Books Review

THE ULAMA IN CONTEMPORARY ISLAM: CUSTODIANS OF CHANGE

THE ULAMA IN CONTEMPORARY ISLAM: CUSTODIANS OF CHANGE

Despite the enormous influence that the traditional ?ulama, Islamic jurisprudents and scholars, wield in many Muslim societies relatively little has been written about them, at least in the major Western languages, including English. For long, the ?ulama were imagined as a class with a rapidly declining influence and authority, as doomed to disappearance in the face of the onward, inexorable march of modernity. Scholars therefore preferred to focus on new voices of Islam instead, such as Muslim modernists and Islamists, who were seen as the heralds of new ways of understanding and interpreting Islam in the contemporary world. The relative neglect of the ? ulama in academic scholarship was not confined to any part of the world. The South Asian ?ulama, despite the key influence that many of them have exercised on Muslim thinking elsewhere, also received scant scholarly attention. Consequently, today, when the ?ulama and the madrasas that they manage are under fierce opposition and attack by their detractors, we have little to fall back upon to understand the complex world of what Zaman in this fascinating and brilliantly-researched book calls the ?custodians of change? in Muslim societies.

This book provides a broad overview of the roles and functions of the ? ulama, looking at how these have been transformed over time. The arguments it proposes are discussed in the specific context of the ?ulama of British India and, following the partition of India in 1947, in Pakistan. Zaman?s concern is not so much to assess the question of the supposed decline of the ? ulama as to examine the changing way s in which the ?ulama have sought to maintain their claims to being the authoritative spokesmen of scripturalist Islam. This he relates to their struggles to assert their authority against new challengers, in the form of the state, on the one hand, and Muslim modernists and Islamists, on the other.

Zaman?s basic thesis is that the notion of a radical division between the ? religious? (dini) and ?secular? (duniyavi) spheres, on which most contemporary traditionalist ?ulama seek to construct their own claims to authority as experts in a narrowly-defined religious sphere, is actually alien to the early Islamic tradition and represents a relatively recent innovation. In pre-colonial times, Zaman tells us, no such division was recognized or even known. Rather, religion infused all spheres of social life and was inseparable from them. This reflected the Qur?anic insistence of all forms of legitimate knowledge as being divine and of all actions, personal as well as social, as being forms of service to God if conducted according to the ethical commandments of the holy text. Yet, how and why is it, Zaman asks, that the ?ulama acquiesced so willingly in the colonial logic of ?religion? and the ?secular? representing two separate spheres, sometimes taking this to such lengths as to imagine the two as mutually contradictory? How is it, he questions, that despite their continued verbal assent to the notion that there is no division between the two spheres in Islam, in practise they operate on the basis of this assumption and even use it to bolster their own claims?

The answer that Zaman supplies to this seeming paradox is persuasive and compelling. Quoting from colonial documents, he tells us that for the British, India was seen as somehow ?excessively? religious, with religion dominating every sphere of life, for both Hindus as well as Muslims. Working on a post-enlightenment western Christian assumption of religion being a separate sphere of life, neatly set apart from the secular, colonial administrators sought to mould the India that they ruled in their own image. Thus, the scope of religion was sought to be confined to the private sphere, while all other aspects of life were to be governed by a secular logic. Whole areas of law, which had previously be governed by the historical shari?ah for Muslims, were now taken under secular jurisdiction, and over time the scope of the historical shari?ah was reduced simply to the private sphere, or the domain of what is today called Muslim Personal Law. Likewise, education was also secularized, and madrasas, that had once taught a range of both ?traditional? as well as ?rational? sciences, soon came to focus only on the former. Today, he argues, this poses a major challenge to those who wish to reform the madrasas. Reform proposals are qu ickly dismissed as ? interference in religion? by traditionalists who wish to establish their own control on the norms governing the private sphere. Such proposals are seen as a major challenge to their own authority, although it is more generally expressed as an ?attack on Islam? or a subtle way of secularising the madrasas from the backdoor and diluting their religious content.

On the face of it, the acquiescence of the ?ulama in was clearly an attack on their influence seems puzzling. It is true that numerous ?ulama did try to resist the British militarily, as in the case of the 1857 revolt. However, realizing the futility of armed conflict, they soon came to terms with the reality of the colonial state and sought to make the best of an unenviable situation. Since, effectively, religion had been reduced to the private sphere, the ?ulama struggled to establish their credentials as authoritative guides in this realm. The colon ial state, and later, the post-colonial states in both Pakistan and India, so Zaman tells us, accepted the claims of the ?ulama as official interpreters of a privatized Islam, and this enabled them to adjust to new political conditions without a massive or sudden disruption of their authority. Inevitably, therefore, religion came to be reduced, in practice, if not in theory, to a bundle of rules related to worship, personal deportment and personal behaviour, with both the ?ulama and the state operating on the same binary colonial logic.

The remainder of the book deals with the ?ulama in post-1947 Pakistan, a vexed and hugely controversial subject. Zaman notes how difficult it is to speak about the Pakistani (or any other, for that matter) ?ulama as a single homogenous whole. Sectarian divisions between Sunnis and Shias and within the Sunni camp between rival groups of ?ulama such as Deobandis, Barewlis, Ahl-I Hadith and Isla mist groups all threaten the carefully constructed image, dear to Islamist radicals and their detractors alike, of a solid Muslim monolith. Zaman carefully describes the complex political linkages of these different groups, showing how they represent a range of options that shift over time and across sectarian affiliation: from passive apolitical or politically quiescent to radical and even militant.

Zaman carries his discussion forward with an insightful discussion of the question of radical activism in certain contemporary Pakistani madrasas. He argues that although numerous Pakistani madrasas and ?ulama are indeed supporters of a militant form of Islam, they are a minority. While not seeking to downplay the threat that they pose, he writes that most Pakistani madrasas actually have little to do with militant politics. Many Pakistani ? ulama might support an ?Islamic state?, variously defined, but not all or even most of the m would approve of terror tactics. Thus, not all ?ulama supported Osama bin Laden or the Ta;iban, for instance. In fact, Zaman tells us, the Pakistani Deobandis, one of the most politically assertive of the ? ulama of the country, had a complex and in some sense ambiguous relationship with the Taliban. While almost all of them seem to have expressed their support for the Taliban, several of them were rather critical, although in a mild sort of way, of some of its more controversial methods and policies. Zaman argues that the radicalization of many Pakistani madrasas cannot be seen in isolation, as representing a supposed inherent logic that inevitably drives the madrasa as ain institution to this sort of politics. Rather, he stresses, it is the instrumental use of the madrasas and of radical Islamism by Pakistani political elites and the willingness of the ?ulama to go along with this agenda that explains the phenomenon.

The book closes with an impassioned appeal for a radicalism of a different sort: the crying need that Zaman sees for the reform of the madrasas if they are to play a constructive role in the development of the community. This also calls, Zaman suggests, for new ways of imagining the role of religion in contemporary society. In conclusion, he writes, in the continued absence of a comprehensive ijtihad?application of critical, independent reasoning in the light of the Qur?an in order to meet new challenges and to revise worn-out ways?madrasas would probably continue to be victims of a stultified conservatism that can do the world and the Muslims themselves little good. Madrasas may have been the ?custodians of change?, as the sub-title of this book tells us, constantly elaborating and redefining the Islamic tradition over the centuries. But at a time when the world is so being so rapidly transformed, one could well be tempted to ask if today that change is fast enough.

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