The Rise and Demise of Muslim Modernism
The breakup of Pakistan in December 1971 produced a ‘New Pakistan.’ ZA. Bhutto, after coming to power declared that he will pick up the pieces and built a new country. Geographically it was a new country. East Pakistan had broken away to become Bangladesh. What was once West Pakistan was now the only Pakistan. Unlike the erstwhile East Pakistan that had a large Bengali-speaking majority, West Pakistan was multiethnic. Also, there was a significant Hindu minority in East Pakistan. The Hindu community in West Pakistan on the other hand, was tiny. This meant the ‘new Pakistan’ was now overwhelmingly Muslim with diminutive non-Muslim communities.
The breakup of Pakistan, caused by a vicious civil war in the East and a lost war against India, was not only a physical breakup. It also saw an increasing urge in a disillusioned polity and its representatives to break away from memories and narratives of a past formulated by the State and national intelligentsia. The narrative that had been built since Pakistan’s inception in 1947 had pictured a ‘modern’ Muslim-majority country that was to be “a sacred state admitting human will and a secular state admitting sacred will” (A.U. Qasmi, “God’s Kingdom on Earth,” Modern Asian Studies, November 2020).
It was a ‘middle path’ between theocracy and secular republicanism – a path that was initially imagined in various forms from the 19th century onwards by reformist Muslim intellectuals active in Muslim communities in East and South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Jolted by the juggernaut of European colonialism, these intellectuals not only took to task colonialism and the disruption that it had caused in colonised societies, but they also questioned the Muslim response to it. They believed that the response was chaotic and entirely ill-equipped to face Europe’s military and economic might.
They located Europe’s rise in its willingness to radically overturn modes of thinking rooted in static traditions, and a ritualistic, superstitious and enchanted understanding of Christianity. To the reformist Muslim intellectuals, this, and the manner in which the human ability to reason had gained supremacy over ‘emotion’ in Europe, had given birth to sciences that led to a great many medical, military and economic inventions. These empowered Europe to sprint past traditional Muslim societies, leaving them vulnerable to conquest and unable to comprehend a world that was being turned on its head.
This period in Europe came to be known as the ‘Age of Enlightenment.’ It is often believed to have peaked in the 18th and 19th centuries, even though it was also challenged for being too rigid in its focus on reason and science; and for being socially disruptive, exploitative and dismissive of the roles that emotions, traditions and spirituality played in the lives of the people. For example, there was ‘Romanticism,’ a literary, artistic and intellectual movement that emerged in the 19th century to challenge the Enlightenment.
The movement opposed the impersonal and aloof nature of the Enlightenment and romanticised the past that the Enlightenment was raging against as being brutal, chaotic, superstitious and static. The Romantics glorified emotions and instinct. They were suspicious of science and industrialisation, and they greatly appreciated spirituality and passion. They romanticised the ‘simplicity’ of rural life and of ancient societies which, to them, were emotionally invested in preserving their relationship with nature.
To the Enlightenment thinkers, these were exaggerations of a past that was riddled with incurable diseases, short lifespans, religious wars, corrupt clergies exploiting and subjugating people by keeping them ignorant and superstitious, and monarchs who were only interested in collecting taxes to maintain standing armies so they could add more taxable populations in conquered lands. The State had no interest nor the infrastructure to provide any meaningful relief or benefits to the people that they ruled over.
The Enlightenment overcame the many incarnations of the Romantic movement. Enlightenment ideas and products went on to define and shape the modern world across the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. The 19th-century reformist Muslim intellectuals were fascinated by it.
Even though most of these Muslim intellectuals were critical of European colonialism, they realised that this colonialism could not be challenged with ideas that were still prevailing in Muslim societies. The intellectuals discouraged armed resistance driven by what they believed were outdated and static traditions and notions of Islam developed by theologians hundreds of years ago. Instead, they advocated adopting ‘modern’ manifestations of faith, politics, economics and science that had accompanied European colonialism when it occupied lands in what today is called the ‘Global South.’
This line of thinking was manifested in multiple ways by the ‘modernist’ Muslim intelligentsias giving birth to what became to be known as ‘Muslim modernism.’ It sought to liberate Islam from the weight of ancient and medieval interpretations of the faith’s sacred texts and reinterpret them according to new realities in a world that was entering a ‘modern age’ and in which all that was considered ‘pre-modern’ was eroding.
