Published On:04 April 2012
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

BOOK REVIEW: Plurality and diversity of Indian Islam

By Shaikh Mujibur Rehman

Name: Shi ‘a Islam In Colonial India — Religion, Community and Sectarianism
Author: Justin Jones
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002.
Price: Rs. 795

This book is an invaluable addition to the scholarship on Muslims and South Asian Islam chiefly because it is a study of Shia Muslims. Sects and castes are neglected themes of research on the question of Indian Muslims, and the distinctiveness of Shia Muslims has generally remained un-recognised in the larger claims about Indian Muslims in the political as well as intellectual sphere.

What makes this particular research relevant to our time is that it not only examines various historical dimensions of Shia Muslims, it also makes an attempt to explain the sectarianism issue not just in India but also in Pakistan. Roots of modern sectarianism in South Asia, it argues, need to be located substantively in the earlier context of 19 century and 20 century north India.

The purpose of this study, according to the author, is to present a living, reflective and changing Shia'ism barely attached by the boundaries of past, and hopes to challenge the common perception that Shia'ism is a faith of small homogenous Muslim minority in north India. Although it began as a doctoral research, the current shape of the book is a result of further research that has helped the author to fine-tune much of its narrative, bringing rare elements of rigour, insight and intensity to the scholarship that professional students of comparative religion and history would find it enormously useful for their research.

The period covered in this book between the 1880s and the 1930s is widely viewed within the community today as the most flourishing period for Indian Shia'ism. The clique of Ulama or prominent personalities for example, Nasir Husain, Najm ul- Hasan, Aq Hasan, Muhammed Baqir Rizvi and others are legitimately remembered as the last collective generation of great Indian mujtahids are discussed in it.

Practice and Experience

The first chapter contains narrative on publishing and proselytising activity, and growth of culture of Shia-Sunni polemic. The second chapter devoted to the discussion over Shia popular practice and experience. It focuses on new forms of religious oratory specially, changing religious landscapes and innovations in Shia's ritual and performative activities pertaining to the annual festival of Muhharam.

The next contribution describes in detail the organisational apparatus through which various definitions of a community were actualised. It also reflects on the new sectarian trajectory of community foundation through a network of public associations, ideas of charity and collective responsibility, and a vernacularised language of community. Chapter four is devoted to the discussion on the political dimension because it reflects on the ways in which the Indian Shi'a is politicised. These discussions centered around a series of contemporary Muslim concerns for instance, Aligarh movement, anti-colonial jihadism, and issues of pan-Islam.

Readers would draw enormous insight from this narrative mainly concerning how various shades of Islam impact the politics of power and identity. The next chapter contributes to the understanding of Shia- Sunni conflict as embodied in the madh-i- Sahaba and tabarra agitations in particular examining the connections between these nominally sectarian conflicts and in the process contributes to the understanding the changing structures of authority and influence within Shia'ism itself.

All in all, the book has sought to document myriad complex ways in which Shia'ism interacted with Indian environment. Generally, the studies of Shia'ism have often mixed up modernity with globalisation. But the study under review, however, stresses a simultaneous enunciation of the distinctly Indian character and infrastructure of Shia'ism as they co-exist in Indian soil of multi-religious tradition.

This study has convincingly questioned several assumptions that are generally common to colonial observers, intellectuals and some academic studies. Overall, this research despite the fact that it is limited to a region of the world has the potential to shed insight on the larger issues of intra-community debates over Islam and its rituals and its relevance to promote peace in our time. It is obviously a major piece of work that would rip apart the claims of monolithic nature of Indian Islam, and highlight its plural nature and diverse character.

(Courtesy: The Hindu)

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