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Reviving Islam in Colonial Period in India

By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam

9 November 2021

The Revivalist Project of Islam in Colonial Period in India With Reference To the Writings of Syed Amir Ali and Shibli Nomani

Main Points:

1.    Muslim scholars, in the process of reviving Islam.

2.    System of values, philosophy, education, and society; deeply ingrained in the Quran and the Prophetic Sunnah

3.    Revivalist project of modernist Muslims was influenced by the ideas of western modernity.


Under the title of this essay falls an array of theological as well as socio-political issues that has concerned Muslims over the last two centuries. But in this essay, I would like to discuss two important questions: first, how Muslim scholars, in the process of reviving Islam, imagined themselves as a rational community, and second, how they employed the concept of progress, which is an expression of modernity in itself, to put their community on the path of development.

 Before any attempt to understand the revivalist movements among Muslims, it is imperative to understand the deriving forces that compelled Muslim revivalists to critically scrutinize the problems that to their minds, were causing a hindrance to their advancement.

As the story goes, Muslims were contentedly living in the lands their brethren had acquired centuries ago. With time they nurtured a system of values, philosophy, education, and society, which was deeply ingrained in the Quran and the Prophetic Sunnah, and yet again found rooted even in the Aristotelian worldview. The worldview that they had cherished for centuries was confronted right after they had been colonized.

The Muslim world was affected in many ways by the European encounter. One was the realization of their inability to face the challenges posed by the European economy, technology, and military might. To scholars like the French Orientalist Ernest Renan (1823-1892), the Europeans had succeeded in their imperial advancement in the Muslim lands because of the civilizational supremacy that they had over Muslims. He argued that since Islam was opposed to reason and was not compatible with science, it rendered Muslims abhorrent to science and reason as well. He argued that “starting from about 1275, the Muslim world plunged into ‘the most pitiable intellectual decadence’ whereas Western Europe entered ‘the great highway of the scientific search for the truth.” Furthermore, in his lecture which he delivered on March 29, 1883, he claimed:

 “all those who have been in the East, or in Africa, are struck by the way in which the mind of a true believer is factually limited, by the species of iron circle that surrounds his head, rendering it absolutely closed to knowledge, incapable of either learning anything, or of being open to any new idea.”

 It does not stop here. Not only were Muslims believed as repugnant to science and reason, they were also regarded as people who do not esteem human rights. To counter such degrading claims, Muslim scholars conceptualized themselves as a historical rational community which not only contributed to the advancement of science and philosophy but also upheld the values of an egalitarian society. By historical, I mean that the revivalist Muslim scholars in the late nineteenth and the twentieth century did not believe that the contemporary Muslim world follows the same path of reason and egalitarianism that their brethren had trodden in the past.

There are two prominent scholars, Syed Amir Ali and Shibli Nomani, whose views I would like to discuss here. They, like several other scholars, committed their lives to produce literature in response to the Orientalists’ claims of civilizational and ethnic supremacy. The project that they undertook was multifaceted: on the one hand, they tried to discredit the claims of civilizational supremacy of Western Europe over Muslims by highlighting the accomplishments that Muslims had achieved in the past, and on the other, they exhorted their fellow Muslims to continue the intellectual legacy of the early Muslims in their own time.

 Imagining Muslims as a Rational Community

 Syed Amir Ali (1849-1928) was a prominent scholar and jurist in colonial India. He wrote multiple articles and books to defend Islam against the colonial and orientalist intrusions. The most remarkable work that he produced is known as The Spirit of Islam (1991). Though written in an attempt to refute the views of orientalists such as William Muir, Amir Ali conceptualizes the origin of Islam as a religion culminating during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. The Prophet acted as a teacher, a seer, who chalked out the most egalitarian and rationalistic principles for mankind. For example, concerning the rights of women, he argued that the Prophet initiated reforms for the first time in history. ‘The reforms he instituted,’ writes Amir Ali, were immensely effective ‘and (introduced) marked improvement in the position of women.’ The Prophet enforced respect for women as one of the essential teachings of his creed and placed women on a footing of perfect equality with men in the exercise of all legal powers and functions.’ He considered polygamy as a potential threat to the rights of women, and therefore, he opposed it as an un-Islamic practice.

