Ali Khan Mahmudabad on the making of North Indian Muslim identity via poetry, politics, religion
Mahmudabad spoke to Firstpost about the impact of literature and poetry on shaping political identity and the role of Muslim identity in Indian politics.
Dr Ali Khan Mahmudabad has come to be one of the world's foremost voices on Muslim issues. His writing spans across publications and languages, from Huffington Post to The Indian Express, from Urdu to French. Outside of being a journalist, he teaches history and political science at Ashoka University and also advises think tanks on subjects such as politics, religion and security in South and West Asia.
In his new book The Making of North Indian Muslim Identity: Poetry, Politics, and Religion 1850–1950, he talks about the role of poetry in expressing identity, particularly what it meant to be both Muslim and Indian in a time of sociopolitical exigency. The book charts the rich history of the mushā‘irah (poetic symposium) and investigates changing notions of nationality and patriotism in that space. It offers new perspectives on how Muslim intellectuals, poets, political leaders, and journalists conceived of and expressed their relationship to India and to the trans-national Muslim community.
Mahmudabad spoke to Firstpost about the impact of literature and poetry on shaping political identity and the role of Muslim identity in Indian politics.
Why have you chosen to look at Muslim-Indian identity from the viewpoint of the mushā‘irah?
From its inception, Islam fostered a culture of ‘orality’. Poetry, of course, was and has been one of the most important ways in which Muslims have grappled with questions to do with religion, culture, politics, history not to forget love! This tradition of reciting poetry publicly and the prominence poets were accorded by society in general and elites in particular continued before and during the life of the Prophet and thus gradually poetry became interwoven and inextricably linked with many Islamic traditions beyond just the Arabic speaking world. The tradition of public poetry recitals was a prominent part of various other Muslim societies, notably Persian, though what sets the mushā‘irah apart is that it is, as is argued in the books, part of a distinctly Indo-Islamic heritage. In India, of course, there was already a long tradition of such gatherings such as the gosthi in Malyalam or the Kavigon in Bangla.
In India, political polarisation that began to crystallise in the 19th century largely revolved around religion and language. The so-called Urdu-Hindi language divide is perceived to have been one such intractable binary and there has been much academic work questioning this. The differences that did exist tended to focus on the script but with the mushā’irah, an oral space, the problem was script was of course absent. This combined with the fact that the main theme of ghazals was to do with absent beloveds meant that the mushā’irah was a cosmopolitan space that acted as a bridge between members of various communities. The importance of the mushā’irah was also underscored by the fact that the British also chose to patronise them and use them to try and catalyse new directions in Urdu poetry that dealt with the material and natural world. Despite this, of course, the power of the ghazal — the power of love — continued and to this day remains a unique feature of the mushā’irahs history. In the quest for locating and trying to understand what the ‘public sphere’ was composed of in the period before the creation of the Indian nation-state, the mushā’irah offers a window into how poets from a variety of backgrounds were grappling with rapidly changing social, political, cultural, economic, religious and even technological changes. Although not within the purview of this book, but part of my other research focuses on other spaces that have not been explored enough because our conception of what constitutes the public sphere derives mostly from European definitions. Thus spaces in and around shrines and temples, public religious processions and other institutions, both physical and more liminal, allow us to track the manner in which people were reacting to the tumultuous changes at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
How do you think the Indian Muslim identity has evolved since 1950?
Rather than speaking of evolution, it is better to speak of changes. Of course in a country as large as India it is impossible to generalise. There are dozens of different schools of thought and sects beyond the lazy binary that people are prone to use of Shia and Sunni. However, it is safe to say that following the Constituent Assembly debates and in the decades following partition, questions to do with Muslims in the political sphere largely revolved around cultural, religious and linguistic rights and social (eg. caste), political and economic questions do not get as much attention.
