Political Theologies: Islam and the Nation-State

Mashal Saif on SherAli Tareen

SherAli Tareen’s scintillating book illuminates the intellectual universe of colonial-era South Asian traditional Muslim scholars (‘ulama’). It does so through close readings of texts authored by several ‘ulama’, most notably Shah Muhammad Isma‘il, Fazl-i Haqq Khayrabadi, Khalil Ahmad Saharanpuri, ‘Abd al-Sami‘, Ahmad Raza Khan, Ashraf ‘Ali Thanavi, and Hajji Imdadullah. Their writings address questions such as: Can God create another Muhammad? Does God have the capacity to lie? What is correct normative practice? How, if at all, should one celebrate the prophet’s birthday? What are the limits of knowledge and religion? What is heretical innovation? How should everyday life be organized and lived? 

Tareen demonstrates impressive dexterity and finesse in shedding light on the internal logics of these texts. He also convincingly demonstrates that these ‘ulama’s discourses on the above questions revolved around the intersection of law, theology and everyday practice. While this in itself is an important contribution, Tareen’s work does far more: by “listening” carefully, conscientiously, and with critical empathy to these traditional Muslim voices, Tareen makes vital contributions to the field of Islamic Studies as well as the broader discipline of Religious Studies. In this essay, I discuss some of his key interventions but also note their limitations and some unresolved questions they raise for me.

(Re)reading the Barelvi-Deobandi Controversy

Tareen makes a case for the uniqueness of Defending Muhammad by arguing that scholars of South Asian Islam have erroneously viewed “the Barelvi-Deobandi controversy … as the manifestation of a perennial conflict between legal and mystical varieties of Islam or between Islamic law and Sufism.” He further says, “In this book, I argue against the law/Sufism binary.” Against this trend, Tareen demonstrates in convincing detail that Deobandis and Barelvis both practice(d) law and Sufism. However, contrary to Tareen’s claim, this is not a new or unique revelation to scholars of Deobandi and/or Barelvi thought. Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Barbara Metcalf, Usha Sanyal, Brannon Ingram, Ali Altaf Mian, amongst others, have all documented this in detail. It is surprisingly that Tareen does not fully appreciate the contributions of this rich body of scholarship on Barelvi and Deobandi thought that—for several years, and in some instance, several decades—has already problematized the Sufism/law binary that Tareen claims to unravel as a novel move. At the same time, Tareen is right in noting that other commentators on South Asian Islam do not understand the flawed nature of binary categories such as law/Sufism. He chides David Pinault and Aamir Mufti for this misreading. And in the same vein, he skewers Ayesha Jalal for refusing to consider that “the material and the spiritual, the pragmatic and the utopian, can be intimately entangled.” We should note, however, that none of these academics are (to the best of my knowledge and by their own assertions) scholars of Barelvi and Deobandi ‘ulama’ traditions and texts.

Disrupting Secular Liberalism

Tareen’s most important intervention is explaining the significance of the intra-‘ulama’ debates he examines. In other words: what is at stake? Tareen’s answer is: a different vision of the world than what is offered by secular liberalism. He writes that secular liberalism—often assumed to be universal by media pundits and academic scholars alike—divides the world into binaries such as: “traditional/modern, mystical/rational, religious/secular … liberal/conservative,” “enchanted/disenchanted,”  and “belief/practice, and public/private.” Tareen asserts that his careful reading of modern South Asian Muslim texts highlights how these binaries fail to capture the internal logics of the Islamic tradition. 

Tareen’s discussion of secular liberalism and its binaries are spread throughout the book. Yet, these mentions are relatively brief and—most importantly—he never explains how the many binaries he attributes to secular liberalism are in fact secular liberal binaries. Take, for example, the private/public binary that he attributes to this philosophical and political tradition. The distinction between the private and non-private has long been present in Islamic law and ethics (see, for example, the work of Mohsen Kadivar). While this Islamic legal and ethical distinction has not always operated exactly as it does in contemporary Eurocentric liberal discourses, the distinction is neither entirely new nor purely Western. 

