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Published in the 1-15 December 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review

A History of the present Indian Islam?

By Hilal AHmed (SOAS, London) 

Book: Indian Muslims Since 1947: Islamic Perspectives on Inter-Faith Relations
Author: Yoginder Sikand
Publisher: Routledge Curzon, London and New York
Year: 2004
Pp: pp. 274+ xii

The social scientific research on Indian Muslims in postcolonial India has been dominated by the legal experts and behaviourists. There is a tendency among social scientists to give priority to quantification of social, educational and political backwardness of Indian Muslims in contemporary India and to question the minority rights discourse. It is true that the quantification of social backwardness is an important task for understanding the social exclusion of any particular community. However, mere quantification of social backwardness does not tell us the responses of the community in changing socio-political environment. The recent study by Yoginder Sikand on multiple Islamic responses to modernity and the nation state in postcolonial India clearly fulfils this gap. This book attempts to examine the approaches and ideas of renowned Indian Islamic scholars and the programme and policies of selected Muslim social and political organisations to map out the ideological diversity and religious plurality of Indian Muslim community. 

The book is a compiled and modified version of the essays written by the author in last few years on different issues related to Indian Muslims. To provide a thematic unity to these essays the author identifies the notion of 'inter-faith dialogue/relations' in contemporary India as a broad overarching objective of the study. In its bid to explore the assortment of Islamic responses, the book gives a considerable importance to some of the untouched social issues of Indian Muslim communities such as the 'Dalit Muslim' assertion against the hegemony of upper caste/upper class Muslim leadership, the north-south divide and the emerging new middle class social leadership against the traditional religious dominance of what Sikand calls the "ulema class". In this sense, the book provides valuable information about different forms of Muslim marginalisation and an introduction to different Islamic ideological perspectives. The book simple goes beyond the idea of 'Muslim homogeneity' and forcefully argues in favor of internal democratization of the Muslim community in India by recognizing the struggles of marginalized Muslims. 

The book is divided into 13 long chapters. The introductory chapter tries to elaborate the relevance of the study and contextualises the agenda of the book. More precisely, this chapter introduces us to two basic concerns of the study: the reflections of Islamic religious plurality in India and the challenges of modern nation state. The author agues that the encounter between the challenges of modernity (that includes the political compulsions posed by the modern state) and the Islamic religious plurality in India has been forcing Islamic scholars, thinkers and activists to creatively conceptualise the legal-religious status of Muslims in free India and the applicable boundaries of Islamic Sharia. In this framework, as the author seems to suggest, the Muslim responses to other religious traditions and faith are important constituent of the Islamic ideological quests in contemporary India. The book maps out these responses and highlights different and almost contradictory ways by which the whole idea of inter-faith relation has been envisaged by the Muslim scholars and activists in postcolonial India. This line of argument is elaborated in the first three chapters of the book. The author discusses three most influential Indian Islamic scholars in these chapters: Asghar Ali Engineer, Maulana Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi and Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. The next four chapters introduce us to the other side of the spectrum. The author looks at the activities of Muslim organisations and newspapers that have been actively participating in the debate and discussions on the issues related the inter-faith relations. The author studies the Banglore based newspapers Islamic Voice, and Dalit Voice, the social-political organizations, the Jamaat-i-Islami of India and the All India Backward Muslim Morcha, and the writings of two grassroots Dalit leaders, Rashid Salim Adil and Ram Nath. The last four chapters again talk about some individuals and organizations. The writings of Acharya Maulana Shams Naved Usmani, the ideology and activities of the Deendar Anjuman, the Student Islamic Movement in India and the separatist organisation the Lashkar-e-Tayyba (Kashmir) are examined in these chapters. 

