Defending Muḥammad in Modernity
506 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- Published: January 2020
- ISBN: 9780268106706
- Published: January 2020
- ISBN: 9780268106690
- Published: January 2020
- ISBN: 9780268106720
- American Institute of Pakistan Studies Book Prize
- American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence, Analytical-Descriptive Studies, Finalist
In this groundbreaking study, SherAli Tareen presents the most comprehensive and theoretically engaged work to date on what is arguably the most long-running, complex, and contentious dispute in modern Islam: the Barelvī-Deobandī polemic. The Barelvī and Deobandī groups are two normative orientations/reform movements with beginnings in colonial South Asia. Almost two hundred years separate the beginnings of this polemic from the present. Its specter, however, continues to haunt the religious sensibilities of postcolonial South Asian Muslims in profound ways, both in the region and in diaspora communities around the world.
Defending Muḥammad in Modernity challenges the commonplace tendency to view such moments of intra-Muslim contest through the prism of problematic yet powerful liberal secular binaries like legal/mystical, moderate/extremist, and reformist/traditionalist. Tareen argues that the Barelvī-Deobandī polemic was instead animated by what he calls “competing political theologies” that articulated—during a moment in Indian Muslim history marked by the loss and crisis of political sovereignty—contrasting visions of the normative relationship between divine sovereignty, prophetic charisma, and the practice of everyday life. Based on the close reading of previously unexplored print and manuscript sources in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu spanning the late eighteenth and the entirety of the nineteenth century, this book intervenes in and integrates the often-disparate fields of religious studies, Islamic studies, South Asian studies, critical secularism studies, and political theology.
Part 1. Competing Political Theologies
1.Thinking the Question of Sovereignty in Early Colonial India
2. The Perils and Promise of Moral Reform
3. Reenergizing Sovereignty
5. Intercessory Wars
Part 2. Competing Normativities
6. Reforming Religion in the Shadow of Colonial Power.
7. Law, Sovereignty, and the Boundaries of Normative Practice
8. Forbidding Piety to Restore Sovereignty: The Mawlid and its Discontents
9. Retaining Goodness: Reform as the Preservation of Original Forms
10. Knowing the Unknown: Contesting the Sovereign Gift of Knowledge
11. Internal Disagreements
Postscript: Listening to the Internal ‘other’
"This book is beautifully written in a language accessible for students and colleagues who have not previously engaged with this topic. If you can only read three books on Islam in South Asia, Defending Muḥammad in Modernity needs to be one of them." —Margrit Pernau, Max Planck Institute for Human Development
"No book offers a richer, more illuminating guide to the origins and complex theological relationship of the Barelvi and the Deobandi orientations, which have dominated Sunni Islam in modern South Asia, than Defending Muḥammad in Modernity. SherAli Tareen’s deeply researched, theoretically informed, yet remarkably accessible study will help make Islam in modern South Asia part of wider and much needed conversations among scholars of religion." —Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Princeton University, author of Islam in Pakistan: A History
"Defending Muḥammad in Modernity offers a major contribution to the literature on the history of Muslims (and Islam) in South Asia. SherAli Tareen's detailed exploration of the form and logic of the polemical engagements that marked the development of competing Deobandi and Barelvi visions in the nineteenth century is exceptional and provides a critical backdrop for understanding the divisions that continue to shape the dynamics of South Asian Muslim thinking today. The book is also noteworthy for its deep engagement with Urdu, Persian, and Arabic sources." —David Gilmartin, North Carolina State University, author of Empire and Islam: Punjab and the Making of Pakistan
“This book lands like an obelisk at the intersection of several fields. It joins the philological rigor of classical Islamic studies with the theoretical framing of religious studies and the contextual nous of South Asian studies. It will likely be a new point of departure for conversations around Islam in early modern and modern South Asia.” —Jonathan Brown, Georgetown University, author of Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy
“A masterful study of the polemics over Muḥammad’s status that have been occurring for more than a century in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh… it shows us that this polemical tradition is founded in a genuine argument, whose philosophical and juridical implications are meaningful even for those outside its purview.” —Faisal Devji, University of Oxford, author of Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea
“Defending Muhammad in Modernity is dense, meticulously researched, and elegantly written and will set the standard for the study of the two most influential Sunni Muslim movements in the region today.” —The Journal of Asian Studies
"The book is a tremendous contribution to the fields of South Asia and Islamic studies, while its theorizing on the twin forces of religion and secularism also adds greatly to conversations in the study of religion and politics." —New Books Network
"There is little denying the fact that through [Tareen's] account, one learns a huge amount, about theology, method, Islam, and much more. The thoroughness to detail and depth in his commentary and analysis and in the very wide reading that he has undertaken and conveyed to a reader is most welcome and useful and highly recommended. This is a superb book." —H-Asia, H-Net Reviews
"Tareen’s Defending Muhammad in Modernity is a thoroughly researched, well-written, monumental contribution to the scholarly literature on religious construction during colonialism in South Asia." —American Journal of Islam and Society
"Defending Muhammad in Modernity is a groundbreaking study of the conceptual problem space of 'the Deobandi-Barelvi polemic,' a defining intra-Muslim dispute in modern South Asian Islam. . . . [T]his book is indispensable for scholars who want to engage seriously with the intellectual foundations of Muslim sectarianism in South Asia." —Reading Religion
"SherAli Tareen questions the very validity of the transformation-versus-continuity issue altogether in his learned book on the debates between two prominent orientations within Islam: the Barelvī and Deobandī schools." —Journal of the American Academy of Religion
"SherAli Tareen’s Defending Muḥammad in Modernity presents a rich and textured analysis of the Barelvī-Deobandī polemical battle in colonial South Asia.... [T]his is an important book that provides an original engagement with key theological aspects of modern Islamic thought." —Journal of Urdu Studies
Providing rich sources and a strong conceptual base, Defending Muḥammad in Modernity is a must-read for researchers working on South Asian Islam, political theology and those interested in the Barelvi-Deobandi controversy. —Contemporary South Asia
"Tareen approaches his sources with rich theoretical tools, crafted by anthropologists, philosophers, and South Asianists, among others." —Bloomsbury Pakistan
"A must-read text for both scholars and students concerned with South Asian Islam and reformation around the imagination of the Prophet Muhammad in the modern era." —Religion
The subject of intercession is inextricable to the question of sovereignty. The capacity to pardon a sinner signifies the ability to enact an exception, a departure from the normal rule. The sovereign, remember, at least according to the Schmittian notion, is he who enacts the exception. The role of an intercessor in this process can cause some tension. To be sure, an intercessor only serves as a petitioner who mediates between a sinner and the sovereign decision maker. But what is one to make of an intercessor whose petitions are never refused, whose status allows him to have all his requests for an exception approved? Does that in any way compromise the sovereignty of the sovereign?
