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Tropes of Community IdentityFormations

Shivangini Tandon

By Tabir Kalam
Primus Books, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 187, Rs. 795.00


For several decades now, historians have hotly debated the socio-economic and political developments in the eighteenth century in South Asia, with some viewing it as a period of chaos and decline, and others describing it as marked by economic growth and socio-cultural efflorescence. Tabir Kalam presents the 18th century as a culturally vibrant period, and takes issue with those historians who see in the century traces of ‘culturaldecline’. In view of the impressive work ofhistorians who are conveniently dubbed as‘revisionists’, this is a view that can scarcelybe contested today. The author is also right in arguing that the 18th century efflorescence was tied to the emergence of the regional kingdoms and the consolidation of regional identities. Kalam looks at the trends towards the formation of a Muslim community identity in the 18th century. Focusing on the sunniorthodox leadership, the work reveals thatthe process of Muslim community formation was markedly sectarian, puritan andorthodox, as well. The chapter is centeredon the work of the influential Muslim theo-logian, Shah Waliullah. The author critically discusses his political and religious ideas, and highlights the element of reform and ‘enlightenment’ in his reformist thought. It is indeed true that Waliullah favoured the application of rational thought (‘aql) over blind imitation (taqlid); he was also in favour of balancing traditional learning (manqulat)with the rational sciences (ma’qulat) in the educational system, as well. However, therewere limits to his rationalism and reforms;he wrote as a theologian and his agenda ofreform was marked by religious intoleranceand hostility towards the Hindus and theshias. Shah Waliullah’s thought has been extensively studied by several historians, in particular, K.A. Nizami, S.A.A. Rizvi, G.N.Jalbani and J.M.S. Baljon. Kalam’s discus-sion is firmly entrenched within the estab-lished scholarship on Shah Waliullah. Kalam brings out the faultlines in the emergent Indo-Muslim community in the 18th century, and highlights the internal divisions that fractured the community. Focusing on the sectarian conflicts, he rightly points out that the shia-sunni differences had assumed a political and doctrinal character in the period. He examines several sectariantexts that were written in the 18th century to highlight the hostilities and bitternessbetween them. Indeed, one does get a senseof the sectarian hostilities even from worksthat are not quite polemical. In an important work on comparative religion written in the 18th century, Dabistan-i-Mazahib, the author accuses the sunnis of calling the shiasheretics and ...

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