Local Flavour

An ambitious book that looks at how Islam evolved in the subcontinent, but the idea doesn’t travel well across its regions

Written by Seema Chishti | Updated: February 17, 2018 6:54:47 am

Local Flavour Outside the Supreme Court during a hearing of the Babri Masjid case. (Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

The Islamic Connection: South Asia and the Gulf
Edited by Christophe Jaffrelot and Laurence Louer
India Viking
320 pages
Rs 699 (Hardback)

The editors of The Islamic Connection: South Asia and the Gulf quote from a book by the chief of the Nadwatul Ulama, Saiyyid Abu’l-Hasan Ali Nadwi, that Indian Muslims’ “culture which has taken centuries to evolve is a combination of both Islamic and Indian influences. This two-fold aspect has, on the one hand, endowed it with a beauty and richness that is characteristically its own and on the other, it holds forth the assurance that this culture will operate here not like an alien or a traveller but as a natural, permanent citizen who has built his home in the light of his peculiar needs and circumstances.”

They assert however, that the “rise of Hindu nationalism is transforming Indian Muslims into second-class citizens” and that the South Asian brand has lost some of its “autonomy” because of the growing influence of the Gulf. So, they conclude, the Indo-Islamic civilisation will transform into something “new in the course of the twenty-first century.”

The wide arc, drawn out brilliantly and concisely in the Introduction and some parts of the conclusion, cite the purpose of the book. It is to look at the influence and trajectory of what is Islam and Muslim, over 1,400 years in the subcontinent; to tease out its strands and reflect on the changes it made to Islam as practiced here; how it interfaced with politics; and, how it had an impact on the Gulf and West Asia.

The essay by Alix Philippon, for instance, on ‘Pakistani Sufism in the Gulf’ speaks of how contact with the subcontinent infused elements of a more plural nature in the West, going well beyond ‘Sufi events’. But Christophe Jaffrelot has among the most reflective chapters in the collection, tackling some of the thorniest questions of how nationalism and Islam play out. He does avoid an essential line of enquiry, though, on the origins of Pakistan now — if it was only seen as a refuge for South Asian Muslims or conceived of as a ‘new Medina’. But, in his exposition of how the Islamic imagination played out between Mohammed Iqbal and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and, their differing sympathies and notions about the role of the Indian Muslim, it is an engaging read.

Ayesha Siddiqa is masterly, as always, in speaking of how funds and ideological orientation, since the mid-1950s, ensured that madrasas in Pakistan would help establish roots for an exclusivist Islamism (even if it was only in 1972/3 that the Constitution in Pakistan was to make Islam the state religion and decree Ahmadis as apostates).

There is much more on offer. There are essays, for example, that illustrate what is happening to the subcontinent vis-a-vis engagements with West Asia. The kinds of ideas that were pushed out which would engage both specialists and an interested lay reader, especially at a time when Saudi Arabia itself, the fount of many of the exclusivist ideas and funds to propel them, appears to be in the throes of change.

While there are some fine essays, overall, the book leaves you with a sense of not meeting the promise held out in the introduction. There is, perhaps, too little of India, and far too much emphasis on north India. The deep connect and contact with early Islam is, in fact, through India’s west coast — that’s how the trade routes opened up. There is little attention paid to that fact, and how that makes Islam in south India very different from simply seeing it as playing out in the north.

The idea of Bangladesh itself was a death blow to the visualisation of an Islamic nation in undivided Pakistan. To imagine a collection on Indo-Islamic civilisation without wrapping one’s head around the complications wrought by language and other identities, and how it was subsequently tackled perhaps make the book not entirely representative of all that it wants to do.

The collection works as an attempt to explain how Islamic influence in the subcontinent shaped politics and the sense of self with Muslims in the region, especially after the 1990s. But India, other than two essays in the book, also appears to have got far less attention than it deserves. Not only because of the numbers involved, but this being the only place in the region where Muslims are a minority, equal citizens and with the experience of living and functioning in a democracy for seven decades now. That fact in itself makes the Indian experience, and that of the Indian Muslim, exceptional.

That the idea of a plural India, which coopted religions and faiths in its idea of an Indian citizen, is threatened today, is clear. But there is nothing in the book that examines how this central challenge of our times is shaping up, how it is changing India, both its Muslim and Hindu citizens, and, whether this is transient or is now set to become a more permanent part of being Indian.

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