Re-examining history

April 10, 2022

S Akbar Zaidi explores the various, often contradictory, definitions of Muslim that emerged in colonial India in the 19th Century

Re-examining history


Whatever may be the reality of the doom and gloom scenarios about Pakistan’s academics, it may be pointed out that not only young people but even the senior generation is at least more productive than their predecessors. None of them are publishing for promotions and some, like Ijaz Hussain (Indus Waters Treaty, 2018) and Naeem Qureshi (Ottomans, Turkey, Ataturk and South Asia, 2014) are not even working in academia any more. And yet, Rasool Baksh Rais (Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics, 2018), Sikandar Hayat (A Leadership Odyssey, 2021), Hafeez Pasha (Growth and Inequality in Pakistan, 2019) and Mohamamd Waseem (Political Conflict in Pakistan, 2021) have recently published books to acclaim. And what is more, some of them have even rebuilt new scholarly identities for themselves.

S Akbar Zaidi is the best example of this phenomenon among Pakistan’s senior academics. He was known as an economist earlier (which he remains) but in his forties, he got himself a doctorate in history and this book is his contribution to scholarship on the modern history of South Asian Muslims (see the preface of the book under review for the interesting story).

Zaidi’s book has four chapters besides the preface mentioned above and the introduction and conclusion. Additionally, of course, it has the usual accompaniments of a scholarly work such as a bibliography and an index. The introduction is where the author presents his claims which are original and worthy of our attention. One major claim is that a sense of being humiliated, insulted and ashamed (zillat) was the “motor which caused a revival, renewal and reform amongst Muslims, giving rise to them emerging and coming into being in diverse manifestations and multiple forms” (p. 7). While many historians have referred to the perception of loss of pre-eminence and political power among the Muslims because of the colonial experience, the centrality of the psychological processes involved in social, collective and even individual motivation and behaviour of the Indian Muslims posited by Zaidi is original and insightful.

The more interesting thesis he presents is that there was, in fact, no Muslim collectivity (qaum, millat, nation etc) during the 19th Century. There was, “a sense of ‘connectivity’ with one another through some broadly shared, though highly contested, Islamic and Muslim symbols but this did not amount to what we understand as a community, nation or identity” (p. 23). This is a bold claim to make as most of our historians construct “a largely unified community before one existed” (p. 25) even going back to the arrival of Muhamamd bin Qasim in Sindh missing out the Moplah Islamic Indian culture of Malabar which preceded it entirely.

Zaidi makes this claim with a highly significant analysis of “what is a Muslim?” for which he invokes Shahab Ahmed’s book What is Islam? What was more relevant in colonial India, as Zaidi points out, was not what Islam is but who a Muslim is (Chapter 1: Who is a Muslim?). He points out that, while the perception of zillat was widely shared, the question of who precisely is a Muslim was just as widely debated. The pamphlet war in Urdu, which the author presents, convincingly argues that the answers to this question excluded and ‘othered’ groups other than their own so that there was, in fact, no single homogenous Muslim community. An interesting case is that of the label of Wahabi which, in India, was a pejorative term. It was also a politically loaded term used by the colonial authorities for Muslim militant groups which opposed them.

Since the colonial state also had the authority to apply religious labels to groups, the power of constructing communities was a matter of not only pamphlets by the articulate laity, religious edicts (fatwa) by the ulema, polemics by the debaters but also orders, census figures and official classifications and quotas issued by state officials. That is why Siddiq Hasan Khan, the doyen of the Hindustani Ahl-i-Hadith writers, is so keen to distance the Hindustani contexts from Najdi Wahabism on the grounds that the latter are Hanbali (followers of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal) while the former are Hanafi (followers of Imam Abu Hanifa) (p. 51). And, since politics entered the polemics, gradually the idea of the qaum graduated from that of a religiously perceived community to a political one by the end of the 19th Century and took on its hegemonic appeal in the 20th.

In the second chapter the author expands upon the concept of zillat pointing out that its defining feature was that it was self-inflicted (apnay hathon say i.e. literally by one’s own hands). To imagine that they (the Muslims) had, as it were, ‘sunk’ to a new depth of degradation, intellectuals had to imagine a glorious past so nostalgia and lamentation were invoked (p. 84). But this was not merely a passive form of crying over spilt milk but a reason for rejuvenation and reform. Hence, the consciousness of having being humiliated framed what one may call anti-colonial forces and efforts to confront the majority Hindu community and assert the rights of the Muslim community (now politically constructed as being more unified than theology would countenance).