Muslim modernists understood the Enlightenment as a product of reformed Christianity and the disenchantment of the faith so it could be understood in a rational manner, allowing human will to determine the political and economic fate of nations, but without completely rejecting the concept of divine will. However, divine will was not to be manifested through monarchs and clerics anymore, but through human will to progress in a scientific and rational manner.
Many 17th- and 18th-century Enlightenment philosophers and reformed Christian theologians posited that God favoured those who worked hard to succeed in whatever constructive task they willed to choose, and sought to understand God through reason and not only through rituals. Therefore, the mysteries, magic and miracles perceived to be in the sacred texts that had enchanted Christians in pre-modern times were reinterpreted and/or disenchanted so that Christianity could function in a reformed manner in an era in which the Church and the State were being separated and many public spaces and areas were being secularised.
The Enlightenment did not seek to wipe out religion, but to ‘modernise’ it and convert its emotional drive into rational energy which could free Christianity from superstition, ritual and theocratic disposition, and inspire humans to invest their minds in the pursuit of happiness and God’s approval through economic, political and scientific progress.
Whereas some scholars and anti-modernist Ulema strived to build (rather rebuild) an Islamic State regulated by Divine will, the Muslim modernists moved to organise Muslim-majority nations that would be sacred but have room for human will, and secular but would permit divine will
The Muslim modernists sought to do the same. Faced by accusations by colonialists that Islam was not compatible with modernity, the modernists first reminded the critics that Muslims were exploring philosophies and sciences (that were evolved by the Europeans during the Enlightenment) long before there was anything called the Enlightenment. But they agreed that after the 12th century, this intellectual tradition in the Islamic world began to dwindle when some influential Muslim scholars created an orthodoxy, fearing that rational intellectual inquiry had become detrimental to the core doctrines of the faith.
Muslim modernists then began to challenge the orthodoxy, criticising it as being frozen in the past. To them, orthodoxy was against the true spirit of Islam. They reinterpreted Islam’s holy texts to demonstrate that God encouraged humans to understand His creations in a rational manner to fully appreciate them, and that this required the application of the modern sciences and philosophies that liberated the mind.
The modernists soon got into trouble, not only with those who were still hanging on to the orthodoxy, but also with another branch of reformers. These were Ulema who agreed that Islam needed to be freed from the clutches of orthodoxy, but this was to be done by present-day Ulema and not through ideas inspired by the Enlightenment. They saw Enlightenment as a secular manifestation of Christianity’s long-held desire to vanquish Islam. They attacked the modernists for wrongly interpreting Islamic scriptures, lamenting that only trained Ulema were qualified to interpret the texts. However, this branch also produced scholars who were not trained in madrasahs, but were still critical of the manner in which the modernists were applying European ideas to reform Islam.
To them, Enlightenment philosophies were suited only for European/Christian cultures, because Muslim societies had evolved with a different set of morals, traditions and aspirations and had had an acrimonious history of conflict with the Christian world. The irony was that such reformers (such as Abu’l Ala Maududi) too were borrowing heavily from modern Western philosophies. They got hold of the modern Western idea of an all-encompassing State and claimed that such an all-encompassing State had already existed in Arabia during the early years of Islam in the 7th century.
The fact is that the idea of an all-encompassing State is no more than 300 years old. In the pre-modern world, the nature of the State was limited. It was confined to collecting tax for rulers and sustain an army to fight internal and external enemies (I.Ahmad, ‘Genealogy of the Islamic State, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, April 2009). The pre-modern State’s relationship with the common people was impersonal. It did not have the infrastructure or capacity to intervene in the daily affairs of the people. Even when it tried to regulate the behaviour of the people, it often failed. The regulation in this case was left to nobles and governors who interpreted rules and laws according to their own needs and conditions. They were mostly left alone by the State as long as the regions that they governed kept generating tax revenues and did not rebel against the primary ruler.
The anti-Enlightenment Muslim scholars claimed that the concept of an all-encompassing State is a built-in feature of Islam. But the fact is, it was built into it by early Islamist ideologues in the first half of the 20th century. It was inspired by the modern idea of the State that first emerged in Europe (I.Ahmad, ibid). Whereas these scholars and anti-modernist Ulema strived to build (rather rebuild) an Islamic State regulated by Divine will, the Muslim modernists moved to organise Muslim-majority nations that would be sacred but have room for human will, and secular but would permit divine will.
