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Islamic inquiry

Print edition : Nov 09, 2018 T+T-
On self-critique as a fundamental tenet of Islam, women’s equality and the evolution of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

IRFAN AHMAD , professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Gottingen, Germany, has carved out a reputation for himself as someone who can delve into the corridors of the faithful and come up with rare gems. A little under a decade ago, Ahmad, then based in Melbourne, revealed to readers the heart and head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an organisation founded in 1941 by Abul Ala Maududi. Navigating through the chequered history of the organisation, he provided glimpses of the role of the madrasas in the life of believers and showed how faith acted as a glue on a population divided by language, attire, arts and abode.

His book Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of the Jamaat-e-islami (2009) was a profound exercise in understanding the Jamaat.

Not many scholars had sought to understand the Jamaat and its unique ideological persuasion. None had exhibited the breadth of understanding in doing so in English. Ahmad delineated the purpose of the Jamaat, its evolution and explained how an organisation that had fundamentally aimed at establishing a society based on the Sharia came to use the tools of modern secular democracy and found a place of its own.

In the book under review, Ahmad makes bold to critique religion, not just reveal or expose it. Not for him patterns of parallelism, instead Ahmad goes into the hows and whys of Maududi’s politics. He shows how a man who was profoundly nationalist, and had written biographies of Mahatma Gandhi and Madan Mohan Malviya, found himself pushed to the margins of the polity rather than be allowed to swim along with the mainstream. The blame is laid at the door of the emerging contours of the Indian freedom struggle in the 1920s and, particularly, the 1930s. It was a time when the Indian National Congress, for all its frequent espousal of pluralism, failed to discern the differences between Hindu nationalism and Indian nationalism, much like a layman today often equates Hindutva with Hinduism. While prominent Hindutva votaries such as V.D. Savarkar, K.B. Hedgewar and M.S. Golwalkar had not yet overcome their inclination to see Muslims as the first enemy and the British as the next, the Congress was guilty of accommodating certain shades of religious nationalism that did not go down well with a vast section of the population, among them Maududi. Electoral compulsions and the struggle to achieve the larger goal of ousting the British from India made Congress leaders use the Ganapati mahotsav and other Hindu festivals to draw more people into the freedom movement. With prominence given to the likes of Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lala Lajpat Rai, Muslims were disaffected and almost disillusioned. If the immersion of Ganapati idols was synonymous with nationalism, there was little for Muslims in it. While some Muslims bought into the two-nation narrative propounded by the Muslim League, as indeed the Hindu Mahasabha, others chose to chart their own course.

Maududi was among them. His faith in a multi-religious nation was shattered at the altar of electoral politics. He took recourse to religion and came to the conclusion that the interests of the Muslim community were best served by ushering in an order based on the Sharia. Thus came about the Jamaat-e-Islami, founded by a man whose views evolved with the changing dynamics of politics around him. Many criticise him for this move, saying it had driven the community into insularity from which it is yet to recover.

However, unlike other scholars, Ahmad is able to explain why Maududi took this distinct course. When the Congress failed to differentiate between Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism, Maududi “opposed the pervasive move with the strong backing from within the ‘secular’ Congress”, of rendering “Hindu nationalism and Indian nationalism coterminous”.

Evolution of Maududi

Ahmad gives us the evolution of Maududi in the section titled “The Message: Critical Enterprise”. Using a fine-tooth comb and dispassionate analysis facilitated by distance in time, Ahmad writes: “Any discussion of Maududi ought to begin by noting that his views were far from monolithic and static. The writings of young and early Maududi are significantly different from those of late Maududi. The year 1937 was a watershed because under the Government of India Act of 1935, for the first time elections were held to form provincial governments. The 1937 elections, not based on adult franchise, were crucial as they unveiled the challenges and problems of democracy in a multi-religious polity and the minoritisation of Muslims.... In the 1930s, two formations had emerged as almost hegemonic on the Indian political scene: the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. In 1941, Maududi founded Jamaat to contest the vision of Muslim politics represented by both the League, and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind (JUH), an organisation of Deoband ulema founded in 1919, of which Maududi had been an ardent sympathiser. In the 1920s, and subsequently, the JUH and the Congress formed an alliance. Initially, Maududi supported the Congress and published biographies of Mohandas Gandhi and Madanmohan Malviya.... Maududi grew disenchanted, however, with the Congress’s nationalism, which he held, favoured Hindus and marginalised Muslims and their culture.”