Both political consciousness and theological imperatives, however, created an urgency of behaviour which the author calls main majbur hua (I was compelled [to respond to the stimulus offered to me]) in Chapter 3 which is also called Print Matters. The subject of this chapter is the nature of the public debate which printing facilitated. Nor was this debate only religious or political; it could also be literary or about any other matter. Its significance lies in that it constructed reading publics which, in fact, helped to imagine Muslim civilisational communities. And, of course, as the author argues, this helped in the imagination of a distinctive Muslim community in the 20th Century.

Another aid to this exercise of imagining a collectivity labelled Muslim was the oral debate since, besides the medium of print, increased communication and better means of transportation also meant that public debates (munazaras) could also be held in various locations across north India. These debates were between Muslims, Christians, Hindus and also among various sects of Muslims. The author has focused upon the great debates of 1876 and 1877 in which, at least in Muslim eyes, Maulana Qasim Nanautwi, one of the founders of the famous religious seminary at Deoband, played a major role. The debate has, as it were, two lives: one as oral performance and the other as a printed text. And both construct communities, though different ones. While the former is taken up by the evanescent emotion of solidarity of the moment, the latter is a record, biased in its very selectiveness, in favour of constructing the ‘other’ which is intellectually vanquished. And since it is vanquished intellectually it not only reaffirms the truth of Islam (ignoring the contested nature of that description as Maulana Qasim, a Deobandi, was not regarded as a ‘true’ Muslim by everyone) but also helps imagine a Muslim community which can vanquish others (Christians and Hindus) and, by implication, can rise above its state of humiliation and bring about political rejuvenation.

In the last chapter, Zaidi sums up and reasserts his original claims. He rightly argues that the concept of zillat was an agentive force which constructed the Muslim community as a political entity. His other claims also stand vindicated. To sum up, these are: that new forms of being Muslim emerged after the 1860s; that Muslims broke from the past and interacted with modernity as mediated by the state to form new collective identities; that previous scholarship on the subject of Muslim collective identity was “anachronistic or teleological as it looks forward in time towards the Partition of 1947” (p. 210). These are original claims and it is to the credit of Akbar Zaidi that he has come up with something both significant and original in a field as thoroughly researched as modern South Asian history. It also goes to the credit of the author that he uses the Urdu archive though, despite his de-emphasis of the “colonial archive”, he does, in fact, make judicious use of it as a historian should.

In the end, I come to a few lacunae which, though minor, need mentioning. First, while the author expresses much pride, and rightly so, for using the less-used Urdu archive, it is perplexing why he ignores the Urdu exegeses of the Quran (tafsir) altogether. Had he done so, he would have found much material on the ulema’s understanding and construction of a Muslim. The works of Sir Syed, Maulana Azad (Tarjuman al-Qur’an) and Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi’s (Qur’an ka Sha‘uri Inqilab) would have given him fresh angles of examination and supported his claims. Secondly, the munazaras between Muslim sub-sects (maslaks) should have supported the argument the author offers about the logic of exclusion used in the oral domain by debaters. Six of these have been recorded by Muhammad Manzur Numani in his book called Futuhat-i Nu’maniyyah and, since they occurred between 1928 and 1936 in various locations in north India, they would have provided useful insights into the construction of Muslim identities in the 20th Century when, as the author convincingly argues, a political collective notion of such an identity had emerged.

In addition to these gaps as far as the archive used by the author is concerned, there is a minor observation which, as it stands, may be misleading. He gives a note stating that the poet Ghalib called himself a half Muslim (adha Musalman) as an example of not “subscribing to any doctrinal faith and by following rituals and practices selectively and creatively” (p. 9). The author is factually correct, indeed, but readers who are not acquainted with Ghalib’s assertions, sometimes with much animation, in his letters that he is a muvahhid (monotheist) and ‘slave of the Caliph Ali’ (ka banda), would not understand the poet’s religious position. But this is merely a quibble and I would not even have mentioned it but for the fact that, when dealing with a work as outstanding as this book, even a minor lapse from the author’s own high standards takes on a disproportionate significance in the eyes of the reviewer.

In the end I should emphasise that this is a ground-breaking work in the modern historical scholarship on South Asia. It is a product of paying close attention to the archive, of ‘doing history’, rather than building upon and repeating what other historians have said. The claims which it has so ably made and substantiated by research will guide future historians to examine history afresh. Above all, the author has proved that even in a well-researched field one can come up with original theses if one looks closely and intelligently enough.

Making a Muslim

Reading Publics and

contesting Identities in Nineteenth-century India Author: S Akbar Zaidi

Publisher: Cambridge and New Delhi: Cambridge

University Press, 2021

Pages: 249

The reviewer is an occasional contributor.

Re-examining history