To write on a theme in a series of newspaper articles, each a week apart from the previous one, has its own issues. For one thing, even the regular reader might lose track of the route the particular writing has taken, and for someone who picks it up from the middle, it becomes difficult to place it in the larger argument conceived by the writer. This does not, of course, apply to the readers on the web, as they can not only recall the earlier instalments but also look at the comments that each one generated. It is therefore appropriate at this stage to quickly take an account of how much of the overall theme has been covered in the previous six pieces that were published in this space and where the argument is leading.
I began by pointing out that the maulvi as an economic profession came into being in the face of unambiguous edicts of the Holy Quran, Hadith and the great interpreters and experts of Islamic fiqh or jurisprudence to the contrary. Somewhere during the 15th century AD, what was absolutely haram was turned into halal by those who monopolised the divine word. Then I mentioned the salient features of the system of imparting and disseminating religious learning which existed before the advent of the new modes of communication, travel and education. The traditional system ensured that religious knowledge was kept within the reach of a small bunch of families, that considered themselves of high birth, and away from the majority of common people, who received nothing but contempt because of their supposed low birth.
The new technologies, in principle, made it possible such people to free themselves from their rigid traditional ancestral occupations and get the new kind of education to make themselves employable in the new socio-economic set-up that came into being under the colonial administration from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Access to education, traditionally denied to them, also meant that now they could get to know more than one interpretation of the religious scriptures and make their own judgments.
The professional maulvis too, as an interest group, modernised themselves, not with respect to their outlook towards social change — which remained extremely conservative — but, in that they started making use of the same modern technologies to safeguard and further their interests. They continued trying to defend — or rather revive — the dead and dying socio-economic system that had traditionally been sustaining them and which suited them more than the new era. The Deoband was among such ‘modernising’ ‘reform’ movements launched by professional maulvis as a response to changed and, from their point of view undesirable, circumstances. In the name of reform, they sought to condemn the local forms of lived religion, evolved over centuries, and replace them with their imagined ‘original’ or ‘pure’ Islam. In this they were deeply influenced by the Wahhabi school of thought which sought to use takfeer — declaring their opponents outside the fold of Islam — and strong-arm methods to destroy old, historical forms of the lived religion.
The case of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi was chosen for a somewhat detailed study for several reasons. He has a bigger following among the Deobandi sectarian circles in Pakistan compared with other maulvis from Deoband who sided with the Congress during the time leading to partition. His books are constantly in print and are sold in large quantities. In the remainder of the series, I would discuss Thanvi’s ideas about cleansing the local forms of religious practices of tasawwuf — Sufism of the familiar kind — and the common South Asian Muslim’s sympathy for the martyrs of Karbala, apart from his usual efforts to declare the local traditions as ‘innovations’. His pronouncements on the issues related to women’s emancipation, jihad and casteism will especially be discussed in some detail as those are relevant in view of the significance Thanvi enjoys.
However, it is interesting to note, as will be shown subsequently, that his follower maulvis sometimes simply ignore Thanvi’s categorical judgments on such issues and adopt policies dictated by the expediencies of current politics. This has a background to it. Since the production of madrassa graduates increased manifold after these seminaries had adopted the modern method of classroom education by the early twentieth century, each maulvi coming out of this system ideally needed for himself a separate mosque with a madrassa and preferably a publishing arm (and resultantly a small or large group of followers with his own khalifas to manage the mureeds) to make his own career. Which is what Thanvi himself eventually opted for after teaching at a madrassa at Kanpur for several years.
Since each competent Deobandi maulvi is his own master in his religious kingdom — you need only to look around to find contemporary examples of madrassa-masjid-hostel complexes owned and run by a prominent maulvi families — there has been a gradual loss of any central authority in the Deobandi circle. They act more or less in the same manner as a coterie of independent warlords in jihad — without obeying a single Amir who would hold the authority over all of them. This became obvious when, during the Lal Masjid crisis in July 2007, the head of the Darul-uloom Korangi, Karachi — founded by Mufti Mohammad Shafi Usmani and run by his sons and grandsons — tried to reason with Ghazi Abdul Rasheed and was contemptuously snubbed by him.
This is in line with the manner Thanvi himself acted. He differed with other prominent Deoband maulvis and other religious leaders on significant issues of the Khilafat movement, jihad, civil disobedience etc. and found religious arguments supporting his own preferred positions. This, despite the fact that ‘others’ — minority sects, the adherents of the traditional local Islam and Sufism (constituting a majority), free-thinkers, etc. — receive nothing but wrath for having differing opinions. To understand this apparent dichotomy is essential for having a relevant insight into the problems facing our society today in the matters of political Islam.
(To be concluded)
Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2011.