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Published in the 16-30 Sep 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review

Political Islam in India

By Yoginder Sikand


The Language of Political Islam in India, c.1200-1800
Author: Muzaffar Alam
Publisher: Permanent Black, Delhi
Year: 2004
Pp: 244
ISBN: 81-7824-062-9
Price: Rs. 575

Writing about what is loosely called ‘political Islam’ has become a major fad today. Scores of books have been published on the subject, mostly dealing with Islamist movements in West Asia. This book is a pioneering attempt to examine the language of politics and the political culture of Islam as articulated by Muslim literary and religious elites in medieval India. It examines the diverse ways in which medieval north Indian Muslim ‘ulama and Sufis looked at the medieval Muslim state and the notion of the shari‘ah in relation to political affairs. For this purpose it draws principally upon the Persian tradition of ‘Mirror of Princes’, focusing on the role played by the Persian literary tradition in India in defining the political culture of the pre-Mughal and Mughal state in India.

Alam aims at tracing the transformation of the understandings of the relationship between Islam and politics over time in medieval India. The purpose of this analysis is to highlight the fact that these understandings have never been static, and nor have they been monolithic. Rather, they have been shifting as well as multiple. Further, they have also been context-specific. Given the fact that Muslims have always been a minority in India, the understandings of the relationship between Islam and political power have always necessarily had to take into account the fact of the existence of a non-Muslim majority. Because of this accommodation to a Muslim-minority context, Alam shows, several Indian Muslim thinkers evolved novel and distinct interpretations of the shari‘ah on matters of political import. 

At the same time as Alam stresses the importance of looking at these alternative perspectives, he also warns against conflating theory with actual practice. Thus, he shows that while many Muslim Sultans claimed to rule fully in accordance with the shari‘ah, in actual practice this was hardly the case at all. In many cases, the Sultans ruled according to popular custom that contradicted the shari‘ah, offering various excuses for this purpose. Often, the court ‘ulama acquiesced in these pragmatic adjustments to expediency, being dependent on the rulers for patronage. At the same time, however, they continued to remain wedded to traditional understandings of the normative shari‘ah, insisting, for instance, on the need for the degradation and humiliation of the Hindus. Mercifully, few Sultans took their advice seriously on that front. Further, Alam shows how various Sultans evolved novel interpretations of the shari‘ah in order to justify certain acts that went against traditional understandings of Islamic jurisprudence. This shift from normative understandings of shari‘ah was also the result of the influence of pre-Islamic Turkic and Persian customary codes as well as of certain strands of Sufism that stressed a more accommodative approach to the Hindus. In turn, these influences moulded the ways in which the term shari‘ah was itself understood.

Alam discusses in length the diversity of understandings of the concept and content of the shari‘ah, thereby challenging the notion of shari‘ah as essentialist and monolithic. He points out that the concept was understood in medieval India in various ways, and not simply in a narrow legalist sense, by the ‘ulama, Sufis and Muslim philosophers. Alam’s discussion of Indian Sufi understandings of shari’ah is brilliant, showing how numerous Sufi texts appropriated several pre-Islamic, particularly Greek and Iranian, ideas in order to provide what he calls a ‘philosophical, non-sectarian and humane solution to emergent problems that India’s Muslim society encountered’ (p.12). This sort of approach to the shari‘ah was aimed at countering the narrow understanding of Islamic jurisprudence as articulated by many court ‘ulama. It allowed for a more inclusive approach to the Hindus, thus enabling a large number of Hindus, almost all from the ‘upper’ castes, to play an important role in the pre-Mughal as well as Mughal administration. In other words, Alam argues, the influence of the traditional, literalist ‘ulama was hardly as powerful as is generally imagined. 

This book is a timely contribution to the ongoing debate on ‘political Islam’. Alam highlights the fact of the sharply contested nature of the notion of the shari’ah, thus challenging the politics of contemporary radical Islamists. He also discusses in considerable detail alternative perspectives of Islamic jurisprudence that sought to creatively relate to people of other faiths, mainly Hindus. He shows that although these were fiercely opposed by many literalist ‘ulama, they seem to have been generally accepted by numerous Muslim rulers, enabling them to incorporate a large number of Hindu elites in their administration, which, in turn, made the period of Turkish and Mughal rule in India a multi-religious and multi-ethnic venture. 

Readers with a stickler for political correctness will find the title of the book somewhat misleading. ‘Political Islam’, as represented by Islamist groups, is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, in which Islam comes to be seen as a full-blown ideology. This is quite distinct from the medieval Indian understandings of the shari‘ah that this book discusses. Alam does not directly deal with this issue, and indeed does not even define what he means by ‘political Islam’. Nor does he distinguish his use of the term for the medieval period from its contemporary usage, although he does note how different many of the medieval scholars he deals with were from present-day radical Islamists, who see the historical shari‘ah as a quick-fix solution to every conceivable problem. The choice of the title may be unfortunate, and perhaps a clever selling gimmick, but that ought not to detract from the worth of this immensely readable and remarkably well-researched book. «

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