Responding To Modern Challenges

Arshad Alam

By Muhammad Qasim Zaman
Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2004, pp. 291, PKR 595.00


Postcolonial Muslim societies have been mostly understood through the prism of modernization theory. Very often, the focus of these studies has been the ‘modernizing imperative’ of the postcolonial state. Society as an arena of the non-state was studied only in relation to ways in which it corresponded to the modern demands of postcolonial states. Social groups and institutions which could not fit this theoretical conceptualization were seldom made subjects of scholarly attention. It is for this reason that the Ulama or traditionally educated Muslim religious scholars have so far received far less academic attention as compared to the Islamists, who share most of the assumptions of the modern postcolonial state which they oppose. By pulling the Ulama out of such obscurity, Zaman seeks to fill a very important gap in our understanding of Muslim religious authority.   Zaman makes it clear at the outset that the ‘transformations, discourses and religio-political activism of the Ulama’ can only be ignored at the cost of misunderstanding crucial facets of Muslim politics. Far from being the passive recipients of the onslaught of modernization, Zaman’s work shows the many ways in which the Ulama have not only adapted and responded to modern challenges, but have also used modern institutions to further their own interests. The fact that institutions of the Ulama like the madrasas are increasing in numbers and strength lend credence to Zaman’s understanding of the problem. In all the six chapters, Zaman’s, central concern has been to bring about this remarkable adaptability of the Ulama through an analysis of their writings and activities.   Zaman argues that the distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ is a gift of colonial modernity having no precedence in early Islamic thought. Early Islam did make a distinction between rational (maqulat) and revealed (manqulat) knowledge, but the understanding of religion as occupying a distinct ‘private’ sphere in society has been altogether alien to the Islamic tradition. Zaman goes on to argue, and this is his main argument, that the Ulama accepted this colonial post enlightenment division of spaces as it suited their needs. Moreover, in contemporary times, the Ulama rest and articulate their authority precisely by portraying themselves as the ‘custodians’ of the private sphere. Any interference in this sphere is resented by the Ulama. Thus, as Zaman rightly argues, the Ulama of both India and Pakistan oppose the interference of the state in their institutions of learning, ...

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