Reform: South Asia

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Reform, in the context of South Asian Islam, can acquire two different, indeed contradictory, meanings and objectives. It can refer to the liberalizing tendencies encompassing a rational, scientific, "enlightenment" orientation to Islam, or it may signify traditionalist movements seeking to restore Islam to its more orthodox, pristine, "original" form. The first is intended to ensure the progress of Muslims in the modern world, the second to revive a glorious past. Islamic reformism in South Asia has usually struggled within this awkward dialectic.

It is noteworthy that South Asia's initial encounters with Islam were relatively benign and accommodative. When Muhammad bin Qasim landed in Sind in 712 c.e., he was instructed through a legal opinion to treat the local non-Muslims with justice. Similarly, in spite of successive waves of Muslim invasions, it was the Sufi saints (charismatic mystics) who were largely instrumental in converting the vast majority of the population to Islam through example and persuasion. And finally, while the distinctions with the Hindus were profound and obvious, the poorer classes of both communities were brought together by their poverty, agrarian existence and the syncretistic compulsions of "popular" or "folk" religion. Therefore, Hindus were seldom the dreadful "other" against whom reform movements were directed.

It is perhaps Shah Wali Allah (1703–1762) who can claim the status of being one of the first influential theologian-revivalists in the subcontinent. He belonged to the Naqshbandiya tariqa (a Sufi order), and represented a combination of both rationalism and traditionalism. He suggested that Muslims should practice ijtihad (independent reasoning) to reach conclusions relevant to the times. And while he did not subscribe to the same puritanical rigidity of his contemporary Muhammad ibn ˓Abd al Wahhab of Arabia, he did criticize many un-Islamic accretions that South Asian Islam had acquired. Because of the range, eclecticism, and power of his writings, many reformists of different persuasions claim him as part of their intellectual heritage.

The gradual displacement of the Muslims from their position of privilege and authority owing to the impact of British commercial and imperial ambitions, and the increasing fear of British intrusion into their religious practices, generated an edginess and militancy within later reformists. Anti-British sentiment was fused with ideas of religious self-preservation and purification causing Wali Allah's son to declare territories under British control as dar-ul-harb (land of war). Some of his followers such as Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi and Syed Ismail Shahid died in western India fighting against the Sikhs and British in 1831. In the eastern province of Bengal, other followers such as ˓Haji Shariatullah (1781–1840) and his son Dudu Mian (1819–1862) combined class and religious sensitivities to launch the faraidi movement (implying that which is religiously mandated), against the British indigo planters and Hindu landowners.

The aftermath of the Mutiny, or the First Indian War of Independence, in 1857, radically altered the direction of reformism in South Asia. It was felt by some that the deteriorating condition of the Muslims resulted from their sullen attitude toward the British, and their inability or unwillingness to take advantage of the opportunities for advancement that British rule provided. None perceived this more clearly, or expressed himself as emphatically, as Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898). He preached loyalty to the British, promoted Western language and education to overcome Muslim backwardness, developed an exegetical rationalism in his writings on Islam, warned against the stultifying influence of the reactionary ulema (religious leaders), and called upon Muslims to stay away from Hindu political organizations. Aligarh University, which he founded in 1875, was emblematic of his approach and interests.

The Aligarh model faced challenges from scholars associated with the Firangi Mahal in Lucknow (established in the 1690s) and the theological seminary at Deoband, where classes began in 1867. Most scholars associated with these schools were opposed to the Aligarh brand of unabashed eagerness for Western knowledge, demanded greater concern for Islamic identity and heritage, bristled at the perceived subservience to the British, and sought deeper engagement with both pan-Islamist and nationalist tendencies that were gradually evolving.

In the twentieth century, Islamic reform and political activism became inextricably intertwined. It was Aligarh modernism, and its logical corollary expressed as Muslim separatism, that eventually culminated in the formation of Pakistan in 1947. It is intriguing to note that orthodox Muslim leaders like Abu l-A˓la˒ Maududi and Maulana Madani, and nationalist/populist leaders like Abul Kalam Azad, Hakim Akmal Khan, and Abd al-Ghaffar Khan, opposed the idea of Pakistan while it was a very Westernized, secular, legalistically oriented leadership (Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Liaquat ˓Ali Khan, Muhammad ˓Ali Jinnah) that championed it. At the time, it was assumed that Pakistan would be a home for Muslims, but not necessarily a theocratic Muslim state.

However, in independent Pakistan a tension developed between the ulema, who demanded a preeminent role for Islam in the new state, and the powerful military and bureaucratic elite who were unenthusiastic. Reform, in either modernist or orthodox directions, followed the vicissitudes of temporary political arrangements. The 1956 constitution referred to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan; the 1962 constitution dropped the word Islamic; the 1973 constitution reincorporated it in principle. The liberal Muslim Family Law Ordinance of 1961, which sought to reform marriage and divorce laws in the country, was all but gutted in the 1980s through various enactments on the punishment, inheritance, and laws of evidence relating to women. Moreover, the establishment of shari˓a courts to adjudicate matters according to strict Islamic principles, the declaration of Qadianis as non-Muslims, the self-conscious courtship of Arab countries through emphasizing its Islamic credentials, and the injection of a heightened sensibility about religious matters on public issues (including education and entertainment), all appeared to indicate a swing back toward traditionalist premises in the 1980s and 1990s.

The separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 seemed to demonstrate the primacy of language and culture as more important markers for identity and destiny than religion. Initially the country adopted a determinedly indifferent posture toward religion. However, and in spite of a gradual institutionalization of democracy, political developments since the early 1980s have compelled Bangladesh to drop the word "secular" from its constitution, declare Islam to be the state religion, patronize parochial schools, and insist on outward expressions of religious zeal and commitment from its leaders.

In both countries, it is obvious that conservative religious parties do not command a large following in electoral competitions. However, it is also clear that these forces are formidable enough to drive the discourse in directions they seek. The modernist agenda—with its emphasis on women's rights, minority protections, and civil liberties—appears to face rather daunting challenges, perhaps a little more so in Pakistan than in Bangladesh.

See alsoAhmad Khan, (Sir) Sayyid ; Wali Allah, Shah .


Ahmad, Aziz. Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan 1875–1964. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Ahmed, Akbar. Jinnah, Pakistan, and Islamic Identity: The Search for Saladin. London: Routledge, 1997.

Hasan, Mushirul, ed. Islam, Communities and the Nation: Muslim Identities in South Asia and Beyond. Dhaka: The University Press, 1998.

Robinson, Francis. Islam and Muslim History in South Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Islam in the Indian Subcontinent. Leiden-Koln: E. J. Brill, 1980.

Ahrar Ahmad

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Reform: South Asia

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