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Home > Books & Journals > Journal Abstracts Last Updated: 14:59 02/23/2009
Journal Abstracts #320: February 23, 2009

Modern Asian Studies

Journal Name: Modern Asian Studies: Volume 42 - Special Double Issue 2-3 (Islam in South Asia)- March 2008
Print ISSN: 0026-749X Online ISSN: 1469-8099

Research Articles

Introduction: Islamic reformism in South Asia (pp247-257)
FILIPPO OSELLA (Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex, Brighton, BNI 9SJ, United Kingdom) and CAROLINE OSELLA (Department of Anthropology and Sociology, School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London, WCIH OXG, United Kingdom)
The authors in this volume discuss contemporary Islamic reformism in South Asia in some of its diverse historical orientations and geographical expressions, bringing us contemporary ethnographic perspectives against which to test claims about processes of reform and about trends such as 'Islamism' and 'global Islam'. The very use of terminology and categories is itself fraught with the dangers of bringing together what is actually substantially different under the same banner. While our authors have often found it necessary, perhaps for the sake of comparison or to help orient readers, to take on terms such as 'reformist' or 'Islamist', they are not using these as terms which imply identity-or even connection-between the groups so named, nor are they reifying such categories. In using such terms as shorthand to help identify specific projects, we are following broad definitions here in which 'Islamic modernism' refers to projects of change aiming to re-order Muslims' lifeworlds and institutional structures in dialogue with those produced under Western modernity; 'reformism' refers to projects whose specific focus is the bringing into line of religious beliefs and practices with the core foundations of Islam, by avoiding and purging out innovation, accretion and the intrusion of 'local custom'; and where 'Islamism' is a stronger position, which insists upon Islam as the heart of all institutions, practice and subjectivity-a privileging of Islam as the frame of reference by which to negotiate every issue of life; 'orthodoxy' is used according to its specific meaning in contexts in which individual authors work; the term may in some ethnographic locales refer to the orthodoxy of Islamist reform, while in others it is used to disparage those who do not heed the call for renewal and reform. 'Reformism' is particularly troublesome as a term, in that it covers broad trends stretching back at least 100 years, and encompassing a variety of positions which lay more or less stress upon specific aspects of processes of renewal; still, it is useful as a term in helping us to insist upon recognition of the differences between such projects and such contemporary obsessions as 'political Islam', 'Islamic fundamentalism' and so on. Authors here are generally following local usage in the ways in which they describe the movements discussed (thus, Kerala's Mujahid movement claims itself as part of a broader Islahi-renewal-trend and is identified here as 'reformist'). But while broad terms are used, what the papers are actually involved in doing is addressing the issues of how specific groups deal with particular concerns. Thus, not, 'What do reformists think about secular education?', but, 'What do Kerala's Mujahids in the 2000s think? How has this shifted from the position taken in the 1940s? How does it differ from the contemporary position of opposing groups? And how is it informed by the wider socio-political climate of Kerala?' The papers here powerfully demonstrate the historical and geographical specificity of reform projects, whereas discourse structured through popular mainstream perspectives (such as 'clash of civilizations') ignores such embeddedness.

Islamic Reform and Modernities in South Asia (pp259-281)
FRANCIS ROBINSON (Royal Holloway, University of London)
From the beginning of the Islamic era, Muslim societies have experienced periods of renewal (tajdid). Since the eighteenth century, Muslim societies across the world have been subject to a prolonged and increasingly deeply felt process of renewal. This has been expressed in different ways in different contexts. Amongst political elites with immediate concerns to answer the challenges of the West, it has meant attempts to reshape Islamic knowledge and institutions in the light of Western models, a process described as Islamic modernism. Amongst 'ulama and sufis, whose social base might lie in urban, commercial or tribal communities, it has meant 'the reorganisation of communities . . . [or] the reform of individual behavior in terms of fundamental religious principles', a development known as reformism. These processes have been expressed in movements as different as the Iranian constitutional revolution, the jihads of West Africa, and the great drives to spread reformed Islamic knowledge in India and Indonesia. In the second half of the twentieth century, the process of renewal mutated to develop a new strand, which claimed that revelation had the right to control all human experiences and that state power must be sought to achieve this end. This is known to many as Islamic fundamentalism, but is usually better understood as Islamism. For the majority of Muslims today, Islamic renewal in some shape or other has helped to mould the inner and outer realities of their lives.

