Theorizing Modernities article

Sovereignty and its Afterlives in Muslim South Asia: A Response

SherAli Tareen, Defending Muhammad in Modernity (2020)

I want to begin by profusely thanking Josh Lupo and his team at the Contending Modernities program for their time and efforts in organizing this forum, Ebrahim Moosa for penning an incredibly thoughtful and productive introduction, and all discussants—Jonathan Brown, Faisal Devji, Zunaira Komal, Waris Mazhari, Ammar Nasir, and Sohaira Siddiqui—for their extensive intellectual generosity in engaging my book with such depth, brilliance, and insight. Their commentaries are not only a great gift and source of honor; they have also helped me think anew about the book in generative ways. Among the central aspirations of Defending Muḥammad in Modernity is to forge conversations between scholars in Islamic studies, South Asian history, religious studies, and anthropology in addition to generating interest (including critical and normative evaluations) among Muslim traditionalist scholars or the ‘ulamā’, especially in South Asia. Therefore, it is particularly heartening to see that collectively, contributors to this forum encompass all these intellectual profiles. Before I address the excellent points and critiques raised by the contributors, let me very briefly situate and contextualize the book in Western academic studies on Islam and South Asia, and add a word on how that context connects with its main argument. The beginnings of this project lie in my years as a graduate student at Duke University from 2005 to 2012. I entered graduate school during a moment when the field of religious studies was feverishly grappling with the recently published and hugely influential critiques and genealogies of secular power offered by Talal Asad and his students and interlocutors (it still is though perhaps with a more settled view of competing takes and readings). In addition, Muhammad Qasim Zaman’s pioneering work on Deoband, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change, that for the first time brought into view South Asian ‘ulamā’ discourses and debates from a perspective that combined intellectual history and religious studies, had also recently emerged. Fifteen years later, in Defending Muḥammad in Modernity I have sought to further and bring into more deliberate dialogue these two streams of scholarship in a manner that might disrupt secular claims about religious traditions. I do this through close readings of a particular tradition of intra-Muslim contest that highlight alternate logics of life unavailable for secular moderation and disciplinary canonization. More specifically, through a close reading of the Barelvī-Deobandī polemic, most often approached with a lens saturated with liberal secular binaries like legal/mystical, inclusive/exclusive, reformist/non-reformist etc., I try to present an alternate conceptual framing that instead sees this polemic as a reflection of what I call “competing political theologies.” With the loss of Muslim political sovereignty in nineteenth-century South Asia, the pioneers of the Barelvī and Deobandī orientations and their predecessors articulated and avidly fought for two rival visions of the relationship between divine sovereignty, prophetic authority, and the practice of everyday life. This in a nutshell is the argument of the book.

Logics of Sovereignty

The contributors to this forum have engaged varied aspects of this argument, while extending its scope and application in variously dazzling ways. Paucity of allotted space will not allow me to address all the points raised by each commentator; I will choose one or two from each and try clubbing them together when appropriate. In her theoretically electric reading of the book, Zunaira Komal asks the difficult question of how the notion of divine sovereignty in modern Muslim reformist discourses might “be understood alongside the sovereignty of the colonial state as well as the declining sovereignty of nineteenth-century Muslims in the subcontinent? Is the understanding of power within Islam similar or different than what the colonial encounter brought?” During the course of researching and writing this book, I wrestled with this question rather avidly. I cannot propose a resolution to this problem except to point out that traditionalist Muslim conceptions of divine sovereignty, its encounter with prophetic authority, and the implications of that encounter for the practice of everyday life cannot be collapsed or reduced to colonial power and conditions. This, of course, is not a gesture, as I stress repeatedly in the book, to retrieve “native agency” from the rubbles of colonial power. And yet, the competing logics of moral argument—centered on the status of divine sovereignty in a world enveloped by the crisis of political sovereignty—that animated the Barelvī-Deobandī polemic entailed a vision of the political that exceeded and provincialized the modern colonial and postcolonial privileging of the state as the centerpiece of politics. In this regard, I appreciate as well as concur with Komal’s astute suggestion that intra-‘ulamā’ debates on matters like the Prophet’s knowledge of the unknown (‘ilm al-ghayb) showcase a vision of the political that while contending with “the temporality of the world” remain “aspirationally open to the temporality of the Elsewhere.” Thus, though indebted to the technological and institutional conditions of colonial power, modern ‘ulamā’ discourses and debates on divine sovereignty point to horizons of politics that also disrupt the alleged universality of that power. This in turn marks their decolonial potential, as Sohaira Siddiqui has wonderfully elaborated in her remarks on this forum.

