Making a Muslim: Reading Publics and Contesting Identities in 19th Century North India
By S. Akbar Zaidi
Cambridge University Press, UK
ISBN: 978-1108781152
266pp.

The 19th century in the Subcontinent was marked by socio-political volatility, which decidedly impacted a cultural plurality that had been underpinned by a centuries’ long ethos, imbued with a sense of inclusion and inter-communal mutuality. By the latter half of the century — especially after the War of Independence of 1857 and the travails that insurgency left in its wake — the notion of decline had pervaded deep into the inner recesses of the North Indian Muslim mentality.

Mughal dispensation generally is said to have imploded politically for more than a hundred years, ever since Iran’s Nadir Shah descended on Delhi like a scourge of God in the 1730s. Afghanistan’s Ahmad Shah Durrani’s marauding hastened the process of Mughal disintegration. But these invasions from the north caused an erosion of just the political; the socio-cultural fabric was still intact.

Discursive/intellectual and social inclusivity had been, by and large, sustained and was kept intact by the Ganga-Jamuni culture — a concept drawn from the merging of waters from two distinct rivers. Sufism articulated through the medium of poetry was an emblem of the cultural tradition.

Importantly, it was through the élan vital preserved in North Indian culture that the Delhi renaissance could transpire. Despite a vitiating political situation, the North Indian people in general — and Muslims in particular — had a considerable level of confidence which they thought would enable them to come up with some creative synthesis, necessary for their political resurgence.

A scholarly new book endeavours to unravel how the Subcontinent’s 19th century Muslim community came to see itself as a nation

Cultural vitality was a big source of that confidence and self-assurance, which provided North Indian Muslims the creative impulse. Apart from larger-than-life figures elevated as cultural icons, such as Mir Taqi Mir, Nazir Akbarabadi, Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda and Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, institutions such as Firangi Mahal and Delhi College — founded in 1696 and now known as Zakir Husain Delhi College — were the fountainheads of this renaissance.

But with the North India-wide insurgency in 1857 having been muzzled by the British, the North Indian Muslim Ashraaf [gentry] was left to fend for itself without any patronage. The notion of decline — propounded by Orientalist historians such as James Mill, Mountstuart Elphinstone, Henry Miers Elliot and John Dowson — made its way into the socio-cultural edifice and rendered it hollow.

Being victims of ambivalence, with seemingly no possibility of redemption, Muslim literati had no other option but to redefine themselves in the light of a newer socio-political reality, which was, obviously, the British.

S. Akbar Zaidi’s new book, Making a Muslim: Reading Publics and Contesting Identities in 19th Century North India, is a scholarly endeavour to unravel the entangled-fragmented “public spheres and variegated Muslim imaginations” confronting the community. The book also raises questions about the “use of print” and whether it helped to create communities — imagined or otherwise — or was print an impediment, fracturing a community even before it came to fruition.

Implicit in the narrative is the changing character of the Muslim Ashraaf. First, they perceived themselves as a community and then, from a community, they went on to reinvent themselves into a nation. This transformation took effect gradually under the rubric of identity formation. It was the first instance of identity constituted with religion as its principal determinant.

Munazara [religious disputation] had been one of several means of public debate among the Muslims of the said period. Zaidi has devoted substantial space to munazara held among various sects, masalik [denominations] and newly emerged schools of denominations, such as Deobandis and Barelvis.

Zaidi is spot on when he describes munazara as a performative act rather than merely an argumentative exercise. The discursive exchange through munazara resulted in fragmentation among the Muslims, and this became institutionalised in due course of time. Sectarian division was among the most seminal outcomes of the munazaras. The author digs deep to document those debates and analyses their ramifications in an apt manner.

Institutes such as Firangi Mahal — comparable to universities at Oxford and Cambridge — were fountainheads of the North Indian Muslim renaissance | Wikimedia Commons
Institutes such as Firangi Mahal — comparable to universities at Oxford and Cambridge — were fountainheads of the North Indian Muslim renaissance | Wikimedia Commons

The niggling question, however, remains as to why these discursive exchanges failed to engender epistemic synthesis. Instead, the gulf kept on widening, culminating in an ascription of sectarian meanings to religion, its atomisation being the result. I wish Zaidi would have shone some light on this aspect too.

Ironically, such exchanges occurred mostly among Muslims. In comparison, inter-religious disputation was less frequent. This is an important fact to which the author draws our attention.

Print and the typical culture that it engendered in the North Indian Muslim milieu is yet another theme that the author subjects to his critical gaze, using examples of newspapers such as Oudh Akhbar, Oudh Punch and Dil Gudaaz and magazines such as Tahzeebul Akhlaq, Noorul Afaq and Noorul Huda.

The author also traces the link of print with the fatawa [rulings on Islamic law given by a recognised authority]. The fatawa were printed and circulated among the literate classes, which obviously exacerbated exclusion in the name of religion and sect. Keeping in view the importance of that link, Zaidi devotes an entire chapter to this theme. Titled ‘Who is a Muslim?’, this chapter indeed opens new vistas of research and deliberation for other scholars.

The role of print in inculcating a nationalistic impulse among the Muslims of North India was a noteworthy development, corroborating the point that nation and nationhood were the modern notions that Muslims embraced and internalised, and associated with them the reverence and the sanctity meant only for religious edicts.

Census is yet another instrument of fragmentation that causes not only communal exclusionism, but sectarian antagonism as well. The author discusses the census and its far-reaching implications in an incisive and rigorous style. In doing so, he invokes the insights of major writers such as E.J. Kitts, Henry Waterfield, W.C. Plowden and Denzil Ibbetson and theorists such as Bernard Cohen and Nicholas Dirks.

What is worth underscoring is the way the author has marshalled sources, colonial as well as indigenous. That, undoubtedly, is the strength of this work. It is visible in Zaidi’s most important chapter, titled ‘Zillat, Apne Haathon Se’ [Humiliation, At Their Own Hands] centring on the concept of zillat [humiliation] that was ubiquitous among the Muslim literati of the late 19th century.

While drawing on several scholars of significance, Zaidi writes about the contemporary scholars of Hindustan who wrote on the tropes of “‘shock’, ‘nostalgia’, ‘cultural trauma’, ‘collective trauma’, ‘grief’, ‘mourning’, ‘collective mourning’, ‘lamentation’, ‘a deep psychological wound’, ‘debacle’, ‘devastation’, ‘feeling of hopelessness’” and similar themes.

The author also refers to the concept of shahr ashob that poets such as Sauda propounded, bringing into focus “the decline of the city and lamentation for its lost glory.” Writers such as Farhatullah Baig, Khwaja Hasan Nizami and Tafazzul Husain Kaukab also find space in Zaidi’s narrative as writers engaging with these themes.

Thematically linked with zillat is the feeling of helplessness, which is analysed in chapter three, titled ‘Main Majbur Hua’ [I Was Compelled]. However, in this extremely important book, the role and writings of the scholar and writer Shibli Nomani seem conspicuously missing.

Also, one chapter should have been devoted to setting a proper context to the whole debate; the socio-cultural mentality emanating from the Sufi ethos would have added much worthwhile value to this book of extraordinary merit. However, Making a Muslim remains a highly meritorious contribution by Zaidi.

The reviewer is professor of liberal arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 24th, 2022

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