Breathing in India, c. 1890 (pp283-315)
NILE GREEN (Dept. of History, UCLA, CAC0095-1473, USA)
This essay examines a series of 'Hindustani' meditation manuals from the high colonial period against a sample of etiquette and medicinal works from the same era. In doing so, the essay has two principal aims, one specific to the Indian past and one pertaining to more general historical enquiry. The first aim is to subvert a longstanding trend in the 'history' of religions which has understood meditational practices through a paradigm of the mystical and transcendent. In its place, the essay examines such practices-and in particular their written, and printed, formulation-within the ideological and technological contexts in which they were written. In short, meditation is historicised, and its 'Hindu' and 'Muslim' expressions, compared in the process. The second aim is more ambitious: to test the limits of historical knowledge by asking whether it is possible to recount a history of breathing. In reassembling a political economy of respiration from a range of colonial writings, the essay thus hopes to form a listening device for the intimate rhythms of corporeal history. In doing so, it may suggest ways to recount a connected and necessarily political history of the body, the spirit and the world.

Islamism and Social Reform in Kerala, South India (pp317-346)
FILIPPO OSELLA (Department of Anthropology, University of Sussex, Brighton, BNI 9SJ, United Kingdom) and CAROLINE OSELLA (Department of Anthropology and Sociology, School of Oriental and African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London, WCIH OXG, United Kingdom)
This paper critiques ethnographic tendencies to idealise and celebrate sufi 'traditionalism' as authentically South Asian. We perceive strong academic trends of frank distaste for reformism, which is then inaccurately-and dangerously buttressing Hindutva rhetoric-branded as going against the grain of South Asian society. This often goes along with (inaccurate) branding of all reformism as 'foreign inspired' or wah'habi. Kerala's Mujahids (Kerala Naduvathul Mujahideen [KNM]) are clearly part of universalistic trends and shared Islamic impulses towards purification. We acknowledge the importance to KNM of longstanding links to the Arab world, contemporary links to the Gulf, wider currents of Islamic reform (both global and Indian), while also showing how reformism has been producing itself locally since the mid-19th century. Reformist enthusiasm is part of Kerala-wide patterns discernable across all religious communities: 1920s and 1930s agitations for a break from the 19th century past; 1950s post-independence social activism; post 1980s religious revivalism. Kerala's Muslims (like Kerala Hindus and Christians) associate religious reformism with: a self-consciously 'modern' outlook; the promotion of education; rallying of support from the middle classes. There is a concomitant contemporary association of orthoprax traditionalism with 'backward', superstitious and un-modern practices, troped as being located in rural and low-status locations.

Piety as Politics amongst Muslim Women in Contemporary Sri Lanka (pp347-375)
FARZANA HANIFFA (Department of Sociology, University of Colombo. P.O. Box 1490, Cumaratunga Munidasa Mawatha, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka)
In this paper I argue that the manner in which piety is perceived and propagated among Muslims in Sri Lanka must be understood as located within the context of ethnic conflict and the polarization between ethnic groups that occurred in its wake. I explore the work of one Muslim women's da'wa (preaching) group-Al Muslimaat-that pioneered the process of making piety popular among lower-middle and middle-income Muslim women in a semi-urban Colombo neighbourhood. Looking at the group's activities and specifically through analyses of the bayan or lay sermons delivered by their most charismatic member, I look at the nature of the pious practice that is preached. I argue that in making a self-consciously pious Muslim female subject, Al Muslimaat bayans are affecting ideas of masculinity and femininity among the suburban Muslims with whom they work, and recasting Muslimness in a manner exclusive of ethnic others. I argue also that by marginalizing the kafir in propagating the new Muslim, Al Muslimaat and the greater piety movement in Sri Lanka is mirroring the particular incommensurable identities already espoused by the violently strident Sinhala and Tamil nationalisms in the country.

The Changing Perspectives of Three Muslim Men on the Question of Saint Worship over a 10-Year Period in Gujarat, Western India (pp377-403)
EDWARD SIMPSON (School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG, UK)
In many religious traditions, those who mediate relations between men and gods are often the focus of controversy and moral ambiguity. The ethnography in this paper outlines a number of perspectives on the role of such intermediaries (here 'saints') in Muslim society in western India. In the South Asian literature, historians have provided a thorough treatment of the doctrinal history and content of these debates. However, very little attention has been paid to how living individuals interpret and rehearse these debates in practice. The examination of the changing perspectives of three Muslim men on the question of saint worship over a 10 year period reveals the following. First, an individual's relationship with 'saints' is often determined primarily by social context rather than simply by doctrinal allegiance or the compulsions of particular 'beliefs'. Second, discourses of religious reform are also powerful social objects that can be used as political instruments for purposes other than simply refining the religious practices of a community. Finally, many commonplace assumptions in the literature-notably on the nature of belief and the significance of doctrinal divisions among Muslims-do not withstand ethnographic scrutiny.

