Reading Maududi in dystopia

Published January 3, 2016
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Abul Ala Maududi (d.1979), is considered to be one of the most influential Islamic scholars of the 20th century. He is praised for being a highly prolific and insightful intellectual and author who creatively contextualised the political role of Islam in the last century, and consequently gave birth to what became known as ‘Political Islam.’

Simultaneously, his large body of work was also severely critiqued as being contradictory and for being an inspiration to those bent on committing violence in the name of faith.

Interestingly, Maududi’s theories and commentaries received negative criticism not only from those on the left and liberal sides of the divide, but from some of his immediate religious contemporaries as well.

Nevertheless, his thesis on the state, politics and Islam, managed to influence a number of movements within and outside of Pakistan.

For example, the original ideologues of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood organisation (that eventually spread across the Arab world), were directly influenced by Maududi’s writings.

Maududi’s writings also influenced the rise of ‘Islamic’ regimes in Sudan in the 1980s, and more importantly, the same writings were recycled by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88), to indoctrinate the initial batches of Afghan insurgents (the ‘mujahideen’), fighting against Soviet troops stationed in Afghanistan.

In the last century, the modern Islamic Utopia that Maududi was conceptualising had become the main motivation behind several political and ideological experiments in various Muslim countries.

However, 21st century politics (in the Muslim world) is not according to the kind enthusiastic reception that Maududi’s ideas received in the second half of the 20th century.

By the early 2000s, almost all experiments based on Maududi’s ideas seemed to have collapsed under their own weight. The imagined Utopia turned into a living dystopia, torn apart by mass level violence (perpetrated in the name of faith) and the gradual retardation of social and economic evolution in a number of Muslim countries, including Pakistan.

This is ironic. Because when compared to the ultimate mindset that his ideas seemed to have ended up planting within various mainstream regimes and clandestine groups, Maududi himself sounds rather broad-minded.

Had Maududi been alive today, how comfortable would he have been in a Muslim world crammed with raging dystopias?

Born in 1903 in Aurangabad, India, Maududi’s intellectual evolution is a fascinating story of a man who, after facing bouts of existential crises, chose to interpret Islam as a political theory to address his own spiritual and ideological impasses.

He did not come raging out of a madressah, swinging a fist at the vulgarities of the modern world. On the contrary, he was born into a family that had relations with the enlightened 19th century Muslim reformist and scholar, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan.

Maududi received his early education at home through private tutors who taught him the Quran, Hadith, Arabic and Persian. At age 12, Maududi was sent to the Oriental High School whose curriculum had been arranged by famous Islamic scholar, Shibli Nomani.

Maududi was studying at a college-level Islamic institution, the Darul Aloom, when he had to rush to Bhopal to look after his ailing father. In Bhopal, he befriended the rebellious Urdu poet and writer, Niaz Fatehpuri.

Fatehpuri’s writings and poetry were highly critical of the orthodox Muslim clergy. This had left him fighting polemical battles with the ulema.

Inspired by Fatehpuri, Maududi too decided to become a writer. In 1919, the then 17-year-old Maududi moved to Delhi, where for the first time he began to study the works of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan in full. This, in turn, led Maududi to study the major works of philosophy, sociology, history and politics authored by leading European thinkers and writers.

In 1929, after resurfacing from his vigorous study of Western philosophical and political thought, Maududi published his first major book, Al-Jihad Fil-Islam. The book is largely a lament on the state of Muslim society in India and in it he attacked the British, modernist Muslims and the orthodox clergy for combining to keep Indian Muslims subdued and weak.

Writing in flowing, rhetorical Urdu, Maududi criticised the Muslim clergy for keeping Muslims away from the study of Western philosophy and science. Maududi suggested that it were these that were at the heart of Western political and economic supremacy and needed to be studied so they could then be effectively dismantled and replaced by an ‘Islamic society’.

In 1941 Maududi formed the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). The outfit was shaped on the Leninist model of forming a ‘party of a select group of committed and knowledgeable vanguards’ who would attempt to grab state power through revolution.

In an essay that was later republished (in 1980) in a compilation of his writings, Come let us Change This World, Maududi castigated the ulema for ‘being stuck in the past’ and thus halting the emergence of new research and thinking in the field of Islamic scholarship.

He was equally critical of modernist Muslims (including Mohammad Ali Jinnah). In the same essay he lambasted them for understanding Islam through concepts constructed by the West and for believing that religion was a private matter.

Though an opponent of Jinnah and the creation of Pakistan (because he theorised that an ‘Islamic State’ could not be enacted by ‘Westernised Muslims’), Maududi did migrate to the new Muslim-majority country once it came into being in 1947.

In a string of books, mainly Khilafat-o-Malukiyat, Deen-i-Haq, Islamic Law and Constitution and Economic System of Islam, Maududi laid out his precepts of the modern-day ‘Islamic State’.

He was adamant about the need to gain state power to impose his principles of an Islamic State, but cautioned that the society first needed to be Islamised from below (through evangelical action), for such a state to begin imposing Islamic Laws.

In these books he was the first Islamic scholar to use the term ‘Islamic ideology’ (in a political context). The term was later rephrased as ‘Political Islam’ by the western scholarship on the subject.

In 1977 when Maududi agreed to support the Ziaul Haq dictatorship, he was criticised for attempting to grab state power through a Machiavellian military dictator.

Maududi’s decision sparked an intense critique of his ideas by the modernist Islamic scholar, Dr Fazal Rehman Malik. In his book, Islam and Modernity, Dr Malik described Maududi as a populist journalist, rather than a scholar. Malik suggested that Maududi’s writings were ‘shallow’ and crafted only to bag the attention of muddled young men craving for an imagined faith-driven Utopia.

Maududi’s body of work is remarkable in its proficiency and creativity. And indeed, it is also contradictory. He used Western political concepts of the state to explain the modern idea of the Islamic State; and yet he accused modernist Muslims of understanding Islam through Western constructs. He saw no space for monarchies in Islam, yet was entirely uncritical of conservative Arab monarchies. He would often prefix the word Islam in front of various Western economic and political ideas — (Islamic-Economics, Islamic-Banking and Islamic-Constitution) — and yet he reacted aggressively towards the idea of ‘Islamic-Socialism’ that came from his leftist opponents in the 1960s.

Writing in the Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, Political Anthropologist, Professor Irfan Ahmed, suggested that there was not one Maududi, but many.

He wrote that elements of Leninism, Hegel’s dualism, Jalaluddin Afghani’s Pan-Islamism and various other modern political theories can be found in Maududi’s thesis.

Perhaps this is why Maududi’s ideas managed to appeal to various sections of the urban Muslim middle-classes; modern conservative Muslim movements; and all the way to the more anarchic and reactionary forces.

But the question is, had Maududi been alive today, which one of the many Maududis would he have been most comfortable with in a Muslim world now crammed with raging dystopias?

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine January 3rd, 2015


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