They sought a flexible State which could move freely between the sacred and the secular without being weighed down by the demands of theocracy or those of secularism. To them, being Muslim was good enough to sustain a national majority and identity rather than being Islamic which would require imposing Shariah laws. The latter was particularly hard to do in a country such as Pakistan which was not only multiethnic, but also had multiple Islamic sects and sub-sects with their own distinct ideas of what constitutes Shariah.
Ideas formulated by Muslim modernists succeeded in running past the seekers of an Islamic State in the first 25 years or so of Pakistan. But the State was of the view that the modernist project required a strong centralised political setup overseen by a ‘benevolent’ dictator and a likeminded bureaucracy and national intelligentsia serving him. As the population of the country grew and the State failed to address challenges triggered by this and also by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, the lack of democratic outlets left many people impacted by these challenges to seek political change.
Muslim modernism increasingly came to be seen as an authoritarian idea enforced by a ruling and economic elite. In Pakistan, the idea began to be challenged from three fronts: The secular ethno-nationalists accused it of being hegemonic and a way to undermine non-Punjabi ethnic groups by imposing upon them a cosmetic and anti-democratic idea of Muslim nationalism. The left saw it as a project of Western imperialism and of unhinged capitalism. And the Islamists alleged that it was designed to advance secularism and was pitched against the ‘Islamic character’ of Pakistan’s polity.
The loss of East Pakistan was blamed on the undemocratic and authoritarian aspects of the Muslim nationalism inspired by Muslim modernism. The Islamists added another aspect to it, that of it being un-Islamic. The years between 1972 and 1977 can be seen as the period of transition from modernist Muslim nationalism towards Islamic nationalism. Weary of the manner in which the 10-year modernist dictatorship of Ayub Khan (1958-1969) had been ousted by a violent movement, the otherwise left-leaning ZA Bhutto regime (1971-77) continued moving to the right and create enough space for the Islamists to sneak in.
The Islamists seeking a theocracy had been kept at an arm’s length by the State. It had tried to regulate and neutralise their influence by bringing mosques, madrasahs and Sufi shrines under State control and ‘educate’ clerics so they would become productive members of a rapidly industrialising and ‘modernising’ country. Although, Islamist parties had just 18 members in the new democratically elected parliament that began to function in 1972, their influence was bolstered when the Bhutto government and the State initiated the project of Islamising the idea of Pakistani/Muslim nationalism. Another factor was the rise of Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Muslim world, replacing Egypt.
Much to the cringing of the Saudi monarchy, Egypt under the popular Arab nationalist and modernist Gamal Abdel Nasser had successfully positioned itself as the leader of the Muslim world, especially between 1956 and 1967. Nasser often mocked conservative Arab monarchies for being myopic, anti-progress and reactionary. But Nasser’s currency began to dip when in 1967, the armed forces of Egypt and Syria were vanquished by the Israeli army and air force in a matter of six days. Egyptians who had adored Nasser for over a decade and applauded his modernist outlook and policies, went into shock. Nasser, too, descended into depression. In 1970, he passed away after suffering a heart attack.
In 1973 when Egyptian forces, now under the command of Nasser’s close colleague Anwar Saddat, were able to avoid another quick victory by Israel, Sadat explained this as a victory. Yet, he expelled the Soviet civil and military advisors who had been recruited by Nasser. This was his way of appreciating Saudi help that he received when the Saudi monarchy drastically reduced its oil production along with other oil-rich Arab countries to ‘punish’ the West for supporting Israel. The price of oil reached an unprecedented peak, filling Saudi coffers like never before.
US and European economies were badly impacted. The irony was that almost all oil-rich Arab countries (except Libya) were in the Cold War orbit of the United States. The Saudi monarchy began to pump millions of dollars in Egypt and in other poorer Muslim countries. But this came with certain conditions. Muslim-countries in the Soviet orbit needed to break away from it. Islamist outfits that had been banned or sidelined were to be brought into the mainstream, as long as they did not threaten the State or the sitting government.
Once in the mainstream, these outfits launched intense campaigns against any remaining variations of Muslim modernism. The campaigns were quietly supported by sitting governments as a way to deflect the energies of the Islamists towards attacking cultural ‘modernity’ and leftist sentiments on campuses. But in hindsight, one can see that it was naive to believe that the campaigns would stay away from becoming political.
They moved from campuses to the mosques, and from mosques to the streets. Mosques in countries where they had been brought under the control of the State were no more regulated the manner in which they had once been. Private citizens with their own funds and organisations fattened by Saudi money began to build new mosques. These mosques became the epicentres of activity by Islamist outfits who eventually turned their energies towards challenging sitting governments that they accused of being fake Muslims.