Maududi had spotted the problem or what he perceived it to be. The solution was far to seek. If the League could not safeguard Muslim interests, what else could? If the Congress could not accommodate all faiths, then what else could? The Jamiat was not too distinguishable from the Congress those days. There were no easy answers. Maududi took recourse to religion. He studied Islam in depth and came to the conclusion that a lot of corruption had crept into daily life. When the Congress formed Ministries in the provinces, Ahmad says, Maududi “equated the policies of the ministries as heralding the Hindu raj”.

If Maududi’s views crystallised around this time, the same is true of the author’s. It is in this section that he raises the book above the level of a mere academic discourse and attempts to project a complete picture of Maududi with his strengths and weaknesses and seeks to place him in the socio-economic-political idiom of the day.

Ahmed writes: “Across the ideological divide, academics and social scientists, including philosophers, not to mention journalists, hurried to cite Maududi’s later writings as proof of Muslims’ hostility to democracy as manifest in his notion of theodemocracy. Since their purpose is to ‘theologise’ Maududi, they rarely mention his writings on economy, where he critiqued colonialism for impoverishing India. To Maududi, the exploitation of Indian labour and the working poor was not a national issue; it was part of global colonialism, the leitmotif of which was the ‘pursuit of self-interests by the capitalists’.”

These thoughts on Maududi are insightful, but there is much more to Religion as Critique . Limiting the book to the Maududi strand would be as erroneous as regarding Maududi as the most conservative Muslim leader. Ahmad critiques the Jamaat with relish, reminding all those who take umbrage at the criticism that even the companions of the Prophet were not removed from tanqid (critique).

Interestingly, for the vast majority of readers who do not have a passing acquaintance with Urdu, he gives a neat list of practices approved or disapproved by Islam. Ahmad, rightly, puts tanqid in the approved section, reserving the disapproval for taeib (to find fault with others), takbir (to glorify) and tazhik (to mock). If Ahmad’s scholarly skills come to the fore in this section, they shine splendidly in the section titled “The Difference: Women and (In)equality”. Beginning the section with a reflection on the murder of Pakistani Muslim League leader Zille Huma by Ghulam Sarvar at Gujranwala near Lahore in February 2007 “in full public view”, Ahmad writes: “According to the BBC report, Sarvar killed her because he opposed rule by women.”

Zille Huma had just then joined the League and recruited 10,000 women to the party. Ahmad contests the labelling of all Islamist movements as right wing, arguing that it simplifies the complexity of Islamism. Here, too, he refers to Maududi’s views on women, citing his treatise Pardah (The Veil) in which he argues that women’s freedom had led to the decline of many a nation.

Maududi talked of moral degradation of women, particularly, among Westernised Muslims. He attacked the League for flouting Sharia limits on women. In fact, Maududi did not find any difference in the attitude of the Congress and the League when it came to women. Maududi blamed men for the “degradation of women” as they “encouraged women to step out of their ‘natural’ space: home”. Little wonder then that Maududi called co-education “poison”.

Credit must be given to Ahmad for refraining from repeating stereotypes. Whether he talks of Maududi in particular or religion in general, he backs up his arguments with words of scholars from different eras. Never once is he found amiss while talking of the verses of the Quran or the hadith. Religion as Critique clears away many cobwebs and opens the windows of the mind to things and individuals past.