Islam in South Asia A Regional Perspective
by Asim Roy
South Asian Publishers, New Delhi, 1996
ISBN 81 7003 193 1
This interesting book is divided, incongruously, into a section on the socio-religious and cultural process of Islamisation in South Asia—with particular reference to Bengal—and another on the socio-political issues, with special focus on Partition.
Asim Roy, who teaches South Asian history and politics at the University of Tasmania, mounts a challenge to the conventional treatment of Islam as a monolithic religion, which has been the view of scripturalists who rely on a doctrinaire reconstruction of historical Islam with origins in West Asia. These orthodox academics regard with disdain the Islamic developments in the Subcontinent, which to them are “folk aberrations” practised by “nominal” Muslims.
The author argues that this reading of Islam, which is also that of the Orientalists, obscures the inherent and underlying pluralism within South Asian Islam. He writes that disproportionate emphasis is placed on the theme of unity at the cost of rich historical development. To prove the point, he refers to the breadth, elasticity and creativity of Islam in Bengali-speaking South Asia. Mr Roy is bold in his attempt at deconstructing the scriptural-Orientalist view of South Asian Islam and in providing an alternative view of Islam’s protean historical development.
Acquisition and Inheritance
In Bengal, as elsewhere in the Subcontinent, religious conversion is a group “social” experience rather than a “spiritual” one, says the author, essentially embodying a change in commensal and connubial relationship— a change in social camp so to speak. In the particular circumstance, it also meant drawing mass converts from the vast majority of rural and socially depressed classes.
In Bengal. Islam was neither the “indigenous” or the “single” great tradition, writes Mr Roy. In fact, it intruded into an existing “indigenous great tradition” (i.e., classical Hindu) and “little traditions” (i.e., folk religion). In the course of time, cultural mediators emerged to construct a syncretistic model of Islamic tradition which did not shirk from using even the familiar idioms and terminologies from the Hindu epics, puranas and mangal-kavyas. The influence of these cultural mediators who gave distinctive shape to Islam in Bengal during the Mughal decline persisted until the mid-nineteenth century. Thus, it is syncretism, rather than “incomplete conversion” or “degeneration” which explains the dominant form of Islam in medieval Bengal.
The book describes how the history of Bengali Muslims has been one of perennial crisis of identity between Muslim-ness and Bengali-ness. The modem history of the Bengali-Muslim nation has been a see-saw of the acquired Islamic identity and the inherited Bengali identity: the creation of East Bengal in 1905 from the erstwhile single state in British India (the scale tilts in favour of religious identity), followed by united Bengal (tilt towards cultural identity), Partition followed by the creation of East Pakistan (religious identity) and then again partition from Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh (back to cultural identity).
Broadening his discourse to the rest of Muslim South Asia, Mr Roy contends that unlike Hindu personal law, Islamic personal law has resisted secularisation and continues to dominate and control sexual morality of its believers. For this reason, says the author, citing evidence from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, Islamic modernisers have been forced to seek legitimation of reforms in religious terms. And the preoccupation with Islam in Pakistani and Bangladeshi politics, he argues, has little to do with religious concerns and stems instead from such wide- ranging secular issues as the need to legitimise authoritarian rule, mobilise the masses, promote national integration while suppressing ethnic sub-nationalism, target the petro-dollar and the profitable labour market in the Gulf.
Mr Roy believes that there has been a qualitative difference in the role played by Islam before and after Partition, and correctly argues that Islam in the earlier phase appeared more effective and dynamic in terms of realising the objectives of the Muslim community. The secular and religious Muslim leadership was largely unanimous in demanding a Muslim nation in the Subcontinent. Having recast history (through the creation of Pakistan), the Muslims came to discover that they lacked collective self- identity. While a distance grew between the political and religious leadership in Pakistan, the very creation of Pakistan created a serious crisis of identity for the numerically stronger Indian Muslims.
Congress as Divider
In the last chapter, the author suddenly picks up the socio-political issue of Partition for discussion, drawing on the works of Ayasha Jalal, Stanley Wolpert and writings of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. He presents a revisionist account of the high politics of India’s Partition, challenging the traditional view that the Indian National Congress championed for unity while the Muslim League demanded partition.