By the late 1970s, sitting governments began to adopt ideas formulated by Islamists as a way to usurp them. These ideas of building an Islamic State had been floating for decades, but they were repressed and sidelined by the State and governments who were building Muslim nationalisms on the intellectual foundations erected by Muslim modernists.
Senior military officers were of the view that a dashing, charismatic and ‘incorruptible’ sporting hero with ‘moderate’ views would be a good bet to aid the State in regulating the overheated Islamisation project and cool it down a bit. This was a naive move
Many of these foundations had begun to erode from the late 1960s. In the 1980s, they completely collapsed, unable to withstand political and intellectual onslaughts of the Islamists. On many occasions, the State absorbed the onslaught by co-opting Islamist ideas. Pakistan and Sudan are two examples in which the once modernist State became increasingly Islamist. But this was happening in various other Muslim-majority countries as well.
The idea was to keep at bay Islamist uprisings (like the one that erupted in Iran in 1979). Saudi and US money aided Muslim countries in this. This way, the State and governments were able to synchronise economic prosperity with piety, keeping the seekers of an Islamic State busy in enjoying their newfound political and economic gains, and mostly interested in aiding (instead of challenging) the State in ‘Islamising’ the society. The US was satisfied with this arrangement because it feared that Muslim modernism eventually led to countries gravitating towards the Soviet camp.
The celebrated Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad was one of the first Muslim scholars to warn the US that this approach would become extremely problematic, especially regarding US decision to bankroll a ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan in the 1980s (S. Schaar, Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, 2015). It became exactly that. Muslim modernist critiques of ideas floated by the seekers of an Islamic State were systematically repressed and even demonised. They were tossed in the dustbin of history. Ideas of the latter lot proliferated. Any attempt to look for a middle path between the sacred and the secular, Divine and human will was abandoned.
Islamists, clerics, the State and even non-Islamist politicians, all now claimed to be manifesting divine will. Debates thus became about who was doing this better. Such debates often flared up and triggered violence. Many variations of the idea of an Islamic State began to compete against each other. These conflicts poured out on the streets in the shape of sectarian riots, assassinations, counter-assassinations, mob violence and ultimately anti-State militancy. The State had no clue how to neutralise it.
For example, in Pakistan, when Islamist militancy peaked, the military struggled to motivate soldiers to fight against an enemy which was not only Muslim, but was using Islamist symbols and rhetoric that had been introduced in the military by the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship (1977-88). In 2014, when the military finally managed to convince its soldiers that the militants were fake Muslims funded by Pakistan’s external enemies, most civilian politicians were unwilling to support a military operation. They were serving constituents who now believed that the militants were asserting divine will.
This was the consequence of Muslim modernist ideas being vanquished, and no convincing counter-argument available to blunt narratives and ideas proliferated by not only the Islamists, but also by non-Islamist politicians, the media and the State itself. This is still the case in various Muslim countries, including Pakistan.
The Postmodern Islamic Milieu
In the last seven years or so, the State in Pakistan has begun to realise that the ‘Islamisation’ policies that it began to implement from the mid/late 1970s have given birth to numerous problems that are limiting the capacity of the talent required to advance and bolster not only the country’s economic and political spheres, but also its cultural, sporting, and literary spaces. Yet, a major component of the State, the powerful military establishment, saw fit to help a man like Imran Khan become PM (in 2018).
Senior military officers were of the view that a dashing, charismatic and ‘incorruptible’ sporting hero with ‘moderate’ views would be a good bet to aid the State in regulating the overheated Islamisation project and cool it down a bit. This was a naive move.
First of all, Khan was a moderate and even secular and liberal, but only during his days as a cricket star. As a politician, he went through a transformation and became a ‘born again Muslim.’ But he continued to pose as a moderate, even though he was not in favour of any kind of military operation against Islamist militants.
The officers who aided his climb to power didn’t see this as a problem. This was their area and Khan was simply supposed to regulate the polity, especially the growing urban middle-classes who had been most responsive towards the Islamisation process, especially when it was synchronised with economic prosperity. But being a politician, Khan had to plug himself in the thoughts and aspirations of these classes which were and still are his main constituency. And it is a highly contradictory constituency, made up of various conflicting ideological currents. It considers itself to be moderate, genuinely liberal, but at the same time feels more secure in authoritarian set-ups.