Women, Politics and Islamism in Northern Pakistan (pp405-429)
MAGNUS MARSDEN (School of Oriental and African Studies)
This paper explores the responses of women living in a small town in the Chitral region of northern Pakistan to the Islamizing policies of the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal, a coalition of Islamist parties elected to provincial government in the North West Frontier Province in October 2002. Its focus is on women in the region who vocally and publicly criticize Chitral's politically active madrasa-educated 'men of piety'. Documenting the ways in which these women and the region's 'men of piety' debate with one another on matters concerning personal morality, comportment and self-presentation illuminates dimensions of small-town Muslim life that are rarely considered important in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. In particular, by exploring these complex and multi-dimensional debates, I seek to emphasize the inherently unfinished nature of Chitralis' responses to ongoing Islamizing processes, a growing and pervasive sense of disenchantment amongst many of the region's Muslims with the authenticity of public expressions of personal piety, and, in this context, the continuing emergence of new ways of being Muslim, modes of self-presentation and categories of Islamic public opinion forming figures.

Violence, Reconstruction and Islamic Reform-Stories from the Muslim 'Ghetto' (pp431-456)
RUBINA JASANI (University of Sussex, 69 Woodstock Road, Birmingham, B13 9 BL, United Kingdom)
This paper is a critique of popular and academic assumptions about the Muslim 'community' and Islamist organizations, especially in the context of displacement and reconstruction after the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad, western India. It explores the internal politics of Jamaat-led organizations and the engagement of survivors with ideas of reform and piety. Contesting contemporary understandings of reformist Jamaats, I argue that the growing influence of the latter organizations had little co-relation with their resettlement plans and policies. The reconstruction patterns were more closely linked to the history of labour migration to the city, and the subsequent movement of violence-affected people from the mill areas to larger Muslim ghettoes. My ethnography shows how the survivors strategically engaged with reform initiatives and negotiated with local Islamist organizations for 'safe housing'. By illustrating certain ambiguities within the everyday practices of Islam, my paper also problematizes notions of 'piety' and 'agency', primarily after people's experiences of communal violence.

Reading the Qur'an in Bangladesh: The Politics of 'Belief' Among Islamist Women (pp457-488)
MAIMUNA HUQ (Department of Anthropology, University of South Carolina, 1512 Pendelton St, Rm. 317, Columbia, SC 29208, USA)
While much has been written about resurgent Islamic movements in recent decades, the proliferation of religious reading circles has received little attention. Few studies delineate the specifics of audience engagement with authoritative Islamic texts on the ground. This paper is a small attempt at such an inquiry in the context of Bangladesh. It investigates a particular Islamist Qur'anic study session conducted in Dhaka in 2003. Such reading sessions are routinely conducted within Bangladesh Islamic Chatri Sangstha (BICSa), the leading Islamic organization of women students in Bangladesh. I suggest that BICSa reading sessions embody spaces of both deliberation and discipline. In analysing a group discussion of a set of Qur'anic verses widely assigned for study within BICSa, particularly in relation to the central Islamist notion of 'belief', this paper argues that reading circles play a primary role in the production of a uniquely disciplined and devout, yet modern Islamist subjectivity in Bangladesh. A study circle familiarizes a lay Bangladeshi with specific kinds of religious literature and teaches them to understand and shape contemporary realities via scriptural injunctions. However, this inculcation process is not linear: The mastery of the Qur'anic literature enables both devotion to and contestation of BICSa precepts.

Islamic Feminism in India: Indian Muslim Women Activists and the Reform of Muslim Personal Law (pp489-518)
SYLVIA VATUK (Department of Anthropology (m/c 027), University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 West Harrison St., Chicago, IL 60607)
I describe here a nascent 'Islamic feminist' movement in India, dedicated to the goal of achieving gender equity under Muslim Personal Law. In justifying their demands, these women activists refer neither to the Indian Constitution nor to the universalistic human rights principles that guide secular feminists campaigning for passage of a gender-neutral uniform civil code of personal law, but rather to the authority of the Qur'an-which, they claim, grants Muslim women numerous rights that in practice are routinely denied them. They accuse the male 'ulama of foisting 'patriarchal' interpretations of the Qur'an on the unlettered Muslim masses and assert their right to read the Qur'an for themselves and interpret it in a woman-friendly way. Their activities reflect an increasing 'fragmentation of religious authority' in the globalizing Muslim world, associated with the spread of mass education, new forms of media and transport and a mobile labour force, in which clerical claims to exclusive authoritative knowledge are being questioned by a wide variety of new voices, women's among them. Whether it can ultimately succeed is an open question but the movement is clearly having an impact, even on the clerical establishment itself, insofar as the legal issues it considers most pressing for women are concerned.