Apart from this, the manner in which land reform was carried out, particularly in a place like Uttar Pradesh, meant that many institutions, like religious trusts, madrassas and charities amongst others looked elsewhere for patronage, often looking to the greater Middle East. More recently with market liberalisation, ease of travel and the rise of social media new questions have begun to arise about what it means to be authentically Muslim as Indians see how people in other parts of the Muslim world practice their religion. Indeed many of the identity problems that emerge in many parts of the world are precisely because the Mirpuri, Bengali or Bihari Muslim is forced to confront questions about his or her religious and cultural practice when they meet Arabs, North Africans, Turks, Iranians and others at the local mosque who do things a different way. A substantial number of Muslims from various parts of India have also now spent considerable time working in various parts of the Arabian Peninsula and this too has brought about interesting socio-cultural and religious changes although data is still hard to come by.
All these aspects have also had an impact on material culture. I think this has also sadly led to a number of misconceptions. For instance, a prominent columnist complained that she was seeing many more hijabs than she used. Of course, she saw this a sign of increasing religiosity but the truth is that a lot of these women who choose to wear the hijab are doing so and coming out to work rather than staying at home as might have been more common even a few decades ago. The hijab in a sense has been something that has facilitated this transition. This is just a small example but the point is that young Muslims are adapting to the times while also proudly being rooted in their religious identity.
Politically speaking, it was already clear pre-1947 that there is no such thing as a Muslim vote bank although this myth is still propagated by parties seeking to polarise or counter-polarise electorates and one thing that remains the same from, say, the 1937 election to now is that while voting Muslims take into account a huge range of local and regional factors and therefore do not vote solely on the basis of religious identity.
Do you think that literature and poetry still have the same effect in shaping sociopolitical identity?
Literature and poetry continue to have a very important role to play. Mushā’irahs are as important as ever and are held everywhere, from small towns in UP to Delhi and even Dallas and Dubai. Poets tend to be revered and although most literary critics and scholars would say that the quality and level of poetry has fallen drastically, the fact remains that poetry, in whatever form, still remains an important form of entertainment and even political resistance. The rise of literature festivals — like Rekhta — the popularity of Rana Safvi’s #shair and Javed Akhtar’s 'Rediscover Poetry' as a paid service for Tata Sky’s Television network are just some examples of how Urdu in particular remains curiously popular despite the number of official Urdu speakers in North India falling according to latest census figures.
Away from the internet and large metropolises, poets like Kumar Vishwas and Imran Pratapgarhi recite to audiences of thousands even in far removed and remote areas they are treated like rock stars. Some critics complain that the quality of this poetry leaves much to be desired but then again I think these poets are responding to changes taking place in society and are able to detect the pulse of the people which often means that it might not be high literature or refined poetry but nonetheless it reflects the tastes and mindsets of the audience. Literature in various Indian languages continues to be tremendously important and has a high readership across the country despite the fact that English is muscling out these languages because it has more utility in ‘aspirational’ India.
You explore the idea of hubb-e watanī in your book. In what ways did patriotism evolve under the purview of your book?
Well, it took a book to answer this question so you will have to read it! What I try and trace is how people’s sense of belonging and rootedness changed over a period of more than 100 years. So I start with the shahr ashob genre, literally the affliction or lament of the city, in Urdu as opposed to its Persian roots. Many poets following Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali’s attacks on Delhi fled and articulated a sense of grief and longing for the loss of their homes. Of course, this was an elite response and was limited in its scope but what is interesting is that people used poetry to confront this trauma, as poets have for millennia. This displacement and loss continued into the 19th century and the trauma of 1857 was again grappled with through poetry.
Following the rise of the colonial government and its desire to ‘order’ society through census’, categorisation, knowledge creation etc and the influx of new ideas of what constituted the natural world, of nationhood and citizenship, people had to yet again grapple with an entirely new vocabulary. I would go so far as to say a new moral vocabulary was created to cope with these changes and this even affected something like poetry because the British tried to ‘reason’ that poets should give up their more ‘hedonistic’ symbols and concentrate on writing natural poetry. The nazm as a form of poetry really fully came about in this period of the last quarter of the 19th century. The importance of the local and regional remained but it is safe to say that there was something of a shift from imagining India in more metaphysical terms to articulating a more material conception. In a sense, I think this is where the problem began because it is much easier to differ about material identifiers than metaphysical ideas. People from various communities obviously had different ideas of the material markers that defined India. In addition to this, an understanding of ‘their’ history, which at the time was particularly influenced by what the British and others came to define as history, became more exclusionist and the categories through which people defined themselves more rigid.