After all, this constituency was largely moulded by two military dictatorships, one led by Zia-ul-Haq and the other by Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008). One was Islamist and the other posed as being moderate-liberal. Generally speaking, the Islam that is popular in this constituency is a mixture of both. This constituency claims to be following a more informed Islam compared to the ‘ignorant’ ways it is practiced by the masses. Even tough Muslim modernism too had claimed to be doing this, the constituency in question came of age when Muslim modernism had been relegated to the dustbin of history.
Therefore, the constituency had only an urban evangelical Islam to invest in to differentiate itself from the faith’s more populist or, on the other end, militant variants. The evangelical variant was highly ritualistic, but it excelled in the process of synchronising piety with material progress. A similar synchronising process had taken place in Europe during the Enlightenment. That one synchronised Christianity with economic prosperity, but it did so in a bid to aid religion to operate in an emerging secular milieu and/or without becoming an impediment or a hurdle for the talent that was required to bolster the outcomes of the Enlightenment.
In Pakistan however, by the 1980s, the milieu had become increasingly Islamic, so the evangelical variant aided middle-and-upper-middle-class groups to reconcile their amoral ambitions of material gains with variants of Islam that were ritualistic and opposed to Muslim modernism (but not to modernity as a whole). This fusion has often produced ideas that lack substance. These ideas are expressed more by the need to be seen as being pious through particular kinds of attire and lingo.
There is nothing scholarly in this nor can it produce any convincing ideas to counter those coming from the more extreme variants of the faith. In fact, this line of thinking has more to do with deflecting (instead of challenging) extreme theological ideas. So it ends up deflecting the problems created by the Islamisation process rather than challenging them with strong counter-arguments. In fact, many moderate politicians have actually ended up usurping and adopting extreme views. This is exactly what happened to Khan as well. The nature of the milieu needs to be transformed.
The Radical Rationalists
How to do that? One way is to reintroduce into mainstream discourses ideas formulated by Muslim modernists. They have been thoroughly critiqued from all sides so this means there is enough learnings available on what to retain, what do discard and what to update. One can argue that these ideas are already part of the curriculum. But the fact is, that ideas formulated by modernist pioneers such as Syed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal have been watered down and cherry-picked. Iqbal has been turned into an Islamist ideologue and Khan into a simple educationist who founded a university in pre-Partition India from which a plethora of leaders of the All India Muslim League graduated.
Khan’s detailed writings that sought to reform how Islamic texts were studied and understood are only touched upon. In the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, they were at the centre of discourses on South Asian Islam and competed amicably in the marketplace of Islamic ideas in the region. But they went out along with the whole Muslim modernist project from the mid-1970s onwards. Recently the State Bank of Pakistan issued a special Rs.75 note to commemorate the country’s 75th birthday. They placed Khan’s image on the note.
A State Bank official reported that most young Pakistanis had no idea who Syed Ahmad Khan was. Khan’s purposed methodology of rationally deciphering Islamic scriptures became increasingly problematic in the post-‘70s ‘Islamic’ milieu, even though Khan was one of the most moderate Muslim modernists. But many of his assertions did became part of mainstream discourses and do not need to be re-emphasised. Assertions such as that, it was the Muslims who introduced the sciences that the Europeans later adopted during the Enlightenment.
Khan also encouraged a contextual reading of the sacred texts for which he sought to bring forth a more accurate understanding of Islamic history outside the sources such as the Hadith. But in the post-1970s milieu in which even non-Islamists began to draw Islamic history directly from the Hadith (as they used to before the emergence of Muslim modernists) Khan once again lost relevance.
Chiragh argued that Islamic jurisprudence was compiled at a very late period and, as such, could not be considered essentially and eternally unchangeable
Khan’s ideas can still contribute to a possible new counter-argument against Islamist ideas that have become problematic. But his ideas about women emancipation can run into trouble with increasing numbers of Pakistani women who are striving to take control of their own fate and challenge the monopoly that the Ulema, clerics and the State have provided themselves over how women should behave and dress. Khan was against women gaining an education outside the home and could not see any other role for them other than that of a daughter, wife and mother (N. Ahmad, “Syed Ahmad Khan and Muslim Female Education: A Study in Contradictions,” Journal of Indian History Congress, 2007).
This strengthens the case of perhaps reintroducing the thoughts and ideas of Khan’s more radical contemporaries. The European Enlightenment had two tendencies: a moderate one and a more radical one. Moderate Enlightenment endorsed a compromise between reason and revelation and sought to accommodate the forces of modernity with those of traditional authority (N. Mithen, “Moderation in Eighteenth century Europe,” H-Soz-Kult, January 2022). Radical Enlightenment conducted itself as a revolutionary process which wanted to effectively overthrow all justification for monarchy, aristocracy, and ecclesiastical authority, as well as man’s asendancy over woman and theology’s domination (I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750, 2001).