Disputing Contraception: Muslim Reform, Secular Change and Fertility (pp519-548)
PATRICIA JEFFERY (School of Social & Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland), ROGER JEFFERY (School of Social & Political Studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland) and CRAIG JEFFREY (Department of Geography, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA)
In South Asia, Muslim reformers have often attempted to 'rationalize' and gentrify the everyday behaviour of ordinary Muslims. Yet, despite the existence of discussions of contraceptive techniques in the yūnān-ī tibb curricula of 19th century India and the apparent affinity between rationalism and fertility regulation, contraception was rarely discussed in public debates involving Muslim reformers. In this paper we discuss some of the relationships between Úlite debates among Muslim leaders and the grassroots behaviour of villagers in rural Bijnor, in western Uttar Pradesh. Villagers' voices are ambiguous, with fears for mother and child health surfacing as often as concerns for religious orthodoxy and one's destiny in the afterlife. In addition, many of the villagers' views of Islam were much more restrictive than those of the locally accepted authoritative voices: although the staff at Daru'l 'Ulūm, Deoband, saw much modern contraception as an unwelcome sign of modernity, their discussions of the acceptability of family planning circled round notions of majbūrī [compulsion], repentance, and the unfathomable mercy of Allah. We conclude that focusing on local notions of Islam to understand the fertility behaviour of rural Muslims is less fruitful than considering a "political economy of hopelessness" that, increasingly since 1947, affects many Muslims in north India.

Cracks in the 'Mightiest Fortress': Jamaat-e-Islami's Changing Discourse on Women (pp549-575)
IRFAN AHMAD (ISIM-Leiden University Rapenburg 59 2311 GJ Leiden, The Netherlands)
Islamists' ideas about the position of women are readily invoked to portray them as 'anti-modern'. The operating assumption is that Islamism (mutatis mutandis Islam) sanctions gender hierarchy. In this paper, drawing on ethnographic research and written sources of the Jamaat-e-Islami of India, founded in 1941, I question such assumptions. While defending Islam against the 'epidemic' of westernization, Maududi (b. 1903), the Jamaat's founder, called women 'the mightiest fortress of Islamic culture'. Invoking the Quran and Prophetic traditions, he argued that women should not step outside of the home, and must veil themselves from head to toe. He stood against any political role for women. For decades, Maududi's interpretation went uncontested. However, from the 1970s onwards many members of the Jamaat began to critique Maududi and offered an alternative reading of Islam. They argued that women could indeed leave the home, assume key economic and political roles, unveil their faces, as well as act in films. By highlighting such voices and analysing the sociological coordinates of the contestations within the Jamaat, I underscore the transformation in the Jamaat's discourse. I conclude by discussing whether the critiques of Maududi by his own followers inaugurate an alternative discourse of Islamic feminism.

Jamaat-i-Islami in Bangladesh: Women, Democracy and the Transformation of Islamist Politics (pp577-603)
This article argues that leaders of the Jamaat-i-Islami in Bangladesh regularly invoke women's privileged status as mothers to counter the claims of the largely secularist non-governmental organizations operating in the country today that Islam has been harmful to women and that the only route to progress is to discard the shackles of religion and tradition. The current Jamaat rhetoric marks a significant change from the original Jamaat position-elaborated by the party's founder Abul Ala Maududi-that women's divinely ordained place is in the home. Now, several decades later, Jamaat leaders in Bangladesh still enjoin women to fulfil domestic obligations; however, they also go to great lengths to highlight Islam's recognition of women as 'individuals' with 'individual' responsibilities to God and Islam as well as Islam's support for women's right to study, work and vote. I contend that the Jamaat in Bangladesh has been prompted to undertake these recent modifications by specific developments in local social and political contexts, specifically the twin pressures on the Jamaat of operating in a functioning, if often imperfect, democratic polity; and of competing with more secular organizations for the hearts, minds and votes of impoverished women.

The Enemy Within: Madrasa and Muslim Identity in North India (pp605-627)
ARSHAD ALAM (Center for Jawaharlal Nehru Studies, Nelson Mandela House, Mujeeb Bagh, Jamia Millia Islamia, Jamia Nagar, New Delhi-110 025, India)
Even before 9/11, madrasas in India were being vilified for teaching hatred against the majority Hindu community. Such an understanding of madrasas was not restricted to the Hindu Right alone but even among parties of the Left. This paper argues that such a notion, which is fast becoming common sense, is erroneous. Far from teaching hatred against other communities, madrasas are primarily concerned with the ideological reproduction of their own maslak. The paper describes processes and strategies within a madrasa in North India through which such ideological reproduction takes place. The paper contends that sites of ideological transmission are located outside the formal curriculum of the madrasa. It focuses on some key texts and debating forums that are important sites of ideological transmission and play a key role in constituting a particular identity of students. Through an understanding of such pedagogical processes, the paper has shown that for students of this madrasa, the 'other' is not a Hindu, but a Muslim from another maslak. It follows from the paper that Islam itself is a matter of fierce interpretative debate 'within' madrasas. While it is important to understand how madrasas relate to other religions, an analysis of madrasas from 'within' leads us to different results.

Modern Asian Studies (2008)
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