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Being Muslim in South Asia: Diversity and Daily Life

(Edited by) Robin Jeffrey & Ronojoy Sen

Oxford University Press

Pages: 370 Rs. 995

There’s no ‘Islamic’ world, just a world with Islam in it

Robin Jeffrey and Ronojoy Sen have put together a fine volume of essays, one that locates regional contexts instead of making sweeping statements about South Asian Muslims, says Omair Ahmad.

OMAIR AHMAD  3rd Jan 2015

Robin Jeffrey

n 2005 I was working as a Political Advisor at the British High Commission, and part of my work related to the "Engaging the Islamic World" strategy. My low view of this strategy was further reinforced by a senior Indian government official who happened to be Muslim. "Is there an 'Islamic' world?" he asked, "and even if there was, what possible role does the British Foreign Office have in engaging with an explicitly religious 'Islamic' world?" After a bit of thought he added, "Although there definitely are Muslims living around the world, and examining their position in the local political context might make some sense." He was highlighting three points: (i) the lives of Muslims is not defined by religion alone, (ii) there is no single interpretation of the 'Islamic' way of life, and (iii) there is no separate political reality called the 'Islamic world'; rather, Muslims exist in the political and social context of the geographical areas they live.

In this context I was delighted by the release of Being Muslim in South Asia: Diversity and Daily Life, a book of essays edited by Robin Jeffrey and Ronojoy Sen. Both Jeffrey and Sen teach at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) at the National University of Singapore. As they explain in the Acknowledgements, this book came about after an initial encouragement by Gopinath Pillai, the Chairman of ISAS, to explore more about Muslims in South Asia, and a resulting workshop, which went on to become a book. Jeffrey has done some peripatetic writing on issues as diverse as the impact of Indira Gandhi's assassination on Punjab to Nayar dominance in Kerala. Sen has previously written a marvellous book, Articles of Faith, which I reviewed very positively in these pages in 2010, on the Indian Supreme Court's decisions related to religious issues.

The chapters in Being Muslim in South Asia that work best are those that emphasise the local context, for example, Torsten Tschacher's chapter on caste among Muslims in Tamil Nadu. Tschacher demonstrates how the British received wisdom on nomenclature and caste for their bureaucratic records, rooting their (mis)understanding on certain local elite views, and transposed them on the larger South Asian Muslim community. Arif Jamal's excellent chapter on arbitration boards operated by the Ismaili community in India reveals the way that a community can incorporate traditional decision making while still being open to judicial review. This is a fascinating topic because the strain between traditional modes of being and a modern constitutional state are of interest to a much wider audience, as evidenced by the khap panchayat issue in north India.

The chapters in Being Muslim in South Asia that work best are those that emphasise the local context, for example, Torsten Tschacher’s chapter on caste among Muslims in Tamil Nadu. Tschacher demonstrates how the British received wisdom on nomenclature and caste for their bureaucratic records, rooting their (mis)understanding on certain local elite views.

Another deeply embedded issue explored by the authors is the tradition of matrilocal marriages and women's property among Sri Lankan Muslims by Dennis McGilvray. Matrilocal means that the groom moves into the wife's house, a tradition that exists among all Sri Lankan communities. McGilvray's essay shows how the Muslims follow almost the same rituals as their neighbours after sanctifying them through some religious explanations of Islam, using somewhat different languages for similar patterns of behaviour. Irfan Ahmad explores how badly the Indian media has covered issues of terrorism, recycling myths based on incorrect or even non-existent data in his harsh indictment, Kafka in India, which makes for grim, though informative, reading. Sen, in his closing essay, dwells on the social and political context in which the Mohammed Sporting football club came into being, its many victories and travails and what it meant in the context of the Independence movement, Partition and after. It is a gentle introduction to an incredibly complex topic, full of unexpected joys such as story of the barefooted forward, Salim, powering the legendary Celtic Football Club to victory in 1936.

ot all the essays are as deeply researched or as informative. Muhammad Khalid Masud's opening essay on Islam and modernity in South Asia puts forward a competition between those that follow the "political" line of Jamaluddin Afghani and the "epistemological and theological" response of Sir Syed Ahmad. This is a false distinction as people often use ideas of both together, with the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) as a shining example. Riaz Hassan's essay on the Hudood laws and Pakistan goes off on a tangent on Salafi and Wahhabi thoughts, called "Salafabism" by him, which has little explanatory power. Mubashar Hasan's essay on the ideas of the "ummah", or global Muslim community, competing with ideas of nationalism in Bangladesh completely ignores the fact that numerous transnational movements, from labour rights movements to environmentalist movements, routinely challenge strict national boundaries.

These pieces lack political context. Much of Pakistan's dealings with religion have to do with state consolidation, which is an inherently secular enterprise that has routinely used religion since the birth of the nation-state at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. The competing use of Islam by Iran and the Gulf States goes unmentioned, leaving the Shia-Sunni conflict in Pakistan seemingly emerging out of nowhere. Here Khaled Ahmed's essay on the media in Pakistan is useful, although it is Barbara Metcalf — the doyenne of research on South Asian Muslims — whose brief biographical sketches illuminate the political landscape within which people operate. To end, I found it surprising that Darul Uloom Deoband, which hosts a student population of 2,000, gets a chapter while Aligarh Muslim University, which hosts 30,000, does not. I would always argue that, while the former may garner more attention as an "Islamic" institution, Muslim life is far more impacted by the latter.

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