At the same time the telegraph, ease of travel and print technology opened up new vistas for people and so news from Ottoman Turkey or Libya could travel to India relatively quickly. Imperialism and colonialism’s global net of oppression also opened up people to the suffering of others and thus you begin to see the umma or community of Muslims emerge as a political category. Of course, the umma is not something new to this period and has its roots in the Quran but the manner in which it was seen towards the end of the 19th century is somewhat new. Interestingly, the spectre of ‘pan-Islamism’ or some kind of global Muslim threat that is often talked about today can already be seen in colonial archives where movements for freedom and independence were immediately dismissed as the result of the violent machinations of Muslims.
Today the question of Qaum vs Umma or nation vs community is something that is brought up again and again all over the world but I hope that my work shows is that these two categories need not be contradictory and indeed how poets, in particular, were able to negotiate both while also being anchored in the local or regional. I think the tragedy is that identity as it exists in the modern age privileges binary and fixity or even rigidity while we see that even in the period before the creation of the Indian nation-state, people had managed to come up with novel ways of resolving perceived tensions which demonstrated how fluid and malleable identities were.
How have your students influenced the way you look at your work?
Most of this work was carried out before I began teaching, but I have used some of it in my class called ‘Political Thought in the Age of Nationalism.’ My students come from highly diverse backgrounds from all over India and even from other parts of the world and so it is useful to see how deep differences go within a small group of 10-12 people let alone an entire country. Many of the students have pushed me to think more about Partition and its aftermath, particularly because many of them, indeed many of us, inherit history which we might not always have the tools to deconstruct and understand. On the first day of classes, I ask students to write an essay on what nationalism means to them and I allow them to write in any style they wish. These essays have been eye-opening for me in terms of trying to understand how from a very young age people are exposed to narratives and stories that that on the face of it are harmless but put in a larger perspective show just how divisive they can be. What was refreshing to see was how the students were already critically aware of this and indeed it was interesting for me to see and try and understand the mechanisms through which these young people have tried to resolve or reconfigure pressing questions to do with their identity. Sometimes, there has been a student who points out a new way of reading or understanding a poem based on a perspective that had eluded me. While this might be articulated through asking a question, the question in itself allows me to learn and this is truly one of the pleasures of teaching.
You have seen the Muslim identity expressed in many different ways across the globe. How similar or different is the Muslim identity in the Middle East from that of India?
Nowadays it has become very fashionable to talk of Indian Islam, particularly in counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism circles (CVE). I am afraid this kind of talk is rather reductionist and frankly is more telling of the political exigencies faced by political and security establishments rather than anything deeper. Of course, because of historic differences and more importantly because of language and culture, there are differences in the manner in which Islam became embedded in different geographic areas but this does not mean that its essence is different in India from say Iran or Egypt. In fact, I would caution you in using the binary of the Middle East and India because both these terms also gloss over the fact that there is huge diversity in them internally.
During Hajj, for instance, people are largely divided according to nationality but traditionally and even now there is an awareness, even a recognition I would say, amongst the Muslims who go on the pilgrimage of a shared spiritual bond with people from vastly different ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds. Now the fact remains that the rituals, customs and manner in which Islam is practiced in India is inevitably affected by the fact that these came about over the course of centuries in a particular context. Thus, in terms of even something as abstract as beauty or aesthetics, there will be a difference between how an Algerian Muslim defines what is beautiful and how a North Indian Muslim might define it. Both will be circumscribed by parameters that are laid out according to Islamic principles, and these might be very broad, but within these, they might be radically different.
You see, religion cannot exist in isolation from culture, language and I would even say geography and technology — and so the differences that we see between various parts of the Muslim world are not simply religious differences but also differences that arise from these other factors. Of course with the rise of the internet and social media, people are grappling with the mind-boggling diversity amongst Muslims across the world, particularly as debates rage about what is and what is not authentically Islamic. In some instances, there is probably an insecurity that develops when people in South Asia or South East Asia see how Muslims practice their religion in the Arab world but these are such large changes that I don't think much can be done about them. The rise of a more puritanical and literalist Islam across the world is as much the result of the modern world than anything else because it needs the least amount of cultural mediation and seeks to create a more uniform globalised Muslim identity. Of course, these are issues that will play out over the next decades and it is too early to begin to make any kind of substantial claims.