Similarly, the Sufism/law binary that Tareen attributes to secular liberalism has a long-standing and indigenous Muslim valence. This is not to deny that many traditional Muslim intellectuals embrace the shari‘atariqahaqiqa hierarchy. At the same time there are Muslims who view Sufism and law as more akin to binaries. Take, as one amongst numerous other examples, the poems of the Punjabi Sufi Bullhe Shah (d. 1757) which frequently rebuke obsessions with the shari‘a while lauding love for the divine. Similarly, take the description of Sufism and law offered by Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Pakistan’s most popular contemporary Barelvi scholar. Tahir-ul-Qadri, explicating in binaries long-held and indigenous to Muslim thought, states that there is a zahir and a batin (an inner and an outer) to all acts and “the human personality.” Speaking in English, he lectures, “correcting the acts of zahir is known as fiqh and shari‘a. And correcting the act of batin, the hidden, that is known as tasawwuf and Sufism.”  Importantly, Tahir-ul-Qadri does not—at least in this instance—tell his audience about the shari‘atariqahaqiqa hierarchy. Instead advises his listeners: “So it is to balance between the two [Sufism and law].” He repeats: “It is to balance between the two.”

Tahir-ul-Qadri’s repeated calls to “balance between the two” leads neatly to my second major issue with Tareen’s underdeveloped critique of secular liberalism. Tareen avoids critical engagement with how binaries function in the real world, i.e. he does not acknowledge that they enable categorization while leaving open the possibility for grey areas and overlap. Tareen refuses to accept that seemingly contradictory classifications can and do co-exist, even in the minds of those who embrace secular liberalism’s binaries. Contra Tareen’s assertion, some Western think tanks that Tareen critiques do recognize that Sufism and law co-mingle in the same person, and even in “good Muslims”—a label that, per Tareen, is applied to Sufis as opposed to legal-minded Muslims.”

Let me quote directly from a source that Tareen decimates: the Washington, D.C. think-tank World Organization for Resource Development and Education’s (WORDE) report titled Traditional Muslim Networks: Pakistan’s Untapped Resource in the Fight against Terrorism. Describing Barelvis, the report states: “ASJ Muslims [i.e. Barelvis]—which form the majority even in the tribal frontier regions—practice a combination of the classical Sunni-Hanafi school of thought and the mystical teachings of Sufism.” As anyone familiar with the Islamic tradition would know, the “Hanafi school” is a legal school. Thus, there is no disputing that WORDE recognizes that Barelvis follow Hanafi law and Sufism.

Contradicting this obvious statement, Tareen writes, “In this report … the Barelvis are the mainstream Sufi moderates, the Deobandis … are the shari‘a driven extremists.” I do not dispute that Barelvis are championed and Deobandis are demonized in the report. And, I wholeheartedly agree with Tareen that such valorizations and demonizations are intellectually problematic and serve imperial ends. Yet, contra Tareen’s assertion, it is supremely evident that the binary constructed by WORDE is not a clear Sufism/law distinction. An intermingling of Sufism and Islamic law amongst Barelvis is clearly acknowledged.

In failing to take the above complexities into account—and thus at times presenting false strawmen—Tareen’s critique of secular liberalism is not always convincing. In sum, he only partially delivers on the promise of advancing “the labor of provincializing and unsettling the conceptual hegemony of the secular.”

Competing Political Theologies

Tareen argues that the divide between the Barelvis and Deobandis on the boundaries of religion should be understood “as competing rationalities of tradition and reform.” He adds that “Barelvi-Deobandi polemic centered on competing political theologies.” He explains, “By political theology I mean the intimate interlocking of theological discourses and political and social imaginaries.”  He urges the adoption of the framework of “competing political theologies” as one alternative to asking the now-stale question of what continuities and ruptures emerged in indigenous thought as a result of colonialism. But to what extent does this conceptual framework live up to its promise in studies of South Asia and South Asian religions in the colonial era and beyond?

