Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Colours of Allah

I had read Akbar Ahmed's Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise in my university days. I was immediately drawn to the book as the book sought to find Islam's relevance and connection to the fast-changing world where no value or philosophy seemed to hold water. Everything was so transient. And Akbar talked about Madonna and Stallone in a language that made sense to me. As a young Muslim, I wanted to know and talk about these things, as my worldview was still getting informed.

After making a film on Jinnah, and some more books later, Akbar Ahmed has come out with Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalisation.

The book talks about the Aligarh (my alma mater), Deoband and Ajmer models of Islam, and how the once modern Aligarh model has failed (spawned by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, after the 1857 Indian mutiny or War of Independence). Akbar is advocating a marriage of the inclusive (sufi) model of Ajmer and a pared down but orthodox model of Deoband.

I find this concept very interesting as I myself have seen the transition of the Ajmer model in my hometown (in India) into the Deoband model (after the influence of the Tablighi Jamat). It is the transition of the soft Islam into a hard Islam and the people who are engaged in it are, in my opinion, perhaps unaware of the impact it is bringing about on the society at large. Of course, it is a sociological as well as religious issue and warrants an indepth study on its own, so I won't dewll on it any further.

I am yet to read the book but the review here is whetting my apetite.

The main purpose of the book, therefore, is to give western readers a more three-dimensional picture of the Islamic world, enabling them to engage with real-life Muslims and acknowledge "their common humanity". Ahmed's device for doing this is to introduce us to three "models" of contemporary Islam, which he associates with three rival centres - all in India, as it happens - that he and his team visit.

Aligarh, seat of the university founded on the Oxbridge model by the great 19th-century Muslim reformer in British-ruled India, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, stands for strengthening Islam by learning from the west. Deoband, a major madrasa in India, also founded in reaction to Islam's 19th-century crisis, stands for an almost opposite philosophy, one of asserting mainstream or orthodox beliefs and traditions. (Ahmed more or less equates this with the austere Wahhabi trend promoted by Saudi Arabia.) And finally Ajmer, shrine of the 12th-century Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, stands for a more quietist, mystical Islam, stressing inner calm, transcendence of earthly passion through direct apprehension of the divine, and openness to other forms of spirituality such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Again and again Ahmed confronts the crisis of the Aligarh model on which he himself was brought up. Its leaders seem to have lost all conviction, or become little more than corrupt dictators manoeuvring, sometimes adroitly, between American power and an ever more stridently anti-American public opinion. At Aligarh itself his American companions find the students insecure, defensive and unfriendly, whereas at Deoband, once they break through an initial barrier of suspicion and reserve, they find great courtesy, hospitality and willingness to engage in dialogue. Their host and guide at Deoband is in fact the fire-breathing Aijaz Qasmi, who later morphs into an advocate of peace and a respectful Ahmed disciple.

Crudely summarised, Ahmed's message to western leaders is to rely less on Aligarh products like his younger self, and to engage in more direct dialogue with the Deobandis - those in the Muslim world who at first sight seem most fanatically hostile. (No doubt, if asked, he would also have advised the UK government not to fan an almost-extinct controversy back into flames by giving a knighthood to Salman Rushdie.) But on the personal level he discovers a mystic streak within himself and a strong affinity with the Ajmer model. In the end, his advice to Muslims is to seek a synthesis of all three: "The accepting nature of the Ajmer model must be buttressed by the commitment and fervour that Deoband can provide, along with the skill and dexterity to negotiate with governments, organisations and political parties that is characteristic of Aligarh." Perhaps his next book should be a Journey into the West, on which his fellow travellers will be students from the Islamic world.

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