Faisal Devji and I went to graduate school together at the University of Chicago. We worked with Barney Cohn, a scholar with an adventurous sense of scholarship. Devji’s early studies were conducted at the feet of Fazlur Rahman, the intellectual of Islam (author of Islam, 1966 and 1979), who died in 1988, two years after Devji got to Chicago. Among our small cohort, Devji was the smart one – clear in his head that he wanted to uncover the intellectual foundations of Muslim nationalism in the Subcontinent. His was, however, the experience that haunts graduate students – having travelled the archives, making notes and photocopies, he returned to the US, where his bag with the research notes was stolen. Undaunted, Devji wrote a brilliant intellectual history – Muslim Nationalism: Founding Identity in Colonial India (1993). His study spanned the time from Nazir Ahmad’s Mirat al-arus (The Bride’s Mirror, 1869) to Mohammed Iqbal’s Pas Chih Bayad Kard ay Aqwam-i-Sharq (What Should Then Be Done, Oh People of East, 1936), from the era of post-Mutiny reform to the emergence of a new patriotic confidence. Lingering behind the close readings of Iqbal were his European interlocutors Martin Heidegger and Henri Bergson, enriching the dissertation to a level that was not common among people of our age.
The new Muslim nationalism that emerges in the second half of the 19th century in the Subcontinent is not identical with either the modular European form (or indeed its American ancestor) or the Indian freedom movement’s anti-colonial nationalism.
Over the years Devji has produced a body of work that strayed a little from his original work, but not far. Two of his three previous books reflect on the War on Terror through the looking glass: Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (2005); The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (2008); and The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptations of Violence (2012). Reading these books reminds me of both Devji’s raw intelligence and wide reading, but also of a certain mischievousness reminiscent of Ashis Nandy’s The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self Under Colonialism (1983), a book that was au courant for our graduate years. The most fascinating of the three is the first, where Devji argues that the al-Qaeda militant should not be simply placed in the historical lineage of the Egyptian scholar and Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb or Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi movement. It is not enough to make the jihadi intelligible by putting him in his historical place. To say that there is a straight line that links the current al-Qaeda jihadi to Sayyid Qutb would allow one to simply read the latter to understand the former. But such is not the case, as the jihadi resides in a world that requires scrupulous analysis – not just in terms of political beliefs but also the jihadi’s imagination (this is one of the points that Devji makes in his preface to a volume that collects the Poetry of the Taliban, edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, 2012).
Devji is less interested in the operational world of al-Qaeda and more in its personnel department – what do its members feel and believe, and what are the social structures that provide them with these feelings and beliefs? It is not the tentacular militancy of al-Qaeda that draws Devji, but instead “its fragmentation of traditional structures of Muslim authority within new global landscapes.” No longer are Muslims forged only by traditional institutions (mosques, madrassas and maulvis) but they are now forging themselves through new frameworks – the wali, the one who has authority, could now be each and every individual. Al-Qaeda’s adherents see in each other the ability to endow themselves with authority (wilayah), thereby signalling “a democratisation of authority in the Muslim world.” These are the “new Muslims”, whose worldview is the focus of Devji’s previous books.
The latest study, Muslim Zion, and his earlier dissertation, Muslim Nationalism, are actually a part of this interest in tracing the ideological and intellectual worlds of Muslim politics. In the dissertation, Devji also tracked a shift from the “moral city” of the mosques, the school, the court and the market, to the “moral collectivity” of the public gatherings and meetings as well as of the array of print that included pamphlets and newspapers. The shift that took place from the world of the late Mughals and early British collectorates to the British Raj transformed the way in which Muslims lived in the world and how they saw themselves in that world. The shift was not negligible. In the world of the “moral city” Muslims were not estranged from the long history of moral guidance that linked them to the Quranic past – time folded upon itself and so did space, allowing human action to be adjudged alongside those of the events of the past. Once in the “moral collectivity”, however, the modern idea of time and space sundered Muslims from the experience of an unbroken connection to the sacred past (as it did to adherents of other religious traditions). Events took place in homogenous or empty time and in discrete places, allowing individuals to have to bear responsibility for morality (majmua haisiyat). Moral judgments, which might have been made in reference to Quranic examples, are now measured against discrete human actions that take place in certain times and in certain places. It was in this context that the old terms that denoted community (ummat and millat) but had a strong religious content were set aside by reformers such as Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan in favour of qaum, which would take on the meaning of nation.
The new Muslim nationalism that emerges in the second half of the 19th century in the Subcontinent is not identical with either the modular European form (or indeed its American ancestor) or the Indian freedom movement’s anti-colonial nationalism. Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) argued that American and European nationalism could only be imagined after three shifts in social authority: once religious hierarchy and its sacred language was displaced, once dynastic realms lost their command over their populations and once the concept of “homogenous, empty time” displaced notions of eternal return and fate that were central to both religious and dynastic power. As ‘God, King and Eternity’ fell from their pedestal, a new kind of state apparatus arose that used the forces of print-capitalism and capitalism itself to create administrative authority for their new bourgeois rulers. Such a story does not apply in much of the colonized world, where the imperial overlords and their feudal underlords used ‘God and the King’ to exercise their own fragile authority, and where ideas of ‘Eternity’ were reconstituted in the reform movements that emerged prior to anti-colonial nationalism (in India, the apposite example is the late writings of Ram Mohan Roy that most influenced the Brahmo Samaj movement).
