Self and Sovereignty Individual and Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850
by Ayesha Jalal, Oxford University Press
New Delhi, 2001 Pages: 630 Rs 875
Islamic Studies as an academic 1 discipline had in the past tended ‘to focus largely on the West Asian region. That situation is gradually changing and quite justifiably so. In recent years, numerous scholarly works have appeared on Islam in South Asia, home to more than half of the world’s Muslim population. The Pakistani scholar Ayesha Jalal is one of the most noted contemporary analysts of South Asian history and has published on a range of issues concerning India, Pakistan and Partition. She has now come out with a detailed study of the changing notions of the individual and the community among Muslims in South Asia in the last century and a half, a period of crucial significance for community identities and politics in the region.
Jalal’s first book, The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan (1985), invited the wrath of many Pakistanis for suggesting that Jinnah did not really want a separate Pakistan, using it merely as a threat to bargain for a greater voice and role for the Muslim minority. She also argued that Partition was the outcome of this strategy gone awry. Her other books include The State of Military Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence (1990), and Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: a Comparative and Historical Perspective (1995) in addition to books co-authored and co-edited with Professor Sugata Bose.
In Self and Sovereignty: Individual and Community in South Asian Islam since 1850, Jalal’s main thesis is that the decline of Mughal political authority meant a radical realtering of perceptions about what exactly it meant to be a Muslim in India. In the absence of a Muslim ruler, a struggle began between the ulama, on the one hand, and modern, western- educated middle-class Muslims, on the other, both of whom put forward rival claims to the leadership of the community. The book explores in considerable detail the emergence of this new leadership among the Muslims of South Asia in the British period.
Jalal points to the observable differences between the notions of community that prevailed in pre-British times and in the colonial period. In Mughal times and earlier, there seems to have been no notion of a pan-Indian Muslim, or, for that matter, Hindu, community. Sectarian, tribal, caste and biraderi (kinship) identities, as well as loyalties to one’s own city or region, were of paramount significance compared to that of religion. Colonial rule brought in a complete transformation to these community identities, Jalal argues. The census, in particular, played a crucial role in this regard, enumerating Indians, for the first time in 1851, on the basis of religion. Access to the crumbs of colonial largesse was in many ways determined by the numerical strength of religion-based communities. In the process the colonial authorities participated in the making of religion as the primary identity in the public realm for many Indians. Increasing education, the growth of communications and the press, as well as the emergence of reformist, revivalist and chauvinist movements among both Hindus and Muslims, all combined to crystallise sharp boundaries of identity between the two self-consciously evolving communities that do not seem to have existed in Mughal times.
Colonial legal policies also made for the drawing of sharp boundaries between Hindus and Muslims. Customary law was steadily replaced by codified law, which in many cases involved a textual understanding of Islamic or Hindu law for respective communities. Many scholars have pointed out that the judicial climate of customary law makes for greater diversity of legal principles and interpretations so that the numerous social units are governed by equally numerous legal regimes. With laws of more or less uniform application incoporating the differentials of religious communities, such diversity gave way to more rigidly constructed identities that coalesced around, among other things, the codified law. Thus, Muslims would come to have their social and cultural transactions governed by a Muslim code and so was the case with Hindus.
All this meant a completely new understanding of the “community”. It also meant a new vision of the role of the individual as a member of the community. For Islamic reformist movements that emerged at this time, no longer was it enough to be born into a Muslim family to be considered a ‘true’ Muslim. Rather, a Muslim was one who actually strove to live up to the commandments of his or her faith, based on an understanding of its primary sources, the Quran and the Traditions of the Prophet.
The loss of Muslim political sovereignty and their perceived backwardness as compared to the upper-caste Hindus made for a growing suspicion among Muslim elites of the claims of the Congress to represent all Indians. Jalal substantiates this by backing her thesis with ample quotations from sources of that period. The emergence of militantly right-wing upper-caste-led Hindu movements, such as the anti-cow slaughter agitation, the movement against Urdu, and the Arya Samaj’s “shuddhi” or conversion movement among the Muslim Rajputs, only further accentuated the Muslims’ sense of alienation, forcing the issue of a separate Pakistan into the political arena.
Jalal examines the genesis of the Pakistan movement in the two key provinces on the political map of India—Punjab and the United Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh). In both cases, she shows how a combination of the Muslim elite’s interests, fear of upper caste Hindu domination, the growing strength of the militant Hindu right wing, both outside as well as within the Congress, convinced many Muslims of the need for a separate country of their own. In her concluding chapter, Jalal raises the pertinent question of what the establishment of Pakistan has actually meant for the Muslims of South Asia. Has it indeed solved the communal tangle as was the proclaimed intention, or has it actually further compounded the problem by internationalising it? Has Pakistan really proved to be the ideal Islamic state that some of its most passionate advocates had envisioned it to be? These pertinent questions may well be the subject of yet another book.
As a social history of the Muslims of South Asia over the last century and a half, this book makes a valuable contribution. Readers are, Review however, sure to find its many repetitions more than a little tedious. This voluminous tome could have made its point more concisely. Another shortcoming is that while the book does provide us valuable insights into the minds of leading Muslim writers, poets, Sufis, ulamas and political activists of the period, it tells us little, if at all, about how ordinary Muslims, the vast majority of the community, saw the world as it changed around them. These obvious limitations apart, this book is essential reading for those interested in the history of the Muslims of South Asia or, indeed, of the history of modern South Asia itself.