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Role of Ideas

Amit Dey

A Project of Farzana Shaikh  with a new Introduction and a Foreword by Mushirul Hasan
Imprint One, New Delhi, India, 2012, pp. 255, Rs. 750.00


The book under review represents a scholarly endeavour to analyse the role of ideas in the interpretation of Indo-Muslim politics since the time of its advent in the mid-nineteenth century till the vivisection of India in 1947. It challenges the established view at the time that Indian Muslim politics of the period could be explained in terms of pragmatic interests alone. Instead, Farzana Shaikh claims that the impact of ideas rooted in Islamic tradition must constitute a crucial dimension of any serious explanation of the determinants of Indo-Muslim political practice. In this seminal work the configurations of colonial politics in India are set against the backdrop of tensions involving two contrasting intellectual traditions—the Islamic and the liberal-democratic to demonstrate how their different assumptions about the proper ends of political action honed the opposition between diverse constitutional positions culminating in Partition. Scholars such as Imtiaz Ahmad and Muhammad Mujeeb have suggested that Islam’s historical and cultural accommodations with its local environment in India have produced fundamental changes in the practices and modes of thinking of the Indian Muslims and they have become more Indian than Muslim. However, this view is not shared by the noted historian Aziz Ahmad, who through his classic expositions in the 1960s, tried to show that separatist trends were far more characteristic of Indian Islam than had hitherto been acknowledged. On the other hand, the works of Rafiuddin Ahmed, Barbara Metcalf and Gail Minault, who represented a generation of younger scholars, cannot be regarded as evidence of the separatist direction of Indian Islam. But they imply, by giving importance to the movements of reform and revival, that the resilience of Muslim tradition as a code of conduct, both moral and political, cannot be straightforwardly discounted. Francis Robinson through his scholarly writings has not only launched an assault on the assimilationist thesis but also tried to reveal its limitations as a basis for the study of Indian Islam. He famously argues that Indian history is replete with examples of living together separately. Chicago based historian Muzaffar Alam represents an identical position as he suggests while dealing with Awadhi culture that it has been an experience of assimilation from a distance. Veena Das contributes to this debate by arguing that Robinson’s approach suffers from an unwarranted emphasis on textual or ‘high’ Islam at the expense of a living Muslim ‘folk theology’. However, the real value of Robinson’...

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