By M Sathyavathi
P K Mohammed Abul Hassan, popularly known as Chekannur Maulavi, was last seen on July 29, 1993, when he left home in Kerala's Malappuram district to deliver a religious sermon.
Seventeen years later, on September 29, 2010, the CBI court hearing the case related to his disappearance concluded that Chekannur Maulavi had been murdered and his body disposed off in a mysterious manner - His body has not been found to this date.
The court acquitted eight of the nine accused owing to lack of evidence. The first accused - who was among the group who accompanied the Maulavi from his home on the day of his disappearance - was found guilty of murder, abduction, conspiracy and destruction of evidence.
Accepting the prosecution's argument that religious rivalries motivated the accused to commit the crime, the judge said "some fundamental [sic] Muslim individuals could not tolerate the so-called progressive ideas of Chekannur Maulavi".
The fundamentalists here are Sunnis, or traditionalist Malayalee Muslims, allegedly owing allegiance to one particular faction based in Kozhikode. An appeal by Chekannur Maulavi's relatives to include the Sunni faction's leader among the accused was dismissed by the Supreme Court.
From a human rights angle, the case concerns an individual's freedom of speech and how it was violated by some people who disagreed with his views.
Several prominent Malayalee intellectuals and activists, not to mention the family and friends of Chekannur Maulavi, had campaigned hard to bring the culprits to justice.
But was Chekannur Maulavi a progressive as is commonly believed? Is it true that this was a conflict between progressive and fundamentalist forces within Islam?
It was not only the court that used these terms. Media reports and public discourse about the case, too, has frequently invoked these words to explain what is at stake.
Are progressive and fundamentalist forces, as is assumed in this context, mutually incompatible perspectives?
One must consider the semantics of the words involved. Among the Oxford English Dictionary's entries for the various meanings of "progressive", the following fits the current context:
Progressive: (Of a person, or idea) Favouring social reform.
So, in this sense, Chekannur Maulavi was progressive because he supported social reform. Now consider what the OED says about the fundamentalist:
Fundamentalist: Strict maintenance of the doctrines of any religion, notably Islam, according to a strict, literal interpretation of scripture.
The Sunnis involved in the case are "fundamentalists" by this criteria. If we take the public discourse and the judgement at face value, being progressive and being fundamentalist are positions that cannot hang together. Following one necessarily leads to the abandonment of the other.
Does this apply to the case?
Was Chekannur someone who objected to the strict maintenance of Islam's doctrines based on a strict, literal interpretation of scripture?
Let's look at the basic positions of the rival sides. Briefly, Chekannur Maulavi taught that the Qur'an alone was the source for all Islamic practice and beliefs and rejected the hadith (Narrations concerning the words and deeds of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Hadith are regarded as important tools for understanding the Qur'an and in matters of jurisprudence).
The Sunnis, on the other hand, recognise both the Qur'an and hadith and precisely in that hierarchy as the scriptures of Islam.
One instance that is regularly advanced to prove that Chekannur Maulavi is a progressive Muslim is his support of the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case.
He was one among the few Muslim intellectuals in the country who said that Shah Bano's former husband should pay her alimony. Significantly, Chekannur Maulavi's position was not grounded in his personal view of the issue, nor was he motivated by a secular feminism.
Instead, his defence of the Supreme Court judgment was based on his interpretation of the Qur'an. What was perceived as progressive did not come from a rejection of the scripture, but was derived from it.
Turning to the Sunnis, it would be factually incorrect to brand their theology and scriptural interpretation as fundamentalist. In Kerala they are often at daggers drawn with the Salafis, who are self-proclaimed literalists.
The Sunnis do accept that some parts of the Qur'an have to be interpreted strictly and literally, but they also think some others require a much more nuanced reading (say, metaphorically), or that the meaning of yet others is known to God alone.
In the Shah Bano case, they opposed the Supreme Court judgment not because of any knee-jerk misogyny. Their reasoning was grounded in their interpretation of the scriptures.
So,what is considered a progressive stance need not be at odds with scriptural fidelity. Neither is textual fundamentalism equivalent to uneasiness with social reform.
The argument here is not that there are no radical differences between Chekannur Maulavi and the Sunni faction. There are plenty.
The point is that terms like progressive and fundamentalist are useless in making sense of those differences. In common parlance, progressive and fundamentalist are often used to either commend or deprecate an idea, a group or a person.
I would argue that it is in this sense that these terms are employed in public discourse while referring to the Sunnis and Chekannur Maulavi.
The criteria for terming something or somebody as progressive or fundamentalist are often unclear and vary widely. They may include conformity to and/or rebellion against various notions about religion - secular-liberal (religion should be confined to the private sphere of life, or should endorse modern ideas about freedom, subjectivity etc.), nationalist (in the case of Muslims in India, it imposes the burden of constantly proving their loyalty to the nation) and so on.
Whatever the criteria, these labels are also powerful and effective strategies of socio-cultural exclusion and inclusion. Being called a fundamentalist or a progressive could confer or take away your legitimacy and respectability. Especially in Kerala, where the public sphere is dominated by a left-secular-liberal consensus with historically established and well-defined concepts of freedom, modernity and development.
The irony is that in terms of numbers, wealth or political influence, Chekannur Maulavi's followers come nowhere near the Sunnis. And they have had to wage a long and tortuous struggle to get justice done in his case.
But, in the realm of ideas in Kerala's public sphere, they won the battle long ago in getting their leader and his ideas categorised as progressive and that of his rivals as fundamentalist.
The writer is an independent researcher based in Thrissur, Kerala.