Going against the accepted version in both Pakistan and India, Mr Roy contends that the Lahore Resolution of 24 March 1940 was not the turning point in the process leading to the creation of Pakistan, and simultaneous Islamisation of the ‘nationalist’ and ‘secular’Jinnah. India was divided not by the Muslim League, asserts Mr Roy, but by the Congress.
According to this revisionist analysis, at the Lahore Convention of the Muslim League, the “Pakistan demand” (the term was never actually mentioned) was but a “tactical move”, a “bargaining counter” and did not imply an ideological-religious metamorphosis of Jinnah. Only his strategies and tactics had changed, not his political aim, which was securing Muslim interests ‘within’ India and not total separation from it. Jinnah, contends Mr Roy, wanted to use the “spectre” of Pakistan to wrest greater rights for Muslims in independent India through proportionate representations in legislatures, services, cabinets, etc.
Both Jinnah and the all India Congress Committee under Maulana Azad approved of the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1945, which envisaged a weak Centre and a strong federal structure. The Plan was rejected by the Congress leadership, when Jawaharlal Nehru took over as President. Confronted with a choice between ‘unity’ and a ‘strong centre’, the Congress opted for the latter. Thus, while mouthing support for unity, the Congress steadily and deliberately worked itself up to a position where Jinnah was forced to take his “moth-eaten Pakistan” and leave the scene for good.
The Sunni Takeover
While discussing the dominant forms of Islamic practice in medieval Bengal characterised by a heavy infusion of Hindu cultural elements, the author uses the term ‘syncretism’ to define the phenomenon. Lately, however, an alternative formulation has come up. Scholars such as Ashis Nandy contend that the phenomenon was perhaps more fundamental than syncretism. It could, instead, be that the region’s population has always had a multiple religious identity.
And it is true that multiple religious identities were common until recently in the multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious Subcontinent. It was prevalent, for instance, among the Buddhist-Hindu Jyapu Newars of Kathmandu Valley, or the Meos, a large Muslim community from near Delhi, which traces its ancestry to the Mahabharata.
Mr Roy’s socio-cultural narrative of Islam’s development suddenly tails off at the mid-nineteenth century and the reader is left with pre-dominantly socio-political processes to contend with thereafter. While this foray is revealing, the disjuncture between the first and second pan of the book detracts from its overall coherence The reader is left guessing as to what processes must have overtaken, or even overcome, the syncretistic thrust of regional Islam in the last century and half.
I suspect the reason why the author disregards the socio-cultural processes within South Asian Islam from the mid-nineteenth century onwards is that delving into the more recent trends would go counter to his thesis of diverse identity within Islam. For, since the turn of the century and perhaps somewhat earlier, Islam in South Asia has become for all practical purposes a monolithic religion—a consolidation of orthodox Sunni Islam. All syncretist forms have either been purged of the acculturated element or have been declared to be un-lslamic. Two examples, among many, reflect this trend.
The Nepali hill Muslims have for centuries adhered to a peculiar form of Islam characterised by such practices as ancestor worship, caste observance, marriage through elopement (lightly dispensing away with nikah). Now, due to wider contacts and communications with the Subcontinent, and the Gulf in some cases, Nepali hill Muslims have been made to conform to orthodox Sunni Islam, and being asked to disown what they have been practising. Then there is the more widely known case of the Quadiani sect and its immediate cousin, the Ahmadia. In many Islamic states, including Pakistan, the Quadiani and the Ahmedia have been declared to be “kafir”—the law strongly prohibiting them from identifying themselves with Islam.
Islam may not have been monolithic in Subcontinental history, but is increasingly so today. Since this is the case, Mr Roy’s study is incomplete. And there is one more thing that perhaps needs to be said. Do “outsiders” to a religion—like the author (presumably a Bengali Hindu) and this reviewer (a Nepali Hindu)—have any role in charting the historically correct “authentic” characteristics of a religion, in this case Islam? For, surely, the practitioner’s perspective of his or her religion should be allowed a role to play in any such analysis. This is one more question that Asim Roy has not addressed in the book, but is becoming increasingly relevant as scholars join the discourse with clerics in commenting on the faiths of South Asia.