The 19th-century modernist Muslim movement In South Asia too produced two tendencies, a fact often overlooked by most historians. This may be because scholars and intellectuals associated with the more radical tendency of Muslim modernism were gradually ousted from contemporary Islamic discourses even before the moderate lot such as Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Amir Ali, Altaf Husain Hali and later Ghulam Ahmad Pervez and Dr. Fazalur Rehman Malik were. As mentioned earlier, only watered-down versions of Khan’s ideas, and cherry-picked ideas of another largely moderate modernist Muhammad Iqbal survived the onslaught against Muslim modernism that began from the 1970s onwards.
Those from the radical branch created enough waves in the 19th century and their ideas were hotly debated. But they just became mere footnotes once the moderate tendency was adopted by the leaders of the ‘Pakistan Movement,’ and then by the Pakistani State during the first two decades of the country. When the moderate tendency too was discarded by a surge in anti-modernist/postmodernist Islamist ideas, the radical lot were discarded even as footnotes.
Yet, it is the work and ideas of the radical branch which might provide the fuel to fire up the much-needed counter-arguments against the Islamist narratives that have become increasingly problematic. In the absence of a strong intellectual response, they have monopolised all aspects of the Islamic and moral discourse in Pakistan.
Two of the most prominent figures associated with the radical tendency were Maulvi Chiragh Ali and Maulana Syed Mumtaz Ali. Chiragh Ali was born in 1844. Due to the early death of his father and the turmoil triggered by the 1857 soldiers uprising against the British, Chiragh Ali struggled to gain a formal education and was mostly taught at home by tutors hired by his mother and grandmother. Yet, he was a quick learner and became a voracious reader. He keenly read commentaries on the Quran and the Hadith as well as on other religions. He explored ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western philosophies and also became fluent in Persian, Arabic, French, English, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Greek. He first met Syed Ahmad Khan in the 1870s in Lucknow and became smitten by his ideas and work. Khan became his mentor.
Chiragh began to radically expand Khan’s ideas, perhaps feeling that Khan was holding himself back. Chiragh Ali was of the opinion that while the Quran taught religious doctrine and rules for morality, it did not support a detailed code of immutable civil law or dictate a specific political system (C. Mohomed, “A historiographical approach to the Qur’an and Shari’a in late 19th century India,” Universidade Católica Portuguesa, 2014). He questioned the role of Islamic injunctions in formulating civil laws and its relation with the functioning of the State and the management of political affairs (A.U. Qasmi, ibid).
He tried to demonstrate that the Quran was a moral guide meant for the spiritual purification of the believers. According to Chiragh Ali, it was never meant to give guidance about civil law or about laying down the principles of jurisprudence. Chiragh pointed out that this is why there are just 200 (out of a total 6000) verses in the Quran related to such issues. Chiragh was addressing the calls for an Islamic State decades before the formulation of ‘political Islam’ by the likes of Maududi and Hasan al-Banna.
He understood the Holy Book as an open-ended text which was not fixed, and was thus capable of being adopted as a moral guide in any era or period. He criticised medieval and contemporary Ulema for not only restricting its meaning and spirit, but also turning it into a tool to construct laws that were either not mentioned in the book, or even when they were, they were to aid a ‘barbaric’ ancient society to strive for a civilised way of living. Chiragh wrote that no such laws were required in societies that already had well thought-out and established civil laws.
One way of demonstrating the open-ended nature of the holy text, Chiragh wrote that the Quran did not provide any particular way to say one’s prayers, but only emphasises the worship of God. Chiragh concluded that therefore, Islam gives Muslims the freedom to worship God in whatever way and whenever (and not necessarily in the manner that was later formalised).
Chiragh Ali rejected all classical sources of jurisprudence except the Quran. But he advised that it needed to be reinterpreted as a text that guides Muslims to rationally “frame any code, civil or canon law, and to found systems which would harmonize with the times, and suit the political and social changes going on around them” (C. Ali, The Proposed Political, Legal, and Social Reforms in the Ottoman Empire and other Mohammadan States, 1883). He then argued that Islamic jurisprudence was compiled at a very late period and, as such, could not be considered essentially and eternally unchangeable.