What role do you think religion plays in India’s politics today? How do you think the Muslim identity is represented in Indian politics today, if at all?
Religion is ubiquitous in Indian politics. Our Constitution, which I think is a remarkable document, is something that is anchored in values and principles that took more than 300 years to organically emerge from within Europe’s public sphere: universities, newspapers, town squares, cafes, salons, associations and clubs, etc. They were an organic part of the tumultuous history of the reformation and enlightenment. However, they came to our part of the world through imperial and colonial networks and thus did not emerge from a bottom-up social churn within our own societies. This is not to say that the principles themselves are not relevant but the larger argument is that they were not embedded in our society and our languages. A new political and indeed moral vocabulary was constructed but I would argue this did not necessarily translate well — or was not translated — into terms that made sense for people whose entire identity and worldview stemmed from and revolved around their religious identity. The point is that it was assumed that people would transcend their religious identity and thus the country would gradually imbibe the values of the constitution but as we can see this is at best a fraught project. Until and unless we can seriously locate the values of the constitution and endow them with a moral legitimacy in the eyes of those who are religious, we will continue to see a fractured political landscape. For example, for some Dalit movements across India the constitution is almost a scared document because it has morally empowered them but sadly this is not the case for many others. For many people, whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian, their ideas of right and wrong stem from their religious beliefs and the attendant vocabulary and the constitution merely serves as a legal list of do’s and don’ts to put it crudely. How many people will honestly admit that they see the constitution as a ‘moral authority.’
As for how I think Muslim identity is represented in Indian politics today, well unfortunately I think that Muslim identity is only spoken of in terms of platitudes and generalisations. This is partly because the community’s leadership has been in the hands of people who have had a vested interest in promoting insecurity and emphasising issues that, although important, detract from the very real political, social and economic needs of the Muslims. As I said earlier, Muslims have almost never voted en bloc, yet talk of Muslim vote banks is prevalent. Together with this Muslims are nearly always labelled as backward and needing ‘upliftment’ but very few people are ready to admit the systemic and institutional factors that have brought Muslims to such a pass. Today to speak of discrimination is to allegedly play victim politics, to draw attention to the Sachar report is to beg for sops, to ask for rights and security is to seek appeasement. It seems that Muslims are now political untouchables. This is dangerous because exclusion nearly always breeds discontent and eventually can catalyse extreme reactions.
Muslims are caught in a vicious circle between the machinations of so-called Muslim leaders whose politics thrives on catalysing fear and insecurity and the systematic manner in which the politicians evoke the spectre of the ‘muslim threat’ or indeed of the Muslim vote bloc in elections. The political marginalisation of the Muslims is, of course, something that needs to also be seen in the light of the global pressure of the so-called war on terror. From my experience in the field, Muslims want the same things as everyone else, autonomy, dignity, security, justice and the access to the facilities and institutions of the state.
Who are the writers and poets who inspire your own style of writing?
I must admit that much of who inspires me depends on the context I find myself in, but on the whole, I can say that in Urdu Mir Taqi Mir, Majaz Lucknawi and Faiz are always sources of comfort. In Pharsi Fakhruddin Iraqi and Bedil and amongst the modern poets Fareedoon Moshiri. In English, my own supervisor, the late Professor CA Bayly’s style of writing. The poetry of Auden and Yeats. I really like Chimamanda Adichie’s writing style. I think the person whose ‘voice' I really admire is that of my mother, who from a young age read her stories and work to us and inspired us to read often and widely.
Whom and what are you reading right now?
In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki, Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace by Irfan Ahmad, Debt by David Graebar, Idrak-e Zawal-e Ummat (Understanding the Fall of the [Muslim] Community) (Vol. 1) by Rashid Shaz, Mahzalah al-‘Aql al-Bashari (Mockery of the Human Mind) by Iraqi intellectual Ali al-Wardi and Vimal Kumar’s poetry collection Hatya se Atmhatya Tak.
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