One of the most interesting arguments that Devji traces is the consensus amongst the intellectuals of the Pakistan movement to avoid the idea that Muslims are a minority.
If Anderson’s historical sweep is not applicable to the Subcontinent, it is certainly not a useful way to understand what Devji calls the ‘Muslim nationalism’ of the region. Equally incomplete is to derive an understanding of what becomes Pakistani nationalism from the experience of the anti-colonial freedom movement of the Subcontinent. That movement was a river fed by powerful streams – some of them were revanchist and saturated in religious millenarianism, others came from indigenous socialist traditions that morphed with the entry of Marxism and the USSR into the currents of communism and socialism, and yet others drew from British liberalism (including the Fabian Society) and the worldview of the Indian capitalist class to forge the Nehruvian mainstream. What united this seam of nationalism was its antipathy to colonial rule, although even this was only articulated in the mainstream as anti-colonialism at the end of the 1920s. In his critique of Benedict Anderson, Partha Chatterjee tends to brush off this horizon of Indian nationalism (The Nation and its Fragments, 1993). He sees that Anderson’s three preconditions are not met and then enters into an analysis of how the Indian nationalist sought to revive the private domain, the zone that colonialism could not penetrate, since it “failed to colonize the inner, essential, identity of the East which lay in its distinctive, and superior, spiritual culture”. This was a nationalism of accommodation. The “home” of Eastern domesticity, community and culture becomes a site for refuge from the “world” of Western capital. Political action in the world was fated to seize the public institutions but not to transform the sundered relationship between “home” and the “world”.
Since Chatterjee’s work is crafted as a critique of Anderson it too easily adopts a framework (inner-outer, civil society-state) that conceals one of the more obvious distinguishing features of Indian nationalism – that it was a convenient alliance for different classes, all of whom had their own grievances against colonial rule, but only some of which had the wherewithal to set the terms for that nationalism. Furthermore, as this movement developed, it adopted a version of history that claimed the totality of the past (as Nehru did in Discovery of India, 1946), rejected the colonial claim of a fractured and contentious communal landscape (one that emerges from James Mill’s History of British India, 1817) and seized upon the idea that its nation was both given and had to be made – that it was rooted in that long history that Nehru claimed but that it had to be nurtured out of its torpor through nationalist institutions that were aware of this responsibility. This was the self-image of the nationalism that would inform the new state of India. It is not, as Devji shows, the logic that informed the idea of Pakistan.
Reading Muslim Zion is not easy. This is an intellectual’s intellectual history. Even though Devji scorns évènementiel history for its “mechanism”, it is worthwhile to have some grounding in the historical worlds of the Subcontinent to best benefit from this book. Much can be gained when an author takes the risk to tie the loose ends of human life into a coherent story. But for Devji such a narrative might stand in for a continuity that does not exist in the intellectual emergence of the idea of nationalism in the Muslim League and its environs. If he had written a history that began with Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and ended with Liaquat Ali Khan’s premiership, as so many histories of Muslim nationalism do, it would have seemed that Pakistan was already evident in the pages of the journal Tahzib al-Akhlaq (Refinement of Morals), founded in 1870. Here and there in Devji’s pages is evidence of a conflict between Muslim elites in different cities, rooted in different parts of the colonial bureaucracy and the social relations of capitalism (Devji notes that much is buried in the “unexplored history of Muslim capitalism”). The Pakistan movement was not rooted amongst the heirs of Sir Sayyid among the Aligarh intellectual grandees nor was it rooted in the religious redoubts of Deoband. It had its leadership amongst the western Indian (mainly Shia) elites such as Aga Khan and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, and in the royal households of the Gangetic plain, such as Mahmudabad and Jehangirabad. The basis of the power struggle between these centres is not fully explored by Devji (although it is developed by Venkat Dhulipala in a fine paper in Modern Asian Studies, 2010 titled “Rallying the Qaum: The Muslim League in the United Provinces, 1937-1939”). But Devji makes his point: the idea of the Muslim nation that emerges in the early part of the 20th century comes out of a break from the lineage of reform that precedes it.
