Book Review: Defending Muhammad in Modernity by SherAli Tareen

SherAli Tareen defines his book as ‘…the first comprehensive study of Barelvi Deobandi controversy, a polemical battle that shaped South Asian Islam and Muslim identity in singularly profound ways.’ On the title of the book he says, ‘The book is called Defending Muhammad in Modernity because the intra-Muslim conflict it details centered on the competing imaginaries of Prophet Muhammad. What image of the Prophet should anchor a Muslim’s normative orientation and everyday life? This question, at the kernel of Barelvi-Deobandi controversy assumed unprecedented urgency in the modern colonial moment. The condition of being colonized generated tremendous anxiety as well as anticipation about the aspiration of constructing and ideal Muslim public.

‘My main takeaways from the book;

1. At the outset I must commend the author for debunking in no uncertain terms this false binary, which has acquired great currency, more so after 9/11 about Sufi Islam being the peaceful, folkish Islam, unconnected to Sharia (so the good Islam which needs to be promoted) as against the legalistic, puritan and fanatical Deobandis, Ahl-e- Hadith and Wahabi sects who insist on implementation of the Sharia (so the bad Islam which needs to be managed/repressed). While it is nobody’s call that interpretive difference don’t exist amongst these schools of thought, but as an ‘adna sa’ student of Islam I find it hilarious, when Sufis are projected as people having nothing to do with the sharia/law. The Sufis do not reject the law and its imperatives, but consider it as the first step in the hierarchy which would lead them to finally attain higher spiritual fulfilment (Sharia -Tariqa – Haqiqa).

2. The book begins with the completing political theology of Shah Muhammad Ismail and Fazl-i-Haq Khayrabadi. The main polemical discussion between these two scholars centered around the themes of prophetic intercession (shafa’at), God’s capacity to lie (imkan-i-kizb) and to produce another Prophet Muhammad (imkan-i-inzir). While traditional Islamic sources and also the Quran do document Prophet’s capacity of intercession, the scope of that capacity has been a matter of intense debate. Ismail (I would argue following the Mutazalite and the Wahabi tradition) places limits on the Prophet’s capacity to intercede on behalf of the sinners. He argues that if Prophet had unlimited capacity of intercession, this surely undermined divine sovereignty thus encouraging heresies and corruption amongst the masses. On this, Khayrabadi disagreed vehemently with Ismail accusing him of insulting the Prophet. The book provides interesting original references which both scholars provided in support of their argument. Similarly, on the issue of creating another Muhammad, Ismail argued that God had the capacity to enact an exception. In his book ‘Taqwiyat-al-Iman’ he declared (his most controversial comment), ‘God is so powerful that in one moment, just by uttering the command ‘Be’, he can create millions of new prophets, saints, jinn’s, angels, Gabriels and Muhammads.” This was rebutted by Khayrabadi in his Persian work ‘Taqrir-i-itirrazatbar Taqwiyat al Islam’ with the argument that accepting the possibility of a second Muhammad equates to accepting that God can lie and renege on his promise of Muhammad’s finality. This makes the possibility of God being defective, for lying was a defect and God cannot be defective. Carrying the debate further, Ismail wrote in his work ‘Yak Roza’ that God did indeed possess the capacity to lie and that he could contravene his own promise. Men had the capacity to lie, and so to argue that God could not do something which humans were capable of doing, was saying that human capacity exceeded the divine capacity. But he drew the distinction between potentiality (imkan) and actuality (wuqu) and stated that though God did have the capacity to create a million new Muhammad’s and to contravene his own promise, he would never actually do it. So the creation of the second Muhammad was not essentially impossible (mumtana bil dhat) but only indirectly impossible (mumtana bil ghayr). Therefore, basically he was in complete agreement with Khayabadi that there had never been, or never could be another Muhammad. It was totally impossible for God to either lie or create another Muhammad but this was so because this did not fit with his theological programme.

3. The book elaborates in some detail as to what the various Islamic scholars viewed as the limits of Prophet’s normative practice (sunna) and its transgression, resulting in innovation (bida) resulting in seeking to rival God’s authority as sovereign legislator. For the Muslim scholars of the Indian subcontinent the main issue surrounding ‘bidda’ was the question as to when the customary conventions (rasm) began to oppose and threaten the monopoly of the divinely ordained order i.e. the sharia? The Deobandis were principally concerned with protecting the primacy of religious obligations against the threat of seemingly pious and spiritually rewarding rituals which though ‘permissible’ (mubah) but were not obligatory. They were fearful that the masses may mistake such voluntary act of piety as obligatory. In their view bida was much more dangerous than other sins for it could wear the mask of religion. These rasm and their practice gets so deeply ritualized in the community that anyone abandoning it ends up facing rebuke and censure. Ali Thanvi argued that the rasm of ‘fatiha’ done for transmitting blessings to the deceased (isal-i-sawab) where food items were distributed amongst family and community members had got so completely corrupted that it had become bidda. The original logic of the ritual was on feeding the destitute relatives of the deceased as an act of charity, but in the present day Ismail argued, the Indian Muslims had become ‘so attached to the specific mode of performing the ritual that the original purpose and rationale was lost on them’. Ismail stated that if food was given to the family members saying it was for charity, or was meant for destitute, many family members would not even accept it.

4. The most interesting chapter for me in the book was the contestation amongst Indian Deobandi and Barelvi scholars over ‘Mawlid’, the celebration of Prophet’s birthday and the practice of standing up in his honour to offer him salutations and receive his blessings (qiyam). The opponents of qiyam argue that by believing that the Prophet can make simultaneous appearances at multiple mawlid function accords him with divinity and challenges divine sovereignty. The Deobandis, as we know oppose the practice of Mawlid (as is practiced in India) with Ali Thanvi considering it bida. The main argument they advance in support of their contention is as given in point 3 above, that the practice was elevated from mere permissible to what the masses have now started believing to be obligatory. The Barelvis of course as ‘ashiq-e-Rasool’ disagree. They argue that the corruption in such practices need to be rectified rather than changing the practice in toto (as changing the dates of celebration suggested by Deobandis) or abandoning it all together.

5. What comes through quite clearly is that the scholars of both the schools, Barelvis as well as Deobandis show a great deal of distrust with regards the intellectual capability of the masses. They believe that left to themselves they are prone to go astray. They need constant guidance from the religious Ulemas so that the moral order of the Muslim society is preserved.

An excellent read.


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