Sunni Chauvinism and the Roots of Muslim Modernism
By Teena U. Purohit
Princeton University Press
In a video circulating on social media, the cleric Muhammad Naeem Chattha Qadri urged his followers to “chant loudly enough to cause the miscarriage of pregnant Ahmadi women.” He told them that “such a blasphemer should not be born.”
It is also important to note that Pakistan’s Penal Code prohibits members of the Ahmadiyya community from declaring themselves Muslims, propagating their faith, printing, or obtaining material related to their faith. Any violation is considered blasphemy, a criminal offense punishable by a fine, imprisonment or death.
Alarmingly, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a new bill that has increased the punishment in cases pertaining to the blasphemy of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) wives and companions. Members of the Shia community believe the ambiguity in the bill is likely to be used against them to frame them in blasphemy cases. Notably, according to a report published by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than 40 blasphemy cases were registered against the Shia community in August 2020 alone.
The question is: why do the state and society show such intolerance when it comes to religious minorities or those who do not subscribe to mainstream Sunni Islam? Teena U. Purohit’s latest book, Sunni Chauvinism and the Roots of Muslim Modernism, offers the context and the politics behind it to understand this puzzle.
A book considers why Muslim states and societies show such a lack of tolerance when it comes to religious minorities or those who do not subscribe to mainstream Islam?
Purohit begins the book by providing a context: when Europeans colonised Muslim societies, Orientalist intellectuals and Christian missionaries brought along a Protestant perspective on religion. This interaction between Muslim and Christian perspectives led to the transformation of the way Muslims defined themselves and their religion.
According to Purohit, the Islamic tradition was redefined as a result of these influences. This redefinition and the entire process had a Protestant nature, implying the existence of “one legitimate Islam.”
The idea of ‘one Islam’ had certain doctrinal boundaries and was often aligned with the beliefs and practices of the Sunni majority within Islam. Those advocating for one Islam displayed a tendency that Purohit describes as “Sunni chauvinism”, which involved implicitly criticising or marginalising other viewpoints within the Muslim world.
As a result of the downfall of three Muslim empires, namely the Safavid Empire, the Mughal Empire and the Ottoman Empire, Muslim intellectuals were “impelled to respond to the new and culturally alien context of colonial modernity.” The leaders and scholars who emerged as a result of these crises are generally classified into two categories: traditionalist and modernist reformers.
In this book, she explores the modernist movement that emerged in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East between 1850 and 1950. Modernists, the subject of this study, attempted to reconcile Islam in modern times with Enlightenment values such as women’s rights, democracy and secularism.
Purohit explores and discusses the political and intellectual thoughts of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–1897), Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865–1935), Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) and Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi (1903–1979). These scholars operated under different cultural and colonial contexts, but Purohit argues that one of their main concerns unifies them: “the loss of Muslim political power and the imperialist expansion of Christian Europe.”
In a world no longer ruled by Muslims, these reformers attempted to redefine Islam to offer an alternative to Western notions of modernity and governance. However, Purohit explains their campaign was “too delimited and idiosyncratic” to take deeper roots or transform society as per their expectations.
Purohit focuses on two themes in the writings of the modernists: first, their idea of a unified Islam and a united Muslim community; and second, how this notion of unity led to “mechanisms and boundaries of inclusion and exclusion.” She argues that the very idea and desire for unity led to denunciation of entire communities such as Shia, Bahais, Ahmadis and Ismailis. These communities did not fit into the modern definitions of what it meant to be a Muslim; therefore, modernists, by relying on “Sunni normative bias,” criticised these communities, their doctrinal basis, and declared them outsiders.
The agenda of Muslim modernists was to unify “the global Muslim community” in the name of civilisational progress. To make their point, they relied on the Quranic idea of tawhid, a term signifying the unity of God. The modernists reinterpreted this concept to imply the political unity of the Muslim community and subsequently used it to determine which communities needed to be excluded from the Muslim community.
They argued that tawhid meant the social and political unity of Muslims and, to demonstrate this more concretely, they pointed to the Islamic Golden Age, when Muslims were one community. They shared the aim of unifying Muslims and creating a unified community.
Purohit discusses the works of Afghani, Abduh, Rida, Iqbal and Mawdudi on tawhid, unity and accusations of heresy. Afghani employed derogatory terms such as “neicheri” to criticise figures such as Sayyid Ahmad Khan, accusing him of aligning with foreign influences and defending the Torah and the Gospel.
Purohit’s fascinating analysis reveals a shared pro-European inclination between Afghani and Sayyid Ahmad Khan, driven by colonial notions but marred by Afghani’s rivalry-driven critique of Khan’s prominence.
Within this milieu, various groups were labelled heretical. Abduh classified Shia as deviant, Rida criticised Bahai teachings, and Iqbal — while championing Islamic unity — paradoxically targeted Ahmadis as transgressors of tawhid.
Purohit discerns an inconsistency in Iqbal’s views, both recognising India’s diverse Muslim landscape and claiming to represent all Muslims. Notably, the charge of heresy against Ahmadis shifted from theological to social violation of Muslim unity, departing from conventional definitions.
Mawdudi, positioned between Islamist and late modernist frameworks, sought Islam’s preservation against Western influences. Rejecting Western democracy, he advocated for Islam’s distinctive governance and envisioned the idea of an Islamic state. It is important to note that any debate at this time about the status of Ahmadis as a minority was about their political status in the country.
In the final chapter, Purohit discusses post-1950s scholars, such as Fazlur Rahman, who shared some modernist perspectives, such as the Sunni normative bias that maligns groups like the Shia and Sufis. Ali Shariati approaches tawhid from a Shia and Marxist standpoint to make a point about correcting an unjust social and political order. Farid Esack explains how Muslims employed tawhid as a framework in their campaign against Apartheid in the 1980s in South Africa.
The question, however, remains: in what ways these modernists have played a role in shaping the world we are living in. Purohit answers the question in an informed manner, saying that Al-Qaeda and their manipulation of the idea of unity and an Islamic vanguard to fight against the Western idea of a nation-state is testimony that they were shaped partly by the ideas of modernists, particularly Syed Qutb. She maintains that modernism also created reactionary and destructive forces and ideas.
While Sunni Chauvinism and the Roots of Muslim Modernism undoubtedly makes a significant contribution to the study of Islamic modernism and its implications for the contemporary understanding of Islam, it would be fascinating to delve deeper into the history of Sunni Islam and its predominant role during the formative and early centuries of the religion.
Purohit astutely points out that the Muslim reformers were reacting to colonial modernity, which carried within it the echoes of Protestantism. However, it is important to acknowledge that the concept of a singular, authentic Islam has persisted throughout Islamic history.
For example, the proponents of Sunni orthodoxy in the 11th and 12th centuries excluded Shias, Mutazilites, and philosophers from the ‘community’. Interestingly, Al-Ghazali, the Sunni scholar who had a deep influence on Iqbal’s thinking, played a pivotal role in solidifying Sunni orthodoxy.
In conclusion, Sunni Chauvinism and the Roots of Muslim Modernism holds a position of importance, essential for anyone keen on comprehending the contemporary crisis within Islam.
The reviewer is a PhD Scholar at
Boston University in the US.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 17th, 2023