As Tareen himself notes, “a moment of immense moral and political anxiety” was in part responsible for 19th century Deobandi-Barelvi political theologies. Can the competing political theologies framework be productively applied to periods other than the 19th century? If so, are there temporal bounds that one should impose? How many decades after colonialism’s end will this framework still deliver on its conceptual promise? On a different note: Is the framework applicable to, for example, examinations of the Ahl-i-Hadith? What about intra-Shi‘a debates and other movements and communities? Or, was there something specific about the Deobandi-Barelvi polemic that was best captured by the notion of “competing political theologies”? This is neither clear nor obvious from Tareen’s work despite his assertion of the usefulness of the framework.

Unpacking Sovereignty

An important issue that remains unaddressed in Tareen’s work is whether he in fact unwittingly perpetuates the stereotype of Islam as incompatible with secular liberalism by demonstrating that the Islamic actors that lie at the heart of his work do not embrace the logics of secular liberalism? Although this is clearly not Tareen’s aim, it would have helped Tareen’s case to explicitly tackle this misreading. And, while Tareen does not state so, it becomes possible to assert—through some of the examples of Western/Christian religious thinkers who he briefly examines, as well as the theoretical apparatus undergirding his examination—that anyone who believes in God in a manner that deeply reveres and epitomizes divine sovereignty poses a challenge to state sovereignty and thus at times secular liberalism. I assert that this is true no matter which religious tradition one might belong to. Thus, all instances of religion that are unmanaged, unregulated and untamed by the state pose particular challenge to it. After all, as Wael Hallaq reminds us, “To be a citizen therefore means to live under a sovereign will that has its own metaphysics. It is to live with and under yet another god.”

There appear to be some conceptual slippages (perhaps a lack of clarity) in Tareen’s thinking with regard to the central notion of political sovereignty. In explaining sovereignty in South Asia, he draws on political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj as describing the political shift that occurred as a result of colonialisms to be a shift “from subsidiarity to sovereignty.” Tareen explains this in detail over two pages. He adds that Bernard Cohn’s “seminal work on the colonial construction of sovereignty further amplifies Kaviraj’s argument…” At no point does he disagree with these scholars, and one is left to conclude that he agrees with Kaviraj’s assertion that political sovereignty only comes about with the birth of the nation-state. However, at several other points, in discussing colonialism Tareen identifies political sovereignty (as opposed to political power) to be present amongst South Asian Muslims even prior to colonialism. He writes, for example, “This shift in political sovereignty [as a result of colonialism] also provided the conditions for intensified contestations on the question of sovereignty in the theological realm.” There is thus a tension between what he posits as historical fact and theoretical supposition. Let me analyze this tension in some detail. 

Let us first, for the sake of argument, embrace Tareen’s line of thought wherein he asserts that political sovereignty predates the nation-state. If one embraces this assertion, it is unclear what particular feature of the colonial era leads to the focus on divine sovereignty. Muslims have gained and lost political power (or “political sovereignty” per this line of thought) vis-à-vis non-Muslims since the advent of Islam in locations as diverse as Africa, Spain, the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia and South East Asia. These gains and losses did not always or frequently result in the focus on divine sovereignty that one sees amongst the Barelvis and Deobandis. Thus, the big question is: what was it about colonialism, early-modernity, and/or South Asia that led to the birth of the particular debates among Barelvis and Deobandis? This vital question remains largely unaddressed in Tareen’s work. 

