Towards change

Print edition : March 21, 2014
The book will appeal to scholars working in the area of Islamic studies and to social scientists interested in Islam and South Asia.

ISLAMIC reform has been a contentious and widely debated theme throughout the history of the religion. Even in its early years, a group known as the Kharijites dissociated itself from the main body of Muslims because it differed on the interpretation of certain theological issues and went to the extent of assassinating Ali ibn Abi Talib, the caliph who was the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad.

In South Asia, the gradual loss of Muslim power in the 19th century led Muslims to withdraw inwards and focus on purifying themselves. This fervent period was accompanied by the rise of a print culture and led to intense intra-Islamic debates by various reformist groups in the public sphere. The movements have been chronicled by scholars such as Barbara Metcalf , Usha Sanyal, David Lelyveld and Francis Robinson.

The book under review covers a wide area in terms of its historical orientations and geographic focus across South Asia and its 17 essays come from scholars in the fields of anthropology, history, political science, sociology and Islamic studies. In their introduction, the editors make it clear that the use of the categories “Islamic modernism”, “Reformism” and “Islamism” is fraught with danger as they mean different things in different contexts. Reformism, for the contributors of this volume, “…refers to projects whose specific focus is the bringing into line of religious beliefs and practices with what are held to be the core foundations of Islam, by avoiding and purging out innovation, accretion and the intrusion of ‘local custom’”.

Francis Robinson, one of the best historians of modern South Asian Islam, locates the great renewal in the Muslim world since the 18th century to the Western engagement with this sphere. The common features of these reform movements that took place as Islam came in touch with modernity were the ending of the total authority of the past, the new emphasis on human will, the transformation of the self, the rationalisation of Islam from scripturalism to its formation into an ideology, and the taking place of a process of secularisation.

In another essay, Faisal Devji shows the ambivalence of the Aligarh reform movement by looking at two Urdu novels: Umrao Jan Ada (1899) and Tawbat un-Nasuh (1877). While the Aligarh movement came to think of Muslim society as something that needed to be reformed and made modern, it also harked back to the vanished history of Muslims in northern India and celebrated nostalgia.

Pnina Werbner, in a chapter on reform Sufism in South Asia, goes back to the 17th century theologian Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi to locate reform within the Sufi tradition. Sirhindi advocated strict adherence to Islamic law in conjunction with mystical practice. While the Sufis’ incorporation of saintly intercession in their devotional practices is what troubles the scriptural reformists, the Sufis themselves argue that this practice is legitimate. In a close examination of a Naqshbandi Sufi tradition in Pakistan, the author delineates the contours of reform Sufism. The concern with Sufis continues to the next chapter, where Nile Green looks at breathing practices in the late 19th century among Sufis and yogis and argues that their focus on resuscitating age-old breathing techniques was a “…shared movement towards the indigenisation of physical culture in the face of colonial British modes of personal conditioning”. Here, reform is manifested in reconditioning the physical body. Breathing also acquired a communalist tinge as Sufis and yogis became players in the late 19th century politics of identity.

Arshad Alam turns his attention to madrasas where he shows that “…Islam is itself a matter of fierce debate amongst Indian Muslims and madrasas are principally concerned with the transmission of their own ( maslaki) understanding of Islam”. He looks at the process of the maslaki identity formation of madrasa students by focussing on a Barelwi madrasa in Mubarakpur.

In their study of Kerala, Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella argue that Islamic reformism in Kerala is a product of both a global Islamic impulse and its engagement with local social and political contexts. The authors look at the reformist organisation Kerala Naduvathul Mujahideen (KMN) in their exploration of Muslim society in Kerala.

Islamic piety movement

Farzana Haniffa writes that the visibility and spread of the Islamic piety movement in Sri Lanka can be located within the context of the ethnic conflict and polarisation that took plac e in that country. For her case study, she chooses to focus on one Muslim women’s preaching group active in Colombo. Muslims constitute the second minority in Sri Lanka and see themselves as distinct from the majority Sinhala and the minority Tamil communities. The author argues that the spread of the piety movement can be attributed to the growth of Muslim consciousness as a minority community.