The progress of Islam, however, was halted by dogmatism and orthodoxy. Amir Ali argued that Muslims maintained a rationalistic attitude until the end of the tenth century. He hails Mutazilites and Muslim philosophers, Hukama, such as Ibn Sinā and Fārābī for their beliefs in free inquiry and free will. Interestingly, he compares the Muslim orthodoxy headed by ‘ulema’ with the Christian ecclesiasticism and held responsible theologians like ’Abul Hasan ’Ash‘arī responsible for obliterating the rationalist spirit in Islam. One can assume that Amir Ali’s reading of Muslim history corresponds to the conflict between the Church and the practitioners of science and reason in European history. Moreover, to him, Muslim ecclesiastics are as guilty in suppressing the practice of free inquiry as are the Christian ones. He gives a fluent account of how Muslims strayed from the path set by the Prophet himself, 

“Patristicism was triumphant in every quarter which owned the temporal or spiritual sway of the Abbasids: the college of jurists had placed under the ban of heresy the rationalists and philosophers who made the name of Moslems glorious in the annals of the world; a heartless, illiberal, and persecuting formalism dominated the spirit of the theologians; a pharisaical epicureanism had taken possession of the rich, and an ignorant fanaticism of the poor; the gloom of the night was fast thickening, and Islam was drifting into the condition into which ecclesiasticism had led Christianity.”

Whereas Amir Ali advances a reductive version of history which in its condemnation of ‘ulema’ parallels to the history of the Church against the practice of free inquiry, Shibli Numani’s project of reviving Islam seems to be more comprehensive.

Trained in a traditional education system, Shibli Nomani (d. 1914) rose to prominence because of the score of books and articles that he devoted to educating his brethren about their glorious past. In his work on the second Caliph, Umar, and Jizya system, Shibli aimed to emphasize that the Islamic governing system was based on just and egalitarian principles. Shibli wrote detailed biographies of the Abbasid Caliph, al-Mamūn, and the eleventh-century jurist theologian, al-Ghazālī, highlighting their contribution to making the great Islamic civilization. These were the figures that are thought to be responsible for changing the course of history in favour of Islam, and therefore, worthy to be imitated, one for the rulers and elites, and the other for ‘ulema’ in order to revive the decaying society of Muslims during his time.

Shibli was disheartened by the plight of the Muslim education system. As he believed that narrating the stories of the past would do nothing good if the audience were not able to emulate the resulting wisdom. He later boarded on a mission to reform the education system. In 1892, he travelled far west in the Muslim world to observe and learn about the Muslim intellectual life there. However, he returned disappointed as he deemed the condition of the Indian Muslims was no different than their brethren in Egypt, Syria, or Constantinople. Shibli imagined the intellectual challenges of his time as similar to the philosophical challenges faced by the early Muslims.

To deal with the intellectual challenges, Muslims in the past had devised a sophisticated, yet complex, philosophical-theological system, which they called Ilm-e-Kalām. Similarly, since history is repeating itself, Muslims of his time, Shibli argued, needed the same strategy to deal with the modern philosophical and intellectual questions.

It can be argued that Amir Ali and Shibli succeeded in their attempt of making Muslims realize that they inherit the legacy of a rational civilization. Because the generations that followed them confidently started invoking the examples of Muslim rationalists, instead of ulema or traditionalists, whenever they require to compare with the western world. It is ironic because most of the time in history these rationalists were abhorred by traditionalist scholars and were heavily marginalized.

The Idea of Progress

In this part of the essay, I would like to argue that the idea of progress was central to the project of revival in the colonial period in India. The notion of progress was conceptualized during the Enlightenment and is considered one of its main characteristics. In Hegelian terms, progress is associated with history as an intelligible process moving towards a specific condition--the realization of human freedom. Furthermore, progress is also considered an expression of modernity and is complemented by the notion of decline.

Soon after the colonial establishment, Muslims were ready to indulge in the philosophy of Enlightenment and modernity. The writings of Shibli and Amir Ali provide ample evidence about their being well-versed in Western philosophy. Interestingly, Amir Ali believed that Islam is an evolved image of the primitive religion that continued progressing throughout the time of Prophet Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, and culminated during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. However, unlike Hegel, both Amir Ali and Shibli Nomani believed in the disruption of the process of progress and thought that this progression of history could potentially be turned backward, as was the case with Muslim history.

In a progressive standing, they also believed that certain things belonged to the past and as time advanced, they became outdated. In changed circumstances, practicing or believing in those outdated things creates a complex, and anachronistic situation for the practitioner and believer. Therefore, they opposed several practices and advocated for others in accordance with the need of their own time.

These revivalist scholars perceived history not just in eschatological terms as was understood by the medieval Muslims, but also in a mundane and futuristic way. It was an extraordinary change in the history of the Muslim world to conceptualize time in this probable and indefinite fashion. A result of such thinking was that Muslims came to believe that the future is malleable and that they could determine their own path towards it. Furthermore, they started believing that it was possible for Muslims to become world-oriented along with Akhirat-oriented.

To study modern Muslim societies and ideas, it is very important to understand the philosophical underpinnings of modernity in modern Muslim thoughts. I have argued here that the revivalist project of Muslim scholars was deeply influenced by the Western philosophical ideas, which, in some way, was, of course, traceable to their own philosophical and intellectual tradition. There is no doubt that Muslims adopted several Western philosophical ideas in the process of reforming their own society. However, they failed to acknowledge the fact and subjected themselves to a great confusion.



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