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Book Review
Muslim ‘nationhood’ in India

Book: Muslim Nationhood in India: Perceptions of Seven Eminent Thinkers
Author: Safia Amir
Publishers: Kanishka Publishers, Distributors, New Delhi.
Year: 2000
Pages: 285
Price: Rs. 550 Order Now
ISBN: 81-7391-335-8

This work, which had its beginnings in a doctoral dissertation, is an attempt to study identity-consciousness among Muslims in British India by analyzing the views of seven leading figures of the community between 1857 and 1947. The author has employed the concept of nationhood as a parameter of the consciousness (or lack of it), of a separate and distinct identity of the community among these thinkers, namely Sayyid ['Sayyad' throughout the book] Ahmad Khan, Shibli Nu’mani, Mohammad Iqbal, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Abul Kalam Azad, Sayyid Husayn Ahmad Madani and Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi. Nationhood is thus explored not merely as a political concept, but also in terms of its cultural constituents i.e. religion, culture, history, language, society etc.

The work is placed in the important period between the first war of Indian independence, and its attainment nearly a century later. This is the period when the question of Muslim identity was being mostly hotly debated in the Indian subcontinent, and ultimately culminated in the birth of Pakistan. On the other hand there came into being a secular India with a drastically depleted Muslim minority. The work, written in the backdrop of the freedom struggle, throws up some interesting themes such as the definition and use of the terms `qawm' or nation and their derivatives; Muslim nationhood at the level of community, country, and the world at large; its relationship with Indian nationalism, as well as with its own cultural components such as education, language, etc. It also throws light on Muslim politics and attitude to the struggle for independence, and their relationship with other Indian communities, as well as their co-religionists the world over. The concepts of khilafat and the ideal Islamic state, the debate between composite and separate nationhood, and the important question of the relation between religion and politics are also analyzed.

The thinkers under study have been selected as representative of the period as well as the community, and are significant as opinion-makers within it. The author justifies chapterization according to the personalities rather than common themes, as a means of tracing the intellectual and ideological development of each thinker, as well as between them, over a period of time. For the same reason chronological order has been maintained in the arrangement of the chapters, as well as within each. The common thematic trends have been discussed at length in the conclusion, which also provides an assessment of each thinker. The text has been well organized under various subheadings. In the introduction the author makes an attempt to define some of the key terms used in the book and differentiates between nationhood and nationalism.

Sayyid Ahmad Khan is seen as a loyalist, his loyalism stemming from his pragmatism. The fluctuating pattern in his thought between a united Indian and a separate Muslim nationhood is well-illustrated. Although he was a strong champion of Hindu-Muslim unity, friendship, and cultural exchange; he was absolutely against any kind of political unity between them, specially against the British government. He doubted the intentions of the Hindus, accusing them of wanting to politically subjugate the Muslims. He therefore recommended, for the Muslims, the pursuit of education, and friendship with the government. Although he upheld social and cultural unity of the two major communities till the very end, in the latter part of his life he seems to have moved towards a much more aggressive and exclusive version of Muslim nationhood.

The author perhaps rightly concludes that Sir Sayyid was not concerned with theorizing about Muslim identity in India, his sole aim being the socio-economic rehabilitation of his ravaged community, and all his efforts were geared towards this end. Accordingly he supported British rule in India, Hindu-Muslim unity, and the united Indian nationhood which stemmed from the latter, because he felt it was conducive to the attainment of these ends.

Sir Sayyid's young contemporary Shibli Nu'mani displays great insight and broadness of vision - both in his views regarding Muslim politics and education, as well as their relationship with their sister community. Yet despite his attitude of reconciliation, Shibli firmly advocates the combating, by Muslims, of religious dangers posed by hostile and aggressive Hindus such as the Arya Samaj; even while he emphasizes the age-old bonds of culture and friendship between the two communities. The author rejects his disciple and biographer Sayyid Sulayman Nadwi's projection of Shibli as a political pan-Islamist, despite his deep Turkish sympathies. Although a follower of Sir Sayyid in his early days, later Shibli is shown to have differed from him in his egalitarianism, as well as his views on Muslim education, politics, and relations with the Hindus.