Paradoxes of Sovereignty

But as much as I am invested in detailing the distinctive logics of sovereignty at work in ‘ulamā’ discourses, capturing the vexing tensions and paradoxes of sovereignty haunting their discursive programs is also central to my concerns, as Faisal Devji has probingly observed in his signature quizzical style. He has also summed up the central paradox of sovereignty, as reflected in competing modern Muslim reformist discourses, rather pointedly: “On the one hand, a sovereignty unavailable to colonized peoples might 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.” Yes, indeed! Extending Devji’s helpful extension and elaboration of my argument here, I should add that it is precisely this tense interplay between the urgency to retrieve divine sovereignty in a world beset by moral corruption and to deny mortal humans responsible for that corruption any hint of popular sovereignty that renders ‘ulamā’ actors discussed in my book at once thoroughly modern and yet defiantly anti-modernist. In other words, even when critiquing spiritual hierarchies (such as in the Prophet’s capacity for intercession or access to knowledge of the unknown), their worldview remains wedded to a strictly hierarchical spiritual economy whereby the ability of the masses to access the vatic capital of God’s sovereign power and the Prophet’s normative guidance hinges on the mediating authority of the ‘ulamā’. At stake in defending Muḥammad in modernity—whether as an exceptional beloved of God endowed with extraordinary powers (the Barelvī view) or as an agent whose perfection depended on the perfection of his humanity (the Deobandī position)—is precisely the regulation of the encounter between divine sovereignty and prophetic charisma in a manner that ultimately amplifies the sovereign authority of the scholarly class. Devji’s intriguing suggestion that “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” provides a helpful frame with which one might begin to address a question that both Sohaira Siddiqui and Ammar Nasir raise in different ways: What is one to make of the postcolonial afterlives of these intra-Muslim polemics over prophetic memory and honor that trace their beginnings to the colonial moment? As Siddiqui asks: “[H]ow has the conceptual-ideological problem-space of the Deobandī-Barelvī polemic changed [in more recent times]?” Nasir asks a similar question while also advancing the suggestion that perhaps the stability and order provided by the juggernaut of the nineteenth-century colonial state is precisely the reason that many such intra-Muslim and inter-sectarian polemics did not descend to the sort of rabid violence that has often accompanied them in postcolonial contexts like Pakistan.

Postcolonial Ruptures

Let me offer three brief propositions addressing this line of inquiry: (1) The metastasis of violence associated with intra-Muslim doctrinal contestations in settings like Pakistan has perhaps less to do with the weakness of the state (as compared to say the colonial state) than the further intensification of the crisis of sovereignty in popular consciousness and everyday life. The instability of sovereign agency over the contingencies of life is increasingly compensated by the fantastical figure of a Prophet at once incorruptible and yet always vulnerable to injury. The pathological patrolling of prophetic love not only borrows liberally (pun intended) from a distinctly Christian political theology of blasphemy, as Devji in his comments points out; it also signals a rather fascinating interplay of masculine certainty and endemic fragility mapped onto the body of the Prophet. (2) While it is easy to get caught up in the proliferation of intra-Muslim divisions in the postcolonial context, we have also seen the emergence of some curious alliances between otherwise arch rivals. So, for instance, the recent movement and protests over blasphemy in Pakistan have often brought together Barelvī, Deobandī, and Ahl-i Ḥadīth actors in a common program of defying the state and non-state modernist elite. The lines of activity between ‘ulamā’ and more popular preachers and activists have also been often blurred, as seen most dramatically in the rise of the popular outfit Tehrik-i Labayk Ya Rasul Allah (TLYR) that has frequently sucked in ‘ulamā’ actors in their drive to protect prophetic honor even as it cuts into the latter’s’ religious authority in the marketplace of moral persuasion. (3) The space for intra-Muslim disagreement on sensitive theological questions has certainly shrunk; a century and couple decades later, it is almost unthinkable that questions like, “Can God produce another Muhammad?” or “What’s the difference between Muhammad’s and Satan’s knowledge?,” could be discussed and debated as transparently and with the sort of intellectual depth and nuance as they were by nineteenth-century Barelvī and Deobandī pioneers and their predecessors. Indeed, as I elaborate in the book’s postscript, if nothing else, the Barelvī-Deobandī polemic showcases the potential for intellectual fecundity associated with a fierce yet layered and complex polemical encounter. This is not to suggest some sort of a rise and fall model of history that valorizes the ‘ulamā’ of colonial India as occupants of a “golden era” of intellectual valor and sophistication supplanted by the mediocrity of the present. What I am gesturing at rather is an observable constriction in the parameters of doctrinal debate, especially on questions concerning the Prophet.