If we embrace the idea of political sovereignty as emerging with the birth of the nation-state (a new political entity that commands extensive biopower and acquires the status of exclusive lawmaker), then one can begin to offer a different reading of some of Tareen’s Muslim actors and their intellectual projects. For example, in discussing Shah Muhammad Isma‘il, Tareen asserts that his decentering of “the modern state as the centerpiece of politics” presents “in a certain sense  … an illiberal model of Muslim political theology” (106). I agree with Tareen’s description here of Muhammad Isma‘il—and at other points in the book of the ‘ulama’ in general—as not subsumed completely by colonial power or the logics of the colonial state. At the same time, while Muhammad Isma‘il resists the centrality of the state, one can also argue that the latter’s focus on divine sovereignty is in fact intimately—though not exclusively—connected with the arrival of the nation-state and hence political sovereignty in colonial India. In this reading, the nation-state has a profound and inescapable impact on Muhammad Isma‘il, despite the lack of explicit attention he gives to the topic in his political theological writings.

This line of analysis is in fact central to Tareen’s own concerns. He notes that one of his central questions is: “What are some of the ways in which theological debates and arguments about the nature of God’s relationship with humanity are reflective of and informed by shifting understandings and manifestations of political sovereignty.” To advance my line of thinking on this subject: While Tareen frames the historical movement under examination as one defined by the loss of Muslim political power (or “political sovereignty” as he sometimes puts it) and the advent of colonial sovereignty (of which the nation-state is a part), it might have been equally, if not more, fruitful to place the nation-state front and center in his analysis throughout. After all, the discussion of political sovereignty in colonial India—again as Kaviraj and others note—is best understood as a discussion about the imperialist imposition of the idea and structure of the nation-state. 

Deobandi-Barelvi Rivalry Today: Do the 19th Century Polemics still Matter?

In conclusion, let me address the contemporary moment. Tareen attempts to showcase that the Deobandi-Barelvi rivalry is a vibrant force in Pakistan today. Their ongoing rivalry, he claims, highlights the lasting significance of the polemics he examines throughout Defending Muhammad. While I do not dispute the contemporary anecdotes he cites, I dispute that these anecdotes reveal how contemporary Barelvis and Deobandis might be accurately understood as rivals. As evident throughout my work, The ‘Ulama in Contemporary Pakistan: Contesting and Cultivating an Islamic Republic, over the past two decades Pakistani Deobandis and Barelvis have been united on some of the most charged and hotly-debated religious issues in the country. My work showcases that contemporary debates over Muhammad’s honor are no longer fought primarily along sectarian or maslaki lines. Instead, examining the ‘ulama’s defense of the killing of governor Salman Taseer in 2011 for the alleged act of insulting Muhammad, I demonstrate that Deobandi and Barelvi ‘ulama’ are overwhelmingly united in their stance on defending Muhammad’s honor. I argue that their contestation is with the Pakistani state, which, per many Deobandi and Barelvi ‘ulama’, does not do justice to those who follow the shari‘a’s prescriptions on defending Muhammad’s honor.

Departing from Tareen’s work, The ‘Ulama in Contemporary Pakistan: Contesting and Cultivating an Islamic Republic focuses not just on the political logics of the modern state, but also on how the nation-state is articulated, contested, and reconfigured as a result of the ‘ulama’s political imaginings. My work enables us to see how this more supple and nuanced understanding of the state informs, and is in turn informed by, ‘ulama’ communities and traditions. Thus, like Tareen’s brilliant book, my work adds to the growing body of theoretically-informed scholarship on South Asian ‘ulama’.  

Full Forum

Mashal Saif is Associate Professor of Religion at Clemson University. Her research interests include Islam in contemporary South Asia; the trans-temporal dynamics between medieval and modern Islamic discourses; contemporary Muslim political theology; the intersection of religious studies and postcolonial theory; and the anthropology of the state. Her first monograph, The ‘Ulama in Contemporary Pakistan: Contesting and Cultivating an Islamic State, was recently published by Cambridge University Press. Her co-edited volume State and Subject Formation in South Asia was published earlier this year with Oxford University Press. She is currently working on her second monograph, tentatively titled, Traditional Islam and Modernity in Pakistan: An Intimate Account.