Like Sir Sayyid and Shibli, Mohammad Iqbal also dwelt at length on the question of education, and its role in preserving identity. The uncompromising idealism of his thought (which drove him from Islamic universalism to a confined territorial Muslim nationalism), the conflict within it between reform and conservatism, as well as his obsession with survival are well illustrated. It is interesting to see how he envisaged the ideal Islamic political order - sometimes as a league of Muslim nations, at others as a world state. The parallels between him and Sir Sayyid are well brought out - the insecurity, fear of Hindu domination, the emphasis on India's irreconcilable multi-cultural and multi-religious, in short, "multi-national" identity etc. It is interesting to note that what Iqbal proposed in 1930 - which became the germ of the Pakistan idea - was only a Muslim state(s) within an Indian federation.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah's evolution from an ardent nationalist to an unrelenting votary of separatism is well traced. He is often shown to have echoed Sir Sayyid's, and particularly Iqbal's views, without however the latter's depth of thought. It is not surprising that Jinnah is not very convincing in his attempt to justify the creation of Pakistan on an ideological basis - he was first and last a practical politician, and not a political theorist. His repudiation of religious, and reversion to territorial nationalism immediately after the birth of Pakistan is also in explicable, and well illustrated.

The development in Abul Kalam Azad's thought from an ardent khilafatist to a committed swarajist is well illustrated. In the early period he fervently espoused world-wide Islamic unity, which is not in evidence in his later thought and politics, when it appears to have been replaced by more secular Indian concerns. Apparently he developed these ideas in the context of the khilafat movement, and abandoned them when the Turkish khilafat was abolished.

Azad urged the Muslims to get over their fear and insecurity, and to unite fearlessly with the Hindus for the joint movement of khilafat and swaraj. He was the first to present the Constitution of Madinah as a precedent not only for Hindu-Muslim co-operation, but also for composite nationhood in India, which was enthusiastically taken up by later thinkers like Mawlana Husayn Ahmad. Later he appears to be gradually moving from a world-wide Muslim nationhood to composite Indian nationalism. He also appears to be recommending to Muslims, complete surrender to and unquestioning faith in the Congress and Gandhi, trusting to their good will alone.

Sayyid Husayn Ahmad Madani appears most intense in his pro-khilafat and anti-British stand. His views on composite Indian nationalism were also designed for the purpose of combating the British, and apparently in response to Iqbal's criticism of his espousal of territorial nationalism. He appears more liberal than Iqbal in his interpretation of Islam, allowing greater flexibility to Muslims in their dealings and politics. He is a votary of realism and gradualism in politics, and his theory of expediency and "the lesser evil" is in keeping with this. He advocated co-operation with the Congress for freedom, but would not hesitate to oppose it where it worked against Muslim interests.

Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi's early views on Muslim nationhood appear to be influenced by Iqbal's, but later they underwent considerable transformation. He undermined the treaty of Madinah as a precedent for forging a composite Indian nationhood. His views regarding Muslim education and politics are coloured by his belief in the need to establish an Islamic order through a process of training which would ultimately lead to an Islamic revolution. His views on jihad also appear novel for his times - that its purpose was also the creation of such a system, at first locally and then universally. He is uncompromising on the necessity of establishing an Islamic state, and therefore strongly repudiates Maulana Madani's theory of gradualism and expediency.

The author rightly comments on how religious authority was invoked by all the Muslim thinkers, and the Qur’an and Hadith profusely quoted in support of conflicting views, by means of varying interpretations. The pre-occupation of Muslim thinkers with education and its relation to nationhood is also noted. The author ends with an observation regarding the ambiguity surrounding the word qawm. The material has been painstakingly collected, well exploited, and presented as a coherent whole. The development in the thought of each personality has been well followed. The work is informative analytical, and eminently readable.

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