The Middle Eastern Shadow

Jonathan Brown wonderfully highlights a theme that, while discussed at numerous points in the book, certainly merits much further inquiry and exposition: the relationship between intra- ‘ulamā’ rivalries in modern South Asia and the Muslim intellectual landscape and debates of the Ottoman Middle East. As I detail in the book, the Hanafi assault on Wahhabi thought in Arabia not only colored the polemical ink of South Asian scholars like Aḥmad Razā Khān (d. 1921). Moreover, seeking the endorsement of prominent Arab scholars was also seen as a coveted pursuit by Barelvī and Deobandī pioneers alike (see esp. chapter 9). Brown has also highlighted an instructive irony: “[Aḥmad Razā] Khān’s writings seem to have had little impact on scholarship in the Arab world, certainly not in comparison to Deobandīs like Anwar Shāh Kashmīrī [d.1933]. Ironically, if asked about the Prophet’s knowledge of the unseen or the mawlid, scholars like [Zāhid] al-Kawtharī [d.1952] and [‘Abdallāh] al-Ghumārī [d.1993] would no doubt take the Barelvī side. But they could read and appreciate the books of Deobandī scholars in blissful removal from the controversies in South Asia.” This observation is pertinent not only to the interaction of Arab and South Asian traditionalism, but in a sense also to the popular reception of these rival groups within South Asia as well. On the one hand, the dominant mode of everyday ritual practice among South Asian Muslims most certainly aligns much greater with the Barelvī worldview. For instance, the Prophet’s birthday celebration today is not only deeply entrenched in the ritual life of the community; establishing it as a heretical innovation seems a task much more socially and doctrinally daunting than it was a century ago. However, despite the ritual entrenchment of the Barelvī orientation, the Deoband school continues to dominate the intellectual and popular terrain of religious knowledge in terms of institutional structures and depth, publishing capacity and output, and outreach to global scholarly audiences, as Brown’s analysis also confirms.

The Work Continues

Brown’s point also connects nicely with a useful and valid critique raised by Waris Mazhari that for all my claims to complicate Deobandī thought, I at times perhaps generalize its intellectual project without having considered prominent Deobandī ‘ulamā’ voices that run contrary to those generalizations. More specifically, Mazhari astutely argues that while I present the early nineteenth-century reformer Shāh Muḥammad Ismāʿīl (d. 1831) and the Deoband school as part of a common reformist program and genealogy, Deobandī heavyweights like Anwar Shāh Kashmīrī were in fact deeply critical of what they saw as Ismāʿīl’s acerbic discursive style. Mazhari’s critique not only provides me the opportunity to offer the clarification that my juxtaposition of Ismāʿīl and some of the Deoband pioneers was specific to some among the latter—most notably Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī (d. 1906), Ashraf ‘Alī Thānvī (d. 1943), and Khalīl Aḥmad Sāharanpūrī (d. 1927)—and to specific theological and normative problems. More importantly, it also serves as a useful reminder of the dizzying variety and the unpredictable scholarly trajectories that populate Deobandī and indeed Barelvī discursive universes. On that note, I hope Defending Muḥammad in Modernity and other kindred works that have appeared in the last couple years will inspire and attract more than a few graduate students to dive into the often-perplexing yet hugely rewarding waters of South Asian ‘ulamā’ traditions of knowledge and debate. Our work, indeed, has just begun.


SherAli Tareen
SherAli Tareen is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, and author of Defending Muhammad in Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020) that was awarded the 2020 American Institute of Pakistan Studies Book Prize. His work centers on Muslim intellectual thought in modern South Asia with a focus on intra-Muslim debates and polemics on crucial questions of law, ethics, and theology. Tareen is also interested in the intersection of secularism and Muslim intellectual thought, Muslim political thought, and Muslim revolutionary politics in the inter-war period. His various articles have appeared in the Journal of Law and Religion, Muslim World, Political Theology, Islamic Studies, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, ReOrient, among many others.

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