In another chapter, Edward Simpson engages with three Muslim men in Gujarat over a period of 10 years and shows that the approach of scholars who delineate rigid boundaries between various schools of Islamic thought is flawed. In his interviews with Rafiq, Rasheed and Abbedin, Simpson shows that there is no consistency in their relationship with Islam and that their behaviour vis-à-vis Islamic reform is largely context dependent.

The next chapter looks at the response of Muslim women to the Islamising messages of the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA), an Islamist party, in the remote town of Chitral in north Pakistan. By focussing on certain women in the town who have taken on the MMA, Magnus Marsden shows the ambiguity of social life when it comes in touch with a reforming Islamic movement that wants to introduce Sharialaw.

Rubina Jassani, in her work with the riot victims of the Gujarat violence of 2002, looks at the growing influence of Islamic reformism in Ahmedabad in the aftermath of the savage anti-Muslim violence. She focusses on the impact that Islamist groups such as the Tabligh Jamaat, the Jamat-e-Islami (JeI) and the Jamiaat-e-Ulema-e-Hind had on the riot victims as they set about rebuilding their lives in the communally segregated city.

Informal religious lesson circles are proliferating rapidly in Bangladesh. Maimuna Haq considers “…how Islamic activists on the ground try to understand and become familiar with Islamic texts and learn to view their own experiences and duties in the light of this religious literature by looking at a particular women’s Islamist student organisation called Bangladesh Islamic Chatri Sangstha”. The author argues that lesson circles play a central role in the sustenance and expansion of Islamist movements in Bangladesh.

Irfan Ahmed, who has done extensive research on the JeI in the past, makes two brilliant arguments in his essay. First, he argues that Islam has no essence. This means that a non-patriarchal reading of Islam is possible if one looks at the emergent works on Islamic feminism. Second, it is wrong to impose a blanket label of “right wing” on all Islamist movements as it is misleading. He draws out his first argument by focussing on the inconsistency in the works and speeches of Abul Ala Maududi, the founder of JeI, vis-à-vis gender ideology.

The formation of the All India Muslim Women’s Personal Law Board in 2005 was a landmark in the Islamic feminist movement in India. Sylvia Vatuk discusses how Muslim women felt let down by the male-dominated All India Muslim Personal Law Board, leading to the establishment of a separate board that called into question certain aspects of Muslim personal law in India such as the triple talaq and polygamy. The author categorises this as a nascent Islamic feminist movement.

Attitude to contraception

Patricia Jeffrey, Roger Jeffrey and Craig Jeffrey study the attitude of Muslims towards contraception by focussing on a village in Uttar Pradesh. Few Muslim clerics have advocated family planning, and sterilisation is not actively endorsed by any school of Islamic jurisprudence. While Islamic doctrine certainly influences the villagers’ opinion on contraception, their secular concerns also need to be factored in to understand the various responses —some in favour and some against—to the issue. The authors argue that if the economic and social situation of Muslims improves, their fertility rates in the State will certainly decline.

By closely studying the working of a women’s reformist Islamic study circle ( halaqa) in Kuwait, Attiya Ahmed writes that women’s diasporic uncertainties and their development of cosmopolitan forms of Islamic practice have led to a proliferation of these circles. The circles show how reformist Islam helps in building social networks in contemporary transnational and cosmopolitan spaces.

Elora Shahabuddin looks at the JeI’s changing attitudes to women in Bangladesh and contends that it was prompted to undertake these changes by specific developments in local, social and political contexts. The JeI regularly invoked women’s privileged status as mothers to counter the claims of non-governmental organisations in the country that Islam was harmful to women. This change in attitude shows that the JeI is open to persuasion and change.

This comprehensive discussion of the book’s contents shows that it is a useful addition to the existing literature on Islamic reform. Of course, the fundamental problem of finding a coherent meaning for “reform” within Islam still persists. It is difficult to categorise Islamic reform in any single way as this book shows. This excellent book will appeal to scholars working in the area of Islamic studies and to social scientists interested in Islam and South Asia.

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