The book offers a rich diversity of valuable facts and details about the Indian Muslim communities, particularly about the emerging ideological trends and political assertions of marginalised sections. However, there are some inherent shortcomings and flaws in the book that create confusions and undermine the efforts of the author. Analytically speaking, two kinds of ambiguities could clearly be identified in this study. Firstly, there are methodological issues that require some sort of clarifications. For instance, the author does not tell us about his own applied methodological criterion/priorities in selecting Muslim individual and organisations for such an important study. The individuals and organisations are selected quite randomly and the author does not give justification for these selections. Similarly, the author could not maintain a consistent approach throughout the book. In fact, he literally fails to develop an integrated approach to the sociology and politics of Indian Muslims. We encounter at least four or five different approaches in this book. For instance, we find a very radical approach on the Dalit Muslim question. The author makes very powerful comments against the traditional "ulema class" and declares that the traditional fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) has no role to play; however, his radicalism vanishes very soon. The chapters on Maulana Nadwi, Maulana Wahiduudin Khan and Shams Usmani do not offer any criticism or analyses. Particularly, the chapter on Maulana Nadwi is simply an adaptation of Maulana's own Urdu autobiography Karwan-e-Zindagi and his well known biography by Muhammed Nafis Hasan. Maulana Nadawi, who was regarded as an expert on Islamic fiqh, is not discussed in the context of Dalit Muslims question. As a result Sikand could not relate his placing of empirical facts with his own arguments. 

Secondly, the book suffers from some conceptual ambiguities. For instance, the chapter on Asghar Ali Engineer is the only chapter of the book which attempts to provide a critical overview. Sikand criticises Engineer on two grounds: (a) Engineer has developed a kind of 'selective' study of Quran for legitimising his own political activism and (b) Engineer does not give adequate attention to the intrinsic totality of Islamic religious traditions (including the Hadith and Fiqh) and somehow glamorises the democratic Islam, particularly invoking the notion of shura (pp.27-30). Here Sikand, rightly, seems to suggest that the Islam should always be seen in a totality and the verses of Quran, the Hadith (sayings of the prophet) and fiqh are inseparable part of a grand Islamic knowledge system. Engineer's 'selective' approach is refuted because he does not recognise this totality. However, on similar grounds Sikand praises the Muslims contributors of Dalit Voice. Admiring their creative use of Islamic theology for 'ideological purposes', Sikand argues that these authors reject the fiqh and develop their own understanding of Islam simply by looking at the Quran as a creative text (pp.104-105). If Asghar Ali Engineer is contextualising Islam for political purposes, what these Muslim Dalit writers are doing? Or alternatively, what is the difference between 'ideological purposes' and 'political objectives'? If the Muslim Dalit question is an ideological issue and has posed serious challenges against the dominant Muslim leadership in India, how could it be described merely as a non-political ideological assertion? Sikand's study does not answer these conceptual issues. 

There is another conceptual problem in the study. The author does not look at the historical evolution of the concepts like nation state, modernity and post-modernity. He takes a monolithic and almost singular meaning of these concepts, and does not consider an important fact that 'modernity' and 'nation state', though emerged in the West at a particular historical juncture, have taken multiple forms particularly in non-western and postcolonial societies like India. Thus, the Muslim responses to India nation state should be differentiated from the other forms of nations states developed elsewhere. The trajectories of this specific 'nation state' and the process of development that took place in independent India are also important to analyse the Muslim response. The problem of conceptual clarity of meanings is also reflected in Sikand's treatment of Islamic fiqh in this book. His understanding of fiqh quite clearly stems from Maulana Wahiduddin Khan's criticism of Islamic jurisprudence. However, Sikand fails to understand that fiqh is a much wider concept than the 'jurisprudence'. In fact, fiqh was developed as a kind of 'interpretative framework' to understand the Quran and the Hadith and to formulate codes of conducts in accordance with the religious doctrine. Moreover, the fiqh never undermined the cultural plurality of Muslim communities. The seminal work of Muhammed Iqbal, the Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam could be a reference point in this context. Iqbal recognises fiqh as a form of historical knowledge and questions its viability in modern times. If Muslim Dalit writers are re-interpreting the Quran and the Hadith, they are not rejecting fiqh, rather they are reproducing it for creating more egalitarian codes of social conducts. 

This book, no doubt, touches some important issues but its conceptual weaknesses and the flaws in the methodology simply do not satisfy the curiosity of readers. Nor is it qualified as a final outcome of a serious research. Yoginder Sikand is a prolific writer and the editor of a web magazine. He is also known as an emerging activist intellectual in the Muslim academic circles. It is expected that in future Sikand would rethink on his approach to Indian Islam to clarify his own ideological position and political activism. 

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