Like his fellow modernists, Chiragh also endeavoured to demonstrate Islam as a rational, dynamic, and progressive faith that was in tune with the standards of the modern civilised world. But unlike his more moderate contemporaries, Chiragh was unafraid to go an extra mile to debunk many aspects of Islamic orthodoxy as well as the urge of the 19th-century Islamists to use Islamic texts to wage armed jihad and construct political movements.
To Mumtaz, the reforms being suggested by Sir Syed needed to include Muslim women as well. Not that Khan and his colleagues had completely ignored this. In their writings they understood Muslim women as perpetrators of false customs, and their ‘ignorance’ as a potential cause of downfall for successive generations
He was equally critical of European historians and scholars who he believed had misunderstood Islam. He claimed that they had only a superficial understanding of it or were influenced by a jaundiced reading of Islam by biased Christian theologians. He wrote that Islamic legislation needed to be evolutionary so it could keep adapting to and adopting changing currents of time. Dogma to him was against the spirit of the faith.
To Chiragh, the Quran was not a civil or political code, nor did it interfere in political questions or lay down specific rules of conduct in the civil law. What it taught was a revelation of certain doctrines of religion and certain general rules of morality (C.Mohomed, ibid).
The moderate modernists had politely criticised the Hahith collections and advised that they should not be used as an important source to formulate laws because it was tricky to ascertain which Hadith were correct and which were a forgery. Chiragh addressed the issue in a more aggressive manner. He wrote, “[…] At a certain point the vast flood of Hadith soon formed a chaotic sea. Truth and error, fact and fable, mingled together in an undistinguishable confusion […] The six standard collections of traditions were compiled in the third century of the Mohammadan era, but the sifting was not based on any critical, historical, or rational principles. The mass of the existing traditions were made to pass a pseudo-critical ordeal.” (C. Ali, ibid).
For him, the Quran or the teachings of the Prophet (PBUH) were neither barriers to spiritual development or free-thinking on the part of Muslims, nor an obstacle to innovation in any sphere of life, whether political, social, intellectual, or moral, and all efforts at spiritual and social development were encouraged as meritorious and hinted at in several verses of the Qur’an (C. Mohomed, ibid).
Another ‘radical’ contemporary of Chiragh Ali was Maulana Mumtaz Ali. He too was a devoted disciple of Syed Ahmad Khan. However, In 1896, when he presented Khan the manuscript of a book that he had written, Khan (after reading it) returned it to the author and advised him not to get it published. The manuscript discussed in detail the social and domestic condition of Muslim women in India and how this condition should be addressed and altered. Khan found Ali’s observations and suggestions too stark and radical.
In the context of 19th century India, much of what Mumtaz was advocating was decades ahead of time. To Khan, the book, if published, could be used by the Ulema to sharpen their arguments against the kind of a modernist Islamic theology Khan and his colleagues were attempting to construct and propagate. Mumtaz came from a conservative Deobandi background, and unlike Khan, he wasn’t that well aquatinted with European ideas. Yet he gravitated towards what Khan had been prescribing.
Chiragh Ali, Amir Ali and the poet Altaf Hussain Hali had taken Khan’s ideas forward. Mumtaz too wanted to do the same with his book. Also, since his contemporaries had already covered a plethora of social, economic and theological topics in their bid to construct a modernist strand of Islam, Mumtaz decided to do the same by entirely concentrating on the status of Muslim women in South Asia.
To Mumtaz, the reforms being suggested by Khan needed to include Muslim women as well. Not that Khan and his colleagues had completely ignored this. In their writings they understood Muslim women as perpetrators of false customs, and their ‘ignorance’ as a potential cause of downfall for successive generations (S. Bhayat, “Islamic Reform and Female Education: Social Reforms for Muslim Women in Late Colonial India,” 18 December 2016). They agreed that addressing this ‘ignorance’ would help correct the ‘backwardness’ of Muslim society and ensure social progress, as it was perceived that women’s roles as mothers and wives affected the children and husbands within the household, which in turn affected society and the Muslim community at large.
After a long tour of England and France, Khan had returned to India to write that he was impressed by the rights given to women in Europe and how this had contributed to the overall rise of European nations. Yet, despite the fact that he was unafraid to challenge traditionalist and conservative Muslims by insisting that Islam’s holy texts should be understood rationally, and a scientific mindset should guide a Muslim to follow his faith and life, he decided not to spend too much effort in exploring how such an approach would impact the behaviour and position of India’s Muslim women.
