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Understanding Islamic Revivalism

Islam, South Asia and the West by Francis Robinson;

Economic & Political Weekly EPW november 1, 200825Understanding Islamic RevivalismAmit DeyTwo major developments in world history during the past two centu-ries have been the expansion of western power and the revival of Islam. South Asia has played a central role in both these processes. The book under review is a collection of 24 essays written in the decade 1994-2004 by Francis Robinson, a leading specialist on Islam. The essays included in this volume explain the dynamics of Islamic revival, how it interacted with British power in creating the modern Muslim world, and whether there is a clash of civilisations. In his book, the author encounters key issues of contemporary relevance – the inter-actions between Islamic revivalism and British power in moulding the modern Muslim world; the role of knowledge in fashioning Muslim societies; and the emergence of the ulemaor the transmit-ters of knowledge as a pressure group. Robinson discusses the major shift from an other-worldly to a this-worldly piety amongst Muslims, the energy this has unleashed for the process of Muslim revival, and its meaning for relations between Islam and the west. The intellec-tual endeavour of the author in this field is a continuation of his earlier engagements as manifested in his scholarly works enti-tledAtlas of the Islamic World since 1500 (1982), Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World (1996),Islam and Muslim History in South Asia(2000) and The Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia (2001). Three Major DevelopmentsWe have been reminded by the author of the importance of studying Islam in south Asia in the context of three major develop-ments – Hindu revivalism, Muslim revival-ism, and the impact of the west. Since the 19th century, Hindu revivalism has been a part of Indian religious and political life which developed as a response to British hegemony and the Christian and enlightenment ideas that came with it, to past Muslim domination and present Islamic revivalism, and to the inclusive secularism that largely characterised the movement for independence. Historians and intellectuals in India have been con-cerned about the emergence of political Hinduism out of Hindu revivalism during the past few decades which tended to demonise Muslims and other minority groups and to destroy or appropriate Mus-lim buildings. Besides, attempts have been made to rewrite history from a Hindutva perspective to mould young minds from school days. The demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992 and the pogrom against the Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 were two extreme manifestations of this trend. His-torians became painfully aware that, along with the struggle for political power, there was also a struggle to control the past. Through the 19th and 20th centuries Islamic revivalism emerged as a global phenomenon. In the subcontinent it became entangled with British colonisa-tion, Hindu chauvinism, and the politics of nationalism which weaved the political landscape we are familiar with. In a wider global context it interacted with western imperial expansion to give shape to some Muslim states. In the subsequent period it posed a challenge to the model of secular nationalism which many independent Muslim states adopted. By the end of the 20th century, Muslim revivalism became a force to be reckoned with in the Islamic world and beyond. Under such circum-stances some western commentators began to talk of its political form – which has often embraced a powerful anti-western rhetoric – in terms of a “clash of civili-sations”. Such talk, as Chapter 8, ‘Islam and the West: Clash of Civilisations?’, endeavours to argue, can act as a destabil-ising factor by creating confusion. Never-theless, along with global warming, and the economic empowerment of China and India, the widespread presence of Islamic revivalism, in both its non-political and political forms, is, arguably, one of the great dynamic facts of the global scene in recent times.Specific ThemesNow let us turn to consider the specific themes of each essay. Chapter 1, ‘Know-ledge, Its Transmission and the Making of Muslim Societies’, informs us about the transmission of formal Islamic knowledge and spiritual knowledge and the coming to relevance of this knowledge to different societies in different parts of the Islamic world in different ages. Such transmission of knowledge can play a crucial role in the making and remaking of Muslim societies. There was a time when a high position was reserved for ‘ulum-i aqqliya’ (rational knowledge) alongside ‘ulum-i-naqqliya’ (inherited knowledge, such as scriptural knowledge) in the three great Muslim empires, i e, Mughal, Safavid and Otto-man. But gradually the latter came to occupy a supreme position in the Islamic world relegating the former into insigni-ficance. This process coincided with the rise of the west which put emphasis on rational and scientific knowledge. Consid-ering the transmission of Islamic know-ledge over 1,400 years it makes clear how revolutionary the last 200 years of west-ern hegemony in the Muslim world have been. Western presence sometimes served as an impetus to the Islamic reform move-ments which undermined spiritual know-ledge and on other occasions it helped Islamic knowledge to reposition itself in order to make way for the new learning from the west. As has been the case with other revealed religions, there has been a major and ongoing struggle within Islam to make revelation relevant to the present, and to do so with authority.Chapter 2, ‘The Ulama of South Asia from 1800 to the Mid-20th Century’, shows how, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the ulema – in particular the reforming ulema – in the absence of effective Muslim Islam, South Asia and the Westby Francis Robinson; Oxford University Press; Rs 595, pp review