Devji’s main thesis enters at this point. It is that the claim for Pakistan amongst its intellectual and political leadership was neither for a historical continuity (to redeem a history that has been sidelined, which was Nehru’s view for India) nor for geographical space. In 1909, Iqbal took the view, “Nationality with us is a pure idea; it has no geographical basis.” Islam, for Iqbal, eschewed the idol of nationalism. “The membership of Islam as a community is not determined by birth, locality or naturalisation; it consists in the identity of belief.” If Islam cannot be the foundation for 20th century nationalism, then what was the Pakistan movement about? One of the most interesting arguments that Devji traces is the consensus amongst the intellectuals of the Pakistan movement to avoid the idea that Muslims are a minority, and that the League of Nations’ framework of “minority rights” would somehow be applicable to them in a future independent India. As the Aga Khan put it in 1918, if you go from “numbers to surface of territory, the Islamic provinces of Southasia will be almost as great in extent as the India of yesterday. Hence there is little danger of the Mahomedans of India being nothing but a small minority in the coming federation.” This unified political entity was to be a “South Asiatic Federation” that encompassed not only the subcontinent but also West Asia (“from Aden to Mesopotamia”), from “Ceylon to the states of Bokhara” and from “Tibet to Singapore”. This was a vast territory, the entire swathe of southern Asia with complex populations that had the capacity to befuddle the simplistic Hindu-Muslim question in Indian politics.
The idea of Israel is a good analogue to the idea of Pakistan, but the realities of both states are of a different and much more complex order.
What is the implication of having ideas of nationalism and non-nationalism in one political movement? Devji describes the package as a “thoroughly ambiguous political narrative”. But there is nothing ambiguous about Devji’s conclusions – that Muslim nationalism runs aground at the founding of Pakistan, and that the anxiety about the minority remains and gives fuel to the fire of a Sunni ascendancy against Shia and Christian minorities. These are vast claims that are not always defensible by the material offered in the book. Devji has a speculative style that is both insightful and aggravating – one is offered interesting insights that bristle for more evidence (and sometimes a little less inflation on the claims – Pakistan is not the only Muslim state, and, parenthetically, by 1941 M N Roy was neither a Communist nor a Communist leader). It is because this is more an extended essay than a monograph that Devji does not tackle the material constraints on this “ambiguous political” project. Even Ernest Gellner’s functional explanation – that nationalism is the cultural glue for bureaucratic state formation – at least tries to ground the emergence of modern nationalism in its material world. Devji’s book has an unmoored quality, with ideas dancing here and there, drawn from a variety of writers and political figures, hovering above the Waderas of Sindh and the tumans of Balochistan. An intellectual history of nationalism that ignores its material constraints gives off a dreamy vapour, the wisp of ideas unfulfilled rather than ideas corralled by power and property.
There is mischief in the book’s title, Muslim Zion. It alludes to the Zionist movement, whose goal was to create a homeland (Zion) for the Jewish people. Devji opens the book with a fascinating connection between the founding of Israel and Pakistan, two countries, he suggests that are founded on an idea rooted in religious belonging (Judaism and Islam) and outside the modular European form of nationalism. The comparison is extended into the first chapter and then dropped. It is an unwieldy one because Israel, unlike Pakistan, very quickly morphs into a settler-colonial state that becomes obsessed with its historical geography, with controlling archaeology and the names of places, with the dominance of its landscape. The catechism of “A land without a people for a people without a land” is recited with a Biblical deed to the land in hand. There is nothing ambiguous about Israel’s territorial nationalism even if that is a break from the idea of Israel in the work of Theodor Herzl and early Zionists. But even here, despite the discussions about hosting Israel elsewhere in the world, Herzl was in close dialogue with the German Kaiser Wilhelm II and the British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury in the early years of the 20th century to allow for mass migration of Jews to Palestine (it was only after the failure of these consultations that the Uganda Programme was considered, itself stillborn). Pakistan, unlike Israel, does not make any necessary territorial link for its modern nationalism. This is why the break-up of the east and west in 1971 did not pose an existential challenge to Pakistani nationalism. The idea of Israel is a good analogue to the idea of Pakistan, but the realities of both states are of a different and much more complex order.
Attention to some other voices would have both challenged Devji’s thesis and enriched his account of Muslim nationalism. Amongst the Punjabi elite there was Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan’s attempt to create a “political mosaic” rather than fracture the landscape on confessional lines. Amongst the Pathans of the northwest there was Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and his brother Dr. Khan Sahib with their Khudai Khidmatgars, the “red-shirts” whose commitment to mass struggle for a diverse society is well explored in Mukulika Banerjee’s The Pathan Unarmed (2001). Amongst the peasantry and the workers came the communists, whose visions for the new country and whose failures have been neatly catalogued by Kamran Asdar Ali in “Communists in a Muslim Land: Cultural Debates in Pakistan’s Early Years” (Modern Asian Studies, 2011). Finally, even the expectation that the most religious-oriented groups are oversaturated with an anti-secular politics is questioned by a new book from Humeira Iqtidar titled Secularizing Islamists? Jama’at-e-Islami and Jama’at-ud-Da’wa in Urban Pakistan (2011). With these voices outside the ambit of Devji’s idea of Muslim nationalism, the effect is suffocating. Pakistan seems doomed in Devji’s telling – not only does its contemporary practice show its fragility, but its theory is also impossible.
~This article was first published in our quarterly issue Under the shadow of the Bollywood tree (Vol 26 Number 4).