Khan’s reaction to Mumtaz’s manuscript suggests that he was not that keen to further antagonise his opponents, especially on the issues of women and their place in society. But despite Khan’s reservations, Mumtaz went ahead and published the book. He titled it, Huqooq-e-Niswan (Rights of Women). The book was published in 1898 shortly after Khan’s demise.
The book is remarkably far-sighted in that Mumtaz highlights certain women-related issues that have only now become the subject of open discussion in the larger Muslim world. And yet, this book has only rarely been reprinted. In 1967, an abridged translation of the book was made available by the well-known academic and author Aziz Ahmad.
In response to the commonly used argument that men are physically stronger than women and therefore superior, Mumtaz wrote that “donkeys are stronger than men so by that same logic we should also conclude that the former are superior to the latter”
Mumtaz wrote that Islam treats men and women equally because “physical strength is no criterion for superiority.” He added, “indeed, women have to perform certain biological functions for which their nervous systems are conditioned, but this is not a proof of their intellectual or biological inferiority.”
He wrote that the anti-women perception associated with Islam was the outcome of ancient interpretations of Islam’s sacred texts and was influenced by the ancient customary laws that the exegetes were following and living under during that period. In other words, such commentaries were time-bound. He insisted that ancient interpretations of the sacred texts have nothing to do with the true spirit of Islam.
On the allowance of polygamy in the sacred texts, Mumtaz argued that when the Muslim holy book says that a man cannot take care of all his wives equally, it is actually cautioning against having more than one wife. Mumtaz further wrote, “(Muslim) female education was a historical necessity.”
On the criticism of the time’s Ulema that educated women become ‘immoral,’ Mumtaz pointed out that immorality is not due to educated women, but ‘mainly because of the distorted impulses of men who are used to segregation.’ He predicted that this mindset would change with time.
Without openly advocating that women seek their husbands for themselves, Mumtaz wrote that, “marriages in Muslim India are arranged and loveless.” He added that since most Muslim women were uneducated, they accepted such marriages as their fate and did not know how to address “the tyranny of their husbands” which might be the result in such situations.
On purdah or veiling for women, Mumtaz clarified that the Islamic concept of purdah is simply about observing modesty by both men and women. He wrote that the sacred verses dealing with this concept were directly addressing the 7th century Arab society and “are thus only relevant to that age and time.”
He then penned a rather interesting observation by stating that the kind of purdah being practised by Indian Muslim women in his time (the 19th century) “was a fairly recent development.” Here he is alluding to the burqa. Maulana was writing in the 19th century, so one can assume that the burqa is a 19th-century creation, just as other forms of veiling such as the hijab are a 20th-century phenomenon. Mumtaz wrote that “forcing the veil on women is a flagrant injustice.”
On the criticism he faced by those who bemoaned that the emancipation of women would lead them to commit immoral acts, Mumtaz retorted that instead of blaming the women, action should be taken against those who treat them as an object of immorality. The observations and opinions that he shared in his book were mostly provided by his wife Muhammadi Begum, who could not pen them herself due to her gender.
Nevertheless, both Mumtaz and Muhammadi Begum launched a magazine Tehzib-un-Niswan of which Muhammadi Begum became the editor. The magazine, published from Lahore, was entirely dedicated to discussing social, domestic and health issues related to Muslim women in India. Women were encouraged to contribute articles, poems and short stories to the magazine, which they did. Some published them under their real names while others found it prudent to use pen names.
Mumtaz used Quranic and Hadith sources, different schools of Islamic law and ‘Aristotelian’ logic to counter the reasons given by conservatives for male superiority. He called such reasons “mardon ki jhooti fazeelat” (the false superiority of men over women). In response to the commonly used argument that men are physically stronger than women and therefore superior, Mumtaz wrote that “donkeys are stronger than men so by that same logic we should also conclude that the former are superior to the latter.”
Mumtaz wrote that he was well aware that his book will be “attacked by people blinded by their adherence to false customs.” He claimed that those who will attack him, no matter how pious they want the world to see them as, do not understand the true spirit of the faith that they were pretending to follow. No Muslim publisher was willing to publish Mumtaz’s book. Mumtaz had to publish it himself. It did create a ruckus of sorts among sections of the traditionalist and conservative Ulema.
But this was short-lived, because Mumtaz did not publish any more copies after 1898. An English translation of the book appeared in 1967, before quickly vanishing. The original Urdu version was not republished until over 120 years later when the Indian Muslim author Asghar Ali Engineer managed to acquire a copy of the book from a library in the United States and got it republished.