BOOK REVIEWEconomic & Political Weekly EPW november 1, 200827Muslims had been subjects first, of Euro-pean empire and then of American hege-mony. The mourning of lost power was one of the characteristic features of some Muslim literary cultures, and so was pro-test against the bullying and hypocrisy of the west. This did not escalate into a clash of civilisations. However, the author has observed that a significant section of the non-Iraqi Muslims all over the world felt humiliated by what was taking place in Iraq. He argues that if the west fails to show more respect, if its efforts to stand up for justice and fair dealing in relation to the Muslim world ends in a fiasco, it might just begin to create a real clash of civilisations. The second part of the volume consists of reviews of important books on south Asia and the Muslim world. The author particularly enjoys this work of taking “relatively obscure learning” to a wider public. This part includes 16 articles, and we can pick up a few for our discussion considering their representative value. One of the major events of the past mil-lennium was the establishment of Muslim rule in India. Gradually one-third of the subcontinent’s peoples embraced Islam and the subcontinent became the homeland for one-third of the world’s Muslims. It created the environment in which in the 16th and the 17th centuries, the Mughal empire, the greatest of the early modern Muslim empires, was to flourish. Leading ideas and important organisations for the Muslim world were generated in India from the 18th to the 20th century. There is no doubt that in the process the centre of gravity of the Muslim world experienced an eastward shift. Chapters 12, 13, 14, 15, and 21 deal with books covering the rise, the grandeur, and the decline of Muslim power in India. Chapter 13 reviews a brilliant piece of work in which Peter Jackson examines the rise and fall of the Delhi Sultanate. By painstak-ing and judicious handling of manuscripts, inscriptions, coins and also secondary liter-ature, he has established a standard work in the field. In the light of the contested nature of India’s past he demonstrates that the rule of the Delhi sultans, like that of the Mughals and the British, was dependent on Hindu support. Chapters 12 and 14 deal with aspects of the decline of Muslim power. ‘Glimpses of a Lost World’ (Chapter 14) is concerned with C M Naim’s translation into English of the autobiography of the poet, Mir Taqi Mir. It is an amazing introduction to the world of humanity, affection, and love in 18th cen-tury India. At another level, it reminds us of the turbulence and uncertainties which engulfed much of India during the decline of the Mughals. The wide dispersion of power and resources following the Afghan ransacking of Delhi only added to the mis-ery of the poet who was perennially in search for patrons. Finally, the arrival of the British in upper India towards the end of his life destroyed the environment in which his courtly poetry flourished. Chap-ter 12 (‘House of Mirrors’) takes us forward by 100 years. The British were strongly entrenched and only recently displayed the magnitude of their strength in their ruth-less suppression of the mutiny uprising and their brutal revenge on the cities of Delhi and Lucknow. This review of Shackle and Majeed’s translation of Hali’s Musaddas enables us to understand the importance of this epic poem in the context of the development of a distinct community iden-tity among the Indian Muslims. On the one hand, the Urdu poem reminds the Muslims of their golden past. On the other it reveals the abject condition of Muslims in the present both in India and abroad and also focuses upon their attitude towards their powerlessness in the face of the west. The poem emphasises the need to adopt an Islamised version of “Victorian values” in order to achieve success. On the SufisNo discussion on south Asian Islam would be comprehensive if the Sufis or Muslim mystics are excluded. They played a key role in the “conversion” of millions to Islam in this part of the world. In two sep-arate chapters, Robinson has reviewed two important books on Sufism in south Asia. The review of Riazul Islam’s magnum opus on 14th century Sufis re-minds us how they could bring about a synthesis between this-worldly and other-worldly responsibilities. Chapter 16 re-views Simon Digby’s Sufis and Soldiers in Awrangzeb’s Deccan, his translation of the ‘malfuzat’ (table talks involving leading Sufis) of two Sufis who migrated to the 17th century Deccan from Bukhara. One, Baba Musafir, was a contemplative who put emphasis on prayer, meditation and studying scriptures. Thus his khanqah (Sufi hospice) soon emerged as an impor-tant centre of Islamisation. The second was Baba Palangposh, a military Sufi who guarded the army of Ghazi al-Din Khan, the Mughal general responsible for the foundation of Hyderabad state. Thanks to his supernatural power, he could act as a morale booster in the battle field. Both these Sufis belonged to the ‘Naqsbandiya’ order which is known for its orthodoxy such as hostility towards music. But these two showed great flexibility by accepting music and refraining from proselytising activities which implied that they were prepared to appropriate at least some of the local cultural traditions. Indeed, Digby joins the cluster of historians such as K A Nizami, A Schimmel, R Eaton, Carl Ernst, Muzaffar Alam, Bruce Lawrence, P M Cur-rie, Arthur Buehler, C Liebeskind, Thomas Dahnhardt, and Nile Green who reiterate the importance of malfuzat for under-standing social, cultural and religious change amongst Indian Muslims.Chapters 10, 22 and 23 all analyse major processes in the history of west Asia. F E Peters’ brilliant study of the Haj has been reviewed in Chapter 10. This pil-grimage originated in 7th century Arabia and has become the greatest annual gath-ering of humankind. Barbara D Metcalf, an expert on south Asian Islam, has stud-ied some of the ‘safarnamahs’ – the journals kept by some pilgrims. It would be useful if scholars dealing with Muslim societies beyond south Asia emulate Metcalf. Interestingly, the South Asia In-stitute, University of Heidelberg, spon-sored some important research schemes on pilgrimage relating to non-Muslims in the context of south Asia.The book under review has been written in a lucid and stimulating manner, yet it is the outcome of decades of serious research, which is so typical of Francis Robinson. This book would immensely benefit schol-ars and students of medieval and modern Indian history, Islamic studies, and reli-gion. Political scientists, political and social analysts, and informed general readers will also find it very interesting.Email:

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