its all too human reality. By reserving sovereignty for God, then, it could be expelled from human society.

Controversies about the Prophet’s status rehearse a political as much as theological paradox, since the very effort to expel sovereignty from human society while preserving it elsewhere sets the stage for its spectacular return.

Mawdūdī’s interpretation of the dispute between God’s sovereignty and Muḥammad’s humanity took this debate in a new political direction. Drawing from the deep suspicion of modern statehood among many anti-colonial thinkers, for whom the state was inextricably linked with imperialism, he focussed on what we may call social self-governance instead. Like Gandhi, whom he had admired in the early part of his career, Mawdūdī sought to reconceive politics in more or less anarchist terms. Whereas Gandhi did so by fragmenting and distributing sovereignty, however, Mawdūdī sought to expel it altogether by founding a self-governing society on the basis of a pre-given and unchanging Islamic law.

Now the sacred law had itself become autonomous as a result of the collapse of pre-colonial polities, and it was held to define Islam by colonial scholars and administrators who wanted to delegitimize traditional forms of kingly authority. In this sense, law in Islam performed the role that caste did in Hinduism, which is to say as a principle of depoliticization. Both caste and law, however, could be re-politicized in an anarchistic way, as Gandhi and to some degree Mawdūdī tried to do. The latter, for instance, was careful to deprive the state of all power over the sacred law, which had to be interpreted by authorities outside its control.

Defined by the law as a social force meant to restrict the sovereign impulses of both state and citizen, Islam has been deprived of a political vocabulary. The “Islamic state,” which Mawdūdī was a pioneer in theorizing, is meant to be subordinated to a law representing not just the views of individual Muslims but their very reality as a society. In the Leninist theory that both Gandhi and Mawdūdī cited, the state had to be captured for the dictatorship of the proletariat, only to be dissolved into what Lenin called the bureaucratic “administration of objects” once all class enemies were destroyed. Gandhi wanted to begin where Lenin ended, with the withering away of the state, while Mawdūdī wanted law to limit this state from the outside.

But Mawdūdī feared losing control of the society he wanted to triumph over the state and its principle of sovereignty. This led him to construe the law that was meant to represent the social against the political as a conservative and undemocratic force. In effect, he sought to forestall sovereign violence by foreclosing the possibility of new legislation, which was reduced to mere governance as fidelity to a preordained law. In this way, an anarchist vision of politics was eventually turned into a neoliberal one, where the regulation of society is conceived as a marketplace. This market had already come, indeed, to shape controversies about Muḥammad in the depoliticized arena of colonial Islam well before the emergence of neoliberalism in the wake of the Second World War. 

A Market for Hurt Sentiments

The first modern controversies over insults to Muḥammad are likely to have been the Bombay riots of 1851 and 1874. Occurring between Muslims and Parsis rather than Hindus, one involved an unflattering image and the other a prurient account of Muḥammad in Gujarati newspapers published by Parsi proprietors. As would become the case with subsequent protests over alleged insults to the Prophet, these provocations were neither part of any pre-existing and polemical debate between religious groups nor of the Christian missionary activity that also entailed engaging Muslims in theological argument. They were addressed instead to a generic public constituting a market for information and entertainment.

But Mawdūdī feared losing control of the society he wanted to triumph over the state and its principle of sovereignty. This led him to construe the law that was meant to represent the social against the political as a conservative and undemocratic force.

These insults, then, were so offensive in part because they surfaced as news and rumour with no direct address or even purpose, asking neither for the acquiescence nor opposition of Muslims themselves. Because they seemed to lack theological purpose and meaning, it is not surprising that conspiracies were manufactured to explain them. And this meaninglessness was, of course, defined by the anonymous market and its public that had turned Muḥammad into a what we would today call a human-interest story for a profit-making enterprise. Those representing the new capitalist class among Indians, Parsis, and other readers of Bombay’s Gujarati press were targeted for attack by Muslims. The latter did not themselves speak Gujarati and belonged to laboring, artisanal, and service classes, and were also sometimes joined in their rioting and looting by low-caste Hindus.

While in Tareen’s framing these offended Muslims may be said to follow the Barelvī line in refusing Muḥammad’s humanization, what is interesting about their outrage was the fact that it refused theological expression. They appealed, rather, to a protectionist logic that was defined by the market, and called for its freedoms of production and circulation to be restricted. These limitations were understood in terms of forgery and libel, with only the colonial state and non-Muslim critics applying theological categories like blasphemy to the protests. The offended Muslims themselves also deployed the language that went into the making of the Indian Penal Code. This code replaced the Christian sin of blasphemy with the secular one of hurt sentiments from which the religious prejudices of Hindus and Muslims should be protected.

Fascinating about these details is how they have continued to define Muslim offense not only in contemporary India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, but more globally as well, for example, in the Rushdie Affair of 1989. In almost every instance of protest, the theological vocabulary of blasphemy used has explicitly been taken from Christianity and deployed mostly in European languages for non-Muslim audiences. In languages like Urdu the chief terms used are secular ones, including the “hurt sentiments” mentioned in the Indian Penal Code, and other words like “insult” and “impudence.” Theological notions only make an appearance when Muslims think in Christian terms. This was the case during the protests over The Satanic Verses, where Muslims asked for their sanctities to be included within Britain’s blasphemy law, which until then had been reserved for Anglicans alone. The law was eventually abolished in the 1990s to avoid including apparently more excitable non-Christian religions. Subsequently, the Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif tried to drum up support for an international provision against blasphemy modelled on the one in Irish law.

Just as sovereignty had to be expelled from politics to be ensconced at the heart of Islamic theology, in other words, Muslim protests have expelled blasphemy to lodge it in the deepest recesses of Christian theology. Whatever Islamic scholars might say, then, the popular language of Muslim offense in which they increasingly participate possesses little if any theological character. Indeed, its prosaic arguments derive from a market logic that bears no apparent relationship to the violence in which it sometimes results. It is as if such violence takes its meaning from the very absence of a theological vocabulary, and even as its wordless replacement by the ritual practice of sacrifice. But what does all of this mean as far as Tareen’s book is concerned?

On the one hand, a sovereignty reserved for God keeps returning to the world of men in murderous controversies over insults directed against the Prophet. This suggests that modern Islamic thought is incapable either of deploying or renouncing the political principle that defines the state. And on the other hand, the law and theology meant to take the place of sovereignty and its politics in social life keeps disappearing, only to be brought back by these same controversies in the form of a violence that can only give itself the Christian name of blasphemy. The social self-governance in which Islam was supposed to manifest itself has been turned into the struggle to regulate a market whose limits are tested by what can be produced and circulated about Muḥammad.


Faisal Devji
Faisal Devji is Professor of Indian History at the University of Oxford. 

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