These questions were central to Ismā‘īl’s discussion on intercession. He was most troubled by the tendency of the masses to associate sovereign powers with human intercessors such as pious saints and prophets. The way they understood the idea of intercession, he contended, confused the exceptionality of divine sovereignty with the intercessory authority of non-divine entities. He saw intercession as one of the principal arenas that threatened the radical alterity of divine sovereignty. In the discussion that follows, analyzing the coherence of Ismā‘īl’s argument according to traditional Islamic theology is less among my concerns. Rather, what primarily interests me is the language in which he delivered his argument. What kinds of symbols, metaphors, and images populated his discourse? What political postures and desires might we discern from this seemingly theological discussion? What does his mode of argumentation reveal about his social imaginary? These are some of the questions that occupy me in what follows.
Ismā‘īl’s discourse on intercession, consistent with his larger argument in Taqwīyat al-Īmān, sought to radically undercut the authority of intermediaries and non-divine entities, including the Prophet, in the realm of salvation and redemption. To describe in Schmittian terms, Ismā‘īl argued that it was only God who possessed the sovereign power to grant the exception of forgiveness and salvation to a sinner who would otherwise, according to the normal rule, be destined for hell. In formulating his argument, Ismā‘īl presented a number of prophetic reports in which the Prophet himself emphasized his fallibility and vulnerability as a human being. For instance, in one such narration, the Prophet said, “By God! Even though I am God’s messenger, I have no idea what will be done to me or to you [in the afterworld].” On another occasion, the Prophet assembled his family members and declared to them: “save yourselves from hell-fire. I will be of no help you in God’s [court of accountability].” The Prophet, Ismā‘īl argued, was acutely concerned that his followers not divinize him with superhuman qualities and thus undercut God’s absolute sovereignty. Moreover, Ismā‘īl also argued that the aura and majesty of the Prophet depended not on any extraordinary salvific capacities, but on the perfection of his humanity. In other words, it is the paradigmatic example of his unwavering submission to divine sovereignty that made the Prophet extraordinary. In cementing this argument, Ismā‘īl adduced an array of verses from the Qur’ān in which God instructs the Prophet to declare his incapacity to harm or benefit his community in the afterlife.
For example, “Say: It is not in my power to cause you harm or to bring you to right conduct. Say: No one can deliver me from God (If I were to disobey him), nor should I find refuge except in him.” In his commentary on this verse, Ismā‘īl exhorted his readers to take note of the Prophet’s keenness to establish his servitude for the divine. This he puctuated to prevent his community from transgressing the limits of his own authority. Ismā‘īl ventriloquized the Prophet’s position as follows: “Do not transgress the limits by thinking that our intermediary is extremely majestic and our intercessor very beloved (hamārā wakīl zabardast aur hamārā shafī‘ barā maḥbūb) so that we can do whatever we so wish and he will save us from God’s punishment. Even I (the Prophet) tremble before God and do not seek anyone else as my refuge.” Ismā‘īl continued, “From this verse it becomes apparent what misguided transgressors these Indian Muslim masses are who forget the sovereignty of the divine in their reliance on saints and holy figures. The master of prophethood (sarkār-i risālat) himself used to fear God day and night and find solace in nothing other than His mercy. Then who are these commoners to be following a different path.”
Ismā‘īl also propounded a number of other verses that emphatically underscore the absoluteness of divine sovereignty while criticizing the role of intermediaries in the salvific realm. For example, these included, “They serve, besides God, things that hurt them not nor profit them, and they say: "These are our intercessors with God." Say: "Do you indeed inform God of something He knows not, in the heavens or on earth? Glory to Him! And far is He above the partners they ascribe (to Him)!"Also, "Who is it in whose hands is the governance of all things, who protects (all), but is not protected (of any)? (Answer) if you can."
At the same time that Ismā‘īl vigorously advanced his argument for limiting the scope of prophetic intercession, he faced a formidable conundrum: contrary to his theological project, traditional sources of Muslim normativity, including the Qur’ān, contain several references that in fact affirm a normative role for human intercessors in the domain of salvation. For instance, some such moments in the Qur’an include verses like: “On that day shall no intercession avail except of him whom the Beneficent God allows and whose word He is pleased with” and “intercession will not avail aught with Him save of him whom He permits”, are some among several other such verses in the Qur’ān that have historically been regarded as substantiating the doctrine of prophetic intercession. Confronted with this obstacle, Ismā‘īl was presented with the challenge of devising a hermeneutical strategy that might advance his argument for the exclusivity of absolute divine sovereignty while also honoring the normative permission offered to non-divine intercessors in traditional Islamic sources.
(Excerpted from chapter 5)