By Yasser Latif Hamdani
September 24, 2012
Pakistan, the self-proclaimed citadel of Muslim sovereignty in South Asia, has to make a momentous choice
In 1861, the Scottish Orientalist (with an evangelical bent), Sir William Muir wrote his infamous Life of Mahomet spanning four volumes, which was a terrible and an intemperate attack — through biased and selective extrapolation from the Hadith — on the life and motivations of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He was assisted and egged on by Karl Gotlieb Pfander, a famous Christian missionary who had made bringing ‘Muslims to Christ’ his life’s mission. Their objective was to turn Muslims against the faith of Islam by — to put it bluntly — using their own literature against them and this by and large was the modus operandi of the massive evangelical offensive against Islam in India.
The Muslim response was varied. However, the most effective defence of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) came from the Muslim modernists. In her brilliant and pithy little book, Partisans of Allah, Dr Ayesha Jalal of Tufts University identifies four people, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Maulana Chiragh Ali, Syed Ameer Ali and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, has having formed the vanguard of intellectual response and rebuttal, spanning over a quarter of a century, to the Muir-Pfander offensive. Of these four, the last one is too controversial and unpalatable for the general mass of Muslims these days, but Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his Muslim modernist associates have generally been appropriated by Pakistan as its heroes and rightly so. After all, the greatest political contribution of Sir Syed’s Aligarh University, that bastion of Islamic modernism, was the creation of Pakistan. Ameer Ali, who was also one of the earliest Indian judges on the Privy Council, had been the progenitor of the idea of separate electoral representation for the Muslim community. Sir Syed, Ameer Ali and Chiragh Ali contextually interpreted the life and career of the Prophet (PBUH) to dispel the biased orientalist views of the Islam and Muhammad (PBUH). In doing so, they recognised that the latter day “professors of faith” i.e. the ulema have so distorted the picture of Islam that it is taken to be a religion of violence and bloodshed. It was for this reason that Sir Syed and his colleagues emphasised the importance of modern education and the use of modern tools including the European languages. They also emphasised the ethical dimension of jihad as an intellectual and spiritual effort rather than a military struggle.
The second Muslim response was of outright rejection of the tools required to fight the missionary onslaught. In main, this second Muslim response led to the formation of the Darul Uloom at Deoband. Maulana Qasim Nautanawi, Maulana Rasheed Ahmed Gangohi and others felt that the onslaught on Muslims required a retreat in the familiar citadel of tradition and religious knowledge while rejecting all modern knowledge. They also appropriated the concept of jihad for their own anti-colonial impulse, thereby interpreting it narrowly to mean armed struggle. The Deobandi thesis on jihad as religious war against colonial oppressors had its antecedents in the ‘jihad’ of Syed Ahmed Barelvi and Shah Ismail, the martyrs of Balakot, even though those martyrs had fought Sikh rulers and not the British. The Deoband view of the Muslim modernists of Aligarh was in the balance negative. Sir Syed and his associates were dismissed as apologists and collaborators of the British Empire. For these psychological reasons and its attendant complicated history, Deoband stayed away from the Pakistan Movement at the closing stages of the Raj throwing its lot with the Congress Party instead.
The events of the last decade or so in general and in particular of the currently developing situation around the film Innocence of Muslims has brought Pakistanis a full circle. It must be stated here that in terms of the seriousness of the attack, this piddling film is of no lasting value. Besides being a horrible distortion of facts, it is artistically/cinematically flawed and would have been forgotten had such hoopla not been created about it.
Once again as in the closing decades of the 19th century, Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular, are faced with the question of what constitutes an appropriate response to such provocation. Our esteemed doctors of faith prescribe isolationism and militarism against the rest of the world. Rage has already spilt into the street and the calls for qital (killing) are getting louder. On the Mall right opposite the Lahore High Court, banners have been placed stating the only solution and appropriate recourse: beheading. All this will only reaffirm the propaganda that the anti-Islam polemicists are indulging in. In a hasty and ill-advised move, the government of Pakistan has blocked YouTube, thereby depriving Pakistanis the tools of counter-offensive. The people of this country are unable and incapable of producing an intellectual response to any anti-Islam polemics by right wing groups in the west. Since the late 1960s, ironically coinciding with the time when our textbooks shifted from calling 1857 a mutiny (Aligarh view) to a war of independence and jihad (Darul Uloom Deoband view), we have driven out the Aligarh inspired modernists and Islamic reformers like Fazlur Rahman. The Sunni ulema, be they Deobandi or Barelvi, have been competing to see who more eloquently conflates jihad with qatal. Pakistan, the self-proclaimed citadel of Muslim sovereignty in South Asia, has to make a momentous choice. It can choose to be ideologically consistent with its own antecedents and adopt Sir Syed’s ideas in engaging with the west or it can continue to sound off in its echo chamber of self delusion.
For his monumental efforts to uplift the Muslims of this subcontinent, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was denounced as an infidel, a lackey of the British and a sell out by the Ulema-e-Deen. Today, the self-proclaimed ‘ghairat-mands’ of Pakistan, fired on by contradictory emotions and utter confusion about identity and history, denounce any person talking any sense whatsoever as a lackey of the west and a slave of the US. Even a moderate middle-grounder like Allama Ghamidi, who emulates the Nadwa tradition (which has been called halfway from Darul Ulooms to Aligarh thought) and heads a liberal offshoot of Maududi’s Islamic revivalist scholarship, has been forced to abandon his work in Pakistan. Such is the sorry state of affairs in our citadel. May providence aid this hapless nation?
Yasser Latif Hamdani is a practising lawyer.